Full PreFrontal

Ep. 103: Chris Herman, M.Ed – The Opposite of a “Won’t Do” Mindset

March 12, 2020 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 103
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 103: Chris Herman, M.Ed – The Opposite of a “Won’t Do” Mindset
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 103: Chris Herman, M.Ed – The Opposite of a “Won’t Do” Mindset
Mar 12, 2020 Season 1 Episode 103
Sucheta Kamath

The classroom neurodiversity happens to pose a challenge to educators not because we have a surge in the neurodiverse student body but more likely that we have acquired newer insights into how to differentiate different learners. The question remains however, what do we know about ways in which to impart knowledge and teach skills needed for their future? Since Executive Function challenges are insidious in nature, it is often hard for educators to distinguish the motives behind “can’t do” over “won’t do” behaviors. The art of teaching comes down to adjusting expectations without offering a free pass or lowering accountability while supporting skill building.

On today’s podcast, guest and head of the AIM Academy, Chris Herman, discusses how creating school-wide beliefs, principles, and approaches which include teaching and reinforcing growth in executive skills can promote strong outcomes for all students.

About Chris Herman, M.Ed
Chris Herman is Head of School at AIM Academy in Philadelphia where he has been for 14 years. There, he remains devoted to bringing school to life for children with learning differences every day. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Long Island University. He is an adjunct professor of Education at St. Joseph’s University.


Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Show Notes Transcript

The classroom neurodiversity happens to pose a challenge to educators not because we have a surge in the neurodiverse student body but more likely that we have acquired newer insights into how to differentiate different learners. The question remains however, what do we know about ways in which to impart knowledge and teach skills needed for their future? Since Executive Function challenges are insidious in nature, it is often hard for educators to distinguish the motives behind “can’t do” over “won’t do” behaviors. The art of teaching comes down to adjusting expectations without offering a free pass or lowering accountability while supporting skill building.

On today’s podcast, guest and head of the AIM Academy, Chris Herman, discusses how creating school-wide beliefs, principles, and approaches which include teaching and reinforcing growth in executive skills can promote strong outcomes for all students.

About Chris Herman, M.Ed
Chris Herman is Head of School at AIM Academy in Philadelphia where he has been for 14 years. There, he remains devoted to bringing school to life for children with learning differences every day. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Long Island University. He is an adjunct professor of Education at St. Joseph’s University.


Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer: And welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. I am here with our host, Sucheta Kamath.

Good morning, my good friend. Always good to be with you. This promises to be an intriguing conversation. I’m looking forward to it.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, it is going to be and you’re going to learn a lot, and we shouldn’t be afraid of talking to the heads of schools anymore because we are no longer children. So, my guest is going to actually prove it, just any fear anybody harbors about talking to the head of the school, he’s going to just bust that myth, but I have been interested in executive function and in the context of education, I’m always interested in seeing what the views are, what does the administration view as the journey that the child should be? And this literally came through my email this morning, Education Dive published this article, Todd. It says administrators share seven tips for building positive school culture, and there were seven different administrators from all walks of life and two stood out for me, and the reason I’m mentioning this is because this is what our guest is going to help us understand as well, but one said, “Value everyone’s journey.” This was a suggestion by Joe San Felipo, he’s a superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, and the second thing that also is a pro-executive function recommendation was “Encourage risk-taking,” which was given by Nick Polyak, he’s a superintendent of Leyden School District 212 in Franklin Park, Illinois. So, what intrigues me about these recommendations is we want to create safe environments for children, we want to offer education to all kinds of learners from all walks of life, but how do we make them feel that they belong and how do we allow their individuality to shine in spite of their individual differences? And that’s why it is such a pleasure to have Chris Herman. He is the head of school at AIM Academy in Philadelphia where he has been for 14 years. There, he remains devoted to bringing school to life for children with learning differences every day. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Long Island University, and he is an adjunct professor of education at St. Joseph’s University. He is an absolute child at the heart, he is an extremely engaging educator and a true inspiration to all the young men and women he tries to inspire. 

