January 24, 2016

Workarounds Around Anxiety

School Phobia. It’s a thing. The newer, revised term in the DSM V is School Refusal. Which contains an active verb, plus it conjures up more imagery, so of course I that works a little better for me. “You are a ‘strong verb machine,’” shrugged one of my writing students. I discover School Phobia as I look at page 16 of this jargon-ish medical report on a new student where it lists the diagnosis: Written Expression Disorder, Anxiety, and School Phobia. I am well-versed in reading reports on dyslexic profiles, or ADD, but this was a little out of my league. I wondered why the doctor was not up on the new term. But the parents were exasperated. Or…anxious. Hmmm.

Stacks of paperwork follow this kid around, with variant diagnoses. Picture a 13-year old lanky boy frozen in the pre-dawn hours, while over-educated parents futilely try to budge him to get out of bed to school. Or they succeed in getting him out the door, but he won’t walk to the bus. Or get in the car. Every incentive has been tried. The pre-teen is passive and stoic, not aggressive and forceful.

These parents are at their wit’s end. Didn’t I already say that? I guess I am using this repetition as a rhetorical literary device to pain a picture of the family. The boy is in a gifted program and tests well, but doesn’t put forth much effort when it comes to writing, which I where I come in. Grades are way down. He resists putting words onto a page or a screen, even with an app, or a software tool. And on top of that, counselors have to wrench him from the bus or car sometimes to get him inside school. So the experts at school are at their wit’s end also. He is a mystery, with an added side dish of having a twin who has none of these issues! And a further oddity is that he actually does has a small tribe of friends who bring out the ham in him.
My first step is to step into to his inner world and imagine his emotional state if I envision being forced to go to a football camp in the rain, that might be close. For me. I have no interest in football and have never had a single success with it. Like him with auditory input and writing. School – and especially middle school - is all about both of these. At football camp I would be scared of the ball smacking my skin - if I was lucky enough to catch it – and I would resist uncomfortable gear and padding, the whole time feeling unsteady on my feet due to mud. I would hide deep under the covers also. And then there are all those football rules (like grammar) which I have never been able to keep track of. A recipe for shut-down.

So at our first session, I connect without demanding eye contact, as his parents introduce him. I simply make jokes and acknowledge that he is coming to work with me on what is hardest for him. I have to do a body language move to sever some of the glue between the parents and him, who answer for him or finish his sentences. I ask if he can explain why he is here. “To help me with my writing.” I have to say, “Let him finish” to his parents. But he doesn’t. Finish. I usher all of them into my office. So much has been revealed already.

I want to have the answer. The key. And sometimes the Disneyland part of me wants a panacea, or happy ending. I have some inroads. I have some research. I have some success stories. But if I had a way into the mind of a gifted kid who puts a padlock around himself when words on the page are called for, I would be a millionaire.     
Parents and special ed. teachers and learning specialists like myself have tried the gamut of tricks. I interview this student a bit about what happens in his head when writing assignments or prompts are given, and we uncover that he doesn’t like the idea of rough and final drafts, and that he spends time thinking about how to write something that won’t require any revision. Common. Stuck in the “if it is perfect there will be only one draft” rabbit hole.

With students like this, the typical school procedures for teaching writing often fall flat. Many of the whole language techniques teachers are accustomed to focus on harvesting memories into writing journals. These are events from children’s lives, collections of topics and activities that they enjoy, or nuggets of things that have happened in school, to be used as starting points for writing. These writing journals are filled with words and pictures and half-finished lists and drafts that never got revisited. A scrapbook of ideas. Ideally. But not so for my students. Teachers also excel at giving creative prompts, or practicing brainstorming on topics. Then the drafting and revising process can begin, and the choice of what to write about is vast.

Why are these methods unhelpful for our reluctant, anxious, school-phobic writers?

Too many choices. More anxiety. No parameters (about length, expectations for how many sentences in each paragraph, how many transition words, what to do if you forgot a detail of the field trip, etc.) This level of detail would make some writers feel constricted, but too much freedom constricts certain kid writers. Fear about getting it accurate undermines any joy they might have in expressing themselves. Plus, we are asking for emotions in the characters, or in the persuasive piece, and some students simply aren’t wired that way.

There is a whole new truckload of research on how certain “spectrum brains” cannot simultaneously process sensory input while also giving language to it. Two sections of the brain that don’t fire together naturally. So when recalling personal experiences or events, these children reach by default for facts, since language for emotions might not be readily available. This wreaks havoc in an innocuous personal narrative assignment.  They either list details with an aching exactitude, or stop mid-sentence because they cannot recall what happened precisely. What is present is the monotonous car ride, or the treehouse, or the bus stop crowd, but not the sensations or emotions coupled with them. There is a sequenced micro list of events, but not the thrill, or nervousness, or humor involved. So we have to reconfigure our expectations. And meet them halfway. Add a single emotion, I might say, instead of insisting on lacing the whole piece with feeling and mood.

