Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘learning disabilities round-up

This being my eighth year of teaching in the special education field, I’m excited to hunt down books for a new round-up theme: disabilities.I prepared by scouring our local library for anything which fell under that topic but soon realized the need to limit myself to learning disabilities. With books in hand, I began to read. Soon I realized not everything labeled “learning disabilities” focused on that topic. Consequently, my selections are a delightful eclectic mix.

The books for my round-up fell into all three reading levels: primary, intermediate, and young adult. Of the six primary books, one provides a nice overview of a resource room. Four are part of a series and serve as introductions to various types of learning disabilities: dyslexia, dyscalculcia, dsygraphia, and attention deficit disorder. (One could also categorize the latter as a behavior disorder.) The sixth book I included because of a request from Carmen Swick, who is promoting awareness of her son’s vision disorder. Of the four intermediate books, one entry came from Kathryn Erskine. After I reviewed Mockingbird, and we initiated a correspondence, she sent me a free signed copy of The Absolute Value of Mike. The other three books were by newcomers to me. Last, of the two young adult books, one was a regular novel and the other a memoir.

My biggest dilemma was limiting myself to only the number of books I could read in three weeks. Primary books I can read easily in a day. When it comes to intermediate and young adult books, however, it’s a race to read them in two days. On top of that, I need to review them. So, I left out one author whom I greatly wanted to review: Henry Wrinkler. He has a whole series of books that one day I’ll have to read.

Because of my background in the special field, I didn’t approach this round-up with idea of learning anything new. I already knew that dyslexia was a reading disorder, which may or may not cause letter reversal but certainly does cause difficulties in recognizing sounds, grouping sounds, and therefore reading words, sentences, and paragraphs. I also knew that dyscalculia involved math. Dysgraphia refers to the physical struggle of printing letters. Many of my students see an occupational therapist to help them with this weakness.

Happily, the beauty of this round-up is that it did give me new insights. Thanks to my round-up, I better understand that learning disabilities do not end with high school graduation but are lifetime challenges. I also now know that dyscalculia effects more than just one’s ability to learn math. It also impacts one’s ability to sequence ideas, which can lead to problems in grammar and music–to name a few areas. Last, I discovered that one can be both learning disabled and gifted. The latter can might provide better coping skills to students than those who aren’t gifted, but eventually their disabilities will catch up with them and become an issue.

What I found most interesting is how some trends appeared. Some books tried to inspire young people that they could achieve anything no matter what challenges they faced. I found those overly optimistic. They also tended to minimize the role that effort and motivation play in one’s success. Other books downplayed the fact that learning disabilities are a result of a disconnect in the brain. The implied message was if one only tries or is motivated, all will be well. In other words, the books laid the blame on the educational system for not providing a more interesting or diverse environment. The reality is that while sometimes schools are at fault, even the most engaging skills do require effort and patience to master. A few books disturbed me, in that the main character was portrayed as somehow looking different because of their disability. In most cases, this is a false idea. Last, a few of the books admirably portrayed the culture of special education and made me happy with my choice to work in this field.

For convenient reference, all the posts related to my learning disabilities round-up are listed below:

My Thirteenth Winter is a gutsy memoir by Samantha Abeel, who grew up with the learning ability known as dyscalculia. In being a memoir, My Thirteenth Winter covers Abeel’s recollection of significant events from her childhood right through to her young adult years. This is both good and bad. On the downside, unless one is famous, it can difficult to capture reader interest page after page for what is essentially one person’s tale of their life. On the positive side, My Thirteenth Winter helped me in a way that few books to understand how learning disorders do not end with high school graduation but are lifetime struggles.

