Quarterly for Education and Technology: LOL: Lots of Luck? Laughing Out Loud? Or Learning Outside the Lines …

LOL: Lots of Luck? Laughing Out Loud? Or Learning Outside the Lines … – Interview

Thom Gillespie

An Interview about Alternative Learning with Jonathan Mooney

My wife is a reference librarian at a small Mid-western public library. Usually the heavily requested books are fiction–the Harry Potter books, Stephen King’s novels, the usuals. Over dinner one night she mentioned that there was a book on learning disabilities that was gathering more reserves than any of the fiction books. She said she thought I might find it interesting, so I checked it out and discovered Learning Outside the Lines, by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole, two “academic failures” who graduated from Brown University at the top of their class. I read the book in one sitting. It is divided into two sections: the stories of Jonathan’s and Dave’s experiences with “school,” and techniques they have developed for dealing with “school” successfully. I decided I had to talk to these guys.

I was able to track down Mooney, the primary author of the book, who was on the road promoting the book and making presentations. He doesn’t characterize his travels as a book tour; he calls it “a grassroots thing, a lot of parents and teachers bringing me to their schools and communities to speak.” During the first two weeks of October 2000, he visited communities in Orlando, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Los Angeles. Mooney presents in three models: an address to the student body, a formal presentation to faculty, and a talk that is open to the larger educational community. He also does a lot of teacher in-service workshops and keynote addresses, such as to the Learning Disabilities Association of America and the International Dyslexia Association. We spoke in mid-October.

You’re a dyslexic with an English literature degree?

The catch phrase is this: I didn’t learn to read until I was 12, I spell at the third-grade level and read in the 12th percentile, and I graduated with a 4.0 in English Literature from Brown University, an Ivy League school.

How did you do that?

Two things. I worked my [backside] off, and I connected with something I cared about. On top of that, I immersed myself in an educational environment that was right for me. Brown was the right place for me to go to school, and it really reinforced my belief in the importance of accommodations and the role that environment can play for LD [Learning Disabled] students. Put me in Columbia University, one of the strictest schools in the country, and I graduate with a 2.0.

Are you a reader?

I’m a ferocious reader. I can’t imagine anything else I would rather do. I read all the time, about a book a week. I am in love with literature, with narrative and stories.

As a kid, I always loved reading, but it was one of those ironies in that reading was really difficult for me. When I was immersed in school, it was really a painful subject. I learned to hate it a little bit because it was associated with reading in front of the class, out loud, and all that horrible stuff. In high school, I was really a soccer athlete. I loved to read, but again reading was really caught up in performing in an academic environment, where I didn’t do too well. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I really re-engaged with my passion for reading. It had to do with the fact that I could integrate reading entirely into my curriculum, as opposed to having reading as a subject area, one hour a day.

Let’s say that somewhere down the line you are a teacher–how would you teach reading at the grade school level?

I would integrate all types of reading. I think too often in my educational experiences–and from what I have seen in schools–that kids are handed books which they are not engaged by. I meet a lot of dyslexic kids who love Harry Potter, and I think if we could find a way to bring Harry into our English studies, we would really hook kids on reading. I would make sure there was room for many different types of literature in the curriculum, based upon what kids want to read. I would have a hardcore phonics component, which is a balance between whole-word and phonics-based reading methods, because neither by itself is sufficient. Part of my struggles in school was that I was not given a phonics background. I would also make sure that reading is an intellectual task, in the sense that reading is about ideas and not so much about getting the right idea or the details. I think kids often shut down to reading when it is just about getting the right answer and being either right or wrong, as opposed to reading being the practice of thinking.

There were two researchers named Daniel N. Fader and Elton B. McNeil, who wrote a book called Hooked on Books: Program and Proof in 1968, which said the same thing. They said that if you wanted kids to read, you had to get them what they wanted to read, and you can’t quibble about what they want to read. If they want to read racing-car books, you get them racing-car books. The key thing was to get kids the experience and practice of reading and allow them to grow as readers.

