A Tool For Teaching Resistant Readers
Stuart is an English teacher who has been using Emergence to help kids read. And although I've posted our conversations on the site before, this one is especially poignant, as you'll soon see.
Recently, Stuart wrote me and asked me for help with a difficult kid.
I'm at a loss here. I've been working with Jason for many years, and I just can't help him lift this BLock about reading. We struggled trying to read yesterday again. He is in so much pain. I really just end up reading aloud to him and spot checking his comprehension.
I tried to stay present and was so concerned about something emerging in him, but I feel stuck.
I need your help. He needs our help. What can I do?
That day, I wrote him back with a few suggestions.
Please know, if you need my help, you have but to ask, and I'll offer whatever help I can. In order to help you though, you'll need to give me some specific,visual starting places. For instance, does he correct you? Does he look bored? Does he look blank? Does he look angry?
How about his eyes? Where do his eyes look when you and he talk? At your mouth? At your eyes? Toward you? Away from you? Elsewhere?
Pick a lesson and briefly describe your immediate goal; e.g. progress with simple reading comprehension. Then, in fine detail, describe what you and he visually look like as you go through this lesson, including the point at which it all seems to go wrong (the point at which you first feel alone).
Ask him to tell you what he wants to learn. Then use everything clever in you to make what he wants to learn logically resemble what you want him to learn. See how he does.
When you show him how these two things connect, does he look blank? Try to back out? Look lost and or bored? Look angry or confused?
Does he argue that what you're doing isn't what he told you he wanted to do?
How does he do with Eventful Emergence? Can he grasp the process? Can he even make a simple stroke mark without you struggling to do it for him!
Hopefully, you've just laughed.
Now that you've laughed, try to feel the absurdity in all this.
You are one of the best teachers I know and here you are, struggling with Asperger's. Do you ever consider though, that one of your "best" teachers has had to struggle this same struggle with you?
Stuart, I've been trying for years to build this same bridge between Asperger's and the normal world, every time we talk. Granted, I've been struggling from the inside of Asperger's, and you, from the outside. But do our relative positions actually matter? I think not. Inside. Outside. What's the difference. Being in either position means you feel terribly alone.
How about if you were to try to see this boy's problem more as a difficulty arising from his being bilingual than that he is broken or handicapped. In truth, the irony is, if indeed this boy truly has Asperger's, then he truly wants to learn from you. He is merely lost in the lingual translations between you and him, especially in the non verbal differences, meaning, in the things English teachers don't usually teach about language.v
Taking this a step further, perhaps you could try to picture him as a foreign language student, one whom has just arrived in the US. Picture him as a boy who has studied English for many years. Still, English is his second language.
On top of this, he is not very good at understanding English, even after these years of effort.
How would you feel toward the boy in this story? Any differently that how you feel toward your "boy with Asperger's?"
Stuart, the boys in these two stories are more similar in nature than anyone has yet realized. We only label them differently. In fact, in my most recent article on Asperger's, I close with the idea that people with hearing impairments and people with Asperger's have many of the same personality qualities. So many in fact, that this overlap has currently captured my attention.
What is the connection between hearing impaired people and people with Asperger's? At this point, I'm not sure. In any event, now substitute the Asperger's boy for a boy who is hearing impaired. Would you treat this boy with more compassion that the boy with Asperger's?
Perhaps you can try to build on your student's natural interests, those skills he has which are specific to people with Asperger's For instance, people with Asperger's love organizing things, especially words. How does your student do with vocabulary tests? In fact, have you ever thought of having him create, build, or keep a "word collection?"
What I'm saying is, people with Asperger's love uncovering the patterns hidden in the ordinary. Perhaps you could design something which stimulates this interest in him, something which explores the mystery in how words can be systematized, rather than focusing on the task and goal oriented part of the process?
What I'm suggesting is, what about focusing him on the mysteries hidden in groups in words, perhaps in their related origins, perhaps in their related meanings? Focusing on the mystery may wake up in him what is natural to his nature and in doing so, get him to see the beauty in learning language.
People with Asperger's also love games which include following sequences. In fact, I've recently been using this concept with the little eight year old Asperger's boy with whom I've been working, very successfully I might add.
What do we do?
We play a game which I've named, "the Instruction Game." In this game, he and his younger brother compete to see who can more accurately follow a brief set of instructions.
What do they compete for? Grades. Thus, both their parents sit and watch them during the process. Then, when they are finished, each parent grades a completed game.
Sometimes, one or both of the boys get hurt by these grades. I have, after all, asked the parents to be rigorously honest in grading these tasks. However, despite these momentary discomforts, every single week, both boys ask me, usually before they're through my door, whether we are going to again play the instruction game?
