Teach the Way They Learn

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
~ Ignacio Estrada

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? 

And yet, if we look closely at our classrooms, we may see that this is just not always happening. There continue to be teachers who expect all of their students to move at the same pace, teachers who rarely vary their teaching style and teachers who continue to struggle to meet the needs of diverse learners.


Teaching the Difference Between Fairness and Equality

The Band Aid Activity for teaching fairness vs. equality; Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the most popular posts on this blog is called Fair Isn’t Equal. In it I include a wonderful graphic that helps to illustrate the difference between the concepts of fairness and equality.

Most people believe that “fairness means that everyone gets the same”; whereas in reality “fairness means that everyone gets what he or she needs.” Further, fairness is one of the most commonly used arguments against inclusion. “Teaching students of different abilities in the same class isn’t fair to those who can move at a quicker pace,” or “It’s not fair to hold back some students to prevent others from falling behind.” 

The best way to accommodate students of varying abilities in the same learning environment is through differentiated instruction; a methodology which enables students to progress at their own pace via activities that are developmentally appropriate. 

I also firmly believe in transparency. I think that the methodology and the premise behind it should be shared with students, enabling them to understand and support one another more fully. "The Band-Aid Activity" is not something that I created; but it is a successful way to help students understand the concept of fairness (versus equality) in a differentiated classroom. 

The Band-Aid Activity
Distribute “injury cards” to students (index cards with various injuries listed one per card). Ask students, one at a time, to share their injury, giving each student a band-aid (regardless of the injury). If anyone complains or questions the band-aid, simply say that it would not be fair if everyone did not get the same thing. 

Questions for discussion:
  1. Was it equal that everyone got a Band-Aid?
  2. Was it fair that everyone got a Band-Aid? Why or why not? (Everyone getting the same thing wasn’t fair because it didn’t help most of the students. Sometimes students will do different things in class, but everyone is learning and getting what they need. It is important not to make anyone feel bad about doing something different.)
  3. Depending upon the age of the students: What other things in the classroom are our “injuries” like?  What else can the Band-Aids be compared to? (The Band-Aids are like getting the help you need in class. When a teacher is working with a small group or individual student, interrupting or distracting them is like taking away the student’s Band-Aid.)  
**Variation: Give all but the last student a band-aid. Add in a discussion of how it felt to be the only one without a bandaid. 

There can be other variations of the activity depending upon the age of the students, but this can certainly be used in a discussion format with middle school students and teens. And here is a terrific link to a blog explaining this lesson in action with young children.

Do you have any great activities for teaching fairness?

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Inquiry-Based Learning for Students with Disabilities

Test-based assessments discourage inquisitiveness; Removing the Stumbling Block

Children are naturally inquisitive. Young children are curious about their environment and want to know all they can about how the world works and why. They do this by asking questions and exploring their surroundings. Asking questions is the way children get someone’s attention and engage them in conversation.

And yet we discourage children from asking questions when we consistently reward those students who find answers and solutions on their own. Think about it, how often do teachers or peers inwardly groan as the stereotypical child raises her hand to ask yet another question? How often do we praise a student’s problem solving abilities, especially when he has made independent discoveries?

I am Struggling

I am struggling.

I am struggling to make sense of the conflicting emotions bouncing around in my head.

It is rare for me to blog twice in one week, let alone two days in a row, and yet…

Like others, writing helps me to crystallize my thoughts and emotions. Like others, I can’t stop thinking of a life cut short by cancer.  Like others, I never met this remarkable young boy we all call “Superman Sam”.  Like others, I have never even met his parents.

But I “know” them. Through Twitter and the online world, they have encouraged all of us to share their journey. They have taught us and demonstrated a grace & beauty few can express in times of joy, let alone in a time of anguish and heartbreak. 

I am struggling.

I am struggling to make sense of the appreciation I feel at a time when I should “only” feel grief and offer some kind of support. (Phyllis also (yes, she’s that amazing) created BlogElul, an online spiritual journey that leads us to the Jewish holy days, a traditional time of reflection and introspection. I embraced this opportunity to write and reflect.)

I am struggling to make sense of the deep connection I feel to people I do not know, but who are so significantly important in the lives of many that I do know.  Thank you, God, for k’lal yisrael (community of Israel) that allows us to all be connected.

