Interview With Sally Smith, Founder of The Lab School
National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD):
How do the teaching methods employed at the Lab School differ from those of more mainstream schools?
We bring art or some type of art form into almost everything we teach. For example, if we're teaching science, we'll teach it through art; if we're teaching history, we might be doing it through drama. The idea is to have the children involved in a very direct sort of way in the subject we're trying to teach, have them do things first and then discuss them later.
My whole theory is that when you demand involvement you ignite the learning process, you capture excitement and interest, and counteract passivity. A lot of kids with learning disabilities have been tutored and given this type of help and that type of help and after a while they start to wait for someone to do the teaching for them; they've become passive learners. The kind of teaching we do at the Lab School demands that the students do the learning for themselves, that they get involved. We also want to get the kids to ask a lot of questions and also to learn by reflecting back on an experience.
Why do you find these methods particularly effective in teaching children with LD?
Many children with LD have terrible problems with language; they're visual thinkers. We've found that, through the use of art forms such as drawing, painting, photography and drama, students can express themselves far better, can connect to ideas much quicker and can get involved with learning much faster. For kids with LD, this won't happen if you lecture to them or have them read something out of a book.
The whole thinking process is different for our students. If someone without a learning disability sees, say, a chameleon, they're going to say "That's a chameleon; it's a lizard that can change colors." A child with LD isn't going to think in those terms. They're going to think in terms of the animal's movement, the texture of the skin, the colors, the size. And the next time they see it, they still don't say "That's a chameleon," but they remember the texture, the movement and so on. They image it, as distinct from other, non-LD kids, who will give it a word, a symbol. We'll have a category and a label for it, but a child with LD is dealing with the object very concretely.
Are the backgrounds of the teachers at the Lab School substantially different from those of other special education teachers and, if so, what types of backgrounds tend to make for a more successful educator?
Many of our teachers have come from an arts background, though all are required to have a masters degree in special education. But because almost all of our students are unorthodox learners, it helps if you're a bit of an unorthodox learner yourself or are interested in unorthodox approaches and diverse methods of teaching. With many of these kids you've got to keep trying and trying to find a pathway. They don't learn traditionally at all, so the faculty members really have to be comfortable with exploring unusual and alternative methods of teaching.
Many of the activities at the Lab School revolve around what you refer to as the "Academic Club Method." Could you please explain what this teaching method is and how it works?
It's a way of taking non-readers and immersing them in a specific world of history, having them become knights and ladies of the Middle Ages, for example, or a Renaissance counselor, or an industrialist. We have some of our students studying the robber barons of the 19th century, and each one of them becomes a robber baron"Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, DuPont. And they find out through the teacher, who's called the "chairman of the board," and through aids such as films and pictures, where their robber baron families were during the American Revolution, the Civil War and up into the Industrial Revolution. They learn what contributions they made, what terrible things they've done (which the children love) and what legacies they've left.
Another example, for teaching anthropology and human history, we have a Cave Club. The teacher is called "wise elder" she addresses the pupils as hominids, and they have a whole set of rituals to chart the progress of evolution from Australopithecus to Homo Erectus to Homo Habillus to Homo Sapiens. To test what the students have learned, the teacher might give the student a handful of seeds and say, "You're in the Old Stone Age; what do you do with these?" and if the student tries to eat them, the answer is correct. And if the teacher says, "Now you're in the New Stone Age," and if the student tries to plant them, that's also correct.
They have to show us that they understand the material, because most of them can't write and can't read. But they can deal with the material, even though it's difficult and very complex. When our kids go back to a regular school or go on to college, they're often complimented on how well schooled they are in civics, history, or geography, and on how they can relate this knowledge so well to other subjects.