Category Archives: learning difficulties
New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 1.c
Graduating teachers know how to develop metacognitive strategies of diverse learners.
Primary teachers are expected to teach a very broad curriculum. Throw together some reading, dancing, writing, maths, science, music with a bit of technology thrown in for good measure and you might have a school teacher’s week. But if scratch underneath this broad curriculum and you’ll find that just about every teacher will have a problem area that they don’t feel confident in teaching in. Maths daunts so many learners that there was a component of my teaching diploma on mathsphobia.
But what about literacy?
I’m guessing that there aren’t many teachers out there who have problems with literacy because our education system can be brutal on learners who struggle with reading and writing.
Enter the dyslexic student teacher.
Having spent almost all my schooling life being labelled illiterate, the idea of teaching reading and writing was not a prospect I was looking forward to. The shame of having *THESE EXAMS WERE SAT UNDER SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS* emboldened underneath my grades on bursary certificate still burns brightly despite having since gained an Honours degree. In fact I have never sat another exam under those special considerations least that label pop up again. But this placement I finally had to come to confront this particular demon.
What my dyslexia looks like.
I frequent mix up the letters b, d, p, q and for some reason e and 3 also befuddle me. When I’m reading, especially out loud, I’ll often omit words or substitute words that look the same, for example accept/except or won’t/want but it is writing that really causes me problems.
My spelling is atrocious and the most accurate description of my handwriting is that it is like a drunken chicken making its way across the page (an actual quote from my school report). I can write neatly but only if I am concentrating on letter formation and nothing else. However if I want to write anything of any substance, the writing process for me is a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting. Bits of sentences and ideas get thrown around in no particular order and somehow a coherent argument emerges at the end of it.
Most of the time.
I’m sure at times I come across as a bit of evangelist when it comes to technology in education but the only reason I didn’t fail out of school altogether is because someone gave me access to a word processor in year 12 to write a story and I found away to get my thoughts into written form.
To say that was a game changer is an understatement.
When I am writing by hand I struggle to write a coherent sentence much less a paragraph, the words just seem to get stuck. However when I’m put in front of keyboard little snippets of ideas come out, they might not be in any order but once they are out for me to see I can start taking my garbled thoughts and putting them into a logical order.
This makes me wonder how many children there are out there educational system has previously discarded because their physical or cognitive differences didn’t fit the model of educational success which involved putting pen to paper in order pass exams. Every time I’ve seen technology used in the classroom, whether its an ipad for a student with cerebal palsey or blogging with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the result has been a child who had the potental to be marginalized in a classroom engaged in learning. That’s a hugely exciting development in education, learners our education system once deemed defective now get a chance to succeed.
But now I’m back in the classroom and sometimes I wonder if I have any business being in there, especially as I tried to adapt my Associate Teacher’s classroom processes into my own practice. Then one morning I plugged a USB into the classroom’s laptop and had a sudden moment of clarity. The processes I was using to teach were the very same ones that cause me so many problems as a learner. What was I doing copying down a learning intention in a modelling book during a guided reading lesson when I could throw the ideas up onto the classroom’s two-touch along with some pictures to help illustrate the vocabulary that needed to be pre-taught? If I use technology to learn, it make sense that I should also use it to teach.
What’s more maybe the internal conversation I have with myself when I read, ‘go back that doesn’t make sense’ or ‘I’m not sure how to pronounce that word but I know what it means,’ are thoughts that the other learners in my classroom need to hear because I’m using decoding strategies. Handwriting continues to be my bugbear, my students often comment that my letters sometimes come out a bit wonky. I really have to think hard about how each letter is formed when I’m teaching in order to model something legible for them. But perhaps the fact that I have to struggle puts me on an equal footing with my students, we are literally learning together.
The theme for this week’s reflection is assessed.
I choose this theme because my assignment from Week 2 was returned and also because I sat my final exam for this course (1 unit of learning down 7 to go :)). While I did well in the assignment, the exam was a bit of a nightmare.
So what happened?
Well firstly I didn’t finish. During my undergraduate degree I’d grown accustomed to writing 3-4 longer essays over the space of three hours rather than 6 smaller ones in the same amount of time. Consequently I spent way too much time on first answer and felt rushed to get the other 5 answers finished.
I also hadn’t made proper accommodations for my non-sequential writing style. Normally this isn’t a problem, but sitting an exam pretty much forces you to write sequentially as you are under the pressure of time and writing on paper.
My current writing style relies on being able to go back to ideas at a later time and being able to move text around to accommodate new ideas, which is easy to do when using a word processor, but not so simple when you are writing on a booklet.
Also the supervisor wouldn’t let me have extra booklets until I had already used up my first booklet (he seemed rather incredulous that I would need the extra paper). Because my writing is big and I double space my work, I ended up needing four extra booklets. I also realized there is another thing I hate about exams: being forced to stop mid-thought and wait for someone to bring more paper because my writing doesn’t fit the ‘norm.’
The lack of extra paper put me into a spin. The question sheet wasn’t big enough to accommodate mind maps. Consequently I was without one of the strategies I use to manage my learning disability.
And ouch, ouch, ouch my writing hand was in excruciating pain for hours after the event. I do feel sorry for whoever has the job of grading my exam because the drunken chicken my handwriting had once been compared to was definitely on the booze by the end of the test.
So what are some lessons I learned from the week?
Old learning habits die hard
If I were to dig out my old school reports right now, there would be ample mention made of my penchant for letting careless errors turn excellent work into merely good work. I know I need to spend more time polishing up my finished product, yet I still didn’t do it. But I had another stark reminder that the ideas to put me into the excellent category were all there, but a lack of concentrated effort at the end of the writing process ended up costing me marks.
