Friday, April 13, 2012

What The Silenced Say, an Evening with Jonathan Mooney

A summary – Georgetown SEPAC

Think about this big industry that we call special education. There are drug companies waiting to make profits, and academics waiting to build careers out of this process. But guess who has no voice here? The kids who live it day to day. So I want to be their voice. All those kids who are silenced by their education.

I am sick and tired of the horror stories about kids like me, kids with diagnoses like LD/ADHD. I'm sick of the fact that our prisons are 60% kids like me. I'm sick of the fact that our mental institutions are 80% filled with kids like me. I got sick of people telling me that I would be lucky to flip burgers. I spell at a 3rd grade level. I read in the 8th percentile, which means that I read at a 7th grade level. My digit span tells you that I have the attention span of a gnat. And yet, I graduated from Brown University with a 4.0 average, was a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship, have written books etc (permit me to brag…).

When I am forced to sit there at a desk, my attention wanders. But what happens when I am allowed to get up? What happens the moment that I can move around, the moment I decide what I want to study? The moment I am truly engaged? How disabled am I then? Not at all.

Can you imagine a kid rolling into class saying, yes, I'm ready to learn, and I'm defective. Deal with that.

I want to try to isolate how a kid who everybody thought would end up flipping burgers ends up at the top of his class. It has to do with surviving an institution that was obsessed with the idea that there is only one best way to learn. What we lose in the school of all kids is that we lose cognitive diversity, and the gifts that come out of that. Most schools tell you, you are broken. Fix yourself, or get out.

The place of common ground, the place that will revolutionize the way we do school, is the place that we all have been, and it starts in first grade. That is when kids' war stories start. That is when kids begin to think of themselves as stupid and crazy and lazy.

If you want to call for change, to call for reform, we need to talk about what is going wrong. So let's start with crazy. And crazy started for me with the desk. It ends self-directed learning. It starts, I'll tell you when you can get up. I'll tell you when you can go to the bathroom. I'll tell you when you can walk around. I'll tell you when you can tap your foot.

Do you know how many times I've been yelled at for disrupting class, for speaking out of turn? The school of all kids is hard to escape. The teacher would say, "Stop it, stop it, John. What is your problem, John?" And the logical conclusion of the child is that he has a problem, that he is defective. That is the pedagogy of shame. When I am shamed enough, eventually I am stopped.

ADHD is not a child who can’t focus, it is really that a person pays high attention to too many things, and that is a gift. We should burn the DSM, which is only concerned with what people cannot do. It doesn't talk about any of the good stuff, how gifted and special the kids with diagnoses are.

So the teacher says, "John, John, you have to focus!" The tidal wave of shame comes with this. Can I teach the kids what to say to that? Make eye contact with your teacher, and with a big smile, say, "Excuse me, that was a vapid euphemism." (euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing).

Yelling at a kid to focus does no good. How about if we say, "How can I help you focus?" That changes things. How about, “what are three things we can come up with that would help you focus?

My top three favorite places that the behavioral problem kids are sent: 1) the hallway, 2) the in-house suspension room (loss of recess), 3) the Principal's office.

Look at the message about me and learning that is sent when I am placed in one of those places. We have to watch the way we talk, the way we segregate and humiliate the kids that don't fit our idea of normalcy. What kids learn is that either they need to stop being themselves or get out. You perform, or you get out. And state testing is making this dynamic even more entrenched. But that is not what education should be about.

We need to stop the tracks. The detention center is definitely one track. How about reading groups? Every kid knows what the smart and stupid kids read, Spot vs. War and Peace. Tell your child in a lower reading group that they are smart, that they will advance.
We might as well paint a target on a kid. Talk to your kids all the time about how bright they are, that they are destined to accomplish exciting things. Early reading is not an indicator of intelligence. Science now tells us that early readers are often surpassed in achievement by others later in life.

What brain science now tells us, is that the brains of kids with diagnoses of deficits keep developing later into life than those of "normal" kids. That the brain will grow to compensate for the deficit, around the deficit, to bring out greater gifts than normal learners will ever have.

