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Secondary School, Support and Leveling the Playing Field – Part Two

Secondary School, Support and Leveling the Playing Field

This is the 6th post of a serie of 12 by Marc from Ireland who struggles with dyslexia.

This blog post is a direct continuation from my last blog post ‘Secondary School, Assessed Dyslexic and Sniggering‘. For those of you that read it already I will quickly remind you that I covered my first 2 years of secondary school.

The challenges I faced in the difficult transition from primary school into secondary school as a result of my dyslexia and dyspraxia, I spoke about the challenges I had with homework at secondary school and my diagnosis as having learning difficulties.

I also spoke about my encounter with a teacher that made my life hell as he didn’t believe in dyslexia, he used tell me it is just a fancy term for lazy students and as I finished my blog I spoke about the first support I received at school which was an exemption from Irish and the foreign language subject.

Hope and encouragement

I know my last 2 blogs were very deep, personal writings which focused on the negatives in my life as a result of having dyslexia and dyspraxia. I did not start this blog with the intention of making people feel bad or sounding like life is horrible with learning difficulties, in fact I started this blog with the exact opposite intention.

My aim is to write a blog that is insightful for people who don’t have learning difficulties, a blog that you can relate to if you do have learning difficulties and most importantly a blog that will show people with learning difficulties that you’re not alone.

To give some hope and encouragement by outlining what is possible even when you do have bad dyslexia and dyspraxia by outlining my story and showing all I have achieved to date even with such challenges.

In order for me to show people that they are not alone I had to write my last 2 blogs the way I did as this mirrors the story of hundreds of kids with learning difficulties but when this story is yours it’s hard to believe that you’re not alone, all you can do is ask, why me? Why do I have these difficulties? And why can I not overcome them.

Finally things are going to start to focus on the positives. When I finished my last blog it was the end of 2nd year of secondary school and it is at this point in my life I really began to discover my true potential.

Getting on a level the playing field with other students

I first want to talk about the everyday support I received at school. As I said in my last blog I took an exemption from Irish as my first support. This left me with 4 times a week where I had no class to go to as the rest of my year was in Irish.

It was decided after many meetings between my parents and the guidance councillors / resource teachers in the school, that during this time I would receive a resource class. The resource teacher would help me with homework and go through notes with me for other subjects.

If I had any questions about a subject that I was finding difficult they would try to explain that for me and once a week I even received during this time, help from a maths teacher who would cover extra examples for the topics I was covering in maths class at that time.

I had also taken the exemption from my foreign language which was another 3 classes a week. However the school didn’t have the resources to give me any further resource classes so I was instead just supervised for these classes while I did homework by myself.

Suddenly my homework wasn’t taking as long as it used to as I was getting some of it done in school and this meant when I got home every day there was not a fear in my head of a mountain of work I would have to climb and find difficult to the point of frustration.

This support I was receiving was not designed to give me an advantage over other students instead it was designed to tackle my difficulties to put me on a level playing field with other students.

From the bottom to the top

I spoke about how failure was always a part of my life when it came to exams in Primary school. In secondary school we had a streamlined system whereby each year was split into 3 or 4 class groups depending on the size of the year.

Each class group was decided by your overall average in your Christmas and summer exams. Christmas of first year didn’t count as these were seen as your first proper exams so it was like a warm up, however summer exams in first year decided what class group you were in in second year.

As you can imagine this was before I was diagnosed and receiving supports and therefore failure was still a part of my life and I began second year in the bottom class having received very poor results in my 1st year summer exams.

This system is designed so that the people in your class are working at the same level as you and therefore there is not one student slowing down the class or a student being left behind. This works well for the top 2 class groups but the bottom class group is often the one that all the disruptive students who spend a lot of class time messing end up in.

From the bottom to the top

This results in a difficult class group to handle for a teacher and work becomes very slow and for a genuine student like myself trying my hardest, I often didn’t get the help I needed from the teacher, as instead of explaining points, they spent the time giving out to the students who spent most of the class messing and delaying everyone.

