A Conversation with Marc Gladstone

Can you introduce yourself and your professional background?

I’m Marc Gladstone, and I’m the Lead Learning Specialist here in the Upper School. I’ve been working in mostly K-12 independent schools for about 35 years. I was actually a business major during my undergraduate years and was on my way to an MBA track. Then I ended up coaching kids in sports and realized that I wanted to work with kids and education.

I found myself in New York and at a small school that was pretty much in its infancy. They took a shot when they hired me as an associate teacher; it was a school for students with learning disorders, and I initially had no idea what that was. Eventually I earned my Master’s in Special Education from Hunter College, with a focus on learning disorders. After Hunter I moved to working in larger schools with a focus on working in the areas of supporting kids with learning differences and learning disorders.

Working in mainly private schools has allowed me to really initiate programs at schools. While at Dalton, for example, I was their first director of service learning and started a peer tutoring program. Then I moved on to Berkeley Carroll as their first Director of Learning Support and then on to Trinity as their first Director of Learning Support. One thing that I’m most proud of, is that these places were offering sustainable programs that are still effective programs today. I had a short run at the Child Mind Institute, but I missed working with students. So then I found myself at D-E.

What are your primary responsibilities? And what does an average day look like?

One of the more satisfying things that I enjoy most is that every day looks different. I have the opportunity to work with students one-on-one with a goal of helping them reach their goals.The other interesting thing about our Learning Center here is that we are open to ALL D-E students, so any student who can seek some support.

We also work and collaborate with our faculty. I think teaching is probably one of the hardest professions and to teach a wide range of student learners and who have different learning profiles of strengths and areas of vulnerability.You have to be both talented and nimble to be an effective teacher; so, one thing I believe that we pride ourselves here as learning specialists is to be able to also work with faculty to help them be their best selves. But we also have the opportunity to be a guide or coach and then also an ear for parents.

Having conversations and ‘sit-downs’ with parents is very fulfilling. Whether we’re reviewing an evaluation, or just hearing about a student’s trajectory, their history, and what parents are seeing from their perspective; all of this is helpful in terms of helping us to support the student.  We can then help in terms of communicating with faculty and what we can, in turn, help parents understand. This can include better understanding if what the student is experiencing is typical, what are some things that can be done at home, and what everyone can do to help the student be their best selves.

In a nutshell, our work is all about helping people – students, faculty, parents, even administrators – to be their best selves and to be more understanding about the challenges that our students face now and into the future.

Let’s say you have a 9th Grade (Freshman) student, whom you realize needs a more robust learning profile. What is the process to give them more support?

We typically do hear more from 9th Grade families given that it’s a big transition year. We review thoroughly what are the best strategies for studying and how they’re approaching their work. A lot of students think that if they do more, then more, and still more studying, that’s best. But studies show that there is a difference between studying a lot and studying effectively.  Each division has their own form of a Student Support Team (SST) that consists of the learning specialists, the school psychologist and the dean. So, if parents have their own concern, they’re reaching out to express the things that they’re seeing and the challenges they see their kid having.

We have a strong Class Deans team, so we are working with all the adults involved to get on the same page moving forward. Together with David Wallin, our other SST Learning Specialist, we work with the students over time to develop a plan and to establish goals. Learning is not a one-size-fits-all, so we individualize plans to best serve our students.

I think our overlying goal is the idea of metacognition. We are helping students be aware of their learning process, and being aware of what works best for them. And again, it’s important to come back to that idea of building up a ‘toolkit’ for students so that when they are on their own when they are at home, and they come across a challenge, they can say to themselves, “This is a strategy that works for me.”

How have your practices changed with new research and the times?

There’s always new research. I try to keep current by attending conferences and panels. There used to be this big debate on how to teach reading and whether a “whole language” approach was effective as opposed to teaching sounds like phonemes, morphemes, etc. “Whole language” enthusiasts would teach words first rather than sounds, but we did eventually learn that phonics plays a huge part in reading and writing.

Other emerging developments are the ideas of neurodiversity and neurodivergent learning.This term was coined in the ‘90’s by Judy Signer, an Australian scholar on autism. When I started in the field, that term wasn’t there. Now it’s something that we see and understand at D-E. We have a Neurodivergent Affinity Group for students, and I see this group as an important part of our DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging) work.

There’s so much awareness and understanding about neurodiversity now than 30 years ago. Every school, every work environment, and every community is neurodiverse. In the same way understanding biodiversity helps our environment flourish, appreciation for neurodiversity can help learning. Historically, there have been students who have felt marginalized or have felt like they’ve had to “mask” around rules. They didn’t feel comfortable with how things were going during the school day or needed alternative solutions. I think what we’re now seeing, and I hope we’re moving even more toward, is a place where neurodiversity is seen as a positive factor.  When we are together in groups and people bring their strengths to that process that’s great, and usually amazing things come out of that process. But neurodiversity, i.e., having different perspectives and working with what a neurodiverse group brings to the table, is a strength to any school.

How would you like to expand the work of the Learning Center and SST?

I think the first thing is to incorporate neurodiversity in our DEIB work more. The second thing would be to have even more integration with the other departments across all three divisions and cross-evaluations, including the involvement of other learning specialists in those processes. Lastly I think we can really expand on this idea of teaching and learning, which could include having a dean of curriculum and/or teaching and learning. One way learning specialists can benefit the school is to be in the conversation when talking about  teaching and learning, including recommending relevant professional development opportunities. I think that having opportunities to work more with other department chairs and/or other administrators when we’re talking about curriculum… what are the skills we want to strengthen… and what students should have at certain stages in their educational development… all of this would further expand our thinking.

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