So, welcome to the podcast, Chris.

Chris Herman: Thanks for having me.

Sucheta: So, I start in this podcast, ask all these experts and educators about their own executive function. As you know, executive function is the CEO of the brain that governs and manages goals that one sets out to achieve, and doing so by managing thoughts, ideas, and belief system. So, what would you say about your own executive function and when did you become aware of your own management skills and its impact on the way you achieve goals?

Chris: Well, when I became aware, I guess it’s still in evolution, right? I often sit in my office with teenagers and give them advice about how to get organized, stay organized, and they look around my office and at the piles of my junk and mysterious tokens of my career lying all over the place, and so I think I’m still a work in progress for sure, and in that, I can really empathize with a 16-year-old who is struggling with time management or struggling with sustained attention. You know what, I often talk with students about my own experiences in the realm of just having poor attention skills, so a lot of the tools that I talk about using, I use myself. So, I’m a good example of an adult who is learning by doing for sure.

Sucheta: Well, that tells me that you are very humble, which is awesome, and you also are quite excepting of ongoing challenges, and I always like to remind children that they think executive function is like a degree or diploma to achieve. I always say, the more you use them, the less available they are, so they need to be replenished on a daily basis. So, that’s great that –

Chris: I think it gets harder with time.

Sucheta: Yes, it does, doesn’t it? So, let’s start here: learning is not easy and on top of that, educating struggling learners is also not easy. So, when we had our discussion, you talked a lot about the interplay between the educators effort to teach in the child’s effort to learn. Talk to me about how best to rethink the ‘they won’t do’ mindset and what does that mindset mean to you and how best to view children’s learning challenges and help them grow while holding them accountable for the expectations we have of them?


Chris: Alright, I will try to hold that whole question in my working memory while I answer it. So, in special education, there is a mythology, I think, that there is always will behind the behavior. When I say behaviors, meaning academic behavior. In my career, I’ve certainly heard the comment that a student “would not comply” or “would not follow through,” and here, we have employed a completely different mindset. We really try to stick to the facts and what can we see? So, we see a child who did not do something, maybe they did not follow through or they did not comply with the request, but we really have to work to encourage one another and ourselves to assume that they could not do it before we jump to the conclusion that they would not do it, and this can be really liberating when we think about a younger child that does not gather his things or follow the three-step directions. Well, why the older student doesn’t turn her assignments in when expected? Just assuming that there’s a lot of can’t do before we get to the won’t do. That said, we also are mastery-based and we know that if we’ve taught something to a child and we’ve practiced it and reasonably expect that they know how to do it that there is a place for accountability, so I think about spelling rules, for example, and if we know we’ve taught the spelling concept of long vowel and silent E, we know that we’ve seen a student do it, we’ve practiced it, then we can also insist that a student do it reliably and continue to embed it in their writing practice and eventually become independent, but if they don’t do it one time, it doesn’t mean that they won’t do it, it just means that they didn’t do it. So, this mindset of identifying can’t do’s over won’t do’s, not a free pass to no accountability in any way, but it’s about adjusting the expectation about what we know a child can and cannot do.

Sucheta: Yeah, and I really love this way of thinking because what you are saying, there is, of course, a certain balance to be attained that the child doesn’t exhibit these behaviors, that means let’s start assuming that there are some barriers, and that is a true opportunity to educate, isn’t it? And the second thing I like, that when you work on mastery, you’re also inviting the student to really commit to acquiring mastery and that mastery won’t come if you don’t do. So, it’s a really great way to think.

So, tell us a little bit about AIM Academy, and I had the wonderful opportunity to know your founders and we have gone on several trips together at a dyslexia foundation bantering over these deep discussions about how to support the needs and development of children with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.

