What We Teach
We teach the same things that any other school in California teaches, except we teach it using methods that reach dyslexic students. And it’s our 360° Learning approach that makes it all happen. But really there’s no such thing as average. Every child, even those without learning differences, has distinct strengths and challenges. But in the case of dyslexic children, teaching to a child’s strengths and mitigating challenges is the only way to guarantee academic success.
Learning Skills & Strategies
At Armstrong, learning how to learn, is as important as what you learn. We arm our students with skills and strategies that will help them throughout their lives. We teach organizational skills and how to break down long-term projects into smaller more manageable tasks. One example: The study of early California missions is a standard of the state’s fourth grade curriculum. The project involves a visit to a mission, writing a paper, and creating a model of a mission. Our students participate in this rite of passage. But rather turn in a first draft and then a final draft. We approach the assignment one paragraph at a time. Each paragraph is edited by the teacher and sent back for improvements. The child then pulls the edited paragraphs together and turns in his final paper. This method drastically improves content quality. It also teaches kids how to compensate for weak executive function skills.
Armstrong students are also encouraged to be more creative with project presentations. Although we believe poster board displays and dioramas can be useful learning tools. We also realize that they may hamper learning in children with dysgraphia. Teachers present alternative ideas for presentations and students are encouraged to develop their own.
We offer the option of digital presentations, be it video, PowerPoint or documentary style movie. We see this as a way to encourage kids to utilize technology to their advantage. It also levels the playing field so that children with impaired fine-motor skill can experience the same level of success as their non-impaired peers.
Always coming up short takes a huge toll on a child’s self esteem. By the time students enroll at Armstrong, many have come to think of themselves as incapable. We believe that restoring a child’s self-image and resiliency is just as important as scholastic remediation.
How do we accomplish this? One way is by bringing in successful speakers to discuss how they managed to turn a perceived disability into a valuable asset. Past guests included Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom, Founder of Kinkos, Paul Orfalea and Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers, and Author Henry Winkler.
We also read books with dyslexic protagonists. The Hank Zipzer series by actor Henry Winkler is a big hit. The main character, Hank, is loosely based on Winkler’s own experience navigating the frustrations of attending public school with dyslexia and ADHD. Kids also get a chance to cheer for Percy Jackson in The Lightening Thief, a tale of a boy who discovers his academic weaknesses are also the reason he’s destined for greatness. It’s a substantial read and packed with powerful messages.
We recognize that the practices we’ve put in place at Armstrong are designed for dyslexics to develop the tools necessary to replicate these practices in future academic settings. In order to make that happen we teach and reinforce the following life skills:
Emotional well being
Social connection & skills
Our report cards monitor progress in these skill sets with academic achievement, and we do not recommend transition until they have been mastered.
Academic Concepts and Skills
Like any traditional school, our students gain proficiency in reading, writing, math, science social studies and technology. The curriculum follows California standards. But Armstrong students move through units at a pace that’s conducive to their abilities.
Because reading and writing are typically the most troublesome for dyslexics, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on these disciplines. Our scientifically proven reading programs, Fundations and Language! are known to be effective in teaching to the dyslexic mind—yield excellent results. When appropriate, we infuse our program with Slingerland and Lindamood Bell teaching methodologies.
Our math program is systematic and builds on the previous lesson. Class instruction includes multi-sensory, hands-on activities, and use of manipulatives as appropriate. Skills and procedures are introduced slowly and practiced repeatedly until students are adept. The major goals for math instruction are developing basic skills, critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving techniques.
Science is an area offering great potential for many students with dyslexia. Dyslexic have a capacity for divergent and creative thinking. Investigation and inquiry come naturally to many of our students. In grades 5-8, lab experiences make up approximately half of class sessions and the major focus is to understand scientific processes rather than remembering facts.
Our curriculum is designed to help students develop a growing understanding of the impact the past has on the present and future. Students have opportunities to become familiar with research techniques, the use of evidence and historical interpretation, and the analysis of other viewpoints. We do not focus on memorizing key dates in antiquity, nor do we expect children to recite the introduction to the declaration of independence or the Preamble.
Because of their learning differences, proficiency with technology helps to ‘level the playing field’ for our students. Students also learn to use technology as an important communication tool. It can unleash the superior visual, three-dimensional and creative abilities abundant in our student population. Beginning in fourth grade practicing on the keyboard is mandatory and included as part of daily homework assignments. Some of the software applications that our students may use include but are not limited to Word, PowerPoint, Kurzweil, Dragon Speak and Inspiration. Other assistive technologies are taught on an as-needed basis. We also teach children to explore the internet responsibly through class research projects.
Gifts And Talents
Armstrong provides opportunities for students to explore their strengths and build upon them. We offer a wide variety of enrichment and extra curricular classes. This helps our students identify and nurture their talents. But our 360° Learning approach takes it further. Each student is encouraged to explore their passions and share those with peers. One child might flex her entrepreneurial muscles by promoting a bakery business. Another might choose to develop a computer game, or shoot and edit a music video. Whatever it is, our students are encouraged to explore their interests outside the classroom walls.
At Armstrong, students explore many avenues of art and have the opportunity to apply these concepts in a studio setting. Students draw, paint, make ceramics, prints and paper, and sculpt using mixed media and other crafts. This encourages self-discovery and self-expression.
Our music program strives to expand students’ acoustic tastes. We do this by teaching basics such as rhythm, note recognition and strumming techniques. We also expose students to musical compositions from around the world. Our music program is also designed to build new neural pathways, which in turn improve mathematics and language skills.
Each year Armstrong presents an ambitious drama production with multiple performances at the Bayside Theater in San Mateo. Past productions include Annie Get Your Gun, Oliver, Bye Bye Birdie, Hairspray, The Wiz, Grease, Annie and Seussical. These performances are a whole school effort. Everyone from 1st grade to 8th grade has the opportunity to be a part of it.
Out fitness program isn’t all fun and the games. But the children sure see it that way. In reality, all the activities are occupational therapist recommended as a means to enhance motor skills and improve cognitive function. Whether its yoga, an obstacle course, or a game of capture the flag, you can be sure there’s a therapeutic benefit. Armstrong schools physical education program closely resembles a traditional P.E. class where activities may include soccer, archery, and fencing. But make no mistake. Each sport is chosen because it lends itself well to further developing our students’ motor skills. For our younger students, in grades one through three, we see motor function as such a key piece of remediation that we actually provide them with three additional periods of movement each week. This additional class focuses on sequencing, spatial awareness, rhythm and dance.
Here I learned to take who I am and apply it to what I could do.
“ Preserverance is the ability to go through challenges without giving up. I stand before you today to tell you that perservernce is the key to growth, and without it you will remain stuck and at the mercy of other's opinions. To perservere is not to live in constant struggle, it comes with an acceptance of who you are and then fighting with the tools you have been given.
It is here at Charles Armstrong School that I have learned the tools to perservere through my dyslexia. I have learned what gifts I have, and now that I leave this safe place I know that all goals are accessible if I am not afraid to fight for them. ”
Excerpt from his 8th grade graduation from Charles Armstong School, 2013