To add to his list of woes, Ray has “dysgraphia”- or severe problems writing. I was extremely fortunate last week to have a good friend of mine who is a psychologist explain to me why some days his handwriting is beautiful and somedays.. well, let’s just say it’s not good. As in illegible. As in “oh, that looks like that just hurt to write”.
She also explained why he knows so much- ask him anything about anything and he can tell you and why it’s important; his real-world connections are out-of-this-world. A teacher’s dream. And yet, his sentences are short, choppy and stifled. He can tell you a long, complicated story about why he doesn’t have his homework that involved the dog, was hilarious, and could have been true (do dogs really smell dangerous chemicals on science papers?). And yet… his sentences say stuff like “I went Boston. I saw grandmuthr”.
As a teacher, I know these kids. I know that some days are better than others. I know that there’s nothing but practice and high level motivation that’s going to help- give them something interesting to write about in a novel way, and keep at it- every day. Teach them typing; teach them handy phrases to use; teach them the interest and value in writing.
I also know that breaking down the task helps kids- having them graphically organize their thoughts first and then write more and more complete sentences- building the story or paragraph by framing it first, rather than starting at the beginning and writing to the end. Or having them say their ideas into a tape recorder first and then transcribe from there. I knew that breaking it down worked for some kids. I just didn’t know why.
Some teachers I used to work with could tell me “why”- they would say that he “doesn’t want to” enough, or that he “isn’t trying hard enough”. And I knew that I could tell them that he DOES want to, and he is trying so hard, but that it’s hard, so incredibly hard for him. That the more complex the writing, the more he struggles. And yes, he’s smart and funny and can talk and read like a dream. All of which makes me sound defensive and over-protective, whether I’m coming at it from a special educator’s perspective or a parent’s. Because sometimes, he can. Which most teachers see as a motivational issue.
But it was my psychologist friend who finally gave me real insight into WHY. She noted that kids with dysgraphia often have working memory problems. That is, they can remember stuff- they have it all in storage. They can copy words beautifully. Often, some can read very well. But when they go to use it- when too many things are asked of them to pull out of storage- like what they want to say and how to spell it and how to hold their pencil and how to shape the letters and how to stay on the line and for God’s sake, apostrophes!- they get lost and forget the things they already knew. In other words, they can have an enormous closet of clothes (words), but a really small suitcase (working memory) that they can pack things into at one time. When kids shove more tasks into their working memory than it can hold, stuff falls out- and it’s not the same stuff every time. There are more technical explanations, and you can read some here or here. Me, I like my closet analogy.
As a teacher, I thought I just needed to know if I should teach the child phonics or whole-word instruction, or a combination of both. Now I know that my job is also to free up some of his working memory so that he could pay attention to the parts he was working on. Ray is a good reader- writing is his difficult area. So, we go with the meaning aspect, and lean towards teaching whole word spelling. And focus on organizing his working memory so that he can access all of that fabulous ideas and knowledge that he has hung up there in his closet of memory.
I have LOTS of ideas!
But here’s the kicker that just gets to me. I KNOW how to teach my son, but he won’t listen. In his mind, I’m Mama, NOT his teacher and he refuses to take direction. His report card showed that he went down in his grades… in writing. Only in writing. He got terribly, terribly oppositional last night when I suggested having a structured writing time together. He had complete refusal- just plain wandering away from me as I tried so, so, so hard to get him to understand and believe that I can help. From me…. from me, he wants love, structure, and humor. NOT instruction. sigh…
After crying- again– and margaritas with Vicki- again- I have a new plan. One that involves bribery. I’m going to pay him to write for me- $1 a blog. As Autism Mommy Therapist reminded me- never underestimate the power of rewards. And… I’ll bribe a college student to work with him (NOT one of the ones I teach- that would highly unethical. But don’t think it didn’t cross my mind.) I will provide the lessons, the activities, the assessments. Teaching-by-proxy.
On Tuesdays, he’ll work on typing skills and start a blog. Stay tuned! On Thursdays, he’ll work on the framing skills- graphically organzing his writing- short drills of skills, novel ways to write, and common phrases he can use when he’s searching for what to write.
Here are some resources I’ll be using:
- 300 Ways to Say Said
- Writing a Tibetan Prayer Flag
- Graphic Organizers
- Writing Frames
- Writing Think Quest– computer-guided activities
- Journal Writing Prompts
- Transition Word Cues
- Online Writing Lab– 6 Traits of Writing
- And just an overall site of lots of writing ideas!- LeeSummit
If you know of any favorite writing sites, please share!
I’m WILL help my son move up from a little overnighter suitcase of writing memory to a great big trunk, if I have to hide behind a tutor to do it…