A Scientist-Teacher's study of NoticeAbility's impact


As a former professional biologist in the pharma corporate world, science teacher Dr. Lorraine McKay loves data. We caught up with her this summer as she heads into teaching NoticeAbility’s Entrepreneurs & Innovators course the fall for the 3rd time, and our Consenses Arts course for the 2nd time at The Laurel School of Princeton, which is a co-educational day school for academic students with dyslexia.

NoticeAbility: Hi Lorraine!

Lorraine: Hi! I got such good feedback from the students about [NoticeAbility’s arts course for students with dyslexia called] Consenses– they enjoyed it so much. I have some of them in summer classes now, and they asked “Are we doing that again?” So I said, yes, cool, we can find a way for you to be involved with next year’s class, maybe as a mentor or guide.

NoticeAbility: That’s great to hear that students were excited to continue. Why did you originally choose to teach NoticeAbility courses?

Lorraine: Part of the reason parents choose The Laurel School is that they expect we will not only help students take on some of their challenges learning to read and with other learning differences, but we will also foster their confidence and self-esteem. We have a small collaborative faculty and our school culture supports a growth mindset with students. So I wanted to also introduce some structured curriculum to develop the specific social and emotional competencies of our students.  I had been looking for an entrepreneurship curriculum, and what I found at first was for adults, not for children, and it was not reasonably priced. So when we heard about NoticeAbility, it seemed to be a good fit for our school.

NoticeAbility: How does NoticeAbility work at The Laurel School?

Lorraine: Because we feel it’s important for our school to make time for project-based learning and focus on identifying student strengths, we teach one NoticeAbility class every week throughout the academic year. That means our mixed 5th/6th grade class gets to take Entrepreneurs & Innovators, and our mixed 7th/8th grade class gets to take Consenses once a week, in place of my standard science class. I team-teach each course with one, or sometimes 2 other teachers, which allows us to flex who is leading the class. We tie in the final student presentations of learning to either our STEM fair or a parent visit day, so students can showcase their work. While I’ve been working with 50 minute long classes so far, next year we are moving to a block schedule so that will give more time, which will allow students to dig deeper while in our NoticeAbility class, which I’m really looking forward to.

NoticeAbility: How was teaching the Consenses arts course for the first time?

Lorraine: I started by introducing our entire faculty to the curriculum by letting them watch [course designer] Sally Taylor’s TED Talk. That really got all of the teachers excited, even though they personally weren’t going to be teaching the course. After watching that together, I brought up my idea for collecting data on the impact on our students. I said that I know it’s some extra work, but I don’t want it to be just what I see in my class, I want to see how students are growing as captured through the eyes of their other teachers, and throughout the whole school day. As a scientist, when I talk to parents I want to go beyond just anecdotes. I prefer to have data. I told my colleagues that I want their take on the student growth at the start of the course, and again at the end.  But THEY said they wanted to capture data each month.  It was their idea to collect data more frequently. 

NoticeAbility: Cool! How did your data collection work?

Lorraine: I had all the teachers who would normally teach these students (9 adults, including me) score the nine 7th & 8th graders in my course on 8 social and emotional learning competencies. The gender split was about even, and they represented a range of tenure at Laurel from newbies to long-timers.  We collected data about every 6 weeks from January to June based on what was outlined at the beginning of the course: Can students take perspective? Demonstrate empathy? Appreciate diversity? Express themselves effectively? We used a simple 1-5 rating scale.

NoticeAbility: What did you expect to see in the data you collected?

Lorraine: I was hoping to see a change, but I didn’t know that I would see a change across the board of all the measures! Going in, I thought yes, NoticeAbility would help with taking perspective and appreciating diversity, but I was skeptical about whether it would help students demonstrate empathy. But the class conversations we had really had an impact.

Now this was not a controlled research study – so how much of what we saw is natural emotional growth?  But several students had up and down times during their life this spring, and I thought that would be reflected in the signal of the data. As a teacher you see the kids in some of their bad moments, so I wasn’t expecting to see an overall positive trend –– but on the areas that the course was designed to address, it seemed to make a positive difference there.

NoticeAbility: Can you share an example of how the course helped students demonstrate their competencies you were hoping to exercise?

Lorraine: So I am thinking of one of the exercises that developed empathy. A lot of times me and the other teacher would play along and role-play.  There was this one photo of an icy window with a light shining through it. All the students got a cold lonely feeling. But my co-teacher said “I felt like I was inside looking out, and I was warm and content.” It started a conversation about how differently two people could feel about the same picture. Some students said that maybe on a different day, they would feel differently. We asked “Can we think of other perspectives that none of us thought about? Why was there such a stark contrast in people’s reactions?” It was a great conversation. We kept returning to that theme through classes. Actively taking different perspectives helped in attempting to understand the feelings of others.

At the end, when we looked at the art chains – they were able to notice things that maybe it was coincidence, maybe it was a real link, but that was really awesome. One student was given the prompt word PANIC, and she responded by taking this picture outside on a gray stark day, she’s sitting on the ground with her head in her hands. Then later another student at the end of the chain from that same prompt – the sculpture he made just happened to incorporate the colors and elements of her photo but much later in the process. Something about seeing that happen spoke to them because a lot of these students, they don’t yet think of the abstract expression in art – they tend to be over-focused on making the art look a certain way. There’s a lot in this course of appreciating that art is communication. I’m not an art teacher, but I am excited to watch them really see that for the first time.

NoticeAbility: Can you share a challenge with delivering the course?

Lorraine: Students definitely pushed back on the dance expression lesson: so we [teachers] had to goof around, and show how to make it fun. We changed the name to “sound and movement” rather than “dance” – and focused on making the performance into a video. We did a throw-away round designed to practice answering the prompts, after watching a sample video:  ‘How is she feeling? How is he feeling?’ We all laughed at it, made it silly, and then they were ready to really engage. Some kids really connected with the performance art, and it was fun to come back to it later and practice guessing which mood fit what crazy move I just did.

NoticeAbility: Can you share an adaptation you used to enhance the course?

Lorraine: Yes! We liked the activity in the course called ‘Essences’ – using popsicle sticks, with everyone’s name on a stick, we’d pull a name from the stick when discussing things to make sure no one hides, everyone contributes, and it’s never the same person kicking off the conversation. So students got into having to explain what they were thinking, and they got to learn something about each other. They warmed up.

NoticeAbility: What about teaching NoticeAbility courses is different from what you’ve seen in other programs, techniques, or approaches?

Lorraine: I am not dyslexic, and my students know that. But the students IDENTIFY with the online NoticeAbility instructors Dean and Sally. The students feel special because they actually met Dean when he visited our school. Our students are used to seeing other people in other contexts who are dyslexic – we invite influential speakers to talk to students. So that’s not unusual. But sometimes when Sally says something to them, if I were to say it to them instead, it would play a different way. They don’t know that many artists, and here she is talking to THEM. That makes a difference, to have students feeling someone they identify with gets them, and gets how they think and learn. It helps them feel included, part of a group.

NoticeAbility: Thank you!