Dorothy van den Honert: Unique show-and-tell devices

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PITTSFIELD >> Back to the three happy years I was going to write about before being interrupted by my last column idea. They occurred the first years I started teaching dyslectic kids to read.

Of course I had never heard of dyslexia when I started, but I had subbed for a year or two and successfully managed difficult kids, and I began immediately to read about dyslexia in scientific journals to see what I was doing.

The first thing I found out was that dyslexia had nothing to do with intelligence. So that was the first thing I told my six boys. The result was miraculous. They behaved! They knew I meant it when I said that nobody knew what caused dyslexia, but I aimed to find out, and in the meantime, I didn't want to hear any excuses about being dumb.

I had the boys all day so I could teach them anything I wanted to. What a luxury! No textbooks, just information about science, English, math and social studies. I knew a whole lot more about any of those subjects than any seventh grader, so I could teach anything that fascinated me.

One thing I found out early was that for some unknown reason, Crosby had a genuine skeleton tucked away somewhere. I got her out one morning before school and laid her out on three desks, covered with something. When the boys came in, I dramatically yanked off the cover. A big gasp from five boys, and the sixth ran to the corner and didn't want to come out!

Well, we all had a ball. They learned about how things fitted together, why you can only turn your arm in one direction because of how the elbow joint is constructed, they admired toe joints and the way the vertebra are curved. It sure beat pictures.

For me, it just happened to enable me to fix up a problem at home. One of my sons fell hard and twisted his arm so that the lower part didn't quite match the orientation of the upper part. I grabbed the upper arm with one hand, the lower part with the other pulled the lower one toward me and twisted it quickly back into place. With howls of pain, or course!

The next day I took him to the doctor to make sure I hadn't done something wrong. The doc's eyes nearly popped out of his head. The elbow was OK. When I told him how I knew what to do, he was appalled. He couldn't believe that a school would have a real skeleton.

While I was on the subject of the human body, I found out that in those days, butchers sold beef hearts with the lung attached. They explained to me that people bought the lungs to feed to their cats. So I got myself a heart-and-lungs and took it to school the next day.

It was wonderful. The kids could see the valves, the ventricles, the tube where the blood came in. They could squeeze it and see the water go through the valve, and understand why, if you were too fat, the fat would accumulate in the valves and block them. I had brought some straws with me so the kids could blow into the lung and watch it inflate.

That was one moment when I learned a lot, myself. I had thought that lungs looked sort of like inflatable bags. They don't. They are sponges.

I believe that the war against smoking would be much more effective if schools could acquire the rotten lung of an ex-smoker and show it to their teenagers. It would sure beat looking at a nasty picture, or hearing somebody threaten that your lungs would be damaged if you smoke.

I was a math major who just adored geometry, so I often think that people who don't, need a fresh approach. I would love to see geometry taught with a voice explaining what was going on, and a movie that did it.

These days there are voices about that are recommending that geometry be eliminated from the curriculum. Better to illustrate it while you teach with lines and spaces wiggling around. In fact, you could teach a lot of math with moving illustrations. As has been said, "One picture is worth a thousand words." How true.

But first, you must reduce class size, which would cost money. I wonder whether some of these zillioniares could be persuaded to finance a public school with classes no bigger than 10 and teachers taught how to teach the most effectively? Probably. But it wouldn't work.

There is a reading method that has been used for more than 60 years in Singapore which has kept it at the top of the world in student reading score for as long as I can remember. Do you think an American teacher would like to try it? Nope. He has been taught something different in teachers' college. Maybe the people to reeducate are the professors in teachers' colleges. And the first lesson is that things even beat out pictures every time.

Dorothy van den Honert is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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