The following piece was originally published in The Huffington Post.
You know that feeling when you turn a corner expecting to know the path ahead? That feeling that says, “I’ve been here before.” Sometimes that slight left takes you down a wondrous path challenging preconceived notions and filling in the landscape with new ideas and enthusiasm about experiences and topics meant to impact one group of people yet energizing us all. I recently had this very experience with Ben Shifrin. This interview is for those of us who went through school wondering what could be if only we were given the tools to explore the far-reaching potential we all have inside of us.
Rod Berger: Well, Ben, judging from the few minutes we’ve already had, I think our audience will enjoy this conversation about some serious topics and the passion behind those doing such great work.
Let me start with this, Ben: It’s compelling when people share their personal story. You are head of a school and working with children who have dyslexia. Telling your story is admirable because often, we don’t hear personal stories from the adults in our lives when we’re young people. So, tell me about the decision to share your story and the impact you’ve seen on the children and families at your school.
Ben Shifrin: When I was growing up, in second grade, the teacher called my mother in and basically told her I was “educable retarded,” that I would never learn to read, that she should look to find an institution to put me in – that’s basically what the public school teacher told my mother. I’m going back to the 1960s, so you can believe that “Dick and Jane” were not my friends in school. You know, that famous Dick and Jane book?
Shifrin: They were not my friends. It wasn’t until fifth grade, but my mother knew intrinsically like a parent knows when something wasn’t right. She thought, “I’m watching him at home. He’s bright. He pulls the kitchen apart. He pulls things apart, puts them back together. Something’s not right. He’s not educable retarded. He’s having trouble learning to read, but he’s a very bright, young boy.”
It wasn’t until fifth grade that my parents found a tutor named Mr. Friedman. Mr. Friedman cost a lot of money for my parents. They were working class parents. It was $15 a week, and that was a lot of money back then. But Mr. Friedman met with me for 45 minutes at first and explained to me, “Ben, you’re very bright. You’re just dyslexic.” And he drew a whole map that said, “As babies, our brains are wired to speak, but reading is something we’ve created, and not all brains connect as easily, it’s man-made. It’s not something that is natural for our brains. And for some kids, they struggle with it, but it has nothing to do with their intelligence.”
You know what? I learned to read, but it was his belief in me that I could, that helped propel me forward. Once he taught me the code using the old Orton-Gillingham method, I took off in high school. I wound up graduating with highest honors from college. I decided that my life was going to be dedicated that no child ever goes to school the way I did. We get one childhood, we get one chance to grow up in the world, and it needs to be a safe place for kids to make mistakes, learn and grow.
Therefore, right now, I’m head of Jemicy School, and it’s a passion. It isn’t even a job. It’s a passion that the kids here never experience what I experienced going to school. I want teachers to understand them, realize that they may learn differently and need to be taught in different ways. But the bottom line is that all kids can learn, all kids have the right to a childhood that’s filled with love and energy, and they should enjoy learning.
You know what? That’s what I’ve created here at Jemicy. That’s been my whole point. I have kids here; they come in from first grade, and they think dyslexia is a gift. They don’t look at it as a problem. It isn’t a problem. We just see the world differently, and it’s okay to see the world differently.
Even at Jemicy, the whole purpose in what we do is just good education. It’s not special ed. We create environments where kids are free to take risks, free to make the mistakes that they need in order to learn. I’ll even tell the audience, “Listen, we learn from our mistakes; the things we get wrong.” Think about your own life. The growth you’ve made as a human being, it’s usually out of experiences that didn’t go well for you at first.
Berger: You mean we’re not perfect as adults. (laugh)
Shifrin: We’re not perfect as adults, but bottom line, schools expect us to be perfect. We create classrooms where it’s right or wrong. Failure or the word “fail” is our first attempt in learning. Take those first four letters, and realize, “It’s okay to fail, that’s how we learn.”
Instead of making it bad, we can learn it as a growth opportunity, for instance, “Gee, why didn’t we do well? How can we do it better?” At Jemicy, we create an environment where kids are free to take those risks to learn, and that’s just good education. Let me give you a typical example of what I was saying: Being vice president of the International Dyslexia Association, I get to see a lot of schools. I walk into a school, and I’ll see a teacher ask a simple question, “What is the capital of Maryland?” and little Johnny who has ADHD or whatever, jumps out of his seat and yells “Baltimore.” The teacher says, “Wrong,” and moves on to the next child.
