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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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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