Rethinking Education: Making School Work for Every Brain, with Joseph Lento | EDB 307



Educator & musician Joseph Lento discusses how he thinks the education system can better serve neurodiverse students.

Joseph Lento is an educator and a Conservatory-trained professional Musician. He is licensed by NYS as a Teacher of Orchestral Music and School District Administration and began his career in 1984. In 1999 he was named NYC Bronx County High School Teacher of the Year. In 2014 President Barack Obama named him a National Teacher of Arts and Humanities. Joseph is called on frequently by local Radio Hosts, NY Cable TV and local T.V. News stations as an expert on Music, Special Needs students and curriculum development. 

Joseph can be emailed at 

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Note: the following transcription was automatically generated. Some imperfections may exist.     

HACKIE REITMAN MD (HR):  Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And today, I’m excited to have my friend, Joseph Lento, who’s the dedicated teacher of music and music maestro, and a guy who masters instruments. And he slept too. And he’s going to tell you all about all his awards, he won, and everything else. Joseph, welcome.  

JOSEPH LENTO (JL):  Well, thank you so much. It’s always a pleasure to be here with you. I’m honored to be in such esteemed company. Thank you very, very much. And as we’ve discussed, you wanted to talk about, you know, testing and and the different types of styles of teaching and assessments that you had going to a world of education and how it affects neurodiversity?   

HR:  Well, yes, because as you know, better than I all of our brains are different. And you’ve taken teaching, and special education, and music to a different level. So tell us about it.  

JL:  I’m not sure if I will. Thank you very much. I just tried to pass on information. The best way Westway. I know how. And over the years, I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to use my let’s say creative brain as a as a musician, in teaching. You know, when I first started many, many years ago, 1984. My first job was teaching global studies to special education students, because they have a minor in history. And because there weren’t many music jobs. So I began incorporating what I knew as a musician instinctively, to try and reach the students with special needs. And it was quite a ride and a lot of fun. And that’s my starting point for the rest of my career.  

HR:  Well, good. And you know, you grasped early on that you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.  

JL:  No, no, it’s not possible.  

HR:  Elaborate on that.  

JL:  Well, you know, one of the things I’d like to say before I forget, you know, we get involved in our conversation is that the things that we’re going to talk about today, and I’m going to mention, is in no way shape, or form meant to impugn our fantastic educators or our system, because they do incredible work. But what we want to do is we want to just kind of bring some awareness to the different types of education models, both learning, teaching and assessing students, which I’ve been very, very fortunate, fortunate over the years to have experienced firsthand. And I hope that during the episode, I don’t be I’m not one of these “I guys”, which is, you know, “I did this”, “I did that”. I, if I mentioned something, it’s only because of I want other people to say, well, I will consider listening to him, because he’s done when I done and implemented it. So as I mentioned certain things, it’s only for that purpose, and that purpose alone to you know, so these might give a reason to consider listening to some of the things I have to say,  

HR:  I know that ego is not your problem shows, so you don’t have to give the disclaimers get right into it, for instance, why you think that standardized testing, which is one size fits all doesn’t work for all of our different brands?  