I find this amazing. We are, after all, literally and purposely reenacting school. Even so, they both ask me if we can again play this game, this with no prompting whatsoever. They have simply come to love the learning process, at least in this form.
What do we actually do in these games?
These boys' favorite version involves drawing sets of objects.
In this game, then, each in turn, I hand them a pad and pen. Then, while they hold this pad and pen (with rapt attention, every time!), I give them a brief set of instructions, something like to draw five animals you've seen in your back yard, or to draw six different musical instruments.
When they say they are done, I have one of the boys' parents grade how well they have followed these instructions. Here, the focus of the grading is almost entirely on how well they followed the instructions, including how well they have not digressed.
In the beginning, the boy with Asperger's would constantly add things to the instructions, sometimes bilateral, sometimes totally outside the instruction set. Often, then, he would then argue with me that these changes were justified.
Over time, though, and with much patience and honesty on the part of both his parents and myself, the boy has come to be quite skilled at these games.
For a kid with Asperger's, following instructions without digressing is nothing short of a miracle. To love doing this is even more of a miracle. Even so, within a few short months, this little boy has all but mastered this skill. And the joy of doing it.
Now consider how having this skill will generalize over his lifetime.
Is there any learning situation wherein unconscious digressions wouldn't hurt the process? Even art, consciously chosen, can be evolved into a skill. In fact, the example I've just given you is pretty good proof.
So how has this game helped him?
From the parents' reports, it has far exceeded my initial hopes. In fact, every single teacher the boy has, has remarked on how much better he is in school. Every one. More important, his grades have similarly followed this improvement.
Stuart, I've got to run. I hope, though, that whatever you get from my words, that you at least remember the most important part: You are an extraordinary teacher. This boy is lucky to have you.
P.S. With your permission, I'd again like to post our conversation, at least my words. I'd also love it if you could write me more as to what you see.
The next day, Stuart wrote and told me, I had mistaken Jason for another kid! And it still helped!
Thanks so much for your response. Your commitment is so warming. I learned so much from reading your work. It is still resonating in me today. However, Jason is not the boy with Asperger's.
That doesn't matter. All of your words have been playing into so many areas of my teaching and, of course, my learning.
1st - I never thought of when I go blank during the instruction period. Holy cow. I can see myself going blank. And again, Steve, you have helped with another emergence.
Actually, I saw myself going blank today, when I was working with a student who has such an aversion towards reading. I never realized it in the past.
I am looking forward to working with Jason today. You know Steve, he and I both need to be present during the healing process. And when I've been frustrated, and at times angry, I've totally gone blank.
For the first time, though, I see the blankness before the emotion in this scene. Thank you.
2nd - As for my Asperger's student, I see him so differently now. It really is amazing. And for you, so much of you is emerging in me. I never really knew what other language you spoke. I trusted it. I looked for context clues and tried my best to make connections. But now I know, in some sense, what it looks like.
We are teachers.
Then about a week later, Stuart wrote back, this time, very excited.
I only have a minute, but I am bursting with stuff to tell you. Your instructions have helped me so much with Jason. It finally emerged!!! He saw some of his BLocks.
I took two pages of notes during the process, and I'm dying to send you the step by step breakdown. It was like a P Curve for Jason and for me as well. I saw so many of my own BLocks while going through this.
My description will follow this email soon. Just wait. It is so amazing. He really saw his BLocks, and he saw them because of the tally marks. I can't believe it.
I will get you the transcript soon.
Then a few days later, he sent me the following description of what he did.
Well Steve, here it goes. Actually, I'm slightly nervous about writing up this experience, but I would just like for you to see exactly what happened. Here goes:
Jason walked into the room looking down. I was already sitting at the table. I knew I wanted to work on this with him today and, for whatever reason, I became frustrated.
I did my best to stay with him and I brought myself back. Here, I began to keep an eye on myself and him.
He sat down to the left of me on the same side of the table. His eye contact was very minimal. I felt pissed. Just a feeling. So I recognized it and brought myself back. It's funny, but when I think about it today, I am in love with feeling this way, with bringing myself back. Things emerge for me too.
The book, The Great Gatsby, was in front of him at the table. Actually, I am foggy as to how the book got in front of him. I can picture him tossing the book from his backpack on the table. Hmmm. When I picture this, it ticks me off. Anyway, now that I take the time, I think the book was already there with a small pile of lined paper and a pencil.
At this point, he began whistling and shaking his head, sort of like a disregard. Of course, this may only be my interpretation. At the time, it really bothered me. But again, I was aware of how I felt and brought myself back with him.
