HOLDEN CAULFIELD AND ME

Rachel UrbonasSubmitted by Rachel Urbonas, Landmark School Senior, writing to the late J.D. Salinger after having read The Catcher in the Rye

Dear Mr. Salinger,

When I was first assigned your novel, The Catcher in the Rye, I was expecting another bland piece of literature said to be a ‘classic must read’ that I would have to force myself to interpret. However, I had no idea that this book (written before I was born) could paint such an accurate picture of my life. I felt an immediate connection towards Holden Caulfield, a mirror image of myself. Holden, struggling to feel like he belongs in the world, connected with me on a deep level. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, which made me feel like I was different – an outcast. I no longer felt like an equal to my friends and classmates. In my eyes, I was a lesser person and I didn’t belong.

Holden tells his history teacher, he’s trapped on “the other side” of life – a world which he feels he does not belong in. When I was younger, I struggled in school, I struggled with friendships and acceptance: always searching for a social group where I wouldn’t be called stupid or retarded. The burden of needing to belong was always in the back of my mind. Years after being diagnosed, I was told I would be transferring into a new school for dyslexic children. I was terrified. I lost countless nights of sleep stressing over how I would not make friends and that I was still going to be an outcast. My whole life was about to change.

Similarly to Holden’s character, I hated change. It was as if everything I knew was being ripped away from my grasp and I could do nothing except watch. For self protection, I isolated myself from others – a similar tactic Holden used. Going into a new school as an eighth-grader was difficult. Everyone had known each other for years and I was just entering their world, alone. I spent countless days crying and beating myself up for things I couldn’t change. I was mad at myself for being this way. I hid, staying clear of new people, pitying my own impairment.

I needed to grow up, to realize that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to change anything. Holden faced the same fears. Holden envisions his superficiality of adulthood, believing that the world is filled with “phonies” or “shallow” people. Before I changed schools, I put myself into the same mindset just because I was angry. I thought it was other people’s fault for being the way I was; therefore, giving me an excuse to isolate myself. Holden held on to his childish thoughts about sex and relationships as I held on to my childish thoughts that everyone should feel bad for me and let me slide through life just because of my dyslexia. I soon came to realize that my insecurities about my disability were what set me apart from others. All the self doubt and criticism pushed me to prove myself wrong. I found passion in writing. Even sending this letter to you contradicts something people said I could never do: write.

No one knows the outcome of Holden’s decision at the end of the book; to stay and face his problems or run away. I was facing a similar dilemma; to let my disability defeat me or attack it head on. Now I see that my dyslexia is what makes me unique. I no longer think that I have to “belong” in a group or be categorized by my abilities and weaknesses. I no longer isolate myself from situations in which I feel uncomfortable, but attack them head on, ready for any curve ball thrown my way. I am able to say that I have experienced difficulties first-hand that most kids can never fathom. I now understand that being different is what makes people special. I will take this lesson with me, holding off judgments and keeping an open mind.

Thank you Mr. Salinger for helping me see that.

Sincerely,
Rachel Urbonas

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MAKING HANDPRINTS: A SUMMER IN BARANOVO

0Submitted by Erin D’Agostino, former Landmark High School Science and Tutorial Teacher. Erin is currently working at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center (CERC) at Albert Einstein Medical College. She plans to pursue an MD in Developmental Pediatrics.

During my time teaching at Landmark, I was struck by one aspect of the school that went above and beyond classroom material and educational skills: the Landmark Community. Landmark has created an environment in which students are accepted for who they are and what they are capable of. It is a community in which the potential of students is universally respected and the nature of their disabilities is understood. In this wonderfully supportive environment, students can grow into their full potential and gain the ability to walk with confidence into their futures.tumblr_mq82uw7gwA1sxgor1o6_250

Unfortunately, not all children are so lucky.

I spent this past summer in rural Russia, volunteering with the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund (ROOF) at what is historically known as a Psychoneurological Orphanage. It was an eye-opening experience, and not just because of the lack of running water. These Psychoneurological Orphanages are home to hundreds of children with a variety of developmental disorders. There are many of such orphanages in Russia, most intentionally located in remote regions of the rural countryside. Children rarely have more than a nonspecific diagnosis, and some even appear to have minimal disabilities. Very few children are adopted, and the future for these children is frequently bleak. It is common for children to graduate at age 18 and transition directly to an adult institution, where they remain for the rest of their lives. As these orphanages fall under the jurisdiction of the Russian Department of Health and not the Department of Education, education is not mandated for inhabitants of Psychoneurological Orphanages. As a result of these factors and the passport stamp that indelibly marks these children, it is rare for a graduate to become a productive member of society.

