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Edwin S. Ellis - Mentor Teacher

Dr. Edwin S. Ellis is a professor of Interdisciplinary Teacher Education at the University of Alabama. He teaches graduate courses in special education and undergraduate courses in the Special Education Collaborative Teacher Program and the Multiple Abilities Program (MAP).

About Dr. Edwin S. Ellis

Edwin S. Ellis

Dr. Edwin S. Ellis is a professor of Interdisciplinary Teacher Education at the University of Alabama. He teaches graduate courses in special education and undergraduate courses in the Special Education Collaborative Teacher Program and the Multiple Abilities Program (MAP). An associate research scientist with the University of Kansas Center for Research in Learning, Dr. Ellis has spent over 20 years researching, developing, and modeling cognitive-based interventions for student with learning disabilities.

“I crave innovation. A few years ago, a friend, Barbara Rountree, and I developed an unusual approach to preparing teachers called the Multiple Abilities Program or ‘MAP’ . Students in this program do not take any of the usual education courses, rather a small team of university faculty and public school teachers work together with a cohort of undergraduate students for two and half years.

“About half of the entire program takes place out in the schools working with children – thus the professors are teaching how to teach as they teach children. It’s like one big giant course where the entire curriculum has been integrated and contextualized and team taught. Because MAP focuses on understanding children and teaching them from a developmental perspective, MAP teachers become certified in both elementary education and special education.

“I am currently on the Executive Board of the Division of Learning Disabilities in the Council for Exceptional Children. I’ve also served as President of the International Council for Learning Disabilities.”

Dr. Ellis also spent several years as a special educator teaching high school students and working in mental health programs. He is also the parent of two adolescents. When not actively involved in teaching his ardent interest turns to family cruises on his restored 41’ Carib named the “Kennemer.”

Dr Ellis is a co-editor of Teaching Adolescents with Learning Disabilities with Drs. Donald Deshler and Keith Lenz. In addition Dr. Ellis has won many outstanding teaching awards including being a recipient of CEC’s award for Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Learning Disabilities.

Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

My teaching career has focused on instructional methods that can produce positive changes in the lives of learners. An important aspect of that task is helping kids make sense of complex information. While some suggest that we need to “water down” the curriculum for students with learning disabilities, I know from my research and experience that we need to “water-up the curriculum.” Kids want to learn and will react to more challenging classroom materials if we give them the strategies that can help them relate materials to their everyday experience.

What is school really like for students with LD? Here is an average high school experience of Billy, a student with LD. As we explore ways to help student find success we need to work to help students like Billy find authentic meaning in the curriculum that is being taught.

For example, we need to begin with what students really need to know. They need to know how something fits into the bigger picture of life. An example I will use is that of Columbus. How many can recite the names of the three ships which set sail in 1492? Many adults can name them but do those names add to your understanding of the forces that were responsible for Columbus’s voyage-either the economic or religious conditions of the times. The names of the ships in a real sense could be called “trivia” that take up valuable memory and study time. This trivia distracts from the real, and exciting, learning that can occur in the classroom.

When we focus on the complex concepts that are relative to our daily society and life we can build a curriculum that has meaning and relevance for all students. We do not need to “accommodate” the learning disability if we “accommodate” the teaching style so that all students can learn.

Awareness of this concept is especially important for students with learning disabilities. The amount of time students with LD spend in general education classrooms is far greater than the amount of time they spend in speical education or pull-out classrooms. While I have an interest in inclusive teacher education and produing exceptional educators who can teach wll learners, I am more interested in pedagogy and teaching that results in learning for all children; thus more recently, I have focused my efforts primarily on general education teachers.

One effective strategy that our research is showing is successful is that of graphic organizers, or clarifying tables.

Q: Can you explain how this would work? How would a general education teacher be able to work with all students using the teaching methods you suggest?

A: Michael Pressley and colleagues published an article in 1987 that affected my views on instruction- especially my work with students with LD. Pressley emphasized “elaborating to learn.” He emphasized that what was missing in schools was that students often did not know how to elaborate on what they were being taught so that they could actually learn it. This means teachers need to know what really matters in the curriculum. What is the big idea that the teacher wishes to convey in a lesson.

