Teacher Professor

January 26, 2011

Memory Suitcases and Writing Blogs

Filed under: Exceptionality issues,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 7:25 am

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:

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…


  1. LOVED this analogy, and he’s so lucky to have you as his mother. I know, it must be so frustrating to have the knowledge to help him (for free!) and find he’s rejecting the assistance, but that reaction is SO NORMAL. Wish we lived closer and could do a tutor exchange… Can’t wait to see the blog, and thanks for the reference!

    Comment by autismmommytherapist — January 26, 2011 @ 11:20 am | Reply

    • Hmmm… trading out tutoring… hmmm. Look for it tomorrow!

      Comment by profmother — January 26, 2011 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

  2. Love it! I have soooo many kids who fit your son’s profile, including my own! I’m certainly going to check out each and every one of your sites to help my kiddos at school. Perhaps the bribery aspect will help with my own son. I certainly have no problem with using it!

    Watterson Elementary is using a new curriculum called “Being a Writer.” It inspires kids to write by integrating grade-level appropriate children’s literature into the curriculum. Unfortunately, it isn’t satisfying all the district writing requirements; other than that issue, I love it! It’s by the same company that created the “Making Meaning” curriculum.

    Cheers! Gotta drive kids around! Wish you were still in Louisville.


    Comment by Tina Salameh — January 26, 2011 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

    • The last one in particular- LOTS of ideas! … wish I were there, too…😦 And if he learns he can make a living writing, I’m pleased to promote that!

      Comment by profmother — January 26, 2011 @ 4:47 pm | Reply

  3. Hello~

    I’ve followed you awhile. You and I have a lot in common. I’m an SLP and have a son w/ASD. I work in EI and am often the first professional to bring up “other” concerns. I decided a year or 2 ago that I was D’s mom and not his therapist. He’s 8 now. It was too taxing and I was too emotionally invested, and of course, like all children, my child (and my NT child too) save their worst for me. I figure I helped him the most when he really needed it (B-6) and laid the groundwork for him. I applaud your “teaching-by proxy” and thank you for all your insight through your posts. It seems you are constantly working and researching to help your kids – and they both sound like they present tremendous challenges but also tremendous strengths.

    One suggestion would be to make a Writing Box of manipulatives to trigger ideas.!

    Again, thanks for all you do and sharing so openly and honestly. I look forward to reading your book in the future!

    Comment by Michelle — January 26, 2011 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

    • Oh, it’s good to “meet” you, Michelle! I agree- being a mom is my first role- and its too hard when I’m trying to treat him as a student. I’m sure you can relate how frustrating it is to know what to do- and be unable to do it.

      I do love researching to help my own children- but I am extraordinarily fortunate to be able to teach teachers as well- so I can promise you that this writing research will show up in their materials as well! 🙂

      LOVE, love the materials box idea… hmmm.

      Comment by profmother — January 26, 2011 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  4. When I was Ray’s age, bribery worked for me every time! But I was like Elizabeth in that respect. She and I are first-borns. My younger brother approached life from a different perspective. Ray may discover at age 35 that he loves to write after all, and then concentrate his efforts. Or he may not. The irony in all this is that when all your years of effort succeed in helping him to write correctly, he’ll begin texting and facebooking (ugh, that’s a word?) and revert to his unique shorthand style of writing all over again. He’ll have lots of company. Sigh…

    Comment by Claire Goldrick Hughes — January 29, 2011 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  5. […] But she was right.  I did my own research- and to quote from Essortment, “Illegal drugs are used to obtain a “high” feeling or to escape from reality. Ritalin works to improve one’s awareness and to improve their attention span and concentration. The two drugs serve two completely opposite purposes. Many counselors have claimed that children that struggle with ADHD, without the help of Ritalin or other prescribed medications, may be more likely to use illegal drugs as a way to help them cope with the stress of ADHD.”  The use of meth and cocaine are only barely related to the use of stimulant medication- they’re much more related to demographics of poverty and parental upheaval and school failure. And we’re working with the teachers, with tutors and with my own knowledge to make sure that Ray does not fail.  […]

    Pingback by Medication Meditation « Professor Mother Blog — February 5, 2011 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  6. Dr. Hughes, thank you for sharing this post. I am in your 544 section 900 ( I think) class. I am working with a student now she is a third grader and she is identified with a LD but not a specific one. She struggles on all areas but not consistently. She is an interesting case because, one day she will get it right the next day she will get the same exact problem wrong. Her special ed teacher is tracking her progress and looking for patterns or some consistency for what works. When you talked about working memory it sparked my interest because I suspect this could be her challenge, and now after previewing Brainology this makes sesnse. I am going to talk to my mentor/her Special Ed. teacher about this after spring break! Thank you!

    Comment by Maureen Jerdon — April 15, 2011 @ 8:02 am | Reply

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