Twice exceptional students have few forums to express their lived educational experiences. REEL is pleased to launch “Living and Learning 2e,” a new blog series dedicated to giving twice exceptional children, teens, and young adults a place to share their voices.
Ava M. is our second guest blogger. She attended Palo Alto Unified School District schools through her 10th grade year, when she discovered how her mental health diagnosis affects her learning style and executive functions. Ava enjoys learning about plants and the environment, and wants to continue to study environmental studies in college. In her spare time, she loves writing stories, embroidering, and hiking. She finished her last two years of high school in the Foothill Middle College program and is off to Sarah Lawrence College. Ava contributed this blog based on her desire to help other students who face similar challenges.
When Learning Loses Its Joy
I recently found my fourth grade report card while sifting through old documents and worksheets, reminiscing on my life before school became something I no longer looked forward to. “She is eager to learn… she is motivated to learn… she surpassed her reading goal by over 600%.” I can’t help but wonder where my performance in school started straying from my strong track record of elementary school report cards. Being a twice-exceptional learner used to be a quality that got me into accelerated reading and advanced math classes, because in elementary school, learning is about learning. Sadly, this is something I’ve found changes over time.
Middle school is about figuring out how to be a high functioning student, and high school is about getting good grades, high test scores, and being accepted into a top ranked university. This means mindless note taking, writing essays that match what the teacher wants to read, turning in purposeless worksheets, and doing all of this as fast as possible.
I started noticing that the feedback my teachers gave me shifted from commending my exceptional motivation to learn to suggesting I turn in assignments more quickly and focus on ways to raise my grades. In tenth grade I was placed in a class focused on helping underperforming students organize their schoolwork and learn more efficient study skills. Basically, nearly everyone in the class either had a 504 plan, IEP, or a challenging home life that made it hard for them to succeed. This class was called “focus on success.” I was embarrassed to be in the class, and tried everything I could to get out of being placed there. I wouldn’t admit to anyone that I was taking the class, and would actively avoid being seen walking towards the classroom out of fear of being made fun of for not being as “normal” as my peers. Why do we think it’s bad to get help when struggling?
A massive challenge I’ve had is turning in assignments on time. I often found my hands resting on my keyboard and my eyes locked on the blinking cursor on Google Docs, unable to figure out what’s wrong. There are so many different perspectives running around my mind at once; deciding which one to listen to is the most time consuming part of school work. This causes an issue with perfectionism, as I definitely can’t please every part of my mind with all the assignments I finish and tests I take. This leads to late work stacking up, incomplete tests that result in point deductions, more stress and panic, and a never ending hole that slowly starts caving in. I was too embarrassed to admit this to anyone for two whole years, and as you can imagine, my grades suffered. Not only did my grades suffer, but so did my self esteem. My entire two years at Gunn High School, I felt stupid. I didn’t think I was smart; I didn’t know how to learn; and I assumed that I didn’t have any future in academia.
Life Changing Teachers
I spent the last two years of high school at Foothill Middle College, the most life-changing academic experience of my life. Two of the greatest and most supportive teachers I’ve ever had were there: my history and English teachers. They understood the hardships my learning disability brings me, but didn’t choose to look at them as hardships. Instead of ridiculing the time it took me to turn in writing assignments, they celebrated the achievements and focused on the content of the assignments. Instead of being upset with me for needing to take a few minutes alone outside during class, they asked if there was any other way to help. They treated me as their equal in a way no adult had before, and it finally made me feel comfortable enough to believe in my abilities as a student.
As a learning community and wider society, we choose to look at learning disabilities as disabilities. It even says so in the name! The truth is, they’re not. They can include insane amounts of creativity, the ability to see things in a way that “regular” people can’t, empathy, determination, enough knowledge to fill a library, and layer after layer of unseen talent.
One of the biggest reasons I was able to go from nearly giving up on all aspects of my life (school included) to having straight A’s and being the happiest I’ve ever been is because of the non-judgmental and unconditional support my Foothills Middle College teachers gave me. They never made me feel guilty or as if my grade was in danger if I couldn’t turn something in by the deadline. My teachers didn’t make me feel like the letters on my transcript defined my self worth in the way that my home high school did. Instead, they reached their caring hands outward and offered an amount of help I had never experienced before. By being treated respectfully, getting rid of the competitive spirit amongst students brought about by my high school’s culture of focusing on the importance of grades, flexibility in the classroom, and 24/7 support (along with much more), my teachers showed me that I could love school once again. School should be about learning and growing as an individual, and that should be available to all types of learners. My favorite teachers are the only adults I’ve met that have understood that, and actually practiced what they preached.
Talk to Your Teachers
My greatest piece of advice to other 2e learners is sitting down and having a conversation with your teachers. Asking for help and admitting that you can’t do something on your own takes strength, and should be commended. Making a plan with revised due dates, prioritization of different assignments, designated study times, and activities to de-stress in between all of this is extremely helpful. You may find that your teacher is much more understanding than you thought. Constantly remind yourself that school is about learning. Your grades don’t always reflect how well you know a subject, and they never reflect your self worth. A person is worth so much more than a letter on a piece of paper. If you focus on your strengths and the subjects you enjoy, your grades are more likely to show how well you’ve mastered the material.
Teachers, Flexibility is the Answer
A piece of advice I have for educators is to be flexible with students. People learn at different paces, and require different activities and teaching methods. For example, I have friends that will suck up information from documentaries and remember it forever, while documentaries are a one-way ticket to daydream land for me. Another example of flexibility I have is from my experience at Middle College. The students in my class were given creative freedom on every project assigned, thanks to the trust we had built with our teachers. If we didn’t like the prompt for an assignment, that was ok, as long as we turned something in that demonstrated our knowledge of the topic. Something as seemingly unimportant as this made a massive difference. I found that I learned so much more when I was allowed to do a project I was motivated to complete. It’s challenging and sometimes impossible to accommodate every student’s needs, but making it clear that you’re there to help come up with ways for students to feel confident in the material is crucial.
Hope is Possible
I’m thankful for the support I’ve found and for my ability to persevere. My struggles have made me stronger, and I’ve learned how to be successful over several long years of trial and error. Thanks to all of this, I’m looking forward to life, and will be attending Sarah Lawrence College in the fall. If someone had told my 9th grade self that, I would’ve laughed and called them a liar. Change is possible, but it isn’t easy and can’t be done overnight. There is no one magic cure-all tip I can give, but I can share my experience in hopes of it resonating with someone struggling in the way I did.