Chris: Well, AIM opened 14 years ago with an interesting model in that we had two moms who had daughters who learn differently and they were looking at the landscape of schools when their children were transitioning into middle school and high school and they were saying sort of to themselves that this is as good as it gets and they looked at one of our founders, Pat Roberts, she’s an entrepreneur and a business woman and she said, the market for a business is always best when you are responsive to the customer and nimble, and reflect on your practice and do better and seek to improve your product, and she didn’t really see that in education, and our other founder, Nancy Blair, is a nurse anesthetist by training and she said in science and medicine where we always look to the research to see what is it that can improve our practice, and she didn’t really see that in education.

So, enter AIM Academy. This school, we opened with 24 students as part of that founding team in 2006. It was really exciting, and we’ve just grown. Every year, we’ve doubled in size and doubled in size, and since we opened, we’ve experienced over 1500% growth in enrollment, 1500% growth in staff and faculty, we’ve moved campuses twice.

Sucheta: Wow.

Chris: And we now enroll just under 400 students and have about 150 staff and faculty to support those students, and in this grander vision that we have, I am running the school and our founders are running what’s known as the AIM Institute for Learning and Research, and so that is – our students, we really feel, are the lucky ones. They’re getting all this access to research and professional development right now in the classroom and Pat and Nancy are taking that same research and trying to bring it out so that other kids in other settings can benefit from it, so for example, right now, they’re training every prekindergarten teacher or kindergarten teacher rather in a lower SEF school district nearby, and so it’s pretty exciting work that they are engaged in, sort of the outreach and bringing this kind of instruction to other kids.

Sucheta: So, quick sidebar about that, so what is the criteria for you to admit a child? What kind of difficulties or disabilities do you consider you best serve?

Chris: So, we don’t service children with learning disabilities, we service children with learning differences and we really embrace that terminology, so every student is enrolled at AIM has a diagnosed learning difference, typically dyslexia or something like dyslexia. As you know, language-based learning disabilities can run a wide spectrum, from reading comprehension to just word level disabilities, to word level differences, to a combination of the two. Many of our students also have a comorbid issue with attention or with math, or anxiety, but our program is predominantly geared toward servicing children with language-based learning differences.


Sucheta: So, yeah, I don’t think our listeners may be fully aware. Do you mind explaining quickly the difference between learning differences versus learning disabilities? Why do you not use those interchangeably?

Chris: We do school differently because our students learn differently, and so we don’t do school differently because our children are disabled. They are really gifted and talented in so many ways, and so this nomenclature that they are disabled, while it’s medical in nature, is also unfair, and that our children are incredibly bright and many of them are talented in ways that are far superior to a non-learning disabled student someplace else, and so we emotionally don’t like the terminology because it’s placing our children at a disadvantage when we think that the way they see the world, their perspective differences based on their learning differences actually give them an advantage in many cases.

Sucheta: I love that. That’s really empowering the child too, that a learning difference is to me being a human. To have a disability, inability, or difficulty is to be a human and getting the right support and help, but the way you frame it can have a very positive impact, so I appreciate that. So, executive function skills are hard to master and the everyday executive function demands are countless, so it is really hard to get the kids up to speed, and the whole MO of teaching and learning where they have to perform or fulfill expectations, there is a whole lot to be done and learned beyond the walls of schools and beyond the walls of learning, so with that in mind, as the head of the school, what does a pro-executive function culture mean to you?

Chris: Well, AIM is designed specifically for children for whom traditional school does not come easily to, so I think that being pro-EF, having a pro-EF culture means that every teacher and staff member has to understand executive functions from both a theoretical aspect and also a functional aspect of how executive functions impact every aspect of your life, and so everyone here knows that executive functions play a significant role in a child’s ability to plan and prioritize, to execute, set goals, to initiate, to follow through, to sustain attention, to regulate their emotions, to organize, to control their impulses, to self-advocate, to shift, and all the other things that executive functions play a part in. It’s really important that everyone here, from the first grade teacher to the phys ed teacher, to the dining hall staff really understand what executive functions are and how they impact student performance from anything, from the playground to the classroom to the lunchroom. There’s a limited understanding, I think, in the world of what executive functions are in that they are just about getting your homework done and turned in on time, and we really want everyone in our building, not just our reading teachers to understand that this is bigger than that and it’s really wrapped around every other aspect of daily living.

