Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 02 2013

Thoughts from suburbia

I just watched a short HBO documentary called, “I Can’t Do This but I Can Do That,” which is about 8 different kids with learning differences, generally ages 9 to 14. They’re talking about what school is like for them, how they’ve been dealing with their academic issues, how it feels to struggle with school, and what they really enjoy doing. Here’s what I found really interesting about this documentary.

  • All those kids could read. Even the ones with the most severe dyslexia could read better than many of my kids at the same age.
  • All but one of those kids went to private school. Several of them went to schools specifically for students with learning differences.
  • All those kids got a lot of extra support. Most of them were shown doing homework with a parent or two parents who were sitting, focusing all their attention on their kid and how to help them. One of them had a scribe in school who wrote for her. Another had a special education teacher who helped them in the regular classroom. Another had (very expensive) Lindamood-Bell tutoring afterschool, which I recognized because my school used to use LMB and I was trained in it (at the end of the year, after “teaching” it all year, and at which point we discontinued the program for the following year, so go figure). But he was getting the program as it’s intended to be, one-on-one for intensive sessions with a specialist, rather than 27 students with an untrained first-year teacher. Even the student in public school got an assistive technology word-predictor computer to use, and he also had speech-to-text software to dictate essays. Plus he had a special ed teacher explaining how to use this software, one-on-one.
  • All these kids were so incredibly verbal. Most of them were more verbal than I even imagine a typical middle-class kid would be (though admittedly I have little frame of reference for this), much less a kid with reading, writing, and auditory processing issues. They used words like “inconceivable” and “express” and “excruciating.” They are obviously smart kids. Their academic issues were really and truly tied to a learning difference, and not a lack of opportunity, lack of exposure, or lack of resources.
  • When they described their experiences in typical school, most of them described things that were not evil educational practices. One kid said his fourth grade teacher had them recite times tables to the whole class to measure their progress, and then she listed their progress on the back of the newsletters home to families. I could see this being really motivating and a source of pride for most kids, who can see their work paying off and get to show it to their families. But for this kid it was devastating, because he felt like he would never get to make any progress at all and everybody would see it every single newsletter. It got to the point that he would panic every time he was called on, terrified to be embarrassed in front of everyone. Another kid said during writing time everyone else would start on their organizers and she would write the whole story in her head. She felt like she was making more progress than other kids, but she got yelled at for not working. In the end, she explained, with a lot of perspective for a 9-year-old, that she guessed it was kind of fair because even with all that great thinking, she hadn’t actually done anything that anyone else could see.

This is very interesting for a couple reasons. The first reason is that I want to put out some feelers, especially with my lowest kids, to make sure none of my munchkins are feeling like this. It’s really hard, especially with my space cadet kid who gets very little done because it seems like she just doesn’t care to do so (though she could be in an ADD-type situation where it’s not entirely her fault), not to get frustrated sometimes and point out exactly how far behind her classmates she has fallen because she isn’t working. They’ll be on final drafts, for example, when she is still on her organizer. In an ideal world, a specialist or I would be able to work with her one-on-one, but this is not that world.

Which brings me to the second, altogether unsurprising, interesting thing. Having a processing disorder like dyslexia or dysgraphia or dyscalculia or auditory processing disorder or ADHD has made life difficult for these well-off, healthy, mostly white kids. But they are still better off academically than some of my kids who don’t have issues, plus they’re lightyears better off than my kids who do have learning differences. I’m not going to start talking about special education in my district or school, mostly because it makes me so angry it’ll ruin my day, but suffice it to say that my kids don’t get that kind of help. Their parents still help at home, most of them, and I help as their regular classroom teacher, but that’s about it. We get no special software, which I know because one of my kids had it in his IEP and we took it out because we don’t have the software to give him. We have no special education services. We have no trained specialists, no extra programs, no private schools or money for extra tutoring programs. We don’t even have good referral processes or diagnosis of these problems, so lots of kids just think they’re dumb. It’s just us: them, and me, and sometimes their mom. No wonder we don’t measure up.


2 Responses

  1. Educator

    Thank you for writing and sharing.

    Forgive me but I have to swing this post over to the ed policy debate, because this is a great example. Based on my experience and what I’ve read about over these years, there are 2 responses to what you’re experiencing:

    Response A: We need more funding and more services for these students America! You’re asking me to do the impossible. This is too difficult with over 30 kids in my room at a time! Help!

    Response B: Well, deal with it. No excuses. Find a way to get your students to score well on the standardized exams. That’s how we know you’re doing your job. If you do it, you might get a few thousand dollars extra. If you don’t, we’ll find your replacement. Stop being lazy.

  2. Mrs.C

    A few thousand extra? In what world? We have never gotten a bonus for any reason in my school- no matter how well we do. The fact that this district has T4A tells you that the district is strapped.

    It is impossible for any of us to do this job which is just what many conservative leaders want – a bifurcated system, a financial segregation.

    Thanks for describing it so beautifully , sad as it is. (Please forgive grammar.)

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