Tag Archives: Accommodations

Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!


2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!


In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.


The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.



Who needs a 504 plan anyway? Part II


Which would you prefer to do: memorize a long list of prepositions to then write them out for a teacher or use a list of prepositions to describe your room or your favorite place by writing in a way that the reader can draw that space, including everything in it? Your answer to that question may reveal your preferred mode of learning or teaching, but the latter, when taught with appropriate professional techniques, assumes you understand the former. Never, including in the 8th grade, did my daughter need a 504 Plan. prepostions-complete-1But she did need an awakening of her spirit, that verbal, happy, creative little girl that had acquiesced to a compliant vomiting mouth of information in the 7th grade. You see, in the 7th grade, I encountered my daughter memorizing a list of prepositions. I simply asked her, “What IS a preposition and why do you need to know more of them?” She could not answer, dismissed me brusquely, and stated that the test was to write the first half of the list tomorrow and the next half the next day. I walked away sad and silent.

In the 8th grade, however, my daughter was again studying prepositions, and I asked her the same question. She smiled and said, “Dad, if you’re trying to describe something in relation to something else, you’re always going to need a preposition. Look at my description of my room. I can’t describe one thing in my room in relation to another without using a preposition. My bed is next to my closet. My pillows are supposed to be on my bed, but they are either under it or out of sight!” Yes, you guessed it! I walked out of that encounter beaming with tears of joy! She was back! The humor, the voice, the redundancy and verbosity she so naturally gets from me, LOL! It was there, and all because of one teacher: Mrs. McNeer! Only a week later, I thought my daughter had gone to bed early or was sick or perhaps sad and locked up in her room. I knocked on the door to inquire if everything was OK.

She simply said, “I’m writing.”

Not wanting to pry too much, I said, “For English? For Mrs. McNeer?”

She said, “Sort of! She wrote me all these comments on my papers and said I can revise my writing any time I want. I’m not sure I want to turn it in for a grade, but she said she will always give me feedback about what I write. All I have to do is turn it in to her!”

[Silent, guarded weeping, LOL.] “Well,” I said, “She seems like a great teacher!”

Inside, however, I was screaming, “Did I just hear my daughter- the daughter who was so cynical about English that all she did was what it took to get an “A”??? Did I just hear her say the grade doesn’t matter?!?!?!? [More silent weeping]

ponderingLike Mary treasured in her heart all the angel had spoken to her regarding the Baby Jesus, I basked in the joy that a teacher is reaching my daughter and melting her hardened heart!! I would love to bore you with scenario after scenario regarding Mrs. McNeer, but I don’t want to lose readers (numbers, LOL) and I want you to know the effect she had on my son, as well! And, by the way, I probably wouldn’t bore you if I, personally, learned 8th grade English with Mrs. McNeer, but for now, you’ll have to settle for this ordinary writing style. So sorry!

Now, fast forward three years with my son’s 504 Plan! By the 8th grade, my son’s twice exceptionality and his compensation strategies for them had evolved into a mixed bag of attitude and charm with relatively high “academic achievement” in the form of grades. While he had brilliant ideas, he could not write them down without the help of speech-to-text dictation, which he gladly used when he could. When Mrs. McNeer joined “Team Matthew” to discuss the accommodations, I was confident all the teachers were going to rally as much as they were capable to make sure my son could accomplish as much as possible in relation to his potential.

sloppyI remember seeing my son’s first draft of his first writing assignment for Mrs. McNeer. I thought it was a 2nd grader’s hand-written word list. A week later, he was working on the same thing. When I asked him what he was doing, he matter-of-factly said, “Oh, Mrs. McNeer is going to try to have a conversation with me every time we need to revise so I can talk out my ideas before getting them on paper.” Wow! This one teacher is doing in her class, not as a mandated 504 strategy, the very thing I have been doing with EVERY one of his assignments, facilitating Matthew’s getting his ideas in a communicable format according to each of his different teachers’ expectations. For example, I would be his typist or he would dictate into his phone. She literally, in one gesture, streamlined his thinking and our evening home life! In the next weeks, I found my son on the couch writing on paper AND on his computer. I asked him about it and he said he was writing something else he really wanted to include in his portfolio for Mrs. McNeer’s class, that it wasn’t a requirement, but he had a great idea and he wanted Mrs. McNeer to edit it before he puts it into the portfolio!!!! [Yes, weeping and screeches of joy on the inside, a simple smile of gratitude and satisfaction on the outside.] childwritingWould that EVERY student have just ONE “McNeer” encounter along the journey of becoming a lifelong learner, writer and celebrant! My children carry Mrs. McNeer with them like a tattoo they can never hide nor will they ever choose to!

