TECH & CURRICULUM
THE PLASTIC DEVIL BOX
Fall 1974: Brons, Age Eleven
Cletus Varner's reaction to Dad's new calculator wasn't surprising. The only time he'd ever come close to embracing technology was in 1962 when he reluctantly accepted an inheritance from the estate of his brother-in-law consisting of a 1941 Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor with the "revolutionary three point hitch!"
Taking into account that bolts, gears, and driveshafts were considered suspect in Mr. Varner's world, it's understandable why the "plastic devil box" ruined his breakfast. He saw it as the sign he'd been waiting for. He had so much to do in the few short days mankind had left on this earth.
Dad politely explained to Mr. Varner that, "The calculator doesn't replace thinking. If the operator doesn't have a good understanding of math, they will not find it useful."
Cletus, clad in bib overalls and topped off with a John Deere hat, was having no part of my dad's explanation. Smoke from a corncob pipe puffed to the beat of his rant in a Pennsylvania Dutch accent, "Close down the schools and send the kids home! Send the teachers to the unemployment lines; we don't need them anymore! Brain-eating PLASTIC DEVIL BOXES will be doing all the thinking from now on!"
Cletus didn't need the benefit of a calculator to assure him that the Rapture would be rolling in no-later than the close of business Friday.
Incidentally, Mr. Varner was just as dismayed when the Wizard pinball machine took up residency at Shirley's Restaurant. While Cletus was appalled by the artist's rendering of a curvaceous female displayed on the machine, he could hardly take his gaze off of her.
Dad debuted his pocket calculator in the fall of 1974 at McAlisterville's breakfast spot, Shirley's Restaurant. He paid the unheard-of-sum of $125 for his "devil box." Adjusted for inflation, at the time of this writing (2019) that is $612.
Dad was the first person in McAlisterville to buy a color TV.
He was the first to have a digital watch and a Tandy computer from Radio Shack.
When Samsonite took out a full-page advertisement in the Harrisburg Patriot-News for the release of its highly versatile, ballistic-nylon suit carrier, Dad got in his long-connected white Chrysler New Yorker (the first McAlistervillen to have cruise control) and drove 120 miles to purchase the latest in luggage.
Yes, as the Samsonite advertisement claimed, it carried a man's suit without so much as a wrinkle. As if that weren't enough, it was stylish, durable and came in three colors; Dad chose navy blue. It had oodles of handy pockets tailor-made for shoes, socks, ties, T-shirts, boxers, and toiletries. It conveniently carried everything the savvy business traveler needed. I happen to know this because I inherited the Samsonite suit carrier, and it is every bit as much the performer now that it was forty-five years ago.
Like many of us, Dad knew his limitations, those things that bogged him down and hampered his efficiency. As a neurodiverse problem-solver, he had an innate ability to quickly size up what we commonly referred to in the day as "gadgetry" or "new-fangled."
And why not? The quest for more expeditious ways of performing our daily tasks is what separates us from all the other animals on this planet.
The invention of the wheel rolled us out of the stone age and into the industrial revolution. Ike Eisenhower's NASA propelled us into the space age. Mr. Ron "But Wait, There's More" Popeil, President of Ronco, gave us the Veg-O’matic, Pocket Fisherman, and GLH aerosol Hair In A Can! Zeros and Ones and their infinite combinations have transformed our lives—so much so that nerdy boys with pocket protectors are now the heartthrobs of the digital age, and I say, good for them!
Dad was naturally curious, impatient in a good way, and always ready to try the newest, latest, greatest invention. He sat himself down in the front row of the future, enthusiastically waiting to see what scared the living bejesus out of almost everyone else. He gleefully awaited those mind-bending inventive moments in history that caused the masses to fear they would be left behind. Dad was forever on the lookout for that thing, that idea, that "gizmo" with the transformative power to turn drudgery into joy.
And then it happened. Dad said it was the "breakthrough of a lifetime." Not because of WHAT it was but because of the door it opened.
