*504 Plan described in next section.
In my experience, GREAT teachers do not need a 504 Plan to target appropriate instruction to the different students who land in their classes. In order to honor my daughter’s request for a “positive” story, I’d like to tell two! But, in my education education, I have learned it best to frame multiple stories with a theme or a “hook” that helps the reader or listener internalize or reconstruct important and meaningful ideas. So, the next two blog posts will tell a story of two teachers for whom I am deeply indebted. My stories will never give these teachers the amount of praise they deserve for how they model and inspire everything great in education! And I realize their greatness depends a bit on their relationship with MY children, and not every teacher reaches every student in the same inspiring way. There is, however, a great deal to learn about these teachers in the realm of individualized instruction and 504 accommodations.
And now… my son has graduated from High School and is currently in his second year at a wonderful university. I can now, with great delight, reveal the subject of this post by NAME, in all caps for the rest of the post: MR. PHIL BENENATI! In addition, I will mention his high school guidance counselor, who, like MR. BENENATI, has contributed to the academic success of my son in more ways than they will never know. Her name? NICOLE BEALE!
PART I: THE FIRST STORY, THE FIRST TEACHER… MR. BENENATI
My son is what the Education field labels “twice exceptional” or “2e.” He struggles with processing speed and attention (due to dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADD) but also is quite academically gifted, easily bored and quick to learn. The first child psychologist to diagnose him, Dr. Dianne Mitchel, will forever have a special place in my heart! The teams of educators from both schools he has attended have been understanding and supportive. His academic advisor for High School, especially, is the strongest advocate for someone who is not even her own child! We are blessed, and my son is a flourishing student… for now! There are no guarantees ever when it comes to learning differences! The nature of his issues allows him to have a 504 Plan. That’s Education ease for a list of accommodations that will help my son have the best chance in the least restrictive environment to learn up to his potential and express that learning in the most effective manner. This plan requires a meeting with all of his teachers to inform them of his issues and to review the accommodations they might need to implement in their instruction while he is their student.
In his 10th grade year, we signed Matthew up for Photography simply because of his interest. After the first month of classes, my son’s advisor NICOLE BEALE was ready to call a meeting with all the teachers to discuss his 504 Plan. Since my son had been diagnosed at such a young age (7 years old), we have been able to help him internalize compensation strategies and advocacy skills regarding his learning differences. This regular, semester or annual meeting for his 504 Plan helps my son communicate with his teachers about what he needs to demonstrate he is learning their material. The meeting took place after school…. Enter MR. BENENATI, the photography teacher! Everything was going swimmingly. My son’s advisor articulated each and every struggle my son experiences and the possible accommodations that teachers might do to help him learn more effectively. Then, MR. BENENATI spoke up!! The essence of what he said was this: “I just don’t understand this plan like I think I should. Matthew does fine in my class. I can tell you that he understands everything I tell him to do, and he ends up hardly doing anything I tell him. (Out beams a sheepish grin!) But, his work shows me he completely gets everything I’m trying to teach. Matthew does great work, and it reflects a real mastery of the material in my class. I like his work, too.” In my “fatherly” heart of hearts, I was weeping with gratitude! (I held it together, though… I get weepy a lot lately. This happens when you have a heart attack!) Someone “gets” my son and does not punish him for learning things on his own terms. With my “education professional” lens focused, I realized that what MR. BENENATI said is the essence of a GREAT teacher! Specifically, great teachers know what they want to teach and what skills and objectives they must teach. They have multiple ways to communicate with the students regarding how to achieve such objectives. But, they also know how to let students “claim” the skills and content as their own (experiment and fail), often times ignoring their single, planned form of assessment that might discount or ignore a student’s genuine, authentic understanding of the content, allowing for multiple modes and opportunities to prove students have learned. They have “learned” their students so well that they know if, when, and how well each of their students has mastered the material, providing feedback when necessary and letting go of the reins when necessary or when possible. MR. BENENATI “got” my son! The 504 Plan helped him understand why my son needed to take a picture of the notes on the board. It helped him understand why he couldn’t find the flash drive with the entire set of pictures he was just editing 5 minutes before. But, he didn’t need the 504 to treat a student with common dignity and grace. My son is unique in many ways! Some good, some not so good! For example, MR. BENENATI did not need an official document to ask my son to justify orally his choice of subject or light or whatever. Mr. BENENATI did the job of teaching photography while communicating SO much more to his students and their parents!
