“Superhero Brain Man”—How a Silly Little Song Changed a Life

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

A while ago, I wrote about my nephew—how he was coming home from school telling his mother he was “stupid” because he was struggling with reading in first grade.  I was happy to work with him.  This is what I do. 

And I wasn’t worried.  I knew he wasn’t stupid.

But I also knew that—if he couldn’t develop a more powerful story about himself—fear of being stupid could grow like a dark, dank beanstalk and throw shadows on his life in ways all too depressingly familiar.  Shadows that could last a long, long time.

So I worked with him on his reading.  I coached him.  I used all the Read Right™ strategies that I know work.

But, honestly, I didn’t work with him that much.   I didn’t have time.  I was busy travelling and teaching other kids in other places how to more effectively push themselves up the learning curve. 

I think I probably worked with Kaemon on his reading about 10 or 15 hours total last year and I haven’t had time to work with him at all this school year.

 

And yet, he is doing amazingly better.

He is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.  He is loving school!  And he is reading—comfortably, naturally, and with meaning.  I overheard him on the phone the other night as he was reading his math homework out loud to himself and he sounded like a seasoned pro.

 

Wow!  How could 10 or 15 hours of tutoring have made that much of a difference?  I mean, this stuff is powerful and it works, but it doesn’t always work quite that fast.

 

I think there was something else at play.  In addition to using Read Right strategies, I threw in a couple of my own—well borrowed, of course, from other amazing educators and thinkers before me—and spent almost as much time coaching him on his mindset and his stories about himself as I did on his reading.

I taught him that ALL learners make mistakes when they are learning and that mistakes were not to be feared or avoided or hidden.  Mistakes were opportunities to try again.  Mistakes were opportunities for learning.

I taught him that he had an amazing, adaptable human brain that was DESIGNED for learning.  That learning was what his brain loved to do.

Then, one day, when his head hit the table and he scrunched his shoulders dejectedly and said he didn’t want to “do homework” (our term for reading coaching) after only five minutes of practice and a couple of miscues, I tried something new.

A power pose.

“Kaemon,” I said, “stand up and let’s try something.”

He got to his feet.

I stood my legs wide and puffed out my chest with my fists on my hips like a very Rubenesque Wonder Woman.

“Stand like this,” I suggested.  “Like you’re a superhero.”

Kaemon copied my pose and puffed out his little chest.

“Sometimes you can totally change your mood if you just stand like this.  It’s called a power pose and it’s designed to tell your brain that you are powerful and ready to learn!”

Some impish part of me—or perhaps the frustrated songwriter part—compelled me to add a little ditty to our power pose.  So I started singing.

“I’m a superhero brain man!  I like to make my brain work, a work, a work!”

Kaemon joined me in my singing with a seven-year-old’s joy in being silly all over his face.  After a few rounds of off-kilter singing, we got back to work reading with a renewed zest.

Since that day, when I get the chance to read with him, we always hum a few bars and occasionally power pose again as we remind ourselves that my man Kaemon is a superhero brain man who loves to learn!

And there’s nothing sweeter than listening to him begging his mom if I can come over to “do homework” because he is so proud of the progress he is making in mastering reading.

Nothing sweeter than noticing he is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.

Nothing sweeter than listening to him read his math homework to himself like a boss!

He’s a superhero brain man—that’s for sure!

And the sun has chased out the shadows in his story of himself and his capacity to learn.

Language That Sets You Free

Martin Pistororius was 12 years old when he fell ill.  His parents and his doctors did not know what was wrong with him, but he grew sicker and sicker until he finally fell into a vegetative state.  His doctors recommended that his family put him into a full-time care facility and wait for him to die.

But, they didn’t do that.

And Martin did not die.

For eight years his family cared for him.  Taking him to a care facility during the day and picking him up in the evenings.  Waking up to turn him over every two hours so he wouldn’t develop bed sores.  Feeding him and making him drink.

All of this for a young man who wasn’t aware.  A young man in a vegetative state.  A young man who, as far as they knew, wasn’t there.

Except he was.

About two years after he fell ill, Martin started coming back to himself.  He regained his consciousness.  He regained the ability to notice his surroundings and hear what people were saying around him.  He could understand their conversations and even clue in to their emotional states.

And no one noticed.

