Irlen Syndrome?: The Politics of Helping a Special Needs Student

I was a guest teacher in a special needs resource room recently. One of the students was a sweet boy who came in and sat with me as we tried to transfer the information that there on his paperwork (there were four dots on the page) into the numeral four – “4” – underneath the picture. He worked hard and failed to finish the sheet after twenty minutes, and I had to help him a great deal. He went to the next class with three out of six problems incomplete.

I told my personal trainer about this the next day – my trainer’s name is Dave.

Dave said that as a elementary school student, he was pulled out of class daily for resource lessons around reading. He had had similar difficulties to this student and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia and scotopic sensitivity syndrome, also known as Irlen syndrome. The writing or print on the page would move or not show up. Special glasses and filters helped him immensely.

“Wow! The other teacher I was co-teaching with yesterday said that they’ve been doing the same worksheets with this student for a year and half! What if it’s visual processing and not an intellectual disability?”

I emailed the classroom teacher and heard back that the testing was too expensive, not covered by the district and that the student was financially not well-off and that, furthermore, the parents were school-averse. The teacher was so grateful I had written and wanted to know if there was more information available, and I passed on the website about the syndrome.

The website, it turns out, had filters that could be used for all students who needed them that would only cost 20 dollars.

“Why not just buy these and use them and see if they help without getting a diagnosis? I don’t know if he had it, it was just a thought and maybe it will help others in the future,” I wrote.

The next day, I actually met an adult resource teacher with Irlen Syndrome who had done just that, had bought the filters, but he said that he had had to do it secretly lest the district politics got involved. Politics. And kids at the intersection. Underpaid teachers buying resources out of their own pockets to help students that the district couldn’t test because the process is privatized in the US.

I hope they don’t give up trying.

Dave said, “They just haven’t figured out how the kid learns, yet.”

Teaching Race? Consider the Poetry of John Beecher

Fire by Night

When the burnt black bodies of the homeless  

Were found in the embers of the Negro church  

Into which they had crept to sleep on the floor  

The wails of the people traveled down the cold wind  

And reached the ears of the rich on the mountain  

Like the distant whistle of a fast train coming

-John Beecher

This is one of my favorite poems, and I first read it a little more than a year ago now at a poetry conference on Vashon Island in Washington State. There is a lot that my literary training taught me that I could bring to bear on this short poem, but what humanity taught me is even more important – and that is what we should remember as teachers of protest poetry / poetry of lament.

Like all powerful literature, the brilliance of this poem lies in its universality and yet also its particularity.

All people, if burned up, become black. Not only Black people. The skin burns.

Therefore, the bodies in this poem are universally recognizable as humans – not “just” black people, – though “just” is what the audience of this poem may have otherwise regarded them. This poem forces us to come to grips with the fact that our society has framed Black bodies as stronger and indifferent to harm. Indeed, it tells us, Black people also burn.

The White readers of the 20th century might have been more inclined to regard such a fire with distance and without empathy. But the burned black bodies seem to have more humanity through the commonality of the fate of any body, which turns black when it has burned.

These humans have suffered and died in a church, homeless and sleeping on the floor. Rich White people listen to their cries isolated in their secluded neighborhoods on the hill.

Are they indifferent? We must also point out to students that John Beecher was a White man.

The poem’s ability to humanize Black bodies through a dehumanizing fire sets the tone for the other powerful movements in this brief poem.

The church is meant to be a refuge, a place for the downtrodden. And wealthy Christians are supposed to give alms to the poor and to show mercy. This poem indicts them for their indifference to the sufferings of their black fellow Christians and to the downtrodden more generally. How can we tell they are indifferent? Because they have separated themselves from the poverty and live on the hill.

Is this where we start to talk about the indifference that is learned via the racial caste system in the United States alluded to by the fact that the Black mourners and their White hearers live in different neighborhoods?

