Learning cleverly disguised as fun


When the Knights and Ladies Club at The Lab School meets each day, the children pack a lot of learning into an hour.

The pupils in this academic club learn passwords to enter and leave the simulated castle in their classroom, dress in period costumes, play the roles of monks and work on calligraphy. They listen to the teacher read aloud from The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, and learn about Medieval England, the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror.

More important, they learn to focus so they can decode words - break them into chunks to sound them out - for reading.

The pupils, who have a range of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, have to focus before they can learn, said Sally L. Smith, founder and director of The Lab School of Washington.

To meet that challenge, she uses an arts-based curriculum to teach reading, writing, math, science and history to the 33 pupils, ages 6 to 12, at The Lab School's Baltimore campus at the Inner Harbor.

"We use art, drama, music and dance to achieve academic goals," Smith said. "It's like a hidden agenda - we lure them back into learning and cooperating. Most of the students have not been able to focus in regular classrooms."

Although relatively new to Baltimore, The Lab School, situated next to the Port Discovery Children's Museum on Market Place, is a branch of The Lab School of Washington. The Washington-based school, with students in kindergarten through 12th grade, has been operating since 1967; the Baltimore campus opened in 2000.

The cramped Baltimore school will move this summer to the campus of the Odyssey School on Roland Avenue, when Odyssey moves to its new location in Owings Mills. The Lab School will add a seventh and eighth grade at that time, or about 20 more pupils. Tuition is $19,000 a year.

Smith, head of the Special Education: Learning Disabilities graduate program at American University, started the Lab School of Washington when she discovered that her child, then age 6, had a learning disability. She fashioned her curriculum to include a system of clubs where elementary school-age pupils spend part of the day immersed in a specific historical time period to learn academic subjects and basic skills.

That strategy is intended to capture the interest of children whose dyslexia and attention disorders can hinder their ability to process information, Smith said. It also provides a contrast to the rest of the school day, which is spent in regular classrooms.

Colleen Kane, the Baltimore director, said the school uses various programs to teach reading because most pupils can't read when they arrive - dyslexia impairs the ability to recognize and comprehend written words. Pupils with attention deficit disorders often are inattentive, hyperactive and display impulsive behavior.

"We concentrate on the individual child, and try to help with his or her self-esteem, too," Kane said. "We want them to go at their own pace and not feel stressed."

The children, who typically have been referred to The Lab School by psychologists and neurologists, are intelligent, but have failed elsewhere because of their learning disorders.

"Our goal is to get these students back into regular classrooms," Smith said. "We just need to give them the tools to get back there."

Smith said the curriculum - with half of the day spent on the arts - is set up to reinforce academic skills.

Teacher Ursula Marcum uses her art class as a means of teaching pupils about reading and geography. With a map of the United States hanging in the classroom, Marcum directs pupils to make letters denoting animals and the states they inhabit, while teaching them the basics of art - color, line, space and texture.

In the Gods Club, which Marcum oversees, she teaches younger pupils about ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Lessons with the Greek alphabet, hieroglyphics and Roman numerals are another means to teach them. The pupils in the Knights and Ladies Club learn vocabulary words, such as monastery, for passwords; they learn the sounds of the letters, and they learn social skills, said Dan Musick, a science teacher who oversees the club. During a lesson in making signet rings, pupils watch Musick, concentrate on his directions and stamp their initials.

Smith said she has had enormous success with her curriculum at the Washington campus, with 90 percent of the students attending college.

"Some kids [with learning disabilities] are written off before they come here. We are making them active learners," she said.

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