Building Blocks for Learning
The Dearborn Academy Elementary/Middle School curriculum is aligned with the Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks. Instruction in all classes is modified to suit our students’ diverse learning needs.
Our core academic program includes language arts and math where small classes are grouped by skill level so teachers can maximize their focus on these critical building-block needs. Our Social studies, science and writing classes are somewhat larger and more diverse. Two staff members work together to modify the way content is presented so each child is able to follow the lessons and participate in a meaningful way.
Dearborn teachers collaborate closely with one another and with the Learning Center staff to ensure that teaching strategies are consistent. The Learning Center gives students extra support in a one-on-one or small group setting. Older students with significant reading weaknesses are often reluctant to work in larger groups. They usually find the Learning Center’s more private setting easier to deal with.
There’s no single correct way to learn. That’s why we adapt the way we teach to our students’ abilities and interests. Adaptations include modified instructional language, thinking maps and graphic organizers, as well as hands-on activities and project-based learning. As often as possible, we try to relate material to real-life problems and to students’ life experiences.
Doing the Math
Recent studies suggest that anxiety about math can be learned from others. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that hinders a student’s potential for success. In short, math anxiety can be contagious – a child can quite literally pick it up from his or her family, teachers or peers.
At Dearborn, we focus on creating an environment that gives students confidence in their math skills. Math anxiety is far more common but no less debilitating than more well-known disabilities such as dyscalculia (more below), but it can be overcome.
Our goal is for all our students to be working at grade-level or above in mathematics while they also learn to enjoy math.
To meet students’ individual needs, we organize math into small groups based on ability and learning style. In math, there are no more than six students in a group and more typically just two or three. We hold math classes five times a week for 40 minutes and give most students math homework four times a week.
We know that some students learn more successfully when we use real-life examples, while others do better when we focus on concepts, so we adapt our teaching methods to meet student needs. You’ll find, for example, manipulatives, board games, computer programs, data collection projects and hands-on activities are more common than worksheets and memorization in many of our groups. Advanced students who enjoy math will have many opportunities to progress beyond grade level and explore more challenging math content.
Math topics range from solidifying basic computation to mastering fractions, decimals, and percents to learning various levels of geometry, probability, statistics, and algebra, depending on the student. To help students master the required content, we use a variety of techniques and materials from computer programs to practice and review along with standard texts, manipulatives, and skill-building activities.
Our aim is to help students generate successful problem-solving approaches, learn how to apply what they are learning, and build solid critical thinking skills.
Students with Dyscalculia
Dyscalulia is a specific learning disability. It includes difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, learning math facts, and a number of other related symptoms. It can result from a brain injury or it may be genetic or developmental in origin. Estimates of the prevalence of dyscalculia range between 3 and 6 percent of the population. Some studies suggest that children with dyslexia are more likely to have dyscalculia than the general population.
At Dearborn, students who are struggling with math can be assessed to determine the nature of their disability. Our staff, working closely with each student’s IEP team, will design an appropriate course of action. The Dearborn staff is experienced in teaching children with dyscalculia and can help them make significant progress.
Essential to Learning
Math literacy and math confidence are essential to learning. As students advance through the grades, we work to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge they need to successfully meet the graduation requirements and to use math thoughtfully and effectively in their future learning and in their lives outside of school.
Becoming a reader is one of the most critical milestones in elementary education.
Many of the children who come to Dearborn Academy in the elementary school have language-based learning challenges. We’re one of the few schools in the state with significant expertise in addressing both language-based learning disabilities and behavioral, emotional or social challenges. Since so much of learning depends on reading and writing, language-based delays can obstruct a student’s growth in many areas and be devastating to a child’s self-esteem.
The Dearborn Reading Approach
Dearborn Academy’s roots are in working with students who have language-based learning disabilities. Walter Dearborn was a pioneer in the psychology of reading and one of the earliest experts on dyslexia. Building from this historic focus, for decades we have committed extensive staff resources and built an approach to reading that incorporates a variety of techniques proven to help students at all levels learn to read more effectively.
We start with a comprehensive assessment to learn what is holding a student back. We then employ explicit interventions, exercises and activities to address the student’s specific learning difficulties. When students receive skilled one-on-one support, they can often make progress very quickly. All students benefit from the specific reading instruction provided in the classrooms.
Some students will require supplemental services provided through our Learning Center professionals (Reading Teachers, Speech Pathologists and Occupational Therapist) in addition to their classroom work. Since many students have had difficulty over several years with reading, we often assign simpler books at first that we know will capture their interest and build their confidence. As they gain greater fluency and comfort, we’ll offer more challenging books.
Not all Dearborn students struggle with literacy. When students are reading and writing at grade level or above, we create small groups where we can continue to expand their higher-level comprehension skills, literature appreciation and more complex writing skills. Our teachers are excited to introduce new worlds to our students through books.
Reading and Writing in the Classroom
Language arts classes are held four times a week for 40 minutes at a time. Some students may spend additional time in one-on-one instruction; others may spend their class time in one-on-one sessions as well. All students also have two writing classes each week in addition to the writing activities they do in social studies, science and other language arts classes where we focus on carefully developing each student’s expository writing skills.
Reading and writing strategies used in classrooms include the use of vocabulary imaging to build an understanding of new words and phrases, graphic organizers to help increase comprehension and organize thoughts, setting a purpose when reading to build focus and creating a sense of safety before encouraging a student to read aloud, present their writing or participate in a classroom discussion.
Short writing assignments allow young students to organize their thoughts and ideas. As they grow, students write stories and essays and give class presentations. We talk about finer points of grammar and structure as they are ready to learn. Lessons and games on parts of speech and sentence development help generate more vivid language and improve sentence formulation and grammar. Our aim is to build confidence as well as fluency and to give each child the support he or she needs to feel successful.