If you think about reading and kids, you have to realize that there are companies that make a lot of money on the reading of first graders. There are companies that have contracts with school districts whose books are disseminated across the board. Why would they want some teacher to be able to say, “No, I’m not going to order your book today. I’m going to allow this kid to bring in a Harry Potter book because he or she loves those books.”

The teachers were pumping me full of messages that I was stupid and crazy.

What was school like for you?

The way that I think of my story is that second grade was really where most of the damage was done. In third grade, I had an opportunity to see what could have been in an environment that was open to the idea of accommodation, because I had a teacher who had empathy for my experiences. Fourth grade was essentially a step back toward what had happened in second grade. Fourth and fifth grades were horrific, really bad times for me. In third grade, I had a teacher who said that she wouldn’t count spelling against me and I could use my computer to write. I got into fourth and fifth grade, and that was out the door–I had to take spelling tests, and I couldn’t use my computer for writing. That is really where I started to morph into my identity as an athlete, because school was not working at all for me. I was trying to find some articulation for whatever it is that kids have inside themselves that they want to express and be successful. In school I was definitely not a success–and all this culminated in my leaving sixth grade for the majority of the year. It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t have enough time or couldn’t pick up the information. It was that (a) the teachers were pumping me full of messages that I was stupid and crazy, and (b) their pedagogy, the way they were trying to teach, wasn’t reaching me. Especially in reading, which had a lot to do with the lack of phonics.

I get the impression from reading your book that your mom was very important in your story and your ultimate success in school.

Major. You will find “life savers” in all successful LD students. The heroes differ. Often mom is the hero, or a teacher or mentor, but the principles of what that person does stay the same. For me, my mom was tremendously important, and she really pumped me full of messages that they, the teachers, were really wrong about me. “They don’t know what kind of mind you have, and they are (for lack of a better term) `full of [it].’ The problem is with them, not with you.” But, of course a third grader can’t internalize this message because school is such a powerful institution. School really does construct a student’s sense of worth at an early age. But my mom did lay that foundation of “check it out–they are wrong about what it means to be smart and good. If you are given the right environment and the right opportunity, you can do anything you want.” That is what she did for me; she pumped me full of that message. That is what successful kids have at an early age. It isn’t an I.Q. thing; it isn’t a money thing–it is a kid understanding that he is okay, and let’s go fight the system that wants the kid to lay down and die.

When do you think you really understood that your mom was right, that you were okay?

Probably not until college. I didn’t start actively engaging and internalizing that into my sense of self until the end of my freshman year in college. Honestly, even when I got to Brown and obtained this cultural marker of sense and intelligence–even when I got there, I was still struggling with my sense of self. I thought: “Oh God, all these people are smart, and I’m not.” I think that ultimately when I was living from a sense of self-worth, it was when I was writing the book. Because that is really what the book is about: How can people exist within an institution that has constructs for intelligence and for behavior and be successful trying to fix themselves, as if they were broken?

What made you decide to go to Brown?

When I went to an interview at Brown, I immediately felt that it was the right learning environment for me. Brown has a tremendous emphasis on personal passion, personal drive, individuality of their students. It has no core requirements, which meant I could really explore academically, and it places a strong emphasis on independent work. By the time I graduated from Brown, I had taken three-quarters of all my work as independent study. I designed my classes, I picked the professors, I designed the reading list, I designed my evaluations. I worked in one-on-one discussion as much as possible. I supplemented my course of study with additional seminars. I did it this way because this is the right way for my mind to learn. The reality is that when I am doing an independent study, the concept of my doing an independent study is out the window. Am I an LD kid? It doesn’t really matter, because I do all my papers at home and get them corrected,’ and I focus on my strength, which is learning by talking. I don’t have to take tests, and I never even had to tell my professors that I was LD.

Does Brown have a particularly large LD population?

Not any more than any other university, percentage-wise. I think it is about 200 kids diagnosed with LD or ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. Brown also does not compromise its academic standards for LD kids, which is appropriate and I totally agree with it. If you get to Brown, they will support you, but you have to somehow measure up with the rest of the field.

