Sparks of Hope

Originally published in the Education 3.0: The Magazine written and produced by the Society for Advancement of Education, Jerusalem and distributed at the SAE’s Education 3.0 Symposium in New York City on November 5, 2019.

In every classroom there are students with learning or behavioral differences.  Frequently they are not understood.  They often feel invisible.  The unique Hidden Sparks program enables teachers to gain a deep understanding of the diversity of learners in their classrooms, to identify difficulties and find solutions that can help every child succeed.

Each person learns differently, and learning is influenced by personality, by the environment and by cognitive development. Each student has challenges in every learning process.  The role of the teacher is to find the “road map” for learning personally suited to each child.

A unique program called Hidden Sparks, which has been running successfully for twelve years in the USA and for seven years in Israel, transmits knowledge and strength to teachers.  The program in Israel is conducted in partnership with the Society for Advancement of Education (SAE), Jerusalem, and offers a unique method for teachers who seek to assist students with different learning differences.

“Hidden Sparks is a professional development program for teachers who work in regular classrooms and deal with children who have various kinds of differences in their learning abilities”, explains Eden Israeli, Director of Educational Support Services at SAE.  “Each year new schools around the country join the program, which is recognized by the Ministry of Education, and with good reason: the program is founded on a research-based educational worldview that offers teachers tools to effectively help different students.”

Look, Don’t Label

“When we started the program twelve years ago, we identified the fact that many teachers do not know how to effectively reach students with learning and behavioral difficulties – which doesn’t only impact the student and the teacher, but impacts the whole class,” explains Debbie Niderberg, Founder and Director of Hidden Sparks.  “We saw that through regular training and coaching for teachers inside the classroom, in optimistic and professional language, the teachers improved their skills, their sense of capability and their compassion for students who also made progress in many indices,”.

Debbie Niderberg, Founder and Director of Hidden Sparks

One of the first cases she remembers was Josh, an 8th grade student in Florida.  “He would regularly wear a sweatshirt and a hat, and sit in class with the hat on his head, lost in thought, almost disconnected from the class.  The teacher was sure that he suffered from some attention deficit, and treated him accordingly.

After the teacher participated in the program and worked with a Hidden Sparks mentor, he understood that the boy had very high cognitive abilities, but he wasn’t connecting with the frontal and monotonous character of the class, and, therefore, he was withdrawing into himself.  As a result of this, the teacher completely changed his teaching style, allowing students to express themselves using innovative tools to teach the material.  Suddenly, this same student opened up, started to participate, and became one of the leaders in the class.”

I See You

The basis of the program is a professional training course in which teachers learn an in-depth educational approach that allows them to better understand their students.  Once a week coaches from the program come to the school and into the teachers’ classrooms, with the goal of providing immediate solutions for the teachers for a wide range of situations.

In the second stage, teachers from the school are trained to be coaches themselves, and, thus, they succeed in implementing the program principles in the school.  Graduates of the course become coaches for teachers in practice, and accompany teachers throughout the year in their schools.  Over a period of about five years, a core group is formed within the school, of teacher-coaches who can continue working according to the Hidden Sparks principles while receiving consultation from program mentors.

“An important part of the approach is first of all to look at the child and not interpret or label,” says Roxana Neiman, the program’s Pedagogic Director.  “Often times we see an active child who has trouble being consistent and we immediately jump to the conclusion that he has an attention deficit, but it could be that this is simply his temperament.”  In the course, teachers receive tools for identifying each child’s difficulties and strengths through which the child can receive assistance.  According to the findings, the teachers learn to use different strategies that they adapt to the children.

“The moment that the teacher better understands the child’s challenges and strengths, it is possible to think of strategies, and unlike other methods, the emphasis is on including the child him/herself in thinking of the most effective strategies,” emphasizes Israeli.  “The message we want to give children is ‘I see you,’ that they should know they are not alone, that there are significant adults who see them, who care. This is the basis of it all.”

Identify the Difficulty, Find the Solution

Observation of students is conducted through three lenses.  The first lens, based on the educational approach of Dr. Mel Levine, is the neuro-developmental lens.  The second is the temperament lens, innate characteristics.  And the third is the ecological lens, that is, how does the environment impact learning.

“When the teacher has the understanding and ability to identify the difficulty, the teacher understands that they also have the solution that can change the child’s life completely,” says Niderberg.  “In every classroom there are children with learning or behavioral differences.  Frequently they are not understood.  They often feel invisible. Hidden Sparks enables teachers to gain a deep understanding of the diversity of learners in their classrooms.

“There are quite a few students who have low achievements in school and are sure that they cannot succeed also in later stages in life, and teachers have the power to change this,” Niderberg continues.  “The moment that the teacher succeeds in precisely formulating the student’s difficulty, suddenly the cloud that was over the student’s head dissipates and it becomes clear that it is possible to help the student with simple methods.  It changes the student’s whole world view and impacts wider circles of the class, the family and the entire community.”

The starting point, Eden Israeli concludes, is that every child can succeed if they have the tools they need.  “If there is something that disturbs a student from learning, our role is to identify the source of the disturbance and help the student to solve it until they succeed.  This is why we coach the teachers – the better they understand their students, the better they would understand how to teach them and what would help them.”

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