Abeel makes heart-wrenchingly clear in her introduction how momentous the impact her disability has been on her life: “I am twenty-five years old and I can’t tell time. I struggle with dialing phone numbers, counting money, balancing my checkbook, tipping at restaurants, following directions, understanding distances, and applying basic math to my everyday life. I also struggle with spelling and grammar and remembering combinations of movements in athletics and dance.” Subsequent chapters also exemplify how challenging dyscalculia can be. In second grade, despite seeing her teacher model time with a big clock, Abeel couldn’t understand how hours, minutes, and seconds worked. Nor could Abeel understand fractions, even after her teacher explained it by using a candy car. Perhaps, Abeel’s saddest story is about the time her teacher handed out worksheets with math problems and promised ice-cream to anyone who could finish them correctly and on time. Being a school teacher, I know how common these motivational rewards still are. The idea is if only all students try harder, practice more, or put in extra effort, everyone will pass. That day, Abeel was not only the last to finish, but no matter how hard she tried, she never could get all the problems right. Thankfully, her teacher took pity on her and let her join the class in eating ice-cream. Except Abeel only felt worse, because she knew that she had been unable to keep her part of the deal. As is clear from the quote I gave at the start, Abeel continued to find it a challenge throughout her whole academic life to learn those basic skills that most of us take for granted. Dyscalculia impacted other areas too, because it’s more about one’s ability to learn sequential skills than about one’s ability to calculate. For that reason, Abeel also struggled with grammar, reading, driving, and music.

Because of her learning disability, Abeel often felt frustrated, confused, and alone. Yet she actually had a benefit that many special education students don’t. According to a 1992 article, which appeared in the Learning Disabilities Association newsletter, some students can be gifted and disabled. “These students are struggling to stay at grade level. Their superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability.” Abeel spent most of her academic years battling physical sickness caused by her anxiety over her lackluster school performance. As Abeel observed, however, she still remained one of the fortunate ones. Others who were only disabled and not gifted: “They had been ridiculed from an early age…. For the fact that they talked differently or they looked different or didn’t learn to read as quickly or answer questions in class. They were class clowns, behavior problems, because that way they were in charge of the laughter, they were in control of the inevitable criticism.” As bad of a struggle that Abeel had, imagine how much worst it was for others who couldn’t compensate for their weakness. The contrast is similar to the one I felt when struggling to fill out immigration papers to stay in the United States. As frustrating as a I found the whole process, at least I could speak English, knew North American culture, and had the ability to spend money on endless phone calls.

About halfway through her school years, Abeel qualified for special education. Immediately, she started being pulled to a resource room for small group support. Her reaction surprised me. It’s also one that those in power might take more heed to: “I looked around and I feel heartened by the realization that no one else in this room gets it either. That we all struggle with math and it’s OK…. Here, after all those years of fear and withdrawal, I can finally start raising my hand in class again.” More good news was to come. Abeel discovered an aptitude for writing. Her parents, peers, and teachers began to compliment her literary talent. Pieces of hers were published in the school paper and even in a national magazine that published student work. Writing not only served as an emotional outlet for her, but it also gave her a much-needed ego boost.

Although struggles with dyscalculia crippled her again in high school and college, Abeel’s disability has also blessed her with a unique view of the world. Through struggling to learn, Abeel has learned the power of persistence. People are often stronger than they realize. Abeel’s problem-solving skills have been stretched, in that she has never been able to take the simplest tasks for granted. Her years of learning to cope by observing the smallest facial gestures, emotional reactions, and patterns of behavior have helped Abeel develop  observation skills. She uses these to reach out and help others. Last, Abeel has learned to see people as beautiful individuals waiting for their gifts to be recognized; to view everyone as learning disabled and gifted. My Thirteenth Winter is a powerful memoir.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Probably Still Nick Swanson takes readers inside the special education room itself, which is a reason I like this young adult novel. Even with the popularity of mainstreaming, if one is identified as a special education student, one will spend some time being pulled into a resource room. Unlike with some stories where we see the main character struggle to read or calculate, but otherwise have little reason to label that person as learning disabled, Nick spends most of his time talking with students from or hanging out in Room 19. That is an experience in itself, which is accurately depicted by author Virginia Euwer Wolff.

