LOST IN IDEOLOGY

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img_2036It’s a crazy world we are living in today. We all seem so divided. Part of the problem seems to be that we are inundated with so much information that instead of processing it, we just default to partisan categories. Anti-immigrant/pro-immigrant, racist/not racist, feminist/anti-feminist, pro-business/anti-business – all information gets shuffled into its tendentious category and all nuance is swept away. Positions become hardened as time goes on until eventually we filter all communication through these lenses. We find it hard to believe that someone may be pro-business and pro-immigration at the same time. Or pro-business and pro-environment. We also believe these positions are ever fixed without the possibility of ever evolving. We do this in education circles as well.

It’s actually local education issues that have me ruminating on this phenomenon more than the national landscape. Last year here in Nashville, we had two monumental events. Nashville hired a brand new superintendent, Dr. Shawn Joseph, who started work on July 1, and we had what we thought was a pivotal school board election. I say pivotal because the election was quickly framed as being the defenders of public education vs. the privateers. People quickly fell into one camp or the other with defenders making the argument that nothing worse could befall our school district than to be taken over by private interests, while the privateers made the argument that the status quo had to go. Much to my chagrin, I must admit that I quickly grabbed a uniform and joined a team. And for that, I owe an apology to Jane Grimes-Meneely, Miranda Christy, Jackson Miller, and Thom Druffel.

Now I’m not saying that I would have voted for them nor campaigned for them. I still have a lot of disagreements with them on issues and take exception to a lot of strategies they employed during the election. What I am saying is that I quickly grabbed onto a dogma and stopped listening. Charter schools are bad, and they supported charter schools; therefore, they are bad. I’ve since learned the hard way that the world is a much more complex and nuanced place than that, and while we are busy building the wall at the front door, the wolf can slip in the back door.

My argument with charter schools has always been their lack of transparency, their only serving select children, their lack of accountability to an elected school board, their overemphasis on test scores, and the well documented abuses of power by administrators. I believe that all schools should be held to the same level of accountability. I don’t support neighborhood schools just because they bear the name; I support them because they adhere to the principles of accountability, transparency, service to all children and families, and a belief in equity. So what happens when the public school district stops adhering to those principles? What happens when the public school district starts behaving in a manner that is just as potentially detrimental as any threat posed by private entities? Because I believe that’s where we now find ourselves in Nashville.

Prior to Dr. Joseph’s arrival in Nashville, the board of Metro Nashville Public Schools took a lot of heat from outside interests, who portrayed them as dysfunctional. Part of the criticism from the outside stemmed from board members’ public squabbles and disagreements, despite the board having adopting policy governance as a governing style in 2oo3. Policy goverance is often, and some who argue wrongly, interpreted as a division of responsibility were the board is focused on the ends and the director on the means. Unfortunately people forget that ultimately an elected board is responsible for all of it, so it’s important that they are knowledgable on the means as well as the ends. Nashville may have adopted the policy in 2003 but the level of adherence through the years has fluctuated, with directors pushing for greater adherence and board members pushing back.

In 2008, as school board chair, David Fox pushed for closer adherence to policy governance. “It’s just very important that this board be a policy board, and not an operations board,” Fox said at the time. Interestingly enough, one of the people pushing back against this move was then and now current president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, Erick Huth. He believed elected board members should do a better job of actively monitoring the administration. Huth believed some of the problems attributed to former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia could have been alleviated by a more active board. I can’t say I disagree with him.

Nashville is accustomed to more of a traditional governance style and expect a high degree of “customer service” from elected school board officials. Community members are used to having access to board members and having board members advocate for them when necessary. Board members recognize this and have often fought hard for the right to speak out on constituents issues. Current board member Will Pinkston responded thus when reprimanded in 2014 by then Board Chair Cheryl Mays for not following the policy governance model,

Our commitment to the voters, parents, students and taxpayers of Davidson County supersedes the antiquated board policy you’re referencing. The voters of my district did not put me on the board to kowtow to an imperial superintendent, and I imagine your voters feel the same way. I’ve publicly recognized the Central Office when things are going well, and will continue to do so. Likewise, when I believe things aren’t going so well, I will continue to make my views known. Let’s continue this conversation, as a group, at Tuesday’s Governance Committee meeting when we review GP-9.”

For whatever reason, when Dr. Joseph arrived, the policy wasn’t quite as antiquated and it was deemed neccesary for the board to adopt close adherence and he was granted complete autonomy to implement what he thought was necessary. Joseph added a clause in his contract that spelled out the relationship. He’s quoted in the Nashville Scene as saying, “I have specific work that I’m charged to do as director, and they have specific work that they’re charged to do as members of the board of education, and together we have to work as a team to fundamentally transform the educational experience for children.” There is no “I” in team but there is a “m”, “e”.

The picture painted for Joseph on entry by various board members was one of a district in shambles. A picture that does a disservice to both Joseph and to the people who had been diligently working to improve our district over the years. Again, history was ignored, because if you want to look at a district in shambles, all you had to do was revisit MNPS back in 2009.

In 2009, as a result of Pedro Garcia’s disastrous tenure, MNPS was under the direct supervision of the state. Our academic performance was so low that the state came in to oversee a complete overhaul. At that time, it was necessary. There were no Career Academies. No expansion of pre-K. No meeting and surpassing of state standards for English Language learners annually. In other words, the landscape then was a completely different picture than it is today. In 2009, we were in shambles. But in 2016, we were in need of alignment.

