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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.

Reasonable accommodation.  Differentiation of instruction.  These are principles on which my school/place of employment thrives.  With low student-to-teacher ratios, teachers are able to get to know each student individually, and make adjustments according to his or her personal needs. 

In spite of this, I am aware of a fine line between being reasonably accommodating and being overtly permissive, and I believe it’s a complicated dance the teachers are doing. 

In a school with as few as 4 kids in a class, teachers can allow kids the freedom to work in an environment that supports their needs.  During a recent writing block, some kids cozied up in a sunny window seat; others splayed out on pillows on the floor.  Yet others chose to stay at the table, or to find a desk away from the main group.  With few students, there is the space and the opportunity, not to mention the open attitude of the teacher.  Ironically, this building was once a Catholic girls’ school, where I have no doubt that strict uniform compliance and straight-backed students seated at rows of identical desks were commonplace. 

When teaching kids with learning differences, teachers at my school have to develop ways within their curricula not only to target the reading and writing difficulties; they also have to find ways to foster positive experiences in learning, and promote successful expression of students’ knowledge.  They have to apply different methods for teaching as well as assessing.  While vocabulary continues to be an area of weakness in many children with learning disabilities, teachers teach and test this skill in different ways.  Instead of requiring rehearsal and regurgitation of a memorized definition, which the student may or may not actually understand (“Relentless: steady and persistent.  Relentless: steady and persistent.”), teachers allow students to act out words in games of charades, think of examples drawing on life experiences, draw pictures showing the meaning, and create multi-media collages using photographs of the actual students.  (“Torrent” showed a student crouching under an umbrella while a storm of collaged National Geographic lightning bolts threatened to split him asunder.)  It’s not just a way of accommodating students whose reading, writing, spelling, and oral expressive skills need some work; it’s better pedagogy.  It’s a way of getting kids to use their new vocab., to help them relate it to their lives, and to hope it sticks more effectively than “relentless: steady and persistent,” which I memorized in 8th grade, but didn’t really understand.  It’s also way more fun for kids and teachers.

Another bit of awesomeness I have witnesses revolves around certain students who are more “active” than others.  Is there a kid alive today with a learning disability who is not also automatically assumed to have ADD or ADHD?  Somehow or another, “auditory processing disorders,” which may look like “he’s just not listening,” have been labeled “ADD”.  More intriguing, in spite of actual ADD, these kids often get sent to speech therapy to get “fixed” because they’re “not listening”.  Is it a speech disorder or not?

Until the linguistic-medical-psycho-educational community differentiates that one, behaviors that look like ADD will be rampant in this school.  Thankfully, teachers here understand ADD, as well as auditory processing difficulties, and they don’t just yell at the daydreamer gazing longingly out the window, or punish the wiggly 12 year old who’s expected to sit in a stiff chair for 7 hours a day.  They get it, and they create solutions.

At a recent conference, a student’s math teacher expressed to the parent that the boy often looks like he’s shutting down, as his math class is at the end of the day and he’s been working hard on focusing all day long.  Since she knew he was into his Rip Stik, would mom send it into school with him?  So she did.  Sure enough, later that week, at 2:30pm, as I worked with another child in an adjacent room, I heard a faint roaring outside my open door, and looked up to see the student cruising down an empty hallway, recharging his batteries, so to speak.  He later reflected, “Ms. B. said she needed to see me in the hall, and I thought I was in trouble, but then she said to ride my Rip Stik down the hall and back.”  Guess who stayed focused until the end of the day?

A clever teacher, finding a way to single a student out, not for punishment, not for special treatment, but to meet his needs in a way that was neither disruptive nor unreasonable.  A successful accommodation.

Other adaptations are, in my view, less successful.  When a teacher tells the students they may sit anywhere they like, there’s usually one who makes a sprint for the teacher’s desk.  I’m all for accommodation and providing a supportive work environment, but I’m also for boundaries, and I dislike when kids seem to overtly push them.  There are always kids who will take advantage of a laissez-faire teacher: asking to use the bathroom 27 times an hour; telling a teacher their hair hurts so they can slack off of school work; making up excuses for not doing homework.  Again, in a small class, discipline can afford to be a little less strict, but there’s a fine line between laid-back teacher, and a run-over teacher.

As in most good ideas, when pushed too far, there are accommodations gone bad – good ideas, or necessary adjustments that don’t work as well as imagined. 