I am struggling to focus. How could I possibly work while a beautiful child is being mourned?

I am struggling as I read each and every article and blog upon blog written about Sam, his amazing parents & siblings, their public and painful journey and the powerful community that supports them; and yet I can not turn away.  I must read.  I must feel.  I must grieve.

I am struggling because in the world of the work that I do, this happens; too often.  Parents bury their children. It should never be. But children are born with medical conditions and disabilities that live lives which are too short, like Sam’s.  Their stories may not be as public, but their journeys are no less significant.

In Jewish tradition we say zichro livracha, may his/her memory be a blessing. May Sam’s legacy be rich and deep.  May his parents find comfort in this time of their sorrow.  May we all be better for having shared in Sam’s journey. 

Phyllis has taught us that social media can be a powerful tool. That we can all harness it in meaningful and significant ways.  I’m listening and hineini, I am here.

Let’s do as Phyllis has taught and use the power of social media to support those children whose story hasn’t yet been told.  Their stories matter.  No more struggling.

The Beautiful Legacy of Nelson Mandela

Since the passing of Nelson Mandela, many have been reflecting on his powerful legacy.  I am consistently struck by the parallels of what we learn from this beautiful and inspiring man and the Jewish values that I hold so close.  His message was clear, his impact great.  Each of us matters.

No matter the color of our skin, our religion, our gender; no matter if we are disabled or gifted, rich or poor; resilience - the qualities of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity - might just be the greatest skill that we can teach our children.

As it says in Proverbs 24:16:
For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evil.     כִּי שֶׁבַע יִפּוֹל צַדִּיק וָקָם וּרְשָׁעִים יִכָּשְׁלוּ בְרָעָה: 
When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult,
  בִּנְפֹל אוֹיִבְיךָ אוֹיִבְךָ אַל תִּשְׂמָח וּבִכָּשְׁלוֹ אַל יָגֵל לִבֶּךָ:

Anyone can fall.  Everyone WILL fall.  What matters is that we get back up.  And that we do not celebrate the weaknesses of others.

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

Presenting the Sunshine Award

As we near the celebration of Thanksgiving, I veer slightly off-course from my typical content in the spirit of appreciation and giving thanks.  

The main reason for this post is to announce that I have been nominated by blogger Zachary Fenell for a Sunshine Award! A Sunshine Award is an opportunity for readers to learn more about the nominated blogger (that’s me!) and provides an opportunity to highlight fellow bloggers who he/she feels make a significant contribution to the blogging community.

Here are the rules (as listed on Zachary’s blog):

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger (Thanks again, Zachary!).
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)
11 Random Facts about Me:

  1. My favorite color is green. 
  2. I took Spanish in high school.  I was also a certified lifeguard & water safety instructor.  I combined both and taught a swim class at my local YMCA to children who spoke English as a second language. 
  3. My younger brother swam in the Olympics twice (2000, 2004), medaling each time. In 2000 I became his “press manager” as I was too pregnant
    with my son to travel to Australia. Yes, I have held an Olympic medal. 
  4. Believe it or not, I do not like being the center of attention.  I’m not an introvert, but I’m also not a “hey look at me and all the awesome stuff I can do” kind of person either.  Self-promotion is hard.  Writing 11 random facts about myself is hard. 
  5. My husband taught me that you have to eat sushi three times before you can decide you hate it (and seriously, why would you do that??) I fully believe his theory.  First try is, “OMG, I’m eating raw fish”.  Second try gets you over the texture.  Third try is when you can say, “ooh…yum; I like this one! 
  6. I am not a huge television watcher, but my favorite shows are Big Bang Theory and Survivor. 
  7. I love to people watch. 
  8. I love to cook. I hate to bake, but I love to cook. 
  9. I had to be convinced to start this blog.  It never occurred to me that people would be interested in my experiences and insights.  I am humbled to learn that I was wrong. 
  10. I’ve always wished that I had learned how to play an instrument,         specifically the piano.  
  11. Guilty pleasure: I could watch Chopped on the Food Network over & over & over….

Answers to Zachary’s Questions:
1.  What’s the most memorable birthday card you ever received? The most memorable was when I got the exact same card from my husband two years in a row, and he had no idea it was a repeat! (Sorry, honey.)