Our language arts classes study many different types of literature. Young students start with folk tales, poetry and myths, but soon move up to chapter books, science fiction and historical novels. Elementary students greatly enjoy reading books like Spiderwick Chronicles and The Transmogfrication of Roscoe Wizzle, while middle school students are often ready more challenging books such as Ender’s Game and The Old Man and the Sea.
When English Is Not Your First Language
A small percentage of Dearborn elementary and middle school students do not speak English as their first language; others have parents who speak a language other than English at home. When you have a learning disability and speak (or hear) another language, learning to read and write in English is doubly hard. At Dearborn, we provide intensive one-on-one support for children for whom English is a second language.
Science at Dearborn
Students with learning issues often lose that natural curiosity – at Dearborn, we seek to reignite it, especially in science. We want them to ask the big questions: why do birds migrate, what causes lightning, how do tides happen – and where did our planet come from?
We teach science four times a week in 40-minute periods. We work in small groups, no larger than nine students, with two teachers per class.
In the elementary school, we rotate each year through life science, earth science and physical science to provide a foundation for deeper exploration in the middle school. Middle school students follow the same three-year rotation with more sophisticated content aligned with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.
We use standard elementary and middle school textbooks and adjust instruction and assignments to student skill levels. Students demonstrate their understanding and knowledge through the completion of experiments, slide presentations, posters, games and experiments.
We also use periodic quizzes and tests to assess understanding and knowledge and help foster study and test-taking skills.
All Hands on Deck
Good science education is often hands-on, experiential and project-based. At Dearborn, students regularly participate in hands-on activities and experiments to help them better engage with and apply scientific concepts.
Third-graders build volcanos and create wild eruptions with baking soda and vinegar. Fourth-graders tend to caterpillars and chrysalises and hatch butterflies during a life-cycle unit. Fifth-graders build and test electric circuits in a unit on electricity. While learning about cells, eighth-graders might go on a field trip, collect pond water, and use microscopes to observe, identify and compare unicellular organisms. Field trips round out our students’ studies. Our trips to the Museum of Science and the New England Aquarium are special favorites.
We also believe that science should be connected to current events and students’ lives – students need to know that science doesn’t just exist inside the classroom. We’ve watched the shuttle launches on NASA TV, discussed the continued impact of natural disasters (the earthquake in Haiti, the Japanese tsunami), and talked about fossil fuels and alternative energy sources in the wake of rising oil prices.
To meet our students’ individual needs for learning supports, Dearborn teachers use common textbooks but adapt instruction, note-taking and work expectations to students’ different learning skills. We offer those students with strong interests supplementary activities.
For extra credit, students might research and create a poster, slideshow presentation or a mini-book on the rock cycle, famous volcanoes or earthquakes.
Our goal is to meet students where they are and take our lead from them. We will support all the students in our care and provide them with the right level of challenge – and the right level of support. Their natural curiosity and desire to learn about the world will often do the rest.
Revisiting the Past
History is more than just memorizing facts – it’s a powerful tool to understand our world and who we are. At Dearborn, we believe that history is a living and breathing discipline. We try to connect history to the everyday lives of our students using re-reenactments, primary sources and discussions with people who actually experienced events to foster our students’ understanding.
We teach history and social studies four times a week in 40-minute periods. We work in small groups, no larger than nine students, with two teachers per class. In the Elementary School, we cover early American history, North American and world geography and map skills. Middle school students learn world history and geography, early and modern American history, economics, civics and map skills. Both programs follow a two-year rotation of topics in accordance with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.
Assignments include research projects, presentations, games, discussions and debates. We also use periodic quizzes and tests to assess knowledge and improve test-taking skills.
History Comes Alive
We take extra steps for our students to internalize history and social studies concepts with experiential learning projects and history-related field trips.
For example, when studying the lead-up to the American Revolution, one class spent a day using chips as currency. A tax collector took away the currency, leaving some students with more than others—and those who ran out entirely were sent to “goal.” By connecting their own outrage with the outrage of the American colonists, students came to understand the meaning of taxation without representation.
Our assignments are frequently project-based. Some students have created their own plays based on historical events, while others have written patriotic songs. Many have written letters to various presidents, past and present, about historical events. One student even constructed a sample telegraph in woodshop to go along with her research project on important American inventions.
Many of our students have never explored Massachusetts historical sites first-hand, so field trips are much-appreciated excursions. Some of our most popular class trips have included State House tours, Freedom Trail walks, visits to Concord, Lexington and Salem, the interactive TOMB experience, which explores Ancient Egypt, the Museum of African American History and Plimoth Plantation.
To meet our students’ individual needs, teachers adapt instruction, note-taking, and work expectations to different skill levels. Those students who show interest in certain topics are offered supplementary activities, including research projects and related books.
History is full of gifts. It is especially important for our students to understand the idea of change and the many different ways that change occurs, so that they can decide how to manage or create change in their own lives in the present and for the future.
Learning a Foreign Language
The Spanish Program at Dearborn Academy provides Spanish language instruction and an introduction to Spanish culture for our elementary/middle school students. Our Spanish teacher Maria Landaverde – trained in both foreign language instruction and special education – understands the unique needs of students with learning differences.
The Spanish teacher has created a Language Lab at Dearborn Academy using Chromebooks to support self-paced learning for each student. They take Spanish I/Intro to Spanish according to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks standards for Foreign Language.
The program provides a wonderful learning opportunity for all students and is especially beneficial for those who someday plan to apply to college. Graduates of 766 schools usually have to waive their foreign language requirement. Thanks to our Spanish Language Program, students attending Dearborn Academy will no longer have to request a waiver but instead will use their credits.