Sucheta: Yes, and I love the way you are saying from teachers to janitors, that does bring me to this question, that what specific strategic steps the school has taken to cultivate and promote that pro-EF culture with each of the members that you serve who are involved in teaching? And the challenge that I find in getting everybody to understand executive function is, as you mentioned, it’s like the seven blind men and an elephant, you know, it depends on what part of executive process you touch upon that seems to be rubbing the wrong way or not fully in the right place, so how does AIM develop the teachers’ understanding of executive function which needs to be a little bit more deeper than the other supporting staff? So, how do you accomplish both?

Chris: It’s like everything that we do, it all comes back to training. The strongest outcomes for students come from the best training teachers, and this is true if you’re teaching core reading skills or math, it is also true of your teaching and reinforcing growth in executive skills. So, as a team, we’ve attended many outside professional developments. Obviously, we continue to do so as more and more comes online in terms of what’s available for teacher knowledge. We’ve also brought in lots of speakers to speak either specifically about executive skills and others who also talk more broadly about ADHD and anxiety, and the connection between frontal lobe behavior and pressure and stress, and some speakers that come to mind, we have Jerome Schultz, Jennifer Jackson Holden, [00:14:11], and Nancy Hennessy have been in here talking about the role that executive functions play in reading and writing, and this February, we have a George McCloskey from PCOM coming to run a professional workshop on the broad experience of a child, again, not just with their homework when it comes to executive skills, and the outside PD is really just one part of what we do because we have a robust team of five occupational therapists and five school psychologists for our 400 students, and they are all experts in this arena. So, they run workshops over lunch, they consult with teachers as part of our integrated service model, they help augment and enhance lessons, they run full faculty, professional trainings, they also cocreated curriculum for our advisors and our classroom teachers. We can help children about their executive skills and why they matter in school and outside school, and we are always growing. We’re always figuring out more and more ways that we can impact our teacher knowledge.

Sucheta: The integrated services model that you just described which is kind of understanding that there are many ways to help the child or develop a child and taking the time to give specialized attention from experts who understand of the content really well. Can you share with us a little bit about what kind of occupational therapy needs that your children may have?

Chris: Many of our youngest students have occupational therapy needs that are sort of expected – handwriting and grow some fine motor skills. The older our students get, we find that our OTs really are focusing on developing executive skills and that could happen in a pullout model or a push in model, or a consultation with teachers model. The older students get, the more they are expected to be independent in managing not just their resources but managing how they access all of their resources, managing how they prioritize their activities, and if you’ve been around a teenager lately, you know that they have religious classes and soccer practice, and school all day. Some of them have jobs, and for a regional school like us where some families are driving two hours to get to school, it can be incredibly complicated to navigate all of that, and then now, it’s exam time, and you have to study for five exams in the same week, and so our OTs are really focused on helping both teachers and students, and families, both in direct service and also in consultation, navigate all of that, and that’s not just for our OTs. Our speech and language pathologists also integrate executive function support and how they intervene on writing skills and reading skills, and our school psychologists often are the ones helping generate, cocreated curriculum for our advisers and our classroom teachers.

Sucheta: Yeah, and I love the example that you gave about an in-service one of your psychologists did about eating lunch and how executive functions are involved in that. Do you mind sharing that? That was a really good example.

Chris: We sit down for an executive function article or a career in executive functioning article, or for professional development, you’re often talking about how EF skills impact homework, how EF skills impact a backpack or a locker, or organization or turning in an assignment as you’ve finished, and they demystified executive functioning skills down to picking up your lunch, sitting down at the table, eating your lunch, taking your tray back, putting your tray away, getting to the playground, knowing where to go to play, knowing what to do. If you don’t quite know where to go to play, knowing how to ask for help, and just all of the many executive skills, and not that our students can’t navigate that but just really as a pulling back the curtain on all the brain activities that’s happening when one is doing something as simple as go to the lunchroom, and that would be at a time where as a school, we provide the least amount of support and perhaps there’s the most noise coming that makes it even harder to navigate all of the different moving parts.

