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New York City

Approaching Learning Differences:
Dr. Mel Levine at Bank Street College of Education
By Marie Holmes

As the number of children who are labeled “learning-disabled” and diagnosed with behavioral disorders such as ADHD seems to be constantly increasing, parents, educators, and, of course, the students themselves, are left wondering what these labels mean and how they affect the classroom dynamic. With the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act now up for review, learning disabilities are once again the center of national debate.

Despite the fact that these labels themselves often prove useless in helping a student to overcome difficulties, the recent focus on controversial topics such as Ritalin has heightened awareness of learning disabilities in general.

It’s not only children with dyslexia or ADHD that struggle with their personal strengths and weaknesses in the classroom. Maybe a student understands concepts but has trouble expressing them in written form, or perhaps he’s unwilling to complete an assignment simply because he can’t break it down into smaller steps and sees only the larger picture. “In every classroom there are children who are marginalized...at different times of the day, in different subject areas,” explains Clare Wurtzel, Director of the Urban Schools Attuned professional development program at Bank Street College of Education.

Urban Schools Attuned is one of several national training sites for the Schools Attuned program, based on the neuro-developmental research of Dr. Mel Levine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Levine is a co-founder of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, an organization dedicated to the understanding of differences in learning. Urban Schools Attuned seeks to help teachers understand and effectively manage learning differences in the classroom, paying special attention to the concerns of New York City teachers.

Central to the Schools Attuned philosophy is the belief that teachers and other educators who work directly with students are in the best position to recognize and manage learning differences. Teachers use neuro-developmental research to help them understand the various ways in which students learn, to recognize patterns in students’ learning differences and to use students’ passions and strengths to overcome their weaknesses. Integration into the classroom is certainly a goal; however, “we’re not saying that [teachers] have to do it alone,” explains Wurtzel. “Sometimes they need special help.”

The workshops are designed to help teachers learn how to make accurate observations about a student’s learning and then use these observations to help the student overcome his difficulties. “What we like to do is label the phenomena, not the student,” says Wurtzel. “You may need a label to get funding, but that label doesn’t help you help your student.”

Funding, and the guidelines imposed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is not the only factor influencing the trend to label students as learning disabled. Wurtzel voices the concerns of many parents, students, and educators when she asks, “Are there more kids with learning disabilities because we’re checking more? Or do teachers not have the tools, and label kids, sending them out of the classroom?”

The program seems to have been successful in helping teachers manage learning differences. In a national survey, over 80 percent of past Schools Attuned participants reported enhanced understanding of student learning and 77 percent felt that they better understood their students’ behavior. In addition, 20 percent reported that they stayed in the profession another year as a result of their Schools Attuned training.

Approximately 500 teachers have attended the Urban Schools Attuned workshops at Bank Street each year since the program’s inception in 1998. The Board of Education provides funding for up to four teachers from each school to receive the training each year, as well as for on-going support staff within the schools themselves. Participants receive professional development credit upon completing the program. Urban Schools Attuned requires that a minimum of three teachers from a school attend the training, so that each will be able to receive on-going support, and in hopes that the complex language of learning differences, as opposed to the stark labels of learning disabilities, becomes a way of talking about children in the school.#


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