2.  How often do you vote (every election, only Presidential elections, not at all)? No need to share your party affiliation!  My voting patterns are pretty inconsistent.

3.  Fill in the blank: Butter is to bread as jeans & a sweatshirt are to me. (They’re a comfortable go-to, but not the only option one could choose.)

4.  What was the best concert you’ve ever been to? Lady Antebellum; when I was also surprised with a Meet & Greet and time with the band after the show in their VIP room.  

5.  Forget whether the glass is half full or half empty. What is in the glass?  Water…or a martini.  Depends on the day. ;-)

6.  How does country music make you feel?  Country music immediately makes me think of a close friend who used to work for Country Music Television and reminds me of a great trip to visit him in Nashville.

7.  What is your go-to spot for a fun night out? A sushi restaurant for dinner.

8.  What characteristic makes your very best friends stand out from your other friends? Trustworthiness, loyalty, good listener.

9.  Name the last great book you read.  I love to read, and I tackled a lot of books this summer, but two stand out:  Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Relational Judaism by Ron Wolfson.

10. Finish this sentence: When I hear someone reference Wikipedia I don’t really have much of a reaction, to be honest.

    11. What ordinary food item would you like Malley’s Chocolates to cover in chocolate? Fritos

Here are the blogs (in no particular order) that I believe deserve the Sunshine Award:

  1. Eliminating the Box
  2. Off the REKord
  3. JanetheWriter Writes
  4. Ollibean
  5. onthebarbedwire
  6. Handicap This!
  7. The Mobility Resource
  8. The Inclusive Church
  9. Surprising Treasures

The first nine blogs focus on disabilities, inclusion, Judaism or some combination of all three. The last two are faith-based, with messages of including those with disabilities; and while I may not always agree with all of the theology shared, I admire the way in which they share their positive messages.

11 Questions to Nominated Bloggers:

  1. If you could cast yourself in any reality TV show, which would it be and why?
  2. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
  3. Favorite place to vacation?
  4. What animal most describes your personality?
  5. Favorite ice cream flavor?
  6. Cookie or cake?
  7. Describe your ideal day.
  8. What is your favorite season?
  9. What is your favorite thing about blogging?
  10. How do you relax?
  11. What did you have for breakfast?

This is Autism: From An Advocate

I am an advocate. I care. My voice matters; Removing the Stumbling Block

I have been debating whether or not I would contribute to the This is Autism Flash Blog. I eventually felt that it was important to share the perspective of an advocate, and in my case, an advocate who cares deeply about the faith-based opportunities available to those with autism and other disabilities.

For those who need a little background: Suzanne Wright, the founder and CEO of Autism Speaks (and grandparent of a child with autism) wrote a blog post that caused quite a bit of an uproar.  In it, she refers to "the autism crisis" and suggests that families with autism are "not living". She repeats the phrase "this is autism" throughout her post with tremendous negativity, citing the many things autistics can't do, ending her post by saying that we are facing a national emergency.

Her post caused the sole member of the Autism Speaks Advisory Board with autism to resign. You can read the beautifully crafted resignation of John Elder Robison here. That's it, no one else with autism serves the largest organization claiming to represent the autistic community.

Nothing about us, without us.

And so I felt I had to join the conversation.  I am an advocate. I care. My voice matters.

If you are interested, there will be hundreds of posts written by autistics, their loved ones and their advocates sharing beautifully crafted thoughts all along the theme of "This is Autism." Autism brings challenges for many, and difficult days and frustrations to be sure. But for most, it is certainly not the misery of crisis proportions described by Suzanne Wright.

I know many people with autism. I have shared on this blog some beautiful stories of relationships, Max and Wayne: Reflections of Shabbat Together, and I have had the good fortune to get to know Sam Gelfand, who continues to support Autism Speaks (it is not for me to undermine his choices) and his amazing abilities to educate and empower.

Your choice to support Autism Speaks or to speak out against them is your own. Reform Judaism is based on the premise making educated choices. My choice is to educate and continue to advocate.

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We Can Move From Affiliated to Included in Jewish Organizations

Jews with disabilities are often separated from the community; Removing the Stumbling Block

We are fortunate when we can look to mentors who guide us, encourage us and support us in our work. For me, one such person is Rabbi Lynne Landsberg. I would encourage you to read her story.  She is an amazing role model, teacher and colleague, and I am lucky to call her a friend. 