Sucheta: Yeah, and I like that because I think instead of focusing on only relevant skills, relevant, like where the pressure point is, so homework turning, so I see a lot of schools strategizing or even having a separate study skills class, but then it’s almost treated as a non-integral element of living a life. You know, no, executive function is present in every aspect of your life, so I love that example.

Tell us a little bit about how do you get your children to see the importance of executive function in their own lives? As you are teaching explicitly and systematically some of these processes that are intel in managing information and managing learning, insight is always the biggest problem when we talk about executive function challenges.

Chris: It sure is a challenge, right? Because if you subscribe to the Dawson-Guare model, you know that the best way to teach EF skills is through real-life applicable experiences: going to that – as you say, going to that standalone executive skills class, and then coming back and having to apply it, it rarely transfers that easily, and if it does transfer that easily, you probably didn’t need the executive skills coaching class in the first place – you would have figured it out on your own, so the best way to teach a routine to migrating systems of practice, the most important routines, so therefore, we’ve had to think of ways that we can teach about executive skills as standalone concepts, and then show how they impact life, and then weave that instruction into actual skills in everyday classrooms or nonacademic activities. That’s really challenging, obviously, because you really have to pull that thread all the way through.

So, we have historically taught about EF skills and standalone concepts through special classes, like I I had said, run by key faculty like occupational therapists or school psychologists, and for our youngest children, this is about teaching them about the brain, and the older they get, the more demystification we can do. We teach about the role of the executive functions play through a lot of reflective practices and not only is it how do you study, but did you study? How did you study? How did that work for you and what can we do differently next time? Let’s make a plan for next time, so in our older grades, we do a lot about tests and exams, and in fact, a truly valuable experience can sometimes come in the form of productive failure, so let’s give you the tools you need to prepare for a unit test, for example, let’s walk you through where you find your materials, let’s walk you through creating a schedule for preparation, let’s think about all the other demands, competing demands, on your time, and then you either do it or you don’t do it, and if you do it, you get to see how good planning and execution result in positive outcomes, and if you don’t do it, you get to see how good planning and poor execution results in negative outcomes, and that reflection after failure can be an amazing teaching tool, so we sort of preach the value of failure around here and that there is a healthy reaction to success and a healthy reaction to failure.

Sucheta: I love that.

Chris: Our goal is [00:20:27] really help students attribute the success to good practice and failure as an opportunity for more learning.

Sucheta: Yeah, I know, I love that. I think a healthy reaction success and failure, not just one over the other, I think that’s what wholesome development is.

So, talk to me about the most challenging students, considering so many ways you are opening their eyes and giving them the support that they need, who will be a relatively harder student to teach because of the nature of their challenges, not because they are being difficult?

Chris: Well, I’d say anyone with a profound executive dysfunction is a really challenging child to teach in that they will be the hardest to really grab onto a structure and do it again. When we have a student that comes to us much older, maybe in ninth, 10th, or 11th grade and they have not had any success practicing their executive skills and they come to us, you think they’re going to get those overnight? That child maybe has attention deficit disorder also. I’d say the hardest ones to intervene upon are the ones who also have a thousand interests and none of them are classroom-based.

Sucheta: Yes. Seen those.

Chris: So, they’re like, “I love biking! I love football! Yeah, I love everything except math,” and so they can be challenging. So, I think then it becomes our job to make math really interesting.

Sucheta: Yeah, tell me a little bit about this idea that those – so, one is, yes, of course, profound executive dysfunction, second is one who has not maybe profound but has never had received any intervention-based approach, rather, they have not accepted it, right? How do you manage them? What do you do? What’s your typical first line of defense at them?

