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Program Trains Teachers To Use Students’ Strengths

Rebecca Coen, an English teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles, was going through her lesson one day when a hand went up.

The seventh grader whose hand was raised asked Coen to slow down. “I’m having a real hard time with saliency determination,” the student explained.

It’s not the kind of phrase that tumbles out of the mouths of most seventh graders. But both teacher and pupil knew what it meant.

For those scratching their heads, “saliency determination” is the ability that children have to filter out distractions — a tangential comment by the teacher, another student making faces — and it is the kind of vernacular a teacher trained in Schools Attuned classroom methods might use with students.

Coen is one of thousands of educators who have gone through the Schools Attuned program — a program so successful that the New York City Board of Education recently decided to begin training all 20,000 of the city’s public school teachers in the method.

“Let’s say a kid is an avid baseball player,” said Claire Wurtzel, who will oversee the implementation of Schools Attuned in New York schools this fall. “This kid is struggling very hard in math, they can’t get concepts, they’re really having a hard time. Maybe we start looking at baseball averages” to teach math. “Use what the kid is excited about. Maybe a kid is particularly musical but cannot remember the times table. Put it in some kind of rhythm…. Teach them how to use their strengths.”

As the first step in crafting a teaching method appropriate for a child with classroom difficulties, an educator fills out a booklet outlining the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The student and the parents fill out similar booklets. When every aspect of the student’s educational interests has been examined, the teacher will make a diagnosis: Does the student have a problem with memorization? Language? Processing information?

“It’s called ‘demystification,’” Wurtzel said. Once the student, parents and teachers all know exactly what is going on with the student, they can build a stronger curriculum.

Schools Attuned came out of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, an institute co-founded by Dr. Mel Levine, a North Carolina pediatrician who has been developing theories about children and the way they think for the past 25 years. Two years ago, the Nash Family Foundation provided a grant to educate 250 Hebrew day school teachers in the Schools Attuned method.

Last month, 23 teachers, administrators and psychologists from Jewish day schools began the summer training session on a damp, muggy morning at the Moriah School in Englewood, N.J. For five intense days, these educators — their noses buried in bulky orange and purple Schools Attuned books — discussed their students, their own teaching methods and theories of education.

“What are some of the issues particular to Jewish day schools?” asked Meryl Jaffe, who led the Englewood training session.

The educators listed every complexity of day school education, from short classes to overcrowded classrooms to too much homework.

The daily schedule in a Jewish day school is unusually hectic. “There are at least 10 to 11 academic subjects,” Jaffe said, “without the very important extras like music and gym.”

Many have found that Schools Attuned was particularly useful in a day school setting. Judaic studies is challenging unto itself, said Shmuel Schwartzmer, a Los Angeles school psychologist and a Schools Attuned facilitator for the Etta Israel Center, a nonprofit that raises awareness about people with special needs. Schwartzmer has trained dozens of teachers in the method. “Learning needs in Judaic studies is very different from learning styles in traditional schools,” he said. “You’re doing text-based analysis starting from second grade. Plus, there’s the fact that you’re dealing with two languages.”

While difficulty learning foreign languages might be only a small problem for a student in a public school, it is a massive problem for a student in a day school where Hebrew is a major part of the curriculum.

According to Schwartzmer, those students who have been identified as having language problems have been given extra drills, extra tutoring and translated texts.

“It’s been working really nicely, to a large extent,” Schwartzmer said. But, he adds, “it really requires… a change in mind-set” on the part of the educators.

Some have made the adjustment. “I have seen teachers who used to teach in a traditional, face-forward [manner] that have changed their teaching style radically,” Schwartzmer said. For others, however, it has been more difficult. “You can have resistance on the part of teachers,” he said, noting that it’s “really hard for them to change what they’ve been doing for 15 years.”

But for the most part, the day school teachers who have taken the course have seen amazing improvement in their students’ grades. Last year one of Coen’s students was earning B-pluses and A-minuses for her classroom work, but failing miserably on every exam. “She had a problem with memory,” Coen said. “If she had to recall something, she could recall it. But if she had to convert it to the written word,” she was at a loss. Coen arranged for the student to have oral examinations, and the student switched from getting abysmally low scores to top scores on each exam.

Robin Wexler, an assistant principal at the Moriah School, took the Schools Attuned course last year. Wexler was so impressed that she organized a monthly breakfast to discuss the books written by Levine, the Schools Attuned founder and professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Even students without any classroom problems have benefited. “It’s not only for kids who are failing, it’s for everybody — regardless of what their grade scores indicate,” Coen said. “It truly is amazing — it’s the best program I’ve come across in the 12 years I’ve been in the classroom.”

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