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Bridging the Gap between Capability and Environment: Empowering Learners of All Abilities

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. 

 

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. 

 

Best, 

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.

If you have emailed me, you may have noticed my email signature line quote that reads, “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 my educational philosophy. As an educator, I believe that children are beautiful, whole, and perfect beings. They are messy, they are works in progress, and they represent the wonder of possibility. I believe that it is not the child that needs to be somehow “fixed,” rather, that when our children are given the right opportunities, support, kindness, and genuine care, they begin to blossom, they begin to move more fully into their potential.

As an educator, I find myself immersed in the “how” and the “what” of the education of young minds. For example, how do we increase academic engagement for students with learning disabilities, and what instructional practices will best suit the students’ unique learning needs? Sometimes the “why” is more nebulous. Why do we do what we do? I believe that in order to truly be successful, we must more fully understand our “why.” This is true for me as an educator and is just as important for The Craig School community to understand.

A school’s mission statement and core values drive the “why” of the community. These form the basis for our decisions. I would argue that the most successful schools are, at their core, mission-driven, and purpose-focused. Just like the beacon atop a lighthouse illuminates a path in the midst of the unknown, our mission and values guide decisions both great and small. As I begin a new chapter as the Head of School at The Craig School it is of utmost importance that together, we are reminded of our shared “why.”

At The Craig School we acknowledge learning differences, we understand them, and we provide the instructional strategies and supports that allow the student to grow and learn. We believe in a firm foundation of academic knowledge and higher-order thinking skills; we believe in whole child development and that social, emotional, and moral growth are integral to a student’s education; we believe that with the right environment and opportunities that all students can and will thrive. Our mission is focused on a strategy-based, comprehensive, and challenging education that is designed for the unique academic needs of students with learning disabilities while also celebrating and bringing out each students’ aptitudes and strengths. To this end, fostering a child’s self-esteem and self-awareness is paramount.

I encourage you to take a moment to read through the Statement of Core Values of The Craig School and the Mission Statement of The Craig School. These are our collective “whys.” May they provide for you a light and a path forward as we work hand in hand to nurture the true potential and abilities of all of our students.

Learning Ally. Kahoot. Kami. IXL. Read & Write. Mindomo. You may have heard your child talking about, searching for, or even using one of these learning tools, some of which are instructional software (Kahoot, IXL, Mindomo) and others are known as Assistive Technology (Learning Ally, Kami, Read & Write). Assistive technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment, system, or device that increases, maintains, or improves a student’s ability to learn, whereas instructional software does not remove barriers to learning, but rather is used as a teaching tool for academic skills or content. COVID-19 has brought with it change to the field of education. One of the positive outcomes educators are experiencing is a renewed focus on innovative and collaborative pedagogies and the opportunity to take a closer look at the efficacy of the interventions, curriculum, and programs within a school. In our current hybrid model, where learning takes place synchronously in a physical school environment and through a virtual platform, our use of technology to enhance learning and reduce barriers continues to be a powerful tool in our teacher’s tool belt. I have had a few parents ask about the use of technology in the classroom. Here is a snapshot of the most commonly used assistive technology and educational software your child may experience at The Craig School: 

Assistive Technology 

Kami: Kami is an app that converts documents to PDF files. While this seems simple on the surface, its real strength is its use as a support for critical reading by allowing teachers to guide and comment on students’ annotations and by providing a platform for students to interact with text and to make meaningful connections among multiple texts. 

Learning Ally: Learning Ally is a digital library of human-read audiobooks, which include everything from classic literature to standard textbooks. Features include highlighted text synced with audio narration, speed control, bookmarking, highlighting, and note-taking. 

Read & Write: Read & Write is a literacy tool featuring text-to-speech options that support listening comprehension through engaging both auditory and visual senses, talk & type feature where students can take notes and record observations orally, highlighter option to support note-taking, and a word prediction tool to help develop writing skills, among other features.

Educational Software 

IXL: At The Craig School, IXL math and IXL language arts is used. Students are given questions on a specific standard in a core subject. When students successfully answer questions, they advance through the standard and the problems presented adapt in real-time to where they are in mastering the concept. It is a flexible tool used for mastery-based learning. 

Kahoot!: Gamification of learning is a trend in education and Kahoot is a useful tool toward that end. This app provides a platform for students or teachers to create, share, and play learning games or trivia quizzes. 

Mindomo: Mindomo is an app used for mind mapping. Mind mapping is a learning tool that   helps students master concepts through generating new ideas, synthesizing and structuring information, problem-solving, decision making, using evidence to support claims, and accurate planning.

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