 

“They’d been told long ago that I was severely brain damaged, so when the young man with sticklike limbs, empty eyes and drool running down his chin occasionally lifted his head, that’s what they saw.  And so, I was cared for, fed and watered, wiped and cleaned, but never really noticed.  Again and again I’d ask my unruly limbs to make a sign and show someone I was still there, but they would never do as I asked.

I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life as powerlessly as I lived each present day and eventually I didn’t try to respond or react, but stared at the world with a blank expression.

To other people, I resembled a potted plant—something to be given water and left in the corner.  Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn’t notice when I began to be present again.  I’d been put into a box long before after all.  Each of us has.  Are you the difficult child or the histrionic lover, the argumentative sibling or the longsuffering spouse? 

Boxes make us easier to understand.  But they also imprison us because people don’t see past them.  We all have fixed ideas of each other, even though the truth can be far removed from what we think we see.

That is why no one asked what it might mean when I started to improve enough to answer simple questions like, “Would you like tea?” with a turn of my head or a smile.”

 

Jimmy Santiago Baca was also imprisoned in a box.  He was imprisoned in a box of lack of expectations, lack of opportunity, and lack of love.

Jimmy was thirteen years old when he was first locked up.  His parents had abandoned him to an orphanage when he was seven, and after repeated attempts to escape to rejoin his family, the state finally placed him in a detention center.

Jimmy was a young man looking for a home and a place to belong.  He was crying out for love and attention.

And no one noticed.

Six years later, after numerous bouts in and out of jail, he was sentenced to hard time for his part in a drug bust where an FBI agent was killed.  Jimmy entered prison illiterate and youthfully innocent, he left it toughened and a man of words.

Here are some of his words:

“But if prison was the place of my downfall, a place where my humanity was cloaked by the rough fabric of the most primitive manhood, it was also the place of my ascent.  I became a different man, not because prison was good for me, but in spite of its destructive forces.  In prison I learned to believe in myself and to dream for a better life.

You make use of what is available and near at hand, no matter what your circumstances.  I did what I had to do to survive.  But I also determined not to become what in my heart I knew I was not:  I was not going to let them make me into a ward of the state.  I was lucky, too.  For in that place where life and death are waging war every day and the right choice is often the most difficult one, I was able to reach out and find a finger hold on the fragile ledge of hope.  Hope didn’t support me all the time, and wouldn’t have supported others in quite the same way, but it served well enough for me to slowly pull myself up.  Very simply, I learned to read and write.”

 

I read these two men’s stories at different times while traveling for my job on my way to school sites—and a prison—to help spread the power of reading.

They were two such different men and came from different kinds of families, yet both personified the amazing power of the human spirit and the amazing power of language to uplift and empower.

Martin escaped from his prison of silence and isolation when a care provider noticed his awareness and urged his family to get him tested.  He learned to communicate with a computer and—once given a voice—taught himself to read and fix computers.  With the hope that language gave him, he was able to retrain his body and regain movement that no one thought was possible.  He still cannot walk or speak out loud, but he is married and living a full life.

Jimmy was denied the opportunity to attend school while in prison and endured long months in isolation when he refused to work in protest.  While still under lock and key, he escaped his prison by teaching himself to read and write.

“Language gave me a way to keep the chaos of prison at bay and prevent it from devouring me; it was a resource that allowed me to confront and understand my past, even to wring from it some compelling truths, and it opened the way toward a future that was not based on fear or bitterness or apathy but on compassionate involvement and a belief that I belonged.”

One thing that resonated in both men’s stories is how hard they pushed themselves to learn once they had hope that learning was possible.  Their learning was not casual, easy, or fun.  It was fierce!  They fought for all that learning!  They sweated.  They pushed themselves and went beyond what was comfortable.

Another common note is that both men’s journey toward self-realization began with another human believing in them and expressing that belief. 

Martin might still be locked in silence if not for a woman who noticed that he smiled in response to what was happening to him.  Jimmy might still be locked in a life of crime and punishment if not for a man who sent him a letter and patiently wrote back to his first poorly written replies.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had that kind of impact, but I am determined to see—fully see—all those who come before me in moments of learning.  I am determined to see the beauty of their humanity and the amazing power of their brains to learn and grow.  I am determined to keep sharing the astounding power of words and offering the gift of literacy in any capacity that I can to whomever I am privileged to work with.

The Reading Wars Revisited

 

 

 

 

I woke up this morning in the wee hours with the strange thought going through my head that it was time to gird up my loins, put on some armor, get ready for battle, and head back out to front lines of war.

The Reading Wars, that is.

