Category Archives: Passion and Purpose

Readers Read…and so do my middles!

goodreads exampleIt’s Christmas break and I update my latest reading on my Goodreads account, and then it hits me! I’d been lamenting the lack of enthusiasm for reading among my 7th and 8th graders, and I couldn’t seem to motivate reading for fun. My middles were used to reading for points, for prizes, for grades — but not for any of the reasons that last after school gets out. This was last year, my first year back in the classroom as a middle school teacher in 30 years, and my first year back as a classroom teacher in 12 years. So much had changed in terms of popular culture, technology, and standards. Nothing, however, posed more of a frustration to me than this apathy and even antipathy toward reading among my students. And then, as I said, it hit me!

My kids don’t see people reading; they don’t encounter peers who read or adults in their lives who read just for the fun of it. I knew this because early in the semester, when we talked about “active reading,” I asked my students to interview three adults about their reading habits. Questions included: “What and when do you read for your job?” and “What and when do you read for pleasure?” Most students interviewed adults they knew; some interviewed people on the street. All found that many people admitted that they don’t read much for pleasure, but they do read during their work-day — texts, emails, memos, and professional reading, for example.

When I updated my progress that day during Christmas break last year, I thought about all of the books I’d read, and all of the people I’d met through Goodreads, and all of the books I’d tried because of Goodreads recommendations. My yearly thrill is completing my Goodreads Reading Challenge and seeing my stats at the end of the year — okay, so that is kind of like reading for points, I’ll admit. Anyway, I suddenly realized that my middles need two things: time to read and people with whom to share their reading! So I revamped my whole approach when we returned to class after Christmas break.

First, I gave my students 15 to 20 minutes each class period to read. We have 90-minute class sessions, so I just reworked my planning and that time for reading became sacred. Secondly, I created a Goodreads group for our school. I invited all of our school’s staff, administrators, and counselors to join “Legacy Reads” so that my kids could see what their teachers and principal are reading — and that they do read. I did have to keep the group private because I need to ensure my students’ privacy with parents. During that semester, I posted a question each week for students to answer on our group page, and each student kept track of their independent reading on their personal Goodreads page.

During the summer, I scoured thrift stores for books to add to our classroom library, bought throw pillows, a chair, and the softest rug ever to surround our library area. This year, kids could opt to read wherever they felt comfortable — and they did! why people read - 3 We set reading goals for the year, noted books we completed with stars and reviews, and shared opinions on our group discussion page. I could see which books kids loved and talk with kids about what they were reading as they were reading, rather than logging in to a program to check a quiz score. I also encouraged parents to take pictures of their kids reading at home and send the photos to me. I then enlarged the photos, printed them, and posted them on the bulletin boards and on our class web pages. I wanted to immerse my kids in an environment of reading for fun. So satisfying to hear a student say, “You have to read this!” Or to see kids smiling as they read silently. Or see that one student has sent a book recommendation to another. Or have a parent stop me in the hall to express wonder that her active 8th-grade son reads after baseball practice because he wants to and asks her to get more books!

The real joy came, however, two weeks after school got out. I was updated my Goodreads page with my latest reading and saw several updates from my students. I wasn’t checking up on them; they didn’t have to update for class. They just continue to read and give stars and share opinions about books. Readers read…and so do my middles now!

 

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Hidden Hurts

I typically use this place to write about pedagogy and how kids learn. Today, it’s about how kids hurt. A mom just dropped in to “say hi.” I invited her to sit and chat — five minutes later, her eyes filled with tears, she’s sharing about her son’s hurts. I haven’t seen her son in a while — he worked with me during his freshman year, developed his independent learning skills, and moved out of my program. He’s a senior now. And he hurts. And she hurts. And no one here knows. She wanted advice — who to tell, how to move forward, how to believe that he’ll be okay. There’s a past. There’s that genetic history. There’s that shadow of what if he also…. How does a mom’s heart hold all of that hurt? How has his heart held all of that hurt…and for how long? … And of course, it all reminds me that he’s not alone. Others like him walk through the halls, past our room doors, into our classrooms, sitting beside us or across from us…with hidden hurts. And if we’re astute, or if they’re reaching out for help, we notice the red cries when the sleeve gets pushed up or we hear the pleas in the leave-me-alone silence. I am once again reminded, also, that I am not a savior. But I believe in hope and in prayer. I am thankful that this mom sought me out today…not because I have answers but because I care and can offer to help carry the hurts as she seeks out the professional support for her son — and there is healing for hidden hurts over time.