Like it or not, previous Director of Schools Jesse Register helped rebuild MNPS out of the shambles. Today we are no longer under state corrective action. While far from perfect, we are in a much better situation than we were in 2009. Apparently though that is not the image presented to Dr. Joseph. Despite the system’s improvements, we have clearly separated into two ideological camps: those who support charter schools and those who oppose. And few on either side are willing to listen to voices on the other.

I myself have been guilty of talking past charter supporters. Interesting enough, while I’m not an overly religious person, it’s been my experience that whenever I say I would never do something, the Lord puts me in a situation that helps me understand why I just might. This school year has been such an experience. The lack of transparency and the failure of the  district to provide equitable resources has led me consider alternatives. At this point, I can say I understand why parents consider charter schools.

I love my kids’ school Tusculum ES. I love my kids’ teachers. I love my kids’ school’s administration. I don’t love the school’s facilities. The fact that we take these children, the majority of them English Language learners and impoverished, and send them to a grossly inadequate facility should be unacceptable to everyone. However, for three years, every time I raised the issue, I got a shrug and a “Hey! A new school is coming.” The new school is scheduled to open in August, but do we really believe that makes everything else copacetic?

Nineteen out of twenty-three of those portables currently at Tusculum Elementary School are moving down the street to McMurray Middle School as it starts renovation in a few months. Once again with no covered walkways. That means kids who have been in portables for third and fourth grade will get that pleasure again as they enter middle school. School board members respond by saying they don’t know what else they can do and then move on to fight against the renewal of the charter for LEAD Academy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m philosophically opposed to LEAD Academy, but they are an established school supported by families who have invested in them. Their results are comparable to the district. So imagine for a moment what would happen if, for some reason, LEAD Academy had to close its doors. How are you going to look those parents in the eye and tell them their school is no longer available and their kids will continue their education in one of these fine portables? You can’t, unless you put district needs before kids’ needs. If you are going to shutter one school it is essential that you have a superior option imediately available and because our overemphasis on the charter school wars, we don’t.

We criticize charter schools for their lack of transparency. Well, in our public schools here in Nashville, transparency has been nearly non-existent since Dr. Joseph arrived. Currently, changes are being made behind the scenes to academic coaching programs, gifted student services, the academic focus at individual schools i.e converting them to STEAM Magnets, and even the alignment of the management of district schools. How many parents are aware of these changes and the potential impact on their child’s education? One of the provision in adopting policy governance in 2003 was a monthly meeting with district parents. That is the forgotten provision this year.

Up until this year, there was a Director’s Parent Advisory Committee that met quarterly. At these meetings, parents were briefed on upcoming policy changes and given an opportunity to ask hard questions. These weren’t always enjoyable affairs for Register and Henson when they were in charge, but they never failed to show up and empower parents. Joseph has failed to conduct a single one of these meetings. Why?

I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that in the 2015-2016 school year, one of our core values was transparency, but in 2016-2017, that is no longer the case.

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Recently, the MNPS School Board conducted its first director of schools review in over two years. (How that’s considered even remotely acceptable is beyond me. Current board chair Anna Shepherd deserves compliments, while former chair Sharon Gentry deserves rebuke for failure to follow board policy.) The result of this review was a perfect score for Dr. Joseph. A perfect score despite a snow day fiasco and the district paying the head of priority schools $155K a year despite him being unable to perform his duties because he didn’t get properly licensed. Neither one of those issues was brought up during Joseph’s public review.

When I asked Shepherd about this, she told me that the hard questions were being asked behind closed doors. “You and your wife don’t fight in front of the kids, do you? You recognize the importance of a unified front,” she said. “Actually,” I responded, “we do. We feel that it is important to model disagreement in a positive light. We want our kids to understand that people sometimes disagree and that healthy discourse is important. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them or each other.”

I believe while Shepherd may be asking the hard questions behind closed doors, the board used this evaluation as a means to deliver a message to the public and MNPS staff. The message being that the board is not going to publicly hold the director accountable for mistakes and missteps or challenge him where he may be wrong. In doing this, the board also implicitly sent the message to the public and staff that the director is infallible and therefore has carte blanche to act as he pleases.

To understand the potential here for disaster we only need to go back to 2008 when board member David Fox made the observation that he believed the previous MNPS administration(Dr. Pedro Garcia) presented a picture of district performance that was overly rosy, and that school board members did an inadequate job of “seeking reality.” He wasn’t alone in this observation. Then board members, including Karen Johnson and Ed Kindall indicated similar beliefs.  If you don’t know history then you are doomed to repeat it.

The danger in evaluating a director in a less then transparent manner is that failed policy only becomes visible in the rearview mirror, when it is too late. Parents, teachers, and administrators tend to recognize things much earlier and often leave the district because of it.  Once they decide to leave the district due to bad policy, they won’t be returning for many years, if ever.

When parents leave, demographics shift. That will force the district to craft new policy dictated by the demographics served and will potentially result in more families leaving. Since the families that leave are invariably the ones that have the means to make choices, eventually you are left with a district that is only serving families who have no other choices. At this point, I beg the question, what is the difference between a district that gives full, unfettered control to a director of schools and one that is overrun by a proliferation of charter schools? To me the outcome is identical, a school system that gives little power to stakeholders and places all the power in the hands of a non-elected entity. Once you go down this route, reversal is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

That is how ideology blinds us and hurts us. Instead of making decisions based on the merits of individual arguments, we make them based on an alignment with ideology. How many board members voted for Dr. Joseph because he wasn’t a charter person? How many failed to question his actions because they were afraid of it opening the door for charter proponents? How many would publicly protest if his actions this year were committed by the head of a charter school?