While this is one of the unspoken thrusts of the poem, turning this reading into a lecture on community development would come across as inauthentic in the classroom without having already raised students’ awareness in preparation for the poem. While we may be passionate about these topics, our classroom is not the site of a political rally. It is a site of critical thinking and care and perspective taking.

The wails of the mourners – presumably African Americans – as they discover the bodies, reach the ear of the rich – undoubtedly White – people who live on the mountain.

The moral of the story: vengeance is coming. But it will come from the Lord. How to teach this in a public school? I would talk about universal sense of justice. Justice seems distant – the whistle is distant. And yet the train is fast.

How do we teach such nuances to children?

What if the children are rich? Do we teach them guilt?

What if they are disadvantaged students of color? Do we teach them learned helplessness, self-pity, or anger?

What if they are White disadvantaged students? Do we teach them resentment that their plights are not highlighted in the poem?

This is where the ability to read the room is of the utmost importance. But this ability must be paired with the teacher’s own sense of justice and right and wrong and their careful planning of the objective of the lesson, lest the teacher project their insecurities on the students when the lesson becomes uncomfortable. And it will become uncomfortable – as it should. In the United States, we are very self-conscious about discussions of race and kids pick up on this. But it is something that we do need to talk about.

I will continue to write about how we can coach students into a humane perspective towards themselves and others, paired with a sense of duty to right wrongs. This duty to act justly and reflect on one’s complicity must be imparted without being overly prescriptive in how students might work towards justice in their own spheres of influence.

And it must be age-appropriate.

Stubborn Learners or Tomorrow’s Leaders?

How many times have we seen students with their heads on the desk and their phones in their laps, pretending to be sleeping? Well, I couldn’t have done that when I was a child! But that’s only because we didn’t have phones to put in our laps at that time.

I did, however, have a book.

“Why aren’t you listening, Erin?” asked Mrs. Sagehorn, my Spanish teacher, in 2000.

“Why aren’t you teaching?” I quipped, and went back to reading my book, Dennett’s Consciousness Explained; but this time with a detention on my desk.

The arrogance.

Let alone the precociousness of studying epistemology as a freshman in high school.

“But at least it was a book and not a phone!” we might be tempted to say. And perhaps this is the case – but who’s to say what kids are looking at on their phones anyway? Maybe they’re reading after all…

But, and this might surprise you, maybe I was already aware that the way she was teaching Spanish wasn’t the way that I was meant to learn it. It certainly wasn’t how I was called to teach it in the future.

James Hillman describes students and their future successful selves as acorns that have matured into oak trees and says that you cannot make the acorn become anything but the oak that it was meant to become. Furthermore,

As the acorn brings gifts, it sets limits, and only if the school allows intuition into the tuitional methods of the teacher can a bridge be thrown across, allowing the gift to emerge from the limits.”

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, 102.

The root of this idea with the acorn actually goes back to Aristotle with his conception of entelechy – which states that the soul of every plant and animal has a preordained direction and function and that it cannot not develop the way it is meant to develop. We can only shape it or hamper its flourishing.

And he actually used the example of the acorn growing into the oak tree specifically – Hillman is just popularizing it.

But he is popularizing it well. Furthermore, the notion of intuition versus tuition is useful and creative. Tuition doesn’t just mean the price of school. It actually means instruction itself. And it comes from Old Middle English meaning to watch or to guard, which is what we do with children in school – regardless if they learn or not. Hopefully they learn!

Hopefully the teachers can teach!

School becomes demoralizing when it undermines the intuition of teachers and students. In our high-stakes testing environments this is happening already with teachers not always being able to teach from the place of their wisdom or deep knowing that called them to be teachers in the first place. The teacher retention rate in the United States is even lower than the teachers’ salaries.

Students, on their end, are being taught material that is not relevant or are being taught relevant material in ways that are not suited for the futures that they are supposedly being prepared for.

Teacher education programs are generally taught by professors as opposed to successful classroom practitioners of the subjects that they teach teachers to teach. Meaning that the methods and learning modalities are either outdated or super-modern and new but somehow still inauthentic because they have not been applied by true expert practitioners.

