This is my story behind my passion, belief, and commitment to Empower the Learner. – Kathleen McClaskey
I am passionate about learners and learning, and I believe that every child on the planet is a learner! I am committed to helping schools create learning environments where every child can develop agency in the learning, advocate for who they are and how they learn and to become a lifelong learner where they can realize their hopes and dreams. I am committed to parents. I want to empower them to help their child to develop a positive self-image, to gain the skills and practices to support their learning, to advocate for who they are and how they learn and to live a life of purpose where they can aspire to be anything they want to be.
You could say that I’m on a mission. But why has empowering the learner become my passion and purpose in my life? There is a very personal story that begins over 41 years ago when a little boy came into my life: my first-born son.
My son was an active toddler who spoke early and could engage you in long conversations about his imaginary world. He had a sense of adventure when he explored the outdoors and could create new worlds in his drawings. Early on he had a love for animals, fishing, and books about history. He entered school with all of these wonderful qualities and a love for learning and discovery.
Early School Years
His experience as a first grader was a difficult one, with his teacher using the whole language method for reading. Before the end of first grade, he was identified as having learning disabilities. Although he was exceptional in math, this gift along with his strengths, aspirations, talents and interests–would never be recognized. A few years ago I finally realized exactly what happened to him. It is this:
After he received the “label” of learning disabled his teachers now saw him as learning disabled in all aspects of his learning.
In second grade, he came home crying every day, asking me why he was different. I called a friend who was the guidance counselor in the public school my son attended. She observed him for 30 minutes one day in his class and took minute-to-minute notes of his activity in the classroom. She shared with me that my son could keep pencil to paper for only 30 seconds at any time. It was no wonder he saw himself as different, but I thought that this must have a name. It did. In 1987, my son’s pediatrician, who had extensive professional experience with children with attentional issues, verified through evaluations that my first born had ADHD. I cried for hours that day but it was a relief to know there was diagnosis. But in the end, this was just another label that he would be identified with every day in school. In 1992, I would start a local chapter of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention deficit Disorder) with three moms who also had children with that identification.
In reflecting back during that time I realized that my son stopped being a learner. He would now have instructional aides who would read to him, write for him, and organize him in his daily tasks. He would ask for their help at every turn and he did this for the rest of his education. In the last two decades I have had the privilege to present to thousands of educators and administrators and I would ask this question in my session: “If you do not teach a child to read in 1st grade, what do you teach them in 2nd grade?” No one ever raised their hand, as they were embarrassed that someone would even ask that question. They would have to admit that we did not teach every child to read. But here was my answer each time: “In second grade, you teach a child to manipulate adults to do the things that they can not do like reading, writing, planning, and organizing!”
Discovering Why He Could not Read
The reason I am telling this story is although I fought fiercely for his IEP goals to learn to read, he did not gain the skills to read in public schools that he attended through 9th grade. Through those years he used his exceptional memory skills to memorize every word to mask his inability to decode words. When my son arrived in seventh grade, that strategy fell apart. We needed to find an answer, so we hired an independent evaluator in 1993 who conducted a battery of reading tests and finally applied the appropriate identification of his reading challenges: dyslexia. With this new identification came extensive recommendations on how to rehabilitate my son in reading. It was not until he was in ninth grade that the school district decided they could not provide the services to help him read, so they agreed to an out-of-district placement. We sent him to a private school in New York for students with dyslexia, 200 miles away from our home so he could finally learn to read. His teachers used the Orton-Gillingham reading methodology, and in less than six months, he was reading at grade level. In 1998, he graduated from The Kildonan School with a high school diploma. He was able to read fluently but they were not able to rehabilitate his writing nor were they able to teach him the skills to support his executive function challenges in planning and organizing.
My son left high school…
with few independent learning skills to prepare him for the post secondary, with no agency in his learning, and he could not advocate for the way he learned!
Years later in 2002 when my son was 23 years old, we had a discussion about what he experienced in school and how he felt. This is something he never spoke about during his years in school, as he was often depressed or angry. His response was brief and to the point:
You know Mom, I felt stupid every day of my life in school!
followed by this statement:
I did not realize my hopes and dreams!
These words were very painful and still are. But after this moment, I knew that I would be on a mission for the rest of my life to help schools and teachers understand how to create learning environments where every learner can develop a positive self-image and become self-directed in their learning. I also knew I needed to empower parents with the knowledge and skills to help their children support their challenges in learning as well as enhancing their strengths.
I look back now on this experience with my son and know that he is one of virtually millions of children who stopped seeing themselves as learners, who often felt stupid in school, who often have poor self esteem and a poor self-perception. So how do we begin to empower the learner with a positive self-perception along with the skills, tools and practices to be lifelong learners so that they realize their hopes and dreams? We begin by empowering each learner to share their story of their unique identity by understanding who they are, how they learn and what they aspire to be.
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