Dyslexia: A Launching Pad, Not a Label

Albert Einstein. Octavia Spencer. Tommy Hilfiger. Leonardo DaVinci. Whoopi Goldberg. Anne Rice. Googling famous people with dyslexia will produce a list of notable entertainers, designers, architects, scientists, writers, and mathematicians, even Tech CEOs and a few millionaires. It’s a result many with preconceived assumptions about dyslexia might find surprising.

Dyslexic students are accustomed to being dismissed in neurotypical classrooms as lazy and unfocused. Names of famous dyslexic thinkers aren’t necessarily common knowledge, and even the signs of a dyslexic mind can go undetected by neurotypical teachers, parents, and peers. This kind of dismissal and the inability to have their needs met, often fosters meek, disillusioned students frustrated with their own limitations. These common classroom experiences are also a disservice to dyslexic thinkers in another way. Neurotypically trained teachers cannot recognize the academic needs of a dyslexic brain, but they also cannot recognize its many, varied strengths.

“They come in all shriveled,” explains Mary Jo van Dalen, a Talents instructor at Carolina Day’s Key School. “Especially if they’re brand new and come in during fifth grade. They’ve had four years of this trauma. ‘I’m different. I couldn’t get it. There must be something wrong with me.’ And then they start hearing, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. This is a launchpad. We’re going to discover who you are. You’re going to discover who you are and you’re going to run with your passion because you have this strength.’ And they start to come out of their shell. It is a beautiful thing to watch.”

Van Dalen was working in IT when she discovered that all three of her children fell somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum. What’s all too common was that her children’s teachers had no resources to meet their unique needs. Through her own personal research into books such as The Mislabeled Child and The Dyslexic Advantage, van Dalen began a journey that would change her life, her childrens’ lives, and everything she thought she understood about learning difference. After becoming certified in Orton-Gillingham (OG) through Carolina Day’s Key Learning Center, van Dalen successfully taught her children how to read and how to become confident, enthusiastic learners.

“It was just so hopeful to me,” van Dalen remembers. “After my older child had learned to read, I was trying to help my second child and there was nothing I could do. So you become very discouraged as a parent, like ‘what’s wrong, what am I doing wrong?’ But that book gave me so much hope. Dyslexia, it’s not a label. It’s a launching pad. So it was our way of unlocking, okay, this is the way your brain works.”

After also completing the Key Learning Center’s multisensory math training and the advanced OG training, van Dalen began teaching at Carolina Day’s Key School and joined a long tradition of teaching Talents classes. Talents classes in the Key School follow dyslexic MIND strengths, which isn’t just a descriptor; it’s also an acronym that outlines the strong reasoning skills of the dyslexic mind. M: Material Reasoning, I: Interconnected Reasoning, N: Narrative Reasoning, and D: Dynamic Reasoning. This means that people with dyslexia are stronger than average when it comes to spatial and visual thinking, navigation, pattern detection, storytelling, problem solving, lateral thinking, scene creation, big picture thinking, and a whole host of other skills that make them excellent architects, writers, actors, directors, scientists, surgeons, engineers, and designers.

“I just love it every day,” says van Dalen. “Seeing that light bulb go off. Letting them know that they have fantastic brains.”

In van Dalen’s STEM Talents class, Key students get to work with their hands, learning the history of tepees while trying to build their own from provided materials. And all the while, van Dalen clicks through pictures of famous structures designed by dyslexic architects: the Apple Headquarters designed by Norman Foster, the Sydney Opera House designed by Jørn Utzon, and the Millenium Dome designed by Richard Rogers. Students then practice their public speaking by presenting their structures to the class and explaining the processes they used to successfully build with limited materials.

Other Talents classes taught in the Key School also play to the strengths of its students. Melissa Starkweather teaches music, where learning how to play instruments helps increase kids’ spatial reasoning and fine motor skills. But she’s also teaching the science of acoustics and instrument-building. In Anna Hall’s art class, “students enhance their material reasoning by building strong mental 3D perspectives, and they learn to manipulate images/models in their mind’s eye. They also enhance their interconnected reasoning by connecting ideas, detecting patterns, and finding creative solutions to challenges.” Yoga, team-building, and mindfulness strategies taught in Dylan Cohen’s Healthy Kids Talents class allow students to engage in auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning through movement-based activities.

“When possible, I pair a visual cue with auditory instructions, especially for multi-step drills or games,” explains Sara Quesinberry about her Physical Education Talents class. “Making sure directions are clear and consistent especially for our students who struggle with auditory processing is essential to set them up for success. The class itself is always kinesthetic in nature as we are moving and learning every day!”

All of these Talents classes are small, vital cogs in the overarching goal of the Key School to help bright students with dyslexia flourish beyond the Key School’s doors and beyond the borders of CDS’s campus. Building confidence where it has been stripped away, providing strategies and resources where none existed, and creating organization and infrastructure that helps students transition out of the Key School into mainstream high school and college classrooms. Former Key students understand how their brains work, can articulate their needs with confidence and clarity, and can succeed as the intelligent people they are, hopefully having shed the stigma that holds them back from realizing their full potential.

For van Dalen, seeing students leave Key, graduate, go on to be successful in college, and find the work they’re passionate about are her biggest joys, the moments she knows she’s made a difference. She keeps track of her graduates and the marks they leave on the world, like her former student who now works for the U.S. Department of Education.

“We are always encouraging them to embrace their learning profile unashamedly, to pursue their gifts and talents, and learn to self-advocate for what they need that levels the playing field for them,” she says. “Their curiosity is the limit.”

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