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Response while viewing “180 Days: A Year in an American High School” (PBS) because I can’t just watch…

How does a kid deal with this…losing his mom to cancer, evicted the following week because dad has no job, so much loss…yet, he’s in school…and someone cares and talks with him…gosh, is there anything more rewarding than just talking with a kid like this and being there for him?

Test scores…always the shadow behind the teacher, behind the student…

She’s great! This senior who has dreams, goals of college, doing what some might say she couldn’t…because of the school’s test scores.

Yes, what is it about…what is the bigger picture…how does a parent with 9 kids have a dream for her children … and yet, she’s there, she’s listening, and she’s proud of her daughter who set her goals and is going to get a scholarship.

Picking colleges to apply to based on which will be least expensive or give her the most financial aid…so different from the experiences of the students at my school…what must it feel like to have choices defined by more external factors than internal factors, to feel that you have so little control over your life and your future? So many of the students at my school are so blessed, and so unaware.

Teachers concerned…realizing that their kids need a “dream-come-true” prom experience…the kids deserve it.

“Tough, visionary, reformer”…improved test scores, “yet still…” and always the “yet still…”

What’s worth fighting for? Kids, first. Kids who need more choices, more options. Kids who must be so weary fighting for themselves. Kids whose mom or dad or both fight for their kids to have futures by simply staying with them, and doing what they can.

300 kids dropping out an hour…why? Those kids are worth fighting for…how can I fight?

What’s most important in changing the lives of these students? Teachers discussing this question. Teachers agreeing that relationships are the most significant change agent in their kids’ lives. I agree.

Still, having to have a pep rally for a standardized test…”Pass the …” and yet still, the kids are … well, the cheerleaders were…but the majority of the kids look…bored and apathetic or nervous and worried…and aren’t both responses similar at the core…the “what if” fear that shadows their next move?

What a gorgeous smile…she looks up at the admissions counselor taking her on a group tour of the college…she’s hopeful…I’m prayerful…I want her to get there…

Wow, one-on-one meetings with an admissions counselor, that includes hearing on the spot whether or not they are accepted and hearing about scholarships awarded! These kids need that immediate hope for the year after graduation. The kids around them need to witness their joy and hope…to prompt hope in their own hearts about their own possibilities.

Spring break…principal tells staff to get rest and stay hopeful…there’s that word again…hope…foundation, fortification, future…all because of hope

And then the return after break and the countdown to the test…competitions, groups practicing together, teachers cheering and coaching and high-fiving and guiding and rewarding and nurturing a sense of community to create and sustain the kids’ conscious efforts to score well as a school, together, for the sake of all…yet really, teachers doing this for the kids…teachers who know their school’s future depends on these scores…yet still, I believe they care more that the kids learn because they see the skills for the test as skills for life…a life with hope.

Setting target goals…with the kids ‘in-the-achievement-gap” in mind…the kids who fall into the economic, racial divide that they see in their school…like the kid who has 72 absences…when she’s not in school, where is she?…where is her hope when she’s not in school?

But back to the gym…pep rally, cheer competition…that community spirit again that builds resiliency…school team wins…I’m in tears…resiliency through relationships…even cheerleading bring hope

Wait, the admissions counselor made a mistake…added the wrong numbers…full scholarship rescinded…mom, daughter…is there hope…there is no more money…can she score higher on the SAT to get more points for another scholarship…she was “hoping on that, but now…”

The arts…a “great refuge” in addition to opening doors for kids…absolutely…I love this school’s administration…they are hands on and minds in and all for the kids’ learning and experiencing…life, academics, and the arts…look at this admin mentoring the guitar teacher on pedagogy…effective teachers help kids to be effective learners…he wants to give these kids what they need…they are what is worth fighting for…and he’s doing it.