That’s not the way you respond to a child that gives an answer. First off, they should be acknowledged for putting their rear ends on the line in front of all their peers. The second is if a child said, “Baltimore,” at Jemicy, we’d say, “Gee, Johnny, that was a great guess. Baltimore is the largest city, but again, it’s not the capital. Come on up to the map. Put your finger on Baltimore. What would be there if it were the capital? Oh, a star – so where do you see the star?” “Annapolis.”
When a teacher takes the time to do that, what he or she has done is create an environment where it’s safe to answer a question because you’re not getting laughed at by your peers. Who gets the attention? Well, the child that took the risk in the classroom. If you follow that pattern, the next time you ask a question, every hand will go up in the room because the child is not afraid. They’re not afraid to be ridiculed by their peers or ridiculed by their teacher. That’s such a simple concept that we don’t utilize.
When I talk about my future, and I talk about what I want to create, whether it’s for children with autism, children on the spectrum or regular ed children; creating the environment for children to be able to take risks and make the mistakes they need is critical for education and growth. Too many times we don’t do that.
As you hear the passion in my voice, it’s not just for dyslexic children. It’s about giving kids an opportunity to be kids, make the mistakes they need in a safe environment so they can learn and grow.
Berger: Yes. It’s very compelling the way you share that and weave in your own personal story. It makes me think about Mr. Friedman back in the ‘60s. Are we doing a good job of identifying and isolating the “Mr. Friedmans” of today and giving them the platform and the system so that they can reach the “young Bens” of the world?
Shifrin: I get frustrated when I look at public education every day. I look at the bureaucracies. We do not empower teachers to create. As a head of school, there’s a curriculum our kids need to go through, but I don’t expect, or do what they do in Maryland. “By October, you need to be here. In November, you need to be here.”
Teachers don’t have the freedom or the power. They are not empowered to create. I still love teaching. All of our administrators teach. There are times you want to spend an extra day on something in class, so the class gets it, or you want to go back to something that you realized kids missed. In public ed, at least in Maryland, they’re not allowed. They’re too worried about those end-of-the-year tests, and they need to get through the material.
It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. It’s about what we give our kids that’s so important. We’re teaching to the tests instead of stepping back and saying, “What do we need to equip our young people to succeed in the world today?” The skills we needed back in the ‘60s, what Mr. Friedman taught me, are not the skills we need today. In the information age, kids need to learn to think. They need to process. They need to analyze.
Are we teaching that? No. We’re worried about how they’re going to do on a standardized test versus how they grow as human beings for society, how have they developed their own interests. What about the arts? We have taken them out of school every time there’s a cut, but that’s where kids begin to think outside the box, and that’s where they create things for a society that didn’t exist before. And immediately, when school districts need to cut, the arts go, but sports stay.
We’re hurting our society. We’re not just hurting kids who learn differently or kids that have autism or kids that have a learning disability. We’re hurting society when we keep cutting for programs and lastly, not empowering teachers to teach, but rather to produce robots.
We, the teachers, and I want a child to move from Point A to Point B. The way you get to them is what makes you a teacher. I don’t have a set way. I always give analogies. I used to live in L.A. There are many roads to go between L.A. and San Francisco. Some people like the coast route because it’s beautiful and they take their time. Others like Route 5 because it’s faster. The more important thing is the child arrives in San Francisco.
Shifrin: The road that takes them there is what makes you special as a teacher.
Berger: Yes. I love the passion. I lived in L.A. for a number of years, yes; those are big decisions, whether it was the coast or the 5 Freeway. (laugh)
Shifrin: (laugh) I’m using that as an analogy because you still get to San Francisco. We hire teachers all the time, and when they come from public ed to our school, they say, “We feel we’ve died and gone to heaven. You don’t tell us in November we have to be here.” All of our kids manage to pass the annual yearly progress exams because we’re equipping them with ideas to think. We’re teaching them strategies.
We’ve got to move away from jamming content in their head and give them the executive function strategies they need to make it in the world, the learning strategies they need to make it in the world. I’ll even talk about the famous cellphone. I watched schools take them away from kids. That’s a part of their life. We, as institutions, need to teach them how to utilize phones correctly, how it can be a powerful tool for them and not just text and so forth.
