When my colleague and friend, Dorothy Ungerleider, asked me to write a Foreword for her new book, Educational Therapy in Action: Behind and Beyond the Office Door, I immediately and eagerly agreed…for somewhat selfish reasons.
I knew that writing this Foreword would provide me with the opportunity to be among the first to go on one of Dorothy’s wonder-filled journeys. A copy of her first book, Reading, Writing and Rage, sits dog-eared on my office bookshelf. Twenty years ago, I was spellbound through its 200 pages while Dorothy wove the true and painful story of Tony and his struggles with learning, language…and life. Several times over the past two decades I find myself placing Reading, Writing and Rage in my briefcase when taking a long cross-country flight. Whenever I revisit Tony and Dorothy’s voyage, I gain new information, inspiration and insight.
As I read Educational Therapy in Action, I was, again, accompanying Dorothy and one of her clients (Nora) on a journey of discovery. We follow Nora through the pain, pride, victory, defeats and milestones that are experienced by all people who struggle with language. We also see the unique process of Education Therapy up close, “behind and beyond the office door.”
This dynamic technique is a combination of academic remediation, counseling, therapy and genuine friendship. Educational Therapy, when applied by a pioneer like Dorothy, avoids the pitfalls of traditional remedial approaches (e.g., enabling, dependency, lack of generalization). In Educational Therapy, Dorothy and Nora frequently exchange the roles of “mentor “ and “protégé” by learning from one another in a unique and unprecedented way.
Nora’s learning and language is compromised by an Auditory Processing Disorder. This complex disorder causes her to misperceive much of the language input that she receives everyday. Lectures are confusing. Verbal directions are frustrating. Social conversations are exhausting. Movie dialogues are confounding.
If you are familiar with my work, you may know of the 1988 video that I produced entitled F.A.T. City. In this program, I use contrived activities that make language very confusing for the workshop participants in order to have them ”walk a mile” in the shoes of students who struggle with learning. Although the video is over two decades old, it continues to be a staple in graduate programs and staff development projects.
The video was born of frustration. Very early in my career, I recognized the ironic fact that most teachers did fairly well in school. Further, most teachers enjoyed going to school (why else would they select a profession that places them back in the classroom?) Therefore, the student who teachers can best understand and relate to is the bright, spontaneous, motivated learner. And the child that they can least relate to is the struggling, frustrated, disordered student…the student who needs their compassion and understanding. Ironic, huh?
I felt that - if teachers and parents were given the opportunity to actually experience academic failure - they would come to better understand the Frustration, Anxiety and Tension that the struggling student experiences daily.
So many times as I read Educational Therapy in Action, I reflected on this irony. Very few of us can truly understand the frustrations that Nora experienced every day. For us, language is a tool. This tool is at our ready disposal and we use it to convince, converse, cajole, complain, connect, create, coerce, confound, control, captivate, combat and confess. It is difficult to imagine what life would be like if – through no fault of choice of our own – this tool was taken from us.
When attempting to explain the impact of Auditory Processing Disorders, I often use this analogy:
Have you ever had a conversation with a person who has a very pronounced foreign accent? You must listen very intently. You often fail to understand mispronounced words and must use closure to determine the word that you ‘missed’. It is difficult to follow the conversation while, simultaneously, trying to figure out the words that you ‘misheard’.
I was reminded of this analogy recently when I had a speaking engagement in Montreal. My wife and I took a wonderful guided bus tour through that historic city. The tour guide was extraordinarily knowledgeable and wove fantastic tales of Montreal’s rich history. But he spoke with a heavy French accent and I had great difficulty following his lecture…despite my best and concentrated efforts.
At the end of the two-hour tour, I was exhausted. This ‘language exercise’ was frustrating and very tiring. It occurred to me that many of my students must experience similar feelings every day in school.
One of the F.A.T. City exercises enables (and forces!) the participants to experience a disorder known as ‘dysnomia’. This is, basically, a word-finding problem wherein a person is unable to recall a specific word during conversations or discussions. We all experience the “…word on the tip of my tongue” phenomena on occasion, but people with APD experience it dozens of times daily.
To simulate dysnomia, I ask the participants to tell a Round Robin story where each person contributes a sentence. They are able to do this with ease and they weave a creative collective tale.
Then I ‘give’ them dysnomia by adding a new rule: they cannot use any words that contain the letter ‘N’.
Suddenly, these conversant, creative storytellers become stilted and dysfluent. They get ‘stuck’ in sentences that they can’t finish…they substitute their rich vocabularies (‘fantastic’) with ‘baby words’ (‘good’). The resulting story is disconnected, simplistic and, frankly, boring.
Participants experience great frustration with this task. They sweat. They stammer. They break eye contact. They wring their hands. They pull at their hair. They complain. Some cry.
I am very verbal. Some might say overly verbal. My abilities to speak, converse and discuss are among my greatest strengths. In fact, I make my living by speaking. Language is my friend!
Last year, I developed a mysterious and severe case of laryngitis. The doctors were puzzled. I was frustrated. The treatment was simple: No talking for five days.
My ‘tool’ was not working. My ‘friend’ was missing. For five days – 120 hours - my life changed.
I love talking on the phone…suddenly the telephone’s ring was an unwelcome sound.
I would see friends in the supermarket…and I avoided them.
I was forced to cancel a speaking engagement…for the first time in thirty years.
I no longer enjoyed watching television programs or ballgames with my family…because I was unable to participate in the boisterous conversations that supplemented our TV watching.
Language – my trusted tool and friend - was no longer at my disposal. For five l-o-n-g and difficult days, my inability to effectively use language put significant and frustrating limitations on my world.
As with any good book, Educational Therapy in Action triggers memories for the reader. As I read Dorothy’s manuscript, I was reminded of students, parents and teachers with whom I have shared my career. I was particularly intrigued by the way that Nora’s life changed while Dorothy endeavored to enhance Nora’s vocabulary. As she mastered more words, her understanding and appreciation of her world was expanded and enriched. Dorothy’s patient explanations and examples enabled Nora to see through the fog of words.
Dorothy’s obvious delight at Nora’s discoveries is inspiring. There is, perhaps, no better feeling than watching a student ‘get it’ and knowing that your skill and tutelage allowed this to happen.
Students who struggle need these explanations and clarifications. This book is filled with discoveries. It is a candid, crafted story of two women - a therapist and a client - on a journey that will change them both. The story has heroes…and a villain or two. It explores and demystifies the confusing and challenging world of a struggling adolescent as she approaches adulthood.
But it is also a story of great hope and optimism. There are victories and celebrations; progress and possibilities.
Mostly, it is proof that – when given a ‘safe harbor’ – struggling students can conquer their dragons. Dorothy’s office was that ‘safe harbor’ for the remarkable Nora. A place of learning, growth and discovery. That safe harbor made all the difference.
But Dorothy constantly reminds us of the need to challenge our students and gently but purposefully move them away from the tranquil bay and into the shoals and reefs of ‘real life’
Her message is clear:
A ship is safe in the harbor… but that’s not what ships are for.