Manage my time better
Time management was probably my biggest problem in the exam. While I understood, that there were six questions to do and had allotted myself a certain amount of time to do each question. It took me far too long to get the ideas of the first essay onto paper. In retrospect I should have read through the entire paper to identify easier questions to answer first to get my confidence up rather than starting with the first question just because it was first question (Any surprise that I am a low-need achiever?).
Find ways to manage inconveniences
I could have used the back of the readings we were permitted to bring into the exam, rather than trying to fit my mind maps into the margins of the question sheet. But I still don’t understand why I couldn’t just have an extra booklet at the start of the exam.
Practice writing ideas in sequence
I hadn’t sat a written exam in nearly 10 years. As a consequence, I am completely out of practice at writing essays in any kind of logical sequence (in fact I just wrote a sentence in the third paragraph before jumping down here to write this learning point and am now about to jump down two paragraphs because I have an idea I want to expand on). However I will need master this style of writing in order to improve my performance in exams.
But perhaps the most useful outcome of sitting the exam is that is has forced me to reflect on how I would assess student learning in the classroom. So often we become reliant on doing things a certain way because that is the way things have always been done.
Formal exams and tests are popular methods of assessment because they are seen as reliable, ie. we would expect similar results on re-sit across a similar cohort of students. They are also perceived as being fair because markers aren’t swayed by extraneous considerations, such as teacher favouritism.
However there is also a question of validity, ie does the test to measure what it seeks to measure. If the purpose of the exam was to see how fast and neatly I can write, then I probably failed. However if the purpose was to gauge my understanding of educational theory, then I am not sure how valid that assessment was because the medium used gives a fuzzy picture of my knowledge.
Which brings up two implications for using an evidence-based approach to teaching. Firstly how many students in our school system are seen to be under-achieving because the assessment used does not accurately gauge their learning? While there are other students like me that struggle with writing, some children struggle with reading instructions. Moreover an EAL learner may have a brilliant maths capabilities but struggle to conceptualize a word problem.
Secondly what effect will this have on future teaching? If I were to use the results of my exam to inform future teaching in the classroom, then my teaching would likely not be particularly effective. I would probably be pitching my lessons at a level too low for the learner to find useful.
How do we accurately gauge student’s learning? Should all students be assessed the same way?
I don’t do well in exams. In fact during my first time at university I tried to take papers that had large components of internal assessment in them. Unfortunately I am not able to my practice my usual exam strategy of avoidance for this course. So I looked through a leaflet on exam tips to find someone had opened the cupboard to release a boggart in the form of the following quote:
Simple expression and layout +readable handwriting +short sentences =HIGHER MARKS
My handwriting has been described as many things during the course of my schooling life but readable is definitely not one of them. “Messy” and “illegible” were the most common terms my teachers used to describe my script, though my all-time favourite is “a drunken chicken making its way across the page” (that’s an actual quote from one my school reports). Suffice to say I’ve had an unhappy relationship with written communication.
I’m sure some of you are wondering if I hate writing so much, then why do I voluntarily write this blog? But I don’t write this blog, I type it. Typing requires far less concentration for me than holding a pen and trying to manipulate my hand to accurately form words. Word processors also have handy things like a spell-check, thesaurus and enable me to go back to ideas I get stuck at a later time. Through the magic of the word processor I can write in a way I feel most comfortable: flinging, dripping, pouring, spattering ideas and sentences around a document until I can read what it is I want it say. Not the most logical of writing processes but it is what works for me.
Putting pen to paper is when things come unstuck for me. I will often get the letters b, d, p and q mixed up as well as e and 3. Punctuation disappears and words meld into each other. If I concentrate really hard, I can keep my writing readable but that comes at the expense of my ideas getting lost. Did I mention how physically painful the process is? I’m sure there’s now a name for why my brain couldn’t – and still can’t – combine my thinking process with the physical process of writing.
Eventually the educational system caught on that there was an underlying problem and in Year 13 I was referred to the Specialist Education Service for help. I was able to utilize a writer for my bursary examinations, however having ‘THIS EXAM WAS CONDUCTED UNDER SPECIAL CONDITIONS’ emblazoned at the bottom of my certificate bothered me so much I never used a writer again. But I still use the strategies I learned from the educational psychologist when I’m in a situation where I need to handwrite.
Typical bic pens exacerbate my legibility issues because they are too thin, not to mention I’ve managed to break a few with my vice-like grip. A thicker pen with a soft place to grip takes away some of the pain and is a lot easier for my hand to maneuverer.
Mind maps/note sheets
I like to have a place to spatter my ideas around before I attempt to answer a question. Mind maps also are useful because I can refer back to them when I get stuck. Having ideas out there on the paper gives me a skeleton to base my work on.
Writing double or triple spaced
In general I find space for writing in exam booklets too small to easily accommodate my writing. Rather than fight against the tide, I simply double space my work. Double spacing also means that I have plenty of space for revision.
Whisper my work (back to) myself
If I get stuck, I will often will talk to myself when I am writing as way to release ideas. Mistakes are a lot easier to find when I read my work out loud.
When my hand starts to hurt I will often shake my hands fast, rub them together or my legs to generate heat, or mime piano scales as ways to manage the pain.
One of the most off-putting aspects of entering teaching for me is not only will I need to handwrite, but I will also be teaching others to do so. How can I teach something that I don’t consider myself proficient in? But perhaps what might at first seem to be a disadvantage may actually be of benefit in the future.