Back to my anxious teen! I simply suggested Quick Writes, and dad thought it was a good start, since this kid had never really been given any low-pressure writing or brainstorming to do. He agreed to try, but his pen did not move. He agreed to try – at home. (and he did do it, and we did another in our second session). He had some prompts from me, but could also choose his own topic. He chose one of mine. Rules: No punctuation. No stopping. Keep writing.

I was so nervous about how to get this kid to respond with anything other than low affect. Just zero emotion. And yet I could sense the deep grief under his long hair and glazed-over look. Halfway through the longer-than-my-usual-hour consult, I figured they were going to opt out of working with me, because I could not get this kid to talk or write or move his brain or body an inch. It was scary to imagine how his parents deal with this frozenness, and the “I don’t want to go to school” issue. I asked what goes on in his head when he says he cannot write, and he has too many, rather than not enough, thoughts. And other kids it is the blank slate. But can we really have an empty mind? These don’t seem like special enlightened gurus sitting in front of me at my tutoring table. I mean, seeing nothing in your mind is pretty doubtful, but I always run with it anyway. We put it on his goals list to be able to write those picture or thoughts instead of sit and wait for the best thought to come. 
So back to school phobia. These students often thought they were really smart in grade school, when they were doing well, and not as much writing nuance was required, but now they are frightened that they are not smart, because, well, emotions, literary analysis, and excessive revision enter the academic stage. They are scared that their writing difficulty means that they are, in fact, not smart like they thought they were. Furthermore, they worry that if they try hard and still do poorly, they really prove there is something wrong with their brain. So instead of digging in and doing what it takes to succeed, they start withdrawing from school and questioning their abilities.

I wanted to end on an UP note, but I will have to do it by picture, not words.

January 9, 2016

Geek is the New Black

Except for the fact(s?) that parents in this tech mecca of Seattle fight their way into private schools, hoping to spawn the next Steve Jobs, the average home sale goes to the highest bidder with $400K in cash, and the most stressful parking lot is the I-5 freeway, I love this town. And I get the rarified honor of teaching the digital, I mean the NEXT, generation! Digitized Giddy Geekdom is my latest term for the West Coast cities of chip and software worship.

The Emerald City is touted as child-friendly, and is infused with large city parks with newfangled play equipment. It is notably dog-friendly, with plenty of cafes and bars that allow canines into the social milieu, and doggie day cares that cost more than preschool. It attracts tourists with views of the mountains and cuisine offerings from hole-in-the-walls to menus you can’t pronounce. It also attracts Amazonitrons, or Micro-managed-softies, in droves, which drive up prices of condos to half a million for a bread box with a view of the water if you stand on tiptoe on one side of the skinny deck. Seattle is either in its glory or its downfall.

We love our bookstores, barista culture, and theater companies, and anything that tourists do not do. Case-in-point: It is hip to have a friend who LIVES on a houseboat, but not hip to to take the tour boat that drives by the rows of them. We get to feel different, on the cutting edge, maverick-y and mellow from all the negative ions, and, by-the-way, better than Portland because we have more ferries, to islands where commuters or communists or conservatives live, depending on the island and what news station you listen to for demographic reports.

It is fun to live in a city where intellectual humor reigns. We see it in A-frame signs on the sidewalk, or at the side of the espresso machine, on a chalkboard, with a daily trivia teaser. These are more than just puns – they are serious, well-thought out brain teaser humor. Giddy geekdom at its finest.

A not-so-Mensa sandwich board

 And cinematic chuckles

The kind of missive written on a makeshift chalkboard propped up at the counter where the barista shouts out your drink.

Steeped in this brainia arena, Seattle-ite adults easily find intellectual stimulus, such as lecture series or book talks – even edgy humor in the form of monologue-ish performance art.  And their kids find solace in other friends who think like them. With chess online, tournaments in backgammon, multi-player video games, and the History Channel accessible on any device, I watch my students geek-out about number statistics, winning stats of players in countries they can’t pronounce, and date facts. This is the new kool, and while not a piece of fully researched data, the trend of bullying of nerdy types is down, and the coolness of brain power is up. Soft research stat: Costume stores report increases in Nerd outfits for Halloween.

I am not allowed to use the word Asperger’s, since it has been removed from the DSM-V, but the highest per capita of spectrum-y kids (loose school psychologist slang) live in Seattle and Silicon Valley. And many are the strugglers and stragglers in writing.

One of my 5th graders  was asked to describe his ideal day at middle school, as part of an application process for a special “choice” school. (6th – 8th) and he wrote this sentence:
“I do not have enough empirical evidence to write on this.”
And proceeded to sit for the rest of the 15 minutes.

Another student of mine had an assignment to describe the character’s hidden motivations in a classic novel. He “could not find any”, in Crash, by Jerry Spinelli, which is a classic coming-of-age story and has many subplots about acceptance and taking a stand for oneself.  Writing a 2-paragraph paper took hours and hours.

If I had the key to unlocking the writer inside each of these budding geeks, who take life oh-so-literally, argue their way out of writing assignments, and make their parents bite their tongue so as not to scream, I would be a mega-millionaire.