We need to close the gap between heart and mind that our testing culture drives and promotes. My intention is not to bash teachers, or teacher education, but it is rather to point out a problem in hopes that it might be remedied. My business approaches this gap systemically and interpersonally as the case demands, but the rise in socio-emotional education is necessary, and not just a touchy-feely trend. Not everyone is meant for school, – and this is not a backhanded racial comment at all – but since it’s mandatory, it needs to meet kids where they are – and kids can be coached to survive if not thrive.

Equity Training: “It was like being told I was naked and not being offered clothes.”

Part 1: The Problem

The hardest thing I am finding is the pain of being misunderstood when people have not studied race and gender as much as advocates have. I remember when people would say something I did or said was racist or heterosexist and I positively knew that it wasn’t my intention and I would be devastated, angry and furious all at once and one shut down.

And then when people said I was privileged it felt like nothing I had accomplished was real and that my life had no meaning.

It was like being told I was naked and not being offered clothes.

Well, for me, antiracism is the clothing of integrity for our time – but it has taken me twelve years to get there and I still sometimes hide away in my burrow of comfort on the hill overlooking the Sound. 

W.E.B. du Bois wrote in 1903 that as a Black man he felt like people were always looking at him like he was a problem. How does it feel to be looked at as though one were a problem? Now White people are beginning to be looked at like we are the problem. And we don’t like it.

The real problem however, is the system. What is to be done?

Part 2: The Beginning of a Solution: Curiosity, or an Inquiry Stance

The real challenge in a diverse, multiethnic organization striving for authentic relationship is to create a shared pool of meaning between people who unjustly benefit from and/or are underserved by the false hierarchies of wealth and race and class in the United States.

That’s why I like to tell people to consider not only the content of their interactions in diverse organizations, but also the means of communication. Zaretta Hammond writes in her landmark book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2015) about the neuroscience of information processing, noting that the communication patterns and learning modalities in culturally or linguistically diverse populations are more communal. Having read more recent anti-racist publications, I have a feeling that even Hammond’s framework could be criticized even though she is a distinguished educator of color – and I don’t believe that this is fair. To continue with Hammond’s argument: While all humans – according to cognitive scientists – go through the three stages of input, elaboration and application, we must add a cultural connection that allows for oral processing and authentic relationships where people feel like they can be fully known and not have to submit to the white-normative frames of dominant American culture.

We should not be uncomfortable without an end in sight: the thriving of a multicultural and authentically multi-ethnic organization, where everyone can succeed.

When people have trainings where they learn on an intellectual level the dynamics of what is going on in their schools, families, places of worship, it is often not enough. We need – as Brené Brown writes in her stellar book Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead – the integration of thought, feeling/emotion, and action. And feeling our way through those conversations in a way that gets to the heart while not creating a fight or flight response is possible when we take what Brown calls curiosity – and Hammond calls an inquiry stance – into our places of struggle. Curiosity paired with faith that we won’t always feel as bad as we do in the beginning.

The hardest thing I am finding as a trainer is the pain of being misunderstood. I want to tell people that I remember when people would say something I did or said was racist or heterosexist and I positively knew that it wasn’t my intention and I would be devastated, angry and furious all at once and one shut down.

But I stayed curious, even the smallest part of us being curious is the path through to steady ground. The thriving of our society demands curiosity right now. I’m curious: are you?

