WENHAM — The education majors in the Schools and Society class at Gordon College will someday teach a class that's likely to include a student with a learning disability.
For an hour last week, the future teachers got a lesson from a group that knows exactly what those students will be thinking and feeling.
The Landmark School Student Advocates, a class of 11 students from Landmark School in Beverly, spoke to the Gordon College class about the needs and feelings of students with learning disabilities and the often painful, and heartbreaking, consequences when those disabilities are not identified or acknowledged.
The advocates universally praised Landmark, a private school for students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities, as their salvation after years of struggling in public schools. And they urged the education majors to be aware of students who are lost academically — not because they're uninterested or unintelligent, but because of a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to read.
"You guys have a choice," Alex Belyea said. "To help out a kid who's struggling, or miss that kid and watch him struggle through school for the rest of his life."
The student advocate program is a four-credit course at Landmark that began in 1995. The advocates have spoken at a variety of schools, from elementary schools to Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.
At Gordon, many of the Landmark students said they went through elementary or middle school feeling stupid and blaming themselves for their lack of academic success. Those feelings sometimes manifested themselves in disruptive behavior.
Julia Malynn said her teacher would give her an irritated look or make a sarcastic comment about her behavior, but her disability prevented her from picking up on those signs.
"I would be sent out of the classroom, and I wouldn't even know why," she said.
But students with learning disabilities — or learning differences, as some of the students preferred to call them — can be helped by teachers who understand them, they said.
Sean Hardiman recalled walking into class in the eighth grade, looking up at two white boards that the teacher had filled with notes for the day and immediately feeling lost. At Landmark, he has learned strategies, such as the two-column note-taking method, which visually separates information into main ideas and details.
That was just one of many strategies the advocates suggested for helping students.
Sophie Southwick credited a program at Landmark with strengthening her "phonemic awareness," the ability to judge sounds within words. To help her sound out each part of a word, she places a dot over every vowel.
"Teaching phonemic awareness has changed my life," she said.
Sam Dix talked about three different learning styles: auditory (by hearing), visual (by seeing) and kinesthetic (by doing).
"I play basketball, and I can't learn a play by just seeing it on paper," he said. "I have to do it on the court. Landmark incorporates each learning style each day in the classroom."
Jason Mansfield, the communications department head at Landmark, acknowledged that with its small classes and specialization in language-based disabilities, Landmark has advantages over a public school teacher with 30 students. But he said teachers can ask for help from their department head or special education program.
"You might be the first to detect a learning difference," he told the Gordon students.
Shaylyn Roach, a Gordon College freshman from Weymouth who is majoring in middle school education, called the presentation "eye-opening."
"It was great to hear directly from students who have these learning differences instead of just hearing facts about it," Roach said. "We have to recognize that everybody is different. Everybody has their own way of learning. You as a teacher have to offer all of those options."
Freshman Abby Illian, who is majoring in secondary education, said she appreciated the advocates' specific advice. Some said students with learning disabilities are nervous about being called upon by a teacher, so they suggested teachers give them advance notice. And since it's difficult for some students to take notes, teachers can have notes available for them.
"You were put in their shoes," Illian said. "You felt what they were feeling."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.