Stop the Insanity – Redefining Success For Exceptional Learners

As a Learning Strategies Teacher, my thoughts surround my students, all of whom are identified with a Learning Disability. They are the focus of my participation in our OECTA CLC Project: “How might technology be leveraged to increase independence among exceptional learners?” The team for our project is Leslie Cardarelli, Charlene Davidson, Sarah Faloon and I. Krista Sarginson, Itinerant Teacher of Assistive Technology participated in our Day 1 activities.  Here are my reflections after Day 1 of the project. For more information go to

Mid-tantrum, young Helen Keller feels a forceful hand grab her arm, pulling her forward. Having no choice, she follows Anne Sullivan, her teacher. Helen’s hair flows across her face, as they quickly descend the steps leading outdoors. In a rebellious urge to escape, Helen writhes and tugs to get away. Angry tears pour down her cheeks.

When teacher and student abruptly stop, Helen’s hand feels the metal of the pump. Then her teacher grabs her hands, placing them into a cold, wet substance. The coldness washes over Helen’s fingers, dripping onto her unlaced shoes. Anne firmly signs W-A-T-E-R into her student’s small hand. Then desperately guides her hand back into the cold splash of liquid.

The radiance of discovery lights up Helen’s face. The connection has been made. Symbol to word to object. The word “water” comes to life in that one moment. Until this moment, words had no meaning to this child. Here, standing in the yard, language was born.

That day, April 5, 1887, Anne Sullivan, standing at the water pump with Helen Keller, had a magical teaching moment. She unlocked the mystery of language for her student. Breaking through barriers, opening up the world, and paving the way for future success, engagement and empowerment. Sullivan’s innovative practice broke through her blind-deaf student’s sheer frustration and utter madness. Liberating Keller from her dark and silent world.

Later, Keller would say, “That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.” (The Story of My Life)

Helen Keller went on to be an accomplished writer, speaker and activist.  Her accessibility to language in a non-standard form – the manual alphabet, sign language, and braille – opened the door for her great successes. The key that unlocked the door was the innovative and unconventional methods of her teacher.

Now, 13o years later, Keller and Sullivan’s story still has much to teach us about accessibility to literacy, and the importance of early interventions and supports. About the difficulties of students, their repeated failures, and consequential feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness. How success at school, from an early age on, is long still defined by the ease with which students learn to read and write. The way the alphabet, sound letter recognition, phonemic awareness and unlocking the code are the signposts on the pathway to literacy success. As are pencil and paper tasks, proper letter formation, and staying in between the lines. This pathway is now, as it was in Helen Keller’s time, the one door of entry for students. Now, as then, most students go through it, meet the signposts and become literate. Some, like Helen, encounter obstacles.

Such students are seldom told that they are “failures”. They, however, by not passing through the door or missing a signpost, know they have failed. By being asked to complete work that is either too easy, not within their grasp, or too heavily accommodated reminds them of this fact.  As does asking students, who lack the fine motor control or the ability to even read their own writing, to take notes.  The sense of failure is manifest in their shame over of the quality of their work. The way they hide their work from peers, or complete no work to avoid such an outcome. Continuing at the same grade level IEP year after year after year has no other name than failure.

My experience is that students perceived as lazy, unmotivated or oppositional, when provided with tools that enable them to learn, will reject failure and opt to go through the door, meet the signposts and succeed in school. When these tools are absent, failure is the norm. One, according to American psychologist Martin Seligman that contributes to a condition of learned helplessness. Moreover, failure makes students more passive in situations as they believe success is out of their own control. Repeated failures erode their self-esteem and determination. They believe there is no use in trying. Success is not possible. So they give up hope.

The word YET is a powerful antidote to the student apathy that results from such conditions being present.  YET empowers students to look at their academic struggles as prerequisites for success. YET builds dreams and expectations. It is the pull that drives us forward. It comes with a promise of success.