I have been on the sidelines of these wars for the last ten years—quietly, insistently, raising my voice and fighting small battles one school at a time.

I think the reason my subconscious issued me a call to action this morning was that I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.  Coyle’s perspective on learning is empowering and echoes and reinforces the lessons I have learned in my ten years as a Read Right training consultant and my seventeen years as a student of how learning works.  Coyle stands firmly for the science of how the brain learns by repeated practice that is focused on fixing mistakes.

I am with him!  Attempt, fail, analyze, adjust—this is the mantra I live my life by.  And it is how people get better at reading.

But, I think Coyle missed the boat with his take on the Reading Wars.

Here is Coyle’s view:

“For the last forty years or so American Education has been divided by what’s become known as the Reading Wars.  On one side stand the traditionalist forces of Phonics, who believe that the best way to learn to read is through memorizing the sounds of letters and letter-groups.  On the other side are the followers of Whole Language, a theory founded in the 1970s that says all children possess the innate ability to read and write, which arrives according to fixed developmental stages.  They believe the teacher’s role is to be, as the saying goes, “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”

For much of the 1980s Whole Language was on the ascent.  “Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world,” wrote Kenneth Goodman in What’s Whole in Whole Language.  Schools started providing literacy-rich environments of books, words, and stories where kids could express this presumably innate ability.  Meaning was emphasized over mere sound; systematic instruction in grammar was considered passé.  Students were encouraged to ignore errors and use invented spelling.  The movement caught on in education circles, and politicians trotted after.  In 1987 California mandated Whole Language for teaching reading and writing.

For midde- and upper-income kids, Whole Language seemed to help, or at least not to obviously hurt.  For minority and low-income kids, however, it was an unqualified disaster.  By the early 1990s California’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked lower than every state’s but Louisiana.  Other states that adopted Whole Language experienced similar test-score drops.  In 1998 two major research efforts, the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel, found that the lack of Phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most students.  Charles Sykes writes in Dumbing Down Our Kids of a fourth grader who received above-average grades and a teacher’s comment of “Wow!” for writing, “I’m going to has majik skates.  Im goin to go to disenelan.  Im goin to bin my mom and dad and brusr and sisd. We r go to se mickey mouse.”

Accordingly, the pendulum whipped back toward Phonics.  Defenders of Whole Language have retrenched, incorporating Phonics into their theories but still lobbying for the essential truth of their view.  Phonics supporters, on the other hand, point to their own list of promising programs.  All of which leaves many teachers and schools wading through piles of seemingly contradictory theories and wondering who’s right

Looking at the question through the prism of the talent code, the answer is clear.  The relationship between Phonics and Whole Language precisely mirrors the relationship between deep practice and ignition.  Phonics is about building reliable circuits, paying attention to errors, and fixing them.  It’s about chunking: breaking down a skill into its component parts, and practicing and repeating each action involved in that skill.  It’s about the systematic firing of the signals that build the trusty high-speed skill circuits you’re using right now.

Whole Language on the other hand, is about ignition, about filling motivational fuel tanks by creating environments where children fall in love with reading and writing.  Like any ignition, Whole Language can create acceleration for those who already have the inclination and opportunity to deep-practice, but it is worthless for those who don’t.  To understand myelin is to understand that the Reading Wars should not be a war.  Students need both to succeed.”

I do not fault Coyle on his history of the Reading Wars or his science of myelination, but his view on what deep practice in reading should look like, as well as what constituted Whole Language theory, had me lying awake at 4:00 in the morning forming an imaginary rebuttal.

And Coyle’s voice wasn’t the only voice prodding my subconscious.  I also heard echoes of the high school librarian who appealed to me to help her convince her district’s leadership to keep their Read Right program going.

“They’ve cut our staffing—our program is basically dead.”

“I feel like this program literally saves kids’ lives!”

“We know what works—not providing it is akin to malpractice.”

“Why isn’t Read Right in the What Works Clearinghouse?”

“What can we do?”

Her words reverberated in my mind and refused to let me fall back into sleep.

“Not providing it is akin to malpractice.”

 

Someone else’s words kept echoing in my mind as well—a teacher I sat next to at a conference on culturally responsive teaching.

I shared with her what I do and my concerns that our schools were not currently excelling at producing excellent readers who are grounded in meaning and capable of reading completely comfortably and naturally.

