The Gift of Being a Lifelong Learner

At the beginning of the year 2018, there was an announcement that the Rhode Island Foundation in conjunction with the Rhode Island Department of Education and the University of Rhode Island was offering a series of classes specific to dyslexia. A cohort of educators from the public schools would have the opportunity to participate in an intensive training to assist us in the evaluation, treatment, and understanding of the unique needs of students with literacy difficulties. This education opportunity would be part classroom instruction and part practicum experience so that learning and application would coincide.

I entered this lottery to win a coveted seat.

I am a speech and language pathologist working in a public school. Reading is part of our scope of practice as the base of all literacy is oral language. It is why I became speech and language pathologist, I have always been fascinated by the development of written language. However, it is not always what the public thinks about when they think of a speech therapist.

I am very grateful to East Greenwich as I was one of three professionals picked from my district to participate in this opportunity the other two are reading specialists.

This blog is not about the content of this course but rather the journey I have taken as a learner.

Have you ever been in a room that was filled with people who shared the same passion for their students?  It is something that feeds your soul. We listened intently to the syllabus for the series of courses. All I could think of was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the song “Hi Ho, Hi Ho it’s off to work we go!”

The content of this course is fascinating to me. I love learning about how the brain processes language and particularly written language.  As it is an area of interest I have read, gone to classes and workshops and reviewed the research. I was, however, amazed at how much I did not know.

As we have gone through the course I am realizing as a learner I need to take apart a concept and then convert it into information that is concrete. I am an avid reader, reading more than 100 books a year of all genres but I recognized reading a text on new information was different. My process of reading included reorganizing the information and converting many of the concepts into pictures. It helped me to be able to model the difference with my students.  I spoke to them about them being able to read Harry Potter easily but when they read their Social Studies textbook they might read slower, need a highlighter or sticky notes or might need to draw some of the concepts. There may be parts of the text that they need to re-read.

Sitting in class there were times that the vocabulary being used by the instructors was unfamiliar to me. I recognized there were times that I would be focusing on this unfamiliar word and in the process I lost some of the information that the professor was saying. This is similar to my students that might skip over words that are hard. Are they processing something that I said that they are unfamiliar with?  Have I recognized this in them? Have I given them a way to stop me when I am speaking and they don’t understand? Have I taught and reinforced strategies that will assist them in using context, syntactic and semantic clues to figure out a word? Do they know their spelling rules in a way that they can apply them to new information?

There are times that the professor would call on a student to do the work at the board. I know I would shrink in my seat unsure of my skill and not wanting to illustrate my lack of knowledge.  Is this how my students feel?  Do I recognize this hesitancy in them and develop ways to bolster their feelings of accomplishment so that they are confident in their abilities?

Group projects were part of the instructional model. I know that I gained a great deal from this type of congenial professional discussion and dissection of literacy concepts, however, I also experienced some challenges. There was a need for cognitive flexibility and theory of mind skills as you navigate not just the content but also the social aspect of working in a group. Do I recognize that my students may be having difficulty with the social issues of a group project?  How am I supporting not just their growth in content but also their social pragmatic skills? How am I organizing my groups?  Does each voice have the same opportunity to contribute or does one voice outshout the rest?

Courses come with assignments and those assignments are graded. There are few opportunities available to a seasoned therapist to be evaluated by a professional that understands what I am doing. I worked really hard on the assignments but there were times I did not reach the standards. How did I feel about the comments? Were there times that I wanted to protest the grading?  Were there times I wanted to whine” I worked so hard on this”? YES!!!!! My professors were very generous with their time and more concerned that I understood the content. They were available for consultation and allowed me to redo my work. This gave me a greater appreciation for how my students might be reacting to my corrections. Do I acknowledge their effort? Have allowed them a do-over without prejudice? I know I have changed the ‘tone’ of my corrections and have worked hard to ensure that I am giving my students at least two positive comments to each directive for improvement. 

In my work as a clinician, I have worked with students whose executive functioning skills were impaired. They often would begin a group project with a large idea of what they were going to do. So if the teacher was asking for a poster board they might talk about making a movie about the topic. When I would ask if they had a movie camera, they would respond “no”. When I asked if they could easily go to each other’s homes to complete their ‘movie’ they also responded in the negative. Some of the work that was assigned I was similar to my students. Oh….. I am teaching the short ‘i ‘sound…… I will make an igloo…… we can save the polar bears….. have a scavenger hunt with penguins with the short ‘i ‘on them and then sit in the igloo and examine the CVC words with magnifying glasses. The amount of work that I did to set up this was enormous.

Then I saw models of good teachers’ lessons and realized I was missing some of the essential elements. I was spending too much energy on the ‘fluff’ and not on the ‘core’ of the lesson. How many times do I tell my own clinicians to spend more time on the content and I don’t care that they laminated the lesson? I care about them understanding the principles behind what they are teaching. Seeing models of teachers applying the principles of a good literacy lesson helped me reorganize my lesson planning.

I am grateful to my fellow classmates and especially to the professors whose love of the content, passion to pass this information to others and most of all their patience as I try to apply the principles that they have taught.

Sometimes taking a class has benefits that are not realized and goes beyond the content being studied. Taking a series of classes in Dyslexia has taught me much about literacy however it has also taught me how to be a better speech and language pathologist, supervisor, teacher, and advocate.

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