Chris: We have a lot of primary prevention measures across all of our divisions here that hope to catch 90% to 95% of those students and they are age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate executive scatter, and after there, we can really isolate the 5% to 10% of kids who really need a heavier intervention, and that’s where we will sort of call in the troops and that will involve our occupational therapist, our school psychologist, our advisers, our families. They’re outside therapists, and really, let’s get around this child and figure out what can they do right now, what do you want them to be able to do when they graduate high school, and how do we build our benchmarks and get there and what do we have to do in between? And I’d say that when it comes to intervening on executive skills, we find that we have to continuously tweak. I think it’s very clear how to teach a dyslexic child how to read actually and we are able to put in an intervention and we watch it work and we count how fast it works. When it comes to executive skill development, I think we put in an intervention and we watch it work but maybe not as much as we wanted it to work. I think it’s rare that we put in an intervention and they see success overnight, so it’s about the long game, and for some of our older students, especially if they’re coming to us later, their families might want us to fix it quick which is really get a tutor so they get their work done, so they get better grades. That doesn’t really give them the option to practice the routine to reflect on their behavior and to get better over time. You really have to get everyone on the team committed to digging in and being in it for the long-haul.

Sucheta: I really appreciate its impact on an individual child because these are the kids who are misfits in many structured or “typical” schools and sometimes, there are not a lot of schools that offer intervention until their graduation from high school, and what’s so interesting is, as you mentioned, if they are not receptive to the help that they need which is an essential way of driving, then artificially, many people in their lives are providing the support so they just manage to get the grades that taps into their talent or shows that they have talent, and then, these are the children who disaster would stay until college, which is typically what I see in my practice as well.

Chris: Yeah. We find the students who have experienced at least some form of failure when they were younger do better in college because they’ve learned how to un-fail, and the students who have been – I think they’re being called lawnmower moms, the ones who the lawn has been for mowed in front of them everywhere they’ve gone, so they never get to experience that failure, they really fall apart when they get to college because they haven’t figured out how to prevent and being nimble, and fix it.

Sucheta: I love that.

So, we discussed this, Chris, earlier that EF skills often get mislabeled or underestimated when we use the term “soft skills.” Because they are self-regulatory in nature, they can be missed in the context of a school life if the teachers are guiding or regulating the kids instead of them, or the school is structured enough that it doesn’t require that self-regulation to be tested. So, speak to us as to how you draw links between executive function in young children and how those same skills of regulation, planning, initiation, and follow-through come back again in later years, both in school and life. Yeah, speak to us about that.

Chris: I suppose the best way to draw those connections is through incrementally increased demands on the executive skills themselves. So, in truth, the skills we are teaching and practicing in first grade are actually, really not that different than the ones we might use in adulthood, but the context has just changed, so I think about being explicit and I think our teachers explicitly describe how planning the day using a calendar is something they do as an adult. I can hear them explain the checking in on one’s own organization for initiation, regulation is something that they do in everyday life, and that this way, the student, they’re able to overtime recognize they are not practicing the school skills, they’re practicing life skills. I talk about always admitting to my students that my attention is my Achilles’ heel, and I think that that vulnerability also helps. I have to admit, it’s hard for me to sustain attention, it’s hard for me to focus, yet I’m still a successful adult, so I can use myself as an example both of someone who uses many, many compensatory strategies and also someone who continues to struggle in a way that’s very similar to them, so they get to see it in that way.

Sucheta: So, do you mean there’s a much greater intentionality in the earlier teachings of some of the aspects of executive function which are much more tangible and, I guess, palpable to children, but eventually, an avalanche of those skills are needed and they become more implicit and embedded in the way you run things, and that’s where there is a gap, right?

