Teenagers in danger of falling between the cracks of the school system have an advocate in Kelley Lassman, Ph.D., assistant professor of curriculum and teaching at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education.
Lassman, who came to Fordham in June after a eight years at Vanderbilt University, has made it her mission to solve one of the most vexing problems facing teachers: How to identify and tailor instruction to students with special needs. When it comes to special education, Lassman said that about 100 kinds of mental processing deficits are classified as learning disabilities. They include difficulty with visual and auditory processing, motivational issues, problems with dopamine receptors and language processing. It’s the last one that most interests Lassman, who said that emotional behavior disorders in many students are rooted in language disorders.
“What happens in society is we have this group of kids who we know have behavior disorders, and a lot of people look at these kids and say ‘That kid’s a troublemaker; that kid is a juvenile delinquent; that kid just doesn’t try,’” she said. “These kids aren’t broken, though they may be in a broken system. We need to give them the support and intervention they need to put them on the right path.”
In particular, Lassman focuses her research on male adolescents, who often get a bad break because they’re regarded as lost causes, she said. One of the most overlooked problems they face is understanding words with multiple meanings.
“In a classroom, a teacher says, for example, ‘John, you left your book in your locker; I want you to go get it.’ Left is a word that can have multiple meanings. As John is processing the word left, he’s thinking ‘Left or right, I’m not sure which is left or right.’ That’s not what the teacher was talking about all, but that’s what he automatically thinks about,” she said.
“Then the teacher is going on with other instruction, and then she’s irritated because he didn’t respond. He didn’t get his book, and he didn’t tell her why he didn’t get his book because he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And she may go on to say ‘I’ve told you three times, don’t leave your book.’ And then he’s thinking ‘Leave. Yeah, the leaves are changing.’ So, teachers don’t realize how many multiple meaning words there are out there.”
Having worked as a special education teacher and consultant, Lassman knows how good teachers continually search for ways to reach their students. Sometimes, she said, getting through to students with language processing is as simple as writing instructions down for them, giving directions one at a time or giving them verbal cues such as, “I’m going to give you a direction.” And although her background is not in speech pathology, she’s quick to note that a problem this complex requires cooperation among many fields.
“We need to involve professionals from the law; we need to involve the juvenile justice system,” she said. “We need to involve people from child mental health. We need to involve people from social services. And as we bring people together, we can create positive systems for these kids and their families.”
Interdisciplinary cooperation and a commitment to social justice is what made Fordham appealing to her, she said. So in addition to teaching three classes and meeting with faculty interested in collaborating with her, she has reached out to administrators at Booker T. Washington Middle School and the Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts in Harlem as well as the Bronx High School for Performance and Stagecraft, where she’ll be visiting eight times this semester. She also observes special education coordinators at these schools and suggests different strategies to them, and helps them tackle bread-and-butter issues such as class attendance, parental involvement and placing student interns. Some of the schools she has approached have been leery of letting an outsider see their operations, but these three have opened up to her.
“I think there’s a fear. Who are you? What are you doing? We’re not sure we want people to watch what’s going on at our school,” Lassman said. “It’s just kind of opening doors with people. I think that down the road, a stronger relationship will develop, and there will be an opportunity for research; there will be an opportunity to make an impact on those kids.”
This research is key to her goals, which include publishing her findings. She initially wanted to collect data at schools this semester, but that has been pushed back due to time constraints.
“If you’re not in a school and have everything in place by January, it’s not really appropriate or effective to conduct research until the next school year starts,” she said. “That’s okay, because I plan to be here for quite awhile. And the way that you affect change is by developing relationships and trust with those people and moving slowly.”