And then there he is again, no mom, sitting with his tunes…cousin shows up at school…legal guardian…withdrawing him from this school…from this community of hope…tears again…why…he’s worth fighting for…he’s fighting for himself…he’s “doing fine” where he is…someone’s fighting for him…but what can he do…legally there’s nothing they can do…they, his hope, now his possibly his past…and another loss in this kid’s life…3rd school in one year…where is his hope…how resilient will he be?

You “take ownership” of these kids…principal cares.that kids grow…doesn’t want any one of them to leave “half done”

Test day…moving…shadows linger…but ‘I achieve” shirts encourage…”You may begin…”…with hope? Testing ends…”You have 10 minutes to transition…” …transition back to school days now only shadowed by waiting for scores

And then the budget…and which of the faculty have hope of another year…who will be included and who will be cut…faces looking like the kids in the gym listening to the explanation of the test…same “what-if fear”…more shadows…

Engagement…it’s there in their eyes…they’re connecting…because he is connecting…he, who doesn’t know if he’ll be there…waiting for scores on a piece of paper written by a principal who mentors and clearly cares…yet still…evaluation time…budget shadows…this is reality everywhere now, even at my school

“Impact” score…does that equal hope?

Faculty lounge…they are mostly young…coincidence…where are the veteran teachers…where are the teachers who may be older…reflective of the budget shadow or reflective of a society that values youth or reflective of the veterans moved to better schools…I am a veteran…I would want to be in this school…shadows frighten…yet still…I hope

Love this counselor…reading email from college admissions counselor over the phone to mom, daughter…reconsidered…scholarship returned to student…community celebration…hope again

A mother’s tears…grateful that she’s alive to see her daughter succeed, to see her daughter get to college…mother’s joy, daughter’s hope…resiliency

Budget shadows…prom…senior celebrations…can all celebrate…will some be left in the shadow…community…staff, teachers, partners…creating prom experience on campus…because no one should be left in the shadow… hope…resiliency…relationship … my tears, again…and their smiles

Love it…kids are kids…”I don’t know how to slow dance” … felt the same way before my prom…ah, Angelou knew it…”we are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike” in our humanness when you bring us out of the shadows

Graduation…how many days left…who has hope? “3 classes short”…keep coming to school…take summer school…will he? Does he have enough hope to do it?

“Letter of non-reappointment”…she did so much…she cared…she mentored…she hoped… now we’re all crying…another loss…for her…for the kids…for the kids…for the kids…it was always about the kids…and resilient, she says “we will be fine” and she says let’s finish strong…”we have kids to graduate”…can’t give a score to relationships…can’t quantify how much hope you’ve given in a year…and who is giving her hope now…the kids, and still, the kids.

What’s worth fighting for? They will fight for their principal, their mentor…who are they fighting? Don’t know…he stayed in the shadows…but their voices are visible and they ask, and they demand, and they point, and they show, and they attempt to pull him into their world, their loss…but he stays invisible, unheard because he never spoke…one large shadow.

One person inside the school telling you can do it…can speak louder than a bunch of people outside telling you that you can’t do it…the kids

And again, the veterans…yes, we know we cost schools…we often aren’t even considered because we “cost too much”…some of us would take less than what the scales say we cost…just to give hope…that’s worth fighting for…to “sift through the stuff and get the kids committed to their education”…yet still, when the sources of hope are moved, are lost…stability is needed

Graduation…no shadows for this moment…hugs, celebration, community…results of resiliency and hope…and then, each one moves on…

…I will remember this view, this passion welling up within me, this hope I have for these kids and this community of educators, for those I’ve not seen, for the ones I’ll see tomorrow…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Inexperienced” and “Dumb” Are Not Synonyms, but…

Think about your first day at your first job — desperately trying to not look “new” and yet, hoping to spot a face in the midst that could be the source of support you might need? We don’t like being new, because when we are new, we often are also inexperienced — and that can cause us to feel “dumb” (a word I hate, but it best describes the feeling I’ve had when I’ve been this person). We quickly learn from experience that “inexperienced” and “dumb” are not synonyms, and that we need to seek out support systems if we want to succeed. Continuing my look at Langston’s 6 Success Attributes, I want to share about how I’ve considered the presence and use of effective support systems in my work with high school kids.

