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One Man’s Mission to Save Struggling Students

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Snowy Owl, by Anita (Grade 7), Watercolor. All photos courtesy of Tyson Schoeber.

VANCOUVER. You could call his classroom a rescue mission. Each September, Tyson Schoeber takes under his wing 15 fourth through seventh graders that normal classrooms have left behind, defeated and too often, deflated. Ten-year-olds arrive unable to decode more than a few words without help. One eight-year-old who loved geography had trouble finding any book on the topic that he could read on his own. Another boy, a fifth grader, had a six-year-old sister who could already read far better than he could.

Schoeber’s program, called THRIVE, at Nootka Elementary School helps to bring a select group of kids, many of them dyslexic, back from the brink of academic stagnation. It boosts their reading and writing skills using individualized programs, multisensory learning techniques, lots of repetition—and most importantly, encouragement.

Hundreds of private schools exist for kids with learning disabilities. For a hefty tuition, they offer small class sizes and specialized instruction. Many of their graduates do quite well. They go on to college and successful careers, Schoeber says. “Yet why should that opportunity only be available to kids with means?” he asks.

Train Station, by Carson (Grade 7), Pencil and Pencil Crayon.

In Schoeber’s rare public-school classroom, every child works independently on his or her own learning plan, with intermittent help from Schoeber and a part-time special education assistant. The kids focus on setting goals, their own personal progress and learning how to learn. “We are trying to create an environment in which [kids] feel ownership for what they are working on,” Schoeber says, “so that they don’t need someone standing over them all the time.” This approach builds self-efficacy, a belief in your own competence and ability to solve problems. Kids with a learning disability tend to lack this belief, and they often harbor little hope for what they might become as adults, Schoeber says.

Creatures, by Tristan (Grade 5), Graphic Arts.

That cloudy forecast too often becomes self-fulfilling. Although 5 to 10 percent of schoolchildren have learning disabilities, learning-disabled individuals represent up to 55 percent of incarcerated youth. A report by Heather Fels of the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine suggests that about half of the adult prison population has some form of learning disability (although studies have revealed rates between 8 and 77 percent). In addition, Fels states that 35 percent of learning disabled students drop out of high school, twice the rate of students without these issues, and 31 percent of adolescents with learning disabilities are arrested three to five years after graduating. (These statistics do not mean that most children with learning disabilities turn to crime. They indicate such kids are at increased risk.)

These are kids who often start out as sweet, social and attractive. They seem like normal children—until you ask them to do schoolwork. “If you talk to a learning disabled kid, you may not know anything’s wrong,” Schoeber says. “These are bright, capable kids.” But exposed to repeated failure in school, they tend lose their sense of self worth and give up. In later life, it’s no wonder they lack opportunities.

3-D Ball, by Mancy (Grade 7), Pencil Sketch.

One way to stop the cycle of discouragement and defeat is to celebrate the special gifts these children can often claim. “Many people with dyslexia have incredible talents that get swallowed up in schools,” says Schoeber. In many cases, their aptitudes are spatial, says Adele Diamond, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. Although many students don’t learn well when they have to listen or read, they easily manipulate objects and perform tasks in three-dimensions. Such abilities are quite useful in many contexts, Diamond points out. “The ones who learn spatially, let them shine using these skills,” she suggests.

Owl at Night, by Lyla (Grade 4), Graphic Arts.

Some of the children express their superior sense of space through art. One sixth-grade girl who was at least three years behind in reading and writing rendered beautiful paintings of nature that her family framed and gave out as gifts. This blog showcases the artwork of many of those young people, including that of Carson, a charismatic 12-year-old who keeps a sketchbook in his desk. Anita, now an 8th grader, who made the painting above also created a fantastic animated film called Owly. THRIVE students have been participating in a student film-making competition for the past four years. I will feature their award-winning documentaries in an upcoming post.

Pomegranates, by Eli (Grade 6), Watercolor.

At the same time, Schoeber is on a mission to teach his charges to read and write with some degree of proficiency. In the general population, some kids start reading incidentally. One of Schoeber’s own sons taught himself to read when he was three. But most kids do not learn that way, Schoeber explains, instead requiring some type of direct instruction. And for 3 to 5 percent, ordinary reading lessons are not enough. These are the kids who participate in THRIVE.

Greek Urn, by Alexis (Grade 7), Papier-mâché.

The program emphasizes metacognitive strategies, or ways to think about thinking and learning, to help the students understand that there is a process to skills such as writing. To this end, Schoeber repeats, models, explains and illustrates the steps of the writing and reading process frequently throughout the day. He also enhances verbal learning through touch. For example, students use their fingers to trace letters on custom-made colorful drill cards while sounding them out. And, of course, on every skill these kids must master, they get lots of practice. Schoeber’s class operates on a shoestring: $430 per year, not including his or his assistant’s salaries or the donated Macintosh computers that line its walls.

Owl at Sunset, by Dezarae (Grade 7), Watercolor.

Despite its miniscule funding, THRIVE boasts some wonderful success stories. One youth who was “virtually illiterate” at the start of grade 4, is now on the honor roll in high school, performing at the 90th percentile or better in all subjects. Getting there required tremendous effort: she reports studying from 4pm until midnight six days a week. “Learning and achieving the way she’d like is hard work for her kind of brain,” Schoeber says. She is one of the top achievers emerging from THRIVE, but many other THRIVE students are finding their way as well. “Most of our kids have gone on and done okay,” reports Schoeber, who has taught the program for 15 years. Many of them graduate from high school; some go on to college.

Cartoon Owl, by Joy (Grade 7), Graphic Arts.

Schoeber’s website outlines the methods used in THRIVE and provides all the materials created for the program for free to anyone who wants them. This intense, loquacious man is painfully aware that his ever-patient prodding and coaching can only make a small—if important—dent in the wider problem. The distribution of his tools through the Internet is a way to spread the pedagogy. “I want to try to help others, too,” Schoeber says. “It’s my commitment to social justice.”

Awesome Man, by Carson, Graphic Arts.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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