My children are like the eclipse. Behind the darkness of the moon there is a bright sun. Dyslexia is like the moon. At times, you cannot see what my children can do because the dyslexia blocks it. My children are bright, but if you only look at what they can’t do, you will never see it and neither will they. If you focus on the fact that my son reads below grade level you will miss that he listens above grade level or that his radiant personality lights up a room. If you point out every spelling error you will never know that my daughter is a talented, creative writer and photographer and that she is amazing with animals. Yes, my kids have dyslexia. They know it. They live with it every day. They don’t need someone to tell them that they are doing things wrong or too slow. They don’t need someone to point out that they spelled a word wrong or that they mispronounced a word. Believe me they already know. They spend most of their energy realizing it and trying to make sure everyone can’t see it. They don’t need to be labeled as a struggling learner. They are very good at learning, just not in the same way as most people teach. What they do need is teachers and adults to help them be more like the sun. They need feedback about what they are doing right and help using strategies that actually work for them. They need others to take any glimmer of light that they show and make it shine as bright as the sun. They don’t need us to join them in the darkness, they need us to be the light that shines through and pushes the darkness away. If you work with my children, please tell them they are scholars and that scholars love to learn and work hard at it. Believe in them and recognize the hard work and effort that they put forth every day.
How long would you be excited about school if it was written in symbols and you didn’t have they key? Would you want to ask for help and let everyone know that what they do so easily is really difficult for you? Would you want to spend twice as long as your classmates trying to complete work that really doesn’t help you learn anyway and you still have to figure out how to learn and then you probably still won’t do well on the test because you have to decipher multiple choice items that are full of words and you get tired and confused? This is the life of a dyslexic. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity suggests that nearly 20% of the population struggles with this learning difference which often goes undetected and unsupported. Some of the greatest minds and leaders in our history are believed to have had dyslexia including Albert Einstein, George Washington, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney and Lewis Carroll. Brock and Fernette Eide (2011) writers of the Dyslexia Advantage emphasize that dyslexia may not be as much a disability as a difference with a set of accompanying strengths that are an advantage or the flip-side of their dyslexic disadvantages. Rather than try to fix dyslexics, they suggest we help them flourish by recognizing their unique strengths. One of my favorite lines in a new book, Fish in a Tree, by Lyndall Mullaly Hunt is “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its life believing it’s stupid.”
As a gifted specialist, I look at students through their strengths. This is often in direct opposition to the deficit model used in special education which focuses on identifying areas of weakness. I believe most students, especially dyslexics would benefit from a little less emphasis on what they can’t do and a little more focus on what they can. I am excited about the potential of our current shifts in educational thinking away from a factory model where all students need to be on the same page, in the same way and at the same time to one that incorporates design thinking to plan meaningful learning experiences that engage students and provide them with opportunities to learn in multiple ways. I have seen first-hand how things like the Global Day of Design or STEM focused activities can provide opportunities for students to soar. At the heart of it all though is that we as teachers and parents need to believe in children until they are able to believe in themselves. We need to help them see that the darkness of the eclipse is temporary and behind their challenges are opportunities for them to grow and develop strengths. The EXPLORE component of my work is centered on this idea. It is an acronym for Exploring eXcellence and Potential in Learners through Opportunity, Resources and Environment. In my work with EXPLORE, a program my colleagues and I designed at Spring Lake Park Schools, I watched this belief in students transform them. Sometimes the changes were small, but as students began to think and act like scholars they began to believe in themselves. I will never forget the thank you note one of my toughest students recorded for me. “I want to thank Dr. Peterson because I didn’t think I could do it and she said, ‘Yes, you can. You are a scholar.”
So here’s my plea to teachers and parents. After the eclipse is over and you are underway with a new school year, be kind to those students that seem to be stuck in darkness. Look for the light, any light that you see shinning from them and help them see it in themselves. If you’ve got a really tough one and you’re having trouble seeing a bright spot take a look at the behavior that is driving you crazy. Is there a flip-side to that behavior? When I first started working with my 4 it wasn’t their charming personalities that caught my attention, it was the fact that they had the entire breakfast room watching their every move. While many looked at this and saw trouble, I saw the potential for leadership. I’ll admit this is easier said than done and I find it even more difficult as a parent than a teacher. But this is one case where I believe failure is not an option. We can’t afford to give up on a child. There is just way too much potential there and behind what may seem like a total eclipse is a bright sun just waiting to shine!
Eclipse image a free image retrieved August 21, 2017 from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Total_solar_eclipse_of_March_9_1997.jpg