If Kid A gets to chew gum during class because his OT says it helps him focus, why can’t the rest of the class?  If Kid B needs a snack at 10:30am because he’s hypoglycemic (or just plain hungry), what qualifies as a snack?  Does it have to be a quiet food?  A healthful food?  Can it be a crinkly bag of Sunchips?  How many items make up a snack?  Is a breakfast burrito a snack?  If a kid prefers to eat her lunch at 9:00am, and then has no food at lunchtime, is the school obligated to provide a back-up?  One child I sometimes work with eats his way through his day. He’s still short and skinny, so I won’t make any growth spurt excuses.  He can consume, during one 45-minute period, right before lunch, 3 “Fruit by the Foot” snacks, 2 packs of “Gushers,” a bag of chips, pretzels, a wrap, and several drinks (including lemonade and espresso-based beverages).  It makes me ill to watch, and, contrary to what has been said to allow this accommodation, I don’t think it helps him focus.  His hands are too busy unwrapping and stuffing his mouth to type or write or follow along on a worksheet, his wrappers end up all over the table or floor, and he’s constantly refreshing from a large shopping bag on the floor. It distracts me; I can’t imagine the other kids in his class see his food as just part of the scenery.  In this case, an accommodation which started out as reasonable has been taken too far, and at this point is probably feeding into some unhealthy obsessive behaviors, not to mention the sheer quantity of calories and junk in his body. 

My wish for the education community at large is that teachers like those I work with are able to infiltrate larger, public schools, and bring the same open-minded approach to accommodate to the larger community of learners.  I know it’s a difficult task.  I understand how most classrooms cannot create private writing cubbies/window seats/bean-bag chairs for each of their 25 or 30 kids.  There simply isn’t the space.  I also understand the inherent difficulties in making special rules for each student so that no one is getting any more special treatment than the next, and in maintaining attitudes of fairness in the classroom.  In the adult world, we are expected to take care of our own needs.  Some people are fine sitting for an entire transatlantic flight; others need to stretch their legs every hour.  We don’t ask the flight attendant’s permission to get up, or complain about our seatmate: “He has already used the bathroom 4 times on this flight; I think he’s faking so he can hit on the hot flight attendant.  It’s not fair!” 

But in a classroom, a teacher would have to work extra hard to make sure a kid gets a chance to move around more if he needs it, or to have a different chair than all the rest.  Clever teachers can do it.  They can find errands to send active children on; they can invent jobs involving heavy work for kids who need that kind of work.  If one child needs a snack, they can institute a structured snack time, for those who care to munch.  They can make adaptive pencil grips and scissors available for the whole class – are they really going to hurt a kid who doesn’t “need” that accommodation?  Rather, they may open the other children’s mind to seeing multiple ways of navigating the world.  More than scheming for stealthy introduction of accommodations for specific students, clever teachers make it a priority to promote acceptance of diversity.  While they might quietly provide extra time on an assignment for one student, they don’t try to hide the very fact that we all have different needs.  Not only is a zero-tolerance policy on teasing necessary, but a positive attitude can foster a better understanding of each child’s image of self.  Without promoting “special treatment,” they can still help each kid learn what is motivating to him, how he learns best, and what he can do to help himself.  They can provide acceptable choices within the structure of the assignment – draw a picture, illustrate a comic strip, or write a play – that play to different students’ needs and strengths. 

It is my sincere hope that teachers can begin to implement this sort of “specially designed instruction” for all students, to recognize and celebrate their differences.  They don’t have to wait for the IEP to mandate adjustments for the one child with an identified disability; they can make learning unique for each student in the room.

While I have probably been at my new job long enough to declare either undying love or unmitigated frustration, it still too early to pronounce anything in between.  I am still getting to know the other staff and their particular education stylings.  I am fortunate not to be shut into my “speech closet” all day long; in addition to individualized pull-out speech therapy sessions, I also get to “push-in” to all sorts of literacy classes across the grades.  As the bloom is not yet off the rose during this, my second week, I am filled with silent admiration at the planning and activities the teachers are implementing, and how they’re able to engage their challenging students with interesting lessons that look more like games in the eyes of their pupils. 

In one class, a teacher puts 8-10 similar objects (leaves, apples, shells, rocks) on a desk in the middle of the room.  They are all assigned a number.  Each student is assigned a number, too, to correspond to the object.  After first brainstorming associated adjectives, verbs, and concepts, the kids retreat to silent writing.  They are charged with writing a short paragraph that will describe their specific object in such a way that the class will be able to identify it.  What at first seems impossible (8 black oak leaves – come on!) becomes not only a writing exercise, but also a perceptual task.  It requires focus and concentration to see that your leaf has more holes than the rest, that the color is not uniformly brown, but that it has tannish blazes towards the tips.  It requires differentiations beyond “big” and “small”, beyond “brown” and “green”, and has a motivating factor (the guessing of their classmates) built in.  The teachers participate to model their prose.  It’s a really nice activity that can continue throughout the year.  The types of descriptions are limited only by the types of objects displayed.  It’s endlessly more useful and engaging that generating lists of adjectives and rewriting “The girl had long hair” into revealingly adjective-heavy sentences like: “The cute little silly girl had long, curly, brown hair.” 

