Read Rise Fly Blog

Welcome to the Read Rise Fly Blog, a collection of essays, inspiration, and helpful information from Schenck School experts.

Unexpected Gifts
Josh Clark, Head of School

This post was first published May 4, 2016.

 

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four years old. At the age of five, he became ill and was bedridden for weeks. As a gift, Einstein’s father gave him a small, silver compass. He imagined the young boy charting the seven seas, his bed morphing into a pirate’s ship with Albert its captain. Instead, though, its mechanics fascinated Albert. Why, no matter which way he pointed the compass, did the arrow always point the same direction?

The gift sparked Einstein’s fascination with gravitational pull and not cannon balls or hooked-handed adversaries. For his father, it was quite unexpected.

School was a constant struggle for Richard Branson. At the age of 13, Richard’s parents withdrew him from the Scaitcliffe School in Surrey before he failed out. He transferred to Stowe School, a boarding school in Stowe, Buckinghamshire, England. Again facing academic peril, Branson dropped out at 16. On his last day, his headmaster, Robert Drayson, told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire, with an emphasis on the former.

Today, Virgin Group holds over 200 companies in 30 countries, and Branson is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time. To his schoolmates, his success was quite unexpected.

In my own life, I have come to cherish the unexpected. When I was in 6th grade, I failed Language Arts – we called it English at the time. My spelling was atrocious. When I began my career as a sixth grade Language Arts teacher, no one was more surprised than my 11-year-old self. Now, as the headmaster of a school for children with dyslexia, I’ve learned to love the unexpected.

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as

a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Whenever I present on dyslexia, I always begin with this definition and zoom in on the word “unexpected.” To me, it is the most important term in the 78-word definition. Children with dyslexia are bright, creative, agile thinkers. They can build cities in their minds, synthesize divergent concepts, and solve complex problems. We are so impressed by their aptitude that we are surprised by their struggles with sounds and symbols. It is so unexpected.

As parents, we all build road maps for our children, and rarely do they include struggles in school. However, as Einstein, Branson, and countless other notable dyslexics show us, there is power in the unexpected.

School is back in session, and children are excited for the new year!
Peggy Webb Hendrix, Director of Admissions

This post was first published September 1, 2016.

That’s a true statement, right?  After all, those long summer days have begun to stretch into sameness. Beach vacations are over, and the pool just doesn’t seem quite as exciting as it did in June.  New school clothes and backpacks have been purchased, and the promise of good times with school friends looms large.

But not every child is eager for school to begin again.  If your child is dyslexic and not getting the help he or she needs, the school bell signals another year of fear, worry,  and frustration.  Fear that reading aloud will clue classmates in to the struggles your child faces.  Worry because your child’s peers are racing ahead while his progress seems slow or non-existent.  Frustration that no matter how hard your child tries, it just isn’t enough to keep up.

Now is the time to seek help.  If you suspect your child has a reading problem, you are probably right . . . in my experience, a parent’s intuition is uncannily accurate.  However, it can be so tempting to hope that this year will be different, that last year’s teacher was right that your child’s struggle really was developmental.

Please know, however, that the problem is almost never developmental.  If your child is a struggling reader, call a local psychologist to schedule a complete psycho-educational evaluation.  With a diagnosis in hand, you will be prepared to seek the help your child needs. With proper intervention, she can become a successful reader.

Just think what a wonderful feeling it will be when the school bell rings again, and you know your child can enter that school building remediated and ready to take on the world!

How do I talk to my dyslexic child about his/her diagnosis?
Peggy Webb Hendrix, Director of Admissions

This post was first published May 9, 2016

I was so excited.  My son had just been accepted at a prestigious school for dyslexics!  Finally, he was going to get the help he needed.  The new school was going to teach him how to read!

But wait a minute . . . the new school.  Hmm.  Hadn’t really thought that through.  He was going to have to leave the school he had attended since the age of one in their mother’s morning out program.  The school his sisters had attended since the age of 3.

That wasn’t even the biggest issue though.  I was going to have to tell him he was DYSLEXIC.  My poor child was going to have, gasp, a label that would follow him for the rest of his life.  It took me back to the day when he was diagnosed, but at that time we were just so relieved to have an answer as to why this bright boy was struggling to learn his letters.  Now we were faced with a reality that he would follow him all of his days.

I must confess that I handled the situation badly.  I took the coward’s way out and waited until he had completed a summer program at the new school.  The summer program was lots of fun and he had a wonderful time.  Who wouldn’t want to go to a school like that?

