“We have to recognize that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence. Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” 

Dr. Cornel West
Race Matters

Dr. Cornel West is a lifelong educator, philosopher and activist who is a well-known voice in the realms of civil rights, the arts and Black history. He is a product of a teacher mom, born in Oklahoma, 1953. Because of his mother’s dedication to education for all, West was driven to attain the highest level of degrees when he was older. He majored in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at Harvard and earned a Masters as well as a Doctorate in Philosophy at Princeton.  West became a university lecturer and professor at multiple institutions including Harvard, where he is a professor of African-American studies, Yale and the University of Paris. He wrote prolifically and his best-seller, Race Matters, came out in 1993 among over 20 more books. Among these additional books is The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads which he wrote with Sylvia Ann Hewlett to advocate for the need to “give new dignity to the parental role and restores our nation’s commitment to the well-being of children.” As well as writing and teaching about Black-centric topics, West was and still remains a political activist. As a child and young man, he joined civil rights demonstrations in California and protested South Africa’s apartheid while teaching at Yale.

Teaching Philosophy

Teaching Cornel West

West’s website explains that he “has a passion to invite a variety of people from all walks of life into his world of ideas in order to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.” His dedication to ensuring that all voices are heard, all learners are seen and that everyone has access to the education that they deserve is deeply inspiring. His lectures, writings and research are centered around diversity, equity and inclusion work, advocating tirelessly for justice in and out of the classroom. He argues that connections with learners, families, communities and beyond are what drive our ability as a society to support each other. At Learnfully, relationships are the guiding light for our learners because, without connections, our learners would not feel safe and supported.  Fighting for justice across boundaries allows learners to access layers of academia that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to access.  West strongly believes that education without depth, critical thinking and problem solving is simply surface thinking. Thankfully, our Educational Specialists uphold the same values in their implementation. Learners must be able to be their true, authentic selves and, in doing so, be challenged to think beyond the text. West encourages educators to use Socratic questioning, which involves disciplined and thoughtful discussions through open-ended prompts, whenever possible in order to build this skill in students. 

In sum, depth of thought and inclusive practices are at the forefront of a learners’ trajectory according to West. His undying dedication to educating all members of society to explore thoughts, ideals, and societal norms has expanded our teaching methodologies, allowed learners of all races, genders, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds to find joy in the learning process, and encouraged the collective to show love by fighting injustices while doing so.

Want to Learn More?

To read more about West and his views of education as a human right, please visit the following: 

Dr. Cornel West, in his Own Words

Cornel West Delivers Lecture on the Importance of Education

Cornel West Tells Crowds at NAU that Education Matters

By definition, to differentiate is “to recognize or ascertain what makes (someone or something) different, to identify differences between (two or more things or people) and/or to make (someone or something) appear different or distinct.” Seems simple, right? Simple could not be any further from the truth. Educators are challenged every minute of every school day by the layers of differentiation that are required of them, understandably so. When you take into consideration one must react according to the many unique learning styles, the varying attention spans and levels of engagement from learner to learner, and the layers of diversity in both the foundational and applicational skills within each learner, then the demand seems almost impossible.

Research states that only 5% of information delivered in a lecture format is retained, while 50% of discussions, 70% of hands-on practice, and 80% when learners teach to each other is retained. So, in order to meet our ultimate goal of empowering neurodiversity, we are going to try to simplify one of the most complex, yet essential, topics in education today, wish us luck!

There are four ways that an educator can implement instruction on a differentiated basis: content, process, and product.

Content: what the learner needs to learn or how they will access the information being taught.

Process: activities in which the learner engages with the content and others to make sense of and connect to the content.

Product: output exhibited in many fashions to reflect the learners’ knowledge and ability to extend their understanding as well as to think critically about the content.

Environment: the way the classroom looks and feels.

Now that we have the definitions in mind, let’s explore examples of differentiation for each of these categories!

Content:

  • Diversify reading materials (levels, interests, densities, etc.) as well as forms of media to gauge how they learn best.
  • Provide content recordings, videos, and so forth.
  • Use readiness levels to diversify content such as spelling and vocabulary tasks.
  • Incorporate a mix of small-group, whole-group, and individual lessons.

Process:

  • Use tiered/leveled activities.
  • Offer and encourage the use of manipulatives or handheld tools as well as movement/sensory breaks as often as is needed.
  • Vary the length of time a learner has to complete an assignment.
  • Create interest centers and provide an array of materials for students to access at each.

Product:

  • Vary how you assess learners’ knowledge through videos, reports, projects.
  • Give learners the chance to answer questions orally or in writing.
  • Allow learners to work alone, with a partner or in a group when appropriate.
  • Offer the opportunity for learners to create their own projects.

