Effective Teaching for Neurodiverse Students, with Joseph Lento | EDB 266

 

Educator & musician Joseph Lento shares his philosophy for effectively teaching neurodiverse students.

(VIDEO – 24 mins) 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. 

To find out more about Joseph Lento, visit him at http://www.brasscomets.org/

You can also check out the blogs he has written for us here: http://differentbrains.org/author/joseph-lento/

 

 

  AUDIO PODCAST VERSION:

 

Or look for us on your favorite podcast provider:

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud


FULL TRANSCRIPTION


HACKIE REITMAN MD (HR): 

Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And I’m very excited to welcome back. So I haven’t seen him in a long time. One of my heroes, he does music. He’s a maestro. He’s an educator. He’s an advocate for music education, special education, neurodiversity, he does it all. Welcome, Joseph lento.

 

JOSEPH LENTO (JL): 

Dr. Reitman, it’s such an honor to be back with you and your incredible organization. It’s really, really an honor. Thank you.

 

HR: 

You’re way too kind. But one of my goals for this coming year, as I want to dress as nicely as you can always look so you know, like you want to. It’s amazing. Please remind our audience, about your history with neurodiversity, and what led you to becoming an educator working in special education?

 

JL: 

Well, that’s right. And it was really all purely by accident. I began working with students with special needs in 1984. There were no music jobs at that time. And because of my background in history, I went on to to begin teaching global studies to students with special needs. And from that point, I put a band program together, just because the students were not being given music classes by the other music teacher in the school. And so it really won’t happen by accident.

 

HR: 

At this time, do you think that the schools are doing enough with music?

 

JL: 

Well, I never think the schools are doing enough for music. And it’s not for lack of wanting to. And it’s not even for lack of understanding the power of what music does. It’s just something about the system that is hard to get music to the level where it really needs to be to help all students.

 

HR: 

Well, after this meeting at a different time, we’ll brainstorm a little to see what may be different brains can help you. Because I know you’re such an activist in this arena. And that would be great. Yeah, we’ll come back to that later. Now, you’ve seen in your career a lot of change regarding neurodiversity. Do you think schools are moving in the right direction?

 

JL: 

I do. I do. I think they’re moving in the right direction. I just think they need more support. Because you know, when you move in the right direction, you may still be taking with you some of the old thoughts you had, you know, you might be going to the right destination, but you might not have packed properly for the trip, so to speak.

 

HR: 

Still carrying a lot of baggage.

 

JL: 

I think so not intentionally. It’s just they’re going in the right place. But we need to, you know, repack those bags.

 

HR: 

Tell us what you see as a lack of equity in the educational system.

 

JL: 

I think we have to try and assess the students with a different model. We do a lot of testing. That’s to be honest, antiquated. There needs to be more one to one social interaction with each student. And you know, I have to say, right now I’m having the time of my life teaching. I retired from my work as a public school teacher after 37 years. And I was immediately hired by the most wonderful school. Maria Regina High School. Just a couple of miles from my house in Hartsdale, New York. And the administration there is really focusing in on the things we’re talking about. The school’s president Anna Parra, the principal, Maria Carozza, the assistant principal Silvia Santo and the Dean of Students, Jen Dukarm. They are really all on the same page. They were just talking about it this morning. We are talking about addressing the not just the academic but the social needs of the children to make them better. And this is not a conversation that you openly hear in many places. And they are allowing me to teach in a way Dr. Reitman that is not traditional. They’re letting me teach the way I’ve always taught, which I’ve been told was not traditional, and I didn’t design it that way. My assessments are open ended assessments. They’re not always necessarily written assessments. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a student, group work, letting them explore on their own, letting students help each other naturally, like you might have in a band program. So I’m really getting an opportunity to put a lot of the work I’ve done into play at Maria Regina High School, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

 

HR: 

Well, I’ll tell you, it sounds like this rarity is like a solar eclipse and lunar eclipse happening at the same time for you in that school coming together, for the benefit of all these students with this terrific programs and approaches. It’s the best of all worlds.

