I’ve written about my son Nicholas before (read it here). He is now Dr. Nicholas Letchford, DPhil (Oxon) BSc (Hons) BEng (Hons) UTas.
But, he was once the “worst child seen in 20 years of teaching.” The school diagnostician branded him with this label…at seven years old.
Nicholas, now thirty, is a confident, delightful, knowledgeable man, and married to an equally wonderful woman, Lakshmi. He talks with passion about mathematics, engineering, and the challenges of the modern world.
It is only when I ask him about his early schooling education that he seems to shut down.
In 1994, first grader Nicholas’s learning hit rock bottom. He withdrew in class, a place where his teacher shouted at him. He stared into space, which earned him even more shouting, and by the end of the year, he could only read ten words. In hindsight, his teacher destroyed him.
Finally, there was a turning point. In 1995, my husband had study leave in Oxford. Our family joined in, leaving our home in Australia. I decided to teach Nicholas at home. Of course, my initial efforts at teaching regular phonics instruction ended in failure—abject failure. I was no different than his classroom teacher.
It was at this point—the turning point—when my mother-in-law said to me, “Lois, make learning fun.”
Her words caused me to re-evaluate what I was doing. I began writing poems; simple rhyming poetry which Nicholas and his grandmother then illustrated. My teaching transformed as we investigated simple poems, then expanding to follow more complex ideas, like the changing map of the world. He was beginning to make different connections while appreciating maps and world history. This became our inquiry project. By tapping into Nicholas’s curiosity, immersing him in language and learning, as well as providing meaningful experiences through seeing various museums, artefacts, and libraries, his love of learning grew.
I found a series of books which helped me teach him to decode words: Hear it, See it, Say it, Do it! by Mary Atkinson. The books were brilliant, and Nicholas and I were finally able to connect through the multi-sensory word games.
Nicholas and I enjoyed this learning—both in the short and, amazingly, the long term.
Yet, long-term—like today—still brings up painful memories. I recently asked Nicholas about his early learning experiences he dissolved into tears.
Twenty three years after his poor schooling, he still could not talk about the pain or the scars left from those years.
When I asked about his reading teacher, he responded with a quick, “I don’t remember her!”
“Nicholas,” I said, “You visited her four days a week, for 30 mins a day…for four years!”
“Ahh,” he said, searching for this memory. “Yes…she was a witch.”
Recalling his early learning from living in Oxford in 1995, Nicholas talked about a growing passion for learning, a lifetime love of mapping, and enjoying poetry. He remembered some of the poems, the fun he had illustrating, and thinking beyond the poetry. He even remembered that he wrote ingredients for a witches spell!
With this type of learning, he became emotionally involved, and this time in our lives determined the trajectory for his future.
So, when we have these young lives in our hands, we know what has to be completed in terms of learning. But how are we doing to do it? What memories are we creating today for our students to recall tomorrow?