Board members have offered up the defense that they can’t get involved in individual programs. That the director must be allowed to pick his own programs and own people. The problem with that argument is that it is inconsistent with the actions of the last four years. Board members have publicly fought for individual agendas and individual programs they believe in. In this light it gives the appearance that those arguments were more about ideology than what’s best for kids.

If we really want to stop charter school proliferation shouldn’t we follow the leads of Dr. Mike Looney and former Maplewood principal and current director of pupil services for Maury County Ron Woodard, both who say you don’t have to worry about charter schools if you make your school the most attractive option. The only ideology they subscribe to is to make better schools and the same should be true for all of us.. Yet we still fight the same arguments over and over and MNPS becomes less and less responsive to stakeholders.

If the system is unresponsive to stakeholder desires and needs, what does it matter if its controlled by private or non-private entities? If we loathe the traits in others we shouldn’t accept them in ourselves. I believe Nashville sits today, poised on a precipice that will change the fundamental nature of our public education system. We are incorporating the worst traits of the reform movement and by doing so run the risk of becoming much like the district where current leadership comes from, Prince George County School District, where middle class parents don’t send their children. Montgomery County where we also recruited leadership, suffers from similar challenges.

It’s long been recognized that the key to successful classroom management is the student/teacher relationship. A teacher can incorporate all the rigor in the world but if a relationship of trust isn’t built it won’t make any difference. Why would that not hold true for district/stakeholder leadership as well? Somebody needs to finally recognize that if we want to truly become the fastest rising urban school district in America we are going to need exceptionally strong relationships that lead to buy in by everybody.

What I am saying is nothing new. Back in 2005, veteran educator Brent Hurst was forced to resign from MNPS after e-mails surfaced in which he disparaged school administrators, including director Dr. Pedro Garcia and chief instructional officer Sandy Johnson. Before he left, he sat down with the Nashville Scene and offered the following insight:

Let’s go back to that day when we were all a family of professional educators, and it wasn’t one person who had all the answers. Because that is not possible. If we can get that back, I think things are going to start clicking. Things are going to perk up. People are going to feel good about going to schools every day and working, and that’s going to translate to the kids, and when you translate it to the kids you translate it to the parents.

And let’s not run people out of the school system. Because there are a lot of people that are getting really frustrated—and I’m talking good people that are getting frustrated and are beginning to feel that they just can’t take it anymore. And that’s a terrible feeling.

Twelve years later and we are still listening to the same song. By now we should know the words by heart, but are we ever going to grasp their meaning? Are we ever going to put aside ideology and just do what’s best for kids? Or will people be reading our quotes in 15 years and wondering why we couldn’t see the forest for the trees?

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DAD GONE WILD LAUNCHES FIRST EVER POLL

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img_2011I was sitting around this week reflecting on all the wonderful people that share info about Metro Nashville Schools with me and how blessed I am to have so many readers. It suddenly dawned on me, I should do a poll.

I think it is extremely important to always self evaluate and to evaluate the information you are receiving. It doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily change what I write, but I do want to give credit where it is due and if my opinions are in the minority I need to acknowledge that.

In that light, every Friday I’ll ask three questions and we’ll see what kind of responses I get. Please no dead people voting and if you can, only vote only once and share with as many people as possible.

TALKING ADVOCACY AND DYSLEXIA WITH ANNA THORSEN

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img_1808I first heard of Anna Thorsen a couple years ago. Some friends who had children at Eakin Elementary School  in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) were singing her praises as president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). After finishing up her tenure as PTO president, Thorsen transitioned into being an advocate for children with dyslexia, which is only natural because she is the mother of a child with dyslexia. As a former attorney, Thorsen conducts her advocacy work much as I imagine she did her law career: with lots of research. If you are going to engage her on issues, you better have done your homework.

We sat down to talk about her experience and research over biscuits last week at the newly opened Holler and Dash in Brentwood. What follows is a wide-ranging, free flowing, passionate conversation.

Dad Gone Wild: Good morning. Thanks for meeting me over biscuits.

Anna Thorsen: (smiling) I love biscuits.

DGW: Let’s start with your experiences with being president of the Eakin PTO. What made you decide to run? I know you have kids in school and you’re an advocate for public education, but what made you decide to take on this huge commitment?

AT: Honestly? (chuckles)

DGW: (laughs) Honestly. What made you say this is something that I want to do?

AT: I think it was a little bit daunting to consider. I think PTO leaders are the untagged heroes of the public education system because in essence you are undertaking a full time job. I had been the head of fundraising, which is also very hard job, because nobody wants to give you money – it’s really about like pulling teeth. But then you step back and you analyze. You realize just how important it is. And I think it becomes one of those practice what you preach moments.

There were so many things I wanted our school to do, and I saw so much possibility. The biggest thing I wanted to do was to share the good stories about everything that was happening in public education, and in particular, in our school. And I thought that this was a great way to be able to do that. In the end, it ended up being a great learning experience for me. I learned so much through being a PTO president. I learned about how the school really works, all the different stakeholders, and how complex it all is.

DGW: I experience that on a regular basis. Every time I think I have an understanding of how it all works, and I think I have a great grasp of it, something else is revealed. And I find myself saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Without really getting in there, we constantly make these judgments on things that we don’t fully understand, and in some cases, just don’t know.

