You know those great teachers? The ones that a child remembers for life? I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of these virtuosic educators.
Westy Litz is one of those teachers. In her fourth grade classroom, I’ve seen children with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD flourish. I’ve always wondered, “How does she do it?”
Over the summer, we met up for coffee, so we could figure out how she structures her classroom, connects with students, plans lessons, and collaborates with parents. This is a must read for teachers and parents.
Join us in conversation!
Over the years, I’ve provided educational therapy to students with dyslexia in your class. They always tell me that you “get” them. They love being in your class because they feel successful, safe, and valued.
It’s clear that you’re open to meeting the needs of students with LD in your class. How did you develop this perspective?
Before I moved to California I taught in an inclusive first grade classroom where about half of the students had an Individualized Education Program (IEP). I co-taught with a special education teacher who’d been teaching for about fifteen years. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. She was incredible and she helped me build a toolbox of strategies for working with every learner. Mostly, teaching there taught me how to have an open mind and think more flexibly. I learned dozens of different ways to adapt my teaching.
At this school, there were psychiatrists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists present each day. All of these specialists were part of our regular child study meetings. I learned a lot from each and every one of these specialists. We would work together to come up with intervention strategies to try in the classroom and then report back on their effect on the student’s learning experience. I felt like there was always someone who could help and say, “Try this!”
Before you start the school year is it helpful for you to know about students with LD? What information is helpful to you?
Absolutely! Before school starts, it’s helpful to know if a child has a learning disability. That way I can read reports, talk to specialists, and check with previous teachers about what strategies have worked. Then it’s not as if I’m starting from scratch. Of course we’ll need to see if past strategies will work in our new classroom, but it’s a starting point. Understanding a child’s learning style also helps me as I build a relationship with the student.
When I don’t have a report or any information about a student, it can take longer to get to know them. There’s a lot more trial and error.
Building trust and communicating openly between the teacher and parents can be crucial. What type of things have you found helpful when working with parents?
It’s all about underlying respect. Great relationships start when both parents and teachers realize and acknowledge that we share a common goal. We both want the child to succeed.
Communicating early is important. I like to meet with families and specialists at the end of September when I’ve started to get to know the child. These meetings give me a chance to listen, so parents feel heard and I learn more about the child inside and outside of the classroom. I like to ask parents what strategies work at home, so I can see about using those strategies in the classroom.
Teachers need positive reinforcement too! I’m open to trying new things, and it helps me when parents say things like:
- “I can see what you’re trying to do here. How about if we also try…?”
- “I know you have 18 other students in the class, but would you also be able to…”
Some kids with LD hate looking different from their peers. They might be embarrassed to be pulled from class or to use different tools. How do you help students feel safe?
First off, I meet with students to find out their preferences. I’m as open as the student feels comfortable being. For example, some of my students readily talk about the medication they take to help them concentrate. Others will say, “I write great stories, but numbers are hard.” I never want to cover up or ignore a child’s difference. There’s nothing to hide.
At the beginning of the school year, as a class we brainstorm about how we all learn differently and what helps us as learners. Some of us need glasses; others like to stand while they’re writing. We all learn in different ways.
I also want to showcase the strengths of all of my students. If a student with LD has a particular strength, I’ll set them up to mentor another student.
Finally, I take the “hood off the car” in terms of my own learning. I’m open about my thinking, and I share when I make a mistake. You know, I’m not from California, but I teach California history. When I was first here, there were so many questions I couldn’t answer! I’d write their questions on our “Wonder Wall” to let them know it’s OK not to always know the answer.
Working with kids with LD can require more work, planning, and patience. How do you balance meeting exceptional kids’ needs with meeting the needs of the rest of the class?
I find that the more I can prep, the more we can accomplish as a class. Before we start a unit, I’ll modify assignments and create charts. When I do not have accommodations in place, I find that I spend more time with students who have LD because they often cannot be as independent.
I also have to remind myself that I’m not the be-all and end-all. Not everything rests on my shoulders. Teaching a child with learning disabilities is a process, and I’m learning alongside the student. Sometimes, you just have to try and see how things go. It’s better to try and then modify your teaching than to never try at all.
What training or curricula have you found helpful?
