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For students, success with learning differences means self-advocacy and finding comfort in community

This is Part Three of our series on learning differences. In Part One, EdNC reporter Rupen Fofaria shared his learning differences story. In Part Two, we explored the meaning of the term learning differences. In Part Three, we look at students with learning differences and what their journeys and successes look like.


It’s a Monday afternoon at the start of the school year at Cannon School in Concord and the final bell announces the day’s end for pre-K through high school students. For several middle schoolers, it’s time to trek to the high school building for a warm reception into the “Art Room,” where juniors and seniors are waiting with smiles. For one middle school student, his entry to the Art Room is a little startling. 

“Wait, why is he here?” the child wondered.

Well, he is your mentor, came the response.

“But he doesn’t have a learning disability,” the child protested.

“Yeah, he does,” senior Lydia Pinto tells him. “We all have learning disabilities in this room.”

The Cannon School began this year hosting a chapter of Eye to Eye — a national group that trains older students with learning differences (LDs) to serve as mentors to younger students and pass on what they have learned about their own LDs and how to cope. Co-leaders of the chapter, Pinto and junior Will Zandhuis, act as liaisons between Eye to Eye National in New York and their school, they coordinate a handful of other mentors, and they oversee the projects and learning that happens in the Art Room.

For them, it’s a way to pass on what they learned. But it’s also a rewarding experience watching the light come on in a middle school student’s eyes when they understand more about their learning difference and start to approach school a little differently.

“That’s when he realized that he couldn’t grow out of it and that’s the reason we’re here, because we still have it and we’ve just learned how to adapt to it,” Pinto said. “And then, since he’s had that aha moment, he’s been more receptive and way more focused in our meetings and he understands. I feel like he wants to learn more about it now.”

“I think what was really cool is that he just was so fascinated that someone that he looked up to highly and thought very highly of was able to do well in school and still have this learning difference,” Zandhuis said. “It’s not something that holds you back from living your life. It’s just kind of you have to learn to work with it. And I think that’s what was so eye-opening for him.”

The mentors are friends and role models for the middle school students. They are evidence that academic success is possible, even when you enter the classroom through a different lens.

“In middle school, you don’t want to be different — that’s at your core,” said Teresita Hurtado, the learning specialist at Cannon. “So you don’t want to seek the extra help. Whereas my teenagers in the [high school], especially when they get to junior and senior year, they’re done. They’re done with struggling. They’re done with proving to people how smart they are. They’re willing to do the reaching out and do what they need to do to get help. So this program is a space where our high schoolers get to have a one-on-one with a middle schooler and say you, too, can be successful.”

Lydia Pinto and Will Zandhuis talk about their learning differences stories and the drive to help younger students along their journey. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Stories of success

For Pinto and Zandhuis, working with their mentees brings back a flood of memories from their own past.

Zandhuis identifies with auditory processing disorder (APD) and some forms of dyslexia. He doesn’t remember his parents talking to him about it, but he could tell he wasn’t keeping up with his classmates in kindergarten. By the end of that year, the school confirmed his suspicion when he was held back.

“I just was obviously performing very below what I should be,” he said. “We had a couple of teachers do some tests but we really weren’t sure the extent of my learning disability. Simple things like reading and writing and all that were just not clicking with me as well. And they were really curious as to what was going on,” said Zandhuis.

While Zandhuis was held back, his friend Holly skipped first grade. Now two grades apart from someone he once shared a classroom with, the stark contrast clarified for him that something was amiss.

By fifth grade, his parents decided to get him specialized assistance, sending him to AIM Academy in Pennsylvania.

“I was very lucky and fortunate,” he said. “I was reading at a much slower pace than I was supposed to be. When I went there, I was in fifth grade and I was reading at a third grade level. But by the end of that year, I was reading at end-of-fifth-grade level. And that was exactly where I needed to be. And for the next two years, I kept up the pace. It set me on the track to where I am today, which is really good.”

