— At Le Sallay Academy there will be children from all over the world. Do you think it will impact your work?
— I’ve no doubt that internationality will enhance the education experience. I’m used to an international environment myself, since my family has Russian origins and, although I went to school in the suburbs of Chicago I earned my International Baccalaureate at an international high school in Belgium, which was ethnically and linguistically very diverse. I think my experience as an expat’s child has contributed to my teaching and professional and intuitive understanding of children’s needs. Teaching and learning from students with cultures and experiences different from my own is something I really enjoy, so I am excited to be a part of Le Sallay’s international community.
— Yulia, we know that you teach math to students with diverse learning needs. What does teaching math mean for you?
— I never considered teaching math until one year I was offered the chance to work as a math coach and math interventionist. Since then, I’ve been working with students with diverse learning needs. I guess my interest in teaching math is hereditary, as several generations of my family members were mathematicians and math teachers. I combine math with special education in various roles: as a math interventionist, math co-teacher, and special education math teacher. I have predominantly worked with students diagnosed with high incidence disabilities (ADHD, learning disabilities, dyscalculia, dyslexia, anxiety, depression) and ASD (autism spectrum disorders).
— What are the challenges and rewards of being a special education teacher?
— Let me give you an example. In a previous position, I worked at a school where my co-teacher and I were in charge of a class of 30 students, 16 of whom were diagnosed with varying disabilities, and the rest spoke English as a second language. Many of our students were diagnosed with dyscalculia, (a math learning disability,) causing our students to have difficulty with number sense- and needed support with adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. We worked constantly to implement an effective system of co-teaching and inclusion in our classroom. By differentiating out instruction we made sure that students received only small group instruction tailored to their areas of need and strength. There were many challenging days in the school year, but we persevered as a class. The school conducted standardized testing a few times a year to measure the improvement of individual students and the class. We did not realize just how much our students had improved during the year until the results were shared. We improved as a class by 92%, the highest average in the school in math! We celebrated as a class and were very proud of the hard work and giant leaps our students made during the year.
— What kinds of diagnosis are there for children with learning difficulties in math?
— Dyscalculia is a broad term for learning difficulties in math. This is often developmental and can be linked with genetics. It’s important to understand that students might need individualized support for a variety of reasons - emotional, social, academic, and physical. Often, children can be qualified as "twice exceptional (2E)" which means they are considered academically gifted in a specific area and are also diagnosed with either a learning disability in a different area, or a language delay, anxiety, autism or ADHD.
The symptoms of ADHD in the classroom can include hyperactivity, difficulty in sustaining focus in the classroom, frequent interruptions, difficulty with focusing on tests and sustaining positive peer friendships. For these students, I recommend an approach of first creating a positive environment with very specific rules and structures for all students to follow. Teachers can capitalize on 2E students’ strengths and areas of interests by helping them become peer tutors for others during partner activities, thus building their confidence and letting them experience a leadership role.
This summer, I worked with a student who was very hesitant and reluctant to attend summer school. He had difficulty each morning coming into the building and did not want to participate in any activities with the class. His parents were very upset, but hopeful that during summer school he would regain his confidence. Assessing his areas of need, I quickly learned that he was very capable in math and had a strong foundation in number sense. While the rest of my first-grade class was working on adding numbers up to 10, he was asking for more of a challenge. He quickly understood concepts of place value, and within a week started adding two and three-digit numbers. I realized that he hadn’t known how to self-advocate in a positive way, i.e. stand up for his own interests, and in his previous schooling had not been challenged by his teachers. This led to his resistance to coming to summer school in the first place. By the last day of summer school, he was adding two and three-digit numbers quickly and asking for more problems. He was so engaged in this, that he did not want to participate in the class celebration on the last day! This was a huge change in behavior and engagement for him, and his parents were ecstatic to finally see their son enjoying school!
— Are there any tips for parents to help their children with diverse learning needs while learning math? Are there any special tools one can use to help these students reach their potential?
— Since students with diverse learning needs all require a very individualized approach, it is difficult to recommend a single kind of instruction to address the whole variety of needs. For instance, a student diagnosed with dyscalculia would benefit from support at home in developing foundations of number sense - frequent practice of basic facts, counting, adding, subtracting, while utilizing visual and tangible objects (called manipulatives) such as counters or coins to represent abstract concepts (such as numbers and groups.) At home, parents can use a multi-sensory approach combining movement, touch, sight, and hearing to explain or re-teach a concept. This includes using visual explanations, manipulatives, and movement, such as a game to practice the skill.
I incorporate games and fun mnemonic devices to help students understand difficult concepts. When teaching linear and quadratic equations, I have my students physically act out different roles: “Kings/Queens” combine together (variables with exponents,) “Nobles” (variables with no exponents) combine together, and “Peasants” (constant terms) combine together. The process is very interactive, and students enjoy playing a variety of roles while understanding how to simplify and solve equations.
It is also very important to establish purpose in instruction. Many abstract concepts can seem uninteresting or to lack real world application for students. For example, when teaching students about place value, using money can create the connection and understanding that students may lack.
— As far as I know, in the States there are special programs and practices used to support 2E students to develop their areas of strength while simultaneously supporting their areas of need. Those who require special education outside the USA might not be so lucky. But Le Sallay does adhere to the inclusive model of education you describe, which is also required in Europe. I’m sure your American teaching background will be of use at Le Sallay…
— My experience of inclusion philosophy for 2E learners comes from teaching in the US. Inclusion models are being developed at varying rates around the world, and in some instances, even in the States, students with diverse learning needs are still being approached from a deficit-based mindset.
I have worked with many students diagnosed with ASD (autism) and anxiety who are also exceptionally gifted in an area such as math, but struggle with socio-emotional aspects in the classroom. To support these students, I often use social stories to pre-teach significant aspects of the day such as interactions with peers at lunch or how to ask a question in an appropriate way. I create specific schedules and pre-teach upcoming events during the day, to reduce anxiety. For example, I have previously worked with a student who disliked school but was highly interested in culinary arts. As an instructional method, I transformed all of his math problems so that they centered around cooking, which spiked his interest and helped him improve his performance. As an incentive, we gave him the opportunity to meet with a chef if he continued his positive engagement in math. Differentiated instruction is key, since it avoids the outdated “one size fits all” approach where students all learn the same concepts at the same pace, which results in a lack of engagement in the classroom.
— So the question foremost in our minds is, how will you work with 2E children at Le Sallay, especially in terms of distance education?
— As a teacher at Le Sallay, I am excited to be working with students from all over the world with a variety of learning needs and goals. Initially, it is important to establish learning targets for each student and understand their present levels of performance. Once I have done that, I can create learning groups to suit students' strengths and areas of need. It is also important to create groups that will support socio-emotional development, since students in middle school are at a critical age for learning and growth socially as well as physically. Students diagnosed as 2E will especially benefit from being placed in a developmentally appropriate group that will support them socially. This is what we will do during the initial in-person sessions at Le Sallay, when students will interact with each other and with their teachers, building a positive rapport for successful learning.
Having done that, during the distance learning portions of the school year at Le Sallay I will be able to engage with each student at the right learning level for them. This increases their interest in the subject matter and allows for deeper analytical thinking to occur, enriching and further stimulating students’ academic growth. This method of teaching will also allow students to work at an appropriate pace, without the stress of standardized testing which is so prevalent in American public schools, and enable close observation and frequent informal monitoring of progress. Since students’ development is dynamic and their needs and strengths are ever changing, my practice is to adjust groups as needed to ensure that students are receiving the best possible instruction, which in my view should be rooted in conceptual understanding with real life application.
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