THE TEACHING BRAIN

vanessa-rodriguezSubmitted by Vanessa Rodriguez, Doctoral Candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the The Teaching Brain: The Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education

We’ve been hearing long, loud, and numerous complaints about the state of education and the need for radical reform of our educational system. We’ve heard about the limitations of high stakes standardized testing and the need for more accountability for our teachers.  The problem of education in this country today is vast, complicated and emotionally charged. Educators, scientists, psychologists, government officials, and bestselling authors are all part of the mix of voices that are creating the conversation and, in part, prolonging the controversies.

But it seems the biggest elephant in the proverbial room is how we think about teaching and our teachers. Both sides of the teaching debate have sought to define “good teaching.” However this effort is as misguided as one that would label a student “good learner”.  We need to keep the terms “good” and “teaching” forever more apart. Indeed, the concept of a perfect teacher for all students is a complete myth.  Instead we need to be asking new questions.

Our questions should begin with one in particular:  “What is teaching?”  Teaching is a human, evolutionary skill.  In fact, though we may not be in a classroom we are all teachers.

Four years ago, as a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education, I made a startling and it turns out profound connection between the cognitive psychology and neuroscience I had been studying and the practice of teaching:  I realized that for all we know about the nature and science of learning, especially the discoveries in brain research, we have grown very little in our insight into the teaching process. Why is this? Why has teaching, an interaction so integral to the foundation of education, been given such short shrift? Quite simply it is because no one has ever really bothered to understand how the teaching process, and its corollary, the teaching brain, are separate and distinct from the learning process, or the learning brain.

As a former Science, History, and English teacher, I have spent over a decade teaching in the classroom and I’ve learned that learning and teaching, while inextricably related, are separate, distinct processes. And that in order for  us to understand the teacher in all of us, whether it be in the classroom or the boardroom, we need to demystify teaching based on a complete understanding of the cognitive, biological, and psychological processes of the brain. The series of teaching_brain coverstudies that I have worked on are based on this quest to uncover these processes of the teaching brain.

Pre-order your copy of Ms. Rodriguez’s book The Teaching Brain.

Visit Ms. Rodriguez’s web site.

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LIFE AFTER LANDMARK

Stephanie_JohnsstonSubmitted by Stephanie Johnston, parent of a former Landmark School student

All parents worry, but parents of children who learn differently worry a lot more.  From the time our son started school we worried.  There were vague worries: why isn’t he able to learn, respond promptly, organize himself, etc… There were specific worries: will he ever be able to tie a shoe? Read? Take independent responsibility for himself and his life?

Those of us who are able to get our child into the right academic setting are like survivors of a shipwreck clinging to the edge of a raft with our children safely in the middle. We watch from the sidelines as they gain academic and life skills in a uniquely supportive environment. We are sheltered from the storm for a short time, but always looming on our horizon is the bigger, impersonal world. The older your child becomes, the less accommodating the world at large becomes. The boy must become a man.

Leading up to the big transition from 8th to 9th grade, we worried ourselves sick that our son needed more time in his supportive school to build a foundation. What would happen if we pulled him out too soon? Yet, in the larger context, we knew he would have to make that transition – ready or not – and we timed it so he could enter high school with all of the other incoming freshmen; for better or worse he would be one of them.

When the first day of high school arrived my fervent prayer was that he would “cope and pass”. Our son is a man of few words, but I can tell a lot by his body language. He was waiting with a group of students at pick-up time; he sauntered over to the car loose, jaunty, relaxed… and hungry. The first day was great. Now, halfway through his freshmen year, he is an honor student at a preparatory high school. Some things are harder for him than others. His learning differences are still there but he owns them with an easy confidence. He is fine.

After all these years of intense, urgent, appropriate worry “all of a sudden” it’s coming together for him. When he was at Landmark we parents all worried together. Every child is so different that no two journeys will be the same. Many parents of older children offered me encouragement, telling me our son would be fine, but I was too worried and the future was too murky for me to relax. Now we can see the four years of intense support and instruction that he received at Landmark laid a wonderful foundation for success. Were it not for that, he wouldn’t be where he is now. So with tremendous relief and gratitude, I can say yes, there is life after Landmark and it’s good.

