The Science of Kindness

You don’t know how badly I want to join you. I actually do follow your page. I like some posts, sometimes. I believe, as you do, in the science of reading. And yet. Well, I think it’s the distinct lack of respect I sometimes get from sharp remarks or poor comparisons between some methodology and something worse. A lot of times, it’s something a lot worse. For example, I saw “whole language” compared to foot binding. That post got a lot of likes. Those likes baffled me, coming as they do in this time of awareness about lifting others up versus putting them down. Insults only teach shame. For my part, I’ve never met a teacher, professor, or administrator who would knowingly visit mutilation upon the bodies of young girls. Have you? I just don’t think so.

Over a decade ago now, I committed my professional life to doing what I believe works for struggling readers. I trained for a year, became an Orton-Gillingham tutor, then a supervisor, and then a trainer. I have worked in not one, but two IMSLEC certified programs. I have worked one-on-one with many kids. Through my work training tutors and teachers, I have helped hundreds if not thousands more. I am so, so proud of this work that I do. But I am also humbled by the experiences of many educators whose paths I have been lucky enough to cross. Theirs are the boots on the ground, after all, while mine stay mainly under my desk.

Teachers are often reticent to change. That much I will not argue. Entering classrooms to teach “new” OG methodology to seasoned teachers, I have heard scoffs delivered in outside voices. I have also had phone calls answered and completed, loudly, during my class. One attendee, an early elementary teacher, crunched her way through an entire sleeve of crackers and then promptly fell asleep. She was sitting in the front row at the time. Was that insulting? Sure. But it wasn’t fatal. I’ve found that with patience, solid material, and a sincere smile, I can almost always win them over to my side.

What I can’t do is talk down to women who have lived roughly twice my life in sometimes half the time. For example, I can’t patronize a twenty-five-year-old who has a breakfast basket in her room for kids who qualify for free meals but never arrive even close to on time. Believe it or not, she pays for the food herself and still gives it out to even those littles who through some dark math do not qualify. And no, before you hit the caps lock and prepare to rage type, I am not suggesting that hunger is an excuse for poor instructional methodology. It can, however, be a reason for low scores.

So can trauma, by the way. When I came to my current position, I arrived unprepared for the reality of working with traumatized kids. Since that time, nearly five years ago, I have heard things that I wish I hadn’t. I know things, too, that I can’t unknow, like how many kids live with parents in jail, see violence take place, are molested, are beaten, are raped. I have sat at a table and watched teachers weep for these kids, choking through stories that should not be lives. I have known teachers who have taken children in when there was no one else. These are primarily women, of course, earning wages well beneath what they are worth, and yet they give themselves, heart and home, to loving someone else’s child. I once knew a boy whose father shot two women in front of him. Not surprisingly, he had no time for reading for a very long while. Instead, that boy sat with his tutor while both of them cried. It turns out a heart can break a mind, at least for months at a time.

All of that said, when it comes to instruction, I am soundly on your side. We should be in every classroom, doing what works. We should say dyslexia in every state. Solid PA practice should begin the day, every day. We should demand these things, but we should also be kind. I cannot join a movement and give it my full-throated voice when it demonizes teachers or administrators. We would never demonize children for doing what they’ve always been told is right. I realize that when I am facing a room full of teachers, many of them were told to basically hand the kids books and get out of their way. For years, these teachers have dutifully practiced what was preached to them, and often most of their students did okay. And sometimes we cling to okay when so much of life for so many kids goes the other way.

For the record, this is a description of foot binding, from the Smithsonian:

“First, her feet were plunged into hot water and her toenails clipped short. Then the feet were massaged and oiled before all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double.”

I’ve spared you the most gruesome parts, because I know that this is already enough to hurt your decent hearts. No one is doing this or anything like it in our classrooms. There is no methodology that warrants a comparison to intentional torture. This type of language serves no one. Choose instead to speak in a voice that serves your message. Proceed from here with passion and compassion, in equal measure. In my experience, that’s the mixture that works to change the most minds.



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