You want to know the worst part?  He was only five at the time!  Imagine how hard it would have been for me had he been 10 or 12 . . . the age when children truly understand what is going on.

How in the world would I have been able to explain what was “wrong” with him?

Looking back on it, I realize that I robbed him of the chance to own his diagnosis.  I didn’t take the opportunity to talk with him about the truly wonderful skills and talents that so often exist in dyslexics.  A big part of that was probably because I didn’t understand these things myself.  I only knew that he wasn’t like his peers because he couldn’t read, and that seemed like a bad thing.

Since that time I have learned so much more about dyslexia.  I have met and worked with hundreds of gifted dyslexics.  Here at that school where I now work, I have become part of a culture that celebrates the unique talents that dyslexics bring to the world.  We teach children (and parents!) each and every day that dyslexics have “cool” brains that can problem solve in out-of-the box ways to create solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

So when I am asked in my role as admissions director for that prestigious school how to tell children about their dyslexia, I encourage parents to talk openly and honestly about the challenges their children will face and the gifts they possess.  I hope that parents will feel proud of their dyslexic children because they have wonderful gifts to share with the world.  Proud parents create proud children.  Most children are relieved to learn that “it’s just dyslexia.”  And they can again feel like the smart people that they really are.

Does this remind you of a child you know?
Peggy Webb Hendrix, Director of Admissions

This post was first published July 7, 2015.

I was lucky enough to have a visit today from one of my former students. She is an extraordinary young woman ... accomplished in academics and athletics, a very successful college student, personable, articulate, intellectually curious, empathetic beyond words, and dyslexic. However, when I first met her, she was timid, unsure and unhappy. Her educational experiences from early on had convinced her that she was stupid, she would never go to college, she needed remedial math because she clearly didn’t get it (she turned out to be a gifted math student), and she had no potential.

The people who said these things to her had clearly never met her mother.

When my student was diagnosed with dyslexia, her mother immediately educated herself. She read every book on the subject, she talked to every one of her patients who was dyslexic, and she looked long and hard to find resources in her community that could help. She became what every dyslexic child needs . . . an advocate. This mom, a busy physician, devoted much of her time trying to make things better for her daughter. She talked with her daughter’s school about accommodations; she went to bat with teachers over all the red marks on her papers because of spelling errors; she asked for extra time and for oral testing. But as so often happens in many schools, she was denied the help her daughter needed. “Your daughter just isn’t trying hard enough, she isn’t smart enough, she is clearly working to her potential and isn’t capable of more, if we give her accommodations it isn’t fair to the other children.”

But my student’s mother was an unstoppable force. She refused to accept what these people had to say about her daughter; rather, she became even more determined to find help for her child. She found a wonderful tutor in her community who began the work, and then learned that there were schools devoted to the remediation of dyslexia. Tireless champion that she was, she made sure that her daughter found a place in our school. I should mention, however, that our school was over an hour away from their home. Undaunted, this mother found a way to make it work. She drove her daughter on some days, and on some nights the girl spent the night in town with her grandmother. Her daughter even came to school on a day that was so icy that most of the other children in school were absent!

Meet another unstoppable force . . . her daughter. The one who never wanted to miss a single day of school. In the beginning I was especially concerned about this student because she so clearly lacked confidence in herself academically. She was fearful to answer questions and was reluctant to ask for help. But she was the hardest working student I have ever known. No assignment was too much, even though she was usually working in the car on the hour-long ride home or studying at 6 a.m. on her way to school. I came to learn that this young woman personified persistence. She was doggedly determined to learn everything that she could. Through encouragement and praise, she came to realize that she actually had tremendous potential. She became an excellent math student, one of the strongest in the grade. She studied harder than anyone and made exceptional marks. Most importantly, she became secure in the fact that her dyslexia was a gift.

That’s what our dyslexic children need to understand. Their brains function differently. Their problem-solving skills, strong work ethic, intellectual curiosity, impressive verbal skills and out-of-the-box thinking make them extraordinary people whose worth will be recognized and valued in the workplace. Traditional academics may always be a bit difficult for them because they are required to memorize information. But when they encounter situations that allow them to learn experientially, find solutions to problems and think creatively, they will soar. They need advocates to encourage them and help them find these strengths within themselves. Not every child can attend a special school for dyslexics, but there are resources within many communities that can help.