My supervisor of 7 years at is now headmaster at a school in Oregon this year, and he is working to establish means of supporting students at his new school similar to how we support them at the school I am continue at as Learning Specialist. He called me one day to ask me what seemed to make the biggest difference in whether or not a student progressed and succeeded in my program. At first, I said something that was pretty general and vague because I hadn’t really thought about it. Later that night…well, in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep and I was still thinking about his question…it hit me – it’s relationship! Every student who has succeeded in becoming an independent learner is one with whom I had developed a close, trusting relationship. When I couldn’t connect with a student, I lost him – and felt like I had failed. I know that we can’t connect with every kid, but in my particular school environment and being the only one in this role of Learning Specialist (not tutor), I feel that I need to connect and help each student who is referred to me because I want each one to develop the big picture skills of metacognitive thinking and strategies, rather than just leave with a finished homework assignment. The key goal of each session, in terms of my work, is to “focus on islands of competence” and maintain a positive, safe environment for my students (Ficksman & Adelizzi, 2010, p. 35). The most important message I need to convey to my students is that they can trust me enough to be honest with me. If something I suggest doesn’t work for them, then they can tell me and we’ll try something else. Early on, this is difficult for kids to do – there is a lot of “nodding and smiling” during those first sessions and then a lot of “nothing gained” as a result. Once I’ve gained the student’s trust, however, and have a rapport with him, they will tell me, “you know, I hate having to write stuff into a planner just because the school gave me a planner; can’t I use an app on my phone?” We weigh the pros and cons of each system and the student tries out the app for a week, and then lets me know at the next session if it worked better for him than the planner book.  When I see a student has a backpack bulging with loose papers, I joke about it and then offer to help “toss and file.” Some are hesitant, but usually with a few more jokes, I can get them started, and we start piling, and filing, and tossing, with me explaining the how-to’s and the why’s of the process as we each score “free-throws” into the trash or recycling baskets.

What I try to be is what Langston describes as the “Charismatic Adult” in each of my student’s lives. Langston believes that “the charismatic adult does more for a child with a learning disability than just offer support, foster good self-esteem, and help discover the child’s strengths. The charismatic adult teaches that child the power of human relationships. That child realizes that to make it, he or she will have to continue to partner with other people.” Just as I partner with my student to help him toss and file, my student can learn to partner with others to tackle tasks and activities and to engage with others socially. This relates to our discussion of pro-activity because helping students recognize when they need help and how to accept that help means that I often serve as a “bridge” between a student and the source of help so that student gains confidence in the help offered and learns to trust that others will support him.

Sometimes, as a bridge, I connect students to each other for support. This past year, I worked with two students who are autistic. Both of these students, Matt and James, struggle socially, so the first action I took was to introduce them to each other because they both like video games. I scheduled their meeting times with me for the same period so that they would have time to talk with me, but also to have time to talk with each other. After each seemed more comfortable with informal conversation, I introduced them to a third student, Cameron. Cameron, a senior, had worked with me for a couple of years so he knew why Matt and James were meeting with me, and not only that, he also played video games. As it turned out, Cameron was also in two of James’ classes and they ended up working on group projects together. When James needed to get involved in a community service activity for graduation requirements, Cameron encouraged him to join the Interact Club, and he did! I loved coming in one Monday and hearing James tell me about how he, Cameron, and the other kids made care packages on that Saturday at one of the kids’ homes. I believe that all of this happened because Matt and James learned to value each other’s support and social acceptance as we worked together, and because for Cameron, I was an adult whom he knew he could count on so he visited my room often, and he was willing to support two of my students because he understood the need for support from his own experience.