Diagnosed and confidence boost

By Christmas of second year I had been diagnosed and as a result I had a confidence boost telling me I wasn’t stupid and things began to get better for me. I returned to visiting my aunt after school.

However I was not just going to her to get my homework done to give my parents a break from my difficulties, I was now going to her for what could be described as grinds. She was always very good when it came to maths even though I was now in secondary school and she was used to teaching the primary school syllabus.

I would spend hours in her house each week after school going through the topics I was covering in maths and she also gave me help in other subjects now that we knew I was dyslexic as she had a good understanding of what that meant to me so she could explain things in a way I found easier.

Describe things to me

She was able to describe things to me in a one on one situation which made it easier for me to understand and learn. With a lot of hard work and determination, for the first time in my life I started getting exam results I could be proud of and I jumped from the bottom class into the middle class group.

After Christmas of second year is when I began my resource classes instead of Irish and it was also when my parents and the school began to look at what supports I might be entitled to during an exam.

It was decided that due to the fact my dyslexia affects my reading comprehension causing me to not understand what I read, I would be provided with a separate room for exams where the teacher/invigilator would read the questions on the exam to me so I could understand what I was being asked.

For the first time in my life rather than being made suffer as a result of my difficulties, I was being provided with solutions to my problems and I could concentrate on the actual exam instead of my difficulties.

In the summer of second year my average result in my exams was so good as a result of more hard work with my aunt after school and my resource classes 4 times a week in school and now having someone to read the questions to me in exams, I managed to jump into the top class and I began doing honours subjects.

true potential - Dyslexic

I no longer felt stupid, I was beginning to see my true potential, I was beginning to prove my own capabilities and I was beginning to conquer my difficulties.

Getting ready for the exams

It was now the beginning of 3rd year which meant it was the year of the Junior Certificate, my first state exam. This was a very stressful year but I was beginning to control my difficulties for the first time in my life.

As I said I was now doing all honours subjects, I had a chance to show people that I was in fact a clever person. Although I was now receiving supports it did not mean my difficulties had disappeared, it just meant that I wasn’t fighting my difficulties with one hand tied behind my back.

My difficulties will always be there as will the difficulties other dyslexics and dyspraxics face as a result in order for me to continue to prove myself it meant I had to work a lot harder then everyone around me in order for me to receive similar results to them, but this didn’t bother me as I was finally getting results I didn’t have to hide from others in fear they would laugh at me.

Between my resource classes during Irish time, my supervised study period during foreign language time and all the studying I was attempting to do at home and with my aunt my good results continued to improve.

I barely remember any aspect of having a life when I was in third year as in order for me to keep achieving these results that I could be proud of, I was working 10 times harder than everyone else. When it came to June of third year it was finally time to face the Junior Certificate.

I had 9 long hard exams, we had been told of the importance of these exams in school as it would be our first state exam. Once again I was provided with a separate exam centre to everyone else where the supervisor would read the questions on the exam paper to me so I could comprehend what I was being asked. I also received 10 minutes extra time per hour of the exam.

The exam results a in envelope

I just about managed to complete all 9 exams and 2 days after my last one I became very sick. I had been working so hard to try and achieve the results I wanted that I ended up burning the candle at both ends until my body could take no more and I ended up on antibiotics, steroids and my doctor also put me on bed rest.

I wasn’t too upset as that summer there was a world cup and although my coordination is so bad as a result of my dyspraxia that I am no good at playing sports, I think there is something quite magical about international soccer, especially when it comes to the world cup as players are playing for passion and pride rather than the large pay cheques they play for on a weekly basis in club soccer.

I spent the summer relaxing but at the same time anxiously awaiting the results to my exams that coming September. Finally it arrived, results day. Last year’s 3rd years were all called down to the school sports hall where the principal and vice principal gave a talk and then began handing out envelops that contained our results.

Put the envelope in my pocket and ran home

They were handed out in alphabetical order according to or last name, mine being Ryan I was waiting a while. As I was waiting the nervous were building. Everyone around me was opening their results.

Most people were celebrating although some people were disappointed. Everyone was asking each other how they did. Finally my name was called, I collected the envelope and I could feel the sweat pouring out through me I was so nervous. What if failure returned to my life?