AT: Very true. As PTO president, and as a PTO member in general, you have such a unique opportunity to support the school, support the principal, and support parents in the community. There is always going to be the jokes about bake sales and the carnivals – which I never had a carnival on my watch because it’s not my thing – but there is so much more to it, and it really is a powerful way to get all families involved.

Say you have a family who are intimidated because they’re not English speakers, so they are hesitant to participate in academic conferences. But if you’re having an international potluck, and they can bring their family recipes, that’s where they’re going to come in the door. And then they’ll begin to become part of the active school community. I think you just need people to come in. I think we want to do a better job of educating children, and we get so focused on that we lose sight of the importance of families feeling welcome in our schools. And I think we tried to really make Eakin a welcoming environment for all so they could be a part of the amazing things that were going on.

DGW: One of the things that impresses me with Eakin is their use of clubs, and the fact that they utilize clubs to get kids engaged. I’ve never understood that in some of our poorer and more challenged schools, we extend the school day, but we do it with more direct instruction instead of utilizing a stamp club, the kite club, a chess club, in order to improve literacy. Kids are going to read about what they’re interested in, and we should use those interests to make them better readers.

AT: I think making learning exciting is essential. I think there has to be some self-direction of what we learn because that’s how we learn as adults. We choose books we want to read, shows we want to watch, we seek out more knowledge on the things we are interested in. Why shouldn’t the same apply to children? But it goes back again to parent involvement. The reason Eakin has amazing clubs is because the parents said we need amazing clubs. We had one or two parents – especially one mom – who came in and she just dedicated her time to this. Why did she do it? To benefit all of our children, which is why we should do it. It’s why we take these positions. Like we don’t do it for just our kids or our ego; we do it for everyone’s kids, and that’s what public education is about.

Eakin has benefited from this parent’s amazing, passionate hard work, but her child graduates this year. Her kid is in 4th grade. She’s moving on hopefully to West End Middle School, where her older daughter is. There has to be a next generation of stepping up, which is why I really feel like for the benefit of all the public schools, we have to really start investing in parent engagement, family engagement, and teaching parents that you can make a difference. You may not want to be a PTO president, because that’s a full-time job and it’s really stressful, but if you love clubs, if you have a passion for whatever, get involved. There is going to be some way that a school can use your talent. We have to do better about valuing parent’s abilities.

DGW: I was at a community schools coalition meeting yesterday, and the talk of PTO came up. And as we often do, we talked about educating parents and getting parents involved to increase their awareness, but then we never turned the lens backwards and asked what do administrators know about PTO and the value of it? What do teachers know about it? To many people, a PTO is nothing, but as you mentioned, it’s a fundraiser, a way to help get things funded that the official budget doesn’t cover.

AT: Absolutely. I noticed that when we came in, during my first year in PTO, teachers were standoffish towards PTO. And I was really confused until I went back and looked at some of the PTO’s history. I think a PTO has to be careful. They have to be supportive of the teachers and the administrators. They can’t have their own agenda. I think the PTO at Eakin historically, looking back to 2006, had taken sort of a “we know better” kind of approach, which is not the place for a PTO. If you want to be an advocate against your school and be overly critical, you need to do it a different way. I feel that a PTO really needs to be supporting parents and teachers. You can get some pushback from teachers, but if you can keep communication open and demonstrate support, you can overcome that pushback.

DGW: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your work in regards to dyslexia. Your daughter was diagnosed when?

AT: My daughter was diagnosed in 2nd grade. At our Fall teacher conference, as the teacher told us how Clara was struggling and I knew instantly in that moment that she has dyslexia. I saw it because I, too, have dyslexia. I’ll never forget that first conversation with our school. I love our sweet school, but when I sat down and said “Well, I think my daughter has dyslexia, I would like her tested” the school said “Well, we don’t use that word. We don’t say dyslexia in Tennessee and we can’t test for it.” I was like, “Yes, you can say it because the federal government says it.” To say I was shocked by the schools’ response is an understatement. This is all a very long and complicated story, which I was actually interviewed about for an NPR Mindshift story, so you can ready the whole thing there, but what it boils down to is that our school and our district clearly wanted to do what was right for Clara, but they were not allowed to by the Tennessee Department of Education. Once I realized that all our issues were coming from the state, I ended up having to up to the federal government and have them intervene. After a stressful several months, Clara ended up getting an IEP for giftedness and a Specific Learning Disability, but they still would not allow us to use the word dyslexia anywhere in her IEP. Over and over our principal said “we can’t use that word.” It was not until October, 2015 when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” telling schools that they can and should use the word dyslexia that we were allowed to write the word “dyslexia” into Clara’s IEP. Amazing, right?

Since that time, I really feel that with the new Say Dyslexia law that our state passed effective July 1, 2016, schools are becoming more supportive. With the new law, the state has created this advisory council, and we’re starting to say dyslexia more in our state. Now, are we doing it perfectly? Absolutely not, but I think we’re finally on the right path to start getting our school to say dyslexia and therefore provide real service for our kids.

DGW: What was the reception from lawmakers when you first started working on the bill? Were they receptive? I know that when I started working on education issues a couple of years ago, nobody wanted to talk; nobody wanted to hear what we had to say. We could sit down in the offices and talk and then get a smile, a handshake, and a thank you. “Make sure that you call us again soon.” And we were forgotten as soon as we walked out the door.

AT: For me, it was a bit different because I wasn’t as involved in the day to day. There was a mom in Clarksville, Lori Smith, who was really involved in actually going out and advocating. By the time I came on to the scene, State Representative Joe Pitts and JC Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee were already very much on board. Once you’ve sit and listen to the facts, it’s very difficult to say, “We don’t need to do anything to help dyslexia” because it’s so compelling. The statistics are so overwhelming about the consequences of not dealing with dyslexia.