Look around…someone in your midst, whether a colleague or a student, may feel inexperienced in some area, and as a result, may feel “dumb” — I encourage you to be that source of support, that “charismatic” person in someone’s life.

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GOOOOAAAALLLL!!!!

goal   In keeping with the sports world’s focus on the World Cup, this week’s post discusses “Goal-setting” and “Perseverance” – two more of Langston’s 6 Success Attributes. When my students look in the “mirror” of self-assessment, the natural next step is to set goals for moving forward. I shared this with a dozen 6th-graders taking my summer school “Study Skills” class. The first day, the kids completed an “Interest Survey” and answered the question “Why are you taking this class?” Kids are honest, and this bunch didn’t lie: “because my mom made me.” Okay, so do I tell them why they need the class? Nope, that’s not going to work. So I gave them a self-assessment sheet and they rated themselves on various academic strategies such as “I write my assignments on a calendar” or “I look up words I don’t know when I am reading.” After they finished their assessments, I wanted them to see their strengths, so I wrote on the board, “Academic Skills for Success.” I then asked them to put a “Star” by each item they had rated as “Almost Always.” I looked around the room to be sure that every student had at least one star, and then I said, “Okay, I’d like each of you to pick one of your starred items and write it on the board under ‘Academic Skills for Success.’” They eagerly raised their hands to volunteer, and after the first student wrote her skill on the board, I suggested, “If you do what’s already listed on the board, go ahead and put a check-mark by it before you write down your own starred item.” In this way, all twelve students recognized their own successful activities and those of their peers. The students were now ready to look at areas for improvement. The next day, I asked the students to review their assessments and choose one of the areas rated as “Almost Never” to focus on for the day’s activity. Using the acronym “SMART”, I explained that goals can help us improve if we make goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding personally, and timely. The kids shared their understanding of each of those words as each was presented, and I gave examples as needed. Then they wrote one Academic Smart Goal, and we put these goals on the board as our objectives for why we are in the class.

My Academic Success Program students are used to SMART goals, as we start the year in a similar way after they complete their self-assessments. I really like the 5-step process that Langston presents and plan to share it with my students. When they set that goal, we’ll note how they can also become educated on the best way to achieve the goal, then visualize taking the steps necessary to reach it, focusing on the path to getting what is desired), and then taking whatever physical steps are necessary to reach the goal. This process fits with the mini-goal setting we do each week, as well, when students look at upcoming assignments and tests. If, for example, the student has a unit test coming up in a week, we will look at the study guide and set goals for incremental preparation. I show the student how to determine what he feels most confident about and least confident about, and then how to break the guide down into manageable sections to work with over a period of days before the test, setting a goal date on his calendar for completing each section. My students by setting SMART Goals and incremental goals are able to as Langston points out, “distill small goals from a big goal and then educate, reinforce, focus, and act on each smaller goal that’s necessary to reach the big goal.”

Langston observes that “successful people with learning disabilities often possess the ability to learn from mistakes and pursue goals despite difficulties, as well as the flexibility to find alternate pathways to a goal or modify that goal as needed” and I capitalize on that when I meet with my students. When I meet with a student who has been knocked down so many times that he just wants to stay on the ground rather than try again, I can’t just say to him, “toughen up, cupcake” or “rub some dirt on it” – the kid is down. I need to get back to that first attribute of self-awareness. The student who is down is not self-aware of what he needs and what he can do; he is only aware that he has “messed up again.” One of the ways that I help these kids re-see themselves and revise their perceptions is by holding up the “mirror” again and showing them their strengths that we identified when we began meeting together. For example, in a school of gifted students, great significance is placed on grades. For many of my students at the end of each quarter, when grades come out, the need to look in the mirror proves essential to moving on into the next quarter.

I also created a “Strengths Evaluation” that I send to the teachers of each of my students at the end of the first semester. The form asks, for instance, the following:

Meaningfulness: Consider the following areas and check each area in which the above-named student exhibits strength:
Meaningfulness (emotions) Overview: Does the student find the learning interesting and/or meaningful? Does the student care about the content being learned? Does the student find the experience of learning valuable or worth the effort? Is the learning relevant?