But instead, what we do is, “Oh, we can’t use it.” Well, that’s not society. You’re going to have to use it to survive. How do you use technology to survive in today’s world so that it benefits you? It’s about embracing what the world is doing and not trying to teach them in the 1960s, but rather teach kids for the 21st Century.
We know a lot about the brain and the way kids learn today. Neuroscience has teamed up, and we know how to teach reading. We’re excellent at that; it’s not brain surgery, and school districts are not doing it. We have teachers that take one methodology course in college that teach them how to teach reading. Reading is a science. It takes years to become a master.
Berger: You mean that one course doesn’t do it. (laugh)
Shifrin: Look at the math. This country hasn’t invested in math research the way it should, in ways that benefit how kids learn math and should learn math. We’re behind other countries. We invest more money in education than any country and produce the worst results.
Berger: Yes. I know you participated in a book that’s coming out shortly with Mark Claypool and John McLaughlin entitled How Autism is Reshaping Special Education – The Unbundling of IDEA. So, with that as the backdrop and your work with the Dyslexic Association at the international level, let’s talk about the role associations play in unbundling and how do you look at it given the different platforms? Depending upon the association we’re talking about different objectives, different agendas.
Shifrin: I think the problem is we need to all come together and focus. For example, IDEA is not the parent organization to make a legislative change. They’re there for the training, to make sure the programs are correct, that they certify, that these programs work.
You have Decoding Dyslexia, or you have Autism Speaks that are at the legislative level, once they pass the legislation, they need something to fill in. I love when they legislate, but then the school districts change things you’ve been telling them to train teachers for years. Now, they want them trained differently. But more importantly, then they place teachers who have no education background because they have to fill slots in these classrooms. Give them some background training.
It’s not the way we should be approaching this. IDEA is extremely important. It is now embracing that every child has the right to an education. You know, there’s FAPE, there all these things out there. But the way I view it is for these organizations, whether it’s Autism Speaks, or whatever, they need to come together, and each one needs to have a focus.
For example, if the International Dyslexia Association is focused on training and teacher methodologies and the teaching of reading, Decoding Dyslexia is focused on getting legislation passed that at least recognizes that there is such a thing as dyslexia. We have universities in this country that don’t recognize this.
Berger: How do we do that if we’re worried as independent associations that there are not enough seats at the table? You almost get the sense that we’re concerned depending upon where we are that if we don’t speak up; we will lose our opportunity to advocate for our membership, broadly speaking. How do we do that in a way that is more inclusive of the different associations, the different interest groups that all have fantastic environments to help?
Shifrin: Well, I don’t know what’s going on, in the autism world. I know in the dyslexia world we have come together. We have sat down with Decoding Dyslexia. We have analyzed what we do, what area each of us should take. We’re all fighting for the same thing. I think that’s the common level we need to remember, that these organizations, besides their pride and their egos, need to come back and remember why they were formed and what their mission is about, so they can work with everybody.
When we work even in dyslexia education to improve reading instruction, that’s not just for dyslexic kids; that’s for all the kids in that school. We need to stop putting people in pigeonholes or “You’re this way.” What is quality education? What is inclusive education? What is it that we need to do so our teachers can be successful on the job and produce what we need to produce?
I think the real way to do this is to start sitting down face-to-face. Having honest conversations and making some realistic goals of what we can achieve, and stop letting the egos get in the way of these organizations and say, “Look, autism speaks some of the same things you’re fighting for that IDEA is fighting for. What are our commonalities and how do we approach them together?”
Berger: Well, I think that you’re a fantastic ambassador for even more than just obviously the Dyslexia Association.
Shifrin: I’m about education. I look at kids. If we had the right kind of reading instruction in school, a lot of kids would never be identified as dyslexic because we adjust, we know what to do. These reading models are out there. School districts need to wake up, and parents need to wake up because school districts will respond to parents.
They don’t respond to IDEA. They don’t respond to Decoding Dyslexia. But legislators will respond to their constituents. And I think it’s time for Americans to come together and say enough is enough. The inequality in education here in the State of Maryland, Baltimore City versus Baltimore County, there’s inequality, not just in the buildings but the quality of what kids get, the access to the Internet, the access to the technology.