Can you do me a favor? Please demand in yours schools that the word "retard" be treated like the moral equivalent of the racial slur.

No kid can learn with public humiliation every day. You have to pull kids out of this experience. And many kids, after facing it all day in school, come home to parents, who say, "What's wrong with you? What is your problem? Why don't you just do your homework?" That's when learned helplessness, the state of giving up, sets in. The shockers mice experience in science labs are on, and the kid just wants to die.

When a kid starts cursing, when they draw violent pictures, what do you think they are trying to tell you? Their pain is invisible. It's hard to understand how a spelling bee can make a kid want to disappear, but it can. If you don't want to talk about it, let's talk about drugs and alcohol problems instead. Kids like me get involved with drugs and alcohol all the time. Drugs will ruin kids like me. You have to intervene, But don't talk pathology. Help them out of their shame. Help them understand that the alcohol and drugs are all about shame.

Please take the word lazy out of your vocabulary as well. Depressed, right on. Anxiety and Learned helplessness, yes.

Let's talk about change and heroes now, because it's the heroes that matter. It's the heroes who can lift kids out of their place. Like my mom, who taught me and showed me every day that I wasn't defective. She was an advocate for me. Find out what your child loves to do, and do it with them. Teach them that they are not broken, rather that the system is broken, every day.

My dad looked at me, and said, "John, I love you regardless of how you do in school." Do you know how much that means to hear that from Dad? Kids kill themselves over their grades, not getting into the write colleges. You need to teach your children that they are good people, regardless of how they perform. That can change a kid's life.

There is a time to stop remediation. There is a time to talk about strengths and gifts. To say that what you can do is more important than what you cannot do. That is a paradigm shift to gifted thinking. So my best teacher, Mr. Rosenbaum, offered me project-based teaching, and asked me what I like doing. And when I told him soccer, he didn't accept that. He directed me towards using my mind. But of course, he got fired.

We can't continue to treat our teachers like cogs in a machine. We need to empower them. One important way to empower kids and teachers is with accommodations. Never let kids feel ashamed of accommodations. Accommodations are not cheating. LD kids scores improve 45-50% with accommodations, other kids' tests only improve 2-3%. People with 20/20 vision aren’t helped by glasses. People with near or farsightedness are.

High school was a tough go for me. Spanish class? I can't even conjugate an English verb! How can a kid have responsibility without choice? Responsibility is contingent upon choice. High school is a time of conformity. Shame creeps in. But shame does no good. It is not a catalyst to learning.

Please tell your kids that college is a great place! That things get better in college, your kids will rock college! Because what do kids tell you about how to make school better? No classes before noon. Untimed tests. When I get to choose what I study.

ADD/LD doesn't go away, and I don't want it to. I don't want to be cured. Through the idea out the window that normal is only way to be. That learning outside the lines can include skimming books. Take wild brainstorm notes with different colors. To become metacognitive is to learn how your learn. My success has to do with looking inward, not defining myself as defective, but with embracing my gifts. It's not about being a perfect kid, it's about understanding how your mind works. Let's stop fixing kids who do not have a problem.

Q: How do you organize your thoughts while speaking or writing?
A: The way I do it is to get away from the idea that tangents are bad. We are taught that daydreaming or getting off topic is bad. An inventor once said that his best inventions came from daydreaming. But I do try to do is be very rigid with a framework that includes topics. I try to think about how much time to spend on each topic. It's like a big brainstorm. So I connect the tangents. It comes with practice, of saying what is my broad category, and let my mind run. So I embrace tangents, know my broad categories and I connect them.

Q: What do you do when you've given up on school?
A: You ask yourself, why have I given up? You understand and try to think about what you love. What I discovered was if I give up on school, on the game - because it is a game and we can learn how to play it - I would close a door for myself. And I wasn't ready to do that. Think about the right route for you. If you want to learn more, find yourself in college. Learn how to play the game. Sit up front, make eye contact. Learn how to regurgitate things back to your teachers. Because teachers love that. Play that game because you love learning and want to continue to learn in the future.

