Landmark School - Learning to Learn

Two weeks ago I visited Landmark School, located on the beautiful North Shore in Massachusetts.  I had heard of Landmark’s success through several friends and alumni and was very much looking froward to experiencing the school first hand.  Landmark was originally conceived as a summer ‘lab’ in 1971.  The founder, Charles Drake, wanted to start a school with the goal of helping children become independent learners.  The school helps children who have been diagnosed as dyslexic or learning disabled.  Charles Drake wanted to build a learning environment where students would ‘learn how to learn’ - he saw that students' “reading, writing, spelling, and mathematical skills did not match their thinking and problem solving capacities”. Click here to learn more about common misperceptions about learning disabilities 

I started my day meeting with Henry Willette, Academic Dean.  Henry helped me understand how content is a vehicle to skills acquisition at Landmark - and that the primary objective of the work is for each student to become an independent learner.  He got me thinking how this should be the ultimate objective for every student in every school, yet somehow the bureaucracy of our education system endeavors to remove independence from the learner - and from teachers.  I was reminded how our system of compliance and consumption works actively against the autonomy of teachers and learners alike.  Henry shared how teachers at Landmark apply critical thinking across the board in their classes and when teachers get together, ”we talk about how to approach learning - not content area”.  He underscored how there is a community of sharing amongst teachers at Landmark - one that is incredibly supportive and focused on students’ needs. Landmark’s Six Teaching Principles inform ground pedagogy across the curriculum. 

During the morning I visited several classes - Study Skills with Tucker Harrison, Biology with Jennifer Day, Yoga with Erin Brewer, a tutorial with Bill McCarthy and British Literature with Margot Marcou. The classes comprised anywhere from 1 (individual tutorial) to 8 students.  I was able to see first hand how teachers weave study skills and ‘learning how to learn’ throughout their lesson plans, e.g. using concept maps to draw or describe what is happening, using color, describing drawings in words, 3D animations, presenting the Lolita syllabus which is structured like a college syllabus and drawing students’ attention to this as preparation for what they will navigate at college and exploring the word “deviant” in Study Skills class to dig into its meaning and typical meaning misunderstandings, practice group discussion and ‘think what you are thinking’ - a highly participative discussion on “what is normal” ensued.

Erin "Spiritual Gangster" Brewer, Yoga and Geometry Teacher :)

Erin "Spiritual Gangster" Brewer, Yoga and Geometry Teacher :)

Having visited several classrooms, I walked over to the new Athletic Center.  The Landmark campus is beautiful and rustic.  It does not have an institutional feel, yet it is a great mix of traditional college prep style buildings and more modern buildings such as the Athletic Center.  I walked into Erin’s yoga class and was immediately struck by how helpful I would have found a daily yoga class at school - particularly during my teenage years!  In addition to the obvious physical and mental benefits of yoga, Erin did a wonderful job of weaving life lessons as she talked the class through the various yoga poses and as students wobbled and struggled through some of the more challenging poses,”It’s OK to wobble - we all wobble in life.  What is important is that you regain your footing.” “Stuff comes up in backbends, stay with it,”  “Let gravity do its work.” 

Meeting with Scott Jamieson, Asst. Dean of Students, helped me understand the different levels of residential life at Landmark.  Privileges are granted via levels - Level 1 being the lowest, with Level 6 being the highest.  The purpose of the ‘levels’ is to help students build organization skills and self advocacy.  At Level 6, students have demonstrated excellent organization and time management skills and can advocate for themselves effectively.

Before lunch I met with Bill Barrett, Faculty Recruiter, who described the hiring process at Landmark.  He highlighted when he hires new teachers, he is looking for communication skills, a good fit with residential life, a genuine desire to work with the Landmark students and an understanding that content is a vehicle to learn skills, thinking and how to learn.  Bill described Landmark’s approach of hiring new teachers, typically 1 or 2 years out of college and how the school brings Simmons College on Campus - a partnership whereby Simons Faculty teach at Landmark on nights and weekends; within 4-5 years, new teachers have their Masters in Education.  Indeed this program was mentioned by the students with whom I had lunch.  When I asked them what they liked most about their Landmark experience, they mentioned how they like that their teachers are “learning to teach, we’re learning to learn and it’s like we’re all learning together and they are here to help and are really open and help us to learn.” The sense of a real learning community was palpable in the student comments.  Students who have felt ‘out of place’ at school for much of their life have found a home at Landmark.

After lunch, I met with Robin Day-Laporte, Study Skills Dept Head, and Ariel Martin-Cone, Academic Advisor/Supervisor.  Robin described Landmark’s Study Skills program which is an integral part of the Landmark experience.  I loved how she described the curriculum during the daily 1:1 tutorial, “I (i.e. the student) am the curriculum”. I shared with Robin my current thinking on the IFL ‘whole child’ learning lab and asked for her advice.  Robin highlighted the following, “Kids need to have that conversation, “What are your passions?” What you love should drive what you do. They need reflective time - many adolescents don’t really know what they are into and haven’t taken the time or space to think about it.  The summer is a great time to reflect/recharge.  Kids are open.  Important to NOT have the lab at school.  Space matters a lot for kids.  Summer is a great re-set and recharge for teachers as well.  What could you offer teachers?”

This photo is a snapshot of the learning styles inventory which Ariel uses with students. She described the senior transition curriculum and highlighted a number of resources which I know will help inform the design of the lab, e.g. Raising Resilient Children and Far From The Tree.  We had a great time discussing the ‘Discover Your Talents Inventory’ and Ariel reminded me to check out Sam Goldstein’s work on the Executive Function Inventory.

My visit to Landmark was incredibly informative and I hope I have done justice to the richness of the Landmark work in this blog posting.  Thank you to Henry and Cal for coordinating such a great day of learning.  Be sure to check out Landmark’s outreach resources (workshops, publications, online learning, free tools) on the Landmark Outreach website.

More later!