Don Johnston's "Building Wings"
Don Johnston Communities
Dyslexia & Dysgraphia
Universal Design for Learning
Learning is For Life
Josh Clark cries a lot. It’s something he freely admits.
I open with this for two reasons.
One, I’m hoping to catch your attention, because this endearing quality caught mine.
I recently had the absolute honor of interviewing Josh via video call. We chatted about his personal dyslexia journey, his experience teaching “dyslexic learners,” and why labels can be so darn validating.
Also, he cried.
Clark’s willingness to be vulnerable and show emotion give his words a lot of credibility. It makes it easy to trust that what he says is genuine.
His passion also makes it clear that he cares deeply about his work. Clark occupies some “big” roles as Chair of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), Head of School for Landmark School, an independent school for students with learning disabilities, and is heavily involved with Made By Dyslexia.
The second reason I share Clark’s tendency toward tears with you is that I believe this quality is a great metaphor for dyslexia, a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to read.
Given the right circumstances, a person’s vulnerability can be their strength.
Bear with me and I’ll explain.
You know how kids on playgrounds used to tease other kids for crying?
And from a similar time: you know how not too long ago, when kids struggled with academics, dyslexia wasn’t really considered as a possible reason why?
Josh Clark remembers this from his childhood in rural Tennessee.
“Dyslexia wasn’t even an option when I was a kid,” he says, “It was never ever talked about.”
Clark, who recently confirmed he is dyslexic when his children were diagnosed, struggled quietly in school.
“I liked to learn. But I hated school. I saw them as two totally separate things.”
We’ve come a long way with dyslexia since Clark’s childhood. Dyslexia awareness is on the rise, and with it a narrative of “dyslexic strengths.” Research supports this.
Clark, too, notes that traits related to his dyslexia are beneficial in his life as an adult, like public speaking skills.
And as for crying, studies point to health benefits. Some parents frame it as a healthy coping skill, and there is perhaps more compassion on the playground than there used to be.
But kids still make fun of other kids’ tears. And students with learning disabilities are still sometimes seen as lazy, or told they need to try harder.
Additionally, research shows that about one in five learners has dyslexia, but not nearly that many are identified. And test scores and decoding remain important parts of education.
However, our “weaknesses” are often only weaknesses because of the environments we’re in.
So how can schools give students who struggle with reading or have dyslexia an environment where they can be strong learners?
Josh Clark recommends the following:
In our interview, I shared with Clark that my son and husband are dyslexic, and about my own neurodivergence.
We talked about this, and a whole lot more, in the interview below:
I don’t have a great deal of personal investment in this. But both professionally and personally, I talk a lot about dyslexic learners, because dyslexia defines how you learn.
I do think it is appropriate, and I would argue, respectful, to put dyslexia in front of the word learner.
In terms of, “I’m a person with dyslexia” versus “a dyslexic person,” I say “I’m a dyslexic person”, largely because I just did not grow up with people-first language.
That’s just not what our generation did.
I hated school. I had very low expectations for myself.
Honestly, part of the reason I got into education was because it was vocational in nature. It never occurred to me to pursue something that didn’t seem vocational in nature. Like in another world, I might want to be a writer or maybe this or that, but I couldn’t major in business or in English.
I felt limited in my professional ambition, because I had to do something that, in my mind, that I could be trained to do and then do, versus create myself.
I was kind of in a nerdy group. I had friends that were ambitious in their goals in life. But it never occurred to think I could do that too because I was so bad at school.
Yeah, I think I’m incredibly fortunate. It was a little bit of hard work, a lot of fortune, and a lot of luck to get to be where I am today.
It really required me to get out of school to have some kind of vehicle for affirmation and for confidence building that wasn’t school.
College in general was a little bit easier once you were able to actually pick what you want to do. That helped. And I think in college effort does make a bigger difference than maybe in high school.
Then going into the professional workforce and making connections with kids and being able to see a bigger picture outside of a 45 minute class block of this is what life is. And your success and your value and your potential is tied to something other than getting a percentage of questions correct or wrong.
I had to get out of school in order to understand that there was a path, there was a career, there was a journey, there was an opportunity for me to contribute that I did not see when I was in school. Because within that kind of system, I did poorly.
I wouldn’t even say that I had low self confidence. I had a low threshold of expectation.
My mom was really great.
I still remember so clearly having to learn my math facts in second grade. Every Friday, we had a timed test where you had to get a certain number of math facts right in the time period for you to get to go to recess.
And if you didn’t, you stayed in during recess. We would copy them down 10 times each and every Friday it was always William Malone and me who would stay back.
