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Making Handprints: A Summer In Baranovo

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Tuesday, September 3, 2013

kids outside russian orphanage

By Erin D'Agostino

During my time teaching at Landmark, I was struck by one aspect of the school that went above and beyond classroom material and educational skills: the Landmark Community. Landmark has created an environment in which students are accepted for who they are and what they are capable of. It is a community in which the potential of students is universally respected and the nature of their disabilities is understood. In this wonderfully supportive environment, students can grow into their full potential and gain the ability to walk with confidence into their futures.

Unfortunately, not all children are so lucky.

I spent this past summer in rural Russia, volunteering with the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund (ROOF) at what is historically known as a Psychoneurological Orphanage. It was an eye-opening experience, and not just because of the lack of running water. These Psychoneurological Orphanages are home to hundreds of children with a variety of developmental disorders. There are many of such orphanages in Russia, most intentionally located in remote regions of the rural countryside. Children rarely have more than a nonspecific diagnosis, and some even appear to have minimal disabilities. Very few children are adopted, and the future for these children is frequently bleak. It is common for children to graduate at age 18 and transition directly to an adult institution, where they remain for the rest of their lives. As these orphanages fall under the jurisdiction of the Russian Department of Health and not the Department of Education, education is not mandated for inhabitants of Psychoneurological Orphanages. As a result of these factors and the passport stamp that indelibly marks these children, it is rare for a graduate to become a productive member of society.

While Landmark has cultivated an environment in which differences in learning are understood and respected, Russia commonly has a view of developmental differences that is at best ignorant and at worst highly prejudiced. It is important to recognize that this view is not a product of the typical Russian, but largely derived from governmental policies, particularly policies that remove these children from the eyes of the public. Regardless of the source of this attitude, opportunities for these orphans will remain limited as long as Russia remains fixated in it.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are bright-eyed idealists in both Russian and foreign organizations working towards changing the status quo. By spreading understanding and tolerance of developmental disabilities, ROOF hopes to make the future brighter for children in Psychoneurological Orphanages, one town at a time. This is a two pronged approach: First, the surrounding community has to be strong enough to have the ability to support the orphanage, and second, the community must accept the children and their differences as contributing members of the community.

Yes, revitalizing and integrating the community is an enormous project, but hope is on the horizon. Even in just one summer of Baranovo residency, I can testify to the difference that I saw in the community there. A “Dom Kulturi,” or “House of Culture,” was partially renovated so that soccer, tetherball, volleyball, and general silliness could be enjoyed by all the children in the community. A mural was drawn, displaying the indiscriminate handprints of all members of the town. Those handprints represented the potential for a new beginning, one without differentiation based on passport stamp. A village that had been masked in apathy rejuvenated itself, and the difference was palpable. With further projects on the horizon, including the building of a playground and the opening of a small business, there are new and bright possibilities appearing in the future. With the continued efforts of perseverant dreamers, the region around the orphanage has the potential to transform into a new kind of Russian village: a Landmark-ian society in which children are understood to be capable beyond what former prejudices have mandated and opportunities can be made readily available without discrimination.

One day in particular sticks in my memory: we had all been working hard, clearing rubble from outside of the Dom Kulturi. My personal focus had been on pulling countless shards of glass from the long, scraggly grass. Not pleasant, especially in the Russian summer sun. Given the heat and toil, my first reaction on hearing boisterous activity inside the dilapidated building was frustration. Who was in there now, what shenanigans were they up to, and what new Vodka-remains was I going to have to clean up as a result? I marched in, ready to tell off some troublemakers. Instead, what I found was five children, all under age ten, giggling and decorating the newly cleaned-out space with painted flowers, faces, and other staples of a child’s universe. On that day- our fourth in the Russian countryside- we saw the building being used the way it was intended: as a place for people to gather and bond. With a few shovels, some sweat and some laughing children, the beginning of a new community was formed. 

For more information about the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, visit www.roofnet.org and for fundraising opportunities, contact Erin D’Agostino at edagosti@gmail.com.

 

Erin D'Agostino headshot is a former Landmark High School Science and Tutorial Teacher. Erin is currently working at the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center (CERC) at Albert Einstein Medical College. She plans to pursue an MD in Developmental Pediatrics.

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Tags:  Albert Einstein Medical College building tolerance CERC Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitiation Center community developmental differences Developmental Pediatrics disabilities Dom Kulturi handprints Landmark School new community formed playground prejudiced Psychoneurological Orphanages respect revitalizing the community ROOF Russian Department of Health Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund supportive environment

Debate = Empowerment

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Thursday, May 14, 2015

Submitted by Caleb Koufman

landmark high school debate

When most people imagine the extracurriculars offered at a school for students with language-based learning disabilities​, such as dyslexia​, debate club is usually not among them. Just like any presumptions about their disabilities, though, students ​where I work as a teacher ​proved this one wrong, too.

It is my job to encourage students to question lessons and provoke discussions in a polite and articulate nature​ despite whatever learning difference they may have.​ ​After persistent student requests, and a bit of uncertainty on the part of the faculty, senior faculty member Bruce Stoddard and I started a debate team as an extracurricular activity at the school.

Junior ​William Cassilly and Sophomore ​Kenneth Deluze comprised the first-ever​ debate team ​at Landmark School​. It was such a pleasure to witness any anxieties about debating melt during the initial speeches. Suddenly, finding their confidence, Kenny started slamming his fist onto the desk in front of him like a Manhattan courtroom lawyer as he accused the other team of conceding a point that they forgot to address, and Liam calmly and inquisitively cross-examined his opponent like a Southern legislator before making his final arguments during the final focus. ​

Despite what most people may think about students who inherently struggle with language, these students ​can be uniquely​ skilled at the most important aspects of debate.

​They value presentation and preparation and authentically appeal to judges. With strong verbal and logical reasoning, our debaters are able to diminish the effect of their learning disabilities and present a strong and confident demeanor at the podium. ​Despite their challenges with reading and writing, many of our students ​often ​have an affinity for compelling public speech and the ​new debate club allows ​them​ to realize this. ​ ​

The experience of learning how to debate requires acquiring new skills that are often outside of any student’s comfort zone. In general, most people dread public speaking. But debating also requires knowledge of how to take notes in shorthand and write persuasive cases that cite scholars, scientists, advocates, lawyers, judges, politicians, literature, and legislature. The most important part of debate, though, is the experience of confronting an intimidating challenge and succeeding. Debate is empowering to students, and we hope to watch the program grow in the future to incorporate more people with varying levels of experience.

This week we will be attending our​ third official debate at a competitive private school nearby. ​The topic is whether or not high schools, universities, and professional sports teams should ban the use of ethnic group images such as mascots and team names. There's no telling who will win or lose but the debate is sure to be inspiring, competitive, and the start of a new and exciting tradition.

caleb koufman headshot

Caleb Koufman is a faculty member at Landmark High School.

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Tags:  Caleb Koufman compelling public speech confidence debate debate club disabilities dread public speaking dyslexia empowerment exciting tradition extracurricular activities Landmark School language-based learning disabilities learning differences logical reasoning persuasive cases
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