So while legislators were very open to taking action, it’s the districts and the schools that still have a lot of work to do. “DYSLEXIA is hard to understand.” and new teachers are not being educated on dyslexia when they’re getting their teaching degree. I think we have to figure out as a state and as a nation where we’re going to focus our priorities.

DGW: In our last conversation, one of the eye-opening moments for me is when we talked about English learners and how many of them go undiagnosed because the assumption is made that their problems extend from language acquisition.

AT: It’s a very real challenge.

DGW: After our talk, I spoke with Kevin Stacey in the ELL Department at MNPS, and he confirmed the challenge but also informed me that they are very on top of this. They have a number of strategies in place to catch kids quickly.

AT: Great! Here’s something else: So dyslexia is neurobiological. It’s just a regularly occurring brain difference, and 20% of us are affected. Those numbers come from studies done at MIT and Yale, so there is no question that this is a truism. We know that 20% of our kids – all kids, kids around the world – are going to struggle with reading and language. Dyslexia is manipulating language being able to read words, being able to spell words. And so, if you’re coming to the U.S. as a foreign language speaker, some languages are much more transparent than English. Spanish is a transparent language. So if you have dyslexia, Spanish is easier to spell and read, making dyslexia harder to identify. When you’re coming in to English, it’s much more of a dense, less transparent language. So you’re going to have a huge problem. So you have these kids who are EL learners and are struggling with language acquisition because they also have dyslexia. The rule says 20% of them, right?

DGW: And that becomes a challenge not just for the students, but the individual schools as well. We’re not painting an accurate picture of a school’s performance if so many kids are going undiagnosed. Even if it’s just 7 or 8 kids, I don’t think most people realize how much 7 or 8 kids can change the outcome of a standardized test, therefore leading to an inaccurate narrative about the school.

AT: Timed stressful situations are the worst-case scenario for people with dyslexia. So they’re typically not going to test well at all. If that’s how you’re measuring success, it’s really dangerous. It’s a dangerous thing to look at because we really need to look at the why, the deeper why.

DGW: And in your research you’ve discovered certain strategies that you feel really work?

AT: “Absolutely. I hear frequently that we need to get kids reading Kindergarten through 3rd grade and there are a lot of programs to get kids reading at home. We send kids home with books and tell parents to read with them each night. So, we are suggesting that struggling readers will improve if they read more at home, right? Well, that totally misses the mark and seems silly to me. Dyslexia, which is why 20% of kids struggle to read, is hereditary. Forty percent of people with dyslexia have a parent, child or sibling with dyslexia. So, if our strategy to improve literacy is to have parents read to their kids and we give them books, there are pretty good odds that the parent also is a struggle reader. Many parents couldn’t read the book to their child even if they wanted to! And one of the strategies I think that’s the most important is getting kids and families access to audio books. You can get them at the library. You can get them online. There are so many sources.”

Audio books let the kids explore books. They let them explore complex sentence structure. They let them explore rich vocabulary higher than they can read. You may have a 4th grader with dyslexia who really struggles to read The Cat In The Hat, but if you let them put on those ear phones they can explore Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, and they get into all these amazing words. Studies show that your brain doesn’t care how you get the words and some of the structure into your brain. It’s not cheating to ear read, okay? And some of these kids have to rely on it.

If we’re really concerned about comprehension and literacy, then we have to make this resource more available to all of our students. Michelle Obama was trying to get more audio books into lower income neighborhoods, which would be huge. We can’t read the book together, but let’s listen to it because most of us have a phone or something that we can listen to books on.

DGW: What’s next legislative-wise? Do you have anything on the radar? Anything on the agenda?

AT: Well, the state Dyslexia council is up and running. All schools will be required to screen kids with the universal screener and add a dyslexia-specific component to it, and that will hopefully catch more students.

We are trying to identify kids in K-12. Once they’re identified as having characteristics of dyslexia, what the law says is that we’re going to give them appropriate interventions – because again, with these students, putting them in some other random intervention is never going to work. Science is absolutely clear on what these kids need. We know how to get these kids to read. The problem is that it’s intensive and it’s intentional and it’s systematic and it needs to be done one-on-one or two-on-one, which is really hard in a RTI setting.

But, Despite the challenges, this really does belong in those hours of RTI2 within general education. We can’t just keep only doing this in special education because we’re missing a huge percentage of the population and a huge opportunity to get our kids reading. So, I think that the first step is just to get the state and districts – all districts across Tennessee – to start doing the screener with all students.

DGW: That’s a lot of work, but I do think the Tennessee Department of Education is trending in that direction. Not just with dyslexia, but as a whole. I think I’m becoming guardedly optimistic about our state education policy. They seem to be at least trying to listen and improve right now. In the past, it didn’t always feel that way.

AT: Right. And I think they are trying. There’s a Decoding Dyslexia movement nationwide. Parents are starting to say, “Hey, why aren’t we doing this?” And I think there is such power in parents rising up and saying we need these services. Because if you’re a parent of a child with a disability, it’s like you are in a silo. You just feel so isolated, and that there’s no one else like you. But then when you start realizing that a lot of us are having kids who are struggling with reading, and if we can kind of have this collective voice, it makes all the difference in the world.