Zandhuis remembers teachers at AIM giving him a passage and asking him to read it as they timed him. To Zandhuis, it was one big block of text that his mind was trying to digest all at once. 

The teachers showed him how to break the big blocks down – first by breaking a page into paragraphs, paragraphs into sentences, and so on. The result was sharper focus, faster reading and improved comprehension.

He was tested regularly to see how many words he could read at comprehension per minute. He remembers looking at the scores tracked as a bar graph — at first pretty low and steady but, over time, showing small gains.

“And then there was just this one big jump,” he said, remembering a moment when confidence rose. Zandhuis continued his progress at Cannon, where the school’s commitment to students with learning differences now includes a full-time position for a learning specialist. 

For Zandhuis, support looks like extended time to complete tests and taking exams in a separate, distraction-free environment, or “separate setting.” As he practiced tools for improving his reading comprehension and embraced other ways to keep up with his classmates, Zandhuis was asked to co-lead the new Eye to Eye chapter at Cannon. A rising senior, he is someone middle schoolers look up to, and he’s surprised himself with how his school performance has gone.

“I think as you learn more about how you learn, you do better in school,” he said. “I think if you looked at my transcripts right now you’d see a drastic change in my understanding of what I’m doing. I know exactly how to perform well in my classes and I know exactly what works for me and what doesn’t. And I think my grades are very much in my grasp this year, while freshman year, they weren’t necessarily.

I just kind of was trying to go through the motions. But this year, I’m in control, and I think what’s interesting is I’m feeling much more comfortable with my classes. So now I’m able to take more rigorous classes. Next year, I’m taking two or three APs, which is something I never would have thought of originally, but it’s a big deal now. And that’s exciting.”

Zandhuis considered what would have happened if he kept up with his friend Holly from his first attempt at kindergarten, or even where he would be if he stayed with his original classmates.

“And I think, wow, it would have been cool to be graduating now — but I feel very much like I’m where I should be,” he said. “I’m with the right people. And with the extra year, I’ve just been able to get extra help on simple things like reading comprehension, reading a passage at a pretty fast speed and knowing exactly what it’s about. And that prepares you for standardized tests and all that kind of thing.”

Most of Pinto’s learning differences journey has happened at Cannon School, where she started in elementary school. Very early in her education, she used to try fooling her teachers into thinking she could read. She would memorize the words they read to her and memorize the pictures she saw when they would speak those words. When it was her turn, she would look at the picture and know what to say.

That racket ended when she got caught reading a book upside down.

Later, in math, she remembers her school having competitions where they would move your name up on a wall as you learned more math facts.

“I was never moving up,” she said.

In first grade, her teachers noticed these things were off and started sending her to a learning specialist. But it was never real to her until she was around the age of the mentees she works with now.

“I wouldn’t say I completely understood it until I was older,” Pinto said. “I had it explained to me until I had to start advocating for myself. So, I started understanding when I was a sixth-grader. … Before that, I just didn’t have a word for it or a reason or understand why I was doing it differently. I feel like I knew I was different and I just was really sad and I thought I was stupid. I was like, ‘I can’t get this. I’m never going to get this.'”

Today, she understands she can “get it” — she just has to approach learning in a different way. Pinto has APD and sometimes struggles with test anxiety so severe that she’ll forget everything she studied when she looks at the test and has to write her name.

“That’s really hard to explain to a teacher who doesn’t have a learning disability, because they’re like, ‘Well, if you studied it, you should know it.’ And I’m like, well, okay. Yes, I should. And I do.”

Sometimes, she just needs a little help. That help has come in the form of Hurtado, who is in her seventh year as learning specialist at Cannon and created the learning differences program there. When Pinto was in middle school, she struggled with task initiation and organizing her homework and projects.

“I could sit through all my classes all day and write down my homework,” she said, “But I’ll go home and be like: I have no idea what my homework is.”

