The Education Lessons of Ron Large |EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS – Episode 9


In this episode, Hackie Reitman, M.D. speaks with Ron Large, author of “Larger Lessons”. Ron discusses his career as an educator, the importance of treating neurodiverse students as individuals, and the life changing experiences chronicled in his book.

For more information about Ron and his book, “Larger Lessons,” please visit ronlarge.com.

 

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

Hi, this is Dr. Hackie Reitman for another episode of Exploring Different Brains, today we’re very lucky to have a true educator: Ron Large, the author of Larger Lessons. A very dedicated educator, as you’ll see, who really gets that everybody’s brain is different. Ron, welcome to the show!

RON LARGE (RL)

Well, hello there. Hackie, thank you for the opportunity to chat with you today. It’s a pleasure being here and I’m looking forward to having a healthy conversation with you today.

HR

How did you come to be involved in education, Ron?

RL

Well, it’s funny, Hackie. I–my dad was my high school chemistry teacher, and when I went off to college I wasn’t really pursuing a teaching degree until I stood in front of a classroom of 5th graders in an elementary school as a substitute teacher. And the minute I stood up there and started talking, it was in that moment I knew this was my destiny, that I was going to be a teacher. And I went and got my teaching degree and, as they say, the rest is history.

HR

How did you evolve–because I know your methods are kind of unique–so why don’t you tell us about the methods you use and how you evolved into them?

RL

Well, when I started teaching, I was in an inner-city school in Orlando, Florida. I had a group of sixth grade students in a portable classroom, Hackie, that really tested my perseverance and just stretched me in every way. Personally, professionally, I wasn’t nearly prepared for the teaching profession like I thought I was. And I struggled that first year–in fact, midway through the first year, I considered leaving the profession. I was sending two or three kids to the office almost every day. I was keeping my entire class after school. We just–I was not connecting with my students, I didn’t manage my students effectively. I can remember, Hackie, driving to work one day, and it was so bad that I remember passing these construction workers who just–were digging a ditch on the side of the road, and I told myself man I wish I could dig a ditch today. That looks really good because I don’t want to go to that classroom.

HR

Wow. How did things turn around for you?

RL

Well, I had to do some soul-searching and I remember the day that things began to turn around, Hackie. I found my class teaching and one of my students’ name was Arthur, class clown, he was turned around and he was doing what Arthur does–disrupting learning, getting other kids to be off-task, and I remembered grabbing Arthur’s math book and just slamming it on his desk and it was just a symbol of, “Okay, I’m not going to tolerate this anymore,” and things got a little worse before they got better, but I can honestly say, Hackie, that that was the most difficult group of students I’ve ever had to say goodbye to at the end of the year. We had grown together, personally, and I grew into a more effective teacher and it was a very rewarding year of teaching for me.

HR

What are some of the tips or tools, if you would, that you can give other teachers who might be going through the same thing you just described?

RL

Well, I have become very passionate, Hackie, about relationships. I–you know, there’s a quote that’s used frequently in education: “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” And you have to make connections with students that you teach. You have to build trust with students that you teach. So I started to do things in my classroom on a daily basis that I believed helped me make connections with these students. My students came to school with a lot of stuff on their mind, lot of things going on in their lives, and I never gave them an outlet–I never gave them an opportunity to share that. So I started implementing things like class meetings. Every morning we’d have a class meeting. Another thing I implemented, which I still use today as a school leader, Hackie, is a–it’s a relationship journal, where students come in and they write down in a journal whatever’s on their mind and I respond to that on a daily basis, to every student’s journal. And it’s ongoing dialogue with myself and the students I work with. It allows me to build that trust I mentioned, and it breaks down some barrers, and it just allows me to more effectively, and ultimately teach these children. Another very powerful activity that I implemented was something called affirmations, where I’d have a student come up to the front of the room, it’d be a different student every day, and every student in that room, Hackie, would go around and they would give that student a compliment. Affirm that student.

HR

Well that’s great.