"The calculator is the spark that will blaze the trail to a new era. People who worry about being left behind should stop worrying and start doing something, or they WILL be left behind," he said.
Dad was right; it was that moment—that invention— that ushered in a new age for the masses, and of course, Dad was the first person in our little village to possess one. Some locals were in awe of his "devil box", others quickly dismissed it as witchcraft, a fad, or simply impractical.
After breakfast at Shirley's Restaurant, we got in the truck, and eleven year-old-me told Dad, "Wow, your calculator is a big conversation starter!"
"It's just the tip of the iceberg, Nelson. Everything is going to change. Make sure you embrace it," he said with a smile as he gave my shoulder a jostle.
My father held the small black plastic box in his hand and said: "If people are scared of this little thing, they're going to wet their pants when they see what's coming next."
"What's coming next, Dad?" I asked.
He answered, "It's hard to explain, but the now-separate devices of the telephone and television will morph into a single technology exploding with so much information and so many services that it will change the way we do everything. It's so futuristic that I have no idea what we will call it, but it will come!”
Move over Al Gore! In the fall of 1974, in a gravel parking lot of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it small town, a forty-nine-year-old World War II veteran turned small businessman used his neurodiverse imagination to peek behind the curtain of the future and predict the coming of the Internet.
Today in my fifties, I wouldn't think of paying bills, balancing my checkbook or trying to figure out any relatively normal mathematical situation without the assistance of the "brain-eating devil box" that has evolved to the place that it is in my phone! If anything, the calculator has given me an even better understanding of mathematics. We've turned the tables on a school subject, math, that once owned many individuals.
Don’t Listen To The Philips Of The World
Have you seen the endlessly impressive amputees who run with prosthetic blades? I mean, have you had the absolute privilege of your jaw bouncing off the floor as you stare at the TV, without blinking, and realize their athletic prowess? Have you been moved by the look of determination on their faces as you witness the grit that drives their souls? Does your heart not pound with inspiration as they round another corner on the track? I mean seriously, they are missing their lower limbs and yet they were born to run! It's never lost on me as I watch these gifted human beings that it is not the razor honed technology of blades affixed to their bodies that place them among the greatest athletes of all times; it's their spirit. My good buddy Philip believes the contrary when it comes to these extraordinary racers and says, "Those blades are an unfair advantage." Don’t be like Philip.
Running Blades For The Brain
My girlfriend tells me I am "one of the best writers in the world." Of course, she's going to say that, she's my girlfriend. However, a preponderance of the evidence will show that such buttering-up often comes with a request to do a sundry of handyman tasks at her house. But that's not the point! The point is that if I possess any skill as a writer, it's because of the technology I use to compensate for the "downside" of difstypro/dyslexia. I'm a terrible speller, slow reader, and even slower writer. Technology allows me to embrace writing as one of the greatest joys of my life, to express myself and share thoughts. It gives my spirit an opportunity to shine. It spares me from the anxiety (homework-hell) that difstypro/dyslexic minds often feel when decoding or producing written language. The technology I use to read and write is no different from the calculator that I use to enjoy a perfect checkbook ledger. Nothing is eating my brain. Technology is simply the prosthetic running blades strapped to my noggin.
If the technology I use today as a writer would have been available during my school years, maybe I would have graduated valedictorian of my class instead of dead last. The truth is, I would have been delighted to graduate somewhere in the middle. So to those who say that technology gives difstypro/dyslexic kids an unfair advantage, I say, HELLO? IT'S ME, BRONS! OVER HERE! HI, I'M THE KID THAT PEOPLE THOUGHT WAS DUMB, OVER HERE! LET'S TALK!
I'm glad to be spending this time with you as we move through this book. It is my greatest desire that you feel my spirit as a very happy and thankful to be difstypro/dyslexic writer and storyteller..
