What if rather than viewing learning disabilities as deficits, we viewed them as part of the natural variations of the human genome? Sometimes called the social model of disability or neurodiversity, this view holds that dyslexia or specific learning disability, for example, is merely but one component of identity and functioning, not its totality, and is best defined as the “gap between a person’s capacities and the demands of the environment” (Wehmeyer, 2020). An example of this framework is a student who struggles with reading and is presented only with print curricular resources. By providing one means to access the curriculum, the student is hampered in how much he or she is able to learn. However, this same student, presented with speech-to-text technology or audiobooks, now has access to learn more substantially. The person is still the same, the environment shifted. At The Craig School, we believe that a strengths-based approach primes students for learning and that with the right environment, all students can and will succeed.
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Reading does not come naturally, easily or incidentally for countless children. It is a tough hill to climb that takes patience, time and tenacity. Through decades of research, we understand that dyslexia can vary widely in students from a phonological deficit, orthographic deficit, a naming-speed deficit or a combination of one or more of these challenges. Additionally, adding on processing speed, working memory, rapid automatic naming and visual-verbal paired-associate learning challenges, the complexity increases exponentially and the need to use a proven, evidence-based approach is more critical than ever.
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Throughout the year, I have written about strengths-based education for students with exceptionalities, the importance of developing a strong sense of self-efficacy and creating safe, nurturing, positive spaces for learning. Each is related to the broader educational implications of our mindset around disability. Something I think about often is how schools would function if rather than viewing learning disabilities, as deficits, we viewed them as part of the natural variations of the human genome? Sometimes called the social model of disability, the person-environment-fit, or even the neurodiversity model, this view holds that dyslexia or specific learning disability, for example, is merely but one component of identity and functioning, not its totality, and is best defined as the “gap between a person’s capacities and the demands of the environment” (Wehmeyer, 2020). An example of this framework is a student who struggles with reading and is presented only with print curricular resources. By providing one means to access the curriculum the student is hampered in how much they are able to learn. However, this same student, presented with speech-to-text technology or audiobooks now has access to learn more substantially. The person is still the same, the environment shifted.
By moving our thinking from disability as a deficit or something needing to be fixed or cured to a model built more on capacity-building and environmental changes to support learning, a student’s educational experiences are enhanced and their strengths are leveraged for deeper learning and meaning-making. Students benefit from teachers who provide multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression and action, and multiple means of engagement to meet their students’ individual needs. A simple example is the use of a graphic organizer with reduced text to bridge the gap between challenges with reading comprehension and the student’s ability to recall information in an ordered sequence. Fundamental competencies, such as literacy skills like inference making at the paragraph level, are not ignored but addressed. Couple that foundational work with multiple access points to curriculum that matches the increased demands of literacy throughout the school years and the needs of the individual and we have lessened the gap between ability and environment. Daily, The Craig School balances the educational needs of our students by providing ample instructional time for addressing their greatest needs while also supporting the development of strengths, all the while recognizing that our students are fully human, ever-evolving, and full of ability.
Within this new mindset, the language we use and the labels we attach to differences are also important factors to consider. A glance at the above two paragraphs highlights the use of the word “disability” as a common descriptor. We function in a world where to get the supports and services that our students need, they are “classified” and this happens after identification of a disorder or disability. This practice of labeling inherently impacts how one thinks of themself and how one is perceived by others. In turn, educational decisions regarding when students are “ready” to learn and in what ways they are capable of learning follow.
What I am so proud of at The Craig School is that we cultivate and support our students’ positive identities as learners. We partner with you to build their capacity through targeted, personalized learning experiences that remove barriers to learning. Finally, we design the broader curriculum to allow for greater access and participation from each of our students. Our students recognize they are capable of so much more than the limiting beliefs they may have once experienced.
I leave you with this powerful statement of truth-telling from Rapport-Schlichtmann, Boucher, and Evans (2018) that applies to all disability types:
The challenges of dyslexia are real, but they are limiting only to the extent that we allow them to be. The moment we start defining a person by deficits, we undermine their capacity to be successful, and there is no space to develop strengths and positively adapt. If we instead build the capacity of students with dyslexia to improve on their areas of weakness, as well as build on their individual and unique areas of strength, we begin to create the foundation for thriving in learning and life.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” (Alexander den Heijer). This one phrase perfectly sums up the educational philosophy of The Craig School. As educators, we believe that children are beautiful, whole and perfect beings, and they are messy, they are works in progress, they represent the wonder of possibility. We believe that it is not the child who needs to be somehow “fixed;” rather, that when our children are given the right opportunities, support, kindness and genuine care, they begin to blossom and to move more fully into their unique potential.
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“Teachers motivate minds, guide learning, share achievements, inspire a love of knowledge, and lead our youth to a brighter future.”