Attached to “I can’t do this YET” is the unspoken thought, “But I will”. Each day when class starts, YET is the hook in which students hang their dreams on. YET is where their hope resides.

It is how teachers create growth mindsets, encourage perseverance and foster resilience among students. In it, students believe, “If I try hard enough, I will succeed. If I work harder, I will get ahead. The sky’s the limit.”

Conversely, YET can be a dangerous term for students already polarized by learning deficits, especially those with a ceiling to their learning.  The ones who standardized and reliable assessments indicate specific barriers that can not be eroded, such as:  processing speed, memory, intellect, expressive and receptive language deficits. In such cases, asking students to try harder is not appropriate. Try as they may, these students have no choice but to be non-readers and writers in the traditional sense of those words. Albert Einstein spoke to this reality when he said, Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

There is no YET for that fish and for some students, there will be no YET unless we redefine what success means in the education system.  We need to redefine what it means to be a reader and writer in this digital age.

My mind is drawn to a boy diagnosed with a pervasive learning disability, whose intellect was in the superior range.  In the junior grades, he could not recognize his own name. Over the years, he, despite extensive interventions and one-to-one support, had not YET unlocked the code. The look of shame on his face while completing a required pencil-paper task will haunt me forever. It pushes my thinking forward.  

I still remember the day, when, after a unit on growth mindset, he said, “I can’t read, YET.”   For this boy, and others like him, “reading” must be redefined. Much as literacy was redefined for Helen Keller. In doing so, we redefine success for ALL students. We need to help all students achieve their YET.

Redefining success is taken up by  Dean Bragonier in his  TEDx Talk.  In his talk, he discusses dyslexia and cites the work of  Dr. Gershen Kaufman  on shame culture. The shame of being a non-reader is equivalent to the shame associated with being involved in incest. It is that pervasive.  As educators, we need to eliminate the shame in students for whom unlocking the code to literacy has been difficult.

I, like Anne Sullivan, seek to be innovative and accepting of all methods of teaching and assessment.  I strive to do what breakthroughs demand. Like Anne Sullivan I understand that shifts in perception about literacy are needed in all educational stakeholders–teachers, administrators, parents and students. Including, a shift from “can I read?” to “how I read”. A shift from “can I write?” to “how I write”.

Technology can support shifts such as these. It is part of an emerging paradigm in which technology is leveraged so all students are successful all the time. That has multiple entry points for students. With multiple ways for students to think and learn.

“Insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.” (Albert Einstein)

As the story of Sullivan and Keller teaches, each of us, regardless of subject matter is a teacher of Language. That is why in my classroom, students read text at their level, read aloud to develop fluency, and continue to develop capacity with pencil and paper tasks. My thrust, however, is that they gain greater fluency in reading and writing by leveraging technology.

Technology provides ways for students to reconceptualize themselves and their learning.   Reading is done with eyes or with ears, through listening. Writing is done on paper, by keyboarding, by using Voice-to-Text or through a Voice Note. Spelling is done using Word Prediction and Spell Check tools. Editing  and Revising is enabled by listening to the text. Responses in content areas, such as Science, Social Studies or Mathematics, can be provided as Voice Notes. The multiple entry points that technology affords my students enables them to succeed. It allows for independence and greater student agency.

We can no longer ignore technological tools that support proven practices and open doors to learning for students who have only encountered walls. Such tools are for us, what the pump was for Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. To not use them is akin to asking students to be that fish climbing the tree. To do anything else, would be insanity.

Note: During our next CLC, we will be joined by Anthony Caracache (OECTA), Lynne Coletti (Principal of Student Services) and Krista Sarginson (Itinerant Teacher of Assistive Technology). We will continue exploring our guiding question by (a) considering what it means to be a proficient reader and writer,  (b)evaluating various technological tools for their usefulness, (c) reflecting on how each student’s work flow is different, and a necessary part of who they are as learners and (d)examining how my students access Google Read and Write and Hapara Workspace during a classroom visit.



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