Hurtado had her senior intern at the time sit down with Pinto and show Pinto how to use a calendar. Writing everything in one place and being able to write out future assignments — as far as four months ahead — to see how everything played out on paper was helpful for Pinto. She also learned how to use color coding to draw attention to deadlines, tests, and activities.

“I also have my work schedule in there, and then I have my schoolwork,” she said. “And if I have a project that I’m doing for months, I’ll plan it out ahead of time. And so I feel like, because of my learning disability, if I’m forced to take more time on different things, I just know how to plan it out over longer terms than I would in [the] short term — which has really helped. If I lose the calendar, everything goes downhill. And so it just really helps me be more organized and know what’s going on in class.”

Pinto is also proficient at using extended time and separate settings to perform her best on tests. To help keep up in class with APD, she gets copies of the teacher’s lecture notes before the lecture, which allows her to prepare in advance or read along with the notes as the teacher speaks. For her test anxiety, sometimes she will have Hurtado read test questions to her.

All of this has helped her achieve a much higher bar than she would have initially set for herself.

“In eighth grade, I wasn’t kind of struggling — I was struggling,” she said. “Bluntly, I was just not doing well. But with [all of this], that’s when I started succeeding and that’s when I was starting to really grow up, as cheesy as that sounds, like grow up in high school and realize, hey, I can do it. It’s just going to have to be differently.

I feel like now, compared to ninth grade, even looking at my notes, you would see a drastic difference. I didn’t think I’d be able to take an AP class. Now I’m taking an AP class, and I’m succeeding in the AP class.”

Pinto says her success is a measured one. With her LD, success to her may look different from success to another student.

“So my succeeding might be a B and someone else’s might be an A plus,” she said. “But mine — I’m so proud of my B. And so it’s just kind of realizing like, my success is different. But I would say I’m really succeeding in high school.”

And she’s going to college. Next year, Pinto will be a freshman at East Carolina University, participating in the STEPP program and — despite the fact she hasn’t set foot on campus yet — she’s been tapped to lead a new chapter of Eye to Eye at the university.

In the Art Room, students learn things like how to create an advocacy plan. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Self-advocacy

The turning point for both Pinto and Zandhuis, they say, was when they felt better able to advocate for themselves — to tell a teacher when they needed more help understanding something or to ask for accommodations that would allow them to perform better. It’s a pivotal moment, they believe, for every child with learning differences.

At N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, a team has put together various courses on learning differences: one multi-course designed for students and another designed for teachers. For students, the online course teaches about learning differences, helps them discover ways that learning works for them, and then guides them in formulating an advocacy plan.

“We want them to think about their own learning and learn about strategies,” said Mary Ann Wolf, director of the Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative at the Friday Institute. “But we also want them to start thinking about how do I advocate for my learning, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, that teacher doesn’t get me’ or ‘I can’t learn the way that teacher does.’ How do I push myself to do that? Or even in their home — how do you say to a parent, ‘I need a quiet space for homework.'”

But knowing what to ask for is not as simple as getting your hands on a list of possible accommodations or determining a particular learning difference and pairing it with one, finite tool.

“I think what was interesting is Lydia had a parent coffee, which is where parents who have children with LDs can get informed,” Zandhuis said. “And what was really fascinating is that this woman was like, ‘Is there a list? Is there a list that has every accommodation for every kind of learning difference out there?’ And there isn’t, because there’s so many different things that people can use as an accommodation.”

Added Pinto: “It’s different for everyone. Like I have auditory processing and Will has it, as well, and we use completely different accommodations.”

Through work with specialists and mentors and by taking courses like the one offered at the Friday Institute — not to mention just paying attention to yourself and what works and what doesn’t — students can learn what they need. That’s the first step. But the next step is just as important: communicating the issue to educators and asking for the accommodation.

This is not something typically taught in classrooms, but it’s a vital lesson for students with learning differences — and something that prepares them for success after academia. Fortunately, too, it is something that kids can get better at with practice. 