My daughter is correct. It is therapeutic and hopeful-inspiring to dwell on a positive story. MR. BENENATI‘s reaction to my son’s 504 Plan is the stuff about which heroes are lauded! So, what are some of the issues on which we can elaborate in order to learn from this story… and the one to follow?
-504 Plans are a necessary evil: While the “great” teachers out there may not need reminding of simple things like, “Don’t bark 3 directives in a row while the kids are packing up to move to the next class in the next 5 minutes,” many uninformed teachers do. Some teachers neither understand nor are willing to accommodate a student with differences. It is unfortunate, but it is the law: a 504 Plan guarantees a student’s teachers will attempt to abide by the plan if/when necessary. I must say my son’s twice exceptionality makes him more unique than a simple gifted student or a student with a clearly low aptitude…
-“Average is average”: On a related note, twice exceptional students who have learned to compensate for their academic struggles can perform at the “average” level, or “C” level with absolutely no accommodations (and probably no effort). The fact that these students are labeled “twice exceptional” means their potential for achievement is quite high. Uninformed, busy and/or lazy teachers typically crank twice-exceptional students through their classes, oblivious to the fact that a “C” for a gifted student is probably due to any number of variables NOT related to ability and academic achievement. Teachers usually blame “average performance” on laziness, “irresponsibility,” athletics, etc. It has taken two amazing teams to help my son reach amazing heights in his academic achievement. Yes, his handwriting still looks like a 6-year-old’s. But, yes, he can write (speak/dictate) amazing analyses of the content he is studying. Average is NOT average for 2e children. A 504 Plan can encourage higher achievement in students with learning differences.
-A knowledgeable and professional advisor: The key to helping my son make his transition from his 9th grade school to his new 10th grade school was his advisor…. HANDS DOWN! During the 504 meeting, my son’s advisor, NICOLE BEALE, truly educated the teachers present (not all of his teachers were!) about the kinds of struggles my son experiences because of his twice exceptionality. I was so grateful (not just with MR. BENENATII’s comment) to see the light bulbs go off in his teachers’ heads. In the meeting, a different teacher even suggested another accommodation we had not listed, one that has proven to be helpful in all of his classes since!
-Individualized instruction: Whether it is extra time on tests, minimal copying or whatever, these simple accommodations are only the beginning of how teachers can individualize instruction and maximize learning for any and all students.
-Teaching with clear objectives: When teachers have clear, professional objectives as the center of their lessons and the students are aware of those objectives, teaching any material with any accommodation is much easier.
-Experimentation, practice and failure: For so many reasons that are sure to be addressed in this blog in later entries, many teachers and perhaps even many discipline areas do not allow students to experiment and fail without serious consequences- to their grade, to their personal motivation, to their attitudes, etc. MR. BENENATI, I believe, allows students to take multiple shots or attempt to take shots of many different subjects one time for the mere practice and experimentation of the skills he is teaching. In teaching his students to edit, he is also giving them feedback about if and how well they have actually learned the photography skill. Brilliant! A safe and encouraging way to help students learn without penalizing them for trying and taking risk! As a professional teacher educator, I see that very rarely in today’s classrooms.
-Authenticity: The student work in MR. BENENATI’s class is displayed authentically in galleries in the school and sold to the public to benefit the school. Please go to MR. BENENATI‘s website, https://rjr.smugmug.com/ to see it for yourself! What greater reward (or learning experience) for budding photographers to have peers reviewing the work done in photography! MR. BENENATI also hounded my son to submit a photograph in the Scholastic competition, having to remind him over and over to turn it in in the right form and in the appropriate time. I am so grateful that, because of that hounding, my son won a Silver Key for that photograph, something that has continued to make him smile with confidence that he really did learn something! Enough said!
I’m in such a good mood! A positive story and a mention of the positives about MR. BENENATI! Remember, as a focus, I want to communicate some of the positives as they relate to 504 Plans. But, this is MY blog about MY Education Education, so I can do what I want, LOL.
- MR. BENENATI rocks! I’ve told him that, I will continue to tell him that, and I will continue to get weepy when I talk to him or about him or experience my son being so critical of my own photography, LOL. My point? WHEN YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER IS GOOD, TELL HIM! WHEN HE IS GREAT, TELL HIM! TELL HIM SPECIFICALLY WHY! TELL HIS SUPERVISORS! In my experience, professional and personal, it rarely has a productive or expedient outcome to tell a teacher or administrator she is falling short with your child, no matter how palatable you might make it. It sometimes takes more orchestrating for something to change positively. Teachers are human; they need encouragement, too. Know that your encouragement makes a difference. I have told both MR. BENENATI, NICOLE BEALE and the teacher in my next blog post how amazingly great they are! They both consistently downplay their greatness. I am weeping writing these words, knowing that they (and including my son’s advisor) entered my children’s lives and lifted them to greater heights, yet they still don’t want the credit! HEROES! THAT’S ALL I CAN SAY!
