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I am proctoring a final exam in biology, 7th grade science. They’ve studied the circulatory and digestive systems this semester, and this is their final test. I am also a “reader”, accommodating students whose reading fluency would negatively impact their ability to decipher words such as “esophagus” and “salivary”, and would be a barrier in their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. I read every single question, and every single answer. I pause, waiting an eternity for them to match 5. with C., before moving on. I have said the word “anus” in a calm, articulated manner, no fewer than 8 times.

Sometimes, I feel like a fraud, like my entire first year teaching here has been a crash-course in learning disabilities. Sure, I had a course in written language disorders, and one of my professors in my school-age language disorders class talked with us about her daughter’s struggle with dyslexia. We learned about acquired dyslexia in adults who have strokes, and about the theoretical models of reading. But really, I hadn’t worked with a single kid with dyslexia until I began this job. I knew next to nothing, and much of my experience in working with children with speech and language disorders was useless.

Even worse, as someone to whom reading, spelling, and writing came effortlessly, I was ill-prepared with reading strategies, and low on empathy. One of the buzz words in education – which often seems like a euphemism – is learning differences, not learning disabilities. While it may definitely be that dyslexia is a learning disability, these kids can still learn to become fluent, proficient readers, but they will have to learn differently. I did not know what that meant. I internalized spelling rules (when to doubling consonants, when dropping an ‘e’ before adding a suffix) as I learned to spell, but I had never been taught them explicitly (except for the rhyming ones: “I before E except after C, or when sounded as A as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’. Exceptions: Neither foreigner has leisure to seize the weird heights.”). And now I was being asked to support kids who need to know those tools, who need those strategies repeated and reinforced daily.

Suddenly, instead of working on “go car” and picture exchange communication, I was faced with 5-paragraph essays, topic sentences, main ideas, and open and closed syllables. Morphology, something I hadn’t looked at since reviewing linguistics for my comprehensive speech-pathology exams, was now front and center. Apparently, 6th graders with dyslexia study Latin roots. My 9th graders are studying Buddhism, and my 10th graders are knee-deep in an analysis of Romeo & Juliet that goes leagues beyond the iambic pentameter I learned so many years ago.

Mr. Apron said yesterday that my post-secondary education provided the background knowledge, so that I can figure out the underlying mechanisms, so that I can figure out applicable strategies and levels of support. In a way, I can use some of what I learned working with preschoolers; it just looks different. Now, instead of holding up a paper square with a picture of a toilet when calling a child to the bathroom, my visual support looks like pulling up a Google image every time a student says “what’s that?” when we’re reading through a book about the 1930s. Simplifying and breaking down directions is not so different either. They’re just following different directions, and using more pencils and MacBooks than crayons and Legos.

There is a tremendous amount of common sense involved in working with kids with dyslexia. For the ones with memory issues, you have to spell things letter by letter, not letting out a whole string at a time. For the ones with comprehension issues, you pull out all the visual aids, and reread and reformulate information until you’re blue in the face. You don’t give answers to kids struggling to express themselves; you gradually lead out of them what you’re fairly certain they already know by using cues, prompts, hints, and carefully worded questions. If a kid has difficulty with word recall – already today I’ve seen a girl struggle to recall the words “streamers” and “pipe cleaners” – you give them multiple choice questions. You don’t teach vocabulary by memorizing a verbatim definition; you teach new words in the context of a text, with a million different associations, connections, and shades of meaning.

Still, sometimes I feel like I’m faking it until I have absorbed enough terminology from the reading teachers, methodology from the writing teachers, and ideas from the English teachers. I feel like I’m expected to be all three, yet I’ve never taken a single education course in my life. Each time I sign up for a teacher discount at a store, I feel like I’m doing so fraudulently. Not because I’m not technically a teacher, but because I don’t feel worthy of the patience, expertise, and knowledge I have come to associate with the educators at this school, and the title of teacher that these men and women bear.