In this week of celebration and recognition of the extraordinary teachers at The Craig School, it is most fitting to honor them in the words of our students themselves. This letter, written to one of our middle school math teachers, by a current 10th-grade student who started her journey at The Craig School during middle school, highlights the lasting impact of our teachers:
I would properly like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read my letter. Thank you so much for helping me with math when I was struggling. Not only have you made math my favorite subject, but you helped me to believe in myself and encouraged me to push myself to achieve bigger and better things. Thank you for encouraging me and making me feel like I can succeed in anything that I do. I know that all of your students will carry on the lessons you have taught us. Thank you for making every day feel like a new adventure and for making every day in your class so much fun.
Before I came to Craig, I hated math and I struggled with it—no one was teaching me the right way. You offered to put me in a higher class in the eighth grade, and that pushed me to be able to do ninth-grade math and now, Geometry. I realized I couldn’t thank you enough. Without your help, I would not have achieved the distinction of High Honor Roll in math class. Thank you for making everyone feel so special and for always brightening up the room when you walk in.
This is what our teachers do, this is how they impact your children, and this is how our students feel. Our students have found a safe, positive school environment where they can try challenging things and know at the end of the day, whether they reach immediate success or not, our teachers support them every step of the way through with their unwavering belief in the ability and capability of each student. Let’s celebrate the exceptional teaching happening at The Craig School!
Dr. Kara A. Loftin
Head of School
Today, I wanted to bring attention to our extended school year (ESY), Summer Academy, for students in grades 2-12, and Summer Enrichment programs. Last year, we successfully provided a meaningful extended school year experience for our students. For students with exceptionalities, having extra time to learn, engage, process, and cement learning is incredibly important to continue progress toward their goals and for long-term academic achievement. Along with an array of core subjects, our students are so fortunate to have Orton Gillingham and related services available to them during ESY. Some of our students will take part in ESY as a component of their IEP, but for other students the decision to attend is made by our parents. ESY is particularly important to relearn skills and prevent skill loss, sometimes called “summer slide.” For students who struggle with working memory, who benefit from continual reinforcement, or who are on the cusp of mastering a critical skill, participating in ESY, provides the necessary support, services, and specialized instruction to continue to grow as learners. Similar to the regular school year at The Craig School, the “one size fits all” model of education does not apply, rather the individual student and their learning needs are at the center of decisions regarding their specific summer educational program.
Our afternoon and all-day Friday program, Summer Enrichment, which is suited for students in grades 2-8, is similar to camp, with activities including, but not limited to, art, sports, outdoor activities, STEM, swimming, movie making, and gardening. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 mandates, last summer we were unable to provide our very popular Summer Enrichment program. We are happy to have that program return and welcome our students to join us as we build on their strengths and foster community. The enrichment program provides opportunities to build a student’s self-esteem, to uncover strengths and interests students may not have known they have, to improve social skills, and most importantly, to have fun with other youth in a healthy and positive setting. Camp-like programs for students with exceptionalities, like our Summer Enrichment program, provide an opportunity for independence, increased confidence, and the camaraderie of other youth that share similarities with one another.
The Craig School’s extended school year, Summer Academy, grades 2-12, and Summer Enrichment program, grades 2-8, are offered on campus, July 6th - July 29th and July 6th - July 30th, respectively. Give Nicole Moon, Director of Admission, a call (973) 334-1285 ext. 212 or drop her an email to sign up today. We are committed to creating a full educational and fun summer experience for your student.
Speaking with a language-arts teacher in our lower and middle school, I was reminded of the importance of responsive and student-focused teaching and learning. She spoke about tapping into students’ interests, watching for how students are connecting to their learning, and finding meaningful moments for cross-curricular teaching all while sharing the bigger picture of learning. I could see her light up when sharing her experiences integrating a moment for applied math into a reading fluency activity and helping a student approach a math challenge from a new perspective by playing a game to learn basic math facts during Homework Help. For me, what was exciting, was to listen to a teacher sharing in practical ways the value she places on teacher-student relationships and on respecting and integrating students’ perspectives into her teaching so that she may better understand their needs, preferences, goals, and areas of resistance.
Through an education theory lens, her actions are hallmarks of a student-directed learning approach called, autonomy-supported learning. This is best described as an instructional practice that leans on flexible, reciprocal, positive, and healthy teacher-student relationships and classroom environments to promote student engagement and intrinsic motivation. Just as I wrote last week about teacher-directed learning, like explicit instruction, student-directed learning is equally important to encourage and foster. As my dear friend and retired special education teacher, Steve Horner, once commented to me, “There must be a balanced approach to learning; a balanced person should be the goal. There are times that the student must take control and direct their own learning, the teacher then becomes the facilitator and only intervenes when learning ceases [or] frustration overtakes the student.” We understand that with the constraints of curricular standards and goals, it is not possible to give students full voice and choice in what they learn and how they learn it. However, as educators, we can foster more independent learning and curiosity by tuning into, respecting, and integrating student perspectives into our teaching, just like the example of our language arts teacher above. By doing so we increase student autonomy which then lends itself to boosting the intrinsic motivation of our students. The end result, are students who are more fully engaged at school, who feel more connected to their teachers, and who feel a sense of belonging.
