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Struggling Students : Insights from a Dyslexic

This is where I can offer nothing but my experience, as a child who struggled with a slight learning disability when it came to reading, writing, and numbers. Take what I say with a grain of salt, I'm not a professional educator, but I hope this may give you some insight into the mind of someone who has always struggled with mathematics, even after I conquered reading and writing well enough.

I stumbled upon two great articles from a blog called, "Smart Classroom Management : simply effective tips and strategies" by Michael Linsin, (motivating students, and what difficult students really need). While reading about his methods I started realizing how much of a difference they would have made in my own struggles in the classroom as a child, as well as recognized the different teachers who made me rise to the challenge rather than throw in the towel.

Okay so, MATH. I am not good at it, and in my mind math is psychologically tied to struggle, self-doubt, fear, and anxiety. In all sincerity, it goes that deep for me. It is the thing that has caused me so much grief that the sight and sound of the word itself agitates me. It is the one thing in school that made me cry more than teasing or unrequited crushes. I was never more terrified during a test or grade results.

Why? Because I was bad at it, and I truly believed there was literally nothing I could do to get better. It wasn’t because I did not try. It wasn’t because I neglected my homework. On the contrary, I stayed up late at night, mentally exhausted and frustrated with myself. Oh there were times I thought I had finally understood Algebra and Geometry, I would hand in my test only to receive a C- or a “see me after class” written in red. I would talk to the teachers and they would say, “I don’t understand, you seem to do well enough in class until it’s time for the test.” They blamed it on test anxiety and let me take tests at a different time away from the “pressure”.

I did not have test anxiety. I actually like taking tests. Outside the realm of math, I am an excellent test taker. I had anxiety because I knew I could only grasp mathematical concepts, but I was exceedingly terrible at executing these concepts with exact precision. Which is pretty much the point.

My teachers decided I was dyslexic, and I probably am. I struggled with reading and writing well into the fourth grade until one-day phonics began to make more sense than individual letters, and it was like someone turned a key in my brain. Obviously, now I have no problem reading and writing, although as much as I do both of those things, I am still a very slow reader. The problems were similar to my struggle with math, only, I never really matured in math.

If math is anything, it is precise and exact. So if I saw a 9 and 6 or 3 E or 2 7 or Xx or p q or a u, trying to correctly translate what I was seeing was the first step. Once I translated it I would glance at the person next to me, who was already well past the first few problems. I would hope that I was seeing what was written and then attempt the problem. Chances were I had transposed a number or symbol somewhere down the page-length equation and had flubbed everything from that point on.

Then word-problems came into the curriculum, as they do. If the above is a picture of my mental distress when I attempt to translate symbols into something that has weight and value, you can imagine the panic and frustration of someone who already struggled to read. The time it takes to translate from English, into numbers, into values and hope against all odds that at some point you didn’t transpose a single thing in order to get the correct answer, is maddening.

I had no real context for Math, unlike English. There was nothing tangible for me to grab onto.

Looking back on elementary school, I distinctly remember a new program. I don’t know what the official name of the program was, but I’m sure if you’re an educator you may recall something that was more of a “work at your own pace” implementation. Worksheets, lots of students in groups, working through the different levels of mathematics, unhindered by the speed or slowness of their peers. If there is one point in time, where I could go back and be an advocate for my own education, it would have been during this curriculum change.

What happens when you tell a struggling student to work at their own pace--- while they distantly see that other kids are moving faster than they are? I’ll tell you what happens. Nothing. They know they are in the "lower performing" group. The feeling of being left to my own devices where I systematically struggled in peace was the beginning of those self-loathing, self-doubting emotions.

Eventually, my school did away with the program, but not until after it was time for me to graduate to middle school. I never got better. I got by. Either by teachers taking the time to understand that I was a bright girl with a bad head for math, or letting me just take “accounting” classes to finish off my math credits in High School.

Now, I know you might be thinking, well you didn't have any crossover to make math something that was more concrete. But here's the thing, I was also a violinist. I could read music, and I was good at timing and dividing when it applied in that sense. I also excelled in my science classes and for a long time I wanted to go into the medical field. Now, I’m a Lithographer, but that too is a Fine Art, based in the knowledge of chemistry and how different substances yield different results.

I have a strange brain, and I've figured out how to work around my dyslexia. This isn't really about that, this is about how frustrating it was to be in school and be fundamentally misunderstood by my teachers.

As I said at the beginning, this post is more of an insight into the mind of someone who struggled. My struggle was with math and numbers. I’m sure you've had students that struggle, who just don't get it. Not because they are not bright, but because their eye may trick them, or their mind just doesn’t move in that direction, maybe they have ADHD. There are so many possible reasons why one kid may struggle more than another.

So I can only give you some idea of what goes on inside the head of a struggling student, and again why I think that Michael Linsin's methods can make all the difference.

The struggling student is as frustrated as you are, and almost definitely more so. Oh and believe me, the things they probably think about themselves and their inabilities are the kind of insults that would stop you cold in your tracks. They may grasp the concept you are teaching but they just execute it poorly. Maybe they've given up on themselves, and their efforts are zapped by the knowledge that "their best" will be no different on a test than if they hadn't put much into it at all. Really what's the difference between a C- and an F, if that's all you can ever achieve? You still fail the class, you still fail at understanding what you're being tested on.

Yes, they feel stupid. They feel ashamed. They are embarrassed and they don’t want people to know that they don’t get it. And the students who do “get it” are probably the most vocal when you ask if there are any questions.

Chances are, those who don’t get it will pretend that they do.

Knowing that you might call on them on any moment may help students stay alert and pay attention, but if they are truly struggling, calling on them is their worst nightmare. In school, even if I had begun to understand and follow the lesson, the second you called on me, my mind would go blank because suddenly now I have a spotlight on my biggest insecurities.

I suppose all I wanted and needed more than anything was an environment where everything was out in the open, where I felt that I was understood, maybe more individual time with a teacher that didn't feel like a punishment. I wanted my teacher to understand, so that I felt comfortable enough to let them see just how far behind I was. Patience and understanding were what I needed, I already knew I was behind.

I feel like the push toward individual attention in education is growing, but so is project based learning. And while I think PBL has so many benefits in preparing kids for the real world, kids who are struggling can hide very easily behind the success of the other students. And when it comes time to testing, there is very little time to close that gap. It has to be all types of learning for all types of learners.

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