tumblr_mq38jaH84U1sxgor1o3_1280While Landmark has cultivated an environment in which differences in learning are understood and respected, Russia commonly has a view of developmental differences that is at best ignorant and at worst highly prejudiced. It is important to recognize that this view is not a product of the typical Russian, but largely derived from governmental policies, particularly policies that remove these children from the eyes of the public. Regardless of the source of this attitude, opportunities for these orphans will remain limited as long as Russia remains fixated in it.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are bright-eyed idealists in both Russian and foreign organizations working towards changing the status quo. By spreading tumblr_mqbkepE90B1sxgor1o3_1280understanding and tolerance of developmental disabilities, ROOF hopes to make the future brighter for children in Psychoneurological Orphanages, one town at a time. This is a two pronged approach: First, the surrounding community has to be strong enough to have the ability to support the orphanage, and second, the community must accept the children and their differences as contributing members of the community.

0-1Yes, revitalizing and integrating the community is an enormous project, but hope is on the horizon. Even in just one summer of Baranovo residency, I can testify to the difference that I saw in the community there. A “Dom Kulturi,” or “House of Culture,” was partially renovated so that soccer, tetherball, volleyball, and general silliness could be enjoyed by all the children in the community. A mural was drawn, displaying the indiscriminate handprints of all members of the town. Those handprints represented the potential for a new beginning, one without differentiation based on passport stamp. A village that had been masked in apathy tumblr_mq38jaH84U1sxgor1o1_400rejuvenated itself, and the difference was palpable. With further projects on the horizon, including the building of a playground and the opening of a small business, there are new and bright possibilities appearing in the future. With the continued efforts of perseverant dreamers, the region around the orphanage has the potential to transform into a new kind of Russian village: a Landmark-ian society in which children are understood to be capable beyond what former prejudices have mandated and opportunities can be made readily available without discrimination.

One day in particular sticks in my memory: we had all been working hard, clearing rubble from outside of the Dom Kulturi. My personal focus had been on pulling countless shards of glass from the long, scraggly grass. Not pleasant, especially in the Russian summer sun. Given the heat and toil, my first reaction on hearing boisterous activity inside the dilapidated building was frustration. Who was in there now, what shenanigans were they up to, and what new Vodka-remains was I going to have to clean up as a result? I marched tumblr_mq1llwpiyG1sxgor1o1_1280in, ready to tell off some troublemakers. Instead, what I found was five children, all under age ten, giggling and decorating the newly cleaned-out space with painted flowers, faces, and other staples of a child’s universe. On that day- our fourth in the Russian countryside- we saw the building being used the way it was intended: as a place for people to gather and bond. With a few shovels, some sweat and some laughing children, the beginning of a new community was formed. tumblr_mq1llwpiyG1sxgor1o8_250

For more information about the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, visit www.roofnet.org and for fundraising opportunities, contact Erin D’Agostino at edagosti@gmail.com.

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AN OASIS OF DIGNITY

Three Commencement Lessons

Donna HicksSubmitted by Donna Hicks, Ph.D., Author of Dignity and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Ms. Hicks delivered Landmark’s 2013 commencement address.

It was pouring down rain on Friday June 7 — graduation day for the class of 2013 at Landmark High School in Beverly, MA.  This was no ordinary graduation, and the rain did not put a damper on the joy that infused everyone in attendance.

It was victory day for 82 students who struggled with learning challenges early in their lives. As many of them reported, they were headed down a slippery slope in public school, where they felt overwhelmed and depressed. They did not respond to traditional teaching methods that were geared toward the average learner. Given their unique ways of processing information, they needed instruction that was designed for their particular learning style. Their parents found Landmark school—a life-saving educational institution that has graduated thousands of such students for more than 40 years. I call it an oasis of dignity.

I was asked to deliver the commencement speech. It seemed clear that these young people would understand what it meant to have their dignity violated. So many of them suffered from feeling marginalized and shamed simply because they had a different way of learning. Landmark School, with its remarkable faculty and administration, turned that around for them. They were transformed into accomplished graduates, all of them attending college in the fall.

My message to them was simple. I told them that they needed to remember three lessons. These would apply to the next phases of their education, and to all people from all walks of life.

1. You have inborn value and worth. The minute you doubt it, you’re heading for trouble. People out there might want to make you feel unworthy; the world can be a cruel place. We humans can do very hurtful things to one another.

Many of us make the mistake in feeling that if someone mistreats us, that there is something wrong with us. It’s certainly embarrassing and hurtful when our dignity is harmed but it doesn’t mean there is anything personally wrong. It means that something wrong happened to us. Whenever you start to doubt your worthiness, say to yourself, “I’m invaluable, priceless, and irreplaceable.”  That will get you back on track.