I use Responsive Classroom techniques to help create a class community. We have Morning Meeting, Closing Circle, and check-ins throughout the day. This lets students know each other and not just relate to one another academically. I’m a part of those meetings and a part of our community. I use this time to model being open and to share my own mistakes.
Westy Litz recommends structuring the school day with a Morning Meeting and Closing Circle to create class community.
I also use the model of Lucy Calkins’ Writing Workshop. It is a great tool to encourage hesitant writers towards independence, and it also makes the writing process fun!
In addition to using the Math Expressions Curriculum, we supplement with Number Talks and authentic project-based learning opportunities. These resources give our students a structure for flexible thinking.
I’ve enjoyed learning about the science of learning at the Learning and the Brain Conference. I also like the Superflex Curriculum from Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking.
This year, we’ve been working with Harvard’s Project Zero and Making Thinking Visible to help students become more independent and understand how they think.
It’s great to share ideas with other teachers. Our school has hosted specialist workshop where an occupational therapist met with the teachers to help brainstorm strategies that can be used in the classroom. We plan to have more visits from LD specialists this year to expose teachers to new strategies. Last year we also had the local branch of the International Dyslexia Association organize a Dyslexia Simulation. These opportunities are important to increase teacher collaboration and to give us new ideas to apply in the classroom.
Our administration greatly supports teachers seeking out professional development opportunities. I am very thankful for that.
How do you use technology as a tool?
We have Chromebooks and use Google Docs frequently, so it’s easy for students to access their work. I’d love to use iPads since there are so many great apps.
I find that technology seems most helpful to students who have a harder time with organization or written output. We use Notability to help students organize their ideas and research. This year, I plan to explore Google Classroom to aid students in organizing and submitting assignments online.
The hardest thing about using technology is that students need to be able to use it efficiently. It’s great if students practice using the tool over the summer, so that they can jump right in and just use it!
I hear from a lot of teachers and parents that accommodations can end up distracting students. Do any of these tech accommodations distract your students?
Of course! I make sure to be specific and clear about my expectations for these tools. I model how to use the tool appropriately. I do find myself saying, “It’s a tool; not a toy!” Students know that Chromebooks or iPads aren’t for online searching or playing around with different fonts.
If students aren’t using a tool appropriately, I’ll let them know. It if continues, the student will be asked to put away the tool for a short period of time. Then I’ll return it and see if they’re able to use it appropriately.
What’s a challenge that you face in your job?
I want to see my student succeed outside of my classroom with other teachers. I find that some of the strategies that work in my classroom don’t translate. What does work is teaching students to advocate for themselves. It’s easier to translate the need than the tool.
For example, a couple of years ago I had a very active student with ADHD in my class. During class discussions, he could participate better if he had could fidget with a small ball. But the ball wasn’t going to be appropriate with his new teacher who found that it distracted other students.
He didn’t say to his new teacher, “I have to hold this ball!”
Instead, he said, “I learn better when I have something to do with my hands.” He and the new teacher worked it out, so this student had Velcro and tape stuck to the desk. He was able to fidget and move his hands while fitting into her class community. He needed to communicate why this tool worked for him.
Teachers have a HARD job. How do you approach balancing your professional and personal life?
Teaching can definitely take over my life, but I am passionate about it. It is a balance.
I get to school early and work hard to not take anything home with me. Once I’m home, it’s my personal time. I use the summers to plan, attend workshops, and reflect about my teaching philosophy.
Being involved with other teachers outside of the classroom helps too. I belong to a professional development program called Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity. I meet with teachers from San Francisco to discuss issues related to diversity.
If you could travel back in time to give yourself advice during your first year in the classroom, what would you tell yourself?
Just keep going. It’s going to be really hard, but you’ll learn from your mistakes. If a lesson doesn’t go well, be open. Change course.
Go to the teacher next door and tell them, “I’m drowning here!” Everyone will understand. It’s totally normal to be overwhelmed; it’s just a matter of how you bounce back and reflect on the activity.
Learn to trust your instincts.
Teaching students with LD is another way to celebrate the creative challenge of teaching.
Thank you, Westy! This is inspiring! Learning from you ignites my excitement in building strong relationships, thinking flexibly about meeting students’ needs, and developing a growth mindset!
I’d love to hear from you. Teachers — what insider tips have you uncovered? Parents — how have teachers helped your child thrive in school?
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