Dr. Kara A. Loftin
Head of School
Over the past decade or so, a divide has widened in educational circles over the impact of teacher-directed versus student-directed learning based on the idea that teacher-directed learning is passive, rather than active and engaged learning, and therefore, not as effective for student achievement and learning. However, viewing the two approaches as distinct and separate is misguided. The instructional strategies representative of these dual approaches, such as differentiated learning (student-directed) and explicit instruction (teacher-directed) are most effective when paired together. This week, let’s take a closer look at explicit instruction, a practice you most likely have heard about during parent-teacher conferences or IEP/ISP meetings.
An instructional approach woven throughout all disciplines and grades at The Craig School is direct, explicit, systematic instruction (explicit instruction). Explicit instruction is a teacher-directed approach to learning that is steeped in decades of empirical research indicating its effectiveness for students with exceptionalities, in particular students with learning differences. It is structured, sequential, and designed to build on previous learning. A good example is learning to read. First, students learn letter-sound relationships. This knowledge then leads to linking sounds together (phonemes) and knowing the symbols that represent them (graphemes). Teachers decide when to introduce each letter-sound relationship and use modeling to make sure students can accurately pronounce each sound. This structured and sequential approach in explicit instruction starts with identifying clear learning goals and objectives, followed by the purposeful organization of lessons, reviewing instructions so that student expectations are known, modeling, verbalizing the thinking process, providing opportunities to practice, asking questions for understanding, and giving timely feedback. Mastering concepts is incremental. Generalization to new contexts happens gradually. Finally, teacher guidance is reduced.
Why use this high leverage practice? Simple, it works! Explicit instruction provides a path for your child to learn to their potential. It is a research-based, effective means to teach students with exceptionalities. Unlike what some may think of as a limiting and dependency promoting instructional practice, explicit instruction makes higher-order thinking, inquiry-based, and other forms of student-directed learning more accessible. It engages students, teaches them the process of learning, and helps build decision-making and social skills. Furthermore, for students who struggle with working memory, explicit instruction reduces the load on working memory. By freeing up some of the required working memory, we free up cognitive resources for the learning itself. Finally, it provides a means for students who may struggle with attention to tune into the most important information at each step along the way. Explicit instruction works in schools and it also works at home. I’ll leave you with one home example: helping your child learn to make their bed. Break down this task into smaller parts: 1. Strip sheets, blankets, and pillowcases. 2. Put blankets and pillows on the table, 3. Get sheets and pillowcases from the closet, and so forth. Model the steps and provide clear expectations, verbalize the thinking process, provide lots of constructive, timely feedback, and practice, practice, practice.
Foundational grade-level skills and concepts, along with key 21st-century skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking are improved greatly through explicit instruction. Pair that with differentiated instructional approaches and our students are given the best opportunities for success both now and into the future.
Recently, I was reminded of a blog post from years past sharing lessons learned from the classic children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper, such as courage, strength and a can-do attitude. The oft-recited words, “I think I can, I think I can...” to me, illustrate something even greater, self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to meet the challenges ahead and complete a task successfully. You may recall that as a result of an engine break down, a group of toys and dolls were left looking for a way to get up and over a mountain to reach the children on the other side.
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After many years of working with students with exceptionalities, a common concern raised among parents is feeling excluded from Individualized Education Program (IEP) team meetings. This could be due to many variables, such as overuse of jargon or a focus on compliance and paperwork, rather than on the student’s needs. Parents may struggle to have adequate time during an IEP meeting to engage in dialogue when the procedural elements get in the way of collaborating as a team on behalf of the student. Many of you have experienced this first hand. Frustrations rise and conflict festers.
A facilitated IEP is an IEP team meeting where a non-biased, impartial facilitator assists with the meeting process. Facilitation is not mediation, nor does using a facilitator forfeit your right to dispute resolution. FIEP is a tool to assist with conflict and disagreements directly related to the IEP, it is a model for effective communication and collaboration strategies, and most importantly, FIEP helps re-direct the conversation back to the needs of the individual child. Fostering a safe environment for idea exchange and for the voice of every team member to be heard by reducing any perceived or real imbalance of power is central to the role of a facilitator. Of the many benefits to parents, a facilitator will lead pre-meetings with families to establish a meeting agenda, develop meeting norms as a proactive way to promote positive behavior, write down off-topic issues during the meeting so that the team can revisit them later, and use a centralized location (flip chart, projector, etc.) to visually chart the order of the meeting, meeting discussion items, and solution-oriented thinking.
Sometimes parents can feel outnumbered in an IEP meeting and may even have a sense that they are excluded from critical decisions regarding their child’s program, supports, and services. The facilitated IEP is intended to lessen these stressors and keep the discussion exactly where it needs to be, on meeting the needs of the individual child. To find out more please visit: https://www.nj.gov/education/specialed/iep/facilitated/