Another class is integrating their study of grammar (common nouns, proper nouns, adjectives, verbs, different types of sentences) with their study of Native Americans, so the classes are all designing games that have to include elements of 6 different grammatical concepts, and 6 different regions where the Native Americans originated.  Many of the games draw heavily on board games like Monopoly, Life, Sorry!, and Candy land.  A few kids designed a card game that uses 3 dice they made themselves.  This teacher understands that in order to make sure his kids understand the grammatical concepts, they have to be able to apply them in a more challenging way than outlining sentences.  In order to think critically about Native Americans, they integrate ideas about culture, food, geography, tool use, dwellings, and pull it all together in an admittedly very strange-sounding game.  I believe all of the kids are choosing to work in groups of 2-4, so they’re also using group problem-solving skills as they make joint decisions on what the dice should look like, delegate who will work on which cards, and figure out how to play the game.  It’s no group project I’d like to be made to work on, but then again, I hate group projects.   

I haven’t figured everyone out yet.  I’ve made first impressions, and I’ve had coworkers fervidly whisper personality traits into my ears (“Oh, he’s NOT flexible.  Needs to have EVERYTHING planned.  Just look out.) and passed along as a by-the-way (“I think she needs the help more than the kid does.  She just reacts strongly.  You’ll see.).  I think I’ll be okay, though.  As long as they’re treating the kids and the rest of us with respect and decency…as long as I’m given the tools and opportunity to do my job…I can tolerate a little personality here and there.

When I graduated from grad school last August, I thought that finally I’d be able to hold only one job.  That I’d derive all my income from one salary earned primarily during day-time hours.  This was an aspiration I had held for many years.  You see, I was a preschool assistant teacher for 3 years after college, which barely covered the cost of rent, chocolate chips, and only a few yards of fabric, and left very little for “Just Because” gifts for Mr. Apron, whom I was courting at the time.  So I supplemented my meager earnings (ask any preschool teacher — assistant or otherwise) with other jobs in the evening.  Mostly these were things which landed in my lap.  I taught sewing classes downtown at a friend’s art center after her original sewing teacher flaked, and I taught creative dramatics to kids in grades K-2 at a local performing arts center.  Some weeks I’d teach till 3, then dart off to various locations to teach 90 minutes to 2 hours more.  I was exhausted. 

Looking for a part-time job during grad school, I found a tutoring company.  I thought it would give me the freedom I needed to set my own schedule, and it certainly allowed me to play to my own strengths — academicus nerdias profudus (my Latin Wiley Coyote name).  Over the last three years, I’ve taught 5th grade math skills, SAT, PSAT, study skills, bar mitzvah elocution (ask if you dare), geometry, algebra, pre-calculus, and French.  Again, I thought I’d be down to 1 job when I finished grad school last August, but I had this one student…

My first French student was a 10th grader who, much as I loved her and as well as we got along, did not do her homework between lessons, and for whom I was very much relieved when she switched to Italian in 11th grade for a “fresh start” in a language I did not speak.  My other French student started working with me almost 2 years ago.  She was preparing for the SAT II in French, so we worked for six weeks over the summer, in advance of the fall test.  She ended up not taking it after all (her #1 and #2 choice colleges did not require SAT II), but asked me to stay on during the school year.  And into AP French the year after that, even as I was starting my “real job”.  My tutoring company only has so many French tutors, and my student felt that we had built such a strong rapport it would be foolish to start with a new person. 

Today, we had our final lesson.  Her test is tomorrow.  We both know she’s not going to score the critical 5 on her AP test that would earn her college credit and let her pass out of any language requirement — the test is very hard, and her class has only worked on the essay portions throughout the school year.  The speaking and listening portions she cannot cram for, as they require practice hearing and using the language.  We met for 2.5 hours today.  We worked on grammar, reading comprehension, picture description tasks, and and overall verb review.  And at the end, she gave me a really good hug.  I guess that’s my reward for the last 2 years.  I don’t know how much I improved her grades or helped her comprehension of French grammar, or supported her study skills, but we worked well together.  Once I got used to her obsessive-compulsive routines about highlighting vocab and her stacks of color-coded index cards and other detritus taking over the dining room table, we settled into a routine.  She always let me know what she needed support with, and she planned out our schedule.  She already had great study skills, but needed help organizing the language itself.  I hope I was able to do that.  It’s a little bittersweet for me, that today was our last day.  It signals the end of the tutoring I thought would just be a silly job during grad school (though now I’ve picked up another student it’ll be hard to let go of).  Moving closer towards that one-job ideal, but leaving behind a job that was not so bad.   And a student I’ll definitely miss. 

For her birthday last week, I gave her a zippered pouch I made to keep her index cards in.  I know she’ll use it.