Able disable

          Figuring out the learning disability of a kindergartner is like being a mechanic figuring out what is wrong with the car. Kindergartners aren’t able to tell you what their problem is in regards to reading and writing. To be honest they have difficulty telling you what obstacles they have with a lot of things but that is a topic for another day.

          Children in general have difficulty explaining and expressing themselves and that is why more and more parents are sharing sign language with their infant children so that they can better express themselves.

          But as a tutor I am more interested in children’s ability to express themselves and to receive information in written form. A child who has dyslexia or ADD might not know it but it often shows up in how they behave and what their completed assignments look like. If a child is repeatedly turning letters upside down or backwards that is a good sign. But if a child simply cannot read easy words (and by easy I mean two letter words at six months into the school year when all of their peers can), then it is a sign that something else is going on. You can’t ask them what their disability is because they don’t know they have a disability. Therefore you can’t find a way to fix it or work around it because even you don’t know exactly what the problem is.

          That is part of my job as a tutor. I don’t just work with them to teach them how to read and write. Sometimes I work with them to determine how they are going to be able to read and write. My hope is to make it possible for them to skip past any obstacles they might have where it comes to reading and writing. I believe that if you can read and write you have gained the keys to the world.

          I believe being able to express yourself and gather information on your own are the most valuable tools you can have as a human being. Consider it this way – if a child has a club foot it is best that the deformity gets fixed early on so that it doesn’t hamper their ability to walk in the future. I believe that not being able to read or write is a problem that can be fixed. But consider if you have a child who is limping but you can’t figure out why. There’s no obvious sign of a physical problem. You’ve looked at their feet, their ankles, their knees, their back and there’s no good reason for why they are walking poorly.

          Encountering a child who has a learning disability but who also does not have English as her first language compounds the problem. It is also entirely likely that her parents are unschooled, which is common with immigrants from poor countries. The parents might not know how to read because they have never gone to school.  Thus, they were never able to read to their child, which will result in the child also being illiterate. But it might also be that she has inherited a learning disability from her parents as well.

Approaching a dog – social conventions on physical space.

When you come across a dog, you don’t know whether it is going to bite you or not. So the safest thing to do is to crouch down and appear nonthreatening. You put out your hand, palm down, in the form of a fist. This way your fingers are not exposed. That way the dog can come up to you on its own terms and in its own time and decide if you are safe. It is up to the dog to determine whether you get to touch it or not.

The same is true of people. There are number of people, myself included, who have problems with physical space. I was abused as a child in multiple ways, and I only started learning about boundaries in my 40s.

Because of my past, I have problems with physically being around people. I am very uncomfortable with people coming up and randomly touching me. This is true even if it is someone I know very well, even if it is my husband. If he and I are alone together in the house he can still startle me with touch. If I have my back to him, such as when I’m doing the dishes or I am working at the computer, and he comes up to me to touches me or give me a hug, it frightens me. I have told him repeatedly to give me a warning because it because it makes me scared. He doesn’t quite seem to get it. It is foreign to him.

We have a family friend who has a young son who does not understand boundaries. He is like a bouncy puppy. He is a little overwhelming to me, and it turns out, to many others. As soon as I walk in the door at their house he opens his arms and walks into me for a hug. If we are walking outside, he will come up beside me and throw his arm around me. It is very startling. We haven’t been visiting with this family for very long, so there isn’t a history between him and me. Essentially, I haven’t given him permission to touch me.

He has very few friends his age, and has expressed difficulty making female friends. He is very socially backwards in many ways, and his parents have noticed this but are unaware what to do about it. His mother is very forward and direct like him. She does not seem to understand that not everyone is, so she does not know to teach her son how to “read” whether it is safe to be forward and direct with them.

I’m of course older than the middle-school girls this boy deals with, and even I didn’t know why I feel so uncomfortable around him. If I don’t know, then they certainly don’t know. I can suppress my feelings for the sake of not embarrassing him, but they don’t hold their punches. He’s becoming more and more socially backwards.

It was so uncomfortable that for a while my husband and I considered only visiting with them when he was not there. We have finally realized that God has put this child in our path for a reason, and that we are to be like surrogate parents to him. I still don’t know what to say, or how to say it, but I’m trusting that the Holy Spirit will give me the words, as Jesus promised his disciples.

I really don’t want to embarrass him by telling him how uncomfortable his behavior is to me and many other people. But I do feel that he wants to get along, and wants to know how to “play” the social game. It has rules that sometimes aren’t easy to learn.

