The Lab School of Washington

4759 Reservoir Road, NW 20007 Washington, DC
Phone: 202-965-6600


Reprinted from Summer 2015 LINK.

Think experiential learning. One of the main tenets of The Lab School of Washington is to teach students by doing rather than by telling. Arts-infused, project-based learning is, in many ways, the antidote to rote learning. So why shouldn’t this methodology extend to graduate students, especially those who are learning to teach students with learning differences?

In 1976, Lab School Founder Sally L. Smith started what would become American University’s Master of Arts in Special Education: Learning Disabilities, a specialized graduate program for learning how to teach children with learning differences. For almost 31 years, Ms. Smith headed up this program while simultaneously running The Lab School. The partnership between American University and The Lab School was a Cinderellaslipper fit — and remains so 40 years later.

“The partnership between Lab and AU is not only still relevant today, it may even be more important as we discover that experiential, ‘real life’ learning, especially for students who learn differently, is far more effective than traditional methods,” says High School Reading Teacher Peg O’Donnell.

“The AU/Lab partnership is incredible, really a one of a kind,” says Lab School Elementary Curriculum and Technology Coordinator and AU Intern Supervisor Jennifer Durham. “Lab is a leader in the nation in educating children with learning differences, and having gone through the program myself, I know that the internship is the key element. There is a tight connection between what is being taught in the grad classes at night and what is done in the classrooms during the day at Lab. I mean, what better way to learn — to truly learn — as a graduate student than to get the opportunity to spend a full year in the classroom rolling up your sleeves and learning to put into practice that methodology and research?”

The AU program attracts students from different disciplines — not just education, but art, psychology, engineering, liberal arts, science, and so on, which ties into the way Lab uses projectbased learning for its students. “The Lab School stands tall as a national leader in researching and creating best practices for teacher training for students with learning differences. In fact, we have a long history of this built on Sally Smith’s inspiration both as the founder of Lab and as the person who made the AU graduate program in special education what it is today,” says Head of School Katherine Schantz. “Our interns leave here and go on to doctoral programs or to other schools across the country and the world, bringing what they have learned by studying theory and methodology while at the same time implementing that knowledge and seeing how it works day after day for a year in the classroom.”

Dean of American University’s School of Education, Teaching and Health Sarah Irvine Belson, PhD knows that bringing new research to the classroom is the real focus and energy behind understanding students with learning differences. “AU’s MA program is designed to help current and future teachers learn proven methods, which are grounded in evidenced-based practice. The program’s research base allows the professors to provide AU students with the latest practices to help children develop academically, socially, and emotionally,” she says. “The faculty is committed to providing AU students with state-of-the-art approaches ranging from arts-integration to neuroscience to technology, embedded into a program that is designed to help teachers support the strengths and needs of the student with language-based learning disabilities.”

Dr. Belson’s current research focuses on the ways in which students and teachers at Lab use technology to support learning. Most recently, she completed a project with Director of Educational Technology Daniel Hartmann and High School English Teacher Jennifer Sherman using digital pens in the High School.

Her colleagues are conducting other important research. Lauren McGrath, PhD, assistant professor in AU’s School of Education, is interested in using current findings from cognitive neuroscience to inform special education for children with learning differences. Her work will help teachers better understand the complex relationship between cognitive skills, psychological development, and academic growth, and point to new directions for intervention.

And for Associate Professor in AU’s School of Education Alida Anderson, PhD, the synergy between research and practice is what she finds most compelling about the AU/LSW partnership. For example, Dr. Anderson’s experimental research that is focused on cross-linguistic correlates of dyslexia has been tested and refined through her work with Lab School students over the past several years. Her more classroom-focused research projects have examined the influence of dramatic arts approaches on the expressive language skills of students within language arts classrooms.

Elementary Classroom Teacher Kira Sonberg, who graduated from the AU program, teaches at Lab, and serves as a mentor teacher to AU interns says, “The AU internship allowed me to make real-life connections to the theories, practices, methodologies, and programs that I was learning about in my graduate classes. I had a great relationship with my mentor teacher, so I was able to process, ask questions, and reflect daily on what I saw in the classroom. Now, as a teacher at The Lab School, where part of my job is to train and mentor interns, I feel grateful to pass along the same mentoring relationship that I experienced.”

Experiential learning, it seems, is king — for both the students at The Lab School and graduate students in the American University Special Education/Learning Disabilities program.

For more information on the Master of Arts in Special Education: Learning Disabilities graduate program at American University, go to or email

The Difference is Extraordinary
The Lab School of Washington
4759 Reservoir Road, NW | Washington, DC 20007-1921 | 202-965-6600