Photos by Kieran Kesner
Decoding Drake's Dream
On the leafy campus of the Landmark School in Manchester, Massachusetts, math program director Chris Woodin, Ed.M.'89, stands in front of what can only be described as a contraption: a grid of ropes and pulleys attached to the side of a building, each rope with a plastic pennant flag tied to the bottom. Along the edges of the grid, numbers painted on boards mark out Cartesian coordinates — the horizontal edge is x, the vertical edge is y — so that the whole wall is a three-dimensional version of the graphing planes that generations of middle school math students have dutifully plotted out in their notebooks.
"Let's take a simple equation: y=2x," Woodin says with the gusto that tends to overtake him when he explains how he teaches math. "Okay, now if x is zero, what's y going to be? Zero, because two times zero, right? So our flag here where the x value is zero" — he indicates the pennant at the far left corner of the grid — "is not going to move, right?
"But if we take a step over here, where x is one, what's the y value going to be? Two, because one multiplied by two is two, right? So let's do that."
Woodin hoists the x=1 rope until it is level with the 2 value on the y coordinate plane. "And if I keep going, pretty soon you're going to have a pretty good illustration of what it means that y=2x," he says.
He's right. The rope grid is the abstract Cartesian coordinate system made physical, and it's only one of many nontraditional tools he's developed for teaching math concepts to students with language-based learning disabilities (LBLDs), the population Landmark has specialized in teaching since it was founded in 1971. On the same campus, he's constructed an oversized clock, a gridded outfield for rotations and transformations, and a baseball wins-and-losses chart for percentages. In each case, the thinking is the same: If students can associate the abstract language of problem-solving with specific physical movements that help them move through an equation's component parts, then they are more likely to develop the bone-deep understanding of math concepts that will be essential to their high school careers. Woodin calls this method "whole-to-part" learning because the emphasis is on understanding the relationship between the question and the answer rather than on being right or wrong — a notion that flips traditional classroom dynamics on their heads.
Woodin's approach is typical of Landmark, a combined boarding and day school that is known nationally and internationally for pioneering teaching methods that can transform the academic performance — and self-esteem — of LBLD students, many of whom arrive reading far below grade level and leave ready for college. The story of that success dates back to the school's founder, Charles Drake, Ed.D.'70, who created a culture, with dozens of Ed School alumni, of experimentation matched with a unique clarity of mission. Over time, this combination has led to fruitful collaborations with researchers, including many at the Ed School, such as Professor Kurt Fischer, Assistant Professor Gigi Luk, and Lecturer Todd Rose, Ed.M.'01, Ed.D.'07. As Landmark nears its fifth decade, its outreach arm is consulting with school districts and finding new ways to reach educators. The hope is that as one small school on Boston's North Shore continues to impact the lives of a small group of nontraditional learners, it can also have an impact on the national education conversation.
When Drake founded Landmark, he was looking to fill a need he had experienced first hand. As a young man growing up with dyslexia in Braselton, Georgia, he often struggled with reading and writing despite public-speaking skills that helped him in a successful first career as a minister. One teacher even laughed when he wrote an essay about wanting to be a writer. To cope, he developed a technique of breaking reading tasks down into their smallest possible units — a practice that allowed him to count success in small ways and on his own terms.
These habits held him in good stead over the 10 years that he completed his doctorate at the Ed School, where he studied with Harvard Reading Laboratory founder Jeanne Chall, who empha- sized an individualized, explicit, phonics-based approach to reading instruction. After graduating in 1970, Drake ran a dyslexia diagnostic center in Wellesley, Massachusetts, but found there was nowhere to send his clients once they were diagnosed. He had teaching experience from running remedial summer reading programs at Hebron Academy in Maine and decided it was time to start a school of his own. It would service students with diagnosed language-based learning disabilities and what they describe as "average to above-average" intelligence. And it would teach according to six core principles that still guide the Landmark School today:
- Provide opportunities for success.
- Use multiple modalities.
- Offer micro-unit and structure tasks.
- Ensure automatization through practice and review.
- Provide models.
- Include the student in the learning process.
These principles would be enacted throughout the curriculum but primarily in one-on-one daily tutorials where students would focus on their specific areas of weakness. Often, this meant breaking words down into phonemes and morphemes, their smallest parts, in order to decode the mechanics behind more complex ideas like meaning and syntax. But approaches varied. All learners were different, Drake thought, and their instruction should be, too.
With little cash on hand, Drake procured a mortgage on an old brick mansion in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, about 30 miles north of Boston, by using promissory notes from friends and family as collateral. Instruction began in the fall of 1971 with 40 students, many of whom slept in bunk beds that were stowed away each morning so that dormitories could be used as classroom space. Bob Broudo, Landmark's current headmaster and a founding faculty member at the school, remembers that in those early days, challenges included not just learning new methods of teaching, but figuring out how to put 10-year-olds to bed. Still, the pervasive feeling was of idealism.