 

JL: 

It is and, you know, typically, you know, in a private school, you think of a particular type of approach, but they’re really breaking the mold. And they’re looking, they’re very intelligent, very caring people. And when you have that kind of supportive administration, it’s important, you know, when they come to you and say, “Joseph, we’d like you to teach a psychology course, with your experience in neurodiversity”, and basically allow me the pedagogical autonomy to do it is so refreshing. And we’re all benefiting from it. We’re all learning from it. And I think this should be the model going forward for more of our classes, not just that Maria, Regina, which is happening, but globally.

 

HR: 

We will let’s try to make that happen. You know, you retired and then unretired? Yes. All right, tell our audience what led you to retire. And then what led you to unretire?

 

JL: 

You know, sometimes you, you work at something, and you’ve given it all you can. And while you still love it, you sometimes feel like there’s only so much more you can do given the environment you have to work in. And so for me, I thought I had given all I could give, and I did all I could do. And I felt I couldn’t do any more given the constraints of the system that was in place. So I thought it was time for me to try something else. And while I still wanted to teach, I had no idea what I was going to specifically do, you know, advocate and so on. But I saw this ad come across my phone. And they needed a part time music teacher. And I knew the school very well it has a wonderful history. And I was hired.

 

HR: 

And the rest is history.

 

JL: 

It’s ongoing. I was very fortunate. I wasn’t even out of day work, Dr. Reitman, and morning began the other.

 

HR: 

Now tell us how COVID changed the way you teach music? If it has or if it hasn’t, or tell us about these changing times with COVID, which is now going on a couple of years.

 

JL: 

Yes, yeah. On that, you know, I, these are the kinds of things that I can answer, you know, firsthand. And as a music teacher, and you were so gracious enough, we put that article together. And other people have asked me the same questions. I was horrified. I said, How am I possibly going to teach music, especially brass and woodwind instruments, when I’m not, when I’m seeing them on a TV screen. I couldn’t imagine it. But what happened was, it was like a miracle. All of a sudden, I am teaching front on I’m actually physically now seeing their on brochures, their faces, as opposed to a peripheral view. And it worked like a charm, I was able to actually learn more things about my instruction, and students on tissue development by looking at them directly, and not in a large setting one on one. So there was a silver lining, to the music part of my teaching. But it does impact when you have a large class setting. And I was doing that. Also, I was teaching a history and psychology course. And when you don’t have the students in front of you, it’s so difficult for them to remain focused that you try to do everything you can above and beyond what you’ve done before to keep them engaged. So it was a very difficult time, but especially a difficult time for the students.

 

HR: 

You’re you’re like us you take a bad break and turn it into a good break and some way. And that’s what we did here at different brains. We were able to now, because we went virtual, now we can have interns we have in India, California, Texas, we have from all over. So it turned out to work well for us not that I wish it upon us. And I think going forward, everything will be a hybrid to take the best of both.

 

JL: 

I think you’re 100% correct. And, you know, of course, with your organization, you know, everyone was me, you will go in globally, no matter what, just because for the great things you’re doing. So I’m happy to eat to hear that. And they’re very fortunate to be working with you and your staff.

 

HR: 

Thank you. You have your money, your way to kind tell us about the online magazine, speaking of virtual, that you are working on, tell us all about the online magazine.

