Archives in March 2019

Our Spectrum

By Dina Wosk
March 28, 2019

Mother, father and twin 13-year-old boysI have twin 14-year-old sons, Sam and Jack. Jack’s development is typical; Sam’s development began to shift when he was 18 months old. At the time, all the telltale signs were there but we weren’t sure how to read them: Was Sam a late bloomer? Did he need extra time to catch up to his brother? 

We were able to get an appointment with a neuropsychologist, and at the age of 21 months, Sam received an autism spectrum diagnosis. The doctor was able to get us into a school, where he began receiving 30 hours a week of early intervention, and he remains a student there to this day. 

Raising a child with a disability isn’t easy. It can be trying to see one of my twins reach milestones and gain independence, while the other lags behind. It can take a lot to hold back tears through the school plays and sports games, the sleepaway camp drop-offs and sleepovers, when one child can participate and the other isn’t able to be there. Many more milestones are on the horizon, and the differences will be clear: Jack will receive his drivers’ license; Sam will not be ready. Jack will graduate high school and college; but we’re not sure how Sam’s education will play out. I’m looking forward to Jack’s well-deserved achievements; but I know they will sting, as Sam won’t be by his side. 

People who aren’t on the spectrum pick up things intrinsically. But for people on the spectrum it’s incredibly difficult, and it can take them a lot longer to get tasks done.  As a parent, I do a lot of deep breathing, and work on my ability to “roll with it.” We do our best, practice Sam’s routines over and over and tap into our ‘patience bucket.’

Sam is a funny, sweet, kind boy who has an infectious laugh and a smile that melts your heart. He works so hard at school and in his therapies, and you can see that he wants to do things well. But he has communication and social challenges. We celebrate all of his triumphs, large and small. Because when he picks up on something, it’s a natural high. It makes my day. I cheer him on and make sure he understands what an amazing job he did. He may work on something for months or years, but then it’s like, “Holy cow; you got it!”

And that was definitely the case with our twins’ bar mitzvah. One thing my husband and I always wanted was for both our boys to become bar mitzvah, together. Years ago, when we started thinking about the day, we wondered how it would look because we wanted them to share the spotlight. I don’t know how I would have reacted with Jack at the bimah and Sam not.

When I found out about Gateways, it was as if we hit the jackpot. I’m not sure how Sam would have reached this milestone if it wasn’t for everyone at Gateways.  All I knew is that I was adamant about making their b’nei mitzvah happen, because why should Sam have to miss out just because he has autism? I believe that no matter the disability and how profound it may be, becoming a bar/bat mitzvah should be something that every child can do. 

Sam worked hard with Gateways and his team to learn the prayers he was able to recite. We were fortunate to have a wonderful rabbi who understands our family dynamic and supported us, gave us extra rehearsal time and wanted this day to be truly special. He said afterwards that this was a service he’ll never forget. And on our boys’ big day, we had an intimate, family-only service with a huge party that evening. I think everybody shed a tear, except my husband and myself, because we thought, “Why is everybody crying?” It was beautiful day; a great day!  Sam did it. They both did it. It was a home run.

My husband and I never dreamt we would have this family dynamic. Having a child with autism wasn’t “supposed” to be a part of our lives. But I truly believe that things happen for reasons, and there’s an answer and blessing in our experience. We may never figure out the “why”; but there is a purpose. And no matter the situation, I try to look at the world as a “glass half full.” You have to keep in mind what your child can do—not what they can’t—and celebrate them!

Sam continues to make progress with all his objectives and goals and works year-round to achieve them. In the meantime, my husband and I work toward our ultimate goal of having Sam be as independent as possible when he reaches adulthood. He’s working towards that every day. The small moments—such as when he advocates for something, engages in a short conversation or initiates social interactions—are incredibly exciting. But what’s most important is that he’s happy.  His happiness is going to be different than what we may have planned, and that’s okay, because we respect that he’s his own person on his own path.

 This article originally appeared on Jewish Boston.



By Jodi Wenger
March 7, 2019

Three children on a bimah in front of a Torah

After three years on the Navajo nation and Passovers with the seven other
Jewish people we could find there, we were excited to connect with the Jewish
community in New Hampshire after we moved back East. One year later, we
delivered a boy with special needs. Would there be a place for him? Would he
find a Jewish identity? Could the schools and temple be inclusive? There were no
Hebrew educational options for our son, Holden, and he didn’t enjoy time at the
temple. He often signed “all done” and would stand up and try to leave. The rabbi
was at a loss on how to help us and we didn’t know what to ask for, so we only
sent our two younger sons to Hebrew School. What does inclusion mean if there
are no obvious ways to include him?

When we moved to Newton five years ago, we had no idea if Holden
would find his Jewish identity. Shortly after our arrival, a new acquaintance
recommended we sign up for Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. We found
it to be a well-organized effort with committed and patient Jewish special
education teachers, many adaptive tools and enthusiastic high school volunteers.
They made a very impressive effort, but it just wasn’t obvious to me that they
could teach Holden to feel connected to Judaism. We held off on a Bar Mitzvah
for Holden when he reached thirteen. We opted to wait for a time when this
might be more meaningful for him and for us, or until we could figure out what
that even meant.