  • Relates Content to Personal Interests/Experiences/Skill sets
  • Imaginative Thinking
  • Cares About the Content Being Learned
  • Other strength related to emotions

This is the type of strength that may not be evidenced by the letter grade on a grammar test or on a math quiz. When the first semester grades reflect deficiencies in achievement, I show the student the teachers’ evaluations of his strengths. When a student is aware that others see his strengths, he is reminded of them himself – then he is ready to persevere. At that point, we can discuss setbacks in terms of what can be learned from the experience. For example, when Brett, whom I mentioned in the first post in this series, came to me for help at the end of third quarter, he had many missing assignments in several classes. He could have given up. Instead, he knew from experience with me that when an assignment is missed, rather than reproving the student, I help the student trace back, through questioning, and determine what got in the way and then how to take steps to repair the damage. In Brett’s case, we saw a pattern of postponed assignments during the weeks he was involved in an extra-curricular activity. We could therefore identify the cause as a response to an external situation, rather than a response to an internal lack of knowledge or skills. At that point, Brett could put the problem in perspective and could work on setting goals and taking steps to complete assignments that would still be accepted and get on track with his current work, and persevere. And with that, Brett and those like him,

GOOOOAAAALLLL!!!!

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I can’t do it alone…Hold my hand, my hand, my hand…

Alt-rock group, The Fray, sing:

Hold my hand, I can hear ghosts calling
Help me stand, even if the sky is falling
And I want you to know, I can’t do it alone
Hold my hand, my hand, my hand

One of the concerns some teachers at my school shared when I first introduced my Executive Functioning Skills program was that I would “hold students’ hands” rather than hold them accountable for doing what “they should be doing.” This concern evidenced a lack of understanding that a student could have a learning issue or executive functioning issues and yet still be gifted intellectually. The teachers thought that an intellectually gifted student should be able to read like the other students in the class, take tests in the same amount of time as all other students in the class, remember and follow through on every assignment just as every other student, even if directions were only given orally during the last 10 minutes of class. Initially, I was surprised at some teachers’ lack of understanding about the nature and impact of learning issues; then I recalled my own credential coursework and how little time is given to the teaching of students with learning issues. I cannot fault those who don’t understand. I also learned quickly that I can’t hammer teachers with articles and resources to read so that they will understand. I must simply show my students how to demonstrate their competence, their intellectual strengths, so that their teachers see what they can do more than what they can’t/don’t do. Developing the attribute of Pro-activity in my students has been crucial to my program’s credibility, to showing teachers that some students are what we call “twice-gifted,” and of course, to moving the students themselves toward becoming independent learners, which is the goal of the program.

One of the primary ways I help students become pro-active learners is by requiring that they take notes in classes or find a way to get notes. Some of my students’ accommodation needs suggest that their teachers provide copies of class notes. Some teachers are more than willing to do this; others see this as an “extra” that they really do not have time to do. So, the answer is to show students that they should pro-actively take responsibility for any needs they have related to note-taking.  We brainstorm options together, which gives me the opportunity to explain why taking this pro-active approach shows the teacher that the student cares about learning the material. I may say to the student, “You know, if the teacher hands you copies of his lecture notes, that’s great for you but what impression might it give the teacher about your interest in the class?” The students, usually after some additional questions from me, realize that if they pro-actively seek out a peer with whom to compare notes, or even ask the teacher if they can “fill in gaps” in their notes by reviewing with the teacher, then they show the teacher that they aren’t looking for a “way out” of doing work, but as we understand it, they are looking for a “way into” the learning. Robert Langston shares in The Power of Dyslexic Thinking the story of how he couldn’t listen to lectures and take notes at the same time so in a class, he would watch and notice “whose pencil was flying across the paper the most” and then check to see if the person had neat handwriting, and if they did, he would “go up to them after class and say, ‘I have dyslexia. I was wondering, could I xerox your notes?’” and then he would pay them for the privilege” (Langston, 2014). What a fantastic pro-active solution!