 

JL: 

Okay, thank you, you know, I’ve had the real pleasure and honor of writing for organizations like yours, for New York City School Talk magazine and Alina Adams local newspapers. And, you know, I’m writing for someone else. And they’re always everyone’s very gracious with me and gives me autonomy. And it’s wonderful. But it’s, I wanted to do something where I could direct the dialogue about education, as opposed to just putting in pieces here and there. And I’d like for to really focus on the neurodiverse aspect of teaching, how we can address the needs of all students, and it can be done. It’s challenging, but it can be done. You know, we’re doing it, we’re doing it, I promise. They say hi to my wonderful psychology class and my music classes. We’re doing it in our classes, we know we’re experiencing different things, we’re working in groups. We’re not having traditional testing, so to speak, and the students are flourishing, they’re flourishing academically, they’re flourishing emotionally and socially. And I want a magazine that would address more of those issues. And any nuts and bolts issues that attend to be politicized. I’d like to eliminate that. And how can we help kids? What is it we can do? Okay, you might not like your school, you might not like your, but what can you do in that environment? To make it better? You know, less of a complaint based magazine and more of a solutions based magazine, based on what’s best for kids. And when we do what’s best for kids, it’d be what’s best for teachers too.

 

HR: 

Well, that’s music to my ears, no pun intended. That’s, that’s all very good news. You see, you’re going with the flow in this virtual world. They throw changes at you, they throw lemons at you, you make it into lemonade, and it’s all for the benefit of the kids. How important is it to have a team approach to the neurodivergent? Student? And what is the role of the teacher on that team?

 

JL: 

Those are the questions that I have in workshops I’ve developed. And those are the things that we have to get the teachers to think about their role. And it’s very, very hard to get people to relinquish authority. You know, teachers and other people who are held responsible positions are…

 

HR: 

We’re all territorial by nature.

 

JL: 

Yeah, it’s not it’s nothing bad. But getting us to think about how we can redirect that power, which is, you know, is nothing new people have been talking about that for a long time. I don’t want to make believe I’m inventing the wheel here. But it’s getting the teacher to rethink their role in the classroom. And that starts with one being highly confident of your subject matter. So that’s the first thing, if you are highly confident of your subject matter. That’s the first thing that you have to have. Second, is how confident are you in taking that and using it in ways you’ve never used before. For instance, in my psychology class this morning, if you walked by, you would see six groups divided into three and sitting there and talking and writing and chatting. You might not know what was going on, but they were developing hypotheses, because one of the things we’re going to Do it’s an extension of site, do we haven’t done experiments behavioral experiments? In the fall? I want to get them to think critically. And psychology works on that a lot. They help people with understanding their thoughts. So they’re working on developing their hypotheses on five to six social issues that affect people’s mental well being. And you might not think they were doing anything. But they were working beautifully, and all handed in amazing questions. And it’s not a typical classroom setting that we have. Well, and we will always play music in the background thing today was the soundtrack to Grease. And it’s really so uplifting to see young people working together, taking a little bit of information, and expanding it, because if they don’t make it their own, it’s always mine. The knowledge is not mine, the knowledge has to be theirs, they have to develop it.

 

HR: 

That is a very eloquently stated concept. And we all need to practice that more. It’s about empowering the individual. Absolutely. Getting their brain wrapped around it and moving forward from there.

 

JL: 

Yeah, and what I’ve encountered after wiping is that there are fewer and fewer questions of how, how do I do this? What am I supposed to do? They’ve learned, they, it’s, it’s longitudinal. It starts here. And if you just keep reinforcing it, and had them reinforce it, they’re asking me less and less questions and doing more and more on their own. But one of the groups said, Oh, the hypothesis like we did in our experiments, we have to take those issues and make a hypothesis for each one of them. I said, Exactly. Now, that’s something five months ago, I would have had to really, you know, explain and show they’ve got it. They’ve got it. It’s so it’s such a great feeling. And again, it wouldn’t be happening if I didn’t have the support of Ms. Carozza and the the wonderful administration that Maria Regina High School.

 

HR: 

Well, that’s, that’s just so wonderful. And to be at a school like that, and to have the, because you’re a visionary and have them hop on board with it. Instead of fighting it.

 

JL: 

You know, Dr. Reitman, that that’s, they really didn’t know me, I had no relationship with the school. And so for them, to put that kind of trust in me, was very humbling.

