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Learning Disability Turns Into Difference, Then Into Achievement

Posted: 2006-12-21

Told that she probably could not learn calculus by her math teacher, Jessica proves him wrong by becoming a rocket scientist.

Kay's Comment: This is a warm-fuzzy story about a CA girl named Jessica who succeeds in rocket science in spite of her high school math teacher telling her that she was incapable of learning calculus. In eighth grade algebra, my teacher would often ask a girl to answer a math problem and if she stumbled, he would say, "Why bother asking a girl? Let a boy answer." I learned that girls are not supposed to be good in math, and so I struggled, then avoided it. I still avoid it. I have started my doctoral degree several times, but left when faced with statistics.

Dr. Haim Ginott: I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

When Jessica Kirkpatrick heard the harsh words from her math teacher, her world was turned upside down.

"I don't think Jessica is capable of learning calculus," Jessica recalls the teacher saying to her parents. "Not everyone is good at math, and she should focus on other things."

At the time, Jessica was a high school junior in Albany, Calif., who viewed math as her favorite and best subject. English and history classes had been difficult, but math had been a refuge -- something she believed she was good at. Her own teacher was telling her otherwise.

Initially, Jessica assumed that her teacher's words must be the objective truth. Sure, Jessica's parents had told her that the teacher was dead wrong, but they had to say that, right? Even worse, her teacher's comments seemed consistent with a larger pattern: Although she had been a top student in elementary school, as homework ramped up during her middle and high school years, academics had become an increasing struggle.

"By the time I was in high school, I couldn't keep up with the reading at all, so I wouldn't do the reading at all," Jessica says. "I was doing the bare minimum to get by."

The situation reached a breaking point when Jessica took the PSAT standardized test and scored the equivalent of about 900 out of a then-possible 1,600 points -- a score below the minimum expected for students on a four- year college track.

Not sure what to do, her parents, Jim and Laurie, decided to enlist the help of an educational therapist. It proved to be a fateful decision.

According to the therapist, Jessica did, in fact, have a learning disability: Tests indicated that she read at the 18th percentile level -- meaning 82 out of 100 students read faster than she did. Quite simply, it was challenging for her to decode the written word.

On the flip side, the therapist also reported that Jessica was extremely intelligent: Plenty of strategies were available to help her better understand and optimize her learning style. The challenge of reading didn't have to be a learning disability, but rather a learning difference.

Feeling a sense of hope for the first time in a long time, Jessica embraced her new learning techniques. She worked on taking notes using many colors of pens, helping her visually separate concepts and stay focused. She regularly asked for clarification in class and placed herself in group-study situations where discussion helped her retention.

When reading, she would pretend to outline a presentation on the topic, preparing mock speech notes or projector slides on the material.

The results were dramatic. Jessica started enjoying school again. She became a straight-A student. Despite her teacher's warning, she also stuck with math.

Along the way, Jessica also discovered that she was fascinated by the application of math to the study of physics: Being a visual learner, physics enabled her to "see" mathematical and scientific principles at work in the real world.

As her self-esteem blossomed, Jessica's growing confidence led to greater success. By her junior year at Occidental College, Jessica had received a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, a top national award for science-minded college students. Drawing on her experiences, she founded a support and advocacy group at Occidental for those with learning differences. She was eventually named a Marshall Scholar, one of the most prestigious academic honors in the world.

Now 26, Jessica is pursuing a doctorate in physics at the University of California at Berkeley. Every day she employs the mathematics principles that her high school math teacher said she was not capable of understanding.

"She took off like a rocket," her mom, Laurie, says proudly.

These are fitting words, indeed, to describe a promising young scientist who now searches the cosmos as an astrophysicist. Sure, astrophysics may be difficult, but it's not exactly rocket science . . . well actually, it sort of is.

Ben Kaplan's column runs Thursdays in the Living section. To contact Kaplan or post questions, go to www.benkaplan.org.

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