I also help students determine when they need to meet with teachers; this is critical to my students’ success in the immediate and to their future interactions with teachers. When a student has struggled in school, sometimes the teacher is not seen as an ally, but as a “judge.” They may not even know how to approach a teacher for help. I have role-played conversations with my students, helping them see how a teacher might respond to various types of questions. If the very thought of talking face-to-face instills fear in the student, I will help him word an email requesting a meeting with the teacher. While we work on the email, I’m able to share with the student how his request will show the teacher that he recognizes his need for help (that self-awareness, discussed in last week’s post) and that he recognizes that his teacher can and wants to help him. Whether he truly believes that last point or not, it’s crucial to plant that seed of expectation in the student’s mind. After sending the email, I follow up with the student, asking how the meeting went, and asking the student to share with me one or two things he learned during the meeting. The follow-up is what will nurture the student’s belief that meeting with a teacher for help is beneficial and the confidence to pro-actively request help from teachers in the future.

Holding a student’s hand is not the same thing as teaching a student a strategy by modeling, helping the child apply the strategy, prompting the student as to when to use the strategy, and then gradually fading the cues as the student learns independently and pro-actively. And the latter is so satisfying to both the student and the teacher.

 

This post is Part 2 in a series begun last week, based on Robert Langston’s “6 Success Attributes” described in his book The Power of Dyslexia.  The first attribute, discussed in last week’s post, is “Self-Awareness.”

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“Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing”

One of the best hugs I received at this year’s high school graduation was from a student named Brett who literally exuded both pride and relief as we lined up for the ceremony; he’d made it! I’d worked with Brett when he was a sophomore, helping him develop independent learning strategies and executive functioning skills. I hadn’t seen him much since his sophomore year until the end of 3rd quarter, this year, his senior year, when he walked into my room and simply said, “I need help.” With those three words, Brett exhibited several characteristics that led to his successfully completing his senior year. According to Dr. Marshall Raskind, (2004), “there is a ‘spirit’ of optimism…based on knowing that, despite an early ‘poor prognosis’ or having to face great adversity, some individuals with LD ‘beat the odds’ and go on to lead productive, satisfying, and rewarding lives” because they have “certain factors like self-awareness, internal locus of control, proactivity, realistic goal setting, and strong support systems promote positive life outcomes” (King-Sears, Boudah, Goodwin, Raskind, & Swanson). Brett, self-aware, recognized he was in trouble, pro-actively determined on his own to seek help, knew where to find support in setting goals for repairing the academic damage done during that 3rd quarter, and took action steps with the first one being coming to my room that day.

Brett knew where to come for help because when we first worked together, two years prior, we had worked on several of the 6 Success Attributes listed in Robert Langston’s book The Power of Dyslexic Thinking. I didn’t realize that we were doing so, but I’m glad that I had made developing students’ self-awareness, pro-activity, perseverance, goal-setting, use of support systems and coping strategies part of my Academic Success Program. In fact, this knowledge of the 6 Attributes fits with the name of my program. When I first created the program and introduced it, I called it the Academic Support Program; after a few months and working with the kids, I realized that the name didn’t inspire. Some kids felt it meant they “needed special help” and checked out of the program, either physically or mentally. So I suggested to my administrator that we change the name to the Academic Success Program because the program’s purpose is to help students develop the executive functioning skills needed to “do school” successfully. We knew that the students were intellectually capable, but they needed to develop the strategies for success that other students seemed to inherently know or be able to do. The name stuck and for the past 10 years, without realizing it, my kids have been working on learning independence and developing attributes for success.

I will admit that imparting the value of the attributes to my students is more challenging than engaging my students in activities that develop the attributes. Perhaps this is because they are high school students who do not want to be talked “at” when they meet with me. If we get involved in doing something immediately, I can talk about the values, but an activity’s relevance to the student’s success often speaks louder than my words can. With that said, I plan to share in a series of posts how I approach sharing with my students and helping them develop these 6 Success Attributes, beginning this week with “Self-Awareness.” I’ll also mention now that I highly recommend reading The Power of Dyslexic Thinking – every teacher should dare to read this book — guaranteed paradigm shift!

