“At least she’s pretty and sociable,” said the resource specialist to my mom.
My mom sat back in shock when she heard this, stunned that someone who was there to support me had just reduced me, a fourth-grader, to my looks. That she had declared I lacked the ability to learn. I had just been diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. A whole bunch of dys-es.
I’m in my 20s now, and my 17-year story of being in school with learning differences is nuanced and complex. While I have a couple of defining moments that impacted me as a learner, what I experienced in school extends beyond my education and into every crevice of my life. It has stayed with me and shaped who I am.
Elementary school: It went from going to the back to being held back
“You can go to the back” is what my third-grade teacher told me most days. My cheeks would flush as I gathered my notebooks and walked to the reading corner. It typically happened after I would ask a question, or when the class was moving too fast and I would ask my teacher to slow down. She would dismissively send me to read on my own. Not only was it humiliating to be separated from my peers, but it was setting me even further back in my studies. Every time I would miss just a bit more information and fall a bit more behind in class.
[W]hat I experienced in school extends beyond my education and into every crevice of my life.
At the end of fourth grade, my mom set up a meeting with the resource specialist to discuss how I could get some extra support. Based on the comment that my resource specialist had made about my looks, it was beginning to be clear that while the educators at my private school had diagnosed my learning differences, they were not ready to handle them. The school told my family that they would keep me for fifth grade, but they did not want me to stay for middle school. They believed I should be in a special needs school. This was the final straw for my parents, and they immediately devoted all their time to finding me a new school. (The only reason they hadn’t pulled me out sooner was because I begged them to let me stay with my friends.)
As I started learning at my new Montessori school, it became even more apparent how behind I was. As a fifth-grader, I was reading at a sixth-grade level due to my private reading tutor and, of course, all the time I spent in a reading corner over the past two years. But my mathematics and sciences were at a fourth-grade level, and it was recommended that I spend an additional year in my multigrade class. I was humiliated.
I have found separation to be a common theme in my education. I was separated from my classmates when I did not move on with them. I was separated from them again when I was put in the slower track in math class. And again, when I was pulled out of our lunch break to spend more time on my homework with a special tutor. While the intention behind this was to give me the support I needed, it came with a layer of shame. I felt isolated and wondered why I could not learn at the same pace as my class. Surely I was not going that slowly?
[I]f I, a white, upper middle class student with many support systems was struggling, what was happening to other students with learning differences whose support was little or nonexistent?
I watched as my peers moved ahead while I stayed back, and I carried that embarrassment with me. I created a fake story of why I was a year older, but I still felt a sting when I was teased or, once I got into high school, asked why I got my driver’s license so early. There is a stigma with repeating a year that I would like to rewrite. It’s one that many students with learning differences carry that is an unfair burden to hold, when it was not their mind that held them back but the inflexibility of the pedagogy.
High school: My privilege was always present
As I entered high school, I was excited. I was starting at a performing arts charter school, I knew no one, and it felt like a fresh start. I could set the tone for how I wanted to be perceived.
I spent the first two years getting adjusted to my academics and artistic emphasis. But before I knew it, junior year was upon me. The question of AP classes, the PSAT, the SAT, and college admissions loomed ahead of me. I felt terrified.
As a student with learning differences, tests were a nightmare. I felt like I was never correctly assessed. Tests were not built for my mind, so I never did well on them. I would get great grades in my classes due to my high levels of participation, dedication to my homework, and genuine curiosity about what I was learning. But as soon as a test rolled around, I would score so low it was as if I had not spent a second studying. Despite my nerves, I enrolled in three AP classes in junior year and four in senior year. I had my parents’ support, a 504 accommodation, and whatever tutoring services I needed to back me up. This is when I really started excelling in school.
[T]he most important thing you can do for a student with learning differences is instill confidence in their unique abilities.
I was working hard but it quickly became apparent how much my privilege was supporting me. As I moved forward, I had two parents who advocated for me and supported me. When my school or the AP board protested about my accommodations, my parents marched into the administrative office with a full battery of tests from a private neuropsychologist (a $3,500 cost) that proved just how much I needed that extra testing time. I could not help but ask myself: if I, a white, upper middle class student with many support systems was struggling, what was happening to other students with learning differences whose support was little or nonexistent?
Despite all my extra support and accommodation, I still faced parts of the education system that were just not built with learning differences in mind. I was crushed when my AP government test was discounted because the proctor had not been trained on how to administer a test to a student with time-and-a-half accommodation. I was devastated when I got a bad SAT score because the proctor left the room in the middle of our test and a student spent the whole time trying to distract me by asking for my answers.
College and beyond: The triumphs
While there are many moments of heartache in my education story, there is almost an equal number of triumphs. Like when my mom ran into that resource specialist from fourth grade and told her I had graduated high school with a GPA above 4.0 and was attending an incredible college (that I graduated from with honors!).
There is a stigma with repeating a year […] that is an unfair burden to hold, when it was not [a student’s] mind that held them back but the inflexibility of the pedagogy.
I’m thankful that I did not lose my joy of learning and took pride in being a dedicated and resourceful student who could excel. In college, I spent many hours volunteering for the Portland public school system and working with students in first and second grade to improve their reading. Now in my career, I am working for NWEA precisely because I believe in the good our schools are capable of. Every day I think back to myself as a little girl and how much I would have benefited from our assessments. Our assessments are more than just tests; they are a way to advocate for students by pinpointing what they need in a productive way.
I want to acknowledge to any educator reading this story how stressful it can be to teach to every student’s individual mind and learning style. Especially with the limited resources many of you receive. However, the most important thing you can do for a student with learning differences is instill confidence in their unique abilities. Confidence in their own intelligence is one of the most important gifts they can receive.