He then began flipping through the pages he had to read in Chapter three, seeing how many there were. Also, there was an open laptop on the table. He began tapping at the keys, and this again ticked me off. But again, I stayed with him.
We then spoke about the tally marks. I really looked at him consciously, but his eye contact was minimal. He did, however, look at me. And when it really all began, his eye contact was very present with me.
Steve, I'm trying to piece this together with my notes. However, there are some very small pieces between the transitions that are slightly difficult for me to see. I'm not sure if I waited too long, which is not true, I know. For consciousness is not affected by time.
Anyway, he began reading with the tally marks, which we tried in the past. I watched him really reading and making marks. He began crunching cookies in his mouth, and this ticked me off.
I came back. Some of his tally marks were thick and drawn over many times, and this ticked me off. But I came back. Actually, when he did his first mark, he said it was from the book moving. Here, his eye contact improved so much. I had never been so aware of myself and Jason at the same time.
At one point, I saw his eyes really relax, and his body just fell into a calm posture, and he was reading. And all of sudden, as I watched him reading, I became so ecstatic and pleased that I just wanted to cry really.
During all this, I was taking notes. He then asked me what I was doing. He became distracted. I explained to him that I was taking notes so I could remember this moment and so I could get to the bottom of his BLock with reading. I said think of me as the reading therapist. I felt uncomfortable with this question. I'm not sure why but I did my best to stay present. He still seemed slightly awkward about me taking notes. He said this never happened before.
Finally, we got back into the book, and he sunk back into an ease of reading. I had never seen him read like this before. (Note: Holy cow, even though he was thrown off by my note taking, by this point, something must have healed in him, because he was reading effortlessly even though something had distracted him.)
He read effortlessly for some time. It was slightly tough for me just to observe and not do anything. But I brought myself back to the idea that I was helping something emerge in him, and I saw so much benefit and kindness and joy in observing.
To be honest, though, I would tilt back and forth at moments between these two feelings. So, after he read for awhile, he looked up and took a calm break. I then asked him if he knew when he made some of the tally marks? Did he remember the scene when he drew one of the marks?
At first, he said he did't know. But then, he actually was able to show me a spot on the page where he went away. He looked down and then he said, there was nothing on the page that was bothering him. He then began, sort of unknowing (Steve, this is where I think the emergence began), saying that "reaching for the cookie," "sipping his soda," and "when the page moves" are the things that had distracted him.
Then we talked slightly. He realized that he had never really known exactly what had been distracting him. His eyes actually lit up here. And he and I realized that the marks had actually helped him to become aware of what his BLocks were.
We then talked and he and I were amazed. He then said he feels BLocked before reading and when reading ends. He said he feels very tired during these moments. However, when he was reading consciously, he seemed so awake.
I hope I am articulating this correctly. He actually realized that he had BLocks, and it was outside the book at this time. He also realized, as did I (holy cow), that the tally marks had helped him to identify the BLocks.
From this point on, his heavy marks did not tick me off any more. Something healed here in me. Go figure. Wow, Steve, when we worked together, you must be healing things too. Holy cow.
He continued to read and even stopped at vocabulary words which he didn't understand, those he could not picture. I helped him gently with these words, and he went back to reading seamlessly.
It is amazing. Reading for Jason has always been the most painful experience. If it ever really happens. This is the first time I have ever really seen him read. He even made a tally mark when the computer fan kicked on!
Then the dog walked by, and I didn't want it to distract me or him, so I tried to blank him out. But then I realized no aloneness should exist, even with the dog.
He then stopped reading after a total of twenty five minutes! He had made sixteen tally marks.
We discussed the experience and at one point, he said, he didn't like reading. But through further discussion, he realized he read effortlessly today. He remembered, in the past, that he would lie on the floor and moan before reading. When he saw this, he looked at me and his eyebrow lifted. He knew.
Steve, it is so interesting trying to show emergence to someone who knows nothing about it and who isn't seeking it. Ultimately, he never knew these distractions existed until this day.
Steve, thanks so much.
A few closing thoughts.
Pretty amazing really. And for those who have no idea as to what the "tally" marks were Stuart was referring to, he asks kids to notice each time they can't picture what they're reading. Then he has them make a tally mark, really one, two, three, four, slash marks five mark tally marks, to count the times they go blank.
Does it help? Well, if you've just read Stuart's story, you know it more than helped. He actually got a very resistant boy to like reading.
How long will this improvement last? We'll see. But if I read the points in the story right, what emerged will last for the rest of Jason's life.
Not bad for a few tally marks, eh?
Hopefully, we'll get Stuart to write up his method a bit more formally soon, so perhaps other teachers can try it out. I, for one, would love it.