So just how do you go about becoming your dyslexic child’s advocate? Begin by reading everything you can so that you can understand your child’s academic challenges. I recommend starting with Overcoming Dyslexia, by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. Dr. Shaywitz and her husband, Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, are co-directors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The Center’s website contains much helpful information, such as a good explanation for what dyslexia actually is as well as suggestions for how to talk with your child about his/her diagnosis. The parents’ section includes information about signs of dyslexia, suggestions for parents of dyslexic children and perhaps most importantly, excellent advice for those parents planning for their first meeting with their child’s school after diagnosis.

There are many other wonderful resources, including PBS Resources for Parents of a Dyslexic Child which includes such items as a reading list for parents, books written for children about dyslexia, and web sites such as All Kinds of Minds and Misunderstood MindsReading Rocket’s Top Ten Resources for Dyslexia is another good source of information. The International Dyslexia Association offers a wealth of information for parents and educators.

Now that you’ve become an expert, where do you turn for help? If you’ve done your research, you know that your child will require remediation in order to achieve his/her true potential. But where do you look to find help? You could begin with your state chapter of the Academy of Orton Gillingham Practioners and Educators. The dedicated folks there will be happy to help you find an Orton Gillingham tutor who can work with your child, no matter their strengths or weaknesses. The Orton Gillingham approach is a scientifically research-based method for the treatment of dyslexia. The Academy will also help you locate a specialized school for the remediation of dyslexia if you are interested in pursuing enrollment. Keep in mind that OG is only one method of remediation . . . there are other good ones as well. Just be sure to investigate your tutors to make sure that they are fully trained and have a proven track record of success.

Become actively involved in your local chapters of The Orton Gillingham Academy and the IDA, and become members of the national associations. You will be kept apprised of legislative efforts regarding dyslexia remediation at both the national and state levels, and you will have access to on-going research about dyslexia. At your local chapters, make a point to become acquainted with fellow parents because they can be a tremendous source of guidance and support. Ask for help and you will realize that you and your child are not alone; some sources report that dyslexia occurs in as many as one out of every five people!

Finally, talk to your child about the gifts that come along with dyslexia. Help him/her understand that dyslexic brains function in a wonderful way and that his/her problem-solving skills, strong work ethic, intellectual curiosity, impressive verbal skills and out-of-the-box thinking make him/her an extraordinary person whose worth will be recognized and valued in the workplace. Traditional academics will always be difficult for them, even with remediation. They will have to work harder than anyone else. But when they encounter situations that allow them to learn experientially, find solutions to problems and think creatively, they will soar. They need advocates along the way to encourage them and help them find these strengths within themselves.

And take heart . . . you have an exceptionally gifted child in your care. Don’t listen to people who tell you your child is lazy or unmotivated.   Keep looking for solutions that can help them become the extraordinary people they are destined to be.

Like my former student who came to see me today and reminded me just how extraordinary dyslexics can be when someone believes in them.

Dedicated to Dana and Mary Elizabeth

Listen to Your Inner Voice
Peggy Webb Hendrix, Director of Admissions

Listen to your inner voice . . . 

You know that little voice that speaks to you and causes you to worry around the edges? The one you try to ignore because it probably means there is trouble in “paradise?” 
Consider these statements I’ve heard parents make:


I know in my heart that my daughter is struggling with reading, but all of her teachers say that she’s so smart they know she’ll catch up in no time . . .


My son is having a hard time reading, but he’s probably just a late bloomer . . .


I know my son is bright, but I hear him crying at night after he’s gone to bed because he feels dumb . . . 


I’m suspicious that my daughter’s many ailments are just an excuse to avoid school.  She says she’s really sick, but she often talks about how hard school is for her compared to her friends . . . 


Have you ever had thoughts like these? Wondered whether your child really would catch up? Had a feeling that school was really tougher for your child than you realized? 


You’re not alone. Many parents who have sent their children to our school for dyslexic children have tried to ignore thoughts like these. I know I did.  My son had such strong verbal skills that I thought the psychologist was wrong about his learning difference. I didn’t believe the expert! Talk about denial!
But you know that there is good reason to listen to that inner voice. I suspect that it has never failed you before. If you have that nagging sense that you need to do something about your fears for your child, now is the time to act. As Sally Shaywitz says, “Dyslexia robs our children of time.” Without proper intervention, dyslexic children will never catch up to their peers.  
Follow that instinct and have your child tested. The information you will receive is not scary. Rather, it will provide a roadmap for you to follow as you plan the next steps for your child’s education. You will feel much better once you put those action steps into place, and your child will flourish because of it.