“He Has a Tutor? But I Thought He Was an Honors Student!”

This is a line that I heard in a commercial for a local tutoring center earlier this week. I’d seen the commercial before, but I guess it had been a while. Since, let’s say, my own son, Peter, started going to a tutor after school. Whereas I never gave this commercial a second thought before, it really bothers me now.

Of course, I’m glad that the tutoring center is there, doing what it’s doing to help kids. What bothers me is that it has to fight the assumption that smart kids couldn’t possibly need to be tutored.

And I have to admit, I used to be one of the parents this statement targets. I’m an overachiever. I skipped the 8th grade. I got my BA when I was 20. While I’m not one of these geniuses who gets a PhD at 15, if I ever got a B, that meant I was doing poorly. I was always embarrassed for the kids who tripped over words when we had to read aloud. I often thought they were stupid. I mean, how hard is it to read?

After Thomas and I admitted that, despite all our efforts, Peter needed help, we saw a child psychologist. We answered all of the usual questions, like if I had a normal pregnancy, if he often gets distracted, if he can keep eye contact, etc., etc. I could see that the answers to many of these questions could point to children with attention deficit problems, but our answers did not lead down that path at all. When we got done, the doctor asked us why we’d come to see him.

It was because Peter was almost six, and he still couldn’t identify all of his letters. He’d been in preschool two days a week for one year and five days a week for another. Yet kids who’d never had any kind of schooling before kindergarten were already running circles around him. They knew the alphabet and all the sounds that the different letters made. What was wrong with my child? I felt like I’d completely failed as a mother.

It was after Peter’s diagnosis that, with a shock, Thomas and I realized that his was an inherited problem. Neither of us has a learning disability, but the more we asked around, the more we realized that people in Thomas’s family have the same problem – and have been trying to cope with it all of their lives. Many hate to read because the task of decoding words is just so difficult.

I’m a reader. I carry at least one book with me everywhere. I didn’t want my child to grow up to hate books. It didn’t help that other well-meaning parents would say, “Did you hear about So-and-So? She’s being tested today. I knew something was wrong with her.” Oh the horror of being tested! I was embarrassed to say that Peter had been through the same battery of tests.

But I got over it soon enough. The problem wasn’t anything to do with how we’d parented our child. It’s all genetics. But even if it weren’t something he’d been born with, I still couldn’t just ignore the problem. When you’re a parent, your ultimate job is to help your child, and sometimes that means – gasp! – hiring a tutor.

Unfortunately, many parents of dyslexic children continue to ignore the problem, or sometimes they don’t even know it exists. This is because most dyslexic children have an extraordinary auditory capacity and are able to memorize, skating by for years when they could really use some one-on-one help.

In Peter’s case, his weakest area of learning is auditory, and he also has a deficient working memory. For years, I got mad at him for only completing one task, when I would ask him to do two or three. Imagine how terrible I felt when I realized he simply couldn’t complete more than one task because couldn’t remember what I’d asked. But this additional problem carried with it a huge advantage: I knew something was wrong much earlier than most parents, and we were able to get him help.

As soon as Peter was diagnosed, some people told us how shocked they were that he has a problem. He talked early and well. He’s a great problem solver and extremely creative. And while letters are his nemesis, he excels at math. Many of these are common traits among dyslexic people, some of them developed in order to survive in a world that is not very dyslexia-friendly.

One good thing, though, was that I was no longer afraid to talk about it. I started asking around about tutors and tutoring centers, and parents came out of the woodwork. Parents who do not have the mistaken idea that tutoring equals stupidity.

The improvement, the confidence in my child, has been amazing to watch. I am so grateful for the people in my life who have helped Peter, who continue to point out his great strengths (math and anything art-related). I am a little confused, however, by the people who continue to insist that I shouldn’t talk about Peter’s learning disabilities. Like it’s a shameful venereal disease or something. The more Peter understands about what we’re doing for him, the more compliant he is. He loves books and wants to be able to read them fluently. He knows that his tutoring will help him achieve this, and he also knows how to defend himself, if ever a kid (like I used to be) dares to make fun of him.

