School Me On Dyslexia

A couple of days ago I had a class on story telling. The teacher was talking about how literacy, and the need for literacy, has grown over the past hundred years. A thousand years ago you were not required to know how to read to have credibility or to just simply be a human being. Nowadays, not being able to read and write is equal to being no one.

Just imagine, back in the day, people would tell stories and other people would listen!

Aristotle used to take his students on walks, aware that in order to learn new things you must be in movement. Their lessons were based on talking and discussions, no need for extensive essays and standardized testing for you to be an educated, valuable member of society.

Growing up with a brother with ADHD and a dyslexic little sister, I have learned that school is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, nowadays, it seems like everyone gets diagnosed with something. It seems as though there is a huge spectrum of things that could potentially be wrong with you if you don’t seem to fit into the school system. However, education in our society is a narrow path and there seems to be a belief that there is only one way to do it right. I’m starting to think that there is nothing wrong with all the people that have been diagnosed with a learning disability, but there is for sure something wrong with the school system.

Now, tell me, do you think it is natural for kids to sit in a classroom for eight hours straight? And not just sit still, but also pay attention, absorb all the information, take notes on it and ace all of their tests? They go to school and learn about math, science, and English, but how much of that is actually applicable to life and “the real world?” Are kids really being taught to love themselves, find what they are good at and excel on their own path?  Maybe. But learning mathematics and grammar is a priority above all of this.

Did you know that 6 to 7% of the school-age population has dyslexia? In an article by the Washington Post, British designer Dan Britton talks about his new graphic design pieces meant to show people the feeling of trying to read when you have dyslexia. This article also explains how dyslexia is actually a condition related to sound, how having “weak phonemic awareness” (the ability to differentiate between small sounds) is what causes problems in spelling, grammar, reading and writing. Trying to read Britton’s designs is truly challenging, and makes you realize how truly testing it is for people with dyslexia to have to get by in a world where reading is a must.

I had the chance to talk to my friend, McKenna Riley, a proud dyslexic who is making great steps at creating awareness, so I could learn more about her experience in school. “Dyslexics think in a three-dimensional model, so we have to rethink everything from the way we speak to the way we present ourselves and the sounds we’re gonna make with our mouths.” says Riley. “Dyslexia is not a problem and people keep looking at it like a deficiency. It’s just the way that we [as dyslexics] have to fit into society [that] makes it that way.”

For her, reading is all about taking each word and decoding it, chopping it up into parts to understand each individual meaning of the prefix, suffix and root of the word. She needs a pen to scribble over anything she reads, and while she is reading there is a tornado of ideas, colors, sounds and feelings going through her mind which at times are hard to put together into sentences. Well, in my opinion, it is an absolute gift that she has such a wonderful mind, where things are not just words and sentences, but a multi-sensory experience. She confesses, “We think in terms of movement, in terms of life, and it is hard for it to be so challenging.”

Riley calls non-dyslexics Noners. She says, “The hardest thing that Noners don’t understand is how challenging it can be for us and the amount of strength and perseverance we need to do something that is challenging for us. For some, its really easy, some people can read for enjoyment and we [dyslexics] can’t do that.” Concerning the education system, Riley says, “I think schools are trying. They have a lot of technology and technology is great. We have ways of working around it and sometimes we get accommodations, but the problem with school systems and the way we have to learn [is] that [the] path is challenging because sometimes the things that we are good at are not on a test.”

My 9-year-old little sister does not really like school. She has trouble writing, and although she has improved on her reading, it is not something she truly enjoys. She is a witty kid, clever, funny, personable, empathetic, the kind of girl who is always the center of attention. Sometimes, though, she feels like she is not smart, because she doesn’t do well in school. My younger brother, now 18, always felt like the ‘dumb’ brother because his grades were far lower than mine. My brother is now successfully selling cars, and although he hates academia, he is definitely a smart kid.

My siblings, like Riley, have minds that don’t fit the standard of what society thinks of as smart. They will never be straight-A students or get into Ivy League schools, but they have something far greater: a mind that works wonders and cannot be put into a box. A mind that does not understand the world linearly and in words, but in emotions, colors and sounds and all that is truly life.

And that is the reason why I am writing this. I do not want to see any other student with dyslexia (or whatever else they might be diagnosed with) think that they are lesser, that their mind is not as bright. These are the people our society should cherish the most, these are the minds that change everything, that make progress. The ones that take us outside of the routine of sentences and equations, and show us the world in a different light.

Let’s stop calling dyslexia a disorder or a problem and instead work towards making our classrooms more inclusive for all types of minds. It is not something that will change overnight, but it is a process that needs to happen. Let’s help those amazing minds flourish, let them jump around and not write essays and take tests, and instead give them the power of showing us what they are good at so that they too can excel in their own way of learning. Let them move, make sounds, dance, tell stories, engage us and if we let that happen, we will suddenly realize that maybe reading and writing is not as important as we have made it up to be. And beyond that, we may realize that what we are coining as education nowadays, might not be teaching us what is most important in life.

Riley’s super cool Capstone project can be found here.

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