RL

It had to be an internal compliment. For example, you couldn’t talk about the students shirt or shoes, but you have to talk about the person. And that truth is, Hackie, that students in most of our schools just–they don’t talk nice to each other oftentimes, and I wanted to make sure that in my classroom on a daily basis that was going to knowledge for everybody, that we’re going to hear compliments, we’re going to hear other students lifting other students up and supporting each other. So as I implemented things like the class meetings and the journals and the affirmations, I created something where students felt a sense of belonging, a sense of family, a sense of team, and honestly, Hackie, when that–when the table’s set, when those things are in place, I think that’s when the magic happens academically. I think that’s when the kids will become more engaged and deeper learning takes place.

HR

You know, as I listen to you, Ron, and I couldn’t agree with you more, we’re hearing more and more that it’s all about connecting and it’s all about relationships, and, you know, you could substitute the words teacher and student, you could substitute employer/employee, you could substitute so many different combos, where it’s kind of like do unto others as you’d have others do unto you, connect, be nice, and it’s kind of segwaying into two things. One of the things is, one of our very interesting episodes on Exploring Different Brains, we had a fellow named Jim Sporleder, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jim, but there was a documentary made about what he was doing, called “Paper Tigers,” but, basically, he went into a tough school and was just about ready to give up, and he just started connecting with the students, and he stopped to ask himself, how did they get here? Why did they act like that? And then, as you said, so eloquently, once the student knew that he cared, then the connection was made and then things got better. And you’re saying the same thing. You’re saying the connection and to build up their self-esteem, to let them know that you, Ron Large, their teacher, you care about them. And it’s about relationships.

RL

That’s a great analogy, Hackie, and I share this quote with people, I do a lot of profession development for teachers and school leaders and I use this quote often, and it says, “Every student should be able to say, ‘I like me, when I’m with you.'”

See, I believe, Hackie, that teachers, educators, for a lot of children, can be the reason they come to school. You could be the reason these kids get out of bed and make it. And your classroom and your school should be an oasis for these children.

HR

Well, you know–and absolutely, and, you know, when I was out at the, in Tucson, the World Autism Conference and had the pleasure of hanging out with Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore and those people. But Temple Grandin, she’ll tell you right up front. If it wasn’t for her science teacher, her life would have been over. Would have been over. One teacher made that profound a difference, and that’s why teaching is the noblest of professions, and yet in our society, teachers just don’t get treated with respect or remuneration on so many planes.

RL

Yeah, and you know, there’s lots of discussion, Hackie, in the world of education about curriculum and technology and mandates and accountability and high-stakes testing. The truth is, there’s two ways you can–to make a school better–you can improve the people you have or get new people. The key is that you have to find people, teachers, who have the heart, the desire, the passion–to work with these children, and to make the effort to make connections with these students. That other stuff–the curriculum, the technology, that’s all gravy. We can teach people that. But there’s some things we can’t teach people. We can’t give them that heart and that persistence and that desire to grow professionally. So, for me, you know, when I hire people, when I look for people to work with students who are struggling, or work with students who I like to call at-promise. You have to find the people that are wired in a certain way that it’s going to allow them to connect with these students and really, you know, make the effort to be a difference-maker.

HR

You know, we’re talking here with Ron Large, who’s the author of Larger Lessons and the author of the Relationship Journal, and I wanted to segway here, Ron, into neurodiversity. How do these methods slide over into your neurodiverse students?

RL

Well, you know, a lot of teachers, Hackie, teach the way the were taught. And, for some–for most people it’s a very traditional method of teaching, and, for example, whole group instruction. And if you stand and deliver instruction, you’re going to reach a very small percentage of your students. We work with a lot of non-traditional children, we work with students who are–they just learn differently. They need to be exposed to different learning opportunities. You know, and I think I mentioned to you, in prior communication, if they’re not learning the way you teach, you teach the way they learn. So what’s key is that you create a student-centered classroom, number 1, where you’re getting students the opportunity to instruct their own knowledge. If you’re doing most of the heavy lifting, if the teachers are doing most of the talking, then you’re not giving those children the opportunites to construct their own knowledge. And it’s then, and only then, Hackie, that you find out how students work. How they problem solve, how they process, and then you, when you learn those things, you know, then you tap into that and you go deeper with it. So it’s exposing these children to a variety of teaching methods and learning opportunities, so you can find out how their brains work. And that goes back to what I said earlier, Hackie, how we–you’ve got to know who you’re working with on every level.