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ASKING FOR HELP

Nicole SubikSubmitted by Nicole Subik, Learning Specialist at Villanova University’s Learning Support Services

Why is it that many of us view asking for help as a sign of failure?

If you are traveling from Point A to Point B and stop to ask for directions along the way, does that mean that you failed? Didn’t you make it to Point B? I call that success.

College students often struggle with seeking out help, and when they do reach out, they are frequently in what I call a failure mindset. They see signing up for a tutoring session as a last resort. And sometimes, quite frankly, students ask for assistance too late in the semester for it to salvage rotten grades. In those cases, to keep with the journey metaphor, they are too far off the course to make it to Point B without a major detour. Honestly, that is a frustrating situation for everyone—students, parents, and college personnel.

LMK_WordcloudI would like to suggest a paradigm shift. Tutoring—probably the most popular and widely available support at the college level—should be seen as a place to stop along your journey, a place to replenish, get direction, and gain knowledge. Tutoring should be something you seek to help you get to your destination, not a refuge for when you are already broken down and out of fuel.

In order for college students to make the most of their tutoring sessions and other academic supports, they must buy into this paradigm shift. Arriving to a session with a failure mindset shuts you off from the interactive process that is so vital to this proven one-on-one interaction. The same goes for academic coaching, an increasingly popular support for college students who want help with time management and study skills.

Parents, teachers, and college personnel can help students seek out help early  and consistently by not only making sure students are aware of resources, but by framing those resources as positive and natural parts of the educational journey.  Before they even go to college, start talking about supports available. The more we can lead our students away from asking for help only when they are in serious trouble, the better off they will be. Successful college students are proactive, not reactive about seeking out academic support.

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AN EMPTY SEAT AT THE TABLE

imgresSubmitted by Rick Lavoie, Author, Lecturer, Consultant

Preparing Your Child (and You) for Transition to College

For thirty years, I served as an administrator of residential schools for Special Needs students. One of my responsibilities was designing the Autumn Arrival Day…the day that parents dropped their kids off at school.

I shudder to think of the advice and directions that I gave to my colleagues as we prepared for the “big day”:

Get the parents back on-the-road as soon as possible after they arrive. Don’t let them linger. Don’t feed them. Don’t let them unpack. In and out. We need to make the separation quickly…so we can focus on the kids.

I thought that I was right. I knew I was. But I could not have been more wrong.

When did I recognize the error or my ways? The day my wife and I dropped our first born off at college.

For the first time, I realized the tremendous impact that residential programs have on the family. As I watched our son enter his college dorm among hundreds of strangers, I realized that our family was about to make a significant, life-changing transformation.  There would be an empty seat at the table. I wasn’t ready…and I could only hope that he was.

After that life altering experience, I totally redesigned our Arrival Days and created a welcoming, family-friendly environment that featured meals, seminars, and social events. If you are reading this, and you sent your child to my school early in my career…sorry!

Below are some Do’s and Don’ts as you prepare for this transition.

  •  DO anticipate a challenging summer. 

The parents’ goals for this pre-departure summer are diametrically opposed to the child’s. Mom and Dad want a final summer of family activities, togetherness, and group hugs. The kid’s goal is to have an amazing last summer with his buddies.

The result?  Conflict

The solution? Compromise

  •  DO anticipate moodiness.

As the student recognizes the finality and inevitability of the transition, she may become anxious and troubled.  This may manifest itself in refusal to pack, fill out forms, etc.

The result? Dawdling, unresponsiveness, oppositional behavior.

The solution? Kids need love most when they deserve it least.

  •  DO make, maintain, and keep a schedule.

With the child, make a list of all the chores and activities that need to be done (shopping, packing, summer reading assignments) and create a calendar together.  In this way, the schedule (not mom or dad) can do the nagging.

The problem?  Overwhelmed

The solution? Organization and structure

  •  DO conduct some crash courses.

Hold lessons in basic laundry, cooking, ironing, and finances in order to prepare her for independence.

The problem? Lack of basic skills

The solution? Knowledge

  •  DO embrace your new role as his “coach”.