A Different Style of Processing (Dif-Sty-Pro) is not meant to be a curse or a "condition." However, ignorance and misunderstanding continue to swing like a wrecking ball at the self-esteem of difstypro/dyslexic kids and adults. Let's do something about that.
KYLE AND JAMIE TO THE RESCUE
Ms. Kyle Redford from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity wrote in one of her recent articles regarding assistive-tech:
"There has never been a better time to be a student with dyslexia. It is exciting to witness the landscape of assistive tech possibilities constantly expanding and improving."
Jamie Martin is another nationally recognized thought-leader in Assistive Technology for students. Like Kyle Redford, his focus on tech is quickly introducing our tribe to a whole new way of achieving.
While I love technology and how it helps me, I should never be considered an expert in this field. On that note, thank God I don't need to be, and neither do you unless you want to be, of course. Jamie and Kyle do that job for us. Their work is mission critical in fostering healthy self-esteem AND keeping kids out of the jaws of alligators.
As stated earlier, there are still old-schoolers who don't like the idea of assistive-tech as they believe it gives difstypro/dyslexic kids an unfair advantage over "normal" students. I'm sure they are very friendly, well-meaning people, and entitled to their opinions even if the are wrong.
Google Jamie and Kyle and keep up with the latest in tech.
STOP THE PITY AND FIRE UP THE TECH
Many academics, medical professionals, and parents have caught on. They no longer speak with doom, gloom, and pity in their voices. They've stopped using phrases such as "struggling dyslexic children, struggling learners, slow, and the learning disabled."
I'm ashamed of myself as there was a time (just a few years ago) when even I used those horrible phrases, and I'm here to say I'm very sorry! You may not feel those labels fit you or your child. It was unfair of me to speak to anyone's identity in a way that might have made them feel “less-than.” If we agree that solid self-esteem is mission critical to a person's success, then I think we can also agree that labels like "slow children" and "struggling learners" are counterintuitive to that mission. If a car is disabled, it means it doesn't work and may be ready for the junkyard. By its literal definition, the term "learning disabled" implies that someone is unable to learn.
And to reiterate, I no longer use the word "diagnosed", opting instead for the term "identified." The phrase "neurodiversity" speaks to being different, not defective. I like that!
In this book and on stage I will often admit that I am not opposed to asking for an A.D.A. Reasonable Accommodation in filling out a handwritten form. I'm clear about the fact that I failed miserably in school and that I spent the first twenty-nine years of my life functionally illiterate, correct? So it would seem I have quite a problem.
Or do I?
MORE ON ME & TECH
Grammarly.com is a San Francisco based company that provides the writing software of which I often speak. It mashes up with the dictation feature that comes standard on my MacBook. These are two tech tools I can not do without in my daily life as a writer.
As I write, Grammarly is at work making suggestions for on-the-fly corrections. It's like having a writing coach at my side as it scans my text in real time for spelling mistakes and over 250 commonly made grammatical errors. It removes ninety-five percent of the anxiety caused by the frustration I use to experience as a writer.
Grammarly tracks my work, provides me with weekly personalized statistics, and ranks my performance against that of several million other users.
Here Is How I Did Last Week:
Last week's report reminded me (again) that I am anything but a master in the use of commas. Grammarly stepped in and coached me a total of 521 times in that regard.
Grammarly also pointed out in its last report that I am in need of improvement when it comes to the use of homophones (no big surprise there).
The Grammarly reports reminded me that my spelling remains an issue without technological support when opting for the keyboard instead of voice dictation. As a middle-aged man, this is probably not going to change, and I really don't care. Once again I'll take the opportunity to quote a wise sage, friend and my former sound engineer from the radio, John X. J.X. is noted for saying "The best part of banging your head against the wall is when you stop."
I decided long ago not to let bad spelling get in the way of being a good writer.
The great news from Grammarly shows up in the area of Activity and Vocabulary.