HR

Well, Ron, what you just said again, so eloquently, is really the basis for all learning and all teaching. It’s the recognition that every brain is different and, as you just said, you have to know who you’re working with. You know, we’ve been working on a documentary on Angelo Dundee and Mohammad Ali, and Angelo Dundee had 15 world champions, and I was a product of the Fifth Street gym down there. Angelo would always say, of his 15 champions in anyone, you can only work with what you’ve got. That’s all you can do. Have you heard of trauma-informed methods and would you compare your methods to that?

RL

I have not, Hackie. Say that again, sorry?

HR

Something I learned from Jim Sporleder–Trauma-informed methods about relating the trauma that the students have been through and where they come from relating to how you might connect to them. So, for instance, when you’re in that–the school you described first, a lot of them have been through some tough times.

RL

You know what that–what it reminds me of, Hackie, is being culturally responsive in your teaching. Knowing your students, their backgrounds, you know, thinks about their lives, their cultures, et cetera, and then really using that information to teach them and to support them.

HR

Well, yeah. And it goes hand-in-hand with what you’ve said. It’s really all part in parcel of know who the person is. And by the way, when I would commute from here in Fort Lauderdale up to Boston University School of Medicine, and every year for 36 years, I would give the first year anatomy class their first clinical lecture on clinical and orthopedic aspects of the extremeties, and, you know, I would tell them that, you know, you’ve got to understand your patient. Every patient is different, and if you don’t connect with that patient, and that’s something, unfortunately that as time has gone on, is getting lost from every day medical practice, in many ways similar to how it’s getting lost from teaching practice. You know, the technology, and all of that is not a substitute. And I’m loving the newer teaching for those who are getting into it, where you kind of do the work ahead of time and then that time with your teacher is engagement. And not just, as you say, stand and deliver, lectures.

RL

Yeah, you know, another buzzword of education, you know, now, is differentiation and meeting students where they are. And there’s right ways you can differentiate in a classroom. I believe, Hackie, that every student that we work with and every person has a gift, a talent. You know, I think one of our responsibilities as a professional educators is to find that in each and every one of our students. And when you do, that’s when great things happen for that student. You know, then that goes back to what I said earlier about, you know, creating opportunities for students to showcase, to let you know what the gift is, and you won’t find it if you don’t differentiate, if you don’t create that student-centered environment that I mentoned earlier. We just–I think we all have something special inside of us.

HR

I love it, and I agree with it, and I think that as a society, and especially in the classroom, we spent a lot of time trying to make it one-size-fits-all and spend time of negating behaviors and interests, instead of harnessing the hyper-interests and making it work for the student, instead of a battle against them.

RL

Yeah. That’s well–well put, Hackie.

HR

Ron, you know that I’m not a big label guy, I think labels are a lousy way to describe a unique human being, but we need them for some purposes and everything. Tell me about the use of labels in your very neurodiverse classes where everybody’s brain is a little bit different, and the challenges that go along with that and how you handle it? Why don’t you speak to neurodiversity in terms of labels?

RL

Well, I think, Hackie, when we start labeling children, you know, we start limiting children. And–you know, there’s students in our classroom that are special ed students who have individualized education plans, and those are things that are put in place for students that are designed to help them, to support them. But not to limit them. And I think every student–you know, regardless of their disability, needs to know that there are no limits to their growth and their learning and that we can’t–we can’t, just because they’re provided with this additional support and this plans in place that doesn’t make them less as a student or not as smart as their peers, and I think that goes back to, you know, the belief of the adult in these children, we can succeed. You can succeed, I believe in you, yes, there are some challenges you have, but we’re going to overcome them together, and here’s how we’re going to do it. I think the biggest thing we can give students, Hackie, children, is something called hope. I have a ratio in my school in every classroom it’s posted and it’s 4 to 1. And it’s a reminder of the positive to negative statements that we need to be speaking to our children. So for every four positive statements, there should only be one negative statement. And, oftentimes students that have been given labels, who have–who learn differently, whose brains are wired in a different way, they’ve been told that they can’t. They’ve been told that there are limits, and I think it’s critical how we speak to children. And we have to speak in a way that gives them, like I said, a sense of hope, and you know, truth is, Hackie, if we can get students to a point where they believe they can, then we’ve done our job, man. I mean, they have to–this whole concept of self-esteem, you know that–you can tell students, you know, you’re bright, intelligent, you’re a hard worker, but it’s got to be internalized, and they have to believe it. So, I’m not a big fan of labels, so, like you, I think, you know, students come into our classrooms, they come into our worlds and we–there’s that blank slate and we’re going to create something very special on each one of those slates, and I think that’s the beauty of our profession, is that we can be a difference maker in these children, regardless of how their brains work, we just have to use a different approach.