I’m sure you feel the same way about EL families. There’s are real challenges, not only a language challenge, but I’m sure cultural challenges as well. We have all these kids in our district facing challenges but we don’t have a collective voice because we’re all so isolated in our little silos of dyslexia, of autism, of physical disability, and even of English Learners. And so I really want to try to work to get those voices together, not just for kids with disabilities, but for all of our kids. Kids benefit from being around diverse populations, and disability is very diverse. So, I think we’re on the right track, but we need to keep getting better. And one thing I want to say about why we should care about dyslexia–

DGW: Okay.

AT: Do you know about why we should care about dyslexia as a society?

DGW: Why?

AT: There are many reasons. So, one of the reasons is 85% of juvenile offenders have dyslexia. There is a study in Texas: 80% of the Texas inmates were functioning and literate, and 48% of them have dyslexia that was not identified at schools. So we have 48% of our prisoners who have dyslexia. A lot of them probably went to prison because of trouble resulting out of their inability to read. That’s a huge issue. So, if we help with dyslexia we’re going to help with our prison population. We spend about $32,000 on inmates every year, where how much do we spend on education in Tennessee?

DGW: About $9,000 a kid or something.

AT: Exactly, about $9,000 a kid. Now, also to do direct instruction – We talk about how direct instruction for kids with dyslexia can be expensive, right? It will cost about $8,000 per kid to do one-on-one direct instruction. I got this number from one of the Decoding Dyslexia Maryland branches because they researched it. And so if you take our $9,000 we already spend in Tennessee, plus $8,000, that’s about half of what it costs to put someone in prison. I feel like we need to start realizing that.

The other thing is this: there’s a study on teen suicide. They found that 89% of suicide notes were left by teens that showed signs of having dyslexia. Another study said that teens with learning disabilities like dyslexia are three times more likely to commit suicide. Additionally, the statistics on teen pregnancy, on welfare, are influenced by whether or not you have a learning disability. Only 67% of students with a learning disability graduate from high school. So that’s a huge issue. As a society, if we really care about the school-to-prison pipeline, addressing social problems is important. Just think how much progress we could make by teaching people to read.

I get so frustrated as an advocate for people with dyslexia. We will do anything to fix literacy except the one thing that 70 years of research shows works, which is structured literacy. So I really hope that we start as a district and as a state investing in teaching teachers and figuring out how to accommodate these kids. Not only do we want them to be alive and out of prison, but they have so much to offer. For example, 50% of the people at NASA have dyslexia  and if you look at the list of famous people with dyslexia – Richard Branson, Jennifer Aniston, Lewis Carroll, Cher, Anderson Cooper, Charles Schwab, and the list goes on – it’s amazing.

We have these kids sitting in their room, who may or may not be our future business leaders, our future biologists, unsure they can read and write, so we treat them like they’re stupid. We teach them like they’re second-class citizens. We treat them like they’re never going to amount to anything. And the fact is they’re probably the brightest kid in the room, but they just can’t read or write or spell. So, we have to get better at seeing all kids.

DGW: Well thank you very much Anna. I appreciate you taking time. And these bisquits are great.

AT: I really appreciate it. And the bisquits were good. Thanks for picking this place.

 

Talking with Anna will certainly give you a lot to think about. I certainly learned a lot from her and very grateful that she took the time to sit down with me. If you’d like more information about how to get your child tested for dyslexia, please contact your child’s teacher or school psychologist. For outside testing in Nashville, contact Learning Matters, which is a non-profit who works frequently with Metro Nashville Public Schools and provides independent testing on a sliding scale.

For more information about dyslexia, here are some of Anna’s favorite resources:

1. Understanding Dyslexia: A Guide for Tennessee Parents and Educators. Tennessee Department of Education, January 2016.
2. Tennessee Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council Page. https://www.tn.gov/education/article/dyslexia-advisory-council
3. United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services “Dear Colleague” letter dated October 23, 2105.
4. TED Ed video “What is Dyslexia” by Kelli Sandman-Hurley on YouTube. (4 minutes.)
5. The HBO Documentary “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” on You Tube.
6. The book “The Streets Lied to Me” by Actor, Advocate and Activist Ameer Baraka about how the pain and shame of dyslexia led him to prison. Also see his website for news clips about his powerful story: http://www.kingbaraka.com.
7. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity website at dyslexia.yale.edu especially the “Dyslexia Bill of Rights” and “How Parents Can Build a Word-Rich Life for Dyslexics” by Kyle Redford.
8. The MTSU Dyslexia Center website at http://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/. Especially the flyers featured on the “Publications” page.
9. The six part series by NPR called “Unlocking Dyslexia” by NPR from November 2016.
10. The six part series by MindShift by Holly Korbey. Especially the final installment entitled “The Dialogue Surrounding Dyslexia: Five Important Take aways” dated February 26, 2016.
11. Time Magazine’s “Dyslexia is More than a Reading Disorder” by Alice Park dated December 21, 2016 about the newest research by MIT published in the journal Neuron.
12. Washington Post’s “Is listening to a book ‘cheating’?” by Valerie Strauss July 31, 2016.
13. Decoding Dyslexia -Tennessee branch. https://www.facebook.com/decodingdyslexiatn/
14. Twitter resources: @ddtn13, @understood, @dyslexiaMTSU, @LearnNashvlle, @DyslexiaToday.
PRESENTATION INFORMATION:

If you are interested in a presentation for your organization, please contact Anna Thorsen at athorsen16@yahoo.com or via Twitter @athorsen16. Presentations can be tailored from 20 minutes to 2 hours and can cover one or more of the following topics:
1. What is Dyslexia? A look at what dyslexia, what it looks like and why its hard.
2. Dyslexia and Classroom Hacks: how to create a dyslexia-friendly classroom.
3. Dyslexia and Assistive Technology: what dyslexia is and how technology can help.
4. Advocacy and IEPs: tips for parents navigating the special education process.
5. Dyslexia and Literacy: why should we care?