Remember: a coach never goes on the field or kicks the field goal or gets up at bat. A good coach teaches the fundamentals and then stays on the sidelines offering guidance, advice, comfort, and encouragement.

The reality? He is “on his own”.

The solution? Attitude adjustment (yours and his!)

  •  DON’T burden her with your sadness.

Let her know that she will be greatly missed, but don’t make her feel guilty by sharing your grief over this transition.

The problem? Parental grief results in increased homesickness.

The solution? Call your best friend and cry with her!

  •  DON’T make a “bail out” deal.

By saying, “If you don’t like the school by October first, we can talk about you coming home…”, the child will have no reason to commit to “making it work”.

The problem? Anxiety

The solution? Encouragement

  •  DO encourage him to discuss his concerns and anxieties with older siblings or cousins.

They can offer advice and reassurance because of their recent college experiences.

The problem?  The child needs assurance.

The solution? Your tales of your 1980’s college days, Tom Petty concerts, and Pac Man tournaments won’t work.

A Final Word

The “empty nest” has positive and negative aspects. A wise person once counseled that the parent should find a constructive use of the “kid time” that is now “free time”. Invest that time in yourself by resurrecting some old dreams.

“It is not through care giving that a woman looks for replenishment of purpose in the second half of her life. It is through cultivating talents left half-finished, permitting ambitions once shelved…becoming an aggressor in the service of her own convictions rather than a passive/aggressive party to someone else’s.” Anonymous

Sound advice!

Learn more about Rick Lavoie’s work through his web site.

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31 DAYS OF KINDNESS

Ebersole.headshot-1 (1)Submitted by Brandi-Lin Ebersole, Landmark High School Faculty

Photography and videography by Ebersole Photography

School is a place we learn facts, methods, and grow our skills. When a teacher sits down to write a lesson she thinks, “how am I going to get them to understand my subject matter?”, “What tools can I use to do this?” and “How am I going to draw them in?”. One typical morning in one of my reading classes, I was quickly writing my lesson agenda on the board, when I overheard students talking about last night’s varsity soccer game. One of my  students had scored a goal and others were praising him. I listened in and let them discuss a little longer.

I then turned around and explained to them why I allowed them to continue to talk, instead of rushing to my lesson. I began sharing a story of a young man named Adam who was seventeen years old just like some of them. He had his life taken from him after winning a soccer championship, all because he was trying to help someone. I explained how my friend Lara, Adam’s sister, annually takes the month of October to honor him by performing 31 days of kindness. For 31 days, Lara offers a different act of kindness each day and blogs about it;  changing her horrifying memory into something redemptive. As I was finishing the story, one of the students chimed in and asked if they too could participate in the  31 days of kindness. I instantly responded, “Yes!”

So for the entire month of October, every class began with a story ranging from buying Ebersole.Class-6friends coffee, “just because” to babysitting children to give adults a break. It created a mood in our classroom that was a space for my students to learn a lesson that I did not plan for. It was a lesson that involved the subject of Kindness. They all commented on how good it made them feel and how they were excited to share their daily stories. During the month, my students realized their lives too could be taken in a blink of an eye and in turn wanted to thank Lara for such a great idea. So in honor of Adam, their 31st act of Kindness, was to create a video thanking her and explaining how this challenge had changed them.

Ms. Ebersole’s class: Aidan O, James P, Hugh M, and Kyle T

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SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

Bob's Head ShotSubmitted by Bob Broudo, Headmaster of Landmark School

Advocates and educators across the country took extra time during this National Dyslexia and Learning Disabilities Awareness Month to increase understanding of learning disabilities, which affect one in seven Americans. Not surprisingly, some inaccurate assumptions still exist related to what learning disabilities are – and aren’t. Let’s look at a few of those and set the record straight.

Myth 1: Learning disabilities are a medical issue.
The medical model of learning disabilities suggests that such disabilities are something to be diagnosed and “fixed.” That mindset only emphasizes the disparity between social conventions and differences in people that should be embraced. Unlike an illness or other medical condition, a learning disability cannot be identified with a simple blood test or X-ray.  And because the types of disabilities and severity vary so much from person to person, there also is no one way to help people with learning disabilities address their specific challenges and become successful learners.