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Two very different young men came into my office yesterday.  One, S.,  had come directly from an assembly on “backpack safety” run by the OTs.  I tried to stimulate discussion encourage him to tell me about the presentation, and work on his speech and language goals in the context of a school activity, but he demurred.  “I don’t remember,” he insisted immediately after arriving from the assembly.  He told me there had been a quiz, and that he had gotten every question wrong, but he’d known all the answers, really; he just didn’t care.  I asked if he’d learned anything, trying to assess his recall.  He denied learning anything; he’d known it all before, but only offered one thing (which, of course, he’d known before) – that a backpack should not be more than 15 lbs, and his was grossly overweight. 

S. seemed not to mind not having The Answer to anything I asked.  He has dreadful word recall, and used words like “the thing” to refer to the assembly, and “they” to refer to his teachers.  Pretending that he was okay with not getting answers right, pretending he didn’t learn anything, pretending he was, essentially, too cool to care about being right or knowledgeable, seemed to be his defense mechanism. 

A., on the other hand, has a different strategy.  What looks like a kid avoiding hard work and trying to get by with the minimum effort results in a sixth grader writing “I like to dig” when asked to write a letter introducing himself, telling important things about him.  Teachers theorized that maybe “dig” was a word he knew how to spell.  A.’s receptive language and vocabulary are pretty decent.  Here is a kid who can give me synonyms for “tot” and “timber” without batting an eyelash.  His writing, his speech, and his reading are all train wrecks.  His reports show he’s a neurological curiosity, and has apraxia of speech to top it off.  I know he’s a bright kid who has complex ideas, and it pains me to see him reduce himself to “I like to dig.”  His sense of humor also seems to help.  When asked to list 3 reasons someone might want to immigrate to the USA, A. responded “jobs” and wrote simply “jobs,” though he had been given 3 lines to write on.  I pointed this out, and he pointed the prompt out to me, saying, “It says list.”  When I showed him the 3 lines, he said, “I write big.” 

A.’s sense of humor and his “avoidance” of challenging work may keep him from becoming embarrassed.  He is a kid who has been in speech therapy most of his life.  He knows he’s different; he knows his speech, reading, and writing are slow.  He may not have an aversion to hard work so much as an aversion to making himself uncomfortable among peers and adults.  

A naïve teacher or therapist might look at both S. and A. and label them “lazy” or “unmotivated”.  Their deficits have made them aware they are different, and as many times as we use the euphemisms “learning differently” or “differently abled,” these kids know what’s going on.  No one likes to be different; no one likes to be the kid who takes too long, or asks dumb questions, or gets the answers wrong.

Neither do I.

This is my last day of work at my old job.  I will start my new job on Monday, assuming a seamless transition between old and new, right?  Wrong.  I am terrified.  I will be leaving the world of preschoolers, leaving behind playing with play-doh and focusing on whether children could let you know they before they peed their pants.  It’s not that the standards are low.  Quite the opposite – modern preschool programs are positively bursting with standards aimed to ensure kids are getting a variety of stimulating experiences and developing across different domains.  But you can only expect to get so far with a preschooler.  You can only develop a 5-year-old’s language so far before discharging him.  While most kids have mastered the basics of language itself by the time they head off to kindergarten, language itself remains fairly basic.  No one is expecting a preschooler to explain the Treaty of Ghent, nor where didgeridoos come from.  More likely, preschoolers who can explain where the blocks go and how they got dressed that morning are the star pupils.  That’s enough.  As kids get older, more is (rightly) expected.  And that puts more of a burden on the adults supporting them.  

As I move onto my new job, I will still keep details (incriminating and otherwise) private, but I can bet I’ll still be needing a forum to tell stories about my students and vent about the adults I’m working with.  (It’s always the adults who cause the problems, no matter where you work.)  I’m going to be moving up, graduating from preschool and being promoted immediately to middle/high school.  On hearing this, most of my current coworkers, as well as friends and family, have one of two responses.  The first is that they’ll be taller than I am.  How comical.  Imagine the 5-foot-tall speech therapist looking up at the towering 12 year old.  Insert amusing mental image.  They were taller than me when I was their age, too.  The second comment is one of genuine curiosity.  Most people do not know what kinds of “issues” adolescents can have with their speech.  Are they still dealing with lisps?  Am I working on stuttering?  The misnomer that kids who seem to walk and talk okay, are okay, is quite pervasive, and frightening.  It shows me that most people have no idea what higher level language skills are, and what they’re used for.  It shows me they’re still mentally separating out the classroom work of reading, writing, math, science, and history, from the language skills used to comprehend, listen, sound out words, scan text, break down scientific vocabulary, and retell narratives.  