THE BEACON ON THE HILL

img_1716Last week President Trump enacted an Executive Order banning the entry of refugees for the next 90 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely, under the guise of a need to further vet them.  Since my kids go to a school with a large refugee and immigrant population, I have some observations I’d like to share. By no means are my observations and experiences exclusive. Ask any teacher or parent whose kids attend a school with a high population of English learners like mine do, and you’ll hear similar stories. One of the things that impresses me all the time about these type of schools is how quietly and efficiently teachers and administrators go about servicing the children enrolled. Let’s be clear as well that not all of these teachers are of the same political mindset. I know of teachers who voted for Trump, yet are at the forefront of advocating and caring for these children. We need to never lose sight that this issue isn’t about politics; it’s about humanity.

We also need to make a distintinction between refugee children and immigrant children. The two are often lumped together, especially when politically convenient. Immigrant children are brought here by their families in search of a better life. They are from families that choose to come here. Refugee children are from families that are fleeing their home country. It’s two separate populations with two separate sets of needs and challenges. Politicians will tell you the ban on refugees is for our safety, but the odds of being killed in an attack by a refugee are less than winning the lottery jackpot.

A couple years ago, I got a couple of education reformers to tour my children’s school, Tusculum Elementary, with me. They’d been talking a whole lot about “failed schools” and I wanted them to see first hand the quality of instruction children at a so-called failing school were receiving. After touring several classrooms, they admitted that it was impressive. “But I’d like to see the other children,” said one of them.

I was puzzled. “These were all extremely well behaved children. I’d like to see the discipline problems.” I just shook my head. You see, before these children got to Tusculum, many of them were already taught a very hard lesson about what acting out and getting yourself noticed meant.

 Many of the children at my kids’ school spent time in refugee camps before being allowed to come here. And I’m not talking about a weekend; I’m talking about years while they navigated the system to secure relocation to the USA.

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(COUNTRIES OF BIRTH FOR TUSCULUM ES STUDENTS)

Going through that process has taught them the value of appearing benign and doing as you are supposed to since anything different could result in disaster. One wrong move and you get sent to the back of the line or worse yet, returned to where you came from. Which in some cases means certain death. Despite what politicians may tell you, the vetting process is long and intense, with many places where a family can be removed from the process or denied entry.

Much has been made of the potential for terrorist infiltration into the refugee population. But as Lavinia Limón, a veteran of refugee work since 1975 and the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says, “I think I can count on one hand the number of crimes of any significance that I’ve heard have been committed by refugees. It just hasn’t been an issue.” That being said, are all refugees free from terrorist influence? Absolutely not. There are students in my kids’ classes that have family or former neighbors that are members of, say, ISIS or some other terrorist organization. It is to be expected based on where they come from. But this is an opportunity to counter those influences. To demonstrate that you can be safe without a joining an organization and that there is a better way to live. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that religous freedom is real and that America is not at war with any religion.

16486931_10211966524787405_1935543878980046919_oLet me put it in terms that might be more familiar. If you grew up in South Central LA during the 90’s, odds were that you knew members of either the Crips or the Bloods. Odds are equal that they probably tried to recruit you. If you were worried about your safety or your family’s safety, you probably listened to what they had to say and tried at the very least to retain friendly relations. It’d be foolish to just outright reject their overtures, as the consequences could have a dangerous effect. The biggest reason you may not have joined was the ability to see an opportunity for a better life. The truth is that joining a gang is a decision that only a person with no hope for the future can make. These terrorist groups are in reality no more than sophisticated gangs with access to the means to carry out deadly attacks. They are defeated in the same way that regular street gangs are defeated – by showing people a better life and thats what our refugee resettlement program attempts to do. To deny terrorist groups access to potential members by showing them the promise of a better life.

I’m sure many of the people poised to relocate to the United States have rebuffed ISIS and others repeatedly. What President Trump’s Executive Order last Friday did was essentially erase that vision of a better life for them. Imagine that you were ready to leave Yemen or Syria and start your new life in the United States. You’d spent the last two years jumping through hoops and doing everything asked of you and even above that, surviving. Then out of nowhere, you get word that all relocations have been halted for four months with no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to relocate after that time. What would you do? resettlement-processWould you trust that in four months you’d be allowed to relocate, or would you do whatever necessary to keep you and your family safe? Hope has been taken from you and you have to make decisions based on the limited options in front of you. If joining ISIS – if that were a possibility, that is – meant that you and your family would have a higher level of security and comfort, wouldn’t membership in a terrorist organization suddenly become more attractive than the unknown? Remember, philosophy is a luxury for those who have established food and safety.

Anyone who has ever worked with children can attest that children that feel stereotyped often embrace that stereotype. I think the same holds true for all people. Treat me like a thief and eventually I will become one. Treat me and my religion as being preordained for terroristic intentions and eventually the intentions may become reality. This is how a ban backfires and makes us less safe. I very much agree with the words written in the blog Jason’s Connection where he talks about the Frankenstein effectNo one starts out as the monster we meet. As a society, we build our own monsters. I am not a monster. Neither was Frankenstein’s creature. We are merely people and beings with fresh wounds and terrible experiences. 

