If you’ve followed this blog recently you know that I have been exploring how learning difficulties are portrayed in YA and Middle Grade novels. This week I want to zoom in on a teacher’s perspective by welcoming Lynn Bonner, Reading Specialist at John Crosland School in Charlotte.
Linda: Lynn, what exactly does a Reading Specialist do?
Lynn: I have the privilege of helping students discover the joys of reading independently by applying rules and tools to decode, and strategies for comprehension. We use the Orton-Gillingham method in small groups of approximately three students to read cards, lists, poems, stories, real and nonsense words. We write in the air, and on different textures such as shaving cream, carpet, velvet and sand. Oh yes, we even write on paper! We tap sounds on fingers, bingo chips, and pompoms. We sort, classify, and play word games.
In my Comprehension classes, I use research-based methods to help bring understanding to a variety of printed text. We read aloud and silently, map stories, read, classify, read, sequence, read, summarize, read, paraphrase, read, determine question types, read, link vocabulary, read, draw the big picture of a story, and read… I know you get the big picture.
Linda: I know you’ve been at this for a while. Tell us a little about your educational background and what influenced your career choice.
Lynn: I started teaching full time in Florida public schools in 1978, 35 years ago, after graduating from Mercer University with a concentration in Elementary Education and a minor in Psychology. When I first arrived in Florida, I took several early childhood courses and my favorite Education course, Diagnostic and Corrective Reading, at the University of South Florida. I have always been a voracious reader and loved teaching, but I believed this course, as well as a personal journey with loved ones who struggled with reading, set me on the path of helping struggling readers learn to read.
Linda: What special training have you had beyond your college career that has helped sharpen your teaching experience?
Lynn: I have had many years of special programs and, of course, on the job training which is the best training of all. Staff development classes, a large variety of conferences, five Project Read Certificates, a Teaching Diverse Learners Certificate, SRA Corrective Reading and Wilson Reading Systems training, and University of Kansas SIMS training in comprehension have all sharpened my skills. But I would consider my Orton – Gillingham training to be the most beneficial because it helps me give my students the keys to unlock the mysteries of reading at the basic level of decoding. In a nutshell, it is a diagnostic, prescriptive, repetitive, multi-sensory, and systematic approach to teaching phonics. I see it work daily, and the students have fun and experience success.
Linda: Describe the most challenging situation you face in working with the learning disabled population.
Lynn: That has to be when students enter the school feeling defeated, maybe after years of not being able to read like their classmates. The key is getting these students reading quickly so they can experience success. Correcting a mistake can cause pain, so the challenge is to build as much success into the lesson as possible while presenting new information in a fun, painless way. Reading and writing by themselves is the biggest confidence booster.
Linda: And I know there are wonderful, rewarding experiences when you feel that special connection or particular success with a student.
Lynn: I feel that it is my duty and privilege to develop a special connection with each of my students. It is easiest to learn from someone who cares about you, your needs and wants, your interests, and your successes. On the flip side, it is easiest for me to teach when I know each student. Just getting to know each of my students and watching them grow and succeed is the greatest reward and joy for me.
Linda: What do you think are the essential ingredients in the recipe for success for a “typical” student with a learning disability?
Lynn: First, the teacher must have the knowledge and motivational tools to reach out and teach that individual student. Then, the student must take that first step and accept what is being offered. The recipe’s directions are as simple and difficult as that. Presenting material to be learned in a multi-sensory way by using the auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic channels is a key ingredient. Understanding the child’s motivations, strengths and weaknesses is another. The ingredients mix together perfectly when the student understands that the teacher cares and that he/she can experience success. To extend the metaphor, the cake rises!
Linda: What have you observed about creativity in students with learning disabilities? Do they tend to be more or less creative than the general population and if more, in what ways (art, music, other?)
Lynn: I truly feel that every child has gifts. Sometimes the gift is their unique combination of abilities. Yes, I have seen phenomenal artistic abilities in our learning disabled population. Our school emphasizes the technologies and the arts for a reason. I fully expect some of my very talented visual artists to have their works displayed in art galleries or in books one day for all to see. The music concerts and plays at our school are great. The middle school students wrote original compositions this year, and several creative students tell me about books that they are writing. Some students like to make inventions to solve problems. My students don’t always “think inside the box or color between the lines.” What impresses me the most about our population is each student’s individual medley. They often have to work harder and longer, and they usually have the energy to do so. This work ethic develops perseverance, tenacity, and creativity that usually leads to success in their chosen field.
Linda: How has technology figured into the formula for success in teaching learning disabled students in recent years?
Lynn: These students are children of technology. They have fun games that they can turn to for reinforcement on personal computers through our school’s website. They participate in Smart Board interactive lessons. We have Thinking Reader programs that read aloud to students and ask questions along the way. Children with dysgraphia have greatly benefitted from drag and speak technology that will type what they say into the computer. Just basic keyboarding with spell check has been a help. That being said, one of the founders of Orton said something to the effect that a good Orton teacher should be able to teach with nothing but a stick and some sand. Assistive and adaptive technologies are very important, but I feel that it needs to be paired with an instructor who knows the needs and wants of the student.
Linda: Lynn, it sounds like you love what you are doing. What would you say is the most satisfying part of your job:
Lynn: It is absolutely getting to know each of my students and sharing in their joys and successes.
Linda: If you could wave a magic wand in your particular job or maybe your field in general, what would you wish for?
Lynn: It might be nice to say that I would wish to take away the students’ reading difficulties, struggles and problems, but I don’t think I would. It might be a detriment to take away the very thing that prepares them for their greatness. One of my family members with dyslexia and dysgraphia said that she is grateful for the road that she has traveled. It has made her stronger in a variety of ways. She became a top student with a graduate degree who loves to read and adores technology. She is highly respected in her professional field. My students are wonderful just as they are! They just learn differently. I do wish for all my students to have happiness and the understanding and respect that they so richly deserve. Of course, I always wish for more books so that we can all keep on reading! A big thank you to you, Linda, for writing books for us to read!
Linda: The feeling is mutual, Lynn. Where would we be without dedicated teachers like you? Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us today.