I didn’t want to face the embarrassment in front of everyone so rather than open my results there, I put the envelope in my pocket and I turned and ran back out the door. I ran up the road until I reached home, I went in and handed my envelope to my mother and asked her to open it for me.

As she did I will never forget the expression that appeared on her face, I received 1 A, 7 B’s and 1 C, in all honours subjects. All the hard work had paid off and I received the best results I had ever achieved in any set of exams in my life to that point.

Speeding up

Now after third year the majority of students go into 4th year or transition year as its known. In this year coursework and exams kind of take a back seat, it’s designed to give students a break after the Junior Certificate and before facing into the Leaving Certificate course.

Its also designed to build skills that aren’t developed during curse work covered in 1st to 3rd year or 5th and 6th year. Students do things like, go on work experience, set up a mini business, do community projects and spend a week away in an adventure park. All of these activities are designed to build team work skills.

You would probably imagine after the year I just had that burnt me out I did what most students do and signed up for transition year. But the truth is I didn’t view it as a year to take a break from course work, I saw it as prolonging my time in education as well as a year then would involve me facing my lack of people skills as a result of my dyspraxia and that petrified me, so I opted to skip it and jump straight into 5th year where I began straight into the Leaving Certificate course studying 7 subjects at honours level.

A teacher that makes a difference

I have previously spoke about 2 teachers I encountered in my years in education who made life with my difficulties worse but on entering 5th year I came across a teacher who I truly believe was a blessing.

He joined the school as an English teacher when I started 5thyear. I was still receiving resource classes while the rest of my year was in Irish class and he was assigned as my resource teacher. As I started working with him he revealed to me he too was dyslexic. If anything was going to be an inspiration for me to achieve what I wanted it would be him as this was my first experience of someone who had dyslexia like me but managed to conquer it and was doing what he wanted to do.

Not only did he help me with subjects I was finding difficult but he also through me study techniques he used at college that helped him being dyslexic. He thought me tricks such as using copy books with light blue paper instead of white paper which made it easier for me to read the text.

Visualize information

He also thought me the beauty of mind maps as a study tool and how making things visual through diagrams, pictures and mind maps instead of all text made it easier to learn. He gave me so much confidence and belief in myself and helped me develop at school from the shy petrified first year into the confident student I became in 5th year.

He helped me tackle all my difficulties both as a dyslexic and dyspraxic and soon I was beginning to forget I had so many difficulties because he had thought me so many coping techniques. Also due to the fact I was now doing the Leaving Certificate course and still doing all honours subjects.

I was not going to my aunt as often as we found she was spending time trying to get her own head around it before she could start to explain it to me and I was frightened that without her help studying I wouldn’t be able to continue my fantastic grades but this teacher took over where my aunt stopped.

Mindmap

The next 2 years, 5thand 6th year are pretty much a blur of hard work, study and learning study techniques and exam skills that aid people with learning difficulties. When it came to exam time he thought me many techniques to aid me.

For example when I was studying I would walk around the room as he thought me the movement would help create a flow of thought. Then in an exam since I had a separate room to everyone else as the exam was read to me, I was able to get up and walk around my room and this resembled the walking I did while studying and made it easier for me to remember notes.

Recording my exam answers onto tape

The 2 years passed in what feels like no time at all and suddenly it was June of 6th year and time for me to sit the Leaving Certificate, the results in these exams would determine whether or not I got the course I wanted at college.

Fortunately the course I wanted was only 300 points, not too bad considering there were people in my year looking to do courses that were above 500 points. The teacher who I had been working with all along applied to the department of education to be my exam supervisor in my separate room and thankfully it was granted.

I had the same supports I had for my Junior Certificate, separate room, and 10 minutes extra time per hour. I also had the comfort of knowing my supervisor who was able to put me at ease and finally my newest support, a tape recorder.

It was decided that although my supports were combatting my difficulties, the examiner was struggling to read and understand my hand writing and even though I may have had the correct information in the answer, if the examiner was unable to read it, they couldn’t give the marks so I would now speak my answers and it was recorded onto a tape for an examiner to listen to.