 

HR: 

Speaks to your whole gestalt, I mean, really, that’s your, you’ve been all about this. For years and years and years and years, it’s your reason for getting up in the morning, it takes up 24 hours in every one of your days. It’s not some, you know, BS kind of thing. This is the real deal for the benefit of the students. And we haven’t even touched on the magic of music itself, the magic of music, therapy, the magic of music on the brain, memory and so many things. Thank you, where can our audience learn more about your work and more about you?

 

JL: 

Well, they can go to my old website, brasscomets.org, where I have, you know, a background of things I’ve done and things that might be of interest to them. They can scroll through and see the different links and so on. They can contact me via email it JSLmaestro@gmail.com. And I’m open to you know, helping anyone I can I’m always trying to give information away, because it’s not mine to keep, you know, I’ve got to give it away if it’s of any value.

 

HR: 

Well, Joseph lento Is there anything that we have not covered that you’d like to cover today, all the way from New York?

 

JL: 

But what Well, thank you for the opportunity. Yes. I just want I’m seeing an opening in the in the clouds. And you know, going to school is such a hard thing for young people. We don’t we kind of take it for granted. You know, when you go to school, you’re supposed to go to school and so, but it’s really hard, because they’re not just going to school, they’re going through so much in their lives. They’ve growing up. They’re going through all the different stages at one time at different times. And so we have to really deal with what is each child We’re about to the best extent we can. And that’s again, not words, I mean that I completely mean that. Get to know your students, get them to trust you, they’ll, you know, kids have a way of knowing who’s real and who’s not. It’s as simple as that. You cannot lie to them. If they’ll know in a second, if you know what you’re talking about or not, develop relationships with them, let them know you care about them more than the classwork itself. I’m more concerned with how a student feels because, you know, you go back to all the developmental psychologists, Maslow, and Hertzberg, and all these people, they talk about all these things, well, we need to do it, we need to do it. And we need to do it from administration, to the faculty, which, again, Maria Regina high school, they are doing a beautiful job of taking care of their faculty, emotionally and supportive. It’s wonderful. And we need to continue to do it with the students, which they’re doing a beautiful job also. So I’d like to take that model and try and get more people to do it. That’s the key. Not everyone is going to be everything we want them to be. If you have that approach, you shouldn’t be in the classroom. It’s we want them to be what they need to be.

 

HR: 

And because every brain is different, you approach them on that level.

 

JL: 

Yeah, and that doesn’t mean that we cannot have or shouldn’t have some sort of standards. No, let’s see, they people confuse that. They think what we have to deal with different people’s brains, we can’t have a standard, of course, you can. Just when you give that standardized test, make it more friendly to the people you’re giving it to adapted if you need to, you can’t have standards, you just have to adapt.

 

HR: 

Adapt is the key word, absolutely tap to the standards. What is one thing you wish everyone knew about the power of music across all different brain types?

 

JL: 

The power of music can absolutely change everyone’s life for the better, either academically, or emotionally. It makes a person better in every aspect of their existence. And that’s not hyperbole is an absolute fact. And so I’ve just wished that everyone would experience playing an instrument at some point or another. Even if it’s just for a few weeks, they know what I’m talking about.

 

HR: 

And for somebody like myself, who’s 71 — Well going to be 72 this month who only suffered through some — a few piano lessons when I was little and drove everybody crazy. So I abandoned it. If I wanted to learn an instrument now at this age., what would you recommend?

 

JL: 

I’d recommend some the last instrument that you saw it that you said, “wow, that’s cool”. That’s the one I go for.

 

HR: 

Okay, that’s all I need. Well, Joseph lento, Maestro, teacher educator, Mr. Music on so many levels. Thank you so much for being here with us. And thanks for all you do for those of us whose brains are a little bit different. Mr. Music. Thank you.

 

JL: 

Thank you so much, Dr. Reitman. For the honor and the opportunity. I cannot tell you how humbled I am Thank you