Sadly, many children are not diagnosed until the third grade or beyond. Many people slide through until adulthood and struggle all their lives with no help. If you are a parent or a teacher, pay attention. I hope your kids don’t have any problems, but if they do, don’t do them the disservice of acting like they can’t achieve great things if they need a tutor.

For further resources, check out Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. and Barton Reading & Spelling System.

This Tree Has a Story

Tree #9 This Three Has a Story Photo by Sandy Malcolm

Tree #9, This Three Has a Story
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

When my friend, Karen Saltmarsh, told me that she wanted to write a book of creative writing prompts for kids, I said, “Let’s do it!” (You know that I can’t turn down a good book project.)

Karen has been an educator for 28 years, and she was one of my son Peter’s kindergarten teachers. Karen’s dream was to inspire children to tell creative stories, just as she taught her own children.

Amelia Island Plantation is where it started. First with her son and then two daughters, Karen immersed them in the wonder of nature on a daily basis. Any time they came across an unusual-looking tree, Karen prompted them to tell a story for how the tree came to be like that. “This tree has a story,” she would say.

This Tree Has a Story Cover Photo by Sandy Malcolm

This Tree Has a Story Cover
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

During her 28 years as a teacher, Karen has seen a number of changes, some welcome, others not as much. Twenty-eight  years ago, there wasn’t a TV in every classroom, much less a computer. And while technology has brought so many conveniences, so many benefits, there’s an enormous downside. Twenty-eight years ago, kids didn’t spend all afternoon sitting in front of their TVs playing video games. How many times have you heard someone reminisce (or reminisced, yourself) about the days when they came home from school and went right outside to play, only coming in reluctantly at suppertime?

A number of factors have contributed to this change, and while there still are many kids who do get to enjoy the outdoors, 21st century children are wired differently. As infants, they learn how to operate touch-screens. They understand texting and Facebook updates, even if they don’t have their own accounts. But here’s the thing: kids are still wired to love the simple act of playing. I’m talking about going outside and kicking a ball around. Or climbing a tree. Or looking for lizards. (Can you tell I’m a mom of boys?) When I was a kid, I pretended that azalea leaves were money. I learned how to suck the nectar from a honeysuckle. I ran laps around the backyard. I dug for roly polies. And even when I was bored, I went outside and whispered stories to myself.

There’s not enough of that going on anymore, and as a teacher, Karen has seen the negative results of this firsthand. In a time when brevity and instant gratification prevail, it seems that creativity and imagination are often shoved to the side. But when children have the opportunity to explore and create, amazing things happen.

When Karen first shared with me the dream that she’d been harboring for 25 years, she explained it as a book of writing prompts. But not just any prompts. She wanted to inspire children – children who are babysat by Nickelodeon or mom’s iPad, kids who live on the Xbox – to learn the art of storytelling in the same way that she taught her own children.

Our first step was to find interesting trees. At first, we collected photos from all over the country, but as we developed the book, the focus shifted from interesting or odd or unique trees in general to the trees of Amelia Island. It was the place where Karen received her original inspiration, so it seemed appropriate to start there. (But never fear, there is a short section with photos from other regions, too.)

We narrowed it down to 12 Amelia Island trees. As you can see from the cover photo, we included some really interesting ones. Karen chose one of these photos (the one at the top of this post, in fact) and decided to test her theory on kids in her own kindergarten class.

When I saw Karen that afternoon, she was practically bursting. “It works!” I think it was overwhelming for her to imagine her dream coming to fruition, but then to see it at work – it went beyond her expectations.

When Karen sat down with her kindergarteners, she simply showed them a photo and asked if they could tell a story about that particular tree. I did the same at home with Peter, who is a year older. Peter’s story, plus two from Karen’s students, are included in the introduction of our book.

Karen’s original vision was for the target age group to be from kindergarten to second grade, the years when students are really learning how to spell and write and structure. But after receiving some professional guidance from a child psychologist, we broadened the spectrum to K through 12 – and, of course, it doesn’t have to stop there.

