Roberto Germán 00:01
Welcome to our classroom. In this space, we talk about education, which is inclusive of, but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host, Roberto Germán, and our classroom is officially in session. In this episode of our classroom, we are discussing dyslexia with Annie Phan, a writer, facilitator, and educator. Annie was raised in under Cotton Woods of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now raises good trouble in the San Francisco Bay area. She taught health, education and humanities classes in San Francisco public schools, and now works as the director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at a school for students with dyslexia and related learning differences. Annie is also a student in the Doctor of Education program at Santa Clara University in the Social Justice Leadership Program. With us today, Annie Phan. Welcome back to our classroom. I'm here with Annie Phan. And I met her recently at a conference. Brilliant mom, with a lot to share. I'm excited for us to talk about dyslexia, for us to talk about learning differences, to examine how it impact communities of color. And so I'm going to pump the breaks and let Annie introduce herself and then we going to dig into this conversation. Annie, welcome to our classroom.
Annie Phan 01:41
Hi. Welcome. I feel super welcome. So grateful to join you this morning. Yeah, so I am Annie Phan. My pronouns are she/they. I think right now I'm currently a writer. I'm an educator. I do facilitation. And I guess some background around me is that I taught in San Francisco Public Schools for the last five, six years. And recently transitioned into a role as the director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, or DEIB. I had a school for students with dyslexia and related learning differences. Really excited and I like-- it's been interesting. I've just really enjoyed sharing my job. It's a unique school. It's a unique role because I think so often in, like, school context we're like, oh, they're public schools. They're private schools. They're charter schools. But then this is kind of like a unique one in a lot of different ways and I'm learning so much about special education disabilities and stuff. So that's kind of the bulk of what I do.
Roberto Germán 02:39
Thanks for sharing. Thanks for sharing. Interested to learn about what it is that you're coming across as it relates to learning differences, special education, given that you are in this specialized school.
Annie Phan 02:53
Yeah. So I think maybe some background is that when I was teaching-- and one of the reasons I decided to teach out here in the Bay was because, you know, in the public schools it was so fun. It was racially diverse, it was socioeconomically diverse. My kids were, you know, like black and Latina, but they were from Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvo and Mexico. And you know, I had students who were Yemeni and immigrants from China, right? And I think that was one of the fun things that I loved so much about teaching in public schools in the Bay Area. And one of the reasons why it was so hard for me to stay and just, like, really, like, killed me honestly, was that we weren't supported, right? My kids needed so much. And one of the things that I saw, and it's interesting 'cause there's these conversations right now about advanced placement and, you know, all those things going on, is that not only did it impact the curriculum for our students, but it also tracked students. So that meant that overwhelmingly I was getting-- because I taught non-AP classes and chose to teach non-AP classes so I could be with these students. Like I saw them being pushed into my class in like, you know, considered less than AP students and I had a lot of students with special education needs. I think I did the best that I could with the training that I got to support them. But then now that I've, like, moved into this school setting where there are the resources and the commitment, I think that's the most important thing to support students with learning differences. I'm like, wow. Like I just knew so little, right? And lucky for me, I-I think-- and I think this is actually true of a lot of educators of color. We go into the work because we see kids as whole children. We know that we have to see every angle of them to be there and get right. But I think-- so I think I had the instincts to be like, this is how I'm gonna support students. So I look back and I'm like, I don't regret it. But also now with what I know about dyslexia and learning differences and-- and what it looks like to be researched, I'm like, man, I wish I could go back and like do so much better for my students. So that's one thing that comes to mind.
Roberto Germán 04:50
Well, can we dig deeper into that? What does it look like to be resourced? I-I wanna understand what your school looks like and as a result what the other schools don't look like.
