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Rehabilitation Inspires Greater Understanding

As teachers, we struggle every day to invent creative strategies to deal with special needs students. We ask ourselves, "How can I help them understand?" or "What is going on in their minds?" It is a continuous and sometimes frustrating struggle to find the key to open this door.

In June 2009, I suffered a stroke that damaged the left hemisphere of my brain, which affected my speech, comprehension, reading and writing skills, and ability to focus. After my stroke I chose to attend rehabilitation, not only for myself, but also for my students. It was my experiences during the recovery process that allowed me to gain a fundamental understanding of what my students faced everyday.

Identifying with My Students

My reading and comprehension abilities plummeted to below a 4th grade level. Suddenly I could not comprehend or remember anything I read. I was devastated. Decoding, automaticity, word definitions, and phonological awareness were gone. My short-term and long-term memory were nonexistent. I had to start from the beginning.

It occurred to me one day during my rehabilitation that I was living the reality of my students. It was both insightful and disquieting. I not only gained a new perspective on special needs students, but on all students. Patience, repetition, and humor became my motto.

Learning to Focus

Focusing was my first challenge, as it is for many students. I would start a thought and before I could finish it, I was onto a completely new one. My mind was buzzing with ideas and feelings at warp speed. Now, I better understand that the inability to focus impedes the other functions of the brain, like speaking, understanding, reading, and writing. To maintain focus in rehabilitation I scratched lines on a piece of paper for every word I spoke or repeated. Each session was taped to demonstrate improvement. After several long months I learned to use my hand to maintain focus while speaking.

Repetition maintains focus by reinforcing the main ideas and decoding vocabulary. Keith Stanovich <http://www.keithstanovich.com/Site/Home.html> referred to this strategy as the "Matthew effect"—the more you do it, the better you will do it.

Conquering challenges of assessment

Assessment is a strain on most students, but for special needs students, it can be hell on earth. During rehabilitation I was assessed every two weeks to evaluate my progress in speech, word recognition, reading, and comprehension. My fear of failure was overwhelming. To make the process of assessment more comfortable for my students I implemented a less traumatizing testing environment: the round table of knowledge. Seated around our familiar flattop I read questions and answers aloud and observed who was having difficulty. I would offer them clues from our lessons, simplify questions, or explain answers. The table offered them peace of mind, and testing became easier.

Using Prior Knowledge

Using my prior knowledge of a subject facilitated the reconstruction of my reading abilities. Difficulty finding words is a challenge that I continue to face. I know what I want to say, but cannot access the word. It feels as though my mind has been short-circuited. When under pressure or caught off guard the inability to respond can become terrifying.

One strategy when observing this reaction in students is to talk them through it by asking simple questions or saying the first syllable. As I experienced in my rehabilitation, I encouraged the student to calmly and slowly think it out, talk it out, and describe what it reminds him of using his prior knowledge. Then immediately add it to the vocabulary list and content notes.  

Learning to Read Again

Reading is similar to an internal orchestra in the brain. When a reader's decoding, automaticity, and comprehension are in sync, like instruments playing together, reading is effortless and comprehension flows. After my stroke, my internal orchestra was noisy and out of tune.

I created a worksheet to guide me through the reading process. After several months using the worksheet, I was reading at an 8th grade level. At first they seem tedious and difficult, but these worksheets eventually became a compass for decoding and comprehending material.

Finding New insight

In my opinion, my stroke was a blessing. It offered me the opportunity to go back to the basics and provided insight into the unique thought processes of special-needs and reading-disabled students. I may not yet be able to speak clearly, but I can express myself through writing, and I hope that sharing my experiences and new awareness will offer new insight and perspective to classroom teachers.

By: Carol M. Maloney, Stroke survivor, former teacher, and adolescent literacy specialist.

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"My stroke was a blessing. It offered me the opportunity to go back to the basics and provided insight into the unique thought processes of special-needs and reading-disabled students."

Taking the lessons of rehabilitation to the classroom:

  • Maintain focus by establishing repetitive physical or mental patterns.
  • Ease the pressure of assessment; make testing environments more comfortable.
  • Use prior knowledge to reconstruct word choice and reading comprehension skills. Relating a new topic to an old one helps reestablish pathways in the mind.
  • Word maps and flow charts make materials easier to follow for those developing reading skills.
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