Guest Post: F.A.T. City

Our guest author today is Stacie Leavitt, an instructor at AcerPlacer who recently got a degree in math education from Weber State University. She will begin teaching for the Weber County School District this Fall.

It’s a bit of a weird title, isn’t it? Let me explain. F.A.T. City is a workshop done by Richard Lavoie in order for adults to understand what having a learning disability feels like. F.A.T stands for Frustration, Anxiety, and Tension, three things that are extremely common among students with learning disabilities. Though we may think that in today’s world we are well aware of disabilities and that the fight has already been fought to gain rights for students with disabilities, we still sorely lack education for teachers in how to best help these students. This is especially important for the not-so-apparent learning disabilities. There are many students with dyslexia or processing deficits who either never get diagnosed or struggle getting the help they need. As teachers, this will be what we unknowingly need the most help on. In the words of Richard Lavoie himself, “I came to recognize — for the first time — the great irony of the teaching profession: Those of us who teach school usually did well in school ourselves and enjoyed the experience — why else would we return to the classroom to make our living? Therefore, the kid whom we can best understand — to whom we can relate most — is the one who does well in school and enjoys being there… Conversely, the kids whom we understand the least are the kids who need us the most. The struggler, the special-education student, the failure.”

Now as teachers in education, we need to look at what aspects of our behavior can be causing students with learning disabilities to experience frustration, anxiety, and tension and then avoid these as much as we can. It has been showed in many studies that if the negative affect is high in among learners then their ability to learn diminishes. So we as teachers need to make sure we are not instigating situations in our classroom that could cause unneeded anxiety or tension. Here are some common situations we create in our classrooms that we may not be aware of.

For the sake of time teachers will often demand answers quickly, and since they may not be giving sufficient time to students, this can cause them to freeze or become anxious. In essence, the student becomes a deer in the headlights and we as teachers may assume a number of things from them being stupid to thinking that they just haven’t been listening. Now teachers may not always be conscious that they’re doing this. Oftentimes teachers get caught up in the need to cover all the material, they feel rushed, and then they consequently rush the students which really just makes things worse overall. Another tactic that teachers use both consciously and subconsciously is using sarcasm to demean the student when they don’t answer correctly or quick enough. Imagine this, say student Jimmy has dyslexia and it takes him twice as long as the other students to figure out an answer. You’ve asked the class what 2+2 is, they’ve answered and then you ask Jimmy what 2+3 is and he says 4. You tartly reply, “why yes Jimmy, 2+3 is 4”, the class laughs and you move on not thinking much of it. But what does it feel like to be Jimmy? He had just barely figured out your first question and bravely put forward his answer and in return he got laughed at. Now rarely do teachers intend to tear students down, but they can do it unintentionally if they aren’t careful. Haven’t we all let out a quick retort without thinking? As such, sarcasm should never be used to negate wrong answers given by a student who took a risk by answering.
Other things to avoid are telling students to “try harder”. How does one just try harder? And teachers often state this as if students with learning disabilities are not already trying their hardest. We as teachers often see things as being easy because we’re coming from a higher vantage point of already knowing the answer. Take the picture below; do you see the image in the picture?

FAT City 1

Why don’t you see it? Well look harder! Now, it doesn’t make much sense to tell you to look harder, does it? Rather you might need me to give some structure to help you see where the eyes, ears, and nose of the animal are in the photo and then you’ll be able to see that it’s a cow.

FAT City 2

Similarly, it doesn’t help to tell students to try harder. Instead, if they have a learning disability and are not understanding we need to give more structure and guidelines to help them to see the overall picture we’re trying to show.
All in all, we must be careful to try and make our classrooms low in frustration, anxiety, and tension especially for students with learning disabilities. While some nerves can help heighten ability, too much can inhibit learning in many students. This responsibility lies mostly on us as teachers and we need to be educating ourselves in how we can best help students with learning disabilities in order to give them just as many opportunities to learn as everyone else.