If only we stop to look around, we can find a story in almost anything, and trees are a great place to start. There’s been quite a learning curve in structuring and formatting this book. We’ve searched, and as far as we can tell, there’s not another creative writing book like this on the market. This is wonderful and scary at the same time. Wonderful because we can do anything we want and not be expected to confine ourselves to some pre-existing convention. Scary because it was a challenge to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.

But we finally took This Tree Has a Story to print, and it’s now available. In addition to the trees, our photographer, Sandy Malcolm, took some wonderful photos of wildlife in the trees. These were too good to pass up, so there’s going to be a sequel. But first…

We’re going to conduct a pilot study, and we’re going to do it over the entire spectrum. We were wowed by the stories from the kindergarteners. I can only imagine what we might get from older kids. Kids who are going through adolescent trials. Kids who may never have tried to create a story before. Kids who don’t realize what kind of potential they harbor, that’s just waiting to be stimulated by, I don’t know, an interesting tree.

Karen and I are so excited, and we have lots of plans for our new book, not the least of which is that a portion of our proceeds will go to help preserve or plant trees in areas that have suffered from erosion and natural disasters.

I’m giving away 30 advanced reader copies, so you can conduct your own creative writing study with your students or children. If you’d like to throw your name into the hat, or if you have any other questions, please contact us via the contact form below.

The Proud Authors! Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

The Proud Authors!
Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

Dyslexia – A Mere Stumbling Block on the Path to Book Creation

“Peter is still getting his M’s and W’s mixed up.”

This was Peter’s kindergarten teacher four months ago. Peter is six. He should have known all of his letters a year ago. In fact, he did. So why the sudden trouble with these two? I was a bit disappointed when she told me, but I wasn’t surprised.

Peter has dyslexia. On top of that, his working memory does not function at 100%, making it difficult for him to retain everything we do to help him overcome his learning hurdles. It’s better than it was. This time last year, his working memory only functioned at about 20%, and he’s in an intensive program that’s helping, but it’s still a struggle.

So Peter and I practiced with M and W flashcards, and right about the time he got those two letters down, he slid back again and started having trouble with B and D. Peter is aware that he has a hard time reading. He knows his friends read books a couple levels beyond his capabilities. He groans whenever I make him read or do flashcards. Sometimes I’ll give him a night off and just read a book to him. The poor kid. Up until he had to start reading them himself, he had a love-love relationship with books.

I focus on Peter’s strengths. He’s good at math. He’s athletic. He can build anything, loves making inventions, and is very creative. But at the same time, I don’t want him to give up on reading, to think that it’s something a lot of people can do but is unattainable for him.

Then he happened to be watching the Disney Channel when Bella Thorne’s TTI came on. TTI’s (or “The Time I…”) are clips about some of the actors in Disney’s shows. I hadn’t seen Bella Thorne’s TTI since Peter was diagnosed.

Why does Bella Thorne’s particular TTI matter? Well, because she has dyslexia. She started talking about why reading was a challenge, and how she mixed up B and D and M and W. Peter turned to me, eyes alight, and said, “Hey! That’s just like me!”

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

I made sure to point out to him that she can read now, even though it’s a challenge.

I know it boggles Peter’s mind that I write. When I pulled my children’s book Hero out of mothballs earlier this year, I decided to involve Peter by using him as a first reader. I read it to him while he sat with me at my computer, looking at a screen with a bunch of symbols that he struggled to make sense of. With no illustrations to guide him, he didn’t connect with the story. I had to read passages twice and ask him questions about them to make them stick.

And then it hit me: Peter can draw. He may struggle to read Hero, but I knew if he helped illustrate it, he’d have some ownership. Even with dyslexia, he could still be a part of the book creation process.

Peter learning cursive

Peter learning cursive

If you’re a regular reader, you know that we did it (and you can read about it here). Peter is half-shy, half-proud when he helps me deliver a book. Even though he’s quick to say that it’s too tough for him to read (yet), he loves that his name is on the cover, that it’s our book. He even asked me to teach him cursive, so he can sign the inside cover.

Starting in the fall, I’m going to talk to elementary school students about writing and illustrating a picture book. I’m excited for them to know that a regular mom can make children’s books, but I’m even more excited to encourage them by telling Peter’s story. Books are for everyone – for bookworms like me, those who struggle like Peter, and everyone in between.

Don’t forget, through July 26th, all of my proceeds from Hero are going to WSB’s Care-a-Thon to benefit the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Click here for all the details, including where you can buy Hero in Northeast Florida. You can also get yours from Amazon.com, or message me for a signed copy.

Pacing Is Everything: The Parenting Version

Alphabet Soup & Wordsearch

Alphabet Soup & Wordsearch (Photo credit: dmelchordiaz)

I never understood what people meant when they talked about the “terrible twos.” My first child, Peter, has never had that kind of behavior problem. My second one? Well, Ian is a different story. When people ask if he’s a terrible two, I’ll usually come back with, “He has been since birth.”

Peter and Ian couldn’t be any more different. From the womb until the present, Ian has made sure everyone knows he’s his own person.

Still, I couldn’t help but compare my kids. And to aid me, I keep “baby’s first” books, where I record when they cut their teeth and ate solid food and took their first steps. Both of my boys walked and said their first words about the same time, so I made the bad assumption that their development would be pretty similar.

With such opposing personalities, I should have known better. For instance, Ian is a screamer. Granted, he had a rough start with colic and reflux – but so did Peter. Yet Peter got over his colic and was a happy baby. For Ian, however, the screams never stopped. He screams in his sleep, screams when he’s happy, screams when he’s upset, screams when he meets someone new. After witnessing one of these episodes, a woman told me, “That’s because he doesn’t know how to communicate yet. When he learns how to talk, he’ll stop.”

What I wanted to tell her was that I had a whole list of words that he’d said, but as soon as Ian learned a new one, he seemed to forget it. I made an effort to teach him baby sign language (after all, it worked with Peter), but Ian only ever picked up two or three signs. For the longest time, I would talk to him and get a blank look – or he would avoid looking at me altogether.

When Ian was about eighteen months old, we pulled out an old video of eighteen-month-old Peter. The difference was striking. Peter talked in complete sentences, told us his eyes were blue, and re-enacted scenes from his favorite book. We weren’t sure Ian even knew he had eyes, much less their color, and forget trying to read him a book. Thomas and I felt we had failed him at some point.

We knew we had to make an effort. We struggled to hold Ian in one spot to read a book. I took him for walks and pointed out lizards and flowers and told him the colors of things. For the longest time, it didn’t seem like he understood that a yellow house was, in fact, a house that was yellow. He said it like a compound word: “yellow-house.” He was months and months behind Peter.

But slowly, so slowly, he started using more words. Communications improved: I could say, “It’s time to clean up,” and he would clean up. There was one-way understanding, at least, even if he sounded like the Muppets’ Swedish Chef when he talked.

After Peter was diagnosed with several learning disabilities, we expected the same for Ian. In fact, when I researched the cues for reading disabilities (slow speech, late speech, trouble speaking complete and complex sentences), Ian fit them all. If our well-adjusted child had dyslexia and a practically non-existent working memory, what other surprises were in store with the kid who had behavior and communication problems? Instead of trying to force concepts into Ian’s brain (like we did with Peter), we hoped he would absorb things via osmosis, and we crossed our fingers that something would take.

Something did. A couple months ago, Ian started to recognize shapes. And colors, too. Not all of them but enough to show me that he understood that “yellow” and “house” were two separate things. And he started counting things – usually without skipping numbers. Thomas and I admitted that he was actually ahead of Peter on that score. He was learning, just at his own pace.

Then last week, the biggie:

We have letter and number magnets on our fridge. I have to keep them out of Ian’s reach, otherwise they’ll be all over the house. In fact, I’m not sure why I never got rid of them, but now I’m glad I didn’t. Out of the blue, he pointed up and said, “Bumblebee.” I looked all over the fridge for a bumblebee but only saw the magnet letter B. I pulled it down, and that’s exactly what he wanted.

Later that week, Thomas was wearing a shirt that said “FLORIDA,” and Ian started pointing at the letters and naming them. He got them all right. Shocked, we began writing uppercase letters at random. He knew them all, including Q and Z. Well, X did trip him up a little. He called it K. But as soon as I told him the difference, he got it. Peter, who is four years older, still gets M and W and B and D mixed up. I don’t think it will be long before Ian will be able to read the easy reading books that still challenge his dyslexic big brother.

After so much frustration, we’re watching our child blossom. I don’t know what triggered this change, only that I am grateful for it – that this is the turning point I have prayed for since we came home from the hospital with an inconsolable baby.

Not only does Ian know his letters, but he’s talking more than ever. He cracks us up with “Oh my goodnets” and “heeky-boos” (peek-a-boo). He often offers a spontaneous “thank you” when someone gives him something. He’s even able to entertain himself independently, something that he could only do sporadically a couple weeks ago.

I’m sorry I let mothering Ian be a chore for so long. A lot of it was that we were just out of sync. The greater part, however, was that I wasn’t one hundred percent okay with his pace.

I am well aware that there is plenty of room for all of us to grow. He still screams. And he still has to be potty-trained. But I know he’s not Peter, and I’m done wishing that he would be more like his big brother. I am fully aware of how unfair that is to him – and the frustrations it will cause if I expect him to meet someone else’s milestones. I am ready to parent him along the unexplored and exciting Ian Way.

Sugar-Coated Broccoli Just Tastes Like Really Nasty Broccoli

English: Trophy case at Theodore Roosevelt Hig...

Trophy case at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been toying with the idea of addressing a particular issue for a few months now, but I never quite knew how to approach it. And then this week, almost as if giving me permission, I read Matt Walsh’s blog and figured it was time.

Early in his post, Walsh talks about how we give trophies for everything now, especially mediocrity. I suppose that things have been going that way since I was a kid, although I was never a recipient of the “showing up” award. The first trophy I received (one of very few) was when I was fourteen, and it took me years to achieve it. I felt underachieved, indeed, when I started dating my husband because his bedroom’s shelves were filled with trophies he’d earned for his athletic prowess.

But I don’t mind my lack of accolades. Thomas and I know that we’re worthwhile people without all that. Besides, it’s better than doing the opposite and displaying junk of no value. I know someone who wanted to frame her husband’s military discharge papers. While not a dishonorable discharge, neither was it an honorable one. Summed up, it was basically: “You served your time. Thanks and good-bye.” Was that something to be proud of and display in a place of prominence?

And while I have no problem saying these things about myself and other people, I can completely understand why the situation changes when you throw your own kids into the mix. I certainly want to applaud my children’s achievements.

But what if they don’t have any? What if they do nothing exceptional, yet are surrounded by kids that do? Wouldn’t it help their feelings, give them a morale boost, to just give them a little something for showing up?

It’s situations like this that make it very easy for people without kids to criticize those who do. But since I’m in that inner circle now, I can safely criticize – and hold myself accountable at the same time.

Good parents (notice I didn’t say “all” parents) are forced to learn a whole new meaning of sacrifice and responsibility, and still there are no guarantees. The child who receives the best education may never get the big-paying job. The child who starts taking music lessons as a toddler may never get into Julliard. The child who is involved in sports from the age of four may never win a single trophy, and it’s a struggle to be the parent and just watch this happen.

My husband is a natural athlete and is one of those kinds of people who could nap through school and still pass. I was an overachiever and earned academic scholarships without even trying in college. Neither of us had to study very hard. When I was pregnant with our first son, we focused on reading books that would help us raise a healthy and conscientious child. We weren’t worried about his academic skills. I mean, look at us. It was in the bag, baby.