2. No one can take your dignity away from you. It is always in your hands. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and stated, “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.” It can be wounded and trampled on, and it needs to be cared for, but you are the only one in charge of your dignity.

When your self-worth is intact, you can get through just about anything. It’s the key to resilience. We may need time to heal from the wounds, but it is always there. You may betray your dignity (by losing sight of it) it but it will never betray you.

3. By honoring dignity in yourself and others, you become an outstanding citizen of the world. Success certainly requires technical training and education. However, what is going to set you apart from all the other people competing for jobs and opportunities is your character.

Knowing how to treat people well, how to recognize their dignity, and how to live your life in an honoring way, will not only bring you success, but it will make you the kind of human being that people want to be around. It will make you a leader. Give back some of the dignity that Landmark created for you.  Go out in the world and treat others the way you were treated here. Not only do we make others feel good when we recognize their worth, but we look good, too. When we honor others’ dignity, we strengthen our own.

Learn more about Donna Hicks and her book “Dignity”. 

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DISCOVERING DIGNITY

Donna HicksSubmitted by Donna Hicks, Ph.D., Author of Dignity and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Ms. Hicks will deliver Landmark’s 2013 commencement address.

After working in the field of international conflict resolution for nearly 20 years, I decided to take some time off in order to write about what I felt was a missing link in our understanding of conflict.

No matter where I was in the world convening dialogues for warring parties, I observed a similar dynamic taking place during the discussions. While the participants were talking about ways to resolve some of the political issues that divided them, there was always another issue present at the table that wasn’t being discussed. It was the elephant in the room that no one had the courage to bring up. Yet, this “unaddressed issue” was making it impossible for the parties to come to an agreement. What was going on?

It was about their dignity. What they really needed to be discussing was how painful it was to be treated as if they didn’t matter; to be treated in a way that devalued their humanity; not being recognized as human beings, worthy of dignity. This was the missing link that explained why these conflicts were so difficult to resolve. People yearn to be treated with dignity and when they are not, all kinds of conflicts arise.

Although my insights about dignity evolved while working on failed international relationships, what soon became obvious was that it plays a role in all relationships. One negotiator from Colombia once told me that he was grateful to me for uncovering the dignity issues in a political conflict I was there to mediate but said he was most grateful because (in his words): “I think you saved my marriage.”

As an educator, I quickly understood the importance of establishing dignity-honoring relationships in teaching environments. My experience has shown that the quality of students’ learning is enhanced when they feel seen, heard, recognized and treated fairly.  Human beings thrive in a culture of dignity.

Learn more about Ms. Hicks book Dignity.

Hear more from Ms. Hicks at a TEDEx event. 

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ANXIETY: WHAT IS IT REALLY?

Jane RossSubmitted by: Jane B. Ross, Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker

Anxiety is a feeling of fear.  Anxiety is a common response to ambiguity; when we don’t know what’s happening or we don’t know how to respond.  Anxiety is nature’s way of helping us deal with difficult situations. This can be beneficial as it can invigorate us for an exam and it can prevent us from doing dangerous things.  Anxiety can assist us to maintain focus in a critical situation.  But when anxiety becomes excessive it can be debilitating. There is intense dread.

Some examples of anxiety in children and adolescents are separation anxiety, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. Students experiencing social anxiety become overwhelmed or extremely self conscious in social situations. This anxiety may be disabling. They have a chronic fear that others are judging them and they may struggle to make and keep friends.

Students with separation anxiety become easily distressed when separating from their parents. They may worry about being lost or kidnapped or that something might happen to their parents. These students may fear going to school or camp and may avoid play dates and sleepovers.

Students with generalized anxiety also experience excessive worry.  They cannot reduce or eliminate their anxiety even if they realize it is out of proportion or irrational. These students are riddled with self-doubt. They are often paralyzed by thoughts that they will be unable to meet others’ expectations. These students require constant approval and reassurance from teachers and parents.

Students with anxiety exhibit many symptoms including: stomach ailments, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, startling easily and sweating or trembling around others. Given this, these students avoid many situations, allowing the anxiety to interfere with friendships, family, and with school.

Students experiencing anxiety struggle with vulnerability. Their thoughts include, “since I had anxiety once, it will happen again.”  Typically an escalation in the irrationality of their thoughts occurs; “my anxiety is likely to increase and then I’ll be crazy and lose control”. Students may have ideas of helplessness; “I cannot cope because of this anxiety, so I’ll soon be completely helpless.” Inherent in these beliefs are; “I’m helpless, I’m flawed, and I’m incompetent.”