Annie Phan 05:01
Yeah, so I work at a school that's been around for about 50 years and again, our mission is to serve students with dyslexia. So that means every single one of our students has a diagnosis of dyslexia. There are so many things around that, around being diagnosed and getting the access to that in the first place. But even on that front, it's cool 'cause our admissions director is someone who kind of works in a pseudo social worker way, right? Because, you know, people reach out and they're like, you know, especially for people who know less about learning differences, but they're like, "Hey, we've got this IEP but we-- it can't say dyslexia on it 'cause it's not an official diagnosis according to the DSM or you know, it's SLP on IEPs. Specific learning disability with relationship to reading. But that doesn't really cover what dyslexia really is, right? It's not just like that a kid has issues with reading because there's this myth, you know, that it's visual and sometimes they just reverse letters. It's actually like, sometimes it happens for some kids, but really dyslexia is neurobiological and origin. So they're looking at it and what's happening in their brain when they're doing brain imaging studies is that, you know, basically the parts of their brain that are supposed to deal with morphology and phonology or what we call sound letter correspondence, like really struggle. And so it's really complex and it actually impacts a lot of their lives. It's like, so some things that I learned starting to work here is that, you know, a lot of our students struggle with just like, go left or go right. Right? So because that's something that their brain is like processing and can't quite figure out, right? So we tend to use like landmarks instead. Like face this way over here and like point, right? So multi-- like on top of that, our students are really kinesthetic. Like there are so many strengths that are related to it. And it's just a lot of stuff I didn't know before whereas before I was like, okay, they struggle with reading, so I've gotta slow down and I've gotta spell it out and take my time. But especially as someone who taught middle school and high school, I like never really got formal training on reading either. So that's kind of been another thing that I've been learning. Being like, hmm, I had good instincts, but wow, this is complicated.
Roberto Germán 07:08
So a-as it relates to resourcing the school--
Annie Phan 07:11
Oh, yeah. Sorry, I keep--
Roberto Germán 07:14
No, no, it's all good. It's all good. It-- but I am interested to hear like what-- besides, you mentioned the strategy and you mentioned that each of the students is diagnosed with a learning difference--
Annie Phan 07:27
So thank you. So what happens there is that every kid gets a diagnosis. I think just step one, that is such a big difference between being undiagnosed, right? Because then we know what's on the table and it's amazing to be able to look at what we call psych eds, right? And look at their evaluation. And then I know more as a teacher and an educator about their working memory, their processing speed. Like I know more about like what they get rigid around and why, right? Just having those facts. I like kind of reviewed them as a teacher before but didn't really get the support. So that's one thing. It's just the knowledge that it takes is huge. I think two, I think what's really cool about our school is that be-- again, because of the commitment and-- and the mission, like we're here and we have to do what it takes to teach these kids with this-- like these learning profiles, it looks like we have flexible seating, right? So that means like there's lots of different types of seating in every single classroom. And we have in our elementary school classes for second through fifth. There's like a big classroom where they do homeroom together and every classroom has an attached SGI for a small group instruction, right? So that means you can fluidly move between the big group setting for like the fun big concepts or the group learning. But when it's time to do kind of targeted instruction, you can go right in and the kids are there and you can come right out, right?
Like rather than feeling like you're taking that long walk and you kind of get in your head about, like, who you are and why you're being pulled out, right? It's really just a quick in and out and every single one of those kids goes in and out, right? Rather than being like the one kid. So I think that's one thing for elementary school kids. In the middle school, similarly, we have instead of-- like, we also have big rooms and they divide in half so we can do the same thing, but then it's kind of more preparatory for the high school. So that's been interesting 'cause we actually are a repurposed public elementary school. We bought the school from a-- like the campus from a former public school again like fifty years ago. So it's like, again, like for me it just affirms like this can be done for public schools and it's just the commitment to be like, hey, like we clearly have the space. Let's make it work for the kids we have. Some other stuff like iPads, one-to-one smart boards for the kids. And I think too, what I see with that is just the-- like the commitment. It's not just the iPads one-to-one, but it's that we make time for them to be able to do text to speech, right? Or speech to text. And understanding that like the headphones and the time and having them sit outside matters. So it's this combination of resources and commitment, right? Because I think a lot of other schools have the resources, but they may not necessarily have the commitment to use those resources in the same way we do.
Roberto Germán 10:13
That's good. So...
Annie Phan 10:14
Those are some examples.
