by Wanda M. Holland Greene, Head of The Hamlin School
As an African-American educator and school leader who came of age during the 1970’s, I am well acquainted with and inspired by the chapters and verse of the Civil Rights Movement. I absorbed American history and life lessons by listening to my father’s dinner-table stories about growing up in the segregated South, and I learned freedom songs and spirituals while fidgeting on the wooden pews at church. Even as a young child, I remember thinking deeply about people being excluded and rendered invisible because of who they were, and I wondered about the meaning of liberty and the possibility of justice for all. My school bus ride between my black and Hispanic neighborhood in Brooklyn and my all-white elementary school in Queens was a daily reminder of the geographical and psychological boundaries that kept people ensconced in their zones of fear and ignorance, and I decided then that my life’s work would focus on leveling those walls and the playing field, too.
My vivid childhood memories of racial integration and religious instruction have provided an important ethical foundation for my present-day leadership and have fueled my commitment to diversity and inclusion. Moreover, those early experiences have become my bridge to understanding dyslexia and the plight of students whose strengths go unnoticed in the classroom. When I consider the struggles and marginalization of many dyslexic children and their families, the passionate activists and allies who are pushing for school reform, and the shared vision for a more inclusive and innovative world, it seems natural to reframe dyslexia as a civil rights issue.
What makes the critical difference between helpful testing which empowers children and harmful testing that marginalizes children is the conclusion we draw from the data.
Statistics show that one in five students are dyslexic. Obviously, some are more severely dyslexic than others, and some go through school without proper diagnosis. When a child’s learning profile is baffling and beyond the scope of expertise of the classroom teacher (an issue that I will return to), then formal testing is an appropriate course of action. What makes the critical difference between helpful testing that empowers children and harmful testing that marginalizes children is the conclusion we draw from the data. Too often, testing is mistakenly interpreted to lead us to believe that something is broken, terribly wrong, slow, shut down, and dysfunctional. When we are neither thoughtful in our interpretations nor intentional in our actions, the information we receive from formal evaluations wraps a child in a cloak of deficits; as a result, parents and educators respond by spending inestimable time and other limited resources trying to mitigate the deleterious effects of a learning disability. The language of telephone calls, parent conferences, and report cards begins to focus on what a child cannot do rather than his or her unique strengths, and the implied and explicit message is that the child is no longer considered smart or successful. It does not have to be this way; I have witnessed first-hand the liberation, pride, and excitement which become a part of a child’s life at school when an evaluation provides insights into how the child’s brain functions as well as a set of reasonable accommodations and strategies to support instruction.
The impressive roster of successful adult dyslexics is further proof that the world is shaped by all kinds of brains. While we should embrace and hold sacred the legal protections and accommodations afforded to dyslexic people and to all Americans with disabilities…
Noted Harvard professor Howard Gardner gave us the language of multiple intelligences in 1983, yet the struggle to broaden the definition of intelligence persists in schools and in society at large. Indeed, dyslexic children have trouble getting to the individual sounds of spoken words which lead to difficulties with spelling and slower reading, yet we also know that dyslexic children are highly intelligent and adaptable, incredibly creative, and tenacious in the classroom. The impressive roster of successful adult dyslexics is further proof that the world is shaped by all kinds of brains. While we should embrace and hold sacred the legal protections and accommodations afforded to dyslexic people and to all Americans with disabilities, we also need to think about the basic human right to be viewed as intelligent and capable of achievement. Shifting the current educational paradigm about fixing learning disabilities to a conversation about accommodating and celebrating true diversity in the classroom would be revolutionary.
Being a drum major for justice means educators, employers, and legislators working tirelessly to eradicate old mindsets about who can succeed.
Speaking of revolutions, the quest for equality has always required collective energy and effort: just as whites marched with blacks, and men became champions for women’s rights, people without dyslexia will need to link arms with those with dyslexia. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, we must “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Becoming an ally for children—getting on the proverbial bus—means learning as much as we can about the biological basis of dyslexia and its impact. It’s also about recognizing dyslexia as early as possible, identifying it, and providing children with effective interventions while at the same time celebrating their strengths. Being a drum major for justice means educators, employers, and legislators working tirelessly to eradicate old mindsets about who can succeed.
Teachers, in particular, have a large role to play in leveling the playing field by understanding the root causes of dyslexia and not letting it become a label or liability. All heads of school need to prioritize increasing teachers’ capacity to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners. In some cases, this will mean a reallocation of funds for professional development as well as creating time for teachers to collaborate and discuss teaching and learning goals. When teachers acquire new knowledge and refine their pedagogical skills, they will be more adept in designing learning environments that are dynamic, flexible, and fertile for student growth. Of course, some of the “old-school” knowledge and best practices still work. Recommitting to direct instruction in phonics, decoding, spelling, and writing, integrating assistive technology, and using formative and summative assessments to monitor growth and drive instruction will increase the levels of engagement and achievement for all students. Mainstream classrooms, which are more inclusive, will be necessary but not sufficient for success; a referral to a specialized school with smaller class sizes and a higher concentration of trained learning specialists may be the key to unlock learning for some students. There may be times when the best way for an educator to be an ally is to recognize one’s limits. Of course, parents will need to educate themselves, trust their instincts about their own children, and respect teachers’ insights as well. Students will be the direct beneficiaries when parents and teachers join in open dialogue and courageous action.
Ultimately, dyslexia will not be reframed as a civil rights issue until two fundamental truths are evident: first, there must be an unshakeable belief in the importance and power of heterogeneous communities. I believe wholeheartedly that brain differences are a gift and that diversity is a component of excellence. Professor Scott Page, author of The Difference, asserts that when it comes to problem solving and productivity, diversity trumps homogeneity and matters more than individual ability. Simply put, the more variation in the brains around the table, the better the outcomes.
We all lose human capital when dyslexic children’s creativity is stifled and when they are made to feel less valuable than others. It’s time to disrupt the practices that have left some children on the curb and create seats for all on the bus.
Recently, a group of technology leaders, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals joined forces to announce large cash prizes for innovations in life science research. Their stated goal is to spur innovation and to motivate creative minds to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. Given the big-picture thinking that characterizes many dyslexic students, the panel of judges would be wise to award the prize money to them. The second truth that must be evident in order for justice to roll down like water is a willingness to recognize unearned privilege. Ultimately, the majority of the population was not negatively affected by the development of the printing press and the proliferation of books in the 1400’s; those people were unwittingly granted power to navigate reading, spelling, and writing with ease. On the other hand, a smaller subset of the population whose brains were not wired in that way did not become fluid readers, struggled mightily in school, doubted their self-worth, and often disappointed their parents and teachers. I believe it is time for the majority to share their power and sit down next to the people who have been deemed unworthy. We all lose human capital when dyslexic children’s creativity is stifled and when they are made to feel less valuable than others. It’s time to disrupt the practices that have left some children on the curb and create seats for all on the bus.
Wanda M. Holland Greene is currently in her fifth year as Head of School at The Hamlin School. She is a proud New Yorker and a graduate of Columbia College, receiving her B.A. in English and Psychology. She earned her M.A. in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. Wanda complements her work as an educator by serving independent schools and non-profit organizations as a trustee. She is a vocal performer (jazz, gospel, and soul), an avid reader, poet, and writer.