March 20, 2010
Dear Commissioner Gist ,
I wanted to take this opportunity to write a letter of support for Mr. Stephen Round, a teacher in your employ. Mr. Round, one of your first grade teachers, has been doing cutting edge work in researching the brain and learning, and I (along with Dr. Dale Jordan) commend him on his efforts to establish a new set of protocols for serving students who have PI (an acronym Mr. Round has coined for Print Inversion).
Over the past 40 years my career has been devoted to searching for the answer to, “What’s going on?” with struggling learners. As a previous reading and learning disability specialist in public schools, I was excited to witness young learners as they worked to create meaning from the written word. As Mr. Round has found,, children come into first grade eager and excited to learn to read.
I was intrigued by the mystery of what happens in the first three years of school; I was puzzled by the shift from excitement to frustration and fear. Somehow, after just three short years, so many youngsters’ enthusiasm turns into fear, and at the end of 3rd grade these same students who were once so confident in their ability to learn have damaged egos, emotional issues, self-doubt, and diagnosable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder based upon how their teachers and schools misunderstand their learning processes.
In 1974, after having taught Middle, High School, and Primary school children that were deemed as the most struggling of learners, I wrote a grant to begin one of the first adult basic education programs in the county. The grant was approved and I was able to offer an evening educational opportunity to adults who left school before graduating. In the early months of the program I realized there were incredible numbers of adults in our community that had left school because they struggled to meet the education system’s notion of the “successful learner”. Many of these individuals were the parents of children I had worked with as a reading and learning disability specialist in the Primary School.
When I began working with these adults and parents, I realized that there were learning issues that were and some that were not outgrown. I went to the Ohio Department of Education requesting answers to “what was going on” only to find that no one knew and no specialists existed in the whole field of adult learning. I was referred to Dr. Dale Jordan who had offered an in-service training for adult educators in the Midwest on the topic of reading and learning disabilities.
With Dr. Jordan’s support and insight into the learning process, I wrote another grant to begin to search for answers regarding how I could help adults
struggling to learn. I was funded with a combination of state and federal funds for five years to develop the field of adults with learning disabilities and to find answers to the “What’s going on?” question. My first experience in that grant allowed me to spend time with Dr. Jordan in his clinic setting, where I learned about identifying and addressing differences in information processing.
Forty years later I have emerged as one of the national leaders in the field of learning. My inquiry led me to a Ph.D. in learning, neuro, and cognitive psychology, and research. I have worked for the Ohio Department of Mental Health, and I now consult with a multitude of State Departments of Education, Corrections and Rehabilitation Services, Human Services, programs serving at-risk youth, community colleges, and employment services. I chose not to move into the world of academia, but instead to stay field-based, do action research, and quickly turn research into best practices that can be readily and successfully implemented in the field.
My transformational learning system, PowerPath to Education and Employment, is used in 1,500 adult education, drop-out prevention, correction education, human and employment services, community colleges, adult basic and literacy education programs, and schools for at-risk youth across the US, Canada, and Israel. I receive letters from teachers and students almost daily that reaffirm PowerPath’s holistic approach. These letters tell sad stories of students who felt they had to leave the public school system, endure years of pain, loss of self-respect, and develop a fear of learning only to be helped later in life after their lives had been destroyed by an education system that has not learned from its own experiences. However, these same letters praise the success of the PowerPath system, which supports building learners through a process of partnership, mutual respect and dignity, and can turn struggling learners into successful learners!
We call students that can’t seem to learn from their experiences and continue to make the same mistakes over and over “learning disabled”. Peter Senge, the renowned MIT author of The Fifth Discipline, has stated that institutions and organizations that do not learn from their experiences are “learning disabled organizations”. I believe that many of our public schools and school systems fall into that category when they have not learned that ALL children are natural learners and that we need to go with their natural learning abilities to maximize their true learning potential.
Harvard-trained Dr. Frank Smith has written numerous books about reading. His most important point is that learning to read is a natural process, and the one thing that can help this natural process with children is to make that process easy!
Dr. Mel Levine, in his series of books on educating struggling learners, continues to stress the importance of the brain and its incredible ability to learn. Dr. Levine stresses that there are “all kinds of minds” and that each of us is unique in how we develop our own framework for learning. His “attuned schools” are magical places where every learner succeeds because he/she is valued and trained to find their own approach to making meaning of the world in which they live.
As a social entrepreneurial company, I believe we have the country’s largest database of information about school “walk-outs”* which includes data about what is going on between these students’ two ears. Our database contains over 10,000 students from 15 states from over 115 federally funded programs for walkouts.
Having designed a system to identify and build learners that can learn both specific content and skills of “learning how to learn”, I can say without a doubt that the majority of these individuals were told not to trust their own learning abilities and that there was only one way to learn…and it wasn’t theirs, so they needed to conform to ways of learning that were not natural to them.