I wrote a reaction to the Pew Study where I wondered if anyone even considered Jews with disabilities. Lynne wrote her own deeply insightful reflection:

"The researchers at Pew asked important questions about Jewish self-identification and affiliation, as well as questions about child-rearing, attachment to Israel and remembering the Holocaust. As a person with disabilities, I would have loved to have seen the folks at Pew delve more deeply. I would have loved to see them ask questions like:
  • Can you even get into your synagogue building?
  • Are you able to read the synagogue’s prayer book? Is it available in large print? Do they have one in Braille?
  • Are you able to understand the teachings or the sermon through an interpreter or CART? Do they have an assisted listening device?
  • Does the synagogue’s religious school offer special-ed accommodations?
  • Can your family member access the facilities inside the synagogue’s building?
Our sages teach, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” However, Jews with disabilities are too often separated from the community through no fault of their own.  If synagogue leadership could answer “yes” to the above questions, we could expand our reach in deep and important ways.  There are Jews out there who are “religious” and want to belong."

You can find the rest of Rabbi Landsberg's article on the Ruderman Family Foundation's blog Zeh Lezeh (For One Another).

It's time for us to do more than read Lynne's article and nod along.  It is time to read those questions as a charge. We must do the hard work to be able to answer "yes" to all of them. 

Teach Your Children to Be Accepting of Disabilities

Teach Your Children to be Accepting of Disabilities; Removing the Stumbling Block

It’s not hard to teach our children to be accepting of disabilities. Children are naturally eager and excited to learn new things. Like sponges, they quickly absorb new words, concepts and ideas. Children learn through imitation, and as they grow older, they form habits and opinions by repeating what they see and hear. Unfortunately, it is just as easy to teach children to be unwelcoming, wary or even fearful of people with disabilities. 

When an adult walks past someone in a wheelchair, turning his head to the side to avoid making eye contact, the child next to him learns to avoid interactions with people in wheelchairs.

When a woman parks in the handicapped spot in a parking lot, she is teaching the children in her car that the needs of those who truly need such spots are insignificant.

When a woman deliberately avoids the checkout line at the grocery store with a clerk or bagger with disabilities, she teaches the children with her that this person’s work means less than someone else’s.

When a parent tells a teacher, in earshot of his own child, that he doesn’t want his son in class with “that” child; he teaches his son that a child with disabilities is less worthy of an education.

"Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you." ~ Robert Fulghum

What if an adult looked the man using a wheelchair in the eye and said good morning?

What if a woman explained to the children in her car that the reason they have to walk a little farther this morning is because there are certain spots saved for people who don’t walk as well as they can on their own (fair isn’t always equal)?

What if a woman deliberately chose a line at the grocery store for the clerk with a disability, quietly explaining, outside the store, that they continue to shop at this very store because of its inclusive employment policies?

What if a parent told a teacher, in earshot of his son, that his son has already mastered the math lesson and would be happy to help another child in the class catch up?

Lead by example. Be the person you hope your children will become. Teach your children that a wheelchair is just a ride. Demonstrate the value of treating others with kindness. Discuss the significance of choosing your words carefully and standing up for equality and the rights of others.

What if….

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Do You Want to be Tolerated or Accepted?

Lately I have wanted to explore more deeply the ideas of acceptance and tolerance.  Both words are used quite frequently in discourse about inclusion of individuals with disability.  And while I have often heard these words used interchangeably, they have distinctly different meanings:

Acceptance - the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.

Tolerance - the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.

Taken straight from a Google search, this definition of tolerance can be understood as “putting up with” someone or something with which you disagree.  Based on this, I would automatically reject the idea of promoting tolerance of individuals with disabilities. 

Now there are other definitions of tolerance, like this one from dictionary.com: “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.  And while this is a less strident definition than the first, I still find myself associating a sense of negativity with tolerance.  Advocates will tell you that inclusion is being welcomed and embraced as a member who belongs.  This is acceptance.

I am not the only one who reads this subtle, yet critical, difference between these two words, right?

