Teacher stands in front of students sitting at desks

I was inspired to write this piece after reading A Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015). The book (without giving it away for those of you who haven’t read it yet) tells the story of a sixth-grade girl who struggles because of dyslexia that goes undiagnosed until a wise teacher sees, and more importantly, fosters and celebrates her gifts, while teaching her to read. As a result, his efforts transform this student from believing in only the impossible relative to her learning to seeing the possible.

According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCSE), in 2011-12, the average class size for elementary grades was 21.2 students and for secondary grades it was 26.8 (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2016). In Michigan, where I live, the average class size was 36! In 2014-15, NCES reported that 13% of the students in the US public schools received special education services; and of those students, 35% had specific learning disabilities, under which dyslexia falls (investigate updated NCES Condition of Education data here). Add to the mix—English language learners, students with 504 Plans, and those who struggle to read and spell, but don’t qualify for special education services—and we’ve got classrooms made up of lots of students with a wide variety of learning needs—and one teacher, typically, to handle it all.

Our classrooms and curricula continue to be designed, largely, for those students who fit neatly in the box. And, as indicated by the numbers above, many students simply do not. How can a teacher meet all the demands of teaching (e.g., large class sizes, standardized testing, district and state mandates) while meeting the individual needs of those students who learn outside the box? Fish in a Tree reminded me of some strategies that teachers can implement into their practices that would benefit all students, and particularly, have the potential to move those outside-the-box thinkers from seeing and experience school from the impossible to the possible and probable.

  1. The gift of time—Students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities (i.e., language impairment, autism spectrum disorder) as well as students with ADHD, greatly benefit from having just a little bit more time to process information and to formulate their thoughts.
  2. Knowledge of what’s coming—While some of us might like the occasional surprise (as in a party), most of us do not like to be taken off guard. These students should not be called on ‘cold.’ Give them a heads up of questions that will be posed in class. If their hands go up, call on them first. Find a way, if the answer is a little off-base to understand the thinking behind the response and celebrate that thinking.
  3. Let ‘em shine—None of us likes to be singled out for not being able to do something. Within the verbal and written literacy environment of the classroom, there is little place for a student with strengths outside that realm to shine. Find a place in the day for each student to be celebrated for his or her contribution.
  4. Group, schmoop—Our students do need to learn how to get along with others. We humans are, after all, social beings. That said, group projects in a classroom tend to lend themselves poorly for setting up a positive environment to shine if you think differently and if you are not ‘good at school.’ Careful matching of students with peers is essential for fostering one’s positive self-concept.
  5. Think outside-the-box—What ways can a student who is dyslexic demonstrate his or her understanding of a concept? As attested by our Success Stories on DyslexiaHelp—there are many ways. Dictate a script, act it out, video a commercial, write a song (see Performing Artists and Writers). Draw a cartoon, make a sculpture. (see Visual and Fine Artists). Develop a business plan to “sell” the concept (see Business Professionals). Hold a debate. Conduct an interview (see Politicians, Journalists, Attorneys). Teach the concept to a younger student (see Educator/Teachers).

Most teachers experienced school like I did—we loved school because we were good at it. We also love kids and want to make a difference in their lives. The challenge for thinkers like me (i.e., verbal-linguistic, linear, sequential) is to find ways outside of our strengths (and the classic ways to demonstrate learning in school) that encourage and embrace those simultaneous, visual-spatial, kinesthetic, outside-the-school-box thinkers. And then celebrate them!