Roberto Germán 10:15
So thank you. Thank you for those examples. What would support look like at a school, not such as your school, but let's say one of the ones you worked in in the past or some of the schools that were more commonly familiar with. What would support look like in those schools? Besides some of the-- the stuff that you mentioned in terms of the resources and-- and the approach. And I know you used this word a few times now, commitment. Commitment is key. So let's say folks are now willing to commit, what are some key things support-wise that would make a difference in moving our schools forward to be able to better serve students with learning differences? And we know that if we're better serving students with learning differences and students that have dyslexia, that we're better serving all students. But let's talk about that support. What-- what does that look like?
Annie Phan 11:10
I think-- so in my role for DEIB, I think when it comes to the students, the B is the most important, the belonging piece. And one of the reasons why I chose to work at this school is that if I can be real sometimes I think many organizations, schools, companies, whatever make DEI rules as like a CYA, you know. Like-- it's like, oh no, we've been exposed for being problematic. Let's just put like someone in there, probably a person of color and then just call it a day. I think one of the things that's made this role different and something that I like was willing to step into was that there's a real commitment to belonging. So the thing is like we serve second through eighth grade students for a number of reasons, mostly 'cause many of them are not getting diagnosed for dyslexia until about second grade. And I think that means that all of them have had an old school, right? And unfortunately, there's this kind of universal story about not feeling like they belonged at their old school, right? The whole reason why their families chose to kind of put in the commitment for them to find a different place or a different setting was that they were other. They were like sometimes like, you know, bullied by peers or they were abused by inexperienced like teachers. And I think some supports that change here is like we kind of understand one, you gotta have a trauma-informed perspective on all of these kids because they have literal trauma attached to the process of learning and-- and the-- the experience of being in school. And so I think that means that we have a commitment to socio-emotional learning that is different or, you know, that I-I would've wanted to see more universally. And I think to universal design for learning, I think is just more embedded into our approach, right? So understanding that there's a fine line between differentiation you wanna meet every kid where they're at, and you wanna meet it in small targeted ways and you also want every kid to feel like they're just another kid at school. I think one of my favorite things of working at our school, despite the fact that it's a private school, is that you walk on campus and it just feels like kids being kids. And I think if you think about it though, for a lot of our students, that wasn't kids being kids. They were being pulled out for like hours of remediation, right? Whether in school or their parents were trying to get them tutors outside of school or they're being referred to speech and language services on top of the reading intervention, right?
And then, you know, with some teachers they're like, "Oh, you only wrote two words when the assignment was a sentence so you have to stay behind for recess now," right? Instead of going and playing off with your friends. Like, that is not here, right? Because every kid is doing the same thing, has their own unique learning profile. And also I think even if they didn't have a diagnosis, I still think that's true for every kid. Like we just gotta meet kids where they're at. But I think the clarity around what our students are going through and the stories they're-- they're coming with helps a lot with changing those supports. And it also means that I think for our school, things that might be a little unique is that we have dedicated language instruction every day that's separate from like, you know, ELA or, you know, reading and writing. So in language it's really targeted and depending on their profile and, you know, what they need. They may be going through a very structured lit-- like a-- it's called structured literacy program, right? And I think that's what people are referring to with Science of Reading. So that might be very strict Orton-Gillingham, that might be READ 180, which is through the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt partnership and things like that. Another thing for support is that we have a partnership with USCF and their dyslexia center. So we actually have a number of students going through their two studies and our students actually get their brains through an MRI and then discuss with researchers like what's going on with their brain, what they're noticing before and after they're learning. That partnership has been around for 10 years. So that means we're moving into something called instructional trials, which I never heard of before, the same way that they're medical trials or pharmaceutical trials. So the researchers are now talking to our teachers and being like, "Hey, this is what we're noticing in terms of those-- these kids' superpowers and their strengths." And what if we designed interventions for the kids based on their strengths to help them grow, right? Rather than like constantly trying to treat them as a thing to be fixed. It's more like how we identified what's going on in their brains so that they can feel excited to learn and get the gains that they need to succeed in life.
Roberto Germán 15:53
That's amazing. That's-- it sounds like there's a whole lot going on and that there's data being collected that hopefully will be useful in terms of informing not just how your school move forward, but how many schools can move forward to better support our students. I'm curious to know if there's-- there are any partnerships in place between your school and other schools whether public or private charter, so on and so forth.