16427317_728331407330372_5724393113081159000_nAn important role of the president, possibly the most important one, is to set the tone for the country. The tone being set right now is one of hostility and intolerance. My kids’ classmates and their families, both refugee and immigrant families, are rightfully frightened. They have no idea if they are going to be removed from the country or placed in internment camps.

Supporters of Trump’s legislation like to say that if you are here legally, you have nothing to fear. Well, that’s fine and good if you come from a place where the government governs by law. Unfortunately, many of our refugees and immigrants come from places where the police are more feared than terrorist organizations. Laws are applied at the whim of the police and family members sometimes just disappear. What evidence do our refugees and recent imigrants have that things are different here? And how is a couple years’ experience supposed to trump a lifetime of experience? As someone who, in his younger days, has had handcuffs applied for nothing more than being too loud and not properly responding to a police officer, I can testify that feeling never goes away. Too often we think that just because we don’t have fear, neither should others. That just because the experience doesn’t exist for us, it doesn’t exist at all.

I am the son of a refugee. During World War II, my mother fled to Germany from the Ukraine as a refugee. As a kid, we lived in Germany and toured the country extensively. The only city I never saw was Berlin. That was because my mother had a deep-seeded fear that if we went there, she would be taken back to the East. It didn’t matter that her brain told her she was now an American citizen; her heart would not let go of that fear almost 50 years later.

We continually fail to grasp the concept that terrorism is borne out of how people are treated. We think we can bomb people back to caves and build walls to separate us and there will be no consequences. It baffles me. I mean, think about your own personal life. Imagine if your neighbor suddenly put up a huge fence adjacent to your property. When you went and talked to him about it, he only brought up your negative impact on his property refusing to acknowledge any positive influence.  Would this strengthen your relationship, or would you begin to build resentment and overemphasize every perceived slight? You might even take the attitude that if you think you can keep me off your yard, I’ll show you, and encourage detrimental behavior towards his property. The attitude grows out of the feeling that since you show no desire to be a good neighbor, why should I? How much would insult be added to injury if that neighbor also presented you a bill for that fence?

On the wall of our living room hangs the words of Maya Angelou:

I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today,

life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things:

a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents,

you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.

I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life.’

I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands;

you need to be able to throw some things back.

I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart,

I usually make the right decision.

I’ve learned that even when I have pains,

I don’t have to be one.

I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone.

People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.

I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,

people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget how you made them feel.

They are powerful words that we read often and try to incorporate them into our daily lives. It wouldn’t hurt if, as a country we did the same.

As adults, we often approach the thoughts and conversations of children with a high degree of hubris. We think they only form their opinions based on what we tell them. Guess again. They discuss their home lives with each other with as much complexity as we do. It broke my heart recently when my daughter chimed in from the back seat after school one day that she’d figured out why her friend was being bad all the time. “Daddy, it’s because he has a mean father who drinks beer all the time.” Her solution, though, made me smile: “I’m just going to be his friend because he likes me, and I think being his friend is the best action.” It’s called empathy and it’s something we could all do with a little more of.

My children see the television and they see the President, who they respect as the leader of their country, say over and over “America First.” My daughter asked me, “What does that mean?” I told her that he’s saying we will put American interests first when dealing with other countries. I asked her, “Is that how you interact with your friends? Do you put your interests first? Or do they put their interests first?” “No,” she replied, puzzled, “Valentino, Jennifer, and I just play. We talk. We take turns. That’s weird, Daddy.” Yes, it is weird, my dear. She seems to grasp what adults can’t – we all live in one small, crowded world that we need to figure out how to share.

My son has become the de facto welcoming agent for his class. Whenever a new child comes into the class with a limited English vocabulary, I’ve been told he takes it as his personal mission to make them feel welcome. He’ll often matter-of-factly tell me about a new child who doesn’t speak English whom he has become friends with. I ask him how they communicate. He just looks at me like that question makes less sense than his friend’s native language. Somehow, my son has managed to do what many of us adults seem incapable of: to cut through the differences and the barriers to find commonality for the benefit of both. I can’t say enough thank yous to his teachers for modeling and supporting that behavior.

Looking at the news now and going forward, I don’t know what is going to happen. I have a great deal of trepidation and am searching for my way of pushing back and making sure that theimg_1597 welcoming face of America is preserved. I take reassurance from the sight of my fellow Americans taking to the street with the same goal. My dear friend Mary Holden has written an excellent piece about channeling your rage. As she says, “Americans are rising up. We are standing up against alternative facts, hatred, intolerance, and injustice. We are determined not to let evil win. We will resist. We will overcome.” It’s not just happening in Washington either. Raleigh, New York, Seattle, Columbus, Minneapolis-St. Paul, along with others, are all raising their voices.

I have a friend who questions the value of protests. He tends to think in terms of elections being the place to make your voice heard. I disagree. I think it’s important that politicians don’t feel untouchable just because they’ve secured the position. We must always serve as watchdogs. We must raise our voices whenever we feel that our community’s policies are not reflecting our community’s values. Some wish the voices would quiet down so they don’t have to think about what’s happening. Maybe because they feel powerless. Maybe because they feel overwhelmed. Or maybe because they agree with the policies. Joining with others to raise your voice reaffirms beliefs as well as informs others. My family and I will be raising our voices. For us, it’s not just ethical. It’s personal.

We are a country founded on the principle of always offering a better way of life for immigrants and refugees. That principle comes with a certain amount of risk, and in order for America to remain as safe as possible, we must always serve as that shining beacon on the hill, best summed up by President Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”