JL:  Well, it’s it’s evident in the fact that the disparity in results, and you as a medical doctor, know that if you’re assessing a patient, and something comes up, that doesn’t seem right, you have a series of other diagnostic tools that you use to say, Does the patient need surgery? Does the patient need this? Are they really that? I don’t see it that way? The test says yes, let’s try something different. In education, we really don’t do that. You know, we great people, you’re 65 you’re 55 or an 85. You know, whatever it might be, that doesn’t tell us much about anything. And I’ve seen this firsthand. As a musician, if I’m doing something and it’s not working. I don’t keep doing the same thing. I try something different in education. If we have a student who’s a who’s always around 65 or 70. We don’t really look further into why that is. We might say well, they might have a reading issue. They might have a aquamatic issue, they might have some sort of processing issue, but they don’t really get into what is it? What’s an alternative? How can we, you know, treat this student, so we can get those grades up, we tend to give them more of the same things. And that depends on who the practitioner is. So if I might make this segue into an analogy of medicine, and education, teachers and doctors. And I think it’s fair to say that in any profession, people see things a certain way. And that’s the way they practice. In teaching, we have basically four types of educators. And there are there are more subcategories. But you basically have a perennial list, someone who focuses in on what has been teach that, and not what might be, you have an essentialist, a person who says, students must know this, this and this. So they can be successful. You have a progressive, who kind of looks at the whole child, and a little bit of the other components. And then you have a Reconstructionist, somebody wants to tear everything apart, and not always with a clear picture. All of those are good. But in education, we can’t afford to be just one. We need people to incorporate a little bit of everything. And we don’t get that that’s a problem. And, you know, with these different types of teaching styles, we have assessments that follow. So basically, if you’re an essentialist, you’re going to give a lot of formative assessments in a little quizzes longer test, different types of tests along the way. So you can constantly measure what’s going on. But are you really measuring? We’re not so sure, you’ll have the perennial list who gave a big midterm and a big final? And, you know, they’re more of a summative assessment. We can stretch this and progressives might use subjective things. What do you think this means to you? But the problem is, they often have a predetermined notion themselves, of what that means for the students. So even then, you really can’t get a grasp. If you’re not thinking the way the teacher is thinking,  

HR:  tell us what’s wrong with the SATs.  

JL:  They’re a one size fits all, test. And it’s very difficult to have someone who expresses themselves verbally, you know, Dr. Reitman, interestingly enough, and we may have mentioned this before, all tests used to be oral, it wasn’t until the mid 1800s, were tests began to be written. And that was only because the, the people, you know, in charge of education wanted to actually test the teachers themselves. Horace Mann was the leading advocate for that. So before he a lot of things, were conversations with people. And we’ve completely lost all that, that all together. So that’s not even a component of it. There’s there’s no way for a person who learns differently, to be able to completely express themselves on an essay team, so you don’t get the full picture.  

HR:  Can you talk a bit about the importance of testing versus observational assessments?  

JL:  That’s a very good question. We are a society that talks about things like observing different modalities. But they still want to bottom line, they want to know are you in 85? Are you in 90 or 95? So observing a student, as opposed to people having a physical test in their hand are two different things. It takes a very skilled person to know what they’re looking for. If you’re going to observe a student for academic rigor, you have to know what questions to ask. And you have to know in what way to ask them. Now some people might say, you know, shows us an awful lot of trouble to go through to see if someone knows what one plus three is. But not if you want the answer. It’s not.  

HR:  So now you’ve done an assessment on a child, right or a student and it shows learning differences. So what do teachers and schools do to help that student thrive?  

JL:  Every teacher every school, has a day different philosophy, and I’m not knocking it, it’s really hard work to teach to teach really hard, and I can’t commend my colleagues enough. They are going to do what their training has been. So most of the training is give more of the same. In the same way, maybe they might try to stretch it out a little bit differently. But it’s more of the same. To produce the outcome that is wanted. It’s not really different. It’s just more of the same over a longer period of time, or over a longer period of time and even more, with more attention to it.  

HR:  Now, I’ve had the honor of speaking to some of your classes, and what great kids what a great bunch of students, thank you, you have. What is your impression of the next generations opinions about neurodiversity?  

JL:  That’s another great question. And at Maria Regina High School, I’m teaching, as you know, I’m teaching developmental psychology. So we do a lot of work. And I spend a lot of time with them on the scientific method, trying to show them how the brain might work in terms of logic. And they are now becoming more and more aware through our discussions, and the specific curriculum I’m doing with them. That there is more than one way to think. And many times they’ll say to me, you know, Mr. lento, I really enjoy this because I’ve never had it presented to me in this way. I might have three or four different groups working. And the students in those different groups are working according to the learning modality that’s best for them. Because if the answer is I want them to know what you know, there’s a certain standard that they must know in order to complete a course. Does it really matter how I get that information to them? If they learn it? We have to become comfortable with other people learning differently than we do. And we’re still not there yet. We’re not there. Yeah. It’s like, you really you can you’re teaching that way, that’s not the way you should teach it. Why not when the results are really good.  