Did you actively go out of your way to avoid a lecture class?

When I was a kid? No, I didn’t know better. It was how the game was played. At Brown, I actively avoided any introductory classes because they were usually large lecture environments, which don’t work for me. They are broad in their scope, and I like to get into a theme. I don’t think lecture is the best way for anyone to learn.

I avoid teaching those large lecture classes, because I don’t think anyone learns anything in these structures, but universities persist in paying faculty based upon their stand-up comedy skills, which usually aren’t particularly good.

I never understood where that pedagogy grew from. I was nominated by Brown for a Rhodes scholarship, so I’ve looked at the British way of higher education. It makes much more sense the way that Oxford does its education, with one-on-one tutorials where you can supplement core work with going to presentations and seminars. The learning occurs between an instructor and a student. Tutorials have always been the most powerful way for me to learn. Often students say that professors don’t care, but I think this is because the students are only judging them through the context of a lecture. Of course, the professor is distant if there are 400 people sitting in the audience. Go to the office hours and talk to them.

How did you meet David Cole, your coauthor?

We met at transfer orientation at Brown and formed a partnership that was timely for both of us. We recognized that we felt we didn’t really belong at Brown. We were both trying to hide our difference and our experience, which was so different from the other students at Brown. I am LD and struggled through school, and Dave is ADHD and actually completely dropped out of high school and came close to getting into some serious trouble. We had a lot in common. We were sitting around transfer orientation, and we all had to introduce ourselves, and there were kids saying they transferred from Yale and were on the short list for the Nobel Prize, that sort of stuff. If you were like us and on the short end of the educational stick and “dumb” most of your life, you just want to run for the hills when you hear stuff like that. Luckily, we ran together for the same hills. We developed a partnership around the shared experience of being told we were dumb in school.

Describe your shared experience.

We both did horrifically poorly in school–I dropped out of sixth grade; Dave dropped out in high school. For both of us, the experience of school was clinically traumatic. On top of that, we both had obvious high potential. In the middle of our lives, we could not understand our situation, but I think we came to an understanding through our relationship at Brown. Our economic experiences were dissimilar. My mom never graduated from college; she raised my brother and my two half-sisters on welfare in San Francisco. She met my father, who is highly educated, went to Holy Cross and Georgetown law. My father and my mom are both very “left.” My mom currently runs a non-profit organization, and my father for the majority of my life was a struggling labor lawyer. I would say that we were supposed to be upper-middle-class but weren’t. Dave’s father is a lawyer, a very successful lawyer in New Hampshire. I went to public school all my life, and he went to private schools. I was on loans at Brown, but I don’t believe that Dave was.

Who decided to do the book?

I really don’t know. I think one of us just said: “Let’s write a book about our experiences”–not having any idea what that meant. That was in our first semester at Brown, fall of ’97. Knowing Dave and heating his background was my first exposure to these issues outside of living them, which was never a discourse I could examine. My parents weren’t talking about it, and the schools weren’t talking about it. It wasn’t till I met Dave and heard him talk about his life that I was able to think about my life. Somehow we decided to write about our experiences, and we turned it into a class the second semester as an independent study.

Don’t you also have a not-for-profit organization that you are trying to develop?

I created Project Eye-to-Eye while at Brown. It came directly out of the experience of sitting in the transfer circle at Brown and thinking, “My God, there is no way I should be here.” That is the message I had from growing up as a kid with LD. The templates for understanding my life were pretty simple: I could be an athlete, I could be a mechanic, or I could do drugs and be a deviant and fall all the way out. These are the images and templates that LD kids all receive today. It was pretty simple. But I’m there, and it dawns on me that “I’m here at Brown, I am a success, and I want to take this message back to little kids who are just like me and lost.” So, that is Project Eye-to-Eye in a nutshell. You take college LD students and match them with the little guys with LD so they learn that they can also succeed.

