College and Tragedy and Strategies
This includes how Tony managed to make it though college and many of the strategies he used. It wasn’t easy. Tony started at Boston University in a special two-year program for students with leaning disabilities. He tried UMass Boston (The University of Massachusetts in Boston) and finally ended up at Curry College, just outside Boston with a four-year program for students with learning disabilities. College took five years and graduate school about three years more. It was a long struggle.
Tony’s first day in college
In the special program at BU, students didn’t take Biology or Physics. They took Science. That annoyed Tony. The professor had an accent. He might have been from Pakistan.
Tony called home after the first day. “Guess what,” he said excitedly. “I taught class today!” He went on to explain that the other students in his science class kept saying “I don’t understand it. I don’t get it.” Tony wasn’t sure if the professor’s accent was a problem or if they just didn’t understand the science.
Tony asked if he could explain. As I remember the story, Tony was drawing diagrams at the blackboard and the students were getting it. He was so proud of himself.
I told him it was great that he could help… but just once. The professor would not appreciate it if Tony explained the lesson every day. We suggested that Tony tell his classmates that he’d met them in an empty classroom after class and explain the lesson so they could understand it. I think he started with half the class joining his special class.
As the weeks went by about many of them felt able to keep up on their own. The students who Tony helped apparently got A’s and B’s. Tony got a C. Why? Tony had the most problems reading the questions and trying to write answers.
I would love to know if the professor knew what Tony was doing… if maybe Tony’s grades were even lower but the professor understood Tony’s problem. But I know that Tony said he was very happy to get a C all on his own, without needing someone to read the test for him.
We had suggested that he talk to the people in the special services program. He could have asked for oral exams and for someone to write his answers. But Tony was stubborn. He determined to succeed on his own.
During the last semester of the second year in this program, the students each chose a class or two from the regular curriculum. Tony took Calculus and Physics and failed both of them. He repeated them in summer school and failed them again. Then he tried them at UMass Boston – a less expensive school and we hoped, a little easier. He took and passed a class on philosophy – I think based largely on class discussion. But he failed Physics and Calculus again. This was discouraging but Tony wasn’t about to give up.
What Strategies was Tony using?
1. Tony was using his listening skills. He didn’t do much homework. He never took notes. But Tony tried never to miss a class and he concentrated on listening.
2. Tony depended on his memory. While he never explained how he could remember some things so well, I imagine his concentration helped. He probably went over and over the information in his mind. I have no other explanation for how Tony virtually memorized a television program on particle physics that I barely remembered and I have a good memory. He must have spent a lot of time thinking about what he heard.
3. Great listening and memory skills don’t help much in Calculus and Physics. In these classes, he paid total attention in class and was excited about the concepts, BUT he wasn’t doing the homework. You cannot pass a math or math-related class like physics without doing all the homework.
What might Tony have done?
A. The smartest thing would have been to find another student in each class who would be his “study buddy.” They could get together for at least an hour a day, preferably right after class and do homework together. Then, when Tony had problems understanding a problem, the other student could read and explain it. If the other student had difficulty understanding the concepts, Tony could probably have helped there
B. Another possibility would have been finding a tutor. Most schools offer free tutoring especially in classes like these. If they weren’t free, it would have been worth the money to get help.
Learning Literature requires different skills
Tony came home one weekend, and shared the fact that he had less than a week to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s a long book. Even if Tony could read, he’d have had trouble. But he had a plan.
He had already bought a copy of the Cliff Notes (booklets that summarize the details of books students are most likely to need to read). I have no problem with using Cliff Notes or other summaries. Reading a summary of one of Shakespeare’s plays makes it easier for me to follow the story when I do read the play.
Tony studied his Cliff Notes until he practically memorized the characters and the plot. He probably knew the story better than some students who actually read the book.
Then, he decided what he’d like to actually read. A friend helped him find it in the book. Reading a few pages gave him a good feeling for the style of writing.
Finally, he supposedly had a list of questions about the story, questions not answered in the Cliff Notes. He asked some of his classmates for their opinions. He was well prepared for a class discussion and for the test.
No, I can’t guarantee that Tony really did all these things he planned to do, but they were all good ideas.
Strategies for Reading
1. Before you read a difficult book – or instead of reading it, find a good summary of the book. Use Cliff Notes. Use books in the library that provide summaries for the classics. Check online and you might find a summary and someone’s opinion of the book.
2. Try to read at least a portion of the book. You might even find a few lines you can memorize and quote. Think about how this author’s writing is different from other books used in the class.
3. Discuss the book with classmates. Participate in class discussions or at least listen carefully to what students are saying about the book.
4. Reading the book would be best of course. But, if you spend hours wading through a long book and can’t remember what the story was about and who the characters were, you are wasting your time.
5. Tony could also have gotten the book on tape. The problem is, with a long book, it takes much longer to listen to it than to read the book. This means he should have started the book many weeks earlier.
