What counting cards in math class taught me about learned helplessness

My relationship with math was pretty complicated in my public high school.  They placed me in the most basic math class because of my test scores, even though I had pre-algebra two years prior in seventh grade (I don’t test well and test even less well when I don’t receive accommodations).  I was kind of scared of the kids in my Math Skills 1 class, some of whom would come to school with their juvenile hall sweatshirt that they acquired the weekend before.  This was a change from my Catholic school the year previously.  Juvinelle hall shirts would only be allowed on free dress days, and only if worn with a collared shirt.  Needless to say I felt out of place although I did feed the Middle Eastern kid I sat next to, Italian swear words to ask the teacher who had an Italian surname and bushy eyebrows so I wasn’t completely alone.

Somehow I managed to get out of the track of classes I was in and in junior year found myself in geometry.  When I asked my school counselor if I could skip Math Skills 2 to advance math classes she explained, “yes you can because there is a law called the ‘right to fail’ law.  It says that you can take a class if you want to because you have the right to fail it.”  Subsequently, she added to Geometry.  Luckily, I had seven and a half years of Catholic school education where most of the teachers reflected the same attitude so I knew she was full of shit.

With my counselor’s vote of nonconfidence, I entered the class.  On the first day the teacher had us sit in alphabetical order which meant that my desk was in the last row.  I knew that because of my language based Learning Disability I needed to sit in the front of the class.  One of the many features of my LD is auditory processing problems.  Sometimes my language processing is much like Charlie Brown’s when his teacher talks to him ( I hear “wa-wa-wawawa”).  It helps to be in the front so that I can focus on the person’s speech, their intonation, body gestures, what they are writing on the board and screen out the cute boy three rows away or the horrible outfit that the girl in the front row is wearing.  It is common for students with auditory processing issues to request that they sit in the front row as an accommodation.  Knowing that this has been recommended by my educational specialists and special ed teachers for as long as I had been diagnosed, I requested a seat change from my teacher, Mr. Cooper.  He explained that my last name began with G and therefore I belonged in the back row of the class.  I protested and tried to advocate with no avail and remained in the last row.

Knowing that I would have a difficult time because of my seat placement and topic, I pursued other interests in class.  Geometry was right before lunch which meant I had the lunch money that my mom gave to buy my corn dog, Duritos and Diet Coke.  With $5 in hand, I engaged in a card game that we had most days in class.  The guys in the back row would sneak a card game of Blackjack and we would bet money.  Always a jinx, I lost my lunch money most of the days and would have to bum food off my friends.  That term I received a D on my report card but was introduced to counting cards.

The next school term students added and dropped the class, changing the seating arrangements.  I ended up sitting in the first row-exactly where I had previously advocated for.  I consciously made an effort that term.  I attentively listened, took notes and would go to my resource teacher to get extra help.  For those who don’t know, the resource room is where many students who have LD or other kinds of disabilities receive services as part of their Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  I actually worked pretty hard that term and my resource teacher, Ms. Rumsey knew I was putting in the effort.

In the weeks to come, Mr. Cooper was passing back our tests.  He would obnoxiously announce whoever got a B+ or higher–”Ethan got an A—Heather got an A-.”  Teachers, if you want to add a layer of stratification and intellectual snobbery in your class, be sure to do this technique!  This practice resulted in me was calling the A students nerds under my breath and manipulating it in my head that they were less cool.  That was all until one day.  Mr. Cooper was handing back tests and for the first time he announced “and Nina got an A-.” I was in disbelief!  And this wasn’t the kind of literary disbelief that read about in Jane Austen books.  It was not internally based–it was a very outward kind of disbelief.  I verbally protested, “are you sure it was my test?  What do you think of that Mr. Cooper?”  He seemed to quickly move onto the next A test.

I was so excited that I ran to the resource room as soon as class let out.  I found Ms. Ramsey and showed her the A-.  I explained, “I got an A- on the test!  I am pretty sure that it is because I prayed to God and he answered my prayers.”  Hey! I was coming out of Catholic school–what did you expect?!  This was when Ms. Ramsey went off on me.  She yelled at me.  It was probably the first time and only time a special education teacher ever yelled at me, “Listen! You worked really hard for this grade.  You have been coming to my classroom a lot and I know you know this material.  It wasn’t God, it was your hard work.”  I replied somewhat disappointed, “ya, I know.”

I could not think of a more better response from Ms. Ramsey (ya, I know that this is bad grammar, even for me, but this feels like the best way to say it).  I did something successfully and she rubbed my nose in it.  You have to understand something about having a Learning Disability.  Part of your experience having a LD is that there are so many times in your school life that you try and then fail.  This happens again and again that you eventually stop trying.  That is what I did when I was losing my lunch money in the back of class.  I gave up on trying to do well because it felt like there were too many factors against me.  Then when I did attempt and I succeeded, I attributed the success not to my own abilities but to something outside myself.  This is Special Ed Psychology 101 kind of shit.  What happened was I suffered from learned helplessness (trying and failing, so eventually stopped trying).  When I did succeed it was attributed to an external locus of control.  It was something outside of me–God (because my Geometry test is right up there on God’s to-do-list).  It might also be attributed to luck or “that test is easy” kind of thinking.  What Ms. Ramsey did was make sure that I knew that the test was attributed to my underdeveloped internal locus of control (I did it because I had the skills and knowledge).

When working with kids and even adults with Learning and Attentional Disabilities it is good to keep learned helplessness in mind.  When training teachers I will often ask them, “if you worked at a job where most of the day capitalized on things that were challenging for you, would you stay in that job?  Then what do you think the experience is for your students with Learning Disabilities?”  Structuring classrooms or other learning environments so that success can be felt in very real ways is important.  I am not advocating to just give the kid an A because they showed up.  They will know you are full of shit and this adds to no ones self-esteem.  Instead work with individuals with LD to figure out the best ways to reach them and accommodate them.  It is also important that students feel that they have something they are invested in.  Taking a kid out or sports or drama because their GPA slips under a 2.0 can often be classified as bullshit.  If the kid is trying, making improvements, and attempting to the address the issue, then why take away the one thing that they enjoy and feel invested in.  Parents and teachers might consider advocating for a waiver as part of a 504 plan or IEP.  Having something you are invested in that you do well will help to break down the learned helplessness and hopefully be generalized to other aspects of the students life.

Picture from Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book about Learning Disabilities (I wrote it!).  Here the character Matt reflects on all the things he is good at.
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