From the last post, I reiterate: Great teachers do not need a 504 Plan to reach every student! Matthew is currently learning rhetoric. When he talks about it, I know he is channeling the ideas, content, spirit and philosophy of Mrs. McNeer. Writing really is thinking on paper. For a twice exceptional student (dyslexic and dysgraphic with high academic potential), the physical act of writing on paper may not reflect the actual depth and quality of the “thinking.” A great teacher does not need a 504 Plan to help students reconcile these issues. Based on how Mrs. McNeer treated my daughter and my son, the 504 Plan was a mere inconvenient meeting to interrupt an amazing teacher’s gift to her students, the gift of inspiration, using English as a simple yet effective conduit! Forever, my wife and I are grateful!


-Clearly Stated Objectives: Not surprisingly, this story reintroduces the issue that students perform better and move off task less when they are clear about what they are being asked (taught) to do and why. Memorizing prepositions for the purpose of memorizing prepositions, with no opportunity to practice even the UNspoken objective of writing more clearly with them leaves students anxious with the wrong impressions. Yes, it is possible to memorize anything to regurgitate back onto a test. But, how does accomplishing the memorization task relate to the bigger picture? The students need clear, direct and authentic objectives that focus them toward realizing that bigger picture.

-Too Many Assumptions and Inappropriate Assessment: An issue related to the above is the following. Memorization of a list of prepositions does not help writer communicate more effectively using prepositions. Yet, teachers of every level and every content area make that kind of assumption regularly. Filling in the blank with the proper preposition in a set of cloze sentences (sentences with a word omitted and replaced with a blank) does not make a better writer. What makes a better writer by using prepositions is writing with prepositions. I DO mean to be crass and facetious here. It is the most common and most egregious error teachers make in education today. Easily fixed by proper teacher/lesson planning (one of my favorite and most anticipated blog topics), the blunder is hardly ever addressed at the teacher or administrative level because there simply is no time or expertise or context to offer the teachers the opportunity to change. Much of education is reduced to what Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (awesome educational researchers, authors and consultants) have coined “Teach-test-hope-for-the-best.” Dump material, give a test (many times not even in the same mode as students were taught) and move to the next “unit” with little or no regard for how the students mastered the material nor how they can transfer knowledge and skills to new and more complex contexts. Certainly and sadly, exceptional students, students with learning differences, cannot make the jump from “list of prepositions” to “write a descriptive essay that describes all objects in your room.” Mrs. McNeer professionally helped the students see the need for precise word choice in the form of prepositions when describing something personal. In addition, she let students explore the use of prepositions with an authentic form of feedback (the drawing of the room) and using authentic content assessment standards. Writers can explore and experiment in a safe, literate context. This issue is explained below.

-Risk-taking, opportunity to practice and fail: There is a reason the legendary 6-point lesson plan had a “Guided Practice” section! [The 6-point lesson plan will be a topic for a complete subsequent blog entry! I can’t wait!] Not only is it fair to the students to be able to practice the material to be mastered with little or no risk, but it makes sense pedagogically, metacognitively, bikeboyriskneurologically, and more. Learners need to rehearse what is expected of them to do with feedback regarding their success and with little interfering performance anxiety. In this story, memorizing close to a hundred prepositions with no idea how they will be “tested” is both stressful and counterproductive.

-Proper feedback: Penalty-free risk-taking and proper boyconfidencefeedback from the teacher interact in a miraculous way to build confidence in the learner. If Sally can’t draw Johnny’s room accurately by reading Johnny’s description with prepositions, then Sally and Johnny can talk it out, using the very prepositions they are studying. The teacher can suggest more descriptive prepositions or even objects of prepositions. The whole time, Sally and Johnny are sharpening their description skills in a meaningful, literate (communicative) context.

-Motivating students without grades: The above issue, I know, is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of professional training and practice to encourage students by planning respectful lessons that do not depend on grades. There are many approaches to handling students who are accustomed to grades and who refuse to do any practice if it is not graded. motivation_smThe bottom line in this story? Mrs. McNeer assigned meaningful work and practiced the patience of Job. She let the students know she valued their thoughts, that those thoughts would compile a personal portfolio that not only displayed their writing skills, but also their personalities, that is, the part of their personalities they wished to reveal in their writing- their VOICE! Then, with the big picture always in the back of their mind, students took risks, sometimes with abysmal results, but never in a way that discouraged them to try again. For my daughter to get her groove back and for my son to write on his own, proud of his work before, during and after publishing it to his portfolio? Miracles!

Mrs. McNeer? The angel mastermind!

-Learning to write or writing to learn: I want to suggest this issue in this context because minimal lip service is given in Education today to “Content Area Reading/Writing Instruction.” Every discipline has its own writing style, but in every discipline, students learn more of a subject content if they can write about it. The body of research that helps teachers incorporate their discipline’s literacy instruction into the lesson plans is vastly available. Every content area teacher is a writing instructor, but, with pressures such as standardized testing, “English” is now responsible for teaching writing while the rest of the subjects dump information in the form of facts into students’ heads, assuming students will be writing-to-learn-pd-for-staff-1-728able to write coherently about the full breadth and depth of each subject area. Just because I can do a matching test on the dates of a History test doesn’t mean I can write an analysis of the chronological events leading up to the American Civil War. Content and literacy need to interact during every level  of a child’s education, K-16 and beyond. Growth in literacy skills waxes and wanes in life according to how people’s interests grow and change.