Self-Awareness

Langston notes that “self-aware people with learning disabilities know the types of problems they have and how they impact their lives, as well as their strengths and talents. While they recognize their limitations, they’re not defined by them.” Sometimes when a student first starts meeting with me, he does see himself as “lazy,” or “unmotivated,” or “dumb” – a label, either directly or indirectly attached to the student, has become how he defines himself. I’ve seen those kids who sit across from me and expect me to point out their bad grades and say “this is why you need me.” I’ve had to deal with tense moments when the parent comes with the student and points out bad grades and says, “This is why you need her!” I find that often in order to help a student develop self-awareness and ‘redefine’ himself, I need to do all I can to “learn” that kid. I use questionnaires to guide conversations with the student. I like the suggestion from Ficksman and Adelizzi (2010) about using “questionnaires regarding likes and dislikes, executive functioning skills, writing samples, how well the game of school is played, and the like” (p.36). I also like questionnaires because they keep the conversation somewhat focused – I have ADHD, I am often meeting with a student who has ADHD, and I wish I could have recorded some of the meetings I’ve had when this is the case because our conversations do not follow any type of a linear path at all and I find it completely ironic that I am in this role of leading the way.

The learning issues that I typically see in my students are ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, central auditory processing disorder, Asperger’s, Autism, and related issues. When I have a sense of who the student is, how he feels about himself, his temperament, and what he understands about his own strengths and weaknesses, I can move forward in building on my own sense and helping my student develop a clear sense of his strengths. This may involve first demystifying his learning issue. For example, when I take out my picture of the brain and show a kid where his “pre-frontal lobe” is and then share that that part of the brain doesn’t mature until the early 20’s, I have his attention. I can then say something like, “You know what, Jon, your pre-frontal lobe works differently, and not only that, it’s still maturing. So you’re not “Irresponsible” when you forget about an assignment; your brain just didn’t file that input as expected. Let’s figure out a way to sort out your brain’s filing system.” When Jon realizes how his brain functions, and that he does not need to define himself as “ADHD” as if it’s a synonym for “irresponsible”, he begins to see what he CAN do because he emotionally is ready to do so.  Langston explains this in the chapter about Paul Orfalea when he reasons that when society says you should be able to do something and you can’t do it, “then in your mind—whether anybody’s saying it or not (and a lot of times they are)—you think you’re stupid. What we need to get out there is that dyslexia is about how the brain is ‘wired,’ not about being stupid” (Langston, 2014).

The kid, who believes the labels, can’t build on his strengths – too much emotional energy is being used up with the negative thoughts. When Jon says, “Oh, okay, I guess if I keep a planner, I can help myself remember,” he exhibits a positive self-awareness that then allows him to move forward so that he can later say, “I am really good at thinking up ideas for group projects” and offer that strength to others, letting someone else in the group keep track of monitoring progress on the project completion. I plan to emphasize some of the stories in our text with my students that relate to this self-awareness and building on strengths. I loved the comments from Paul Smith, who avoided his office because it was filled with paperwork that he couldn’t do and who noted, “I never did those kinds of things. And fortunately, being president, I really didn’t have to, and I think it made me a better president; ” Langston follows up Smith’s words with the insight that relates to this self-awareness I just discussed: “Paul knew what he wasn’t good at, so he focused on what he could do well” (Langston, 2014). This reminds me of a commercial that I find funny and yet true – the “Most Interesting Man in the World” philosophizes, “Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing.”

References

Ficksman, M., & Adelizzi, J. U. (2010). The clinical practice of educational therapy: A teaching model. New York: Routledge.

King-Sears, Margaret E. et al., “Timely and Compelling Research for the Field of Learning Disabilities: Implications for the Future,” Learning Disability Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2004), http://www.questia.com/read/1G1-121279906 .

Robert Langston (2012-04-26). The Power of Dyslexic Thinking AuthorHouse. Kindle Edition.

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