Friday, December 14, 2012

Teaching Students with Dyslexia

The International Dyslexic Association states that one in ten individuals is dyslexic.  From my teaching experience, I would estimate that closer to one-third of individuals have a dyslexic learning profile and benefit from teaching routes that ameliorate dyslexic traits. The markers of a dyslexic profile vary in intensity and degree, yet, from the non-reading adult to the non-writing teen, with appropriate instruction, all can make progress and usually, several grade levels of progress, in academic skills in ten to twenty hours of individualized, one-on-one instruction.

Over and over, I have witnessed students, from seven years of age to seventy-seven years of age, decrease directional confusion and dramatically increase the automatic and accurate processing of two-dimensional symbols through a combination of multi-sensory direct instruction methods in symbol stabilization.  Many times, students note decreased reading fatigue and improved decoding in six to eight hours. Creating more accurate and automatic memories for letters in turn, improves the ease of  not only reading, but also writing, spelling, keyboarding, copying from the board, etc.

Additionally, dyslexic profiles include a delay in one or more features of the language system---delays not just in phonological processing, but also in one or more aspects of receptive and/or expressive vocabulary and/or grammar. Complicated? Can be.  The more areas of delay, the more profound the difficulties in reading/writing/speaking/listening.  Yet, a large percentage of dyslexic learners make incredible progress with just several hours of atypical, direct language instruction in vocabulary and/or grammar.  Combined with multi-sensory activities, such as building and transposing sentences with 3-dimensional pieces---which improve reading comprehension and writing structure, cognitive strategy training develops the skill of using one's own language to guide thinking, organize oneself in time and space, and complete tasks.

While the majority of people who struggle to read or write efficiently dramatically improve their skills in ten or twelve hours of instruction, the same strategies work with those who have more severe forms of dyslexia. So, for instance, I have worked with students with broad-based motor and language delays, who may require a year of instruction, but make several years of progress which enables them to "catch up" or surpass their expected grade level.

While assessing, designing, and delivering direct instruction requires training, the methods are basically simple.  With careful observation, instruction does not have to be "drill and kill."  We can expect all our students to succeed, and meet or surpass grade level expectations.  If they do not, we are not doing our job!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dyslexia Resources K-12

Check this out! 

Washington State Office of Public Instruction now has a page of information for parents and teachers with resources on dyslexia!

This is progress....more on Dyslexia in my next post!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Math and Cognition

If you are interested in cognition, language, and mathematics, you will enjoy reading The End of Ignorance: Multiplying Human Potential by JUMP Math founder John MightonDr. Mighton cites recent research in cognitive psychology that "suggests that it is not only the words we use to name physical  objects and quantities, but also the formal and grammatical structures of our language that help to determine our perception of the physical world."   

Interestingly, the grammatical structures of language affect a child's developing sense of number.  (Coexeter Theory: The Cognitive Aspects by Alexandre Borovik)In English, children begin with a "one-knower" stage, where they perceive sets of one accurately but seemingly randomly name sets of more than one with any greater number...two, three, four, etc.  In English, adults say one horse, and then our plural forms - two horseS, three horseS, four horseS, etc.  In other words, the grammatical difference is between one and more than one.    

In Russian, the plural forms are different.  There is a unique plural form for one object, a plural form for sets of two, three, or four objects, and a plural form for sets of five or more.  Instead of a "one-knower" stage where an English speaking child develops the ability to accurately distinguish between sets of one, a child who speaks Russian develops the ability to distinguish between three sets--sets of one, sets of 2-3-4, and sets of 5 or more.
Doing symbolic work can help a child perceive (and also be more motivated to perceive) the concrete world more clearly, just as an unconscious awareness of the grammatical structures of a language can make a difference to the age at which a child can perceive certain sets of numbers...Learning to understand math symbolically is as conceptual as learning to understand it concretely.
The implications are fascinating. Teaching children the symbolic language of math---rules, operations, logic--- builds and strengthens their ability to perceive, classify, and understand the world around them.  When working with children who seem confused by manipulatives, instead, develop their understanding of math symbolically.  