Annie Phan 16:20
Yeah, so I think both of those things that I just spoke to, so Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HMH is that really big textbook company. They've had a partnership I think with us for about five or six years. We're actually giving them feedback on their READ 180 system, and now we're gonna start with their Math 180 system. Basically sharing with them the experience of both the teacher and our dyslexic population so that they can make changes for their program to be distributed nationally. So I think that's one big one that I feel really excited about. Aside from the HMH one that partnership with UCSF has also, after 10 years, we partner with other schools as well, and that's a mix of, you know, public charter, public district and private schools. But our partnership with them has been the longest. And actually the person who held the role before mine, it was the director of teaching learning equity and inclusion, has recently shifted over there. To basically think about, okay, what are the interventions that they're learning from based on these kind of targeted researchers and what can research studies and what can they do to make this more distributable to like public schools in the local Bay area to start? So I think those are two really cool things that are happening. And I think speaks to the-- the value of like partnership in general of being like, okay, like we have a unique situation where we're learning so much. And I love that our community is excited to share, right? Because something I've noticed here is like between, I think both our families and our teachers we're like, we just kinda wish all schools could be like us. Like-- and not necessarily being better. Literally just like, we just want kids to, like, be kids, to have fun, to feel like things are hard, but also that they can learn and whatever they need is something that we are gonna work really hard to find. Right. So.
Roberto Germán 18:10
So what are three action items that you would encourage the school leader or group of educators that wanted to implement some steps in their school to better support the students that have these superpowers of dyslexia or other learning differences? What are three action steps that you would encourage them to take?
Annie Phan 18:35
Hmm. I-I would say I think everybody K-12 should be familiar with the basics of structured literacy. I think just learning a lot about what language and English really looks like in terms of phonology and morphology and then like what that looks like to teach and being able to recognize the signs of dyslexia is really helpful. So that's kind of step one. It's just awareness and education around that, right? And it kind of is a rabbit hole because, you know, then dyslexia is often co-occurring with ADHD, so then you wanna learn more about executive function and like all this other stuff. So that's, I think, number one for me as a high school teacher. If all of us could have spoken more competently to that, I think we would've been able to help a lot more of our students. I think two, yeah. So two, learning about dyslexia and structured literacy, those things hand in hand. Mm. I think too a commitment to like trauma informed learning for sure, and trauma informed pedagogy, right? That sometimes students are avoiding the work because they don't understand it and sometimes they're avoiding you because of how you're showing up in the classroom and talking to them reminds them of a teacher who tried to push them through before. Right? So I think that's number two for me. And then number three, like, I don't know, just really thinking about-- oh, I mean reading like kids profiles as much as you can, right? And having questions about it. If you do or lucky enough-- I think I feel lucky to be able to have an IEP for a kid versus when I'm like, I'm seeing these things and I'm wondering what's going on and I have nothing to go off of. Right? I think before I felt frustrated sometimes because the accommodations or modifications listed all kind of sounded the same and to me that just sounded like good teaching. Like, oh, if a kid needs more time, give them extended time. I was like, that seems reasonable.
But I think something that has leveled things up for me is one, commit to-- to the whatever those are, right? I think we still have, or there's still teachers in this country with this attitude of like, they're not gonna learn how to engage in the real world if you do this, this, or this. And honestly, people have given you generosity and flexibility and met you where you were so many times that at some point it's just a power struggle and you need to like, think about why you're in education, personal opinion. I kind of wish I had been able to get a deeper dive into like psychological profiles, right? And-- and understand that both from the learning side and from the socio-emotional side. So they're all pretty big and I also feel like they're doable, right? They're not things that require any other resource other than time, like-- and-- and hope, like maybe some support, right? So I know that for a lot of teachers they're exhausted and, you know, feeling like, where do I even start? But I think it's like asking for your administrator for like, "Hey, like-- I like wanna do this training and I just like want to like have a day off so I can read through all my profiles for my students." I think those things are really helpful. I think most teachers have the instinct to do that. But I think if I had just, if I had known right, I would've cast a wider net in terms of the experts I would've asked for help from.
