Sunday, April 27, 2014

Celebrating Dyslexia

Learning Ally National Achievement Awards

This past weekend, Eddie Maza, a former student, a friend, and an amazing human being, was honored by Learning Ally for his accomplishments and achievements, one of which is being accepted to Yale. Over the course of his academic career, Eddie experienced the following:

  • He was told he should leave a school with a dual curriculum, since he would not be able to handle the work
  • He was made to stay in from recess to rewrite spelling words he had misspelled
  • He was told he should not attempt geometry
Eddie is dyslexic, and unfortunately the many indignities he suffered and obstacles he faced are common for a student like him. Over the course of the award celebration weekend, I learned just what kind of special torture school can be for dyslexics and how lost a child can be if s/he doesn't have a strong parent advocate.

Capitol Hill

Eddie was one of three top award recipients Learning Ally chose to honor for incredible achievement by a student with dyslexia. The award weekend took place in Washington, D.C., and on Friday, Eddie and the two other awardees -- Dustin Henderson and Maia Schumacher -- addressed congressional aides about their learning difference.

Maia Schumacher, Eddie Maza, Tracy Johnson -- a college and graduate school graduate --
as well as Dustin Henderson present at a meeting with congressional aides

Maia told the group that she was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in second grade. Up until that time, she had been a bright and spunky kid, but her dyslexia held her back. She started getting extra help with her reading, but the experience didn't leave her feeling good about herself: "I knew I was smart, but I still felt dumb needing help from someone else."

Dustin had a similar experience. He started being pulled out of classes in about fifth grade, at which time he was taunted for being stupid and going to the classroom where the "dumb kids" were.

Eddie added, "School was a scary place to be. Spelling test day was a really scary day in school. When the other kids were outside playing, I was writing my misspelled words over and over again."

That image is a particularly heartbreaking one for me; Eddie is one of the most gentle people I know, and the idea of his enduring the humiliation of the "recess excommunication," to do a task he had no chance in succeeding in, is really painful.

Maia also made a poignant comment: "Schools are not set up in a way to help kids with learning disabilities. They hold us back."

The Power of Audio Books

Learning Ally -- which used to be called
Recording for the Blind and then
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic --
has seen many changes in the technology they use.

Eddie's, Maia's, and Dustin's academic careers took an upswing when they were introduced to Learning Ally, an organization that provides audio books to those who are visually impaired and dyslexic -- the celebration marked the achievements of three blind and/or severely visually impaired individuals, as well. All the awardees, over the course of the weekend, spoke about how empowered they felt being able to access books on their own. They didn't need the support of tutors and readers as much -- parents who read endlessly on a daily basis to their children were a commonality, particularly among the three young dyslexic awardees -- and they were able to close the achievement gap between them and their peers.

Eddie's acceptance into Yale is an obvious sign that no type of academic achievement is off limits to a dyslexic. Maia is now in college, studying to be a nurse, and Dustin, who excelled throughout his school career in math and science and was valedictorian in high school, is now studying mechanical engineering in college.

Dustin's journey to college was not without obstacles, however. He discovered that no two colleges have the same set of standards when addressing the needs of dyslexic students, and so he had to pass up a few schools he was interested in because it didn't seem like he could be accommodated there.

Equal Access in a Least Restrictive Environment

It was a gorgeous day on Capitol Hill when the student award winners,
disabilities advocate and education experts presented to congressional aides

The three student panelists at the Capitol Hill meeting were followed by three experts in learning differences and dyslexia. The first was Lindsay Jones, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Emphasizing the importance of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in granting those with learning differences equal access to education, she explained the need for early identification for dyslexics -- before the child has fallen behind his classmates -- and for an environment that's "least restrictive" for learning. Dyslexics shouldn't be automatically pulled out of a regular classroom because of their learning difference. Doing so denies them, as we saw with the awardees, the equal access to education they're entitled to.

Next up on the panel was Deardra Rosenberg, Director of Education at The Newgrange School, a school for children 8-18 with learning differences. She revealed that the majority of teachers trained today get little to no instruction on how to teach dyslexic students, who are grouped together with other learning disabled students who might require additional or different instructional materials than the ones dyslexics need. Ms. Rosenberg stressed the importance of professional development (PD) in giving teachers across America the tools they need to identify and work with dyslexics.