I have had the opportunity and pleasure to work with many individuals who have delays in the structure of language.  Delays in grammar typically affect one or more cognitive tasks such as comprehension in reading and listening, completing multi-step processes from long division to organizing, and speaking or writing to the point.  Excelling in the language of math can be a route to help develop the organization of the brain, and the understanding of how we organize language for meaning - with grammar.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What's Cool About JUMP Math

Last year, I read about the JUMP - Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies---math program in the NY Times.  Immediately, I wished that I had had the program for my classroom the year before.  Since I was tutoring 5th - 8th grade students, I began using the JUMP materials.  At first, the worksheets seemed deceptively simple.   But as I delved into lessons more deeply, my excitement grew. Concepts are approached and developed in multiple ways. The clear logic of each lesson builds upon the following lesson in such a simple, yet profound and ultimately, engaging manner, that students experience success each step of the way.

Next, I participated in an introductory webinar, as part of adding a Middle Level Mathematics endorsement to my teaching certification.  Then in August, I attended an all-day teacher training in Seattle with public school teachers who embark this fall using the JUMP curriculum through a pilot program funded by a Seattle philanthropist. This month, I began teaching two sessions of after school JUMP math enrichment for students 4th - 8th grades, and I will be adding more sessions next month.

The philosophy of  John Mighton, founder of JUMP, matches my experience teaching.  For fifteen years, I have facilitated learning with students who experience all sorts of learning challenges, perceptual difficulties, and academic delays.  I know that intelligence can be developed, trained, increased---!  Humans have an amazing, and often untapped, ability to learn.  John Mighton sets forth his experiences and his belief that all of us can learn math in The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child--

"After seeing how children flourish with even a modest amount of attention, I have come to believe that when a child fails a test it should be regarded as a failure of our system of education. And when millions of children, year after year, fail tests they could easily pass, it should be regarded as the failure of an entire society to care for its young."

The JUMP curriculum expects children to enter a grade performing at multiple grade levels.  The lessons at the beginning of the year are designed so that every student is challenged while those one or two years behind, catch up, but not at the expense of students who already enjoy math.  JUMP  gives teachers a curriculum they can use t effectively teach a class full of students who all begin at different levels of mastery and who all learn differently.  And, as a result of finding they are successful, students become enthusiastic and exceed grade level testing!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Education Every Which Way

Growing up in Port Angeles, I had excellent teachers at Jefferson Elementary School who enriched, expanded, and taught everything from reading, writing, social studies, science, and mathematics, to music, art, and square dancing!  I continued to be the lucky participant of a solid and most probably, better than average, public school education through high school.  Like many of us, my views of public education grew from my experience.

Fast forward fifteen years. I  again found myself in public education, this time not as a student, but as a classified employee, working as an para educator in a high school with students receiving special education services. Now, with many students, I began experiencing continued failure and underachievement. School became the constant race to catch-up from behind, the bewilderment of not knowing why everyone else seemed to be better at this, the repeatedly reinforced feeling of being stupid. 

So, I became an Educational Therapist, and learned to turn this picture around for all ages of students, who experienced all sorts of learning challenges, from dyslexia, language delays, motor delays, difficulties with perception and focus, and more.  In my private practice, I could facilitate remediation and learning, often times,  in one or two or months of twice weekly one-on-one sessions.  I taught workshops for parents and teachers, eager to share the successful tools I had found.  I thought perhaps public education needed some competition from charter schools, especially school specializing in serving different types of learners.

Fast forward another fifteen years.  I became a classroom teacher.  I taught as a substitute, in many classrooms, and as a teacher for several years. I experienced education from yet another perspective. Teacher certification now requires paying for and passing many standardized tests.  Students must pass standardized tests. Teachers have less resources, more students. 

What do I know? I know everyone can learn, and achieve, most times, beyond what we expect. If we expect less, we set up learning for less - less support for students, less support for teachers, less support for schools. To really change our schools and our educational system requires us to change how our society creates and reinforces inequalities of  healthcare, mental health services, nutritious foods---especially for our children. Education will not be improved by standardized tests, by breaking teacher unions, or by blaming parents. Education will be improved when we truly value each child as our own, and change our priorities to match our values.

Meanwhile, read tomorrow's post about JUMP math!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Busting the Myth of Normal

I have been working with students who struggle in the traditional classroom setting for about fifteen years.

I started working with high school students who were served by Special Education Services--which mostly meant me. I traveled to different classrooms with the students. My job was to get students to connect to the class, help them if they didn't understand, cajole, encourage, remind... yet, many of them continued to fail.

During my second year working at the high school, feeling like I was failing the students as they continued to fail classes, I attended a free workshop on ADD. One of the guest speakers, Judy Schwarz, described teaching adult non-readers to read---in short, helping all ages of students master all sorts of learning tasks--reading, writing, math, organization, time management, etc. Hearing Judy's stories captured my attention. Wait, I didn't see learning happening like this!