I shared that in school after school that I visit, the majority of students are not excellent readers and how I think that is because we do not currently offer opportunities for students to keep training their brains in reading to the level of excellence—and we also often send students inadvertently down a path towards developing reading problems by focusing on intense direct instruction in phonics and decoding at the expense of making meaning.

Later she said, “When I listen to you talk, it sounds like you’re down on teachers.”

This made me sad, because I am not down on teachers.  I am a teacher.  I understand how challenging it is to work in classrooms today.  I have tremendous respect for all of those engaged in educating our youth.  The teachers who are doing direct instruction in phonics are doing what they know to do—what they have been trained to do—and what they believe is in the best interest of their students.

The problem is, it isn’t working.

Our experiment in “Whole Language” didn’t work.  Coyle’s reading of the history of the movement is correct.  Reading and writing skills deteriorated.

However, our experiment with “Explicit Instruction in Phonics” is not doing much better.  In 2011 California was still ranked 46 out of 52 states and jurisdictions according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And I know from my visits to schools around the country that even in districts that are posting better test scores, most students are not avid readers who are grounded in meaning when they read.  In other words, most students are not excellent readers even when they are reading at grade level.

We can do better.

We must do better.

Read Right Systems has been demonstrating for thirty years that there is a better approach–one that acknowledges that reading is a complex neural process that happens mostly below the level of consciousness, and that brains can get better at this process by engaging in deliberate practice in real reading within the “zone of proximal development” with ongoing specific feedback about what is working and what is not.

Is not giving all the children in our care the opportunity to become excellent at reading akin to malpractice?

No, it’s not, if we are sincerely doing everything we know to do to help our students learn to read.

But once we have seen something that works, and works reliably with all types of learners, then, yes, we have a moral urgency to move forward and try that something new.

Chris Sturgis, from Competency Works, recounts how a teacher in Colorado felt about his district moving forward with performance based education (which is essentially what Read Right methodology is) after seeing it in action in California.

“I’ve heard this phrase before, of not having a choice but to go forward, during other site visits. Often it is described as “moral urgency.” I asked Cook about it. He explained that after visiting a district that had been trying to balance teaching students at their performance levels part of the day with grade-level curriculum the other half (as far as I know, this was a failed experiment, so don’t try it at home) he realized that trying to do P-BL in baby steps, small chunks, halfway, or as hybrids wasn’t going to work. “There are many who don’t realize that delivering grade level curriculum day after day to kids regardless of whether they are learning or not is based on an archaic pedagogy,” he explained. “Many students are harmed by this – they end up thinking that they aren’t smart or give up on school. We know so much more about how students learn today, and our schools should be shaped around it. But if they don’t know that they are doing something harmful, are they really responsible?” He continued, “Once you see personalized, performance-based learning in action, you face a moral question. Are you going to be like Thomas Jefferson who knew that slavery is wrong but kept doing it anyway? Or once you realize that there is a better way to help students learn, are you going to do it, even if you bump up against other parts of the system?” He emphasized, “As a school system, we need to be clear – are we chasing students or test scores? Or trying to do both at once?” (You can listen to Darren Cook yourself on this video.)”

My anguish is that in 30 years of training teachers to deliver a methodology that is working to turn struggling readers into excellent readers, Read Right has not succeeded in shifting the national conversation about how to teach reading.

I haven’t seen any research on our methodology other than what Read Right has done itself.

I haven’t heard anyone talking about the implicit aspects of reading and how those implicit aspects cannot be taught explicitly because the brain doesn’t work like that.

I haven’t succeeded in convincing any schools that Read Right methodology is more than a reading intervention that they should only offer to their struggling readers.  I ask them, “Why should we only offer the opportunity to become excellent to a few?”  Their answer is always that they can’t afford to deliver the methodology any other way.

So, yes, I believe I have a moral obligation re-enter the Reading Wars.  I have a moral obligation to be a leader of learning and begin to shift that national conversation about what brains need—and what kinds of environments give them what they need—in order to become not just good readers, but excellent readers.

However, now that I am fully awake, I can see that the metaphor of a war is the wrong metaphor.  I do not have enemies.  I have colleagues.

My colleagues and I are all engaged in learning.  We are all engaged in getting better at getting better.  We are all on a journey to move ourselves and our schools up the learning curve.

We are fellow travelers on the road to developing schools that work for everyone and reading environments that are personalized, engaging, holistic, based on brain science, and highly effective.

Image by Clem Onojeghuo from Unsplash.co