Mike couldn’t spell “cat.”
I leaned over his shoulder looking at his paper and just let that sink in. Mike couldn’t spell “cat,” and he was in the seventh grade. What’s worse, I had no idea how to help him. This is where the journey started, and a single driving question came into focus: How do we help students who have reading difficulties that have proven to be resistant to intervention?
When the journey began, our resource program was almost non-existent. I reached out to a company to provide us with after-school tutoring, using our Title funds. The immediate problem was getting students to stay after school. Staying after school meant the parent had to pay daycare, and the parent had to arrange for transportation at a different time. Also, what if the student was in a sport? Did we take the sport away, maybe the one area the child was truly experiencing success in school? How was that going to motivate the student? Short answer: It didn’t. Next, it became apparent that simply working one-on-one, with the few students we could get to stay, on the grade-level material was ineffective.
We needed a better plan. We needed a program that had evidence that showed it was effective. Over time and in various settings, I became aware of dyslexia. The more I learned about it, the more it seemed to fit the problem I was encountering at our school. I joined the local branch of the International Dyslexia Association and attended their conference in Atlanta this past November. I wanted to focus on three areas: understanding dyslexia on a deeper level, knowing what type of environment promotes success in these learners, and understanding what resources were being used successfully with students struggling to read.
The conference was incredible. Dr. Stanislas Dehaene explained in a lecture how the reading pathway in the brain of the dyslexic learner is different, and this difference begins in the 7th month of gestation. His research demonstrated how much more effort it takes in the dyslexic brain to read and how important automaticity is. If the brain cannot get the word into working memory in 300ths of a second, the brain jettisons the information and begins working on the next word. Next, I learned that if we can help students perceive that intellectual ability is something that can be developed over time with effort, with good strategies and help from others, then these students are more likely to persevere. I also learned how duration and intensity were keys to success. Students had to have enough time with a trained professional if we were going to make a difference. That meant at least four days a week and at least 40 minutes per session.
The last day, I attended a six-hour training on the reading resource Rave-O. Rave-O was created by neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf as a result of her research. Her research stemmed from a desire to understand and positively affect her son’s ability to read. She had always dreamed of reading books with her son and having these great conversations about theme and characters. What she found was that she needed to do everything she could to simply help him read at grade level.
At the end of the first trimester, I sat across from Mike’s mom and told her I couldn’t help Mike. She knew, but wanted him to stay in Catholic school because it was a safe place for him. Mike deserved to be able to read, I explained. It was my first year, and I had failed someone who desperately needed help. I broke a mother’s heart, and began a journey. I have begun crafting a program that will support second-language learners and dyslexics as well as create a deep base of understanding for all our students on how the English language works. Do I have all the resources I need? No. But I think I have enough to make a difference. So when the next Mike walks through the front door, I hope to be able to say, “I know just how to help. I am glad you found us.”