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Q & A with Dr. Laura Vanderberg

Dr. Laura Vanderberg

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) at Curry College. PAL Director Dr. Laura Vanderberg shares her passion for supporting students with learning differences, what inspires her work, and how she continues to adopt the legacy of Dr. Gertrude M. Webb. This article appeared in the Spring 2020 Edition of Curry Magazine - Interview by Lynda Curtis.

Did you always see yourself in education?

No. Though I come from a long line of educators, and everyone my whole life told me that I too would be a teacher, I always refused. ‘No, I won’t; I’m going to be a doctor.” Now, I am a teacher and a doctor, and that stems from my parents and grandparents, who demonstrated a core commitment to learning and development as well as the inclusivity of people who are different. My brother is also a big inspiration for me. He has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder; he is gifted and talented in engineering, mathematics and art, but was misunderstood as a student in a society that didn’t yet have the knowledge or science to understand him. This scientific inquiry became very important to my family. I, too, went on to study cognition, to learn about how we think. For me, it’s the whole realm of thinking that’s interesting. Typical thinking is relatively predictable and unfolds expectedly. It’s the thinking that is different that is the most exciting.

Speaking of excitement. What excites you about your work at Curry?

I am excited every day to see my students try something new and to take risks. It’s the heart of what we do. We witness our students walk through an incredible journey of self-discovery. They often know from a young age that things are happening differently for them. They describe being in the classroom as if they are at a magic show. They look around and see people reading, for example. That’s magical, and it’s not happening for them. They think, ‘how do I make that magic happen?’ With our program, students are finally feeling known and accepted for thinking the way they do. I’m excited to be a part of that ‘magic’ that is happening at PAL every day.

How does PAL uniquely guide students through their self-discovery?

With the legacy of our founder, Dr. Gertrude Webb, PAL created a unique metacognitive model that asks students to think about how they think. For instance, we’re not teaching them to read. We’re teaching them how they read and empowering students to be agents of their learning. Now, we’re integrating that model with technology with our assistive technology curriculum, the iPAL program, and we’ve seen great success with our students as a result. They are understanding how they learn how to learn through technology.

Apple and the assistive technology industry have highly regarded the iPAL program. Are educators moving toward this digital learning model?

The technology is here, and the students use it every day. It’s our job to tap into that to support learning and to guide students to be critical users. With our iPAL program, we flipped the traditional higher educational model, in that our students are co-owners of the curriculum. The mobile platform has allowed the faculty and students to learn collaboratively in real-time, and we’re seeing student growth in cognition, learning, and leadership. We recently presented on iPAL at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) 2020 annual conference, and many attendees are interested in exploring mobile platforms as valuable educational and assistive technology tools.

What’s next for you and PAL?

We want to do more to disseminate our work in the field to help influence how others adopt their approaches to working with students with learning differences. We’re also exploring new programming on Universal Design for Learning at Curry, where PAL students become mentors and leaders because they have disabilities and learning differences, not despite. More than anything, I want to continue to see my students go on and use what they’ve learned in PAL in their careers. It’s that impact on lifelong learning that is the legacy of the program and Dr. Webb.