The exams ended

The day before my first exam I went down to the school to meet with him and he gave me some last minute advice and then helped me clear the class room I would be in for my exams of all tables and chairs leaving just 3 tables for me to have enough room for my exam paper, an answer book for rough work and bullet points to help me structure my answer and the tape recorder.

Having no more furniture in the room gave me the freedom to walk around to get my thoughts flowing and help me remember my notes. As the final exam approached he told me that he was moving on and would not be in the school the following year.

This is the reason I see him has a blessing, he arrived in the school for the 2 years of my leaving certificate course and thought me things about dyslexia, dyspraxia and myself that I never knew and thanks to him I had gained a lot of confidence and a control over my difficulties.

On the way to college?

The exams ended and like after my Junior Certificate I had burnt myself out again from working 10 times harder than everyone else to overcome my difficulties and I ended up spending another summer sick and on bed rest but it was finally all over.

I was finished secondary school and I could close another chapter in my life. There was just one thing left to do before I could close it and that was awaiting my exam results in August. August finally arrived and once again I found myself being handed an envelope containing my exam results.

Although I had built up a lot of confidence over the past 2 years I still wasn’t able to open them by myself, dad waited outside in the car and I ran out to him and asked him to take me home to mother.

When I got home mam said I should open them myself and be proud of whatever I achieved as I worked very hard. To my amazement I received 435 points and had enough points to walk into my course at college.

435 points in Ireland

I know from checking the statistics on my blog that I have a few regular viewers from outside Ireland, mostly UK and America. For those of you that don’t understand the points system, 435 might not mean a lot to you but basically your points are calculated by the grades you received in each subject.

You’re only allowed add the points together of 6 of your subjects no matter how many you sat and the maximum points you can receive in a subject is 100 points but to achieve that you would have to be doing honours and get and A1 grade. When put like that it shows that 435 points was a big achievement for someone who spent the most of his life failing exams.

You can achieve results that you can be proud of!

This draws to a close another chapter in my life which I have managed to summarise into two blog posts, Secondary School, Assessed Dyslexic and Sniggering – Part One. I left secondary school a new person. My life contained confidence and control.

Thanks to all I had learned not just on a theretical basis about subjects, but also about mydelf and my difficulties they were no longer controlling me, I was now tackeling them and had a support system in place to help me get through them.

I hope this blog is of help to someone who is currently struggling at school as a result of learning difficulties. As you can see from my previous 2 blog posts I too struggled like you, but with the right help and a lot of very hard work and determination you can achieve results that you can be proud of.

you can be proud of!

Support, not cheating

If your reading this and you don’t understand learning difficulties I need to explain that the supports I received and others are receiving both on a daily basis and in exams does not make it easier for us, we are not cheating, nobody hands us any answers.

These supports are designed to tackle our difficulties so we can be on the same level as you. When you go into an exam you are tested on the subject on the exam paper. When I go into an exam without supports I am tested on my difficulties as well as the exam on the exam paper.

I have explained previously that as a result of my dyslexia, my reading comprehension (understanding what I read) is very poor, so that means I can’t understand what I’m being asked when I read an exam paper.

Supports just mean I only have to worry about the same things as you and I’m only being tested on the same things as you. I describe my supports like a crutch.

Someone who finds it difficult to walk uses a crutch to overcome their difficulty. The crutch doesn’t make walking for that person easier than it is for anyone else, however it does put walking on the same level for that person as walking is for everyone else.

I feel I needed to explain that as going through school I encountered many a small minded person who told me I only got good results because I cheated as someone was helping me when this is not the case.

Next blog post is about

Now that I have all that cleared up I have come to the end of another blog. I was going to finish this blog by saying, in my next blog will move onto the next chapter in my life and explain who I continued to improve and achieve to such high levels when I went to college

Well this week I started a new Job which I am proud to announce. I will defiantly cover my new job in a blog post soon either my next one or down the line at some stage.

Thanks yet again for taking the time to read my blog post.

Mark

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