Last week in the form of producing new work as well as reviewing my existing work for syntax improvement (wordsmithing), I noodled a staggering 50,045 words through my neurodiverse brain, placing me in the top 1% of Grammarly writers. During that same seven day time frame, my use of 4624 "unique words" also ranked me in the top 1% of Grammarly users for vocabulary. I'M NOT THE DUMB KID AFTER ALL!!!
Am I, Dys = Impaired, Lexia = Language? Impaired in language?
I think not. And if I ever was, I’m not anymore—thanks to tech.
Am I a person who approaches language in a non-typical, yet highly skillful way, even though I'm a poor speller and don't know where to stick a comma? Yes, thank you very much! Am I blowing my own horn a bit? If so, let me have this victory!
The weekly Grammarly reports provide personal validation that my academic strengths, matched with the proper tech, would have placed me closer to the top of my class instead of dead last. Unfortunately, no educator from my time and locale could see past my inability to write my name on the front of my Big Chief school-issued tablet using the tried-and-true No. 2 pencil.
Specialized instruction, a properly trained teacher, and the technology of today would have spared me, and my educators, a whole lot of heartache. It would have rendered my schoolhouse monster unnecessary, making mine a near-perfect childhood.
With That Said
If we eradicate the perceived notion of the slow, struggling or learning disabled kid while at the same time placing a significant focus on self-esteem, many, if not most, children would discover strengths that would far outshine anything that could be considered a weakness. Yes, in spite of technology, it would still be necessary for a student to work on improvement in certain areas. Then again, isn't that the very definition of education?
SPELLING AND WRITING HELP
I've written extensively over the years about the abilities of difstypros/dyslexics, but I would be remiss not to spend some time talking about how I compensate for the downside of dyslexia. Of course, I'm talking about the difficulties of reading, writing, and spelling. Anxiety is like dropping napalm on my brain's attempt to deal with the downside.
Spelling was once the bane of my existence. I'm probably in the bottom five percent of spellers, yet I've been a professional writer for twenty years. I don't care about spelling anymore.
How do I pull it off?
Let's start with a tech review:
My most valuable tech tool is Grammarly. Grammarly.com is an online editor, writing coach, as well as a punctuation and spell checker. It's powerful, and while I would never consider posting or publishing anything of significance without the touch of a human editor, Grammarly eliminates anxiety from my writing process. For that reason alone, Grammarly should be on every dyslexic kid's IEP. The Pro version costs about $140 per year.
2.) Alexa and Siri
I still stump the Grammarly spellchecker about five times a day. That's is when I call on Alexa (Echo) from Amazon and Siri on my iPhone.
"Alexa, how do you spell Supercalifrargilisticexpialidocious?" She can do it! Even though I spent many years as a broadcaster, Alexa has trouble understanding my accent about thirty percent of the time.
If Alexa fails me, I move on to Siri. She gets me about ninety-eight percent of the time. Why don't I go to Siri first? There are a few buttons to push; Alexa has no buttons.
Google is not only a great spell checker, but also helps with such questions as who's-whos-whose-whom, there-their-and-they're, and the dreaded which-witch-is-which? Just type (or voice dictate) what you want to know in the search box. Bingo, you've got your answer!
4.) Apple Dictation
I'm a bit late to the party but am having great luck using Apple dictation, especially in tandem with Grammarly. I've tried four versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking and have yet to master it. Many difstypro/dyslexic friends love Dragon. So, by all means, try it.
5.) Identify The Great Spellers Around You And Ask
I no longer have any problem asking someone how to spell even the simplest of words. I'll ask a stranger, loved one, the mailman, anyone!
6.) The Secret Weapon Writers Seldom Talk About
GOOD WRITERS HAVE GREAT EDITORS!!!!
A great editor checks a whole host of punctuation gobbledygook such as flow, continuity, syntax, and spelling. My classmates had mastered all that stuff years before I could even write my name.
Good editors are easy to find. Great editors on the other hand ...
Great editors love their writers almost as much as they love their own children. They're our heroes, protectors, coaches, teachers. Great editors are the sculptors of the literary world—writers are merely marble and clay. In the hands of a great editor, any hack with heart can be an accomplished writer, and I'm proof!