Chris: Yeah, I think it’s about sort of the accumulation of all those things, so we are teaching the youngest students to follow one-step directions, and then we are teaching our oldest students to write 12-page term papers, all the growth that has to happen in between those two where it’s the same as reading skills where we might see a boom in our enrollment in third grade because suddenly, the homeschools or home districts are saying, “Whoa, this child has a reading issue.” They might also be saying, “Wow, this child has an intention or executive issue because they can’t follow our third-grade skills but there was a lot fewer demands on their EF skills in the first and second grade, far fewer demands on their reading and writing skills in first and second grade, and so think about now let me also get a boom when it comes to sixth grade and the transition to middle school which happens in Pennsylvania around sixth grade where suddenly, you get sort of pushed off into the abyss of you must change teachers for every class system, navigate notebooks for every classroom, you have to monitor your schedule, you have to figure out this gigantic building that you’ve never been to before and orientation last for two days, just thinking about those very intentional entry points and being really intentional on how we scaffold around the executive demands of transitioning through middle school and really thinking thoughtfully about how we are going to help our students transition to college. It’s sort of that whole process all over again of unknowing everything and essentially starting life over from scratch, except you don’t have your parents there to help you.

Sucheta: Somebody told me the story which is crazy what this mother called the college’s computer technology department and said, “Can I get somebody to go to my daughter’s room, her computer is not working?” and they said, “Who are you and how did you get my number?”

Chris: Did they go? Did they go?

Sucheta: No, they said, “Absolutely not!” So, yes, my younger one is at Columbia and I had gone to visit their learning support department and I met with the head and I said, “So, what do you think about executive function? Do you see much?” and she said, “Oh, let me tell you,” so she said one summer, she got a call from a parent asking that, “My son has gotten into this school, he’s very talented, but do you have a wake up service?” and she said, “What?” She says, “Well , the only trouble he has is somebody has to wake him up, literally physically getting him out of bed, and I’ve been doing that all throughout his high school and I’m a little worried of who will do that for him?” So, as you mentioned, I think you are so hyper focused on school skills and really not thinking about the life skills, but they pile up on you without much awareness and I also like to say to people that executive dysfunction is evident in failure. It’s never evident in success, and it’s a cultural disadvantage because you always blame people for not having them but we never celebrate people for having those good skills, and the kids don’t know until they are required to exhibit them.

So, let’s talk about this interesting concept of interactive humanities that you have at AIM and you like to connect the students and their executive function development through the subjects that they are getting. That will be a great idea to just talk about.

Chris: It’s awesome, that’s all I got to say, it’s awesome. You take students who are not yet literate or not fully literate and you say, how do you build literacy? And one of the ways that you build literacy is by reinforcing and strengthening background knowledge, and one of the most important ways that you reinforce and strengthen background knowledge is by reading, and so now, that puts you in a peculiar situation if you can’t read, and so we have to figure out how are we going to build background knowledge without relying on the students’ reading skills while we are teaching them to become stronger readers, knowing that we need the background knowledge to help them become stronger readers? So, this whole environment, this immersive learning environment that starts in lower school and really continues all the way through 12th grade, this philosophy around the value of immersive learning to become more literate, both culturally and functionally literate, permeates really through a lot of our classes. The interactive humanities that you are referencing are in our lower school and this is grades one through five, and then a slightly different version in grades six, seven, and eight, and these are these very immersive classrooms where instead of going to history class, you go to the middle ages, for example, and in the middle ages, every fourth-grader here takes on a character, they enter a classroom that is painted like, decorated like the inside of a medieval castle, their teacher is a medieval character, and so I taught this class for a while and it was pretty, it was probably the highlight of my teaching career when every day, I would dress up as Merlin the wizard, and my students would come to the round table in the classroom and they would take on characters from the middle ages. The might be Richard the Lionheart or Saladin, or Joan of arc, and they would take those characters, they would dress as those characters, and they will role-play those characters all year long, so they are steeped in this dramatic framework of the time, and all along the course of the year, I taught them medieval history, so 10-year-olds learning medieval history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, and –

Sucheta: Oh, wow!

Chris: 1000 years, and they are learning about the Battle of Hastings, they are learning about Charlemagne, they’re learning about Rus’ and Vikings, and they’re learning about exploration and the dawn of the [00:32:17] and just this amazing content in curriculum and it’s all being learned through listening, through storytelling, through re-creating, replicating artifacts from that time period, building small castles while they learn the story of Richard III, building trebuchets, and they learn about the Battle of Hastings, making a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry if they’re learning about the Norman invasion, just this incredible arts-based, hands-on, fully immersive curriculum, and when they leave, they have had the best time ever, they think that they’ve been at camp when really they’ve been in the reading class.