  • Yes, you guessed it! Mrs. McNeer rocks! I have told her multiple times, and I have nominated her 3 times for national teacher excellence awards! Every time I’ve had to write an essay to nominate her, and it has never “won!” I’m beginning to get a complex that maybe it’s my writing, LOL. nobelHow does an average writer nominate a great English teacher! I hope this at least legitimizes my expression of gratitude for her service to and compassion for my children!
  • I have not only seen teachers, departments and schools that do what is suggested in this story, but I have worked with traditional fact-dumping teachers who changed their focus. These teachers are set on fire when they realize they can “cover the material” in a way that helps students become “literate,” or at least a bit more literate, in their subject area. I’ve had History and Civics teachers whose students wrote politicians to ask them what their ideas are about Federalism. deltaI’ve had boring Spanish teachers inspiring students to listen to  news broadcasts in Spanish and tweeting what they heard in Spanish. Teachers and administrators can change, but change and this framework of teaching itself are both messy processes. If teachers  are not allowed to take risks, think what it is like for departments, schools and districts!
  • I would be remiss if I did not admit to a documented small percentage of students whose facility with language makes it seem effortless to memorize 100 prepositions and then to use those prepositions when she (and it’s usually a she) writes. I call these students Suzy and Sam Suck-up! The “go-to” students teachers know will answer any question posed in the classroom! All we educators know who these students are. “If only we could have 31 Suzies and Sams in our class, everything would be so much easier,” we silently verbalize to ourselves. To stay true to the “positives,” I’ll just say that my daughter is a Suzy. Mrs. McNeer not only brought my daughter out of the pits of discouragement and apathy from her 7th grade experience, but she taught my daughter the RIGHT stuff in spite of her verbal proclivity. My daughter can memorize vocabulary words like it’s following a waffle recipe. But, when I use big words in conversation with her, words I know she’s memorized for some grade-school teacher or the SAT, she does a double-take, trying to reconcile the difference between the memorization of such words and their use in everyday and academic communication. Mrs. McNeer did not let my daughter get away with a superficial memorization of anything. Whatever Hope learned from Mrs. McNeer was internalized to the point of use in everyday life! Hope still writes a diary, still can self-edit using the 6+1 Traits (a writing curriculum), and still searches for self-expression and deeper learning with everything she writes, including her blog: wordsofhope.com!


  • In order for a school or department to do what is being suggested here, there needs to be a complete paradigm shift: in grading, in commitment to literacy, is restructuring content instruction, in parent/teacher communication, and much, much mbuttingheadsore. It is possible, but only in an environment that is not constrained by local, State and Federal mandates that transform great teaching into the very antithesis.
  • Teachers like Mrs. McNeer are rare and frequently misunderstood. Parents are looking for a grade or “grammar” mistakes or something traditional. While from my professional point of view, the students benefit well and long-term from such instruction, parents and students may not be ready for such focused attention on such personal student work. This places undue burdens on the teacher tonotmyjob communicate frequently and carefully to the parents and students all along the way, an arduous process. Administrators may laud the efforts of a teacher like Mrs. McNeer, holding her up as an example of excellence in education, but the trickle down effect merely communicates that English teachers like Mrs. McNeer are now responsible for teaching the entire grade to improve in writing. A great English teacher does not absolve the teachers in other departments from teaching content area literacy!


My hope is that in this blog, important issues have surfaced whether the “Story” has been an auspicious one or a story not so propitious in nature. While I have not even begun to develop the numerous planned topics, I can already see how every story cast in a “positive” light will begin to reveal the profile of educational “greatness” or “excellence.” Likewise, the overlap of issues in every story, good or bad, indicates that even though there are pockets of “good” or “great,” improvement and change are slow. This is yet another reason to ensure each post has a focusing topic. In these last two blogs, we have learned how 504 Plans done well merely look like “great teaching.” I have consulted with families where schools and teachers have failed the student in implementing the 504 Plan. There is much to learn for everyone. The players involved in a student’s 504 Plan can be her saving grace or her fall from grace. Please let me know what you think.



Who Needs a *504 Plan Anyway? Part I

*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.


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.

unknownIn 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 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. B., 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. B. 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 unknown-3“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. B. 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. B. “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. B. did not need an official document to ask my son to justify orally his choice of subject or light or whatever. Mr. B. 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. B.’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 unknown-1compensate 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 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. B.’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. B., 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. B.’s class is displayed authentically in galleries in the school and sold to the public to benefit the school. What greater reward (or learning experience) for budding photographers to have peers reviewing the work done in photography! Mr. B. 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 unknown-2appropriate 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. B.! 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. B. 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. B. 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. B.’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! 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.

BTW:  The moment my son walks across his high school stage, I will edit this post to reveal the names of Mr. B. and Matthew’s guidance counselor… They deserve so much more credit than this blog could ever provide!