Before a writer bleeds onto the page or lays bare his soul for the reader, he must first expose his flaws, vulnerabilities, and shortcomings to his editor. My editor sees my writing at its worst but makes sure others see it (and me) at my best. I used to be so embarrassed and ashamed to let anybody into what started as a desperate attempt to express myself, but editors have set me free.
Tech is great, a loved one who can spell is fabulous, but editors are magical.
Every difstypro/dyslexic (kid and adult) should have all these tools at their disposal.
I know, I know, you're asking how are difstypro/dyslexics ever going to learn to spell?
Do you care that I can't spell without my tools? Or, perhaps, I could ask you to put that aside and instead consider what millions of difstypro/dyslexics are contributing to the world around us. If you need heart surgery and world-renowned heart surgeon Dr. Toby Cosgrove—who has saved countless lives—is available, do you really care whether or not he’s a good speller?
Ready For This One?
Dyslexic kids shouldn't receive a grade for spelling any more than a child with a physical problem should be graded on climbing a gym rope.
WHAT? NO SPELLING GRADE?
I know it's a radical concept. But ponder this: what if the calculators we all use when paying bills were suddenly banned? There'd be riots in the streets, and rightfully so. After all, calculators make our lives easier and more efficient; they eliminate mistakes, stress, and overdraft fees! They free up time allowing us to do the things that make us happy. So, stop grading difstypro/dyslexic kids for spelling, you big meanie-head, or I'm coming for your calculator. I'm warning you, I will! Don't you tempt me! I'm going to count to three! I swear I'll turn this car around ...
ORTON GILLINGHAM, ALBERT, AND A MOM IN FLORIDA
Was Einstein difstypro/dyslexic? I'm not sure, but we love to claim him as one of us. Based on everything we know he probably was.
Einstein was a late talker and reader. He was a poor student until his mother enrolled him in a school where the curriculum taught to his strengths. That's when Albert's brilliant mind exploded—in a good way. He quickly became the real deal with a gargantuan IQ and great sense of humor!
Einstein had unique wiring in his noggin and had to be schooled in a way that worked for him. Even if he wasn't difstypro/dyslexic, the fact that his neurodiverse brain needed an education tailored to his strengths, makes him just like us.
Let's Call It The Einstein Syndrome—It Sounds So Brainy!
Nobody suffers from difstypro/dyslexia. We suffer from being misunderstood. I call it the Einstein Syndrome because once difstypros/dyslexics are exposed to education that works for them, there are no limits on what they can achieve.
My life, in part, is a cautionary tale, as I'm not saying that had I been taught in a way that maximized my response to education I'd be an Einstein. However, like Einstein, if difstypro/dyslexic students have lessons tailored specifically for them, it exponentially increases their chance of success in every aspect of their future. Every human being deserves that shot. Not just some of the people, but everybody. Every last one! We cannot accept the notion that we throw people away because they learn differently.
Jennifer Theel of Naples, Florida is a mom with a dyslexic daughter.
I stole this description of O-G from Jen’s website, which is to say I am giving her credit as demanded by copyright laws.
"Orton-Gillingham is a scientifically proven, phonics-based, hands-on, multi-sensory learning program that is systematic, structured, sequential, cumulative and success-oriented. It is an ideal approach for beginning and struggling readers. Ongoing assessments are also an integral piece of this work.
The Comprehensive Orton-Gillingham training includes teaching phonemic awareness, encoding and decoding strategies, spelling rules, handwriting tools, and reading comprehension, all with using a multi-sensory approach.
The Advanced Orton-Gillingham training includes teaching age-appropriate encoding/decoding strategies, vocabulary building using Greek and Latin base words, as well as foundational skills in writing and grammar, all with using an age-appropriate multi-sensory approach.
As noted, The International Dyslexia Association recommends this type of multi-sensory structured language program."