Owning Our Learning Differences

I welcome Alessia Zaino a first-year teacher candidate from the University of Ottawa. In her guest post below, Alessia examines her students’ attitudes and reflections during the Language unit Fish In A Tree. The unit brought greater awareness to the importance of recognizing and accepting individual learning differences. The value is in recognizing that our brains are as unique as our fingerprints. Each of us are perfect as created.

Setting the Scene

This year, as a first-year teacher candidate with the  University of Ottawa’s Bachelor of Education program, I was placed in a Grade 5 Learning Strategies classroom at Holy Family Catholic Elementary school. All eight Grade 5 students in the one-year program are identified with a learning disability.

Laurie Azzi, my Associate Teacher explains:

“The Learning Strategies class is a one-year System Class placement with the Ottawa Catholic School Board.  Students are selected to attend based on a learning disability diagnosis and their capacity to pick-up strategies to assist in their learning. Students receive programming on specific learning strategies designed to foster greater independence in the classroom.  Learning to be self-advocates is an important part of the program. Students need to understand their learning differences and own who they are as learners. No shame. No masks worn. Empowerment is key.”

And So It Begins

It was  9 am on a Monday morning. The first official day of my practicum.  I gathered my students together and held up Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt – the new book we would be reading for our Language unit. My students instantly had questions of what the book was about, and what the meaning of the title was. My students watched a trailer for the novel, which explained to them that the main character’s name was Ally Nickerson and that she had difficulty in school with reading and writing, and with her peers.


The trailer showed that while Ally was reading words would move around on a page. One of the students asked, “Does that really happen? The words move for her?” Before I was able to answer the question, another student answered “Yes. It’s called dyslexia. That is what I have.” At this moment, I was so proud of my student for not only having the ability to be able to identify his learning disability but confidently owning it.

The importance of being able to be a self-advocate for yourself is so crucial, and as my students all have a learning disability, they will inevitably face challenges throughout their academic careers. Their ability to be self-advocates for their learning needs and the right learning strategies is key. I can say with confidence that I know that each one of them will be successful.


Have You Ever Felt Like A Fish In A Tree?

As my introduction to Fish in a Tree continued, I asked my students how they thought a fish would feel if it had to climb a tree. Following this, I posed a question to them: have you ever felt like a fish in a tree? Indeed, they had:

“I have felt like a fish in a tree when I’m doing reading in front of the class.”

“I felt that even though I kept on trying I would never get it right in math.”

“I felt like a fish in a tree in grade 4. I was the dumb person in the class.”

“I always feel like a fish in a tree and I will be when I go back to my old school.”

It was at this point, with their sincere and honest responses, when I realized the importance of this novel. It was evident that each of my students has faced difficulties and were each able to identify these daunting moments in their lives. Ally also faces many scary moments academically and with her peers, and the ability for my students to connect with her and her feelings is highly important. I knew that Fish in a Tree was going to provide my students with new insight and to let them know they are not alone.

Feeling Invisible

As the weeks continued, Ally encountered a point where she told her teacher, Mr. Daniels, that “it would be easier to be invisible.” I asked my students what they thought she meant by this, and if there had ever been a time they have felt invisible. Their responses follow:

“When Ally says it’s easier to be invisible I think she means that she gets bullied so much it’s easier to be invisible so nobody can see. I think if I was invisible it would make me very sad and angry.”

“I think Ally means that she would not get bullied as much if she was invisible. I have not felt invisible in a long time cause I do not get bullied as much anymore.”

“I have felt that I have been invisible I am on a ringette team no one pays attention to me. People don’t care about me. People tell me that “you have to include yourself.” I am including myself, I think they just think I am a shadow. But my friend Tessa, she is my BFF.”

After reading these responses, my heart broke for them and the struggles they have gone through or are going through, that no child should ever have to endure. “People don’t care about me. I think they just think I am a shadow.” This one particularly got to me. For a child to think that people do not care about her, to think that the people on her team think she is a shadow, must be such an awful feeling for her. Her strength to continue playing on this ringette team despite the feelings she encounters while there is truly inspiring. I approached this student and we both discussed the importance of having one great friend, and for her to always remember that she has people that do care about her.


Recognizing Greatness Within Yourself

My next task for my students was to write five great things about themselves. A task I knew would not be easy, as I too had difficulty when asking myself this question. Multiple students came up to me asking me what to write, and how they could not think of anything. Some students began writing things like hockey, math, and lego. At this point, I stopped my students. I told them that although these are things you are great at, I want you to include great things about YOU, about your personality. At first, this was difficult for them, but as they began to search deeper, they were each able to come up with five great things.

“I’m friendly, I laugh a lot, I don’t get mad easily, I like to play, I talk a lot”

“Kind, patient, considerate, cooperative, happy ”

“Sarcastic, loyal, kind, loving, happy”

“I am nice, I am happy, I am patient, I like paddling, and I can do things with electronics”

“Funny, caring, good at art, feminine, brave”

My heart was warm as I read their responses. I know how easy it can be to look at your peers and list multiple things that are great about them, but when it comes to recognizing these in yourself, it can be hard. Although this task is hard, it is possible, and the end result is rewarding. Each of them is unique and special in their own way, and it was important to me that they recognize this. With their responses, I felt both happy and proud. Despite their struggles that they may face in school or with their peers, they still remain positive and happy with themselves, which is the best thing I could have read.


Great Minds DON’T Think Alike

As the book continued, Ally learned that she had dyslexia, and Mr. Daniels told her that she learns differently than other people. Mr. Daniels explained learning differences by comparing it to when you ride your bike home, there is more than one way to go. Just like there are different ways to get home, there are different ways for information to reach the brain. As a class, we discussed the different ways they all learn differently, such as using technology to assist them with their reading and writing. We recognized that using assistive technology does not make us less than other students, but rather provides us with the same information but in a different format for what works for us.


Fish in a Tree has provided our class with new insight into learning differences and has shown my students that they are not alone. Throughout this novel, my students were posed with questions that weren’t always easy to answer, yet they all persevered and answered honestly and wholeheartedly. The feedback I received throughout this novel amazed me, and I could not be more proud of how far my students have come.

Thank-you & Good-bye

As my practicum comes to an end, I reflect on all I have learned and the lessons that I will take with me moving forward. Every child may be facing something we as educators know nothing about, whether it be academically, with peers, or at home. It is so important to get to know your students, as you and your classroom may be their safe place. Help students recognize that each of them is unique in their own ways, and always provide encouragement.

I have learned that each child learns differently and learning is not linear across all students. As an educator, it’s important to provide each individual student with what they need to be successful in their learning. Be patient, take time to recognize what students are great at and what they are struggling with. Most importantly, let them know that you are on their side and they are not alone.

To my wonderful eight students, you have been nothing short of phenomenal. I thank you for all you have taught me, and I admire how hard each of you works every day. You are all such an inspiration to me. Keep up the positive mindsets, pushing yourself through the challenges you may face, and continue to advocate for your learning needs, because with that, you can do or be absolutely anything you put your mind to. I believe in you.