HR

Ron, what percentage of your students, just guestimate, have IEPs?

RL

Yeah, Hackie, the percentage of students in our school that have individualized educational plans is approximately 20%. You know, we have a special education department here that consists of approximately five special-ed teachers and a dean of special education, so these students are either pulled out of the classroom to provide–to give support in the special ed classrooms or special ed teachers are pushing in to support inside the classrooms. And, as you can imagine, the IEP’s very academic deficiencies, learning disabilities, some are behavior-based as well, but you know there are, for most of them they are mainstreamed and we have over 700 students here and I think it’s critical that they also have a sense of belonging in our school and in our classrooms, and that–you know, every time you pull a student out of a classroom to provide support, you know, I’m sure those students, most of them or a lot of them, internalize, you know, “Here I go again, I’m different,” you know, everybody else is still in the classroom but I’m leaving to work with a different teacher and–so, you know, I just–I think we have to be careful how that’s done and what we say to kids and make sure that they still feel like they are part of that classroom environment. And, you know, something else we do with special education students, Hackie, that sometimes we do disservices, you know, we give students these high-stakes tests and we put our special ed students in different classrooms to take–to allow these kids the most important test they take all year. So I think it’s important that we–if we’re going to do that, and for a lot of those kids we have to do that because of their IEP, that we do that periodically throughout the school year to expose them to a different environment, and get them comfortable with the adult that will be proctoring them during their important test. And so really, you know, you have to take into consideration–these are people, with feelings. And they’re not just kids with plans, you know, that we could just slap a label on and get them some extra help. So, you know, I know I keep harping on that relationship piece, but, you know, asking these kids, “How are you feeling about this process?” And “How are you feeling about being pulled from your classroom, are you getting any feedback from your peers, are you struggling with this process?” And so there–they may be special education students, but they’re–like I said they’re people first and I think we have to, you know, be aware of that.

HR

Ron, what advice would you have for the parents of the 20% of your students who have IEPs?

RL

Well, my first bit of advice, Hack, would be to continue to be an advocate for your child. Fight for every service, every program, every bit of support that you can get for your child, because if you’re not going to, who is? And hold the educators accountable. That IEP is in place and it’s a legal document, Hackie, you have to provide the services outlined in the IEP, so, you know, make sure the educators that work with your child are doing that. Have a lot of communication–you know, open a lot of communication with your student when they come home from school, make sure you’re–there’s an opportunity for them to share and make sure that they’re–that you have a relationship with your child that is conduscent to those types of conversations, because they need to–you know, sometimes they need to talk and vent and share, and it may be the only outlet for some of these students.

HR

You know, and I add to–it’s interesting the analogies you come up with, but I–you know, as an orthopedic surgeon, when I would hospitalize a child after a car accident or things of that nature and fix them up, the parents would ask me for advice, and one of the things I would add is, be nice. Be nice to the nurses, be nice to everybody you run into, because they are taking care of your kid, and I tell that to parents, yes, advocate for your child and have great communications with the teacher, but be nice. Be nice, because there’s a lot of anger out there and frustration, by the parents.

RL

Yeah, there is. That’s a good point, Hackie, that sometimes parents believe that their child is being short-changed and that they’re not being provided the services that their child requires and needs, but ultimately, you have–there has to be a working relationship there, with the parents and the educators. And we can come into this school, we can have conversations, we can express our concerns, but, ultimately, we’re here for the same reason, we want to provide the very best education for your child and let’s not lose focus of that.

HR

Well, Ron, thank you very much, it’s been great to talk to you; great to meet you, kind of.. Now, Ron, can you tell us some of the organizations that you’re involved with?

