The little boy sat at the table, hyperventilating, rocking back and forth, and scrubbing his hair frantically with his hands. It was the beginning of the year at a school that catered to bright and gifted students who didn’t necessarily fit inside the boxes we often try to put them in. I was the elementary school’s special education teacher, and my job consisted of about half academic intervention and half behavioral support for kids having difficulties. We started the school year with a lot of community-building and routine-setting activities before diving into beginning-of-year testing and academics, so I was spending my days popping into classrooms and reconnecting with students on my caseload and supporting the teachers. I carried a walkie-talkie and was on call for any kid having difficulty in a classroom.

It was the third time in as many days that I’d gotten a call to come to the second-grade classroom because Jacob, a boy new to our school, was having another meltdown. This time, it involved a chair getting knocked over and game pieces scattered across the room. I sat quietly with him chatting, until he was calmed down. I tried to ask questions that would give me a clue as to what was causing him to suddenly “go off” on a daily basis. Once he calmed down, he was smart and funny. I really liked this kid. 

I made a note to check in with his teacher during her plan time to get more information. My first question was “How is he doing academically?” The teacher really didn’t know since we had been doing a lot of cooperative learning and testing hadn’t started yet. She also told me that every time a task that involved any actual work came up, that was when he’d have a meltdown and he’d be out in the common area with me. So the next time, I grabbed a worksheet. Once he’d calmed down, we began to work, as best we could, on whatever was happening in the classroom.

It was quickly apparent that Jacob couldn’t read. At all. And he was angry about it. Really, really angry. 

I’d done my Associate level Orton-Gillingham training over the summer and was eager to begin my practicum so I could be certified. I immediately wanted to use Jacob as my practicum student. Over the next few weeks, he completed the beginning-of-year assessments and I did some diagnostic assessments from my OG training. I knew it would be difficult in my school setting to have time and consistency for one-on-one instruction, so I got permission to tutor him after school twice a week on a volunteer basis and got parental permission to work with him. My Fellow cautioned me that he was a complicated student and might be difficult, but that is my favorite kind of student and I dove right in.

The next time I was sitting with Jake, I wanted to get his buy-in on our plan, so I drew a picture of a brain and explained to him how the brain learns to read and how some people have brains that learn differently, but that with some specific activities, we can rewire the brain to read more efficiently. I assured him that even if some of the activities seemed babyish, it wasn’t because I thought he was a baby, but that multimodal activities were scientifically proven to change people’s brains. He sat up and began asking me questions about how brains work and agreed to try everything I asked him to do as a “science experiment” to see if we could grow his brain.

I worked with Jacob for several months and then, unfortunately, I had to leave that school midyear and so my sessions with Jacob ended. Over the next few years, I worked with a couple of other students who, for one reason or another, still had not worked out so that I could finish my practicum, which included at least 100 hours of supervised tutoring. I was getting discouraged about ever finishing my practicum, when Jacob’s mom got in touch with me and asked me to work with him again. He’d completed an evaluation with the local children’s hospital and had gotten a dyslexia diagnosis and they were on the waiting list to get tutoring through there, but she really wanted to get him help as soon as possible.

So I started working with Jacob again, and he was improving. I remember the first time I pulled out a decodable chapter book and he was so excited to read his first-ever chapter book. Jacob was a master at distraction, and keeping him on-task was a constant battle. He knew how to ask an interesting question that would derail the whole lesson. Or he’d argue a point and distract us. On the days I had to videotape the lesson for my mentor’s review, I bribed him with a king-sized candy bar kept just off camera as a reminder to “just do what I ask you without arguing –please.” 

Midsummer, Jacob’s mom informed me that he’d gotten a spot at the tutoring center that would be starting in a few weeks.  I had a number of lessons to finish to get my 50 recent lessons in with him and so I struck a bargain. After the two lessons per week we were already doing, I’d throw in any lessons we could fit in for free just to finish my hours with Jake and get my application in. So, Jacob and I spent a lot of time that summer and he made great progress. I was able to finish my hours and write my case study and–finally!–completed my practicum and I sent Jacob on his way to his next tutor. 

I’ve kept in touch with Jacob’s mom through Facebook all these years and watched as he played on the basketball team in high school and lettered in diesel mechanics three years in a row. He kept a high GPA throughout high school, and even got a 4.0 in the district’s technical education program. He became a student instructor for his diesel mechanics program and was inducted into the National Technical Honor Society in his junior year. He also completed ten years of martial arts training and completed community service as a financial education volunteer and with the United Way. He recently received a scholarship and will be attending Community College of Aurora and finishing his A.A.S. in Diesel Power Mechanics. 

This week, I received the graduation announcement for Jacob and I asked him if I could write about my experience teaching him. He gave me full permission to use his name and pictures. This is what quality intervention can do for kids. Jacob was not being taught in a way that worked for his brain, and respected his intellect. When the instruction changed, he began to learn. All his determination, humor, and curiosity helped him to overcome his difficulties and thrive in his endeavors. I am bursting with pride to have played a part in his education. I can’t wait to see where Jacob goes next.