Striving to Understand Struggling Learners

by Marcia P. Neeley

Every day, in almost every school, a student is labeled as ADD/ADHD, lazy or defiant, sent to the principal, ignored or misunderstood because he/she has a learning or behavioral challenge. In Jewish day schools and yeshivas, where some teachers have little formal training, where there are few and insufficient pupil support services, and where students have a dual curriculum, this problem is often more pronounced and the skills of classroom teachers become even more critical.

To help children with learning differences reach their full potential in school and life, Hidden Sparks, a non-profit fund, develops and supports professional development programs for Jewish day schools to help increase understanding and support for teaching to diverse learners.

Celebrating its 5th year, Debbie Niderberg, executive director and founder, Hidden Sparks, explained, “Within the field of education, and in particular, Jewish day school education, the Hidden Sparks content focused on understanding children’s learning and behavior and the approach to nurturing skilled and reflective teachers and “internal coaches” to impact school culture – and the combination of both elements – is new and comprehensive.”

Essential to the Hidden Sparks approach (and new to many yeshivas) is the school- centered training and coaching model, which is based on studies showing that professional development is most effective and sustained when it occurs in school and can be translated to the specific needs and culture of the school and teacher. Hidden Sparks coaches deliver program content and facilitate thoughtful discussion about each student’s learning profile in monthly collaborative meetings of Judaic and general studies teachers.

“The monthly Hidden Sparks meetings are critical to our program. They are the ongoing mechanism that helps prevent students from ‘falling through the cracks’ and the forum for teachers to learn more about children’s learning profile and discuss strategies together for struggling students. This is the reason we launched `Hidden Sparks.’

A strong advocates for continuing professional education, coaches also meet once a month. Debbie, said, “We feel that these opportunities for continued professional growth for our coaches and the teachers who have been trained as internal coaches are so important and we are dedicated to providing mentors and educational leaders of the highest caliber.’

‘By reinforcing and strengthening the skills of our coaches, who are in the schools working with teachers every week, we are increasing the immediate and long term benefits for multiple teachers and students. It is also important for the coaches to develop their own learning communities. The retreats and monthly meetings provide that platform.”

Hidden Sparks coaches gathered for a day of professional training recently at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. They participated in a series of workshops and study sessions focusing on strategies designed to hone their skills and strengthen their ability to teach struggling learners and to guide teachers who work with the students.

Using students’ learning profiles for studying how learning works, Esther Kramer, Hidden Sparks Internal Coach Program, coordinator and mentor, set out basic guidelines for understanding mental representation, involving language, memory, attention, sequencing, and social cognition.

By looking more deeply into the processes by which by which we all learn and communicate, teachers gain valuable knowledge about children’s coping strategies and learning patterns. Esther sparked heated dialogue and a valuable exchange of ideas, enabling coaches to gain new insights on how children learn.

Sharing Esther’s expertise, Hidden Sparks has introduced a new online conversation, Ask Teachers can submit their questions and Esther answers their concerns about student learning and classroom management.

From a different perspective, Rona Novick, Ph.D., co-educational director, Hidden Sparks, focused on specific questions: “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?”

To encourage reflection about how teachers talk about struggling learners, Rona invited coaches 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, substantive and meaningful.

Claire Wurtzel, Hidden Sparks co-educational director, worked with coaches on observing students with a variety of learning challenges. “Describe what you see,” she said. Through careful observation and descriptions of the observations coaches/ teachers understand students better and the description drives the strategies to be used to support the student.

“The Hidden Sparks program has specifically impacted my students because I try not to allow anyone to ‘fall through the cracks’. My coach emphasizes that we must focus not only the bright and weak students but on the ‘non-descript’ student who seems to fade from our focus. One very capable student who was on the verge of becoming ‘labeled’ a class clown became more secure in her own abilities and academically successful through the guidance of Hidden Sparks. For years afterwards, he would greet me in the halls with appreciation,” described a Brooklyn yeshiva teacher.

To share knowledge, the Hidden Sparks Without Walls (WOW) webinars are a free national, distance-learning program designed to increase professional development among Jewish day school/yeshiva teachers. The WOW program makes available short- term classes on differentiated learning to teachers in Jewish day schools and yeshivas across North America.

Whether in the classroom or online, over the past five years, Hidden Sparks has made a difference. A third grade Jewish day school teacher exclaimed, “Something I’ve learned through Hidden Sparks is to look at students’ behavior much more deeply. I try to understand the child’s struggle. This perspective has carried over to viewing family members’ challenges as well.”

Marcia P. Neeley, a strategic communications advisor for, works with Jewish nonprofit organizations to help them utilize virtual media.

Hidden Sparks is the recipient of a 2010 grant from The Covenant Foundation and has previously been recognized by Slingshot.