Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Misunderstood Minds – An Introduction to Children Who Learn Differently

I recently discovered a wonderful resource to help teachers and parents better understand learning issues. Learning differences and difficulties are notoriously tough to understand and recognize. In the past, students who learned differently were often segregated to separate schools or classrooms and were denied a quality education. In the 1970s, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), more attention was given to supporting students who learn differently in the regular classroom – however, it was still often seen as the Special Education department's job to identify and support students. Unfortunately, too often students needed to have significant achievement gaps, behavioral issues, or failures before support was provided. 

More recently, with the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI), classroom teachers have the responsibility to identify students who need more individualized support in a proactive manner. The model in Wisconsin centers on culturally responsive practices, using collaboration, balanced assessment, and high quality instruction within a multilevel system of support to help students achieve academic standards.
This has the potential to significantly decrease the referrals to special education for all students. It also challenges the traditional model of education that assumes all students learn the same and if not, the problem is with the student. Instead, RTI recognizes that students learn differently and some may need more individualized instruction based on their strengths (not just deficits) to achieve.

An excellent resource to introduce teachers to the complexities of learning differences and difficulties is the PBS video "Misunderstood Minds." It follows three years in the lives of five families whose children struggle to learn. In addition, there is an excellent companion website that provides definitions, explanations, and resources for learning difficulties in reading, writing, math and attention. One of the most unique aspects of the website are the “Experience Firsthand” activities that simulate what it would look and feel like to have a particular learning difficulty. The video is about 90 minutes long but provides an excellent personal portrait of each of the children, the struggles of their families, and the complexities of understanding learning difficulties. I will provide a brief summary of the video.

The first student introduced was Nathan VanHoy, who struggled to read. His struggles were masked by his strong verbal skills and ability to memorize, but he knew he wasn't reading like his classmates. After intensive testing, he was diagnosed with a phonemic awareness problem -- an inability to innately distinguish between the different letter sounds that form words. With great trepidation, his mother made the decision to have Nathan have lessons in the school's resource room which provided intensive training in phonemic awareness. He made progress, but also had plateaus. 

The next student profiled was Lauren Smith, who was creative, dramatic and social, but had difficulties with focus, attention, and organization. In addition to academic problems, Lauren had difficulty making and keeping friends. These issues helped her doctors diagnose an attention difficulty, that most likely resulted from an imbalance of dopamine in her brain. Hesitant to use medication for Lauren, her parents decided to try sending Lauren to a different school, which at first seemed to help. But, when the newness wore off, Lauren continued to have academic and social difficulties. Her parents agreed to try medication for Lauren in addition to other strategies, such as coaching in academic and social interactions, organization tools, and time management. With a multi-tiered approach, Lauren found more success. 

Next the video introduced Sarah Lee. She was very popular, highly social and interactive until about fourth grade. At that time, she began to struggle to articulate her ideas in class and stopped participating. After some testing, the speech and language specialist recognized that Sarah Lee had expressive language deficiency and recommended a full and ongoing language immersion program - almost like second language instruction. With constant practice and feedback, Sarah Lee made significant improvement. 

The next segment profiled Adam, who struggled with reading throughout elementary school, but when tested was determined to be "average" so his learning difficulties were not identified until high school.  At that point, he hated school and skipped it, turning to the streets to find acceptance.  Unfortunately, this led to using alcohol and drugs to numb his frustration and disappointment and stealing.  When caught, he was jailed, but being sober and attending classes, he began to make progress.  Unfortunately, when he returned to high school, he did not receive support and was eventually expelled. Without a diploma, his options are limited.  

The last story focused on another Nathan, who showed frustration and aggression in kindergarten.  An early diagnosis indicated ADD, but medication didn't seem to work. He stopped taking it and his mother decided to home school.  He continued to struggle and began to exhibit depression and suicidal thoughts.  At this point, he met with Dr. Levine, who found Nathan was highly intelligent and had strong visual skills, but struggled with graphomotor (writing) skills - in other words, he knew what he wanted to write, but struggled to form the words.  Dr. Levine showed him how to use his strengths to support his writing.  In addition, Nathan's parents decided that more structure and discipline would help Nathan and they enrolled him at a military school.  At the end of the first year, Nathan had regained some confidence and found more success in his academics.