"What a romantic concept" it was, he says, "to get together a bunch of Peace Corps-type personalities to start a school to help kids who were struggling to learn but had every cognitive tool they needed to learn."
Although things were touch and go at the beginning, the school received a major boon in 1972, when Massachusetts enacted Chapter 766, the first comprehensive special education bill in the nation, which required that districts either meet the learning needs of all students or pay for those students to be educated elsewhere. This meant that Landmark, along with places like the Perkins School for the Blind, could receive public funds for certain students. Chapter 766 became a model for later federal policy. Fifty percent of Landmark students currently receive some amount of public funding.
With this newfound stability — and bestowal of legitimacy — the school embarked on a period of growth and experimentation. Drake, according to Broudo, was "a southern gentleman … and entrepreneurial visionary" who seized opportunities wherever they could be found. When he learned that General George Patton's will required that his beloved schooner, the When and If, be given to an educational institution, Drake started a sailing program that lasted through the early '90s. (They received the boat.) At the request of parents, he sent groups of teachers to start satellite Landmarks in Encino, California, and Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and founded Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, in 1985. Over time, it became clear that it was impossible to keep multiple institutions operating on mission under a single aegis, so while all three schools still exist, none are currently affiliated with the original Landmark. Instead of expansion, the school's tactic starting in the 1990s was to double-down on the breadth and depth of its offerings and to make sure that Drake's unique approach to teaching LBLD students infused every aspect of the program. Still, the experiments of the early days were attempts to answer a question that the school is still tackling: Can such a resource-intensive model have a broader impact?
Forty-four years on, Landmark's program is an almost undeniable success. Most students show quantifiable improvement, and many only stay at the school for two to three years before transitioning out to other institutions. "It's not our expectation that someone who enrolls in second grade will graduate from the high school," Broudo says.
The school's offerings have expanded, too. A separate elementary–middle school campus opened for day students in grades 2–8 in 1994. The high school now breaks its offerings down into three distinct parts: the Founder's Program, which still operates on the original one-on-one tutoring model created by Drake; the Expressive Language Program, which, in addition to the one-on-one tutorial, offers special instruction in writing, oral expression, and linguistic pragmatics; and the Prep Program, which is for students who do not need the one-on-one tutorial but still benefit from Landmark's emphasis on effective study skills and reading and writing instruction using a strategy called micro-uniting, meaning you analyze the parts of an assignment and teach and learn those parts one step at a time. The goal is for students to feel less overwhelmed as they process step by step.
The micro-uniting of language permeates not just English classes, but every aspect of the program — every class at Landmark is, to some extent, a language class. Chris Woodin's pulley graphs and floor clocks are as much about language as about math since they get students to understand that problems must be sequenced in time in order to be solved — and sequencing, with its semantic emphasis on past, present, and future, is fundamentally the domain of language.
The same can be said of the methods that Sophie Wilson, Ed.M.'88, uses in her middle school science classes. Traditionally, she says, science education has been "inquiry based," meaning students do laboratory style-experiments and then interpret data in order to illustrate basic concepts like density, gravity, or inertia. But without an adequate understanding of the language grounding these experiments — terms like "rate" and "motion" — students can have difficulty connecting what they observe in class with larger principles. In Wilson's class, therefore, the traditional order is flipped. Students begin with micro-units of vocabulary ("force," "mass," "acceleration") then go on to explore the semantic relationship between those micro-units ("force = mass * acceleration"), and then finally, once those concepts are cemented, do experiments to show how physical laws are acted out in actual time and space. Once again, the emphasis is not on solving a problem correctly, but on looking at a concept as a whole and in parts so that it can be fully understood.
In the Expressive Language Program, meanwhile, students learn about language as a tool not for comprehension, but for communication — a subject many schools leave to osmosis. In an Oral Expression class, students break down spoken language into its five primary domains: phonemes, morphemes, semantics, syntax, and discourse. They then learn to think about their own speech in terms of simple, compound, and complex sentence structures (i.e., in terms of independent and dependent clauses). To accompany the mechanics of Oral Expression, a two-year long Pragmatics class teaches about the implicit, social aspects of language, such as body language, small talk, and how to agree and disagree appropriately. The Expressive Language Program director, Caitlin Parker, says she hopes all this emphasis on grammar and manners helps students to be good self-advocates, whether in their relationships, in the workplace, or in future educational settings.
As Drake told People magazine in a 1987 article about the school, "virtually all students have low self-esteem when they get here. You can quickly see the change when they have the confidence that they can learn. Its like a pall lifting."