Here’s the thing; I don’t want to be tolerated.  I want to be accepted.  Tolerating brings with it a certain sense of pandering.  “Yeah, yeah…go ahead, I will tolerate it.” Don’t patronize me, be genuinely nice.  I would prefer it if you even liked me; but if you don’t, that’s ok, because I don’t like everyone, either.  I will treat you with the kavod (respect) that you deserve, and I expect you to do the same.  You might be different from me, and I might disagree with you, but I will accept that you are who you are. 

dan l’chaf z’chut - Judge every person favorably (Pirkei Avot 1:6) and do not judge another person until you have stood in his/her place (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

Another Response to the Pew Study - Did Anyone Count Jews With Disabilities?

I’m torn, really.  On the one hand, I REALLY do not want to jump on the Pew Survey response bandwagon.  Not at all.  Even mentioning the study at this point I run the risk of losing a dozen readers off the bat. There have been some great responses to be sure, but far too many to keep up and if I am honest, my eyes glaze over at the mention of yet one more response. 

I do realize that some are using the research as a call to action, while others are lamenting the woes of what it means to read statements like “the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s” and “secular or cultural Jews are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.” Either way, I'm concerned that a distinct mark that has been missed.

Are We Giving Our Children ADD?

Are we giving our children ADD? Removing the Stumbling Block

Is it possible? Can we give our children a disorder? No, of course we can’t. And while the definitive cause of Attention Deficit Disorders is unknown, experts will agree that genetics and distinct neurological patterns are at play. Additionally, there is much research as to ways that the environment, genetics, lifestyle choices and other factors can both exacerbate and mitigate the symptoms of Attention Disorder. 

In an article titled, "Attention Must Be Paid! Schools need to teach students to maintain attention, not cater to short-attention spans," author Barry Schwartz makes some interesting and valid points. He states, “Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention.” And further, “By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed.”

Is Schwartz on to something? While we cannot cause a neurological disorder, can we potentially exacerbate the symptoms of, or even mirror the symptoms of ADD/ADHD in typically functioning students?

It’s a scary thought, actually. 

Schwartz asserts that his focus is on issues of motivation, not the symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Yet he continues, “Maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.”

While interesting, I do not fully agree. Since the advent of Twitter and those 140-character tweets, I am actually reading more about trends in my field (I found Schwartz’s article, didn’t I?) and I am far more connected to colleagues through what is referred to as a PLN (Personal Learning Network). Further, short blog posts enable me to read more content, more frequently. I can sustain attention, but in my busy life I don’t always want to. 

What do you think? Can we train our “attention muscle”? Do we need to? What are the implications for educating students with disabilities? And how might this affect supplemental religious and faith-based education?  

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Sometimes Inclusion Makes Me Nervous

On Yom Kippur morning an amazing young woman came to our bimah to chant Torah.  She happens to be blind.  And while I eagerly anticipated what I knew would be a stunning aliyah, I found myself really nervous.

sometimes inclusion makes me nervous; Removing the Stumbling Block

Why would I be nervous?  This should have been a moment of immense pride that the inclusive practices we have embraced in our school could carry over into the congregation at large. And it was; yet I found myself hoping that everyone in the congregation would be blown away by this young woman’s abilities, not by what she accomplishes in spite of her blindness. Yes, we are an inclusive congregation, but does this mean that every member of our congregation is themselves fully open and welcoming to all?  Here was a significant opportunity for the congregation to understand inclusion more fully, yet I was nervous because I didn’t want anyone to think that this young woman is a "poster child” for our inclusive practices.  She wasn’t invited to chant because she is blind, she was chosen because she is an outstanding chanter.  I was nervous that the emotions evoked by her chanting would be disbelief, not awe.  And I was nervous because I wanted every worshiper to know what I know; that this young woman is a gift to our congregation and to the Jewish people. 
So I watched carefully.  I watched people’s reactions when she was walked to the bimah and I saw people notice as she placed her Hebrew Braille on the open scroll.  I observed people's body language as they heard the voice of an angel.  I found myself sighing with relief as I heard low murmurs of positive assent and saw numerous expressions of joy.  And I finally let out the breath I didn't know I was holding when I noticed a grown man weep openly as she finished. 

I think it’s possible that after services her receiving line was longer than the rabbi’s! When I finally found her, I joked that she had become a Yom Kippur rock star.  She chuckled at that idea…and in her typical, unassuming way, shared her relief that she could now go back to studying for secular school!

Yes, we are an inclusive congregation.  Not perfect, but aware and striving to improve. I am so very fortunate to be a part of it.

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