And my mom started volunteering on Fridays, so that when the rest of the class went out, she was with me and William. I still remember so clearly, the games we would play, the amount of time we, I would almost argue, wasted trying to get me to memorize these damn math facts.
So I give my mom a lot of credit. You know, my mom is likely dyslexic, you know, but again, she had no dialogue for this.
I also think back to William Malone. I don’t know if Willie Malone was dyslexic or not. But, and I don’t know the circumstances, I know he’s dead. In this little small southern town, he was also what I understood to be a poor black kid.
I think about that a lot. I bet a lot of what I’ve been able to do is a result of privilege and opportunity that William maybe never would have had.
But I hung in there and then when I got into high school, I got really into theater and Speech and Debate. I’m not a very athletic person. I like to run a lot but I’m not a coordinated person at all.
That was the first time I found success outside of school in an extracurricular. I had a great teacher, Mickey Hudson, who held me to the highest of standards. And that was really helpful.
Then, ironically enough, I got myself into honors English, even though I was terrible at it in many ways. I loved the discussion piece so much; I loved the comprehension piece so much.
And my teachers, particularly Mrs. Nance my junior year, held me to such a high standard that it made me start thinking I could meet that standard. And she was old school about it, but she saw something in me that I did not see, that I very much appreciated.
When I was a freshman, we took the PSAT and I was the 14th percentile. And they wouldn’t let me continue with honors English because I was in the 14th percentile, but it was my teachers who advocated that if I was willing to try, I could stay.
I struggle professionally, intellectually, personally, with what is a byproduct of my experience and what is a correlation with my kind of neurological makeup.
But I do think from an experience factor, I had the great fortune of getting into theater and speech and debate.
I’ve found that compared to others, that I— I don’t like talking about myself in terms of strengths— but I am very comfortable just talking and communicating on my feet.
I do better without a script. I need a general message that needs to be shared. And I can make my way through.
I very much attribute that to being in a classroom where I needed to find a way to, not advocate for myself, but survive or display my knowledge outside of a timed test, or multiple choice.
I think I honed those skills. And now I find I am so much more comfortable with that than any of my peers.
And there’s plenty of people that would not call me empathetic. But the whole thing of reading people and understanding their motivations and insecurities, makes all the sense in the world to me. Analyzing people makes a lot of sense to me. And I’ve found it doesn’t in other people.
There’s a lot of indication that dyslexic people are more empathetic.
But I think a part of that might have been my own experience trying to figure out what I need to do, what I need to give you, so you’d leave me alone academically.
And also the whole big picture thinking really resonates with me. I cannot start with a detail. I have got to understand what it is that we’re trying to do and accomplish.
After first being a classroom teacher, I became an administrator overseeing a support program for kids who were struggling in a traditional independent school.
From there, I got a job as a head of school specifically for kids with dyslexia. I had a wonderful opportunity of having a mentor who had a PhD in speech and language. And it was through the process of learning the science of dyslexia that I started to realize, oh, wait a minute.
But I wouldn’t admit it. I would say I struggled in school, but I’m not dyslexic.
Until my son was diagnosed, which wasn’t that long ago. And we’re in with the psychologist going through the report, and I’m bawling.
I felt vindicated in my suspicions, and it’s an honor to some degree. With my own kids, I saw a journey that wasn’t available to me, and I realized that, it not being available, doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Suddenly a lot of my insecurities, I was no longer insecure about. There was a time where reading a word incorrectly aloud would have destroyed me. But having that understanding of why I do that built my confidence.
I think people often talk about labeling kids as a bad thing. And I would really disagree. Certainly in my own experience, it validated me so much to know I’m not stupid or I didn’t work hard enough.
That’s just how my brain works. And that’s okay.
I hope to some degree, I can be an example that there’s life after school. That test scores and spelling and decoding are not fatalistic.
I think it’s a helpful narrative.
And then, I think I deeply understand the stakes. Dyslexia is one of those things that until it impacts you, you might not really give it a lot of thought or time.
I think being dyslexic and having dyslexic kids, and having the challenges and opportunities I’ve had, I appreciate the stakes more than someone who maybe has just kind of an intellectual understanding of dyslexia.
“And she said, I need you to understand that he is seven years old and I am about to lose him. He has such little belief in himself because he can’t do what seems to be so easy for everybody else and he is shutting down.
But you know these kids, right?
I’ll never forget that. That was the point where I understood the gravity of what I do, of what you do, of what we do.
No seven year old should be shutting down. That shouldn’t even be a possibility.”
To learn more about how to support struggling readers in the classroom, watch Josh Clark’s webinar about changing the dyslexia paradigm.