About Nick, we learn the aching truth that he feels that he doesn’t know anything because he is special education. If he were regular instead, he’d know how to tell if a girl liked him and if there are some guys that girls never like. Just as importantly, he’d know how to ask a girl to the prom. Apparently, Room 19 students never attend proms. Yet there isn’t a rule that says they can’t. And so one day Nick asks Shana, who has recently celebrated becoming a regular student. If he were regular, Nick would also know how to prepare for the prom when Shana accepts his invite, talk with the lady at the greenhouse who arranges flowers for corsages, and ask for help in putting on his tuxedo. Or so he thinks.

About the teacher of Room 19, we learn that Mr. Norton likes to give quizzes to make the students think and to help unify them as a class. Everyone has to take the quiz, but the grade is not based on spelling or even right and wrong answers but on how carefully one thought about the question. Mr. Norton, is also aware of his student’s needs. For example, he knows that Nick worries about stepping on Shana’s feet at the dance. When an embarrassing situation happens at the prom, Mr. Norton praises Nick for his courage in returning to school. In many different ways, Mr. Norton shows his support for his students. Sometimes he might praise their ideas; other times he might encourage them to higher standards because he knows they are capable.

About Room 19 itself, we learn that those outside don’t want their kids to end up in the room, because “You put a kid with the droolers, he’ll end up a drooler.” Nick didn’t understand their sentiment, because he hadn’t ever seen anyone in Room 19 drool. Not even the slowest kids, the two with Downs Syndrome, who instead smiled a lot. As for those in Room 19, they weren’t allowed to negatively criticize each other. In other words, they couldn’t call each other stupid or crazy, even though some of them felt they were. We learn that those inside throw a Going Up party for “somebody who would stop being Special Education the next day and start being just like everyone else.” They also clap when someone returns after an absence. Everyone in the class supports one another, as well they should, because they all have quizzes and projects they do, and all very good ideas to share such as Nick’s project to create a book in kid words about amphibians.

By the end of Probably Still Nick Swanson, Nick has learned to talk with Shana, take his dog to the vet when it gets hurt in a hit-and-run car accident, and deal with the grief over his sister’s swimming death. As readers, Wolff has also helped us better understand: “Everybody’s different. Somebody’s different in China and somebody’s different because they have diabetes and insulin. Somebody’s different with a pacemaker in their heart, somebody can’t see colors except gray…. Everybody’s different.”

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Freak the Mighty

Freak the Mighty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps because one of the characters was based on a real individual, Freak the Mighty was like nothing I have ever read. Freak the Mighty features Max who struggles with reading and attends a special school and Kevin who loves to read the dictionary and suffers from a disease that makes him very short. The two form a quirky friendship and together they experience some hysterical and some harrowing adventures. Reading Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick was a great way to start my week!

What I appreciated most about Freak the Mighty is that the plot focuses on more than just disabilities. It’s about good guys, such as the  grandparents of Max who are called Grim and Gram and who have built Max a room in their basement. There are also bad guys, such as Max’s dad who becomes eligible for parole about midway through Freak the Mighty. Last, Freak the Mighty is even about those individuals who aren’t completely good nor are all bad either, such as Iggy and Loretta who are key to Max’s survival when Max’s dad kidnaps him.

All these examples make for a tension-filled plot, but Freak the Mighty also contains some strong and memorable themes. For example, there’s the friendship between Max and Kevin. Together, they stand up to Tony D., who is seventeen, been to juvenile court four times, and once cut a guy with a razor. Freak the Mighty is also about facing fears. Kevin challenges Max to undertake a quest and to tackle dragons, symbolic ones that is such as hunting for treasure and then returning the purse they found to a lady in the slums. I appreciate the pro-reading message which is extolled through Kevin. He reads the dictionary, encyclopedias, novels, and says, “Books are like serum–if you don’t read, you can’t figure out what’s real.” At the same time, Kevin is a great testament to the power of imagination. I love the much-repeated advice that Kevin offers to Max whenever shares something new he had learned about in books: “You can remember anything whether it happen or not.” Never traveled back in time to the Ice Age or through space to the Moon? You can, if you follow Kevin’s advice. This advice helps Kevin, when he has to face his greatest battle, of accepting that his organs are outgrowing his body.