Environment:

  • offer flexible seating (wiggle seats, buttons, pillows, standing desks, etc.).
  • develop a quiet corner for decompression and sensory needs as well as areas that welcome collaboration.
  • provide materials that represent a variety of cultures and family/home settings throughout the classroom.
  • maintain systems of routine and structure to support and model Executive Functioning expectations.

The imperative nature of differentiation on both academic and social-emotional levels is evident to educators, parents and learners alike. It is critical that we, as an educational community, always keep in mind Shawn Achor’s classic quote, “If we continue to teach to the average, we will remain average.” Our neurodiverse learners are far from average and we strive to keep them that way by helping guide their path towards their full potential through personalized and differentiated means!

Critical Thinking

The final step in the reading ladder takes content beyond the text. Developing critical thinking skills applies not solely to the reading process, but to life as a whole. Learners are constantly challenged to think independently and, thus, critically in and out of the classroom. The good news is that critical thinking is a teachable skill, so let’s explore a few steps that we can take to teach our learners how to exercise their ability to think critically!

By Definition

First and foremost, what are critical thinking skills? According to The Foundation for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” When it comes to reading between the lines, learners require and deserve explicit instruction in how to apply these levels of cognition. As you can see, the list of higher-order thinking skills can seem overwhelming! Let’s start by definition the key elements of critical thinking skills:

Analyze – the gathering, interpretation and analysis of information.

Infer – drawing conclusions based on the activation of prior experience/knowledge as well as current data.

Evaluate – the ability to observe/notice and predict opportunities, problems and solutions.

Interpret – to explain the meaning of information.

Generate – to produce or create something based on higher-order processes.

Reason – to think, understand and judge based on a process of logic.

Use Your Resources

Although we recognize that everyone learns these processes differently than another, there are a couple of key strategies that can be generalized to reach most, if not all, learners: using mental imagery and learning how to question.

Each of the aforementioned higher order thinking skills depends on a secure foundation of how to learn, process, recall and retrieve information through visual and auditory channels. The basis of this ability to comprehend language is the awareness of your thinking patterns which typically take the form of mental imagery. Tapping into the brain’s ability to conjure images allows learners to connect high level thinking abilities to a grounded foundation of mental representations. Sprinkling in sensory based language at home and in the classroom directs learners to use their imagery as a springboard for thinking critically. For example, asking questions such as, “What do you picture might happen next in the story?” “How do you picture the main character might (feel, solve the problem, etc.)” and so forth, truly helps teach critical thinking in a relatable way.

Has your learner ever asked you “Why?” repeatedly? Well, guess what? That seemingly irksome habit is actually exactly what they need to do to develop their critical thinking skills! Teaching learners to ask questions and seek support when they are unsure is important, especially when guiding learners to also questioning others’ way of thinking. Questioning assumptions helps learners to take perspective and to discover the depths of the questioning process. In addition to helping learners refine their ability to question, we must also help them evaluate, reason, connect and analyze information using logic and prior knowledge. If something does not make sense to learners, they must first question themselves, then use logic to reframe their thinking. Inquiring about others’ thought processes diversifies a learner’s ability to broaden their thinking scope, opening up a world of higher-order thinking possibilities.

Sprinkle Away

As is true when learning new things, it is easiest to break down the critical thinking umbrella into smaller, more manageable chunks so that you, as educators and parents, are able to organically sprinkle in the strengthening of these skills throughout your daily activities. Comparing similar and/or contrasting items, analyzing analogies, exploring possible outcomes/solutions (Would You Rather is a great way to have fun doing so!) and discussing angles of a conversation are all effective ways to make critical thinking part of your learner’s everyday life. By helping your learner connect their thinking to mental pictures and ask questions often, they will feel more equipped to rise to the challenge of using their higher order thinking skills across all environments!

Love is innate and provides feelings of safety and security. Especially in these unprecedented times, learners need to feel a strong level of stability in order to take risks in their learning environments.  Thanks to Dr. Gary Chapman, Dr. Ross Campbell and their book, Five Love Languages for Children, “Our basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.” According to their theory, we all express and experience love in one of five ways: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Giving Gifts, and Acts of Service. Children age four and younger remain in an exploration and discovery mode, while anyone five years and older start attaching themselves to a love language. There are many ways to gauge and, then, speak your learner’s love languages! The first step is to figure out what language you and your learners speak, then dive into communicating accordingly.

What is your Learner’s Language?

Let’s explore each love language a little more so that you can ascertain what love language your learner speaks! 

“You rock!” Does your learner light up when he/she receives verbal praise? Words of Affirmation are one of the more common love languages. 