Did you know that only 1.4 percent of 15 million LD kids ever go to college? Compare that to other minority communities, and it is bottom of the barrel. The idea is that if you make it to a four-year university, even if you are struggling, you are a success. They might not have mastered their LD, but they certainly have a handle on it. Of course, the college students are interviewed, and if it is obvious that they are not fit to work with kids, they are screened out.

So, a college kid with LD or ADHD is matched with a little person–what do they do? Two things: They obviously work on academic skills very loosely defined; no unreasonable expectation of anything such as teaching a kid to read. Mostly they do something as simple as making sure that homework assignments get home and homework gets back to the teacher. Or, the student gives them some organizational strategies. The second piece is coming together to do an art project in a community setting. We often do this because many LD/ADHD kids are exceptionally talented spatial, kinesthetic thinkers. That gift often does not find actualization in traditional schools. We create an environment where they can be successful. We talk about the experience of being different in a positive way, and we make art, allowing them to communicate themselves through a visual medium. They love it.

Are you limiting the experiences to visual art?

No, it is all over the place. We work with art, music, drama … it is the idea of creative thinking.

Is this based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences?

Not exactly. Howard Gardner is often misunderstood by many who think you are going to teach reading through interpretive dance. We are trying to give kids an experience of success. We are trying to flip the paradigm of disability on its head. Rather than talking about what these kids can’t do, we want to focus on what they can do. We create positive art in the schools so the other kids say, “Wow, Project Eye-to-Eye is kinda cool.” When they are saying this, what they are really saying is that the kids in Project Eye-to-Eye are kinda cool. Suddenly these kids get to go from the bottom of the school to the top. I think the big thing I got from Howard Gardner was the understanding that what we embrace in school is only a small part of the picture of the experience of a learner.

Why do you think your book is different than other study guides on the market?

It comes from the perspective that there is no one way to learn. That is the fundamental difference. It has no notion of an ideal student and an ideal way to learn and suggestions that you have to learn this way by taking notes and reading a book all the way through. We say it is your education, and it is your mind, and here are a variety of different ways to approach a task. I think this is a fundamental difference from the way children are taught in school. That way doesn’t work for most LD/ADHD kids and probably doesn’t work for most kids in general. It doesn’t empower kids to approach school in an individualized way.

How is the sale of your book going? Do you get much community feedback?

It is about to go into a third printing, which is great because I was told it would take a year for the first printing to sell.

I spend a lot of my time in the community building Project Eye-to-Eye sites. It really is amazing to hear how much suffering goes on in schools with kids who learn outside the lines. I hear story after story from people who feel stupid and crazy in school. This isn’t just LD/ADHD kids but all sorts of kids in schools today. I start all my talks from a place of empathy, so I ask everyone in the audience to find a time in their lives when they felt stupid or crazy because of the constructs of intelligence we have in our schools. I then ask them to go further and find someone in their lives–a parent, a sister, a brother, or a friend–whose life was fundamentally changed because one day someone decided to call them stupid for having bad handwriting, for bouncing their foot, for maybe not paying attention; and then ask themselves how much different would that person’s life have been if someone came in and said, “It is okay that you bounce your foot, there is a place for you here at school.” Usually everyone in the room can raise a hand because it all rings true. That is really personal for me, because my mom, who is not diagnosed with a learning disability, grew up in a school feeling stupid, and that fundamentally altered the course of her life. My sister, who is much older than me, was diagnosed retarded in the 1960s because there was a standard deviation in her testing. Guess what a standard deviation is–it is a learning disability. If she had been diagnosed in the 1980s, she would have had a learning disability instead of being labeled retarded. These labels make a difference in all our lives. They so damage the sense of self! The point is that there are so many people who resonate with the experience of being outside-the-line learners in all sorts of aspects of school. I hear from people who tell me they weren’t good at sports and how dorky they felt in high school. I hear from people who were into computers who were labeled as geeks and techno-freaks. It all affects our sense of self and worth.

In the book you point out that the Columbine High School shooters didn’t want to kill individuals; their goal was to destroy the school.