We need to invest in our educational system or else we will not have a future.
Shifrin: Parents, who are listening to this, come together. You are your child’s advocate. No school is going to stand up for your child. You must stand up as the parent. We need to come together and force legislatures not just to legislate, but there needs to be accountability, too.
At Jemicy, we have an advisory board, and it’s used very differently than just on stationary. They come out to the school, sit in classes, give me a rundown of what we’re doing well and what we need to improve. Then, we bring to them cases on kids that are doing things, but we’re not excited about the progress they’re making. We feel it should be faster and they give us input every day.
We create. Now, picture, if schools had quality control systems like hospitals? They need to open their doors and have people come in and say, “Hey, this is not good. This is good.” But, so many people are afraid to be transparent. At Jemicy, when you find something not right, that’s great because we’ve got to fix it.
Berger: What you’re talking about is a focus on the whole child.
Shifrin: Absolutely. Society today is not just about academics. Kids need to learn to interact with one another. As you and I well know, the academic IQ is not the indicator of success.
Shifrin: It’s emotional IQ of a child that indicates success. And we don’t even teach that. We don’t even realize that the IQ score really means nothing. It’s all the subtests beyond the IQ because a kid who’s dyslexic may have 109 IQ, but he has 140 visual processing and an 82 processing speed and winds up with 109; that doesn’t tell us anything.
Parents need to remember, testing is only a snapshot of a child at that time that they took the test. There are other factors that are important. You know, if parents shouldn’t see their child unhappy to go to school, Let me ask you a question: Do you ever see a first grader going off to school? It’s the happiest day of their life. They’re holding that book bag. They’ve got a smile from here to here.
Shifrin: Yes, their pride, but somewhere in this country between first and third grade, we wipe that smile right off their face, and no one looks at that. At Jemicy, our kids are happy to come to school. They get upset when we have a snow day, no exaggeration. You know why? There’s active learning. They’re involved in their learning. They’re participating in their learning.
All of those things are critical. If your child is coming home miserable, there’s something wrong.
Berger: Yes, your energy is infectious. I’m sure the audience feels it. And it begs the question, well; I’ll take a wild guess. You’re a morning person, aren’t you, Ben? (laugh)
Shifrin: Absolutely. How did you know that? (laugh)
Berger: Just a wild guess. (laugh)
Shifrin: You know what? Honestly, I’ll say that I love getting up at about 4 o’clock, feeding my dogs, walking them, and just getting ready for the day, thinking about my goals for the day. I was taught, as a dyslexic, to plan your day and establish goals of what you want to achieve and at nighttime, review them. And guess what? We do that with our kids. They are successful.
Kids need to be taught these executive function skills of time management, and organization. We just assume kids are going to develop that naturally.
Berger: Yes. We can’t take that for granted.
Shifrin: I see this at public school; these are things kids need to be taught.
Berger: Yes. Well, keep up the great work. I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing at Jemicy. Like I said in the open, your willingness to share your story has a ripple effect that goes beyond just the school day for your students.
Shifrin: I want to share something with parents that are out there. When you talk about the ripple effect, when a child is hurting, it’s the whole family that suffers, not just the child. What parent wants to see their kid in pain? It affects siblings.
That’s why we this needs to be addressed. When kids come here, and their life changes, parents say to me, “You didn’t just change the kids, you changed the whole family. Our life isn’t a nightmare at home anymore.” No one’s life at home should be a nightmare when their kid goes to school. We’re doing something wrong if that’s the case.
Berger: Well, keep up the great work, Ben. It was a pleasure to get to know you.
Shifrin: It’s an honor to be able to speak to you and thanks very much for this. It was an honor.
Mr. Ben Shifrin, M.Ed. has been Vice President of The International Dyslexia Association since November 25, 2013. Mr. Shifrin serves as Treasurer and Director of The International Dyslexia Association. Mr. Shifrin serves as the Head of Jemicy School, an independent day school in Baltimore County, Maryland, for college-bound students who need extensive remediation in reading, written expression, spelling, and/or organization. Mr. Shifrin has dedicated his career to helping students with language-based learning differences. Prior to coming to Jemicy in 2002, he was a special education administrator for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Head of Westmark School in Encino, California.
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