I was drawn to what I do by a kid named Mark. I met him in the traveling theatre group I was part of in high school. Mark was profoundly deaf. The only person he could communicate with was his sister, and it bugged me to no end that I couldn’t talk to him. In our spare moments in rehearsals and car trips to and from performances, I got him to teach me sign language, and I made a new friend.
I had my heart set on studying vocal performance at Emerson college, but when I stumbled across their Communication Disorders program, my cells realigned in a flash. Some voice from within me whispered, “Switch your major.” I did before even landing on campus.
I started my career focused on preschool speech and language disorders, then became fascinated by their later difficulties learning to read. Ultimately, students who struggle with writing won my heart, and that’s where I focused my research. Many of those students also had challenges with attention, spatial processing, and memory — all the skills needed to “do school.”
For 37 incredible years, I’ve remained endlessly fascinated by the ins and outs of language and their relationships with thinking and learning.
Recently, a colleague asked me what students struggle with the most. Without
blinking, I responded, “They’re massively disorganized.” I didn’t mean messy. I meant internally disorganized — their language and thinking and ways of approaching hard tasks get all jumbled up. One of my students likened it to the mangled-up ball of Christmas tree lights that are impossible to untangle.
The result? They don’t make sense.
They don’t make sense of what they read, or what others say to them. They don’t make sense when they explain something or write. Because their actions are guided by inner dialogue, and their inner dialogue is inherently disorganized, they often do things in ways that don’t make sense, too. Though they may be quite bright, they’re all over the place, especially in school.
In other words, they’re in a muddle.
I realized recently that what has gotten me out of bed with a sense of purpose all these years is an undying commitment to make sense of the muddle. To unpack it, understand it, impose some kind of order in it and, well, make it less muddled.
Take my recent conversation with Ricky, for example, a second grader I was talking to not too long ago. He was sharing what he did at camp:
“We…um…went…um…I forget. We did baseball camp. It was fun. We did outfield infield catching…uh… and…we…um…we…and that’s it!”
What he did at camp. Got it…not!
With students like Ricky, my brain kicks into gear, firing questions and searching for answers. What the heck is going on with his language? Or is it his thinking? One is clearly affecting the other, but which got muddled up first? And how? And why? And for the love of [insert name of higher power here], what do I do to help him?
Students like Ricky inspired me to create EmPOWER and Brain Frames and everything else I’ve come up with over the years.
I didn’t stop there, though, because the stakes for kids who struggle are too high. Language paves the way for establishing relationships, belonging in community, gaining knowledge and understanding, and selfknowing.
Because students have important things to say now, and if they don’t learn how to express them, they won’t grow up able to make a unique contribution to the world. Teachers are the key to their students’ future.
I believe that when teachers have effective methods and strategies to make sense of the muddle, they can and will change lives.
Now we’re on a mission to bring our teaching methods to a million educators in the next decade. Why wouldn’t I want to get out of bed for that?
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