One thing I learned when I was working with college students with learning disabilities was that sometimes dyslexia isn’t just about words. Some students with LD have a problem “reading” people and feelings as well. The social rules that we all take for granted are very hard for them as they don’t pick up on nuances at all. They become further and further isolated from the rest of their peers because of this.

I don’t want him to feel isolated, because that is a recipe for another school shooter.

ESL and LD tutoring

When I first started tutoring, I thought I was just going to work with ESL students.

There are a surprising number of people from all around the world who move to Nashville. In my little suburb there are people from China, Somalia, Uzbekistan, and the Congo, as well as people from Mexico. They either bring their children with them, or they give birth to them here. Either way, they are entitled to a free public education.

Going to school for the first time is hard enough. Not sharing the same language as your classmates and teacher is extra hard.

Sometimes the class is comprised entirely of children who don’t have English as their first language. Sometimes the ESL children and the EL children are mixed together. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

I never thought of myself as an ESL tutor, much less a tutor to kindergartners, but I’d been praying about a way to help others and this opened up. Helping people assimilate is one of the many ways to make the world better.

So many people say “Why don’t they learn our language?” when talking about immigrants, but they don’t take the time to teach “them” the language. Learning a language is very hard and it takes a lot of time. You can try to teach yourself, but working with another person is the best way. Be part of the solution, you know.

I was helping a man from Haiti get his library card. He had a friend with him who was helping out. I was explaining things in English, but somehow how I was explaining it got in. His friend noticed and commented that I should be an ESL teacher.

All Metro employees had been offered the opportunity to volunteer in the schools for an hour a week on work time, so I contacted a patron who teaches ESL kindergartners. She was delighted to have me help. I think she was delighted to have help, period. I did all the paperwork and started as soon as I could.

Something I quickly realized was that I didn’t have to know the child’s language at all in order to help them. I have to know mine. Their goal is to learn to read and write in English. So it had nothing to do with my ability with their language. That was helpful to realize, and got me over my fear.

Teaching is scary. You never know if you are doing it right. What works with one student totally bombs with another. There is never enough time, and there are never enough tutors. You just keep on trying. You just keep on showing up.

Then I noticed that the teacher kept assigning me students who spoke English as a first language but were struggling for some reason. I balked at first. I thought I was there for the ESL kids. But the more I worked with these other kids, the more I realized I was needed for them as well. I was often able to diagnose a learning disability before anyone else had caught it. This resulted in an early intervention and a better outcome.

I tutored students with learning disabilities when I was in college. I’ve come to realize that almost every job since has involved helping people who have a hard time communicating or expressing themselves. I hadn’t planned this. It just happened. I don’t have any training for this. It is just something I have a knack for.

The funny thing is that I’ve come to realize that ESL and LD are the same thing. They both represent a disability to process ideas into the symbolic language of speech and letters. The letters and sounds of any language are arbitrary and invented. They are not natural. They are an agreed-upon construct that we use to communicate with each other. It is totally normal that some people would have a hard time with these symbols. The only problem is that these particular symbols aren’t optional.

Being able to communicate is essential. While I’m for offering people multiple ways to express themselves such as through art and music, language is a cornerstone. It is something that we all share, and is the basis for much of our culture.

If people cannot communicate they get frustrated. This leads to tension and anger. It is essential that people are able to express what they feel, not only to get it out, but to share it with others. They need to be able to understand themselves, and make themselves understood.

So I’m really not teaching people how to read and write, so much as how to interact with other people in this culture, using English as a bridge. It doesn’t matter whether they come from this culture or not.

Kindergarten 11-6-13 Tattoos, and being “in”

One of my students was out sick today. I had V and J. It is a beautiful fall day and they were more interested in going outside to play than working. To be honest, so was I. Sometimes the playground is a better place to learn the real lessons.

The teacher left me a note that V had told her Mom that she didn’t want to come to school anymore because it is too hard. The teacher is traumatized by this. What do you do to engage a child who wants to be anywhere but there?

And then I looked around at the classroom. The two girls who had cried the first week that they didn’t want to be there, that they missed their Mom, they were still there. May be they had forgotten their anxiety. May be they had gotten distracted. Maybe it had gotten better.

Being a kindergartner is a bit like being a mental patient. You say you want to leave, and sure, you can, but it isn’t easy. It is hard to remember whatever you want to do for very long. Your mind flits around quite a bit.