RL

Well I’m a member of the ASCD and National Mathematics Teachers Association, you know, I’ve connected to several professional organizations through linkedin, and, you know, I just believe in doing a lot of networking, Hackie, with people that are doing what other people say you cannot. You know? There are schools in this country that are high performing and they’re high-performing with students that, you know, people say you can’t you can’t be high-performing with. They’re actually called 90/90 schools, the schools that are 90% proficient, with 90% fee of reduced lunch. And they’re proving, they’re demonstrating that, you know, with the right mindset and the right approach in establishing those relationships that we talked about, and being very purposeful with your instruction and differentiating and all of those things that we know works. You know, kids can, they can learn. And, you know, I mentioned to you earlier, Hackie, about finding the right people. You know, there has to be a belief when you work with students that–you work with that 100% of them can learn 100% of the time. You have to believe that, and when you believe that, and you don’t even have to stand up and tell your kids that. They will know if you believe that or if you don’t believe that but simply by the way that you conduct yourself, the way that you treat them, your approach with them. But how do you expect them to believe that if you don’t? They need people in their lives that will cheer them on, will support them, will believe them, will hold them accountabe, will have high expectations for them. And they will–you know, no one rises to low expectations. So, you know, just having that belief that these children can still learn and create that environment where it’s decent for these kids to be successful.

HR

Well, that, on that note–I think that that kind of sums up a great philosophy that’s in your books, that’s in your media, that’s in your speaking engagements, and I–if people want to get ahold of you, how do they get ahold of you, Ron?

RL

Well, you can email me at largerthanlifeinc@msn.com, I also have a website, Hackie, RonLarge.com.

HR

Tell us a little bit about Larger Lessons, about that?r

RL

Larger lessons is a story, Hackie, about a student I had in fifth grade at the school that I began my teaching career in Inner City, Orlando, and he was a student that came to me as a fifth grader, was a special ed student, had a lot of behavior issues in previous years prior to coming to my classroom. He had a reputation for being aggressive, and each one that I took a special interest in, Hackie, he and I had some friction early on in our relationship as teacher-student, and he taught me one of the most important lessons that I’ve ever learned as a professional. And that was the issue of respect. And one particular day I was reprimanding this young man’s behavior in the restroom, and I was reprimanding him, Hackie, in front of his peers, and he decided that he had had enough of Dr. Large reprimanding him and laughed back verbally to me, and he called me a highly inappropriate name, and I took it very personally and I was, quite honestly I was stunned that this young man would dare call me a name in front of all of his classmates, and I had a conversation with him later that day, a very private conversation, I said, “Terrence, what makes you think you can talk to me that way?” And what he said next, Hackie, was, like I said, was a lesson I’ll never forget, and he goes, “You embarassed me in front of my classmates.” And here I was trying to get these young people to respect me, and I was doing just the opposite. So the book, Hackie, is about my relationship with this young man, and our relationship, over 20+ years, we stayed in contact after he left elementary school. We spent time together outside of school, this young man got into some trouble with the law, spent a significant amount of time in prison. Throughout that time, we still stayed in contact, we talked weekly via phone, I would visit him whenever possible, and he taught other lessons about being a man and about life, and he asked me to be his best man at his wedding and I’m the godfather of his son, and it’s just a story about how people from two different worlds connected, and just made each other better in many ways.

HR

How can people purchase that book?

RL

You can go to my website, Hackie, at RonLarge.com and you can order it there, you can also just email me and we can get you a copy that way as well.

HR

Well thank you very much, it’s been very inspirational, and I’m going to think about a lot of the things you said. And we here at DifferentBrains.com really want to highlight the hard work that real educators like yourself are doing, and that recognition that all of our brains are different. And relationships, connecting, creating the right climate, engaging students and being that teacher who can have a profound difference on a young persons life. So thank you, Ron Large, for being with us today, and we’ll look forward to staying in touch, and learning more about what you’re doing.

RL

Sounds great, Hackie. I appreciate the opportunity today.

HR

Keep up the great work.

RL

Same to you, Hackie.

HR

Our guest this week: Ron Large, the author of Larger Lessons.

 

This video is owned by Different Brains Inc, kindly donated by it’s original producer PCE Media LLC.

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