Dyslexia Simulation Session

Ms. Rosenberg's ability to provide this kind of meaningful and informative PD about dyslexia was on display over the course of the award weekend, when she led a Dyslexia Simulation Session. Adults in the room were told they were a class of Kindergartners who had to read a primer. Only the primer had symbols instead of words. Ms. Rosenberg's charming facilitation as the "teacher" didn't prevent the adults from feeling, when called on to read, "angry," "stupid," "hopeless," and "humiliated." One woman, who hadn't heard Maia at the congressional meeting, almost verbatim echoed her words, saying, "I know I'm smart, but I couldn't decipher the words and felt so frustrated."

Here's another type of dyslexia simulation

Competency-Based Standards

This famous cartoon reminds us why we need individualized instruction

The session, which included a slide showing about thirty young male brains that were all different, made the group aware of the importance of individualizing instruction and making sure all types of learners are accommodated in the classroom. In fact, Ms. Jones of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, is also advocating for a different type of standard in the classroom. She calls them Competency-Based Standards, which the US government discusses on a website:

Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, pace, or place of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online or blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others.

To read more about these standards, visit the US Department of Education site here.

My Own Impressions

For the past nineteen years, I've taught only in Jewish day schools, so what I learned over the course of Eddie's award celebration is that it's not only Jewish day school teachers who often aren't properly prepared to address the needs of the many diverse learners in their classrooms. Ms. Rosenberg repeated many times that the entire educational system in America needs to be trained more effectively in dealing with students' learning differences. I personally think all teachers should have to partake in Ms. Rosenberg's Simulation Session. The feelings of helplessness they engender would make educators more sensitive in general to any student who learns differently and who is struggling to comprehend course material.

In my soon-to-be-released ELI Talk on passion-based learning,
I share my hope that one day my grandchildren will ask me what this is.
My answer will be "Oh, just something we used to use in education
in the 20th century!"

No one who knows about my passion for project-based learning and my desire to see education move from being about "seat time" to being about something a lot more meaningful and impactful is going to be surprised to hear me advocate for competency-based standards. What excites me is that these standards are being touted for diverse learners, showing that everyone benefits when education is about students getting out of their desks, being asked what excites them and how best they learn, and empowering them to be curious and active seekers of knowledge and socially useful action.

Eddie accepting his award

Eddie is not only one of the most special students I've ever had; he is one of the best human beings I know, and this award could not have been given to a more deserving recipient. I feel honored and humbled to have been a part of his award celebration experience and feel a renewed responsibility to advocate for him and others who might feel silenced or bullied -- or both -- in the classroom. We've all somehow been made to feel that learning should take place in a certain way, but the axioms we've inherited about school are slowly changing.

Moving Forward

I was struck over the course of the award celebration by the fact that the parents of the awardees -- and no doubt parents of many dyslexics -- faced an uphill battle in gaining the services their children needed. A Learning Ally staff member pointed out that when they need to advocate for their children, many parents resign themselves to having to "armor up" to deal with school administrators and teachers, but that's a really tough thing to have to do whenever your child needs something. Some parents may not have the strength to keep fighting, and that leaves their children at a disadvantage. Eddie, Maia, and Dustin made it clear over the course of the celebration that if it hadn't been for the tireless efforts of their parents, they wouldn't have achieved all they had.

But the truth is we're all parents, teachers, students, learners, and so we've all got to work together to make sure our students are enriched by us, by each other, and by what they're learning. Learning Ally feted its winners in a wonderfully meaningful and simply beautiful manner this past weekend. One winner put it well when he said, "I know Learning Ally was great, but I didn't know how well they could throw a party." So our duty now is to take what they've generously offered -- in its army of volunteer readers, its committed staff, its accomplished awardees, and its elegant and warm celebration -- and start truly appreciating what's unique about all our children, so that they can be educated and then shine in a way that's best for them.

Additional Resources

And . . .  

  • Did you know that at iJED, the Jewish education conference organized by the Schechter and Yeshiva University Networks this past February, participants could attend a Diverse Learners lab, which provided them with a deep dive into addressing the needs of diverse learners?
  • Shelley Cohen [full disclosure: we're related] has founded and runs The Jewish Inclusion Project, which, according to its mission, is "aimed at educating and inspiring rabbinical students and rabbis on the obligation, need, and methodology for leading the creation of more inclusive synagogues, schools, and summer camps that fully embrace the communal, social, and religious needs of people with disabilities and their families."
We know there are tons more resources out there and that many educators are doing great work in this area. 

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