Myth 2: Learning disabilities are only in children and can be outgrown.
People of all ages have learning disabilities. It makes sense that children happen to be diagnosed with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, at school age; that’s the time they are exposed to reading, writing, numbers, and expectations of comprehension. Sometimes the struggles are identified early on, sometimes they are not. In fact, many people might not be formally diagnosed with a learning disability until adulthood.

No matter when a diagnosis is made, learning disabilities do not disappear. However, with the right guidance and help, the effects of a disability can be minimized. People with learning disabilities can be very successful in every aspect of school and work – because they understand what they need to do to adapt their learning processes. Imagine forcing someone to run marathons when he or she is not a marathon runner. That person will likely struggle and fail in every marathon, because his body just isn’t made to handle it. The key to success is to meet students where they are, figure out how they learn best, help them build skills to remediate their weaknesses, and develop the interests students with learning disabilities are good at.

Myth 3: Learning disabilities are only academic in nature.
While learning disabilities are talked about most often in terms of reading, writing, and math, many people also face challenges in other activities and in their social lives. Some children have good verbal skills but are weak in visual and spatial perception, motor skills or organization. Sometimes the barriers causing difficulty in the classroom also affect their ability to participate in sports, to establish friendships, or to get along with peers. But just as with academic challenges, knowing how to work through accompanying struggles can set the stage for success.

What myths can you add to this list? Comment below to tell us what misconceptions you’ve encountered. In the meantime, check out The Truth About Dyslexia and Other Language-Based Learning Disabilities infographic. 

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BRIDGING BRAIN RESEARCH AND DYSLEXIA AWARENESS

GaabNadineDSC_0092Submitted by Nadine Gaab, PhD., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Boston Children’s Hospital /Harvard Medical School, Principal Researcher at the Gaab Laboratory, member of the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and faculty adjunct at Brandeis University

and


Elizabeth_Norton
Elizabeth Norton, PhD. Gabrieli Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, READstudy and former Landmark School science teacher.

As scientists who study reading difficulties and developmental dyslexia, we hope that one day, we will be out of business. That is, we hope that one day, we will all understand the causes of reading difficulties, be able to identify children at risk early, know how to best diagnose a reading difficulty, and know which remediation strategy is best for every single child. Most importantly, we hope that one day all children will enjoy learning to read and reading to learn. We are not there yet, though.

Parents and teachers often ask us how our research can be translated into practice. We can promise you that we are working hard but we need more time to answer all your questions. So far, our research has given us some promising clues. For example, we have shown that preschool children who have a parent or an older sibling with dyslexia already show differences in their brain structure and function, even before they receive any reading instruction. These changes can also be seen in children who struggle with letters and certain pre-reading tasks in kindergarten. These findings suggest that children with dyslexia may have characteristic brain changes either from birth or that develop very early in life. This fact only underlines that identification and intervention need to happen as early as possible. In another area of research, our colleagues have shown that the brain basis of reading is the same whether or not there is a discrepancy between an individual’s IQ and reading ability. This will hopefully inform diagnostic criteria, and allow more children who have trouble reading to get intervention. These are just two of the areas we are learning more about through our research, and we always have more to learn.

In addition to continuing our research, we are working hard to share all the knowledge we have with the families, teachers, principals and the volunteers who work with us in these studies. We are creating an open dialogue that has mutual benefits for the research and the participating families, as well as informs clinical and educational interests. We are not researchers that waltz in to a school, collect data, and then return to an ivory tower. We are involved with our partner schools, teaching professional development sessions for the staff and brain awareness days for the children. We set up information booths at community events and frequently speak with parent groups and advocacy organizations. For families who participate in our studies, we provide reports of their child’s reading assessments and when necessary, referrals to schools and organizations that work with individuals with reading difficulties. We are doing our best to inform, to communicate, to translate and to disseminate our knowledge, and we will keep going until every child reads well.

Learn more:
The Gaab Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital: http://www.childrenshospital.org/research-and-innovation/research-labs/gaab-laboratory

The Gabrieli Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT: http://gablab.mit.edu/index.php/participate

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