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The Siena School Blog

Embrace the New Norm

June 27, 2019
By Head of School, Jilly Darefsky
Equitable Accommodations

And then the tears began. 

Unfortunately for this parent, this was not an unexpected response to a question about her child’s school day. She had been advocating for accommodations for her child’s struggles, but each year, the concerns were dismissed, and each year, the gap in reading ability became wider. The teachers were kind, well-meaning, and dedicated; unfortunately, they were also misinformed:

Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and it’s not about effort, intellect, or gender. Neuroscience teaches us otherwise.

Our expanding understanding of dyslexia, a specific learning disability, and its neurobiological origins is helping to develop appropriate interventions. With science informing practice, our ability to respond to reading difficulties is advancing, and evidence-based interventions can now be implemented. Learn more from leading dyslexia expert, Dr. Guinevere Eden, by viewing’s video Dyslexia and the Brain and reading the International Dyslexia Association’s article Compensatory Skills and Dyslexia: What Does the Science Say? 

According to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost 90% of teens feel under pressure to achieve good grades. With the detrimental effect of stress on learning, the best educational practice is to reduce stress by removing barriers so that every child may engage in their education. If a child without a learning disability is stressed, imagine how a child with dyslexia feels as they struggle to keep up with literacy requirements.

As reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of children (approximately a third) served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are diagnosed with a specific learning disability, defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written ...” Furthermore, according to the International Dyslexia Association, possibly 15-20% of the population exhibit some symptoms of dyslexia.

So what does this mean? It means that there is probably a student with dyslexia, diagnosed or not, in every classroom. As such, let’s ensure that opportunities for equitable learning are available for every child. Let’s not wait for mandated support but make it the norm to provide access to tools and strategies commonly considered accommodations.

Technology provides opportunities to seamlessly integrate tools such as speech-to-text into everyday life. Pause a moment and think about how many times a day you say “Hey Google,” “Hey Siri,” or “Alexa.” Is this an accommodation or just the new norm?

Recently downloaded an audiobook?  Take time to brainstorm and plan your ideas? Are these accommodations or just the new norm?

As adults, we use ‘accommodations’ throughout our daily lives, so shouldn’t we be providing the same opportunities for our children? 

Let’s explore some options further:

Speech-to-text (dictation) provides students with an opportunity to write without being concerned about spelling. By speaking into a device, children may use more sophisticated vocabulary and progress faster because the mechanics of writing do not hamper them. The good news? Speech-to-text is built in and available for free through a variety of devices, such as laptops, iPads, and cell phones.

Audiobooks and text-to-speech provide opportunities to access high-level, complex text without being disadvantaged by one’s independent reading level. Ear reading allows a child’s intellect and curiosity to drive book choice, not reading ability. Schools and families of children with documented print disabilities may subscribe to Learning Ally and have access to over 80,000 human-read audiobooks, with many also synched to text. Other fee-based options include Audible, Google Play Books, and Apple Books. However, access is also available at no cost through apps like Libby that provide free access through the library to audiobooks and ebooks. Furthermore, Bookshare offers free ebook access for U.S. students with qualifying reading disabilities.

Mind maps and other graphic organizers help students organize their ideas through visual tools. Another way to remove barriers to learning, graphic organizers are beneficial to all students as a system for approaching multi-step tasks and can support reading comprehension, writing, and study skills across all subject areas. Free templates are readily available online.

The adage that equity and equality are not the same continues to hold. For those with dyslexia, embedded accommodations that are available to all learners can remove the stigma associated with reading difficulties. Imagine a classroom where every child’s educational experience is optimized, a learning environment that provides a range of tools not only to assist the learning of those with documented learning differences but to help all students. Let’s remove barriers to learning and replace the word accommodation with options or choice. 

Isn’t it the new norm anyway?




Mental Health Awareness Month

May 14, 2019
By Holly Rothrock

Written by Holly Rothrock, Counselor at The Siena School

Mental Health America (MHA) was founded in 1909 by Clifford Beers, who suffered from a mental illness and was subjected to much abuse as he sought treatment. As a result, he helped found MHA to bring awareness of the need for more humane and effective mental health treatment. In 1949, MHA established the month of May as Mental Health Month to destigmatize mental illness and promote treatment options. 

A lot has changed in our culture's perception of mental health since the inception of Mental Health Month, 70 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, mental health was often a taboo subject and considered a private family matter. Individuals suffering from mental health issues were often institutionalized and suffered discrimination and abuse. Throughout the years MHA and other organizations have fought for comprehensive prevention and treatment. Thankfully through education, the stigma that was once associated with having a mental illness is diminishing but there does remain many misconceptions which is why continuing education programs for the public are imperative.  

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in a given year, approximately 46 million Americans are affected by mental illness and one in five youth experience a mental health disorder. In fact, half of the individuals living with mental illness experienced the onset of their illness by the age of 14. Educators have long known that a students' mental health impacts learning.  As of 2018 only two states, New York and Virginia, mandate that mental health is taught in schools.  The expectation is that by educating youth, students will be better able to recognize the signs of mental illness in their peers and in themselves and reach out for help. Many organizations are pushing for other states to mandate mental health in health curricula. 