HR:  So how do we get better at it?  

JL:  Being more open minded, giving people opportunities in the arts, music, especially opening up their horizons in that way, and actually showing them that it works. There’s more way more ways than one to make something happen. But in fairness to the administration, and teachers across the country, they have an overarching weight that says you must produce this, or you’re going to be rated unfavorably. So they do have a lot of constraints on them, and fears. So there’s a lot of apprehension, if we can somehow get to the higher ups, and have them kind of take their foot off the gas a little bit. And let teachers be more creative, we would get more open mindedness and eventually change the way in which teachers implement instruction.  

HR:  What changes would you like to see in the curriculum that the teachers themselves get in their education to become teachers?  

JL:  I’m having gone through, you know, all the the ed courses, and then, of course, as a school district administrator, you have to take an even more overarching set of coursework. I’d like it to be Less talk, more practical application. There’s a lot of theory and education is not a theory. It’s it’s a teaching facts, teaching things that are when you’re teaching things that might be so there should be more in the teaching colleges, more open mindedness, more of the Socratic method, more intellectual universal standards, learning how to question, understanding how to present questions and design questions. There’s just simply not enough of that. And I’ve taught every grade from pre K through 12. And I’ve taught, you know, history, psychology, English, different subjects, and there’s always that overarching we want this one specific outcome. We all want the students to be great But how do we go about it really should be something that benefits the students. And the teachers need to have less pressure on them to produce that bottom line in that way.  

HR:  Before we ask the next question, I just want to remind our audience, that you’ve received the Presidential Proclamation as a national teacher of arts and humanities, from President Barack Obama, you’d also receive commendations from our previous presidents, as well, President Carter, both President Bush’s High School Teacher of the Year 1998. So you’ve you I want our audience to know that you are a leader, in addition to all of your other, what I’m going to call for lack of better term side jobs, which are not side jobs as a musician, and a professional band leader, and so forth. So you have a unique vantage point, because you have an overarching holistic view, having been noted by the presidents of our country, and we’re not just talking about one kind of education, we’re not just talking about special education, we’re talking about the whole ball of wax, okay. And if you could wrap for us, the college level, the high school level, the elementary school level, and everything in between. Talk about the commonalities there as regards making sure that the differences are recognized.  

JL:  Thank you, Dr. Reitman. That’s one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked. And the simple answer is, there is invariably a disconnect on each of those levels. There isn’t an overarching design, elementary school is completely different than middle school, middle school, from high school, and high school, from college, in our elementary schools, up until the third grade, students and teachers really engage in in more of a Montessori approach and more of an open ended approach exploration. But then we start to cut that off about the fourth grade. And you know, and I don’t know why, but they do. And then by the time you get to middle school, it’s sort of a mini preparation for high school. But it’s at an age where children are often most conflicted. They’re leaving the earlier stages, and getting ready to go into the later stages. And they need some really special attention there. You’ll hear teachers talk about middle school as being very, very difficult time, because of that, pushing Pope High School, then you’re thrown into a situation where it’s essentially, and not where I teach every person for themselves, you’re now just, you’re on your own completely. And then the college, there’s even less supervision, less interaction. There’s no overarching connection. And and, you know, we realized that you obviously realized that with that great question, why don’t we address it? And I think the answer comes down to there, our education is a business. And there’s a business model set up for it. And the business model is books, test prep, et cetera. And that’s the way it’s designed. I dare say, while it has its place, it doesn’t represent all the students and it doesn’t do the best service for our kids either.  

HR:  How have the advances in modern technology and internet affected your efforts as a teacher, and your method has had been positive, negative neutral? What’s changed?  