They didn’t go to a mall; they went to school because that was the institution they wanted to destroy. A lot of the violence with kids has occurred in schools. I don’t think we understand what the focus on academic success sends to kids. It sends a message of, “if you can’t do it our way, then get out of school, because you are dumb.” The Columbine kids learned this message very well. Society as a whole seems to be a little slow learning this message.

Do you think changes in technology have helped you as a learner?

For me, I would be incapable of expressing myself in the written language if it wasn’t for computers. What I am hearing now from this new generation of LD kids is that voice-activated software is unbelievable. It is amazing, but one of the things about dyslexics is that they are diagnosed by taking six subtests that come together to form an average IQ. What happens with LD kids is that they have a standard deviation between one or more subtests, so that means that one subtest is in the 3rd percentile and another subtest is in the 99th percentile. That is why you can get a kid like me, who has an above-average IQ but spells at the third-grade level. Often what is high for LD kids is verbal processing. These kids have exceptionally high vocabularies, but make them sit down and do a handwritten spelling test, and they sound like third graders. The voice-activated software has been a godsend, so LD kids can talk to the computer.

If you could improve software that would help LD kids, what would you improve?

I’d put spellcheckers on all Web browsers. I cannot use the Web except by opening Microsoft Word, typing and checking everything, and then cutting and pasting; it’s very slow. I can’t handle posting areas such as chats and newsgroups; it is humiliating. Integrating spell checking completely into all aspects of our Web browsers is a must. The second thing is integrating visual mapping and visual ways of engaging with the world into the writing process. Many LD kids understand things in three dimensions, but completely lose it when they put it into writing, A-B-C-D. Beyond spell checking, I think voice activation to navigate the computer as a whole in terms of browsing, searching, and typing would greatly help LD kids–but I’d guess everyone else would also benefit.

What do you imagine school will be like for your own kids in the future?

My ideal school of the future would embrace two educational ideas: We all learn by doing, and we all learn by one-on-one direct personal instruction. I think all schools should be organized around these two facts. All instruction for reading, math, and science should only occur in a one-on-one tutorial basis. That might only happen an hour a day, but your teacher would also completely understand your cognitive strengths and weaknesses and direct all instruction to support your personal learning style. While that was going on, there would be project-oriented learning happening in different spaces to enhance and bridge to your tutorial learning. Math and Spanish might be presented in terms of a Spanish market, where the learner gets outside the construct of the classroom and buys food in another language. This type of learning would change as children got older, adding in-service learning and internships.

When you describe your ideal school, you are describing the way Thomas Edison taught himself. All he did was project learning.

Today he would have been diagnosed as LD. There is an adage which says that good LD teaching is good teaching. I believe that. I believe that when we create organizations that treat children as individuals, when you are able to move beyond the classroom as the only learning environment and to really learn by doing … that is how all people learn, really learn well.

Have you ever considered the irony that you are a success today because of your learning disability?

I know that, but I take it one step further when people ask me what I would change about myself in terms of learning. Would I like to get rid of my trouble with spelling or reading? And I say, “God, no.” The strength of my mind, the aspects that are unique and powerful about my mind, go hand-in-hand with my weaknesses. The big problem in the field right now are educators and physicians who think we can eradicate the weaknesses and not impact the strengths. They think we can medicate it, we can biofeedback it, maybe gene therapy it, when we get there. It just is not true. These kids think differently and live in a different way because of their weaknesses. Our weaknesses are our strengths.

Thom Gillespie, Cafe TECHNOS’s Maitre d’Igital, is the director of the Masters in Immersive Mediated Environments (MIME) program at Indiana University in Bloomington. Reach him at thom@indiana.edu.

Jonathan Mooney can be contacted by phone at 212/889-0830, by email at jonathan mooney@earthlink.net, or by postal mail at 46 East 29th Street #2R, New York, NY 10016. He would love to hear the stories of other alternative learners, and he wants to hear from folks who are interested in helping him further develop the nonprofit Project Eye-to-Eye.

Access the long version of this interview at: http://www.indiana. edu/~slizzard/lol/.

See also, the Maitre d’Igital section of Cafe TECHNOS at our Web site: www.technos.net/cafe.

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