Experiencing School as Dyslexic Students Do
A Guest Post by Tamara Rodney
As a classroom teacher, I often reflect on my experiences in order to improve my practices with students. Earlier this year I engaged in a dyslexia PD. I heard words that I’ve used, multiple times, repeated during one of the five simulations: “if you don’t finish this in class, you’ll have to do it for homework.” I was struck at how easily I had used these words before. So to borrow from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air himself: “Now this is a story all about how my teacher practice got flipped and turned upside down, and I’d like to take a minute, to just sit right there and I’ll tell how I started rethinking my practice for this school year.”
First, our district leaders designed a dyslexia training that was very engaging. Rather than sit in front of a screen and watch a series of videos we actually participated, as a group, in a series of simulations that mostly involved reading and writing. In one exercise, we listened to a voice and completed some written tasks based on what we heard. The challenge: while the voice we needed to listen to was talking, other voices were talking simultaneously and saying some of the same things. I quickly deduced that these other voices were supposed to distract us, therefore I intensified my focus. By the end of this initial simulation, it was clear that we were about to experience school as dyslexic students do.
Two of the simulation activities required that we read. To heighten the experience, one of the simulations required that we read & pronounce backward roman text. Talk about reading and pronunciation challenge! I pride myself on being a great reader and the reading simulations proved to be the most challenging for me.
There was one simulation that stood out. You’re probably wondering how could anything else stand out more than another in these thoughtfully designed simulations? In this particular exercise, we were tasked with replicating a series of complex line scribbles that symbolized letters. While we were attempting to concentrate and do a good job with our transcription, the facilitator began to say things that a teacher would “typically” say to a student in a similarly confusing situation. Statements like: “we’ve been working on this all school year,” “I expect you to do a good job,” and “if you don’t finish this in class, you’ll have to do it for homework.” As she spoke, her words made the task even more cognitively challenging and difficult. At one point I just started to ignore “the teacher” and tried my hardest to finish an already difficult task.
I left that simulation and moved on to the next exercise in a haze. I was taken aback because I remembered using these very same words with my own students. “If you don’t finish this in class, you’ll have to do it for homework.” I justified the use of these words by calling them motivation for students who were off task. This simulation made me realize how frustrating it was to hear: “If you don’t finish this in class, you’ll have to do it for homework” while I was already having difficulty and already trying my hardest to concentrate. But real talk: the task was hard and being told that I had to finish what I didn’t finish in class for homework seemed like a punishment and not motivation.
Updating My Methods
I can’t find any one word to summarize how I felt when I heard these words, the very same words that I had used, being used against me. This simulation also made me truly realize how some of my students must have felt during similar moments when I uttered the words: “If you don’t finish this in class, you’ll have to do it for homework.” So as the first day of school nears, my question to myself is: what do I do differently? What structures do I create to help students who feel what I felt, during this simulation, not one day but every day?
Sharing My Story
This was the story I related to a group of fellow educators at Connected Learning (@LearningSTL) #CoffeeEDU and Alice was one of the educators present. Many of the educators that were a part of the conversation commended my district for this very forward approach to Dyslexia training; so do I. This experience and reflection will impact my practice immediately and students will no longer hear “if you don’t finish this in class, you’ll have to do it for homework” in room 219 ever again. Thank you Connected Learning, Webster Groves School District, Alice, Julie, Kelly, Meagan, and Vicky for allowing me to reflect in this most meaningful way.