Many of these adult learners (40+%) were previously diagnosed with one learning disorder or another. Many had spent years upon years in special education or Title I programs. According to these individuals, none of the labeling or special education services were helpful. So, why are we finding that these adult individuals are NOT learning disabled but are only “learning different” students who can, once validated and supported, become successful students?
The biggest issues in information processing (differences in the how the brain learns) that we are finding are:
• 48% have vision function challenges (specifically binocularity…using the two eyes together) – all individuals were tested with their prescriptive lenses,
• 40% have a hearing loss in one or both ears,
• 78% have attention challenges,
• 90% have visual stress syndrome – cannot maintain reading/math under bright florescent lighting viewing white paper with black print.
Since these issues were not identified and addressed prior to most in-school diagnostics or prior to any RTI, it is no wonder that across the United States special education and RTI is not yielding significant outcomes and that learners placed into these initiatives continue to struggle until they walk out of school. (*I use the term ‘walk-outs’… instead of ‘drop outs’. This term was offered to me by a United Nation’s education grant recipient working on international education issues related to students leaving school. Students ‘walk out’ when they find schools a dangerous place to be – dangerous to their developing mind and notion of ‘self.’)
In terms of brain-development, the visual system develops over time. For all PI readers that I have worked with (and there haven’t been many….probably because I never asked the student about this unique capacity), once we have made sure that the above four processing areas have been addressed, all of the PI readers have NATURALLY, over time, shifted to reading “right side up” on their own. Many students who naturally begin reading upside-down also go through a very natural process in which they switch to reading “right-side up”. When these students were pushed to read “right-side up”, this caused huge long-term educational barriers and strong emotional backlash For students who were allowed and supported to read any which-way, the switching to “right-side-up” just happens…one day it just happens!
It is amazing how, when obstacles to learning (the four listed above) have been identified and addressed and when natural learning is supported, that “struggling learners” become just “learners”. When uniqueness is valued and validated, we offer all individuals the right to be who they are, secure with intact dignity. When uniqueness is valued and validated, individuals find and retain a joy for learning.
Not having met the young readers in Mr. Round’s remarkable videos, I would clearly want to screen them for the four areas cited above. If any of these challenges exist, I would want to follow-up with medical referrals, if needed, or work with the students to identify accommodations, adaptations, and learning strategies to support their natural learning abilities. I would NOT recommend pushing them (at the tender age of six or seven… or probably ever) to shift to “right-side-up” reading; the less emphasis on the PI, the better. I would focus on the purpose of reading, which is to get meaning out of print, i.e., comprehension along with the multitude of other decoding skills… whether this happens right-side-up or sideways or upside down.
I recommend observing and learning from these precious and unique children by engaging them in conversations about learning and letting them know that, “When you are ready to switch…if ever...you naturally will switch.” I suggest that Mr. Round help them build their self-esteem and help them to self-advocate for whatever they need to acquire information and demonstrate what they know.
To your education system, I recommend that this might be a tremendous opportunity to learn more and understand more about how the brain learns by observing these PI readers over time and NOT by singling them out for any reason - except to praise their unique capabilities. To become model education facilities where learning success occurs for all students, it is essential for schools to find ways to build learners using their natural learning capacity and not try to force one way of learning…. ever!
The biggest issue I have with walk-outs is the emotional baggage they carry from years of being told they are “not trying hard enough”, “not following instructions”, “not smart enough”, or that they are “different/disabled” where different or disabled requires needing to be changed. In actuality, learning challenges are easy enough to identify and address. Supporting a holistic learning process is easy. But, shifting the emotional issues that have accumulated over the years is really difficult. I think to myself, “If only teachers knew the long-term impact of their inappropriate, non-brain-based, actions and comments.”
I salute Mr. Round’s work and encourage his intuitive approach to supporting all kinds of learning co-existing in the classroom. Here’s to his action-based research on PI learners! Here’s to his curiosity and judgment-free approach to supporting his students!
I will be in Rhode Island in May, 2010 to address adult educators. I would like to offer my services, pro-bono, to provide an in-service training for his school on brain-based learning so that all of the teaching staff might have the opportunity to hear about how to maximize learning for all students, how to retain the curiosity and desire to help kids that brought them into our marvelous profession, and how to do action-based research in the classroom.
Here is to continually asking the questions and pursuing an array of pathways to promote successful learning and the building of successful learners!
Laura Weisel, Ph.D.,
The TLP Group*
PO Box 21510
Columbus, OH 43221
*The TLP Group is a social entrepreneurial company that uses traditional entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage ventures for creating needed social change to address recognized social problems. The social entrepreneurial company often tackles social problems that have not been successfully solved by traditional government or nonprofit initiatives.
The TLP Group works in partnership with state departments, universities, colleges, communities, community and institutional providers. By combining the best of talents, the most effective use of resources, and the latest evidence-based research, The TLP Group is dedicated to making a dramatic impact on service delivery and client outcomes.
The TLP Group • PO Box 21510 Columbus, OH 43221 • HYPERLINK "http://www.powerpath.com" www.powerpath.com • 800.641.3