At The Siena School, we believe strongly that the health curriculum should be comprehensive and include physical and mental health lessons. Starting in elementary school, we introduce mindfulness as a healthy coping strategy. Recently, elementary students focused on a lesson that incorporated listening skills and mindfulness. Using a singing bowl, the students were instructed to listen until they no longer heard the vibrational sounds, they were then challenged to listen for sounds outside of the room. We then make the connection between this activity and active listening. We feel students respond best by both practicing various mindfulness activities and understanding the biology behind why it works; we incorporate lessons about how mindfulness allows for different regions of our brain to communicate with each other.  

In middle school, we begin our discussion on stress and the science behind stress. We want students to recognize that some stress is needed for motivation and can be a healthy part of human functioning. Throughout middle school, we are brainstorming healthy coping strategies and specifically which individual strategies work for each student. In one lesson, we explore our individual strengths. We talk about personal challenges, or as students labeled it, "turbulence", and explore which of these identified strengths will help us cope during this "turbulence". 

For our high school students, The Siena School hosts health workshops. We have had outside speakers come in to discuss personal experiences with mental illness.  An important part of the curriculum is talking about the signs of common mental health disorders as well as review the myriad of treatment options. These workshops are designed to show students that treatment is available and it works.  We also focus attention on the benefits of exercise, sleep, nutrition, and social support to our mental wellness.

Family communication is an important component of our mental health education.  We have hosted a respected psychologist to speak with our families to answer questions about the difference between developmental changes and when to seek outside guidance. The Siena School shares relevant studies and resources in newsletters and letters to parents.

Our mental health is integral to being able to function and learn.  Taking a holistic approach to our health is necessary. The more we bring awareness to mental health, the better-equipped students and families will be to taking charge of their mental wellness.

Below are some other resources that may be helpful for parents or educators when learning about or discussing mental health.

Child Mind Institute: The Child Mind Institute is a great resource that explores both mental health and learning differences. It has a symptom checker that provides access to relevant resources based on a questionnaire. 

National Alliance on Mental Illness: This NAMI page offers tips on how to help your child if they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

National Institute of Mental Health: This NIMH page lists behaviors that might warrant a mental health assessment as well as links to find treatment providers in specific areas. 

Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine:  Lists a variety of online resources for specific mental health disorders and concerns. They also link to treatment service locator toward the bottom of the page.

Putting the "Can" in Canva: 21st Century Skills for 21st Century Students

May 09, 2019
By Maya Furukawa

By Maya Furukawa, Middle School English Teacher at The Siena School

The 6th grade morning class is squinting at their screens. They've just been assigned their creative project for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Two students have elected to create dioramas, two are creating posters, four have chosen to modernize a scene, and one brave student has decided to try her hand at a Canva timeline.

As we get her account set up, the student grows more excited. "There are so many templates!" she exclaims. "They look so...professional."

"They are," I explain. "Professionals use them in a lot of different ways. I use them to make invitations for the social committee. I have a friend who uses them to make infographics for her job."

"So this is something people really use? In their jobs?" the student asks.

"Yep," I tell her. "These are those 21st century skills your teachers are always talking about."

21st century skills. It's one of those terms schools and districts love to throw around. It's one, too, that parents love to hear — after all, who wouldn't want their child to have the skills of the century?

According to Applied Education Systems, "21st Century skills are 12 abilities that today’s students need to succeed in their careers during the Information Age." These are:

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Information literacy
  6. Media literacy
  7. Technology literacy
  8. Flexibility
  9. Leadership
  10. Initiative
  11. Productivity
  12. Social skills

Many of these so-called "21st century skills" are those which have been emphasized for many centuries prior; communication and collaboration, for example, did not suddenly appear 19 years ago, but have been integral parts of education and jobs for as long as they have existed. Regardless, these skills are integral to developing strong, successful members of society.

But what do 21st century skills actually look like?

Perhaps the greatest difference between 20th and 21st century skills can be seen in the emphasis on information, media, and technology literacy. These developments in technology, especially in the age of the internet, necessitate an entirely new set of skills, ones not previously taught in schools. Canva is one such skill.

Canva promotes media and technology literacy by providing students with a visually appealing, hands-on way to complete a variety of projects. Students learn how to use a platform which will be helpful in virtually any career they pursue. After all, one can create anything from an Instagram post to a resume on Canva.

My English 6 and English 7 classes use Canva in a variety of ways. 6th graders use it on their end-of-quarter creative projects to create plot timelines. They also use it to create faux social media posts as characters from their texts. My 7th graders use Canva on their creative projects as well; however, the most prominent use of Canva is in their 4th quarter assignment to create a utopian society. In this project, 7th graders use Canva to create population pie charts, timelines of historical events, genealogy charts, daily schedules, restaurant menus, and flyers for a tourist attraction.

Canva is used by a variety of jobs and businesses. It is a platform which will help students in college and in their careers. Most importantly, students find it engaging. Through the use of Canva in the classroom, students not only develop important 21st century skills but do so in a way that is enjoyable and creates a polished product.

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