Leaving school is completely the wrong thing for her. Since her home life is so messed up right now with her Mom in rehab, staying home would be impossible. She doesn’t know yet that education is her only way out of that hole. If you can read and you are curious, you can escape the terrible situation you were born into. It doesn’t even matter what you are taught at school – you have access to libraries so you can self-teach.

But, we are here, in this moment, and the teacher and I are trying to get her to just stay with us for now. Just stay, and try. Hopefully we can inspire her to “get” school. Hopefully we can engage her just long enough for her to work up a head of steam to see that school is the cure, not the problem.

We played the Dora alphabet game. It was fun! I love board games, so I’m glad I could play this with her. It teaches colors and counting and the alphabet and vocabulary. She did very well. There was another tutor nearby (a friend of mine) and she was encouraging her student. We could hear her say “I’m so proud of you” to her student and V. whipped her head around towards her words. It is obvious she is hungry for affirmation. I praise her, but is it ever enough?

She had drawings on her arm. I asked if she had done that and she said that her Dad did. She said that he made tattoos. To give a show of solidarity I showed her the tattoos I have in my leg. I knew I wore a skirt for a reason today. Usually I wear pants or a really long skirt so they don’t see my tattoos. Tattoos aren’t as taboo as they were, but they still have some stigma. She saw my tattoos and I was “in.” We are part of the same tribe.

J still doesn’t know the alphabet. Still. There are four different people working with him. I’m starting to think that he can do better but he likes the attention. I’m just not sure what tool is required to get into his head. He has to do better. There are certainly impulse and anger issues. I suspect his parents don’t work with him at home either.

I get so frustrated with how many children are seen as an afterthought. It isn’t their fault that they were conceived. There has to be a better way of getting young people to understand the huge responsibility that is being a parent – before they can become parents. No child should be unwanted or unloved.

Kindergarten 9-25-13

I was able to get to work with three children today, all of which I had before. It is amazing and delightful to see progress and disheartening to see them still stuck in some areas. Sometimes it isn’t school that is the problem. Sometimes there are home problems and school is the last thing on their minds.

V was much more focused today, which is encouraging. She likes to draw and make up stories. I’m totally for creativity, but when it is time to work we have to get cracking. She stayed working with me a lot longer this time and did great on her numbers. She still is a little wonky on her letters, but she is getting better.

At the end of my tutoring session today I found out from her teacher that yesterday was an entirely different story. Numbers were impossible. 5 fingers resulted in an answer as varied as 5, 2, and 8. But yesterday she also heard from V that her Mom was in the hospital. Mom is in the hospital because she is an alcoholic. This changes everything. Of course she is distracted. Of course she wants to make up stories. Who would want to focus when that is happening? When you are five your whole world revolves around your mom. If she isn’t well, then everything else falls apart. I will give her extra attention next week.

Sometimes what we give them isn’t learning, it is love. Sometimes the greatest thing is just to spend time with them, one on one, and let them shine. Sometimes the teacher will assign a new child to me just because something bad is going on at home. We work together on them, to help them get over the humps of life. Sometimes healing can come in the form of something as simple as reading a book together.

Today I also had S. He is a delightful Mexican boy, all smiles and sunshine. He worked hard and is doing well. I’m curious how long he will need me.

I only get the kids who are at the bottom. When they are doing better they go to the next tutor. I like the challenge of trying to figure out new ways to get the information into them. Fortunately the kids haven’t realized that there is a pattern to who I work with, so there isn’t a stigma. In fact, when I come on Wednesdays they all clamor to work with me. It is kind of cute. I try to make learning fun, so they just see it as a game. Sometimes when I “pick” a student (I don’t pick, the teacher provides a list for me) he or she will say “Yes!” and think this is great. This makes my job so much easier.

One of the students who gets excited when I “pick” him is J. I worked with him today as well. I think he might be dyslexic. I can tell learning is hard for him. I gave him easy things to work on to build up his confidence. We have a blue letter board that is really cool to work with. Letters are really hard for him, and he was mixing up h and n and u. I can understand that. They look at lot alike if they are flipped around.

Letters are hard. They are just symbols after all. We take for granted how easy it is to read, but really it hard because it isn’t a native intelligence. It is all symbols. This shape doesn’t “mean” this sound at all. There is nothing logical about it. It is rather arbitrary. Nothing drives this home more than teaching a five year old his letters.

At the end I wrote up my impressions. This helps the teacher know what are their strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly they will work differently with me than with her. She and I see different faces. When one is obstinate on one area with her, he will be perfect with me.