An important aspect of this method of teaching especially for students with LD is to understand more about how our memory structures work. We store information in semantic (or word based) and episodic (related to life experiences) ways. All of us store far more information in episodic memory. Yet when ask students to recall information to measure “learning” on tests we often ask for rote-memorized semantic information, information that a student may not be able to relate to the events of daily experience. Teachers need to help students make connections to prior knowledge. Teachers need to learn how to personalize student’s learning so that their knowledge is authentic and relevant.

Q: Does this mean that “active learning strategy” is the best technique for students with LD?

A: An “active mind” is not necessarily a “growing mind.” A student could work this month in class very “actively” on a project for Columbus Day by building a paper replica of the Nina, Pinta, or Santa Maria, the ships in Columbus’ fleet. They may even have a lot of fun as they build the boats. But what was the purpose of the lesson. To have them understand how the events surrounding Columbus’ trip affected the world or to memorize the ship’s names and how they looked. A knowledge of the broader economic and religious implications is relevant to a student’s experiences today. These concepts are more difficult to learn but with organizing strategies all students can learn the more complex ideas that help them make sense of today’s very real world. Learning and teaching strategies involve making real world connections with content that is to be learned.

Q: What are some strategies that teachers can use to help students with LD learn?

A: First the most effective strategies will help all students learn. This is a very important point. The use of good teaching methods benefits all. This is a very important concept when one talks about “inclusion” and “accommodations” for students with LD. There are classroom accommodations as identified in the IEP and under IDEA..and certainly students may need more time or some other accommodation in the classroom. But the most important accommodation is that of the teaching strategies. Accommodating the needs of all learner by helping them to learn to elaborate and explore the central concepts in a more authentic way.

This brings us to learning strategies. Learning strategies are tools or techniques that students can use to be more successful. There are four important learning strategies that can help students really learn and understand the materials being taught. There are four stategies that have the “biggest bang-for-the-buck.”

  1. My top strategy would be how to organize information using a basic web or main idea/details frame graphic organizer. This strategy prioritizes what is important to know and helps the student organize relevant pieces of information. From this students can organize information to study for tests, preplan writing assignments, or develop a clear, effective method of note-taking.
  2. A second strategy is that of teaching students how to paraphrase or summarize information. For example, in a class studying Columbus, let’s assume the organizing chart has decided that the religious and economic reasons were central to Columbus’ mission. In class, rather than having students list and memorize facts related to “economics,” I could ask the students to stand up ( a good technique to kids who have difficulty sitting in class for what seems to them very long periods of time) and explain the religious or economic concepts to the student next to him or her.
  3. In a model that emphasizes specific facts to pass required tests teaching mnemonics, or memory strategies, can also pay off. ( An example of mnemonic might be the making one work to memorize a list of names.( LD Online editor note: For example, it is easier for many to recall “naps” (Nina and Pinta, Santa Maria) as a cue to the recall of the beginning letters of each of the names of the ships with which Columbus set sail.) This strategy really doesn’t help much in the outside world but it can really help students memorize facts for a test oriented academic world.
  4. The last of my “big four” strategies is a basic attack strategy. Students need strategies that enable them to analyze tasks, set gaols, identify and orchestrate resources for accomplishing the task, ancticipation of problems that might occur and practively trageting solutions. These are the types of strategies that successful adults use.

Q: LD OnLine often receives questions from parents of students with ADHD. They are concerned that their son or daughter cannot recall information and they want memory strategies that will help the student recall the list of spelling words, or history dates assigned to the upcoming exam. What advice would you give?

A: Let’s look at the process of storing facts in short-term memory. Short-term memory that last for only seconds. For students with ADHD it may be very difficult to get the “facts” into short-term store. If they are unsuccessful on the first try the question becomes one of whether rehearsal or rote memorization will improve their chances significantly. This seems very unlikely since the basic short-term memory structure is not working efficiently. Such students will be able to recall facts and material more efficiently if they can relate it to episodic memory; i.e., to make the fact fit into current knowledge in an authentic way. The process of elaboration and use of organizing graphics can help. By using graphic organizers to elaborate concepts they can derive meaning. Meaning can then drive an interest that can enhance the ability to pay attention.

The more teachers attach meaningful experiences to content subject matter and facilitate elaboration of the information, the more likely student, especially those with LD and ADHD, will understand and remember it.

Q: How would you define a successful success?

A: Being able to think critically about life should be an indicator of success, and not all kids who attend college are alwyas independent or critical thinkers nor do they develop these critical self-perceptions. Adolescents with LD need to understand themselves, and they need situations that lead them to view their future selves with positive anticipation.

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