Tony goes to Curry College and his Strategies for Writing
Curry College is in Milton, MA, just south of Boston. The professors here were much more helpful with students like Tony, though I doubt that they ever had a student as severely dyslexic as Tony who was so determined to make it through college. Once Tony gave up on typing and turned in his “term paper” on a cassette tape and the professor accepted it.
Tony had a computer all through college and tried to type papers. The problem was, of course, that he couldn’t spell. So he used his spell checker. When the computer came up with a list of a dozen or so suggestions for a misspelled word, they all looked about the same to Tony. He simply clicked the first one. As a result, his papers often made no sense.
Yes, we suggested he look words up in a dictionary. That would make sense if you’re deciding between two alternative spellings. Tony’s perfectly logical response was that he couldn’t look a word up because he didn’t know how to spell it.
One professor tried to teach Tony how to spell, at least the most common words, but he had no success. He gave up and suggested that Tony type his papers but not use the spell checker. Tony saved papers to a disc and took the disc to the professor who loaded it on his office computer. The professor began to read aloud. When he got to something that made no sense, Tony explained and the professor corrected it. This worked well, but the help didn’t continue into graduate school, even at Curry.
Today, with email being used everywhere, Tony could have emailed his papers to me. So if you have a parent or grandparent or a friend somewhere who could look over your papers and make corrections that would be extremely helpful.
Physics was also different at Curry. They were starting to shut down their physics department because so few students took physics. Tony arrived just in time and they continued the classes he needed as a physics major, even though he was usually the only student in a class. Most colleges won’t do this. So class meant Tony and the professor had long conversations, probably in the professor’s office. It would be silly to lecture to a single student. They probably did many problems together. It was like having a private tutor. Tony was extremely lucky.
When Tony went on to get his Master’s degree at Curry, things were different. There was no extra help for dyslexic students. His teachers had to know he was dyslexic. All they had to do was read a sentence or two that he had written. Tony thought he was doing well. He understood the material and participated actively in classes.
But there were papers he was supposed to write. He somehow just skipped many of them, expecting that they might drop his grade a little. Nobody told him he would fail without doing these papers. This information may have been on the syllabus, but Tony, as usual, expected that, if something on the syllabus was important, the teacher would mention it. When he got his grades, he saw incompletes. Not one of his teachers said anything to him about an incomplete turning into an F if he didn’t get the papers turned in. He assumed that incomplete meant that the teacher hadn’t turned in the grades on time.
He had written his Master’s Thesis on “Brain-based Teaching and Learning in the Physics Classroom.” He knew he couldn’t skip this. I had taken him with me to a weekend workshop on Brain-based Teaching and Learning so he had a good head start in this area.
Every weekend we’d get together and either do library research. or work on the paper. Library research meant finding titles of articles that looked helpful. I’d skim the article and read parts of it to Tony. If he liked it, we copied it. I was his reader but he made all the choices. He came up with his outline and he began dictating the paper. We got comments from the professor each week and made changes. The professor seemed very pleased with his work.
And then the “tragedy”
Tony had paid for his cap and gown and we had planned the graduation celebration. We were all going to the Blue Man Group. Then Tony got the word: He wouldn’t be graduating. Someone finally explained the problem. His incompletes were all now failed classes.
He was allowed to attend graduation with his class but received a blank diploma. We celebrated anyway. Then Tony and I got to work. We had a long talk with his department head, who was very helpful. We researched and completed about one paper a week. He finally got his diploma.
There were so many times throughout college where most students would have given up in despair. I’m sure Tony was often terribly discouraged. But he never gave up. And, because he never gave up, we never gave up on him. We’d sometimes point out that we understood that, when you can’t read or write well, a college education will take a little longer.
Strategies for students who can learn but cannot write
1. Buy Voice Recognition Software! It is wonderful.
If Tony was starting college now, we’d have gone out and bought voice recognition software. Tony recently bought the software and is trying to write a book. I have a friend who had a stroke and cannot type. He is in my writer’s group. He is also using this software to write a book. It is also a wonderful solution for those with MS or quadriplegics and – for those lazy people who never got around to learning how to type.
If only Tony had this in college it would have saved so much time and pain. He might even have been able to use it to do his tests.
The software occasionally misunderstands you, writing bear instead of bare. If you can read, you would catch the errors by proofreading the results. If, like Tony, you can’t read and your work needs to be perfect, you’d need to get someone to proofread for you. One possibility would be to email your material to a parent, grandparent or friend with good proofreading skills. They could make the corrections and return it very quickly.
2. Without Voice recognition software, either you can either dictate into a recorder for someone to type or dictate directly to a typist.
3. If your writing problems are more about organizing your writing, nearly every college and university has a writing center where someone will critique what you have written and give you suggestions. You might also find the section of this website to be helpful, especially on how to write essays for different purposes.
Somehow, Tony didn’t have this problem. He could dictate sentences including the punctuation. He could say “That’s the end of the introduction. Now the next paragraph.” I always read his work back to him when he was done so he could make changes to improve his writing. But he didn’t have any more revisions to make than other students writing a first draft. I did my best not to tell him what to do. It was his writing. He had to decide what and how to write.
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