This video illustrated the long and difficult process that many families go through to support their children who learn differently than others in school. The children who struggle to learn also struggle with negative emotions such as teasing from classmates, disappointment of the adults around them, and the constant labels of lazy, stupid or obstinate. Learning difficulties are not easy to assess and diagnose, and children often learn survival strategies that mask the real problem. Once a learning difficulty is diagnosed, there are many difficult decisions that need to be made. The video also showed the struggle of the parents - to readjust their understanding of their children, to make life-changing decisions, and to work within and outside of schools' special education perimeters. It also illustrates the importance of social, cultural and economic capital - as the parents needed to negotiate multiple systems of support and expectations.

Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister, had learning difficulties in school. He was quoted with saying, "I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race." It is essential that,
as teachers, we identify student early who struggle and provide support, rather than make assumptions about home life, work ethic and attitude. As one of my pre-service teachers reminded us in discussion, “You know what happens when you assume?” . . . . I'll let you finish the phrase.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Getting to Know You: Using Children's Literature to Introduce Working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

“There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book.” ― Philip Pullman

I was pondering how to introduce strategies and techniques for working with culturally and linguistically diverse students to my pre-service teachers. But beyond looking at English language learners as a group I wanted my students to personally identify with children who may be very different from themselves. I wanted them to be thinking about questions such as: What does it feel like to be an English Language Learner in a classroom? What are some of the hopes and fears of students who struggle to speak English in our classrooms? How do English language learners navigate in a society that is mostly monolingual?

Children's literature has the unique characteristic of making a complex topics very personal and visual. I selected several illustrated children's books and asked groups of pre-service teachers to read the book together and summarize the storyline, list what they learned about English language learners, bilingual and/or immigrant students from the story, and how could they use the book in their own classrooms. This provided the students a repertoire of books to use with their students but also new perspectives of what it's like to be English language learner in American schools.

Class Mom – Written by Margaret Mc Namara; Illustrated by Mike Gordon

Summary: Nia's class is having a party and Nia volunteers her mom to be in charge, even though she believes her Mama will not want to be in charge because she doesn't speak much English. Throughout the weekend Nia did not tell her mom about party. After much agony, and pretending that she was sick the morning of the party, Nia finally tells her mom about the party. However Mama pulls through and throws a great party.

What the Students Learned: We learned that parents of English language learners may have a hard time volunteering in the classroom if they speak another language. What we, as teachers, may perceive as a lack of involvement does not mean disinterest. We also learned that it is important for students to connect their languages and cultures to the work in the classroom.

Using the Book: We could use this book to show students how everyone's family is different and how parents may speak many languages.

In English, Of Course – Written by Josephine Nobisso; Illustrated by Dasha Ziborova

Summary: Josephine just moved to the Bronx from Italy. Her teacher asked all the students to introduce themselves. The students were from all over the world and each began to introduce themselves, but Josephine was confused by what they said and how they said it. When Josephine tried to explain where she was from Naples Italy, the students and teacher did not understand her. Through patience, gestures and pictures the teacher helped Josephine tell her story and learn new words in English.

What the Students Learned: We learned that the misconception of language can scare some students. English language learners may have a hard time coming up with sentences and the correct words to use, but they have a lot of ideas in their head. As teachers we need to provide patients and resources to students to help them build their language skills and confidence

Using the Book: By using this book with our students in the classroom, they may also recognize that students who may not speak English very well may still have a lot to say and teach us.

The Rainbow Tulip - Written by Pat Mora; Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles

Summary: This book is about a young girl named Stella. She and her family are from Mexico. Her mother and father do not speak any English. Stella and her younger brothers are bilingual. Stella feels like she and her family are different at the Mayday Parade. Her costume is multicolored, and everyone else's costume is a single color. Her parents about hard time interacting with the other parent, making it hard for Stella to feel accepted. Stella performs well during the Mayday dance, but is frustrated that her parents cannot talk to the teacher. At home Stella admit that she likes being the only rainbow tulip but it was hard too. Her mother answers that it is hard to be different that it is both sweet and sour like sherbet.