Most anxieties in youth are normal and temporary. As their emotions are developing, it can be challenging to differentiate between what is a normal fear verses what is atypical. There are opportunities for parents, teachers, and others to guide students in mild distress.  Helping students to identify their feelings is a first step. Introducing students to stress reducing techniques is beneficial as mind and body practices reduce stress while promoting health. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are used to increase calmness and relaxation as well as to enhance well-being and are all examples of interventions that can be initiated and practiced at home, at school, and even in the car.

However, if you continue to be concerned about a student, it is important to have the student evaluated by a professional. This evaluation will include an assessment to determine the kinds and severity of symptoms and the extent of interference with peer relationships, familial relationships, and with school functioning.

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Contact Jane Ross at Tri-Well Private Practice 

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DIFFERENCES AMONG LEARNERS, REAL AND NOT

Annie Murphy PaulSubmitted by Annie Murphy Paul – book author, magazine journalist, consultant, and speaker

The idea that students have particular “learning styles”—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. — is a popular and persistent one despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it. (For a great summary of the research, see this blog post by UVA cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.)

The apparent weakness of learning styles theory does not mean, however, that students don’t differ from one another. They clearly do. But let’s focus on differences that have empirical support. Scott Barry Kaufman points out one such set of differences in one of his recent columns on theScientific American website—that is, differences in working memory.

As Scott explains, “Working memory involves the ability to maintain and manipulate information in one’s mind while ignoring irrelevant distractions and intruding thoughts. Working memory skills are essential for everyday intellectual functioning.” And learners vary in the capacity of their working memory, a fact that teachers can take into account:

“In an educational setting, helping students overcome working memory burdens can be particularly helpful. Over the past decade John Sweller and colleagues have designed instructional techniques that relieve working memory burdens on students and increase learning and interest. Drawing on both the expertise and working memory literatures, they match the complexity of learning situations to the learner, attempting to reduce unnecessary working memory loads that may interfere with reasoning and learning, and optimize cognitive processes most relevant to learning.

Cognitive Load Theory can be particularly useful for students with working memory deficits who are otherwise extremely intelligent and competent as it allows them to more easily demonstrate their brilliance.” (Read more here.)

For learners with such working memory deficits (and for all of us when we’re learning something new or difficult), reducing cognitive load can lead to big improvements in performance. We can do so by breaking concepts and problems into smaller steps, weeding out extraneous information, presenting information in multiple modalities (e.g.,  supplementing written text with pictures or aural information), and simply slowing the pace of learning so that we don’t become overwhelmed.

To quote Dan Willingham: “People do learn differently, but I think it is very important to say exactly how they learn differently, and focus our attention on those differences that really matter.” What are some other evidence-based distinctions we can make among learners?

Read Annie Murphy Paul’s blog and weekly newsletter, The Brilliant Report.

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WHY I DON’T TEACH TOLERANCE

Ariel Martin-CohnSubmitted by Ariel Martin-Cone, Landmark School Faculty Member and Academic Case Manager

I was asked to write this blog piece about teaching tolerance, but I want to start by changing some vocabulary. Teaching tolerance promotes that idea that you just need to put up with something you don’t particularly value or enjoy (brussel sprouts, regular exercise, etc), but you don’t have to like it. If, instead, you teach, promote, and encourage understanding and acceptance, you can challenge a student to understand another perspective and find value in diversity – not just tolerate the presence of difference.

Teaching people to understand and value things or people that are different is a difficultLandmark's Gay Straight Alliance logo conversation at any age. Starting each school year with clear expectations and standards for acceptable behavior and language enables you to have a positive, constructive conversation – rather than just respond to the inevitable issues with a predictable list of consequences. Establishing a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) shows students and staff that the community wants to recognize and support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) teens, staff, and family members, and can provide crucial support to students and staff alike. However, the goal of a GSA should be for the community to monitor itself, not for one committee to be in charge of deciding who or what is appropriate. A GSA can inform the efforts of teachers and parents working to help students see their peers as individuals, each bringing a unique set of values, beliefs, and behaviors to school right alongside their binders and sports equipment.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) provides a wealth of information and resources, as well as hosting yearly events to raise awareness and foster acceptance on any campus. Starting the year with Ally Day (check it out here) Ally Day
clearly sends the message that you don’t have to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to care about gay rights, and that anyone can be an Ally. Turning the pledge into a poster, or handing out stickers or bracelets to indicate your support is a great way to make your campus into a welcoming environment. Fostering this environment isn’t easy, and requires patience and vigilance on the part of students and staff alike, but starting with acceptance can make all the difference.

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