JL:  When I first started, thank you for that question. I was taught and what was called the developmental style. We had a motivation for the students. You had a series of questions. You had summaries, you had a wrap up an ending, very neat package. It allowed for creativity and so on. With the advent of all this technology, specifically the Google Classroom, it has been such a benefit for me. And I think for my student Since because now I’m able to put together these really complete and often complex lessons in a in a digital document, photos, music links, lecture links, you name it, where a student can now go in and access everything. After the fact, and go over everything we went in class we did in class. So now my students can concentrate really on what we’re doing in that moment. And then they can always go back, if they miss something. If they’re not taking notes in the class, everything is interactive, we’re always talking, they’re always talking with each other. So the advent of technology for me, as I’ve been able to use, it has been phenomenal. And I and the girls tell me, they, they love it, they can go back and find every single thing we spoke about and more, just like that, so I’m really pleased about it. And  

HR:  they can choose the mode from which they learn best, whether it’s audio, or the written word, or the visual presentation.  

JL:  In every lesson. I put all the modalities in. It’s very rare that I don’t have a YouTube link into a lecture link, whatever I’m teaching, there’s the words, there the quotes, there’s the YouTube link, the audio, the video, everything is there for whatever they learn best. And if we want students to get the right answer, give it to them. Whatever it takes, there’s, there’s no rule that says, Will you if you don’t listen to Joseph droning away for 40 minutes, and don’t remember, you know, something, that you’re not a good student, that that’s not the way it has to work. If I want them to know, something, give it to them, what are we hiding, and why we often making it such a struggle to get that information. And I understand about critical thinking and learning to figure things out, it can be done, it can be done. And if you just incorporate these different modalities of a for instance, if they go back to the Google Classroom, they’re going to figure out which thing they need to see. So isn’t that learning how to process information? Of course it is.   HR:  And what you’ve just said that I really believe so much. These things are not mutually exclusive. Yes, they are inclusive?   JL:  Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s, it’s, I think it’s so simple. And I often, you know, see, you know, people struggling with certain things, to learn something. Why when there are so many different ways to learn it. You know, I teach here, private students in my homes, some home studio, and whatever I need to explain, or however I need to explain it. For instance, I have had a student, and this is not a student who I gave yesterday. But if you might see this, this is a trumpet fingering chart. And this is a different type of fingering chart. Usually, it has the name of the note. And it might have three little circles on the bottom, where it colors in the ones that have to be pressed down here, it actually shows you which ones why can’t we do that for everything. It’s there? What’s the struggle? It’s so simple? And that’s the way I teach. Find what? Find the answer and give it to them in the way they understand it.  

HR:  Well, you make good sense,  

JL:  if I might just share one thing with my colleagues. Try to remember, our students don’t learn the way we learn. They don’t understand things the way we do. Sure some might. But try and remove ourselves from it. And in what we do doesn’t matter how I go about editing a paper doesn’t matter. That’s not for me to force on someone. It’s for me, to get them to understand what the standard is, and take my own process and put it on the side, please. And focus on what the student needs. That’s what’s important.  

HR:  How can people learn more about you and your work? Well,  

JL:  if anyone’s interested in anything I’ve had to say of course they can find me on on There are other outlets I’m on regularly. I was just on Spectrum cable in New York City. On the great heart of New York show with Angela and Peter Hart. It’s on YouTube la Lots of segments there on many different subjects that we’ve talked about over the last six or seven years, various articles and so on. But if anybody wants to reach me, free of charge, they can simply reach me. May I give my email?  

HR:  Yes, please give me your email and any contact information you’d like to share.  

JL:  Thank you. They can simply reach me at That’s And I’m happy to share information, answer questions, you know, help in any way I can and hopefully learn something from you, too. Maybe you’ve got something. I’m sure you have things that you can teach me. I’m open all the time for that.  

HR:  Well, Joseph, is there anything else we have not covered that you would like to cover today?  

JL:  Well, if I might have fun. I understand. So many of our educators are in challenging situations. I know firsthand. I’ve been in it 39 years, I’ve been in the most challenging and rewarding environments, students in all types of needs, distress. Have fun with it. They can see most of the time you might be the only bright light in their day, smile for them. Spread a cheerful word, be encouraging. That means more than anything, and it’ll help you be positive too, and make us all happy. So that’s what I have to little bit of advice.  

HR:  Joseph lento it’s been a pleasure to have you here yet again on Exploring Different Brains. Keep up your great work in education and in leading us and in philosophizing. Thank you so much. Thank you