Ironically, when I would tell people that I worked with preschoolers on their language and speech skills, a comment I would often hear was, “What do you work on with a kid that young?  What could be wrong with them already at that young an age?”  Only the foundations of spoken and written language.  Only the fundamentals of communication and self-expression.  That’s all. 

The issues become more complex, the academic stakes higher, in middle and high school.  The kids don’t stand much of a chance of being “cured”, or “fixed,” as one could hope an articulation disorder might be.  More likely, they’ll develop strategies to help them organize their thoughts, mnemonics to work on classroom concepts, and many many visual supports to reduce the verbal load and cognitive demands of school work.  I had a professor in graduate school, who was so scatter-rained as an instructor she would often forget to give us quizzes, but who had brilliant therapy ideas.  Though she taught preschool and school-age language disorders (focusing on birth through elementary school, usually), she worked with middle school-aged students.  

Speech therapy is a pretty cool thing when you’re in preschool.  You get extra attention from an adult, you get to work on silly words or sounds, and there are often motivating toys, games, or prizes involved.  Right around third grade, being pulled out of class to go work on /r/ or /s/, or receiving extra attention in the classroom ceases to be cool and starts to be mortifying, for myriad reasons.  Because of this shift, my professor, in her work with middle school-aged students, began calling her work “Strategies”.  She would pop her head in a classroom to extract a student, and tell him it was time for “Strategies”.  I like this term not just because of the stigma-decreasing acceptability to the child, but also because the student really will be learning strategies to help him make it through school; to help him adapt his learning style to the way his class is taught; to help him tune out the distractions that plague him so he can focus on the lecture; to help him communicate effectively with other kids so they can work on a group project together; to support him to be able to approach school with a toolkit of strategies, so he can succeed.  

I am extremely fortunate in school.  The teaching paradigm that prevailed until fairly recently, worked for me.  Reading and sounding out words just made sense to me.  The way math was presented jived with the way my brain worked.  With my high verbal skills I understood math, English, science, French, and social studies as they were presented to me in school.  It wasn’t until an in-service on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, at my first teaching  job, that I had a revelation.  The presenter at the in-service put up a word problem on the overhead, and we were all given some time to solve it.  I had, of course, written out an algebraic equation, and I reached the answer quickly.  She asked us not just what answer we’d come to, but how.  And there were at least three different ways people had arrived at the same answer.  While my textbook algorithm worked for me, and was the most efficient way for me to solve the problem, it wasn’t the natural choice for others.   Previously, I’d thought that everyone who didn’t “get” math in school was less intelligent than me, that kids who didn’t pick up differential calculus on the first pass just weren’t able to grasp advanced math, and were just stupid or something.  

As I moved through the grades in “advanced” reading groups, I wondered what it was about reading that was so hard for the kids in the lowest reading group, or, worse, the ones who went to the resource room.  I can’t begin to get into their brains and understand how difficult it must be to read if you cannot sequence sounds, or struggle to remember when the C sounds like an S and when it makes the K sound.  I have a better respect, though, when I see the euphemism of kids who learn “differently”.  While in a traditional school setting, with a teacher who only presents one way to approach a concept, these kids may indeed look like they have a learning “disability”; however, if a skilled teacher is able to teach fractions with manipulatives and mnemonics, and break down the steps in finding least common denominators, then a child may be said to truly learn “differently”, if he can still grasp the concept.  

These are the students I will be working with.  They will present new challenges to me as I recall from my language development class those advanced language concepts we’ll be working on together.  I hope I’m able to work with them to support their ability to excel in the classroom, to help them be successful teens and achieve their highest dreams.  Even if they tower over me physically, I hope we’ll be able to see eye-to-eye.