Mentorship of Non-Traditional Students

When working recently with an older college student, I was surprised at the negative messages they received from people in authority positions at their college campus. The student was almost thirty, and was being dissuaded from taking a course as anything but an auditor and was told to consider a different career path from her teacher.
When the student told me this, I said: this could go two ways; either I will LOVE your teacher for empowering you with needed information or I will be VERY disappointed with her for disempowering you and placing limitations on you as a person of color and non-traditional student. Do you feel empowered by this information or do you feel she is trying to limit you or is putting you in a box?
The student shared that they felt empowered with that information and that they felt that it was accurate. But I thought to myself, can we ever be sure?
When students are discouraged from continuing their education or are told to audit when really their time is valuable and they really cannot afford to audit, I show them job postings, drawing their attention to how requirements usually are based on education and different jobs would be closed to them in the future if they do not continue. We are mistaken if we as privileged people do not think that our education has helped us and when we bemoan our degree(s) in the humanities. We can apply to so many more jobs because of our undergraduate or graduate work, regardless of whether it actually applies to what we are doing.

First Impressions of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” by Zaretta Hammond

I am really grateful to have discovered this book several years ago, but I must confess that I did not read it until this weekend, and I am only half way done. I started reading it because a conservative relative of mine was going to be studying it and I thought – why not read it from their perspective and see how I can soften the blow. The thing is, this book has a reputation for being one that progressive educators read. And I wanted my relative to read it and to apply it in a way that would be authentic for them.

Well I read it and what is coming to mind is, first, the question:

“Why didn’t I read this before teaching? This would have been so helpful!”

And also:

“I have a completely different way to understand the concept of learned helplessness and also student complacency in the face of skilled instruction delivered without rapport – namely that there can be no skilled instruction without rapport.”

This book brings home to me what should have been obvious but wasn’t until now: that to teach students without being their advocate is to harm them.

This seems to be the message of the book and also that of culturally responsive educators.

My question, however, is if the message of this book still applies even if we don’t believe in identity politics or ethnic studies or the lived experience movement as educators. I personally am sympathetic to these movements, and yet I have to ask whether someone who does want to be colorblind out of a sense that that is what justice looks like can apply this book and serve their students well. And I think that they can if they prioritize relationships and seeing the students as individuals in spite of the identity politics that would rob them of their individuality in the eyes of their more progressive teachers.

What I think that a politically conservative, or otherwise colorblindness-affirming person, can gain out of this book on teaching diverse students is this: you don’t just need rapport with the students but also with their parents in cases where a student is struggling, and you get there a lot faster if you acknowledge that there is such a thing a privilege, even if you disagree with what should be done about it. And you will gain more trust by realizing that parents often have a reason to be mistrustful of educational systems and institutions that have historically failed their communities and failed to engage their students.

The other thing that I got from this is that we must see students and their communities as resilient and not frame them as victims when we are teaching them.

We must harness student intrinsic motivation, and if we are teaching students who are different than us – I am writing this as a white woman – the first step is to realize that not everyone responds to the same things in the same way that we do, and that we can take an inquiry stance in investigating our work with our students. This wisdom is directly from the book – as I understand it at any rate.

Restorative Circles: a Safe Space for LGBTQ+?

I was a Gay Straight Alliance adviser as a high school teacher for several years. As adults we may not be homophobic and therefore may not be able to understand how some people are – it has been inconceivable to me hearing over the years the things people go through and even if a restorative circle is called a safe space, if there is a homophobic person in it then we have extended an invitation to vulnerability at an at risk situation that is actually highly volatile and the potential for trauma is that much higher. A lot of LGBT kids also don’t feel like they can report bullying because they don’t feel safe coming out to their teachers and therefore the teachers can’t tell how destructive and disruptive even small comments are to the child and adult who is being harassed or witnessing the harassment. As adults, regardless of what our own stance may be regarding LGBTQ+ rights, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of all students under our care – and therefore, safe space stickers and training on LGBTQ+ child development are imperative for adults on campus to ensure that we are not outing students or assuming identities in restorative circles.

Contrary to popular belief, people should not feel like they have to be their full selves in a restorative circle and to put that burden of being open about one’s gender or sexuality in a circle on students is abusive and puts their well being in jeopardy.

New Age Teaching or Mere Realism? Merging Growth Mindset with Mechanical Models of Learning

For a while I was into a New Age worldview where things happened spontaneously and one could realize or actualize their goals by merely manifesting them. How do I want to grow my business? Think big and it will happen! How can I earn more money? Don’t earn it, will that money into existence! You’ll be rich!