Date Nights: Does your learner sit and wait by your side while you prep, cook, talk on the phone, exercise or work?  Children who yearn for quality time usually prefer 1:1, 10- 15 minutes can go a very long way!

High Fives: Does your learner reach for a high five directly after feeling success? Although the pandemic has added a layer of challenge when it comes to touching, educators and parents have developed really snazzy alternatives like air-fives!

Treasure Hunts: Does your learner follow their behaviors with questions about what they can expect to receive in return? Gift-giving, even though common, can require some creativity as well to avoid developing expectations in your children. 

Make & Bake: Does your learner get a little pep in his/her step when you make something together? Acts of Service can fill both of your hearts and, honestly, do not take too much effort! 

Speak Up!

The graphic below can easily serve as a springboard into both your discovery and execution of each learner’s love language. Speaking your learners’ love languages can change your household and classroom communities almost instantly because of the comfort and happiness it brings. It is important to note that love languages can shift situationally or as one ages, so you might need to refresh your thinking occasionally to ensure that you are expressing the language your learner loves! To learn more about what brings your learner feelings of joy, take this fun-filled quiz together or as a class and let us know what you uncover!

LoveLanguage

Reading Comprehension

The ultimate goal of reading is to understand what you read and to think critically beyond the text. Quite often, parents contact us with concerns about their child’s inability to remember a story that they have read. These same children also tend to struggle with recalling experiences, working through a math word problem, reading between the lines, making connections, taking perspective- the list goes on and on. If this sounds familiar to you, you are certainly not alone! Read on to learn why this occurs and how you can help provide your child with strategies to move beyond the memorization phase!

Explicit Instruction is Top Priority!

Learners, struggling or not, need to receive direct instruction in reading comprehension strategies. Without this explicit piece, learners will commonly resort to memorization which then, thus, becomes a compensatory measure as they age.

Create Images

Concept imagery, the ability to create mental movies as one reads or listens, allows learners to see the meaning behind what they are reading and connect this imagery to recall and critical thinking skills thereafter. A key strategy to heightening cognizance around the imagery language connection is to teach learners how to filter their thoughts by verbalizing what they see in their minds’ eyes. Prompting them to use sensory-based language like, “I see…” or “I picture…” will solidify their realization that words create pictures and vice versa!

If a learner struggles with telling you what they see in his/her mind, an evidence-based strategy for bringing these pictures to a conscious level is by asking direct questions to develop visualization skills such as “What colors do you see in the background? What size and shape is the (insert main subject)?” and so forth. Once a learner has mastered the ability to connect imagery to text, then you can sprinkle this language into your daily routines such as, “What do you picture you would like to do this weekend?” “What do you picture happening next in the story?” The possibilities of sprinkling sensory-based language organically at home and in the classroom are endless!

Vocabulary

Learners must have a solid vocabulary foundation in order to apply imagery to what they hear or read. Research suggests that most learners establish a strong vocabulary base by reading volumes, therefore contextualizing unknown words for later reference.

If you wish to work on specific terms that are not as easy to understand based on the context, a tried and true method is the Frayer Model (image above). This method allows learners to dive deeper into the word itself. Regardless of the written strategy you use to develop a learner’s vocabulary, it is imperative to always keep in mind that if you can’t picture it, you can’t remember it!

Chunk it Out!

Most of us do best when we break information into parts, so that we can best understand the whole. With that, you can develop learners’ reading comprehension skills by breaking information into pieces, then building complexity and density as they show more independence. This can be done by isolating one word, a phrase, a sentence, multiple sentences, a simple paragraph, multiple paragraphs, a page, a chapter and so on. Please continue to keep in mind that you are strengthening your learners’ ability to create mental representations for each piece of information. This should be practiced when a learner both reads expressively (aloud and silent) and listens receptively to information so that they are best able to remember information orally and silently.

Once a learner is ready to apply written techniques to this chunking method, you can start to incorporate Stop and Jots! By definition, stop and jots utilize sticky notes and can include a few key words, a question, a connection, a main idea, and just about anything noteworthy that a learner wants to capture. The note then is placed on the specific correlated page and can either remain there as a study technique or removed to practice recall/retrieval.

What’s Next

Albert Einstein once said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” Utilizing imagery and the like as a core reading comprehension strategy will allow your learners to take concrete information to an abstract level, remember what they heard and read, and feel much more confident processing dense texts (as well as their own dreams and personal experiences!). As you might have noticed, reading comprehension is not the final step of the reading process. You guessed it- applying these strategies to critical thinking skills and written expression are the last tiers in the reading ladders which we will explore in an upcoming blog!