I barely earned C’s in high school. I hated reading. I was terrible at math. My parents told me, like so many parents tell their kids, I just wasn’t trying hard enough.
My sister, on the other hand, put little effort into school. Her teachers put up with her disrespectful antics because she was easily earning straight A’s. Sometimes I felt her sole purpose in life was to make her insecure brother feel even more like a failure.
One day when my favorite aunt, a school psychologist, came to visit, we got on the topic of my poor reading comprehension when she said, “Have you ever tried reading to yourself out loud?” I hadn’t. Yet, that simple change in study habits turned out to have a profound impact on my grades, and desire to learn. By the next school year, I made it on the dean’s list. I also graduated one semester early from high school.
Unfortunately, the United States has stuck with an old, factory model of learning while the results of our education plummet when compared to other developed nations. Columns and rows of desks, filled with students roughly the same age, learning the same things, sit in front of a teacher who demands evidence of learning in exactly the same way, from every person in her class.
Dr. Seuss, in Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, referred to such a model as Flobbertown:
It’s miserable in Flobbertown, they dress in just one style.
They sing one song, they never dance, they march in single file.
Their lunches have no taste at all, their dogs are scared to bark.
Humans have a lot in common, but the way we perceive and process information is very different. Our perception, in fact, is multifaceted with strong biological, neurological, psychological, and sociological influences. Even coming from the same families, as in the case of my sister and me, has little to do with how we interact with the world around us, and thus, how and what we learn. While I had to find the right learning style that worked for me, some people are mentally, or physically incapable of learning through traditional methods.
I met my future spouse at a professional group and was instantly attracted to his gregarious personality. He was articulate, cleverly funny, and commanded a room with a charismatic presence. We became quick friends who shared similar interests in both the social and physical sciences. Soon we began sharing various research papers through email, followed by lengthy lunches where we discussed them. Our relationship was built on equal parts intellectualism and irreverent humor.
Sitting on a train to New York, about a year into our relationship, I asked him how his learning disability manifested itself. He sheepishly picked up a book and began reading aloud. He stumbled over words, mispronounced others, and mangled parts of a sentence until it was virtually unrecognizable. This confident, articulate man sounded, well, illiterate. He never learned to read phonetically, something they stopped teaching during his years of school, and his brain was not able to process all of the symbols into words without a significant amount of effort.
Raised in a poor immigrant family, he attended low performing schools geared toward pushing kids through the system rather than teaching them. Though he found out he had a learning disability early, there were not sufficient programs to address it. A junior high teacher, who pulled him out of his chair and forced him to read his text book in front of the class, told him he was too stupid to read, and that’s why he couldn’t do it.
Making matters worse, he was forced to drop out of high school and take care of his siblings when his parents moved away to go find work. Fortunately, he was self-aware enough to know that if he were ever going to get out of poverty, it would be through education. He was determined to make that happen.
Struggling to fit in at school is difficult enough for a kid who looks and acts like everyone else. But when she struggles to meet assignment deadlines, can’t perform well on tests, or can’t make traditional “Flobbertown” education work, it can be alienating. A child questions his self-worth. He feels stupid, though that is often the furthest thing from the truth.
Most schools can test children for learning disabilities. Most public schools are equipped, and obligated, to work with children and their parents, and provide special education classes, as well as tools, such as audio text books. Learning as much as we can about our kids, as parents, puts us in a much better position to mitigate life-long struggles, and help them achieve their educational goals and dreams. When they have the tools they need, they often excel at a rapid pace.
My spouse is currently completing the last two classes of his undergraduate degree in sociology, while working as a para educator for the visually impaired at our local school district. He is fluent in American Sign Language, speaks English, and Spanish, and is learning braille. In January, he starts his master’s program in special education, where he will also be earning his California teaching credential.
His ability to read has vastly improved, though he still needs help putting his thoughts coherently on a page. He is able to do so by dictating them to a computer program or a person. And while reading can sometimes be a challenge, once he’s learned something he can recall it in vivid detail with lightning speed. His personal struggles have also made him a compassionate educator for those with special education needs.
The most important thing we can do with our kids, whether it has to do with their education or not, is stay engaged. The more we listen and observe, the better we can understand them and decipher their needs.
Photo: Getty Images