What the Students Learned: We learned that at times English language learners may feel that it is difficult to become accepted in the classroom. Because they might feel that they are very different from their classmates, they may feel frustrated, scared, or shy. As teachers, we need to help create an environment that accepts that differences and celebrate what makes us unique.

Using the Book: We can use this book to help students express some of their feelings about what it is like to feel different. In addition it may help our students be more courageous when they need to do difficult things.

My Name is Yoon – Written my HelenRecorvits; Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska

Summary:: The story is about a Korean girl and her transition to American schools. At first she did not like moving to America and how everything was different. When she wrote her name in Korean it was beautiful and meant Shining Wisdom. In English her name was Yoon, which she found ugly. For many days in school she learned new words and tried out new identities such as cat, bird and cupcake. When she began to make friends and feel like her teacher like her she was then able to write her English name Yoon.

What the Students Learned: we learned that it can be hard to adapt to new school and language at first. Taking on an English name may make it easier for them in school but it might not feel right to the student. English language learners may need to create new identities for themselves. In addition English language learners may be confused by teachers instructions and do things very differently.

Using the Book: Although the book shows an English language learner struggling, we can use the book to show that everybody struggles with somethings. In addition, this book may encourage students to be more sympathetic when other students struggle in school and show the importance of friendship.

Yoko Writes Her Name – Written and Illustrated by Rosemary Wells

Summary: Yoko is an English language learner she is picked on for not knowing how to write her name in English because she only knows how to write in Japanese. She is frustrated by this fact until a classmate helps her learn the English alphabet. This same friend thinks it is really neat that Yoko knows a secret language, Japanese. When the other classmates see Yoko and her friend writing in Japanese the rest want to learn it also and they decide to make Japanese their second class language. When two classmates don't learn how to write their names in Japanese Yoko teaches them how.

What the Students Learned: we learned that can be difficult to adapt to a new learning environment. It takes time and patience but everyone can benefit from the differences.

Using the Book: We can use the book as a resource that shows how to value the richness of different cultures in our classroom. We can use it to show students that it is okay to branch out and get to know something you are unfamiliar with.

The Other Side: How Kids Live in a California Latino Neighborhood – Written by Kathleen Krull; Photographs by David Hautzig

Summary: This nonfiction book the the story of how two Mexican-American families left Mexico and moved to California for better opportunities. It shows, through photographs, what daily life is like for many immigrant families including some of the struggles they have in school, trying to preserve their culture and heritage, having children translate for their parents, and the importance of family, both in California and back home. It also highlights some of the unique celebrations and holidays that are celebrated by many Latino families

What the Students Learned: We learned that it is important to include and celebrate children's cultures in the classroom beyond the traditional mainstream culture. We also learned about how it can sometimes be frustrating and isolating to be an English language learner and immigrant to the United States.

Using the Book: If we have English language learners in our classroom. This book might help other students feel more connected with their peers. The reader will also understand why some immigrants wish to come to America and the importance of preserving home language and culture.

Class Discussion

Many of the books dealt with issues of identity. English language learners are past with so much more than just learning English. They also have to negotiate the borderlands of their home culture and school culture and define themselves with in this borderland. The choice of language and language use is an obvious identification mark, yet students may not completely identify with the culture of the language.

Many students also recognized that the parents of English language learners may often be misrepresented. Just because the parents are not at parent conferences, volunteering for class parties, or helping students with homework, it does not mean the parents are uninterested in their students education. There may be many factors that might limit parent involvement in school including different cultural expectations, language barriers, and demands on time through family and work.

As teachers, we need to build on the strengths that students bring to the classroom, culturally and linguistically. To do this we need to get to know our students and not make assumptions of who they are or what they can do.

As a teacher educator, I am thrilled that my pre-service teachers came to recognize these very important issues when working with culturally and linguistically diverse students. It may have been more efficient to provide a lecture with PowerPoint, but I believe through the words and illustrations in these children's books the lessons the students learned will be better integrated into their understanding.