Q: How can you help your disorganized child?
A: Tell you child that getting organized will get easier every day. Think about, what is worth your time. Pick you battles, is it more important if your child loses his books or his pencils. There is no one best way to be organized. Organized people have developed a system that is right for them. Help them understand what is right for them. Ask your child what works for them. 80% of the time, they will be wrong. Try it, and than ask them again. Over time, that child will learn how to organize for themselves.

Q: How did being a part of the “soccer jock” crowd help you, and what should kids do who can’t find an identity in the sports world?
A: The jock stuff, really, is a double-edged sword. As a kid who had trouble learning, I was forced into the soccer jock identity. And my parents went psycho over it, just like they did with the learning. It was, perform, or you are not valued. It restricted my social interactions, because there is a jock culture, and it is a hard-drinking culture often, and it's not good for a kids with addiction issues. One of the best thing that happened to me, and I went to college on a soccer scholarship, was when I got injured. But let's talk about kids who don't thrive athletically and need to find other means of success. What does a child's mind love to think about? It might be buried under shame, crap, I can't, but you need to dig it out, and reward them for what they are good at. You've got to tell kids that what they can do is all good. Project-based learning is learning by doing, to understand knowledge holistically. My earth science teacher took us surfing. Open up their environment with what they are passionate about.

Q: What do you make of the terms, learning disorders, learning disabilities?
A: Great question. I'm not saying that they don't exist. I'm not saying that they are socially constructed. But what we need is an action shift, a programming shift. What's behind the idea of trying to deconstruct the language we use to describe these kids? I want to look at how the medical model for describing kids like me is the language of pathology, about disease. And this language has suffocated the way we intervene, the way we do programming. So to replace it, what I am for is understanding cognitive diversity. What that means is that if we looked around the country, is that every mind is different, unique. In nueroscience, what we are discovering is that the brain is the most elastic organ we have. If I am born with a deficit in my brain, such as ADD, my brain grows around it, it gets larger in other places. But the language of disorders doesn't embrace that growth, or the fact that so many kids with ADD are often or will become gifted students.

Q: So how do we break down the barriers?
A: The most important step for parents or teachers is to pump the child full of the message, you are not defective. No child should feel that they are not good enough or broken. But the big challenge is systemic, the way we train teachers. If we don't give teachers the tools to individualize instruction, we are going to keep having the drop out rates. The last piece that that where we are going with standardized testing, one size fits all is the opposite of recognizing cognitive diversity, cultural diversity. The medical models are concerned with what people can't do, ignoring that some of our greatest people have had great weaknesses as well. It focuses on fixing problems.

Q: Are you suggesting that teachers not play by the rules?
A: Yes, let's just be honest. I believe that a child's sense of self, getting kids connected to learning should be our educational goals. If we don't connect a kid to their passion for learning, the rest is inconsequential. We have to approach academics in a balanced way, talking about strengths and gifts. Sometimes when we take the pressure off kids to perform academically, they perform academically. Connect the kids with what they care about. You can achieve academic goals and a kid's sense of passion at the same time. What matters is people over programs. Teachers have the ability to reach in and pull a kid out of their terrible place. The essential goal of education is to empower kids to be critical thinkers, to connect them to what they are passionate about. But the reason I am successful is because I conquered the reading, which I could do because of great teachers to taught me that I have gifts to offer.

Q: How can we raise kids' self esteem?
We need to reassociate success and self-esteem with doing something we care about, not in pleasing some institution, not with achievement. So what can people do? You have to model being a connected and caring individual for your child by getting to know them and insisting that they get any accommodations that would help them to learn, which are guaranteed by law. It is the responsibility of the parents to passionately advocate for their children. Kids pick up on that. They see that and feel it. You have to give them concrete strategies to be successful that work for them. And tell them that they are not a broken kid. We have to understand the paradox of disability, which is that our gifts are often directly the results of our deficits.

April 2001 - Towson University

Books by Jonathan Mooney:
Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal, pub. By Holt, Henry & Co, @2008

Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give You the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution, pub. By Touchstone, 2000

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