My Generation Can: Public Narratives for Community Change
Portrait photography by Jennifer Waddell.

From Chapter 2: Bruised Apples & Sour Milk—Issues Facing Students in Schools

Ever since I can remember I have battled with being dyslexic. I was diagnosed at the age of six and had to repeat first grade. From an early age, I knew my way of learning and processing information was (and still is) much different than others’. Being dyslexic is hard. It means I read more slowly than others and I have a hard time being able to tell certain letters apart, like “b” and “d.” Sometimes I see words spelled backwards. I remember not being able to understand what was going on in math class because there were too many combinations of numbers and letters.

Despite these difficulties, I feel lucky to have been able to learn what makes me different and how to overcome these difficulties. I have been able to excel not in spite of dyslexia, but because of it. I am now a creative learner and am able to successfully adapt to many different learning environments. All in all, I think I’m a stronger student because of my dyslexia.

Looking back, I can see a turning point in my education when I entered high school. There were times I just wanted to give up trying in middle school because of my disability. I had a tendency to just shut down and give up. However, when I came to the EMK I began getting so much more help and attention, and this gave me the drive to think more deeply and see the bigger picture of what I can do, instead of concentrating on what I can’t do. Meeting other students who also struggled with learning disabilities made me not feel so alone.

I had no idea, but it turns out there are 43.5 million people with dyslexia in the United States today. Unfortunately, some parents don’t find out their child has a learning disability like dyslexia until it’s almost too late. I was lucky in the sense that I was diagnosed at an early age, but that doesn’t happen to everyone. Many teachers think that early screening for learning disabilities is important, so that the child can be put in a position to succeed when they enter school. In an op-ed for The Boston Globe, educator Jessica Lander tells us that “…students with dyslexia often experience successive academic failures, and many suffer from severe low self-esteem and anxiety.” This is exactly what happened to me.

In the 10th grade, I found myself getting really frustrated to the point where I was walking out of class and losing my temper on one particular teacher because I didn’t think he was doing enough to support me. Just being in that class made me feel like I was not smart enough. I got right back into the “I give up” state of mind again that I experienced in middle school. It got to the point where I started seeing a counselor because this frustration was taking a toll on me. I ended up being diagnosed with really bad anxiety that was throwing me off academically and emotionally.

Eventually, sometime during junior year, I got my anxiety under control and managed to turn things right back around. I started asking more questions in classes, studying more, and even staying after school for extra support. Instead of getting frustrated, I learned to tell myself, “What I have is different from what others have, but it’s a special kind of different.” My counselor helped me become more confident and I learned that if I spoke out in class my teachers would hear me out. Besides my counselor, my biggest support has always been my mom, ever since I was a child. She’s always been my superhero. My mom has always supported me emotionally, academically, and mentally through everything. I remember telling myself every day that being dyslexic and having anxiety wasn’t going to stop me from being successful.

One thing that has helped me advocate for myself is knowing exactly what is in my IEP (Individualized Education Program). Each student diagnosed with a learning disability has an IEP and it specifies what kind of instructional strategies the student can benefit from, as well as any accommodations they’re entitled to. All BPS students who have an IEP should know what’s in it. That way, if it’s not being followed, they can advocate for themselves. I have asked the question, “Why doesn’t my teacher follow my IEP?” many times.

According to Tiana Tassinari, a former teacher at the EMK who is now working at East Boston High School, most teachers simply don’t have the time to go over all their students’ IEPs to ensure that their instruction is meeting that standard. The truth is that most BPS teachers are overwhelmed and have other responsibilities on their plates. Another thing that Ms. Tassinari mentioned is that the lack of communication between teachers makes it difficult for them to meet the needs of specific students with IEPs. Not only do teachers need to be trained to meet the academic needs of students with dyslexia, but as I mentioned there are emotional issues that come along with it. I asked Ms. Tassinari if the average teacher would know how to teach a child that was suffering from anxiety. She explained to me that there is still a lot of work to be done to teach teachers the importance of social emotional learning. One potential solution would be to hire teachers who are specialized in these fields, but most schools and districts lack the resources to do so.

Boston Public Schools has to do a better job supporting students with learning disabilities. This must start with the simple recognition that not every student is the same and all teachers must be prepared to teach students who have different ways of learning and understanding things. There is an organization in Massachusetts called Decoding Dyslexia and their mission is to raise awareness about dyslexia as well as advocate for additional funding to support literacy programs for students with dyslexia. I encourage everyone who is passionate about this issue to sign up for their mailing list to learn about more ways to get involved.

As a senior, I am able to say that I have definitely made a 180-degree turn both academically and emotionally. My positive self-talk has really helped me and I am proud to say that I was able to push myself to get High Honor Roll (all A’s) for the first time this year. What’s more is that I have not once thought about giving up. All I want to do for myself is keep fulfilling my dreams without letting my learning disability stop me. I push myself to the best of my ability everyday for those who look up to me like my little sister and brother. I try my hardest to make my family proud and I’ll continue to put my all into everything I do for those who support me.

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My Generation Can: Public Narratives for Community Change

Written by 12th graders at the E.M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. Foreword by Sonia Chang-Diaz, Massachusetts State Senator.

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