Thursday, 23 May 2019

Learning Curves

In school, there was always one kid in who hid their book in their desk and read it when they thought the teacher wouldn’t notice. Were you that kid?

It was the same kid who sat on the stairs at parties in high school, face in book, while the party went on around them. Were you that kid?

When everyone else went to the gravel pit for the grad celebration, this kid went to the library for a one-last-time visit with the librarian. Were you that kid?

I was that kid.

And so was my husband.

So when we had kids who were readers, well, of course they were readers. They couldn’t possibly be anything else. Right?

And then we had Toby.

In kindergarten, the teacher complained that Toby did not know his alphabet, could we please work on this at home?

He and I spent every afternoon working on letters. I showed him the letter ‘e’. We played ‘e’ games, draw pictures featuring ‘e’, brainstorm words starting with the letter ‘e’. At the end of this, I swept everything off the table and showed him a card with the letter ‘e’ on it.

“Mommy’s so silly,” I said. (He agreed; he’s always very agreeable). “I forget this letter’s name. What is it?”

And he looked at me and said, “I don’t know!” as if he had never seen it before.

In Grade 1 he was placed in a special reading group, and in Grade 2 he was chosen for Empower. EmpowerTM Reading is a series of evidence-based reading intervention programs that were developed by Dr. Maureen W. Lovett and her team at The Hospital for Sick Children. In Empower, Toby and five other kids met with the learning resource teacher every day. We began to see some improvement. At the end of his Grade 2 year, he was reading at a pre-kindergarten level.

On the first day of Grade 3, Toby went to both the school principal and the LRT: “I want to be an engineer,” he told them. “But I need more help with my reading. Please can I take Empower again. It really helps.”

Empower is only offered to a student for one year, but the LRT was so impressed with Toby’s self-advocacy that she spoke to Sick Kids and received permission for him to continue with the programme.

At the same time, the wonderful Dr. Betty Johnson at the Dundas Optometry Clinic diagnosed Toby with dyslexia.

I’m not proud to say that my first reaction on hearing my son was dyslexic was feeling profound sorrow. As a lifelong lover of books and reading, it broke my heart that Toby would never know the joy that I knew, that his father and siblings knew.

Ridiculous, of course. Anyone who knows this kid knows that he is joy incarnate. But still. By the end of Grade 3 he had pulled himself to a pre-grade 1 reading level. He was so proud of himself. He had every right to be.

In Grade 4 he came home in tears and told me he was stupid.

Everyone in his class was reading chapter books. He was struggling through ‘Amelia Bedelia’. He loved zombies and aliens. He was tired of ‘baby books’.

We tried Geronimo Stilton, but the busy pages were too much. We tried middle-grade graphic novels, but the vocabulary level was too high. Graphic novels for younger readers were too ‘babyish’, all-ages comic books didn’t work because the print was inaccessible – too close together, too crowded.
Then a librarian friend suggested we try HiLo books. These are books with a low vocabulary level (grade 1-2), but with a story meant for an older reader.

I’d never heard of them before.

I went to the internet and there they were: HiLo books! Wonderful!

Wonderful, that was, if the reader was really keen on sweet romance.

My 8-year-old was not going to have anything to do with any kissing, thank you very much.

Where were the zombies?

Where were the aliens?

Where was the sci fi?

I nearly threw my computer across the room. Why is there never anything for boys?

Then I had a thought.

I’m a writer.

I write sci fi.

And so I got to work.