Roberto Germán 22:01
Great. So to summarize the three action steps you would encourage school leaders and educators interested and focusing on these superpowers of dyslexia and other learning differences. One, structured literacy. Two, trauma informed learning pedagogy, trauma informed pedagogy. And then three, reading kids' profile, but reading it in a sense of being able to like really dissect it and have the support and-- and have sufficient time to be able to extract that data and obviously create some plans around that.
Annie Phan 22:40
Some language we use at our school site is that we say that at our school teachers are a number of different roles, but one of the-- the top ones is to be a student researcher, right? You're here to like kind of have a curiosity and an inquiry stance to these students. So you're here to research, to collect data, to, you know, learn more, to see what's developing and be open to whatever your hypothesis was being completely wrong, right? And-- and kind of learning more in the literature, whatever. So I think that's definitely an attitude we have to teaching at our school and we understand that it's demanding. But I think sometimes it's different from what other people think teachers are, whether that's like, you know, sage on the stage or even being a guide on the side. We distinguish that as being a-a student coach, right? You're here to motivate and encourage, but there's also a difference between that and taking the data that you're seeing and making sense of it, so.
Roberto Germán 23:35
Absolutely. So if you had the opportunity to have lunch with any author or researcher that touches upon, focuses on studies, dyslexia, learning differences, who would it be and why?
Annie Phan 23:55
Yeah. You know, I think that the podcast hosts of Black and Dyslexic would be really cool. I know one of them is LeDerick Horne and he is visited in the past. I think he has some really great insights on the lived experience of that. And I've learned just so much from listening to them around that unique experience, right, of race and disability. And there's just some interesting cultural stuff around the identity of being dyslexic too, where some people wanna insist that it has nothing to do with disability and it's a superpower and it's just a way of being different. But then for other marginalized people, they're like, yeah, but if I don't name it as a disability, I'm not gonna get the resources that I need. Right? I'm not gonna-- like, you know, we talk about it as IEPs do the K-12 system, but when you're in college, that's ADA, right? And-- and needing to bridge that disconnect is a necessary thing I think for communities of color. So I would love to just sit down and chat and learn more about them. I learned so much through their work, but that's definitely something I'd love to build on.
Roberto Germán 25:02
Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. So as we wrap up here, what's your message of encouragement for the audience?
Annie Phan 25:12
Yeah, I think that things in education are really tough right now. But I think working in my school context, it's amazing that there's still people who are so committed to learning and to justice to, you know, seeing kids like learning profiles for what they are recognizing that every kid wants to learn and every kid has challenges with learning. And knowing that you're not alone in that, like truly is-- is really affirming. I think sometimes the question is like, if I feel so alone that I can't, like, I just feel hopeless, then what actions can I take? Or who can I reach out to to feel less alone and find that way out? I totally felt despairing last year. I was like, I don't even know if I wanna be in education. I don't know, like what the path forward is. I still have some real concerns about everything going on around us, but it's been really heartening to be around people who are so committed to children who are, you know, like excited to talk about the very diverse profiles that we understand. And I don't know, just like that curiosity stance. I think if you're curious and I know it's really hard. I think that makes all the difference.
Roberto Germán 26:27
Absolutely. One of the catchphrases that I use is lead with curiosity and so let us maintain that spirit. So Annie, where can folks follow you if they wanna learn more about your work, they wanna learn more about your school, they want to come observe, where can they follow you?
Annie Phan 26:48
Okay. So I work at Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, California. And you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @MsPhanlearns. That's my handle on most places. Feel like social media is like falling apart right now though, so you might just have to look me up and see where I decide to show up next, so.
Roberto Germán 27:06
Well, Annie, thanks for your time. Thanks for sharing with us. So much here to process as it relates to dyslexia, as it relates to learning differences. But thrilled to hear about the work that you're doing. Thrilled to hear about this particular model, this specialized school, and looking forward to learning more. Thanks for sharing. See y'all next time. As always, your engagement in our classroom is greatly appreciated. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias, education, and society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your host, Roberto Germán.