I’m not disillusioned from this New Age mindset… – okay…, well I am.

But I also don’t find it convincing when applied to pedagogy in the form of the concept of “grit” or “mindset.” And man, do I wish that I had walked into my first year teaching in a culturally and linguistically diverse school district having read Zaretta Hammond’s landmark book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.

As a teacher beginning in a linguistically and culturally diverse district, I actually thought that it would be racist and condescending to teach lessons that weren’t built around the concept of grit or mindset, and I thought that I could will independent learning into my students.

Really, I was amiss when I failed to train my students to become independent learners and I failed to realize that our educational systems in this country had trained my students to be dependent learners.

Hammond teaches that dependent learners get that way when their teachers underestimate what students growing up in adversity are actually capable of intellectually, and that therefore we do not give challenging or interesting work to them until they have the nuts and bolts mastered. How can students grow in this artificial and rote learning context? How can we expect them to be motivated or to enjoy school?

I knew that rote learning helped no one going in, and I didn’t want to stereotype students, and so I didn’t teach the nuts and bolts and magnified growth mindset.

Little did I realize that grit and growth mindset and stimulating material are nothing without relationships and trust that enable you to offer feedback to the students across racial and cultural and socioeconomic divides on those sensitive “nuts and bolts” details that can cause so much shame. To the advocates of grit and growth mindset “nuts and bolts” seem like building blocks of learning that are obsolete – we need students to be inspired by growth mindset and to possess grit. Really, you can’t get into the nitty gritty without trust and rapport paired with authentic and culturally relevant instruction – without all three you have nothing.

Buy Hammond’s book.

If you are reading Hammond’s book and are wary of social justice education, keep teaching and learning from that book if you really want to help your students. Relationships are the key connector between engaging dependent learners who are dependent through no fault of their own and maturing them into self-actualizing independent learners who can harness growth-mindset and grit.

The “Difficult” Student: Unconditional Positive Regard

When a student is causing trouble it is very important to focus on the good that they do and to keep a log of it and to actively praise them if you are holding them accountable and the situation has gotten so bad that you must record the bad (i.e. if they are routinely posing a threat to self and/or others). This builds rapport with parents based on genuine shared admiration and respect for the child as a human being and also gives space for the child to improve rather than to only get worse.

Psychologists talk about “unconditional positive regard.”

The idea of unconditional positive regard is what people sometimes refer to as hating the sin and not the sinner. It has to do with remembering the fullness of the humanity of every person. We can protect ourselves and our other students by documenting altercations and establishing a history – but imagine if people saw this as a means to helping the child rather than just building a history to remove them from the classroom.
I specialize in rehabilitating kids who are causing trouble and unconditional positive regard is important. Kids are like sunflowers and they turn toward the sun of approval. If we are watering their bad habits and negative sides then they will forget the intrinsic goodness that keeps kids joyful. They will lose hope. Their behavior will most likely become worse.

I have known adults who have been so difficult as children but who now are the most amazing, loving and gentle and nurturing people, all because the adults in their lives worked together and didn’t give up on them.

Restorative Justice: Pain is Our Teacher

Our pain teaches us. In the case of mental or physical illness, once a person is stabilized with medication and a therapeutic relationship, a patient can learn to rearrange their mental furniture in a way that greatly alleviates their suffering and their relationship to their suffering. If we are not allowed to feel our pain, even a fraction of it, we cannot work toward wholeness and learn about ourselves.

Our society is so pain-averse.

Restorative justice, in my opinion, is an opening to sharing our pain and the burden of co-existence in the midst of a public school educational system that in many ways contributes to mental health conditions through its arbitrariness and its inability to consistently meet the needs of the whole child, the whole teacher, and the whole administrator. I think that restorative justice is the way to grow compassion in public schools, and my hope is that it would make its way to academia and the professional world as well as our justice system.