So, I began my training in educational therapy at Another Door to Learning in Tacoma with Judy and her staff. First, I learned to do "Assessments" for different learning profiles. What strengths does this person have? What processing pieces work well--auditory, visual, motor, language, tactile, etc? How does this person make sense of the world? All of a sudden, a whole world of learning diversity opened up around me.

Then, I learned how to design and deliver individualized, direct instruction using some typical and non-typical methods, along with lots of multi-sensory activities to tie the learning together. All of a sudden, the process of learning opened up for my students! They began being successful, and could build on their successes. Failure could return to its rightful place as an exploratory step in learning, not an individual label of "stupid."

Basically I was trained in using a "medical model" of learning.
Something is wrong, here’s what it is, and here’s how to fix it. This moved us away from interpreting learning disabilities as just “laziness” or “moral ineptitude” on the part of the student, and many times, the parent. Yet, over the years, as I have watched individuals develop their skills, and make substantial progress toward their learning goals, I have changed my idea of the "normal" in learning. Normal is different! There is no normal!

We all have areas in which we process more easily. Some like to listen, some like to move, some like to build, some like to daydream, some like to draw, some like to talk, some only hear music... As a culture, we enjoy the fruits of learning diversity, but as an educational system, we've missed the orchard.

What if we don't have to "label" students any more to provide "services."
What if we were curious about how many different ways each of us makes sense of the world around us? What if we focus on each person's unique set of strengths, while providing all sorts of avenues for their success in areas that are more difficult? What if we spent the energy we expend writing up Individualized Education Plans (IEP's) just helping all students be successful in their learning process?

Intelligences can be developed. I know this
on a profound level from years of facilitating learning with struggling students. Language-based learning disabilities, the bulk of learning difficulties, can be ameliorated with universal design technologies such as speech-to-text and text-to-speech software. Classrooms no longer need to pose barriers for students who struggle with reading or writing. What are we waiting for?

Monday, February 13, 2012

District Integrating Technology for Learning

Check out the NYTIMES article on how a North Carolina school is integrating technology into their classrooms. After years of advocating for assistive technology for students with learning challenges, how wonderful to eliminate the whole discussion and shift the focus to each and every student's learning progress.
Teachers apportion their time based on the need of students, without the weaker ones having to struggle at the blackboard in front of the class; this dynamic has helped children with learning disabilities to participate and succeed in mainstream classes.
The district cut sixty-five teacher jobs to implement the fees/costs for technology - imagine, if students could have teachers + technology in middle school classes of 18 students instead of 30!  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Growing Dendrites!

Amazingly, learning is a coordination of cellular connections.  Instead of commanding "Pick up your pencil!" we could as easily be commanding "Coordinate your axons and dendrites! Pronto!"
To pick up a pencil on command, I must process the language coming into my brain as auditory sensations, usually combined with the visual cues of the speaker's body language.  Hopefully, the words fall into the order they were spoken and the visual input does not compete with the auditory input.  If my visual-auditory processing works smoothly then, my memory must provide an image of myself picking up a pencil, so that I send out the correct motor impulses to coordinate a smooth motor response. Simple? 
What about emotion in the mix? If I am afraid or anxious, chances are, the neurotransmitters bathing my synapses shut down everything not necessary for survival, further complicating my response.   If I have trouble understanding/processing the language (think trying to learn a second  language - and your level of anxiety?), or if the visual information contradicts the auditory, or if my image of the action to take is not correct (hide the pencil, pick up the pen), or if my motor neurons are not coordinating a smooth movement, I experience "resistance" in my wiring. I may complete the task successfully, but may be expending much more energy (more neurons firing out of sync), than if the tasks were accurate and automatic.  

I've been thinking about this lately, as parents contact me with stories of their children's struggles.  With high-stakes testing in fashion, students with learning differences spend hours in the "boot camp" of rote learning tasks, in the hopes of improving their skills---growing and coordinating dendrites.   As classroom teachers, we need so many things to be in place for our students in order to make sense of the experience.  Skills needed to succeed in a classroom environment require an amazing amount of coordinated dendrites!  As students, we need to feel safe enough to learn by making a series of "mistakes," without fear and anxiety blocking the processes.  Tasks must be "interesting" or "challenging" and not overwhelming or frightening.  We all benefit from tasks being engaging or rewarding, but using a child's interests is IMPERATIVE if one is trying to remediate skills.