Monday, June 2, 2008

Do We Write Off Slow Students?

In the post Are You Slow?, Andrea states, “When we mistake speed for ability — or rather, lack of speed for lack of ability — we misinterpret a person’s intelligence and their ability to learn.”

This really hit home for me when I think about how many of my special education students have been written off by other teachers. My students were slower the students in general education classes because their disability caused them to process information in a different way. In my school, my self contained students were mainstreamed for two general education elective classes in addition to the five classes with me for academic subjects. Even though I had a student who had extreme difficulty reading words, he could take apart a car engine and put it back together again. I had another student who went through a traumatic emotional experience but she was so artistic, the art teacher wanted her to take upper level art courses. These are just a couple of examples of what my students could do and even though I would focus on their strengths in order to work on their weaknesses, other teachers wrote them off as “slow.”

One teacher stands out though because she was willing to work with me and students to get around their learning difficulties. Keep in mind though that when she first found out that two of my students would be in her broadcast journalism class, I thought she would blow a gasket. She was quite concerned about teaching them because she was responsible for the newspaper and the daily TV news program made by the students. J. had Down Syndrome and D. was Mentally Disabled/Autistic. We worked closely together to decide what skills they could do and what accommodations would be made. In fact, we probably touched base at least once a week. By the end of the year, D. was the weatherman on our daily news channel and J. helped with the equipment. The other students loved them and were pretty protective towards them but I really feel this attitude came from the teacher and how she treated my students. In fact, the teacher’s attitude changed so much over the year that she requested that they take second year of her course the following year. This teacher was amazing because she overcame her doubts and was so willing to try to work with my students. She could have said they were too “slow” and found reasons why they shouldn’t be in her class, but she didn’t.
My husband was a terrible student when he was in high school and from the stories he tells me, I’m sure that his teachers would have considered him slow. He ended up going in the navy and getting his GED. I have to say (don’t think I’m prejudiced just because he is my husband) but I think he is the most intelligent man I have ever known. As a student he didn’t fit into the mold that other students did and teachers seemed to write him off. I’m proud to say that he recently retired from being a judge and I can’t tell you how many law books he has read. What might have been considered “slowness” in school, tends to be seen as “deliberateness” as an adult and comes in handy when making a decision that could alter a person’s life. Former teachers are shocked when they hear he married a teacher and became a judge. He loves to read textbooks, manuals, and anything that teaches him something new because there is noone pressuring him on how he should be learning.

Maybe that is why many students are not successful and drop out of school. Are we worrying too much on how they are learning something instead of being concerned that they are actually learning the concepts and skills we want them to learn? When I taught my students how to do a certain math skill, there was usually more than one way to come up with the solution. Is doing it the exact way the teacher demands more important than coming up with the correct answer as a result of what works best for the student?


Lisa Parisi said...

Wow, this is a powerful post. You have really hit the nail on the head. Everybody has some strength they can build on to get through the weaknesses. It is up to us to find them.

Two quick personal stories. My daughter, who is brilliant, tests high, etc. is extremely slow when it comes to solving math problems. She always complains she is the last one to finish any problem, has to finish tests at lunch, etc. She is, however, in math honors and has a wonderful teacher who gives her all the time she needs. I worry about what will happen when she leaves this teacher next year.

My husband was always a very poor student. His elementary report cards actually say he was "slow to understand concepts." The school tried to place him in special ed classes but his mom refused. He ended up dropping out and getting his GED. Cut to 30 years later. He received his Bachelor's with a 3.9 GPA, his Masters with a 3.9 GPA and is a self-taught computer expert. He now teaches elementary school and is receiving high praise for how well his students are doing. Not bad for someone who is "slow to understand."

When will we learn?

Kevin said...

Your post hit home with me, too. In particular, I have one student who has asperger's and is a diabetic, and he works so very slow. And his necessary trips to the bathroom (which can last 5 to 10 minutes) means that he is always falling behind.
But in the past week, as we are working on digital picture books, he has had some time and he created a wonderful book using Sonic the Hedgehog as a character. He is so proud of his book. He just needed time and in this era of moving through as much curriculum as the state tests require, time is not always there for him.


Paul Hamilton said...

Thank you, Pat, for sharing these stories. Far too many learners are shortchanged in school because they are judged in some way and found wanting. It isn't just the learners with visible challenges either. It is so important to start out looking for ability rather than thinking in terms of disability. --Paul

loonyhiker said...

Lisa: I love these stories. Hopefully your daughter has a foundation that she can fall back upon if she needs it next year. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who has a spouse with a "history!" Thanks for sharing these with me.

loonyhiker said...

Kevin: I'm so glad that you didn't give up on this student and kept searching until you found something he could be successful at. It is these small successful steps that will count later in life.

loonyhiker said...

Paul: That was a great point that you made. I agree that we should be looking at all students this way.

Courtney J. said...

I agree completely that when a student is “slow” it is often misinterpreted with the student’s intelligence. I am a special education teacher and I’ve had many experiences where the general education teacher wanted to pull his/her hair out because one of my students was slow in comparison to their classroom peers. I have worked with general educators who are willing to collaborate with me to hammer out what the student can do. I have also worked with teachers who want to wash their hands of the issues and make it a special education one. The latter has been quite frustrating for me. Overall, I would have to say the general education teachers I have worked with are open to suggestions and willing to make accommodations for my students. I think half the battle is teaching the general education teachers about the student’s disability and allowing them to opportunity to understand it. Also, showing the teachers that it is okay for my students to do a math problem a different way. As long as they are getting the same answer, it shouldn’t matter how they are completing the problem.

I can also relate to feeling like a slow learner as a student. I always received excellent grades in school, but was a horrible test taker, especially standardized tests. I can always remember being the last student finished with a test and feeling the eyes of the other students gaze at the back of my head, wondering when I would be done so they could talk. So, I think that “slowness” is not just an issue for our special education students, but one for our general education students as well. I think my experience is an example of that.

I also can relate to what you said about your husband. My ex-husband was the same way. His dad split when he was two and he didn’t see him much. His mom was also not very present when he was going up, so needless to say he had a lot of behavior problems in school. He was even put into a special education classroom for behavior. He commented that the books the teacher had him working out of were two and three grade levels behind what he could do, so he goofed off even more. He actually ended up getting his GED in high school as well. He did go on to college to get an assoc. degree. I would have to say that he is one of the most intelligent people I know, but you would never guess that from his school experience.

I think we need to remember that ALL students learn in different ways whether they are general or special education students. As educators, it is our duty to help them learn through any modality possible, even if it means more work for us.

Angela Maiers said...

Pat, you are right on here! We are quick to "label" students but not so quick to look at our teaching. Did I model enough? Did I give students enough time to practice? Was the task to difficult?

Every child can be reached, and every student has incredible, untapped potential! It is our responsibility to find it.

My favorite quote- Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be!

loonyhiker said...

courtney: Thanks for your comments and your personal story. It is stories like this that I think have a great impact on people with learning difficulties.

loonyhiker said...

Angela: What a great quote! Thk you so much for sharing this.