“When I was young, everyone just wanted what was best for me,” Zandhuis said. “They didn’t really know about any disability but they wanted to do what they could for me to do well. But as you get older, it’s really more on you as a student. No matter where I was, no matter what school — public school, private school, charter — as long as you show interest in your learning and that you really want to do better, I think any teacher is willing to help you. But you have to ask for it.”

Zandhuis attended a public school prior to Cannon, and there were almost 900 students in his grade.

“And when I struggled, I’d go up to my teacher and I’d be like, hey, I really need to understand this. Can you go over it one more time? And it was simply stuff like that, that separated me from the other classmates because the teachers saw, like, you really are interested in what you’re learning, you’re just not getting it. As long as you’re willing to show that kind of interest in what you’re learning, everywhere I’ve been they’ve been really helpful.”

Eye to Eye mentors at Cannon School prepare the “Art Room” before mentees come in for learning and activities. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Community

Pinto and Zandhuis have figured out ways to navigate self-advocacy and accommodations along their learning differences journey. But they didn’t do it alone, and because of the Eye to Eye chapter they co-lead at Cannon, neither do others at their school. Self-advocacy is highly independent: One student goes to their teacher and asks for help. But finding the courage to ask and learning what to ask for works best through community.

Back in the Art Room at Cannon, there is a thriving community. Students are gathering to laugh and connect. Older kids are sharing their experiences. Younger kids are listening and chiming in, while at the same time working on crafts — such as using Popsicle sticks, fuzzies, and other materials to build a model learning space of their dreams.

And as the students grow more comfortable with each other, they come to rely on one another. Zandhuis remembers one girl who looked down when she came to the Art Room. They took her to the side and talked. She hadn’t been offered extended time on her test and thought she would never be able to finish. Zandhuis suggested a simple fix: Just speak to the teacher and let her know you didn’t finish. Remind her that you get extended time. But that’s a hard thing to expect a sixth grader to know.

“I think the privilege we have is we’re so much closer in age,” Zandhuis said. “So there are things they’re willing to tell us that they would maybe not share with their parents. And it’s kind of starting that conversation and making them feel comfortable about talking to someone about it. And we can, we’re able to reach out to their parents and say, hey, your kid and I talked a lot about this class, this teacher, [and] they would love to reach out and try to talk to this teacher. We’re obviously not trying to step on the parents’ toes, but just kind of being there for them.”

That way, no one is alone.

Pinto remembers one of her first mentees, the daughter of a family friend. One evening before dinner when the families were visiting with each other, the mentee got up the courage to open up to Pinto.

“When she realized that I was going to be able to help her and that she shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for help because we actually had the same exact diagnosis with our learning disabilities, one day she was like, ‘Hey, how did you do this when you were in middle school?'” Pinto recalled.

Her mentee was struggling with a lab report which required graphing because her learning difference made it difficult to track the lines.

“And I was like, well, I sat down with my teacher or my mom, and we would go through it together. And she … was like, ‘Can you come upstairs and help me do it?’ So that was a really cool moment for me,” said Pinto.

And that happens often in the Art Room, an experience designed by Eye to Eye and its founder, David Flink, to integrate the mentoring process with a form of art therapy to help messages get across.

“A lot of times people with LDs like us, I don’t want to say all of us, but I would say most of us, are really creative,” Pinto said. “And I would say probably the reason David Flink thought about it was [because] he’s really creative. And so he started doing it with an art room, and then it became a bigger art room.”

Those art rooms are big enough to reach 109 locations across the United States and continue to grow with each addition to the learning differences community when a child owns his or her learning difference and decides to ask for help to do something about it.

“The art is essentially you’re drawing something, you’re writing something that you wouldn’t normally be sharing with people otherwise,” Zandhuis said. “Yet, because everyone’s doing it and because it doesn’t have to be the highest quality of work all the time, it allows people to feel comfortable and it kind of creates this environment where people are perfectly open with sharing, and they’re perfectly fine with that. And they get excited about little things like finding connections with people and trying to do things differently.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC who is passionate about shining light on under-reported issues.