When I came in to return my impressions and pick up my keys, J hugged me. Hugs from kindergartners are so sweet. When I first got hugged three years ago I wasn’t sure what to do. I was caught off guard.

We have rules that we learn. Don’t touch strangers. Hold your emotions in.

Kindergartners don’t know these rules yet. Sure, they know me, a little. They know my name, and I work with them a little every Wednesday. But adults who know me better don’t hug me. It is just a social rule. We are a very hands-off kind of society.

But hugs from kindergartners are the best. They are so loving and open. I think the world would be a better place if we all had that kind of love and were able to show it. I think this may be the answer to everything.

Hug more. Cry when you are sad. Go play outside for an hour every day. Color. Take a nap with a teddy bear. Make up stories.

Maybe being a kindergartner is the secret to happiness.

Kindergarten 9-18-13 Yellow jacket sting and rules.

I missed kindergarten last week. My car wouldn’t start. Nearly two thousand dollars later I’m back, ready to try again. Then just before getting ready to go I got stung while doing yard work.

There are small yellow and black stinging bugs on the way into my house. I think they are yellow jackets. They are right next to the steps to the front door. There is no easy way around them since they are directly on my path into my house.

The ivy has grown up nearby and I need to trim it. They think otherwise. They think I’m threatening them. I got stung twice before, about a month ago. I’ve found I’m not allergic to their stings fortunately, but they sure don’t feel nice.

I went inside and doctored up my sting. I’d gotten stung on my earlobe. It could have been worse. I should have worn a headscarf like I’d thought I was going to, but I didn’t. I shouldn’t have waved around at the bug when it got near my ear, but I did.

When it was time to leave about thirty minutes later, I walked carefully by them. I was terrified. If these things read fear I was an encyclopedia. But I kept walking. I prayed, afraid, but I kept walking. I think there is something to this. It isn’t about not being afraid. It isn’t possible to not feel fear all the time. But I didn’t let it stop me. I kept praying, and I kept walking.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you are feeling. It matters that you just keep going.

So I got to school and I had V. again. I could tell she just wasn’t into learning today. Maybe she just isn’t ready for school yet. Her Mom thinks this too. It took a bit to figure out if she was playing or just wrong. She would count two cars as 6 by going over them again and again. This happened a lot. I’m only able to be there for an hour so I told her we were done and went to the next person on my list. Quality over quantity, after all.

It was J., a boy I worked with briefly the first week I was there. He was very eager to show me how much he knows, and bragged about it. I was ready to be dazzled after the first student. He was fabulous with his numbers. He put everything in order and did it quickly. He’s still counting on his fingers but then again so do I sometimes.

Then he wanted to show me that he could write his name. It is a long name and he did well until the end. He wasn’t sure what the last letter was, and wanted me go to his desk where his name was written for a prompt for him. It took me a little bit to understand what he wanted. I’ve since confirmed that he is in speech therapy. I realized he wanted to see his name written so I wrote it for him on the white board. He was very surprised that I knew how to write his name.

Then we started to work on matching capital letters to little letters. This did not go as well as the counting did. The biggest problem was that he likes every letter in the alphabet that is in his name, but not any of the other ones. Now, all told that is a fairly large percentage of the alphabet, but still it’s not going to cut it. You have to know them all.

I went to find the wooden alphabet board and we worked using that. There are a lot of different tools to use, and I’ll try them all. It was interesting to watch him work. He had very specific ways of doing things and ways he expected things to be. It turns out that he is having problems making friends because of his need for rules.

Sometimes rules get in our way. Sometimes we use rules to make things make sense. Sometimes our home lives don’t make sense so we cling to rules. Then the rules start to strangle us.

People don’t always follow rules. We all do things a little bit differently. Some things need to be the same, otherwise we will have chaos. We can’t arbitrarily decide what letters look like for instance. But some things have wiggle room.

So it was slow going. I’ve asked to work with him again. He reminds me of my husband. I want to save him. I want to rescue him from the pain of these rules. I can see a certain sadness in his eyes. I can tell there are a lot of rules at home, and they don’t always make sense.

But then am I helping, really?

That pain of being stung this morning gave me a valuable lesson. I’d learned about walking through my fear. I’d learned that it was ok to be afraid. Perhaps this pain is something he needs to walk through too. I can be there to cheer him on, and guide, but I can’t rescue him.

Sometimes pain is our greatest teacher.