Updated: Nov 21, 2022
You’d be surprised how little training teachers receive in understanding dyslexia.
Many teachers know some of the challenges that come with the learning difference but few know of the extraordinary gifts that accompany these challenges.
In all my training as a teacher, I remember only one workshop dedicated to dyslexia, presented to a faculty lounge full of teachers four years into my teaching career.
Tim and I didn’t have kids 17 years ago when I attended that workshop. I was there to increase my understanding of my students, unaware then how important understanding dyslexia would become for our future family.
I remember little of the workshop, I don’t know if the speaker proposed a structured literacy approach or defended the use of assistive technology.
But I do remember one thing clearly: the presenter asked us to close our eyes (I’d ask you to do the same except that I need you to keep reading) and picture a tree. He respectfully gave us a minute.
Then he said, “Most of you would have imagined this:
But a handful of you would have pictured something a little more like this:
Photo by Juliette Leher
And I remember thinking: ‘Well that doesn’t seem like such a disadvantage.’
Fast forward seven years and I had a big-eyed preschooler forging his way through kindergarten. Judah loved being at school and was generally a genial, fun-loving, generous boy.
But school work didn’t seem to love Judah.
He was engaged in art lessons, but the names of the colors didn’t seem to stick. He was keen to take part in movement classes but the teacher in charge told me we should look into figuring out his ‘distractibility’.
“He can’t sit still.” she announced.
This bothered me, mostly because it simply wasn’t true: Judah could outsit and outlast anyone when listening to a book read aloud.
We were confused by the disconnect between the smart kid we knew and the lack of success on his report.
Other contradictions seemed rife as Judah started GRADE 1:
He couldn’t remember names; all the people he loved got used to being referred to as uncle whatshisname and aunty youknowwhomom. And yet, he became the family historian!
When we wondered when we last saw dear friends, Judah would fill us in on the place, the menu and what unclewhatshisname said about the best way to catch crabs!
Learning to read with our patient Gogo, (my husband’s mom that homeschooled with me in the early years) was a battle; sight words just wouldn’t stay in his mind. But then, in casual conversation over a cup of rooibos tea and a cookie he would use words like ‘melancholy’ in the right context.
What’s a parent to do with such contradictions?
In GRADE THREE, after the heartbreaking loss of our Gogo and with her, the idyllic picture of homeschool, we tried conventional school.
The first term we dedicated ourselves to getting to the right place at the right time with the right book in the backpack. Judah had a little book called ‘I can be organised’ with lists he could tick off. I was so determined to get him in line!
One evening, as we checked our list: grey shorts, school shoes, white shirt, tie… where was the tie? I launched into the old speech about how I hope he didn’t lose that tie again…
He interrupted me. “Mom, is the purpose of the uniform to pretend that all children are the same?”
I was stopped in my tracks yet again by a child who made mistakes with the little things while so busy contemplating the big ones.
Something I have since come to understand to be usual fare for people with dyslexia.
I wish I could say I always cheered for this big thinking in my boy. But in those early days, I would have settled for him passing spelling and timetable tests.
There was always that nagging private question in a mom and dad’s head: Is something ‘wrong’ with him?
(But oh, let someone else just imply the same and the mommy lion in me roars).
We returned to homeschooling in the years to come. One of several reasons for the decision was to meet Judah’s needs. Not that I was confident I could give education that worked- I simply knew school wasn’t working.
I had an angel in Kristel, our learning therapist who doubled as Judah’s biggest fan. (I wish each one of you and your son or daughter a Kristel of your own).
But even as Kristel and I responded to individual challenges: motor planning or clarity of speech, we still had no big picture of the challenges or opportunities that faced Judah.
We had no label, and to be honest if you would have offered me a label I would have actively resisted one.
Who wants a label if it represents disability?
Everything changed one afternoon on a run.
Drs Eide did something that changed my parenting and I’m hoping, could do the same for you: They talked of dyslexia as an advantage rather than a disability.
They described the dyslexic brain’s incredible strengths and explained that the weaknesses that people with dyslexia struggle with, are ‘trade-offs’ to enable such gifts.
I stopped, right there on Whitestone Way unable to keep running for the tears blurring my vision. I could see those strengths in some raw undeveloped way in my son!
In the weeks that followed, I launched into a full scale mom-research of the Dyslexic Advantage and devoured the information and inspiring stories the organisation tells.
It was as if the sun had come up for me as a parent (and as a teacher) of this boy.
This was true partly because of the fantastic practical advice in the book; but mostly because of the simple shift in focus to celebration of strength and the wise idea that knowing one's strengths can help you navigate your weaknesses.
We started talking about dyslexia at home differently - not as a prognosis for academic failure, nor as a disability to learn to live with. Our whole family, TeamLeher, is better off because of the strengths Judah brings to it. He is a resource, displaying qualities the rest of us simply don’t have.
Suddenly a label wasn’t just reluctantly allowed, it was celebrated.
In time we would have Judah formally assessed and see our understanding confirmed in the report showing his significant challenges right next to his impressive gifts. But such an assessment is a whole other blog!
Then I discovered this incredible TED talk and consequently the amazing work of Dean Bragonier, our guest on the Wonderfully Wired Podcast this month.
Dean is the founder, and calls himself the EXECUTIVE DYSLEXIC, at NoticeAbility.org and his TED talk sealed the deal:
Judah, as Dean would tell you, was ‘Dyslexic before it was cool’.
In my conversation with Dean we talk about why he himself doesn’t mind the label and about the army of dyslexic ambassadors, confident in their gifts, that he is raising.
You can find it where you listen to the Wonderfully Wired podcasts or catch that episode here.
Later, when we read that detailed psychological assessment of Judah, I wondered again how tough it must be for a preteen when things that are so easy to others seemed impossible to him. Despite the gifts being clear on the report, Judah, at eleven still defined himself by his challenges.
I set out again to point out the incredible strengths in him and how he was just so good at.. and so natural a… “Oh mum,” he interrupted me. “I wish the world would see me the way you see me.”
I grabbed that boy with the unruly curls by both shoulders and looked him straight in the eye and said “I would settle for you seeing yourself the way I see you. The world can catch up”
Elle interviews Fernette Eide Next month: Sign up for the newsletter here to get a reminder straight in your inbox!