Friday, January 6, 2023

UnDiagnosed: The Ugly Side of Dyslexia

In Undiagnosed: The Ugly Side of Dyslexia, Ameer Baraka shares his personal struggles with growing up on the mean streets of New Orleans, unable to read, and in continual trouble with the law. He was incarcerated at the age of 14 for manslaughter and served time again in his twenties. He was finally diagnosed with dyslexia while in prison.

After learning to read, Ameer turned his life around and became an Emmy-nominated actor. He is also a dyslexia advocate, youth mentor, and prison coach. He works with youth that are behind bars. He is keenly aware of the school-to-prison path for kids who can't read, and he makes it his mission to raise awareness about dyslexia by speaking at universities, businesses, and youth organizations around the world.

As I mentioned in last week's post about Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream, my mission for 2023 is to share stories of resilience. There are many stories out in the world today about people who have overcome dyslexia to become successful entrepreneurs, millionaires, and billionaires. But there is also an ugly side to dyslexia. It's the story Ameer shares of young kids who get stuck in a school-to-prison pipeline because they cannot read.  Many of these young people belong to minorities. They don't have wealthy parents who can pay for expensive tutors or private schools for kids with learning differences. They don't have parents with the tenacity to go up against powerful school systems to demand accommodations for their struggling learners. They are not raised in families with the understanding and the means to support alternative dreams if pursuing higher education is not in their child's future.  

And yet, Undiagnosed is still ultimately a story of hope and resilience. Ameer takes us through his journey through a very dark place to come out the other side where he offers hope to kids who were just like him and understanding to educators as well as legal authorities. He now speaks to police departments and provides training on racial bias. He used to be part of the problem and has now become a shining example of the solution.

Ameer will be speaking on Monday, January 9, 2023, at a free online event hosted by the Dallas Chapter of the International Dyslexia Association. Hear his story live at his book launch. See the QR code in the announcement at the bottom of this post for details.

When I was working in the public schools, a large percentage of my struggling students had parents who were or had been incarcerated. It is what inspired me to write Take Me There, about a teen boy who has a big heart but always finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The story is fictional, but it was inspired by a theme I saw over and over again. Parents can't read, have limited life choices, and end up in prison. Their kids can't read and often end up on a similar path, not knowing why. The young man in my story goes looking for his father who is in prison in Texas to find out if badness is in his blood or if it is something he can outrun. What he learns is that his father's illiteracy led him to a life of crime. He was a football star in a small Texas high school who got passed along in school by teachers who meant well but never really helped him learn.

There are many places in our country where there is a simple formula for estimating the size of a new prison. They look at the illiteracy rates of the surrounding area. That is the real crime, that we have learned the formula for a life of incarceration, that it is within our power as a society to remedy much of it, but that we don't. Listen to Ameer's story to get inspired about what can be done. See details below.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Jubilee - Launching a Year of STORIES ABOUT RESILIENCE

How do we teach resilience, grit, and emotional fortitude? That is one of the questions that weighs on my heart these days. For that reason, I'm launching a year of stories about resilience for 2023, and I'm starting with Jubilee by KT Johnston, illustrated by Anabella Ortiz.

If you follow my blog or my newsletter, you know that I often discuss narrative non-fiction picture books on a variety of subjects including history, science, and disability. One of the hot topics in education these days is mental health. There is a children's mental health crisis going on in our country brought on largely by issues connected with the pandemic. Books on the subject are flooding the marketplace, but resilience is not an easy quality to teach.

One of the ways that young people learn about grit, perseverance, resilience, and developing a growth mindset is by reading stories about real people (and animals) who have overcome extreme obstacles. When we see another person do something courageous, we start to believe that we can be courageous, too.

To kick off the new year, I'm featuring the narrative non-fiction picture book, Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream. Find the book HERE

Lis Hartel began competing in dressage when she was thirteen years old. In 1943 and 1944 she and her horse, Gigolo, were the national champions of Denmark, but within a few months of their second title, the tides turned. Lis contracted polio and was told she would probably never walk again and would definitely never ride.

Horses were her life and so Lis made up her mind that she would find a way to ride. Unfortunately, Gigolo was injured, but Jubilee was available. Jubilee was not a showhorse, but he was gentle and patient. Even so, Lis fell off of Jubilee many times. But each time, she got back up again. Gradually, Lis regained some of her strength and her balance, but not all of it. She had to use very subtle movements to direct the horse. Jubilee began looking and acting like a showhorse. They began competing and winning shows until they eventually qualified to compete in the Olympic games. You will have to read the book to find out what happened next.

Lis went on to create the first riding center for people with disabilities. The partnership that she and Jubilee formed inspired similar centers all around the world and a type of physical therapy called hippotherapy

As a speech-language pathologist, I'm familiar with the many benefits of hippotherapy. To learn more about this exciting intervention and the resources available for families, visit the American Hippotherapy Association HERE

Although Jubilee is a picture book, it is appropriate for older students because of the advanced concepts and vocabulary. Consider teaching it alongside Come On Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody written for grades 7-9. 

Moody's book was originally published in 1963, but it made a comeback after Laura Hillenbrand's book for adults. Seabiscuit was the depression-era underdog that won the famous match race against War Admiral featured in the 2003 movie named after the thoroughbred. There is also a one-hour PBS Documentary on Seabiscuit found HERE.

Watch my blog in 2023 for more stories about people (and animals) that are examples of grit and resilience. Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free PDF of the first book in my Decodable Series, No Gift for ManThe PDF is text only. It also links to an online audio version of the book. The illustrated version will be available on Amazon soon. This is the first installment in the HOT ROD Series (Higher Order Thinking Through the Reading of Decodables.) Visit the Sign Up Page on my new website at for details. Then explore strategies like Pair and Share Reading. Find downloadable activities to go with the book on my page for COR Instruction.