Behavior, Surroundings and Attitude Impact Learning Opportunities

by Marcia P. Neeley for Hidden Sparks

New York, September 14, 2011: This is a story of passion, provoking thought, and pushing ideas beyond the usual boundaries. Driven by passion and proudly citing her participation as a marcher with Martin Luther King, Laurel Shashani, a 3rd Grade teacher, explained, “I’m saving lives. I want to give all children the opportunity to growth, and I need to grow, too. ”

Unraveling the problems of struggling children, passionate teachers looked below the surface of classroom behaviors and troubled kids. Questioning and challenging, Hidden Sparks’ educators probe the different reasons children struggle to succeed in the classroom. Recognizing that children struggle for different reasons, Hidden Sparks convened a series of pilot workshops for educators – principals and teachers – to probe ways of helping teachers improve poor performance that plagues so many children.

Shashani participated in the special pilot workshops to help teachers learn how to observe, reflect, assess, and plan for all students in their classrooms using multiple lenses  – developmental, behavioral, temperamental, and ecological. Using real-life case studies, teachers learned strategies for all learners, including those who struggle academically and present challenging social-emotional issues.

Teachers from fifteen schools joined together over 4 days this summer for the dynamic Learning Lenses pilot, a course developed through a collaboration between Hidden Sparks and the Churchill School and Center to study child and neuro development, behavior, learning and temperament.

A mix of Jewish day school educators and public school teachers, the diverse workshops gave teachers a rich vocabulary for sharing information and talking about students in manageable components. Alisa Scharf, a middle school teacher, felt that “Breaking things into pieces helped to pinpoint the source of a child’s problem.”

Beyond a venue to share their insights, ideas, methods and expertise with fellow teachers, the teachers delved into issues of self-awareness. Andrea Rousso, an educational consultant and mentor, said, “We’re working to build better teachers. Teachers need to understand how their own behaviors impact the classroom environment.”

How a teacher discusses students with one another, how a teacher interacts with a struggling child, and how a teacher’s behavior affects the attitude and the social climate at all levels of the school setting is critical to a child’s success. “The school is a laboratory for teaching social skills. Or, from another perspective, how to connect and care for each other – the school is a collaborative problem-solving lab,” Claire Wurtzel, Hidden Sparks, Educational Co-Director and Workshop Leader, said as she introduced a number of social cognition and behavioral issues.

Looking back, Wurtzel reflected that when she was six-years old, she taught some of her peers how to read. She realized then that teaching was inspiring. This was the beginning of her life-long passion to help learners.

During the workshops, Wurtzel encouraged teachers to listen to themselves, to ‘hear’ what they say both to their students and in conversations about their students. Her objective was clear: to move the conversation to a different new level and to elevate the language so that it is more descriptive and meaningful. “What do you pay attention to in your classroom? How do you give instructions? How do you talk about your students? And, how do we characterize students as we talk about them? Is it possible to frame the conversation in a positive language?”

Success of the Hidden Sparks pilot model can be measured in some sense through the numbers. Today, this six-year-old old organization works with teachers in 28 schools in New York New Jersey and Boston. Since its inception, Hidden Sparks has worked with more than 400 teachers, reaching roughly 4,300 children. And, expansion of the Hidden Sparks coaching program to other cities and adaptation of the Learning Lenses curriculum for Judaic Studies is being supported through a generous grant from The Covenant Foundation.

To bring these courses to educators across the country, Hidden Sparks Without Walls (WOW) offers audio and online classes, at no cost, to teachers nationwide. This year, WOW offered 44 courses, reaching 650 participants from coast to coast. All courses can be downloaded from the Hidden Sparks web site, along with new WOW course for the 2011-2012 academic year.

“The potential impact is enormous,” explained Debbie Niderberg, Hidden Sparks executive director. “I strongly believe that by increasing the understanding and support for educators, children with learning differences reach their full potential in school and life.