State school


illustrated math problem

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr

Dee has struggled in school since the beginning and as I have mentioned, I questioned and poked/prodded her teachers about glitches and gaps all along only to be told that “it’s normal for children her age”.

Of course, that was bullshit. Her peers didn’t struggle as mightily or as consistently as she did in certain areas. Perhaps having been a classroom teacher, it was more apparent to me than it would have been to other parents or maybe because I lived it myself as an elementary school student, the alarm bells rang louder for me. Whatever the reason, I knew from the start and her school has only just clued in and she has lost nearly four years in a battle that is going to be uphill and probably not very enjoyable.

The assessment was inclusive. The term “unusual” came up a lot because there is no real recognition of her particular learning disability. Dyslexic, autistic and the behaviorally disordered are the squeaky wheels in education. That is where the research focuses and that is where the funding flows.

Dee has dyscalculia. In layman’s terms it’s like a math based dyslexia – except it’s a bit more complicated than that. Her spatial and time sense are affected. She is hypersensitive to stimuli and has a hard time tuning extraneous noise out or filtering it for specifics. For reasons unknown, she can’t memorize formulas and committing base information to memory – like how a word is spelled, math tables, or phonic decoding skills – takes longer.

She wasn’t actually classified as having dyscalculia. Unlike the inability to read, having difficulty with math is not viewed as a big tragedy. Math is so universally loathed (because our school systems insist on teaching higher math forms to everyone despite the fact that it’s not necessary) that one is considered “normal” to be bad at math. But for Dee, it goes beyond math and one thing can’t be addressed without addressing all things.

I have dyscalculia. I discovered this inadvertently through my team teaching with special education teachers when I worked in the middle schools. Even they were only vaguely aware of the condition and didn’t have any advice for me in terms of doing something about it.

“Well,”  I was told, “you certainly managed to overcome it on your own at any rate.”

Yeah.

And that’s the problem. I had to “overcome” it on my own.

I came home from the studio last evening to find Dee at the dining room table working on a math table Rob had designed for her. She had a math test the next day and the teacher sent home a note asking that she study.

The test was word problems.

Word problems were the beginning of the end for me in school where math is concerned. As I watched her at the table, wiggling, sighing and in general being annoyed and annoying, I was cast back to the hours my dad had me anchored to the kitchen table with my math book and homework.

I did not act up because unlike Rob, my father had no patience and I was quite scared of him at that point in my life. Having watched he and my mother take after my younger brother physically, I had no doubt that this could happen to me too. So I sat, stone-faced and so focused on not crying that even if what he’d been trying to explain made even the slightest sense to me at all – I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“Oh,” my mother reminisced when I told her about Dee, “your dad had no patience with you. He could do any math at all in his head and couldn’t understand why you couldn’t.”

She didn’t add that my failure to do well at math was a huge disappointment to him. And not one that I missed. Even now as I listened to Rob’s exasperation with Dee when he told me about his attempts to help her study, I could feel again the awfulness of wanting to understand and just not being able to. I remembered the nights I sat at the table instead of being able to watch television or play outside.

And I remembered the words that showed up on Dee’s assessment “she just needs to try harder” because “the knowledge is there”.

Except it isn’t.

I couldn’t tell time on analog clocks. I had to use my fingers to count once the big hand slipped off the hour – even now, I count minutes past the o’clock, the thirty or quarter to or past.

I can’t judge distance. I can only subtract and divide because I can add and multiply and I still don’t have the entire times table locked and solidly loaded. I have to think about it whenever numbers are concerned and I transpose addresses and phone numbers regularly.

Grades three and four were easily the worst years of my academic life (until 9th grade algebra*). Neither of my math teachers had the time to work with me one on one as class sizes regularly hit the mid-30’s. None of my peers could explain what I was doing wrong or how to fix it though they generously gave me answers in an effort to help me avoid the regular dressing down I received in front of them.

Mrs. S, my grade three teacher, had a wicked way with the sarcastic put-down. Where my Dee is small and sweet and cuddly, inspiring the tender side of her teachers, I had perfected an air of indifference that read like defiance – and maybe it was a little – and I would meet her eyes and take the insults without comment. I would have sooner stuck splinters under my fingernails than cry.

In grade four, Sister assigned her student teacher to work with me exclusively when she grew tired of my stubborn refusal to learn.

That’s how it was viewed. I was not learning on purpose. Perhaps because I enjoyed being chapters behind and wrong every time I was called on?

He worked hard but nothing much stuck.