Sucheta: Wow, that’s so cool.

Chris: And that’s just one, and I fast-forward all the way to 12th grade where we’ve got our students thematically studying a place in the world and then taking them to that place in the world to see it in real life, so all their classes thematically surrounding a place like Greece, they might be taking an architecture class, mythology class, an environmental science class focused on the Peloponnesian peninsula, a Greek literature class, and then we go to Greece, and they get to see it all, and –

Sucheta: Wow, that’s so awesome, really, really awesome. You know, of course, what so interesting as you are mentioning this, that memory researchers talk about this as source memory. So, as we recall, the recall is strengthened not by the content alone, but the context in which the content was learned, so the smells and the sounds and what you were wearing, where you were standing, the position of this and the position of that, all those contribute to memory and these act as retrieval cues, so what you’re providing the kids is really these amazing robust retrieval cues, so memory can be more well-embedded. So lovely, I love that.

So, as we come to an end, if you had all kinds of powers and all kinds of money and you are truly the Merlin that you talk about, if you could influence education, what would you like to see change?

Chris: Interest matters. One of the best things that we could be doing to teach focusing on task planning, initiation is to provide opportunities for children to focus on those things, and so it’s just so much easier to do this when you’re engaged in a task that you enjoy or you’re interested in. One of our primary goals, I think, as schools is to create the space where the most interesting thing in the room is of the learning. I think we all have the example of the child who can’t stop looking out the window because a bird flew by, and I think you have to ask yourself, if the bird is that interesting, then what am I doing to make my instruction and my activities inherently more interesting than the bird? I think then we give our children a successful experience of the focus, sustained attention, well-executed and regulated work to reflect upon, and having that great point of reflection gives the students the ability to say, “I want to do that again, let me do that again.”

Sucheta: Oh, that would be so great! Do you have any thoughts why this is not happening right now?

Chris: Yeah, but I’ll just think to myself.

Sucheta: And I don’t mean in a facetious way but you know, I speak to educators often and everybody has such great intentions and I just see that they are unable to engage the kids. It’s just a shame, and it looks so top-heavy and dogmatic, and uninteresting, but also, there’s a great rush to get through things and almost the feeling that if we stop and take a detour, it’s going to derail some sort of agenda, which I understand, but any thoughts?

Chris: Well, I think it’s hard. You know, it’s hard to create novel experiences for kids every day, so schools, we all have to work hard all the time to create that space for our teachers to create novel experiences for kids. It takes planning time, it takes collaborating time, it takes professional development time, it takes knowledge of the children that we have and when you have classes of 10, it’s much easier than when you have classes of 30 or 32. We have the great benefit of being in a small school and that gives us the ability to really know every child so well, and it’s something I wish for every school, let’s just put all that context around the child and why they are or are not doing something, not necessarily will or won’t do something, because we understand their brains, and so in that way, children with learning differences are fortunate that they get these comprehensive evaluations, and they get to understand, we get to unpack how they learn, whereas more typical traditional students don’t get that benefit of that kind of assessment of their actual functioning, so we don’t get to see what the mixing board in their brain looks like.

Sucheta: Yes. Well, Chris, thank you for sharing, this got a little dreamy and aspirational but I don’t see us being too far and why not, right? So, I really appreciate you coming on the show today and giving us your expertise and wisdom, and really sharing with the listeners when it’s done well, you see nothing but great results, so I really appreciate. Thank you.

Chris: Thank you, it was great to be here.

Producer: Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. Well, Sucheta, I want to take Merlin’s class. That sounded fascinating to me. Great, great stuff.

Alright, if you know someone who would benefit from listening to today’s episode, we would be most grateful if you would kindly forward it directly to them. So, on behalf of our host Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Chris Herman and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to see you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.