Jennifer Widemire Smith
The Assignment Is Simple. The task...
Updated: Mar 16, 2018
What is it like to be dyslexic in a typical elementary school? What is it like to have a teacher who doesn’t understand what’s happening inside a dyslexic's mind? A teacher who’s not trained. Who thinks dyslexia is just about reversals or is a problem for special ed to solve? A teacher who doesn't have hours and hours and hours of classroom time learning only about dyslexia. << Because it is that big a deal and takes that much time to learn.
The hardest part of being dyslexic comes out when a teacher asks a child to write a story. The assignment is simple. The task, for a dyslexic, is Mount Everest.
Here’s what it's like inside the mind of a typical seven or eight year old dyslexic with a typical everyday american teacher:
“Class today we are going to work on our creative writing skills. I want you to write a short story about a dog and cat. Now the dog and cat they can be anything you want them to be. Your story should be at least five sentences long and don’t forget the proper punctuations we learned last quarter. You have 30 minutes to complete this assignment. You may begin now.”
Hmm. A dog and cat. James thinks to himself. He pictures his dog Charlie. He’s a big dog almost as big as James. With black and brown and white hair. And a cat. What should the cat look like? Hmm. Maybe a yellow cat. He likes yellow. Yep yellow works. Now, what should they do together? Maybe they live in an old abandon house because they don’t have humans to take care of them. Yes that works. And they don’t have any names either because they don't have owners to name them. They find food in trash bins. Because Charlie loves to get in the trash all the time at home.
So the big brown black and white dog helps the little yellow cat get food. They’re friends. And they live in the big empty house. Then a wolf shows up and says, “Give me all your food!” And the dog and cat say, “No! You’re a bully and we won’t do what you say!”
Then the cat and dog set traps for the wolf to keep him from getting all the food. The wolf runs away and the dog and cat eat their food and sleep in their house.
James grins to himself. He likes his story and it's way more than five sentences. Now he just needs to write it. The dog and cat are friends. How do I write the?
The, the, the, th, th, da, d, d!
He draws a stick on his paper. Which way does the d go? Left or right? Which way is left and right? He looks at his hands. He can’t remember.
The letters are all on the wall. I need to sing that song. The alphabet song.
A, b, c, d... d!
It goes on that side. Ok got it. He Looks at his paper. Which way again? Looks back at the wall and back to his paper and moves the pencil to make the circle like shape that’s not really a circle at all. He checks the wall again then checks his paper. They look sort of similar. His d is a little wobbly but it’s the right direction. Maybe his teacher will write a smiley face with her red pen because he got it right this time.
What word am I trying to make? Oh right “The dog and cat are friends.” What makes the u sound? Or is it e sound? He can’t remember.
The, the, the, the....he repeats inside his mind. Inside his mind the vowels merge and morph. There’s so many different sounds they can make. And sometimes they sound just alike! He guesses and writes a.
The dog and cat. Dog. Dog. D. D. D... wait.
I forgot something. Something important. Something. Something. He taps his pencil on his paper. What has he forgotten? Something about what you do at the first part of a sentence. His head is starting to feel funny. It feels like someone is squeezing and making his eyes hurt. He closes them and rubs his eyes. Why is this so hard?
He can’t remember so he keeps going with his story.
The dog and cat... Dog, dog, dog, d, d, d, d.
He takes a deep breath. Looks at the wall.
A, b, c, d e, f, g... wait I said it, go back. A, b, c, d... d!!!
Wait a minute that’s the one I just did. Why did it sound differently in my head from the? Dog and the don’t have the same letters! Is dog wrong or the wrong?
He swallows hard. His body flushes with adrenaline. He starts to fidget. He's breathing really fast. He looks around. Almost everyone at his table is done already. He doesn’t even have a first sentence.
He whispers to his friend, “Psst, Diego, how do you spell the?”
“Yes Mrs B?”
“Go clip down on the behavior chart.”
“For talking when you’re suppose to be working.”
Tears spring to Jame’s eyes. Which makes him angry.
“I was only asking how to spell the, Mrs B.”
“You should know how to spell the by now. You learned it in kindergarten.”
Someone in the class laughs. James walks over to the chart and clips his name down. His dad will not be happy when he gets home. He wishes his mom were here. She would have helped him spell the.
He walks back to his desk and wipes at his face. Tears keep coming and his friends are staring at him.
He decides to leave it the way he has it and keeps trying. He’s running out of time.
Dog, dog, dog, d, d, d!
A, b, c, d...
D-og, og, o, o!
Dog, dog, dog, og, og, ogk, ock, k!
A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, I, j, k...
“da dok” wait there’s a rule. C comes before k.
A, b, c...
He erases the k and writes,
“Time’s up class. Please turn in your work.”
James looks at his paper. He looks over at his friend's paper. His stomach hurts now too. He really just wants to go home. He looks at the clock it's only nine in the morning. He still has six more hours of school.
“James you didn’t do the assignment. What were you doing with all that time I gave you? Day dreaming again? Next time you need to try harder!”
“Yes Mrs B. I’m sorry.” He tries to hold back the tears. “I’ll try harder next time.”
I want my mommy. “Mrs B my tummy hurts. Can you call my mom please?”
“James. I’m really tired of hearing you complain about your tummy. You do it every day.”
“But it really does hurt. Everyday it hurts. And so do my eyes. And my head. They really do hurt." Why won’t you listen to me?
The teacher rolls her eyes. She’s heard it a 100 times a day.
“Please go take your seat and take out your book. It’s time for reading.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Is what he says. It’s what’s he’s trained to say back.
But his heart whispers, Why don’t you care?
This happens, everyday, in every school across America. Our teachers are not trained. They don't know what they're seeing when they look at a dyslexic who's struggling. They make judgements without knowledge. James had a beautiful story to tell. A brilliant story with a plot line, protangists, antagonist, conflict and resolution. The perfect recipe to a great story and it came naturally to him. He was excited to tell his story. Eager to please his teacher. All his teacher had to do, to make this child go from the worst grade to the highest grade in the class, was to do the following: Give him a computer to write with instead of a pencil. Give an iPad or iPhone with a speech to text app that allowed him to speak his story and print. Or sit and allow him to give the story orally.
The assignment was to come up with a creative story. He did that. He just wasn't given the correct tools to allow his brain, that struggles with communicating through written words, to come out. This is not the teacher's fault. She wasn't given the tools during her education either. Teachers and Dyslexics have something amazing in common. They have a limitless ability to change the world with the right education and the right tools. The mainstream system of education failed to teach the teacher who then failed her student. Failed to teach this brilliant mind and that brilliant mind learned the fear of failure instead. That brilliant mind was made to feel stupid. Was laughed at. Was unsupported. Uneducated. Unrecognzed. And bullied by a teacher who did not understand the harm she was doing because she's not educated.
Teachers, you are responsible to educate yourselves. You know dyslexia exists. You know it's in your classroom. The almighty and all-powerful god's of the federal and state education systems will not train you. If you sit around and wait for Washington DC to get their act together, to send you to some seminar, and to change their ways for you. Get cozy on that couch. It will be another 100 years before that happens.
Train yourself! Educate yourself! Learn! Become a dyslexia warrior. You are the difference makers. You are the front line. You are parent's and dyslexic's only hope of ever changing a system that is fundamentally flawed! Your classroom is the battleground. Will you be a teacher who fights for those brilliant minds to conquer their limitations by empowering their strengths? Or will you sit around and wait on Washington and the State Education System to tell you what to do?
Be a difference maker! Visit The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity for Educators.
Or watch The Creative Brilliance of Dyslexia by Kate Griggs to get started: