Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Book Nook: Reversed

Every parent wants their child to succeed.  In this world that we live in, imagine being told that your child is one of the worst children ever, with a low IQ, and disabled by educators.  These educators say he or she will never be able to advance and read beyond a third grade level.  How would you react?  What would you do?  

Lois Letchford found herself in such a situation with her son, Nicholas.  Despite Nicholas being diagnosed with a low IQ, Letchford was determined that she would not give up on his future and decided to do and try everything to help him as the education system was ‘quick to cast him aside.’ Letchford, an exceptional mother, decided to devote all of her time to help him one on one and this took her on an incredible journey with her son in which she experimented with different teaching techniques, battled the school system for the education her son deserved and much more. It was a story that spanned three continents.  Today, Nicholas holds a Doctorate of Philosophy from Oxford University in Applied Mathematics.  An educator, Letchford today helps other children and parents who are similar situations and has written the critically acclaimed book, Reversed about this. 

I had a chance to interview her to learn more.

Can you share a little bit about how your son has exceeded expectations others originally held?
My son, Nicholas, failed first grade.
During this year, his fingernails were bitten to the quick and he peed his pants every day. His teacher screamed at him for not following instructions. He withdrew completely, and became accustomed to believing he could not learn. His stress levels were enormous—especially for a six-year-old. It was a horrific year in school.
Testing at the end of this year showed he could only read ten words, had “no strengths,” and a low IQ.
This prognosis for a child is dire. Statistics show such students rarely catch up. 
Last year, in 2018, he graduated with his D.Phil (Ph.D) in Applied Mathematics from Oxford University.
Our shared story is the journey of how he went from low IQ to Oxford Ph.D. and I became a reading specialist and literacy advocate.

How can parents encourage their children to rise above struggles and labels?
This is a tough question and the answers are not simple.
As parents, we must continue to believe in our children and believe they can learn to read and write effectively. This must be the highest priority.
Back in 1994, I didn’t know much about teaching reading. The situation was overwhelming. We did not have money to spend on tutors; even if we did, Nicholas would not have cooperated in afterschool tutoring as school was exhausting for him.
If I had my time again, I would have removed Nicholas from school. I should not have let him be so stressed and fail throughout that year. Only now am I aware of the long-term effects of that year. I recently asked Nicholas—now 30—about his time as a first grader, and he could not talk about it.
Telling stories to children about others who have overcome is one of my better strategies. It allows them to know they are not alone and it provides hope.

Why did you decide to write your book?
I knew my son’s story was worth telling, even if he had only successfully completed high school. He went from nonreader to reader, finding and building upon hidden strengths. He completed two undergraduate degrees—honors degrees in engineering and mathematics—before receiving a scholarship for a Ph.D at Oxford University. His story may be exceptional, but also inspirational for others who struggle.
As Nicholas was learning, I was also learning. Teaching reading was exciting, and I went back to school to become a reading specialist because of my son. I wanted to share our journey with other parents and teachers.
Educators tend to absorb most of their knowledge from research, and teach based off that. However, our brains record stories differently than how we take in research. Stories stick. And when I present at reading conferences, teachers often say, “This is all new information, and I can do this in my class.” That’s enough of a reason to share my journey with the rest of the world.
How can education professionals make sure to set appropriately high goals for all children?
This is another interesting question as there is a balance between setting “high” expectations, and another educational term of “mindset.”   
It is easy for teachers to set high expectations for all of their students. But when looking at mindset, we must really ask ourselves: “What else do I have to do to encourage this child to read?” Mindset reflects on our belief of a child’s capability. When Nicholas was in first grade, no one believed he was capable of learning anything. They gave up on him because he “looked dumb,” compounded by the test results that showed he wasn’t smart.
But, at age 11, my husband took a job in Lubbock, Texas. It was this move that took Nicholas from being one of the lowest students in the class to the top of the academic tree. Was it because of “high expectations” or was it because of the circumstances Nicholas found himself in? There were several external factors which assisted Nicholas’ success, all related to living in Lubbock. This leads me to ask questions such as:
Can we encourage our child to talk more both in and out of the classroom?
Has the school provided an “out of school reading program” which encourages all children to read?
In the classroom, what learning activities can be used to encourage more students to engage in learning?
What were the greatest challenges you faced with Nicholas as you drove yourself to succeed?
Trying too hard. Trying to make every moment related to learning when I should have just enjoyed Nicholas’ small achievements.
I remember a time when third-grade Nicholas bought a book. As we headed home in the car, I asked him to read the title, to break the word up. It was a long word like “exploration.” Nicholas shut down. He turned away from me, his face went pale, and he closed his eyes. I was only trying to help him, but what I was really doing—without realizing—was showing his failure. I didn’t need to do that. I should have just enjoyed the fact that he even wanted to buy a book in the first place!

What words would you offer to other parents who are in a situation similar to what you faced with your son?
1.     Find heroes. Find stories like Nicholas’ and share them with your children so they know they are not alone. So they know someone else has been there before. We all need to know we are not alone and find strength from others’ journeys.
2.     Build on the child’s strengths. Find something they love to do, and have the child spend time building their expertise.
3.     “Make Learning Fun.” This was the advice my mother-in-law gave me. It transformed my teaching and Nicholas’ learning. Play with words, re-read books, and create poems and books for and with your child. Enjoy the process. 
4.     Believe in your child, and that they can be taught to read.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A review from a reader in California wrote: “I first bought Reversed to get tips on how to support my children’s reading. I found myself reading this book as if it were simply a novel, just a story to be enjoyed. The author’s journey with her son Nicholas and her family was filled with thrilling, sometimes sad, yet amazing events. On my second reading, I focused on Lois’ teaching techniques. The third reading had me scavenging for greater details. It is truly an inspiring story and a manual at the same time.”
I want parents to know that learning to read involves much more than learning to decode (learning about letters and sounds), and that teaching reading is an incredibly exciting journey. Don’t get stuck with the idea that “my child doesn’t remember letters or sounds.” You can find ways around the challenges children present so they can become engaged members of the classroom.

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