Almost on a whim, and after a couple of years of Gateways, my husband
recommended we try taking Holden to Shabbat morning services. I wasn’t sure
this would work and I worried he would just disturb the service, but instead it
was amazing. Despite being non-verbal, Holden loved the service and songs, and
sat patiently through most of the service with a smile on his face. He covered his
eyes and bent forward at the right times. It was such a welcome change. Holden
now seems as excited to go to Shabbat services as he is to watch airplanes at
Castle Island or the T in Newton Centre. Around this time, I emailed our rabbis
to ask if it would be okay for Holden to bring his augmentative communication
device, (an IPad with an app he uses to communicate), to services. Gateways had
helped program it so Holden could participate in the service too. Rabbi Wes said
it would be the holiest IPad and we should definitely bring it. So we did. Now he can “sing” along with prayers, and wish others a Shabbat Shalom. Now is the special time that we had been waiting for.

We are nearing Holden’s Bar Mitzvah. The rabbis suggested we consider a
Havdalah service. It would be a smaller service and Holden wouldn’t need to be the
center of attention. But we opted for a Saturday morning service. It is the one we
usually go to. Holden knows the flow and routine and never hesitates to be the center of attention. He will stand in God’s image and lead services with the use of his iPad.

He will show the congregation how he can be included. He has found his Jewish
identity. We are so grateful and proud.

This article originally appeared in the Temple Emanuel of Newton From the Gates newsletter (March/April 2019).


Reading as the Gateway(s) to Learning

By David Farbman, Senior Director of Education, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education
March 5, 2019

I have loved reading ever since I was a small child. Teacher and student readingWhether I’m seeking entertainment, information, or to be challenged, I look forward to reading like almost nothing else. Give me a good book and the time to sit and absorb it, and I am in my happy place.

I suspect that many of you reading this share my passion. But we all know that for many students, reading is distinctly not pleasurable. Indeed, it can be almost intolerably painful because they suffer some form of language-based learning disability (LBLD). The process of transforming symbols on a page into letters and words—the mechanics of reading—or the act of turning words into something with meaning is a perpetual struggle. With that struggle comes frustration and feelings of inadequacy that extend far beyond the classroom. Reading is essential for absorbing and processing information, and those who cannot read fluently are severely hampered from succeeding both in and outside of school.

Imagine the difficulty of a Jewish student who is finding it difficult to read in English and is then expected to learn to also read Hebrew. The barriers to further success are that much higher. In fact, anecdotal evidence indicates that the addition of a second language to the educational program can be a breaking point for many day school students.  Witnessing their child’s struggles, parents justifiably conclude that it is simply impossible for their child to meet the learning expectations of a dual-language curriculum. Rather than watch their child continue to flail, they simply pull him or her from the school.  Another Jewish student is then shut out from the education they are seeking.

The good news is that there are solutions to this challenge. Language-based learning disabilities may slow the acquisition of language and reading skills; but, in most cases, with the right interventions and the support of professionals, children with LBLDs can catch up to their peers. Indeed, here at Gateways we have worked with hundreds of students over the years who have faced and then overcome the challenge of learning both English and Hebrew. Our reading specialists have used reading programs like Orton Gillingham or Wilson for English and Gateways’ own similar multi-sensory curriculum in Hebrew, and have turned reading struggles into reading triumphs.

Gateways has partnered with day schools and congregational schools to help them put in place the curricula and the infrastructure to support struggling readers. We have trained dozens of educators to implement our Hebrew reading program so that they can help students realize the dream of reading a second language. to students. As for broader strategies, our focus has been on early intervention, for so often the key to conquering LBLDs is to work intensively with students in the primary grades. The sooner children can develop reading fluency—a process that intensive interventions can promote—the sooner they will be able to make the switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and from there they are more likely to meet with success. In order to assist schools in identifying reading struggles early, we at Gateways have promoted the implementation of the Response to Intervention methodology in Jewish day schools. This process involves carefully tracking every student’s reading progress and, then, if and when deficits are noted, intervening immediately.

Throughout all our work with children, with individual educators and with whole schools, our goal is constant: ensuring that every student, no matter his or her learning challenge, can thrive in a robust Jewish educational setting. Because we’ve seen so many students who were once struggling readers come to succeed, we know that the next success story is right around the corner.  And we can’t wait to be there to help that story unfold.


MaDYK Assessment of Hebrew Reading: The Importance of Progress Monitoring

By Scott Goldberg, Associate Professor at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University
March 5, 2019

According to the 2018 Kids Count Databook report from the Annie E. CaseyFather reading Hebrew book to daughter at bedtime Foundation, only 35% of students in the United States read English at proficient levels by the end of third grade. This low rate of literacy is alarming, as reading is critical for learning and is a predictor of significant social, emotional and behavioral challenges. For the Jewish community, it should be equally, if not more, distressing that only 42% of day school students are reading Hebrew at or above benchmark levels by the end of third grade.  More than 15 years ago, I studied the impact of Hebrew reading difficulties, and found that those who struggle with Hebrew reading feel socially excluded, which then often leads to anti-social behavior. Indeed, if you are not a fluent Hebrew reader, you may not be able to fully participate in Jewish communal activities. Jewish day schools throughout the world are continually searching for effective ways to deploy and guide staff to support Hebrew reading. Given a limited pool of resources (including money, time and qualified staff), educators are often stymied about how to meet this challenge. 

For many Jewish day schools, MaDYK (Mivchan Dinami Shel Yeholot Kriah) has been part of the solution. MaDYK, a universal screening assessment of Hebrew reading skills, enables educators to effectively, efficiently and easily monitor a child’s Hebrew reading progress from Kindergarten through the end of Grade 3, especially for students who are  learning Hebrew as a second language.  As with dynamic assessments in English (e.g., Acadience Reading – formerly known as DIBELS Next), MaDYK benchmark assessment tools are designed to be a core component of a multi-tiered system of support. Using the data generated through the MaDYK assessment—which is expected to be administered to all students three times per year with a test that requires only approximately three minutes per child—educators are able to identify student needs with precision. This assessment of student strengths and deficits in Hebrew reading then guides the formation of instructional groupings and identification of areas for intervention. For example, reports will show which students meet benchmark goals for accuracy and fluency, allowing a school to easily create at least four reading groups (e.g., above benchmark goals in both accuracy and fluency, below benchmark goals in both accuracy and fluency, and above in either accuracy or fluency). Teachers use additional forms of the measures to periodically monitor the progress of those students who are determined to be at-risk for further reading difficulties (i.e., they scored below the benchmark goal). 

MaDYK is agnostic to curricula and instructional methods, meaning that educators use the results to make data-informed decisions about individual students and also about the success of the curriculum and teaching methods and other systems-level issues. Schools use reports at the student, class, grade and school levels in regular data meetings with teachers and staff to discuss trends and to plan for improvements. The aggregate of representative schools can also be used to report on the state of the field of Hebrew reading (as demonstrated by the statistic presented earlier about the percentage of students reading at benchmark level by the end of third grade).

The current MaDYK suite of measures have been rigorously studied for more than a decade, and have been scrutinized for reliability and validity, as we have come to expect from any assessments we use in our schools. The development team is currently piloting new measures and refining the reports that schools can access in the online data system to further advance the effectiveness of MaDYK’s use. 

For more information visit 


Literacy as the Bedrock of All Learning

By Marlene Moskowitz Dodyk, Former Director of Student Services, Wayland (MA) Public Schools
March 5, 2019

OverBooks in a heart-shaped bookslef the decades I have supported children in developing their literacy skills, I experienced time and again that they have an innate desire to learn to read and write. From their earliest ages, children take pleasure in turning the pages of a book and in hearing stories read to them. They live in a world saturated with language: printed, digital, verbal and nonverbal. They are inquisitive and want to find out what words mean. It is our professional responsibility to help children understand the complexities of language, to develop the requisite skills to effectively engage and interact with text and to express themselves both orally and in writing.

The development of solid literacy skills serves as the foundation upon which all future learning occurs: Children will not be able to acquire knowledge across all curriculum areas without knowing how to read and understand text. For literacy instruction to be effective, teachers must establish (a) a cycle of ongoing assessment using formative and curriculum-based measures and data to inform instruction, (b) differentiated instructional strategies and materials to specifically address the needs of individual children, and (c) calibrated approaches based on data from progress monitoring activities. It is vital to consider dosage (which includes both frequency and duration) dedicated both to direct instruction and to opportunities to practice reading and writing when establishing an effective balanced literacy program throughout the grades.

Teachers must emphasize the need for children to acquire phonemic awareness and decoding skills in the early grades; however, educators should also integrate and explicitly teach children strategies to develop reading fluency, which includes accuracy, ease, and prosody. Reading rate is often misconstrued as analogous to reading fluency; but fluency has more to do with reading comprehension. Thus, educators should focus on developing in children  a strong vocabulary, a grasp of syntax and text structure, and an expansion of background knowledge. Read Alouds—the reading aloud of age-appropriate texts in a group setting—are very effective in helping to teach and guide children in cultivating the various components of reading comprehension. These promote reading as interactive experience between the author and the reader, and are a wonderful opportunity for teachers to model good reading strategies and critical thinking skills.

Writing, a skilled process that can expand and improve throughout life, starts at a very young age. Through age-appropriate writing experiences, including journal writing, Writers Workshop and direct instruction on writing genres, structures, standard grammar and usage, children can learn to experience writing as an expression of themselves and, with practice, find their voices. Students develop the ability to clearly organize their thoughts, articulate a cogent argument with supportive details, and can creatively express their ideas and opinions. Writing then becomes a forum where students can take risks and hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Children need and can appreciate the positive power of words through the development of strong literacy skills. However, literacy instruction involves many complexities. Educators must therefore themselves become committed learners, always seeking new methods and approaches that will set the widest range of students on a solid path to becoming confident and capable readers and writers.