As you can see, there’s plenty to appreciate about Freak the Mighty. My one caution is be prepared to feel confused in the first chapter. I had to read the plot behind Freak the Mighty to understand what disabilities the two boys had. Also, you might find that Max’s way of talking as energized as those who drink lots of coffee. I also could have done without Max’s habit of interrupting action to address readers: “Are you paying attention here?’ Fortunately, all these problems start to feel miniscule as the novel progresses.

To conclude, let me turn to the whole reason I read Freak the Mighty. What does it tell me about learning disabilities? Max struggles to read and has to squint to tell the difference between letters such as ‘r’ and ‘e’. He often doesn’t understand words and concepts that Kevin throws at him such as “archetypes” and “quests”. When Max finally attends regular school, he feels “it’s like getting jabbed with a little needle”. Eventually though, books and other stuff starts to make sense–thanks to Kevin. Writing is still lost on Max, his hands feels “so huge and clumsy, it’s like the pencil is a piece of spaghetti or something and it keeps slipping away.” Yet eventually, again thanks to Kevin, Max decides to write down their story. He still thinks he doesn’t have a brain, but he keeps trying and remembering until he’s actually written a book. What a positive message!

I love that Max remains true. He started out feeling he didn’t have a brain. By the end, that part still hasn’t changed, but Max has also begun proving to everyone (including himself) that he can read and write and make something of his life. Along the way, readers have been treated to an entertaining story.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Just One Friend by Lynn Hall is another miss for me. For the most part, I appreciated the ability of Hall to get inside the head of her main character. Too bad Hall ultimately made her main character morally bereft. The plot also had too many contrivances to make this novel a hit.

Initially, I felt hopeful of liking Just One Friend. There are so many phrases which are poignantly real to how special education students feel. For example, one neighbor girl who is friendly to her, Dory writes, “I tried to make myself be proud of how smart she was in school, but it was lonesome sometimes, always being proud of her and nobody ever being proud of me.” When talking about how some teachers treat her, Dory writes, “She was trying not to say that Bingo was dumb, so I could tell it was me that she was thinking about. She knew I was dumb and she didn’t want to hurt my feelings.” Students with learning disabilities may not often confess to feelings like these, because honestly few of us readily admit to our insecurities, but Hall shows a great understanding of their inner thoughts.

Actually, Hall also masterfully nails how difficult it is for anyone to confront a challenge. Dory hated how her mom would turn to alcohol as a way to deal with the family’s poverty. Until the day when school administrators decided Dory should be mainstreamed instead of attending a special school. Dory didn’t think she could handle being an outsider, adjusting to a new routine, or finding her way around a new school. She wanted the friendly neighbor girl Robin to ride the school bus with her and resented that another girl Meredith was going to pick Robin up in her car. As Dory struggled with her fears about facing her first day at a regular school, she started to feel how strong the pull must be for her mom to just give up on life: “I felt so damn tired of trying and failing and trying and failing, and reading everything three times before I understood it and always getting bad grades no matter how hard I tried.” Doesn’t this make your heart cry?

About this point is unfortunately when Just One Friend “jumps the shark” or declines in quality. Dory decides to spread nasty lies about Robin and Meredith, with the hope that the two would break up their friendship. When that doesn’t work, she decides to stop Meredith from picking up Robin by causing her to have a car accident. If that isn’t far-fetched enough, listen to how Dory’s logic is presented: “And then when Meredith woke up maybe she wouldn’t remember about me hitting her, or maybe she’d remember it fuzzy and not be sure. People would just think she drove into the ditch because she was a new driver and hit her head on the steering wheel.”

It’s also about this point that I lost all sympathy for Dory. Her not-so-innocent actions end up causing a terrible tragedy. Despite feeling some guilt and remorse, Dory shows the most concern about how she fits into The State Training School for Girls, who stays in touch with her, and what friends she makes. Never mind that she tried to hurt someone or that she negatively impacted Meredith’s life forever. All that matters in Dory’s narrow mind is that she has finally found a friend. While students with learning disabilities might resent how easy life comes to the smart, the majority of them still have moral integrity. And so I dislike this surprise twist of events.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

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