In large part, the successes of Landmark's curriculum come from the school's ability to combine its founding vision with direct engagement in education research. Landmark currently hosts two to three outside research projects per year through an institutional review board that is run in cooperation with Harvard. Over the years, many Ed School researchers have done work at Landmark, such as the study on reading fluency at Landmark High School conducted by Rose. Studies focusing specifically on dyslexia in adolescence are relatively rare, and Rose found that for this cohort, individual differences in vocabulary knowledge are an important predictor of reading fluency whereas word-level reading (i.e., decoding skills) is a greater factor earlier in childhood — an insight that could change where teachers place their energies.
Christina Hinton, Ed.M.'06, Ed.D.'12, an adjunct lecturer at the Ed School and an expert on the relationship between schools and researchers as head of the Research Schools Initiative at the Ed School, believes the presence of researchers on Landmark's campus makes it an ideal example of a laboratory school. Landmark has "researchers and teachers work hand in hand," she says. "Rather than filling a theoretical gap, it's solving a real world problem, so that it's more impactful."
But the question remains of how Landmark, with its small student body and 3:1 student–teacher ratio, can have a broader impact. If satellite campuses aren't the answer, how can one small school hope to improve the schooling experience of the estimated 10 to 20 percent of American students with a diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disability?
"In the ideal world, we'd be out of business. That's the goal," says Dan Ahearn, director of the Landmark Outreach Program. What he means is that if every school adequately serviced students with LBLDs, there would be no need for Landmark. That dream may be far off, but under his leadership the school is making a real voice for itself in the national conversation on learning disabilities.
A former head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals, Ahearn also is the school's legal counsel and assistant headmaster and teaches occasionally at Harvard Law School. He says that while the school has experimented with multiple approaches since founding its outreach program in 1977, today the school has narrowed in on working directly with teachers — up to 1,000 per year — "to reach kids who can't get to Landmark."
This work with teachers takes a variety of forms. Landmark offers a series of summer workshops, including day-long seminars and week-long graduate credit courses, at its Prides Crossing campus, and shorter sessions on Cape Cod and in Chicago. Course titles range from Language-Based Classroom, about designing learning environments for LBLD students, to Special Education Law 101, an overview of federal policy taught by Ahearn. In fall 2015, the school will also begin offering five online graduate courses through Southern New Hampshire University. A publishing arm, meanwhile, provides access to curricular materials and graphic organizer templates.
Beyond that, the school's outreach coordinator, Adam Hickey, Ed.M.'02, is one of a few employees who consult directly with school districts looking to incorporate some of Landmark's methods into their own teaching. Consultations are in-depth, typically lasting three to five years, and recommendations are based on a district's own assessment of its needs and capabilities. Past clients include public schools in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Puerto Rico, as well as the KIPP and UP Education charter school networks, who received services pro bono. No district is turned away due to inability to pay.
Hickey says the biggest challenge for Landmark's consulting arm is creating institutional memory after a three-to-five-year consultation period has ended since it is easy for schools to lose knowledge as teachers move to other districts. He is not sure if there is an answer to this conundrum yet, but he does believe the new Common Core State Standards Initiative is changing how much districts think about educating students with learning disabilities. He suspects that's because disparities in reading levels become a more urgent problem when teacher evaluation is pegged to students' ability to perform at grade level. Whether this newfound urgency is productive, however, is the subject of some controversy. Ahearn and Broudo both believe that while there is a broader understanding of LBLDs in the culture at large than there was a generation ago (Broudo recalls looking up "dyslexia" in the dictionary after he was first offered a job by Drake), the new emphasis on high-stakes tests linked to teacher evaluations can be a disaster for Landmarkstyle learners.
"Nationally, we've missed the boat," Broudo says, by expecting students to learn content without giving them the tools they need for mastery. "So [at Landmark] we're beating the drum for more interventions." He says it's not about the model; it's about the methods. "It's about understanding that students need to learn language skills and … organizational skills right through their careers, and you use content as a tool to do that."
Could Landmark's outreach programs create that shift nationally? Broudo believes they can help push the needle, but the country's current thinking about teaching requires a more seismic shift than even the most entrepreneurial school can deliver. "The work that needs to be done is from Washington down," he says. "I think we need a huge shake-up in terms of how we teach kids to learn."
Perhaps the best evidence for the sort of "shake-up" Broudo is calling for comes from Landmark students themselves. On a rainy Tuesday in May, seven of these students gathered as part of a question-and-answer session for prospective Landmark families. At first, the questions were softballs: How's the food? (Variable.) How's dorm life? (Fun.) But soon, students were sharing stories about how Landmark transformed their experience of education. One 10th-grade student said that in just a few years he had gone from a secondto a ninth-grade reading level. Another said that being around so many other students with LBLDs gave her a new sense of belonging and made her more open.
Asked what advice he would give to incoming Landmark students, a 10th-grade boy delivers his first answer in a flash: "The first thing you should do is know everything about your roommate."
Then, reflecting further, he added, "Be optimistic about it because it's basically a second chance at school. You can evolve a new you."
— Brendan Pelsue is a freelance writer. His last piece in Ed. looked at schooling in the rainforest.