Why My Daughter?

21 Apr


Once upon a time there lived a beautiful prom queen. This prom queen possessed all the requisite physical characteristics that one might expect in a fantasy queen. She had golden tresses, blue eyes, porcelain skin, and a perfect white smile. She gave the illusion of developed sexuality without denying the possibility of innocence. She was a combination of loner and outsider.  She had the ability to mediate conflicts within her high school population because she has the genius of communication. She could be characterized as a cultural heroine in that she unified the individual and the group. Our prom queen differs significantly in one aspect of her life. She lived with a secret that she kept hidden throughout her school years. This young woman walked into my office and set this book into motion. This vision of perfection had one veiled flaw.  She was an undiagnosed dyslexic.

As much as 15-20% of the population demonstrates a significant reading disability.  This means that 4 or 5 children in the average classroom will have some form of reading disability. The symptoms of this disability may include slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or difficulty with comprehension. Whether or not these individuals qualify for special educational services is uncertain, but what is certain is they are likely to struggle with many aspects of the learning process.

The fundamental and powerful assumptions of our culture regarding literacy are that it is inherently good for the individual, good for the culture, difficult to acquire, and should be transmitted in classrooms. If literacy is difficult to acquire, then it becomes necessary to create a multitude of reasons to explain why some read better than others, as well as the cultural imperative to label as inferior those individuals who have poor reading skills.  The consequence of believing that literacy is best learned in classrooms enables schools to create a monopoly in which they blindly repeat the same failed instructional practices with the expectation of a different outcome.  

A history of Learning Disabilities (LD) in the United States reveals much about the cultural roles of literacy. After decades of neurological speculation regarding the exact nature of  dyslexia, critics of the diagnosis of dyslexia still assert that it is nothing more than a plausible explanation of why children of privilege and intelligence do not learn to read as expected or a means of securing more time for labeled children on high stakes examinations. The breakthrough of neuroimaging in children withdyslexia has revealed scientific evidence that individuals with dyslexia have a reduced engagement of the left temporo-parietalcortex for phonological processing of print. This same neuroimaging technique confirms the plasticity of the brain as it responds to effectiveintervention. Behavioral and brain measures identify infantsand young children at risk for dyslexia, and preventive interventionis often effective. There is hope that a combination of targeted teachingpractices and cognitive neuroscience measures could preventdyslexia from occurring in the majority of children who wouldotherwise develop dyslexia. To fully explore this phenomenon, it is necessary to understand the complexity of dyslexia.

The difficulties and concerns of a parent advocating for the reading disabled child are already significant. The confusion and misconceptions surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia only add to the parental dilemma.  Unfortunately, there are charlatans who will take emotional and financial advantage of the desperate parents of the reading disabled. Providers of costly vision therapy require parents to commit to sixty to ninety hours of left to right tracking exercises at ninety to one hundred and twenty dollars an hour. Trendy movement therapy promises improved balance in the body and the brain. The neighborhood chiropractor is more than willing to lead the dyslexic child through a series of exercises promised to improve reading performance. The well-meaning but misinformed reading specialist assures the parents that their child’s reading will improve if only they use multicolored overlays on the child’s reading materials.

The correction of this very serious disability is not so simple. In order to seriously address the identification and remediation of dyslexic children, and protect the parents of these children from unnecessary expenditure of time and money, the myths and misconceptions surrounding dyslexia must be addressed. As we work to deconstruct the masculinized educational framework in an attempt to make the system more equitable, often forgotten are the compliant girls who are experiencing academic difficulty. The gender normative behavior of boys demand most of the attention of educational researchers and policy makers. As a reading specialist working primarily with diagnosed dyslexics, I am acutely aware that the immediate and long term impact of dyslexia upon the lives of girls is only now beginning to be considered. Many undiagnosed dyslexic girls enter the “closet” early in life, spending childhood years anxiously avoiding classroom participation in oral reading for fear of embarrassment and disclosure. Because girls tend to be affiliative by nature (Gilligan, 1982) the fear of possible peer rejection results in sustained levels of anxiety. Carried further, this fear of disclosure may curtail participation in typical literacy activities such as note writing, emailing, blogging, and yearbook signing.

Teachers often encourage girls to take on identities that emphasize nurturing, such as mother or teacher, and although these identities may provide girls with increased power in some classroom relations, they also deny girls access to other roles.

Carol Gilligan (1982)  created a stage theory of moral development exclusively for women. Rather than departing from the limitation of developmental stage construct to explain human development and behavior, she just develops her own female friendly version. Just like Kohlberg (1981), Gilligan’s model identifies major stages of moral development.  Female children begin with a selfish focus. As they develop they learn to care for others and reject selfishness. In the conventional stage, women doubt their freedom to act in their own interests. They value the interests of others above their own. In the post-conventional stage, women finally learn that their own interests are just as important as others. The core theoretical difference in the feminist model exists in Gilligan’s assertion that the transitions between the stages are caused by changes in the sense of self rather than in changes in cognitive capability. Kohlberg’s approach is based on Piaget’s cognitive developmental model while Gilligan’s is based on selective aspects of Freud.

Gilligan’s stages of moral development emerged from the study of women making significant decisions in their lives. This investigation was driven in reaction to Kohlberg’s experimental results that insinuated that women tended to be less morally developed than men.  Gilligan concludes that women’s sense of integrity appears to be entwined with an ethic of care rather than the ethic of justice.  Morally developed women think more about caring, for themselves and others, rather than following the rules.

Thus, an even closer look must be taken at the philosophical and academic profiles of the teachers with whom we entrust the academic and social growth of our girls. Levine (2006) in his description of future elementary education teachers as “less academically qualified than our children need or deserve” (p.56) epitomizes this critical perspective. In response to this criticism, the American Educational Research Association (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2005) has called for more research in the area of teacher education.

     The majority of teachers in today’s work force are white, female and middle class. Teachers of color comprise about 16 percent of the teaching force in the United States (Banks, et al, 2005). In addition, pre-service as well as in-service teachers have little experience with children with learning differences or from cultures and languages different from their own. Our call as avocates is to determine the particular attributes, skills, and dispositions that are needed to increase the probability that all teachers will be able to deliver an academically appropriate pedagogy.

Today, with the advent of Response to Intervention (RTI), all teachers are mandated with the task of meeting the educational needs of all the children. General educators are understandably uncertain regarding their level of preparation for their new role of delivering special education pedagogy. There are few studies focused on the task of preparing teachers to work specifically with  girls. New research must focus on how well we are preparing teacher candidates with the theoretical understandings and pedagogical skills necessary to meet different learning needs and styles of our girls. In addition, we must also determine whether teacher education programs are preparing graduates who internalize and embrace the importance of debunking gender stereotypes.

It is essential to understand that domination and elitism still exist in America’s classroom to fully understand how the literacy identity in dyslexic girls occurs.  “Feminism is not just theoretically significant. Educational practices and educational outcomes are damaged by sexism. This is because there is a prevailing sexism both in and out of formal educational institutions: schools, universities, local authorities, governing bodies, government departments, educational publishing, and voluntary pressure groups. Inevitably sexism also distorts how such educational practices and outcomes are understood and researched. This is precisely the concern of feminist epistemology: how to improve knowledge and remove sexist distortions (Griffiths, 1995, p.219).”

The significance of a compliant female with reading problems is far down the list of educational concerns. Historically, much of the focus on policy, practice, and research on gender and education has been on issues related boys. The tide shifted in the 1990’s with the publication of a number of reports and popular books about girls and their educational disadvantages. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) published the much touted report of How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992). The focus of this report is the argument that current curricula and pedagogy are educationally depriving girls. In addition, books such as Failing at Fairness (Sadker & Sadker, 1994), School Girls (Orenstein, 1994), and Reviving Ophelia (Pipher, 1994), address the psychological damage and educational neglect to which girls are subjected in the male dominated classroom. According to these authors, girls are called on less often by teachers, show less involvement and achievement in math and science, and receive fewer and lower-quality comments from teachers.

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