I had done so much copying – cheating really – the year before to survive that I was determined in grade four to do the work myself. But all that resulted in was falling further and further behind everyone else. So the day after Sister had forced me to stand by her desk, facing my classmates, as she berated me and asked me if just “enjoyed being stupid”, I sat down next to my cousin Gwen and asked to copy her work.

A week later I turned in every single assignment that was missing and I failed every single test that I hadn’t yet taken. I am not sure what went through Sister’s mind and I no longer care, but I do remember she smirked when I turned in the work and didn’t look at me when she handed back the red pocked tests.

I feel as though I should be able to better help people understand what it means to have dyscalculia, but I find I am not able and I worry for Dee.

Third grade was the year that school became an endurance race, a marathon that I plodded through without joy. It was a time-suck whose rewards were endless homework, tutoring and summer school.

Of all the things she’s inherited from me, this is by far the worst gift. Even her near perpetual habit of looking at the glass as half-empty, which she got from Will, is not nearly as poor an inheritance.

Having endured the misguided perception that hard work can overcome, I am a bit downcast at the prospect of going through this again with Dee. Hard work is unavoidable, but it will do nothing except possibly help her endure. I still have dyscalculia every day of my life. I struggle to keep PIN’s and passwords straight and to follow Rob’s reasoning when it comes to investment strategies. I hope that no one realizes that I haven’t gotten their name memorized yet or matched with the right face. I am relieved when I am not asked for directions because I can’t give them using street names or that no one thinks it’s too weird that I don’t know my own cell phone number after nearly four years. The truth is that I worked hard and got to a point where some things were easy to cover up and other things? I deal. And that is all and Dee will learn to do the same, but it won’t be fast enough to suit anyone.


A teacher writing on a blackboard.

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Being the parent as opposed to the educator is a bit of a task for me. Balance eludes me even though Dee has been in public school for six years now when preschool is factored in, and I still find it hard to silence myself or pretend not to know what I know about the politics and practice of being on the educator side of the desk.

Last night was Parent/Student Conferences. This year conferences have been separated completely from report cards, which won’t be sent home for another month. The entire affair is student-led with the purpose being student demonstrating what they have learned.

I facilitated student led conferences in some form or other – on and off – since the late ’90’s. By and large, they are neither good nor bad practice where evaluation is concerned. Many parents despise them and with good reason. Most kids are woefully unprepared to present evidence of their own learning and progress.

There is a lot of work and preparation involved in getting kids ready to lead a conference or even perform the most minor dog and pony show for their parents. And most teachers don’t have the time to prepare kids properly with the end result being painful for child and parent alike.

Dee is  painfully shy under the spotlight. It stems from her slightly OCD tendencies and her fear of being wrong. What exactly she thinks will happen if she messes up, I don’t know. Rob and I try to reassure her that grade three is simply not – in the long-term – such a big deal that making mistakes here and there don’t matter, but it’s a fine line. After all, we don’t want her to develop an impression that elementary school isn’t an essential part of what she needs to do in order to move on from childhood to teen to adult. But honestly? It’s lower stakes than one is led to believe by raving politicians and media analysts.

But it’s not stake-less.

Basic skills like simple arithmetic, ability to write a complete sentence and eventually a paragraph or two and the ability to read gradually complex materials with understanding are huge.

It’s no secret that Dee struggles with her reading. She has since preschool – where yes, they were pushing reading already.

I have questioned – closely – every teacher Dee has ever had about my feeling that Dee perhaps had  problems that went beyond the need to work a little harder. And they all brushed me off.

In grade one, the brush off at the fall conference was followed by a later admission that maybe Dee did need a bit of intensive one on one. She was put into a program designed to catch up kids who were lagging but not special needs and she did indeed make strides. But reading was still not easy and it seemed to exhaust her.

Grade two, I had to go in and arrange a meeting with the teacher mid-year to insist on Dee receiving some additional assistance. This also seemed to help but didn’t solve the problem. Dee simply can’t sound out words. She can sight-read. Once she knows a word, which can take repeated exposure, she remembers it, but it can be an exhausting process.

This year, I voiced my concerns early and was again told that Dee’s issues fell within the realm of developmentally accepted parameters.

I accepted this – only after checking with my friend, Sis, who is a Title One teacher back in my former school district. I had her run Dee’s “symptoms” by her supervisor and a few other reading teachers we know and they agreed that it could be the case.

Not long ago, however, I’d had enough and insisted on Dee being tested. Frankly, I wanted her tested in grade one and was told no.

We’ll have the results soon. I am pretty certain I will be vindicated but not pleased with the fact that too much time has elapsed since I first voiced my concerns.

Dee was able to cut losses the last two years because her teachers had time to work with her one on one. Alberta sets class sizes for grade two and lower that are small by US standards. They also allow for more remedial and special education for the youngest children, but not the older ones. She is now, unfortunately, not likely to get much help because most special education funding is eaten up by physically and behaviorally disabled kids.

There is an autistic boy in the grade behind Dee who has an aide all to himself who – according to Dee – “plays with him in the hallway all day”.  I’ve observed this little guy up close on a few occasions and my guess is that in terms of being educable – he isn’t. Not that this should condemn him, but I question a system that spends a lot of money to babysit a kid in a school setting that he will not benefit from while kids like Dee, who could be helped greatly with just a tenth of the attention, are left begging.

The biggest issue this year is my own fault.

On the first day of school, I read the names of the other kids in her room and realized she was once again a buffer kid.

I know buffers. I rearranged class lists and seating charts with them.

A “buffer” is the quiet, obedient student you use to put space between the pains in the arses in your classroom.

Dee’s teacher refers to these kids as “characters”, which is the politically correct way of referring to the “time sucks” that every teacher has and sometimes in overabundance.

And yes, these charged up characters deserve their education and the time and attention they receive, but the truth is that they get it at the expense of kids who are quiet and sweet and sometimes in more academic need than they are.

Dee has spent the last three school years as a buffer kid. I should have gone straight to the office and planted myself there until she was moved to the other class. But Rob and I didn’t want her to get the idea that she could simply rearrange life when it wasn’t to her liking.*

So we told her to “suck it up, Buttercup”. And, being our daughter, she did.

But the cost has been heavier than just her social life.

Dee, for personality and learning need reasons, requires a calm learning environment. From the first, loud look-at-me kids have repelled her. Part of it is just who she is. Confrontation seekers or kids seeking to dominate her are not welcome in her sphere. She is not a leader herself but she is no mindless follower. If she follows, it’s out of genuine attraction to people. Anyone seeking to make her a pack member had better parse their invitation with care. Additionally, when she is engaged in activities that take quite a bit of effort – like reading – any distraction will derail her. Once off-track, she frets and worry leads to inertia in a hurry with her.

Her teacher assigns seats, changes them frequently and doesn’t allow the children to choose their work groups. None of this is out of line, but because the boys really outnumber the girls, Dee sits and works with rough, tumbly “characters” a lot more often than is good for her learning style**.

The only break we’ve caught all year is the fact that she doesn’t share a cubby, but otherwise, her poor little psyche is under assault for hours a day and as a result her progress has ground slowly to a halt from which I don’t see an easy jump-start. At this point there is no way we could hope to get her moved to the other class because of the numbers. Grade three is huge. But, next year we will not be gracious at all if Dee ends up with the Loud Boys again.

My final observation is one of irony. Back in my old Iowa school district, the province of Alberta is looked upon as a model of education practices. From what I have observed, the schools here face the same short-ball mentality that plagues the US, so the government continually bleeds the system with cuts that pretty much mean the Canadian version of special education is teacher assistants in the classroom and individual education plans that may or may not be implemented if the budget is short that year.

Dee was to be subjected to the Alberta version of standardized tests., PAT’s. If not for that, I wonder if her teacher would have broached her concerns about Dee’s reading at all. From the look on her face when Rob announced that Dee wouldn’t even be in school the week of the tests, I get the feeling that she or the school or both are evaluated based on the tests outcome.

My personal opinion of standardized testing is based on 20 years of having to give them and on my own experience writing them – they are slippy tools.

One can make a test sing and dance to just about any tune one likes and because of this, they are mostly valueless.

It would be easier, I think, to send my child to public school if I’d never taught in one, but having no alternative save home-schooling – which I am not ruling out – I work on my balance.

And my balance is being sorely tested.

*In addition to her classroom being “bad boy” heavy, none of her friends were in that class. She gets along with everyone, but she has no one in the class with whom she is close. She often talks about how no one shares notes with her or talks to her at lunch or asks her to join in games when weather forces them to remain indoors for recess. She is such a social creature and craves being included that I am amazed she doesn’t complain more than infrequently.

**Although I am guilty of using students as buffers, I avoided placing struggling learners with tumbly characters regardless of how mild-mannered they were. Ultimately, a child’s learning was more important than the control factor level of the room.