- I hope this post helps some of you readers to see the benefits of early diagnosis and formulation of a 504 Plan. My son’s psychologist, Dr. Dianne Mitchell (yes, this a plug, but she sadly is retired!), was the first “villager” we invited into our lives to help support him. With her care and compassion, when our son was 7 years old, we were able to help him with tried and true compensation strategies that continue to benefit him now. As with anyone with exceptionalities, his performance is inconsistent, but the teams that have formed around his 504 Plan have been his cheerleader, guidance counselor, thinking partner, and more. The key? Start early and be consistent!
- Administrators especially, please take note of the positive outcomes that occur when students are allowed to experiment, practice and take risks without the fear of “failure” in the form of a low grade, punishment, more work, busy work, etc. This, in my view, is a positive example, applicable to any and all subjects and disciplines, not just in the context of accommodations for a 504 Plan in Photography class. The research bears this to be true, but other forces (to be addressed much in other blog posts) make the positive practice almost invisible or impossible to achieve.
At the end of a positive educational story or experience, the negatives are difficult to see. Every negative I can contrive is easily diluted by the positive and professional treatment of my 2e son. Here are few nit-picky items:
- I am grateful that the homework and assessments in MR. BENENATI’s class were not only “fun” and authentic, but were also a natural extension of what my son already does with a camera in every day life. His issues make our evening life quite painful, as it takes him more than twice as long to do any “short” assignment his teachers may assign. Our only two strategies to keep our son on task in Photography was to ask, “Do you have an assignment in Photography?” every day AND to remind him to bring his regular camera and not just his phone with him during his regular, daily activities. Homework, an issue to be the center of an entire subsequent blog entry, has destroyed our evening and weekend family life significantly.
- One negative, and a reason I am writing this blog, is that parents, professionals and advisors are not always as sharp and primed as I to jump to the rescue of children with learning differences, especially twice exceptional. I cannot imagine what our life would be like if my son’s first psychologist did not indulge my concerns for my son at such a young age. Nor could I imagine the academic abyss my son would be climbing out of if he had not been given a supportive team at his first school and an even more supportive academic advisor in grades 10-12. Yes, I am weeping again! This happens when you have a heart attack and realize that human compassion is not as prevalent as one might think and that being surprised by such grace OUGHT to be moving, at least to a point of gratitude! My advice? LEARN, yourself, what it takes for your child to succeed! Know what that is and advocate for it on every level possible! Imagine if I had merely said to the psychologist, “OK, let’s wait until he’s 9 or 10 years old.” He would NOT have gotten early intervention in the form of Orton-Gillingham instruction! (A huge shoutout to MS BETH BALDWIN, who remained semi-retired a bit longer so she could take my son through the entire Orton-Gillingham sequence!!) He would not have his 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-grade teachers on board with helping him compensate for his learning differences. He would not have been encouraged to be creative or a leader at a young age, because he would have been safely “average.” All children deserve to reach the highest potential they can in the safest and most dignifying environment. I made sure this was so, but it has taken a great deal of time and effort in our family to do so!
This story inspires innately, and I in no way want to stretch it into something pedantic and contrived! But, as can be intuited from volumes of educational research, great teachers organically differentiate instruction, accommodate for student exceptionalities and connect students’ strengths and interests to the overall objectives for the class. A teacher can learn to be great! It is the essence and joy of the work I do, to inspire a teacher that is full of humility, passion and enthusiasm. There are so many research-based teaching strategies that individually or collectively help all students learn better while helping the teacher streamline instruction! The conflict always surfaces when a student begins to “slip” or “fail” or “not reach her potential.” Educators and parents alike must work together to reconcile observations of a struggling child, her/his potential for achievement and what can be done to help that child progress happily, healthily and heartily.
It took a bit longer to feel confident in mentioning these amazing people by name. I could mention other educators such as the one in the next blog who have molded Matthew in positive ways all along his K-12 educational journey. MR. BENENATI‘s professionalism and respect for Matthew, along with the encouraging and timely nudge from NICOLE BEALE to let Matthew study something of personal interest like Photography kept Matthew from losing steam running the race to nowhere (see “Frogs on a Treadmill” in this blog.).