Engaging Learning – Looking Back – Part I

I have been batting this blog post around in my head for some years now. The reason I took so long to put it down, is that I could never quite find the right way approach what I had to say and the reason for this is two fold. One, in order to lend some credence to what I had to say, I would have to have a bit of a coming out and second, what I have to say will probably offend or perhaps even anger some folks.

First, lets get to the coming out part.

Most people who know me, are aware that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Actually, all it takes is abut five minutes of conversation with me to come to this realization but my close friends know that I have a couple cognitive deficits which have made me the bumbling but lovable fool, I am today. In today’s world we refer to deficits like mine as “Learning Disabilities” but the pedagogical term for it back in the day was “dumb as a post”. In keeping with this less than flattering label, I regularly joke that my nick name when I was a kid was Special K. but in actual fact, most things I have been called over the years are far worse.

Fortunately we have come a long way in education since the 1970′ & 80’s and today most people realize that there are any number of legitimate neurological reasons that can make learning difficult for some. We also have a myriad of instruments with which we can identify cognitive deficits today and as a result, we treat kids who don’t learn nun too good with a little more respect and understanding. What is more, it is from this place of respect understanding, that educators have become much better equipped to address the learning differences of all the kids they teach. Unfortunately, even with everything we have learned since the dark ages of education, we still struggle with ensuring kids engage in learning.

I can’t help but ask myself, how did I manage to make it through in spite of my difficulties? and why, in this amazing world of advancements in brain research, educational innovation and technological tools, are kids still struggling in school?

I would like to think the answer can be found along the long and winding road I have travelled to my mediocre but happy place in this world. It is not just one thing but a collection of people and events which allowed me to become a functional person in this world, in spite of what were my learning issues. What follows are what I consider to be the key people and events in my life, which allowed me to engage in learning and move forward, while others did not.

Failing Grade 4 was a biggie but I will be the first to admit it was necessary. Had I not been held back, I am certain I would have suffered far more significant issues in my life then the slightly bruised self esteem I suffered for all of about 2 weeks into grade four part II. To this very day, I tell my students at the beginning of the year that without failure there is no learning and that failing once in a while is good for them… It builds character.

Mrs. Macdonald Was a lovely woman. Based on my foggy memory, she was about 90 years old and use to work with me and another kid who was “dull” like me. She was the first person to mention the term Dyslexia to my mother and I and suggested that this might just be the reason I have so much trouble reading, writing and doing arithmetic. It was the early 70’s and although Dyslexia had been identified decades before and considered a medical condition, it wasn’t until around this time that it was considered a learning issue which should be addressed in the education system.

My Mother worked tirelessly at all things, including me. She spent hours every week, drilling me on spelling, math and reading. Never did she illustrate her frustration with my inability to grasp the simplest of facts, even though she had to be dumbfounded at how thick I seemed to be. This was long before the notion of don’t try harder, try differently so it was a long hard haul to grade 12.

Being Polite, Respectful & Trustworthy opened doors for me which would not have been opened even if I was smart. People liked me because of these three things and with that, I got opportunities to prove myself in other ways. I remember having to work a BINGO for my high school cycling club along with a dozen other 16 – 17 year olds. Some nights when our teacher sponsor wasn’t there to take home the deposit for the night, I would be given the task to take it home and bring it to school the next day. Some nights it was in excess of $20,000 and I was trusted with it! In my mind that was saying something about me, which was far more important than an A on a report card.

Mrs. Arnold had been teaching in my high school forever. She taught my eldest brother who was 14 years my senior and he said she was ancient when he was there. She was mean, tough and from what I had been told a damn good math teacher but I never got to find out. On the second day of class she met me at the door and told me that I was not welcome in her class, that I would be nothing more than a labourer and that I didn’t need math to dig ditches so I needed to go and drop her class. Although I despise that woman to this very day, this was perhaps the single most motivating experience of my life.

A Different Time & Place had a big part in the direction I took. I had two no Bull Shit parents and I knew that I would not be living out of their back pocket for long if I wasn’t in school. Simply put, counting on them to look after me was not going to fly. I also grew up in a time when it was still possible to make a living with a shovel in my hand or working in the oil field as a Rig Pig. Because of this dynamic I knew that doing nothing was not an option but if I tried something and failed school wise, I could always make my way as a labourer some place.

University of Alberta LD Guinea Pig, After a year of upgrading Chemistry and Math at Alberta College while working at Tip Top Tailors, I got accepted as an unclassified student at the University of Alberta. I was only allowed to take one course and ONLY if I participated in the University’s new Learning Disabilities Project. I was interviewed, tested and participated in two evening group sessions every week for a year. It was here I learned that I did not actually have dyslexia but there were a couple other issues that were causing my problems. Most importantly, there were people who I met that were far more “LD” than I and they were getting their degrees so why not me?

The Introduction of word processing was HUGE for me and my academic success. I am convinced that without it, I would have never made it. As clumsy as the early computers were, anything was better than the illegible scrawl that I called writing. Although I was never tested for dysgraphia at the University of Alberta, (not sure it existed as a label at the time) I am sure this would have been added to my list of challenges.

My Parents, although they are bringing up the end of this list, they are certainly not the least important. Although they never gave up on me, they did something even more important. Even though they knew I had difficulties learning. They never made excuses for me, they never allowed me to give up and most importantly, they praised effort over marks. The last one is of critical importance and waaaaaaaaay ahead of their time. As research now tells us, praising effort is more important than the grade. I learned that effort, is the single most important element to success. It didn’t matter if I brought home an F or a C+, if I tried my hardest then it was all good.

So what is my point?

Well as the Blog post title would suggest, at some point, we are going to talk about why kids are failing to Engage In Learning? It is a question which I consider daily and I firmly believe that part of the answer can be found in my own experience as a “Learning Disabled” kid who bumbled through a school system that did not identify, never mind accommodate learning differences in students.

Now that I have established where it is I come from, the next post will be about some of my thoughts on Engaging Learning in what is a much better school system then I ever knew.

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