Peter started school when he was three, and I put him in two days a week. I daydreamed about my first parent-teacher conference, during which his teacher would tell me that he was her brightest star, knew all of his letters, and needed a bit more of a challenge than pre-school.

Instead, she shared his assessment results, and they were on the low side of average. Nothing special, not to mention there were certain measures I needed to take to help him catch up with the other kids, some of which were close to a year younger. His behavior was fine, of course, and I know I should have been thrilled with that. But I felt distinctly like I’d done something wrong.

The next year, when he was in pre-kindergarten full-time, his teachers were concerned that he didn’t know all his letters. I knew, with a new baby, that I hadn’t been as diligent as I should, so we pulled out the flashcards and got to work. To my dismay, as soon as Peter mastered a letter that caused him trouble, he would lose a letter that had never been a problem. Like there was a file cabinet in his brain that could only hold so much.

Looking back over Peter’s early toddler years, I can see the pattern because I now know what is wrong. I would ask him to do a couple simple tasks, and he would only do one. I would get frustrated when he couldn’t name a letter that we’d just gone over. This otherwise compliant and well-behaved kid caused us both trouble when it came to following directions and academics. Extra tutoring over the summer before he started kindergarten did little to help, so I wasn’t surprised when his reading assessment at the beginning of the year placed him as one of the worst readers.

When my husband and I went for the parent-teacher conference this year, it was with no illusions. I was prepared to apologize for falling down on my most important job but was met with empathy and compassion and a great deal of love from Peter’s two teachers. What was obvious to everyone in the room was that there was a problem, but it was something we could fix, since we cared enough to face it.

My husband comes from a long line of dyslexic men, but it skipped right over him and landed on Peter instead. But the problem goes deeper than that. Peter’s working memory – what helps him remember to do two or more simple tasks at a time, among other things – only functions at about twenty percent of what is normal in a kid his age. The kid can remember trips we took when he was two, can build almost anything with blocks, and has a working vocabulary much more sophisticated than his six years, so I never would have realized it without a professional diagnosis. And there was also absolutely nothing I could have done to change this. In fact, I could have continued being in denial and berated him for being lazy, just perpetuating the problem.

So what in the world does this have to do with sugar-coated broccoli? I’m not really picking on broccoli in particular. I mean, it’s obviously a very nutritious food, and although I don’t care for it raw, I love it roasted. But sweeten it up, disguise it under a layer of sugar, and – yuck. But isn’t this what our society does in so many ways?

In the name of protection, we sugar-coat things for our kids and raise them to be adults who are ill-equipped to deal with reality. Congrats, you showed up. Think about how anticlimactic the Super Bowl would be if the losing team were also showered with confetti, awarded a trophy, and gave rings to every player? They worked hard to get there, which in itself is a reward, but they’re not the ultimate winners.

I’m not saying that we should go out of our way to suppress kids, to not give them incentives to improve and perform their best. I’m also not saying that they aren’t special. Scientifically speaking, our DNA proves that each of us is unique, and people are certainly more than a string of genetic code. But none of them is God’s gift to mankind, and to treat them as if they are does them a gross disservice.

There’s a fine line we have to walk, and although it’s difficult to do so, if we are realistic and honest about our children’s limitations and strengths, we can help them survive and even thrive in an otherwise unfair and cruel world.

At six, Peter knows that he has trouble reading and doing some of the tasks that come easily to his friends. He also knows that he’s getting help but that there are other areas in which he needs no help at all. He also has an inkling that it’s a hard world, but I hope that I am raising a person who can help brighten it, even if he mixes up his M’s and W’s.

It’s hard to admit that one of the most precious people in my world has a problem. But, although his story is nowhere near it’s end, it is moving toward a happy ending as we re-train his brain. I hope this gives other parents permission to face tough realities instead of turning a blind eye and continuing to reward average-ness and even serious issues. In Peter’s case, his rewards mark his progress toward realizing his full potential. Find your child’s strengths, and build them up to bolster the weaknesses. While a spoonful of sugar makes a great song, it does nothing to solve real problems.

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