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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue A :: February 1997

An Odyssey for an Answer

by Grace Temple
By reading, attending conferences, and testing out what she found, Grace Temple found answers to the question: Why can't he learn?

To do research, you don't have to be someone with a doctorate. Anyone a teacher, aide, tutor, or learner, who sees a need or an unsolved problem can, by questioning, reading, and following up on what is learned, use research to find an answer. I was launched on a journey of research that led me into teaching and training about 30 years ago, when my boy's teacher informed me that my son had a learning problem. His confusion, lack of comprehension, and eventual disinterest in school concerned me. Thus began my efforts to discover why, with an otherwise intelligent individual, the materials, the instruction, and the concepts didn't seem to reach the brain.

Looking for the answer to this question led me into the lands of learning styles, hemisphericity, and multiple intelligences, ever searching for something that would enable those who learn differently to achieve. In the beginning, I questioned individuals in the field of education, interviewing, first, local teachers, then county and state professionals. If I couldn't reach them in person, I called them on the phone. I persisted with people until they gave me a name, an article, or a book title. If the book, article, or workshop addressed how the does the brain learn I read it or attended it. I became familiar with the names Peter Kline, Howard Gardner, Bob Samples, J. W. Keefe, Klauer, and many more. From attending workshops and conference sessions featuring those such as P. Lustig of Birmingham, MI; Don McCage of Flint, MI; Ed Castor from General Motors / United Auto Workers; and Wally -- Famous -- Amos, all of whom had experienced learning difficulties first hand, I learned the most.

As I searched, I was constantly on the alert for something that made sense, that addressed the problem of why otherwise intelligent individuals were unable to interpret or learn via traditional instruction. Eventually the focus of my search narrowed. I started trying methods, strategies, and activities. If it seemed practical, multi-dimensional, and flexible, I tried it. I used my students' reactions as a guide, incorporating that which appeared to help and interest, abandoning that which made them uncooperative or unresponsive.

As a teacher of reading improvement and a pre-GED class in an adult night school, I applied what had been theory to me and witnessed success. By using several assessment inventories I found or adapted, I helped my ABE students identify their learning styles, their right or left brain preferences, and which of their intelligences they used primarily. They became aware that they weren't dumb or slow; instead, they learn material differently from the way it is often presented in school. When I explained how educational thought has progressed, and that we know much more about learning than when they were in their early grades, they became interested in learning about how we take in, process, and make use of information. Then, I threw the responsibility back on them, urging them to understand how they learn best and encouraging them to make sure I met their learning needs. For my part, regardless of the night's subject, math or social studies or science, I always made a multi-dimensional presentation. I used flow charts, colors, discussion, group work, team work, and anything else I found that would help get the subject across. It was ultimately up to the students to look for what spoke to them and use it.

While working with these adults, I found many who were struggling as beginning readers. I joined with other community leaders to establish a literacy program, LVA-Sanilac Literacy Council, which offers tutoring to adults reading at the beginning level. As director and trainer of volunteers, I made it a point to research different programs to see which incorporated what I thought, based on the research I had done, would best serve our students. After participating in trainings by Laubach Literacy International, Bronx Educational System, Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), and Michigan Method-LitStart, and becoming certified as a trainer of tutors by LVA and LitStart, I designed a tutor training that includes strategies and methods that embrace students' different learning styles. This training includes an overview of how adults take in, process, and assimilate information. Our curriculum includes a unit that encourages tutors to share this information with their students and to draw on students' background knowledge, experience, needs, and interests. I encourage tutors to use a variety of activities during tutoring sessions and to tailor lessons to focus on their students learning styles. In this way, our students' learning barriers are overcome.

Always on the Lookout

Today I am still reading, always on the lookout for anything new or useful. For example, while reading a newsletter, I saw that a literacy program in California had received a grant to create a new training model that emphasized an integrative approach. I called for more information. A few more calls and we were included as a pilot site, able to offer this training to all interested tutors and ABE teachers in the county.

As for my son, by using a variety of techniques, he was able to graduate from high school, and a naval school, and become an air traffic controller. What a loss of talent if research hadn't been available to me. Any teacher who sees a student failing to grasp what is being taught can easily become a practitioner researcher by going to the literature, changing strategies, altering methods, or just plain trying something different, then observing what, if any, changes occur.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL