Tristin’s ‘very deep filing cabinet’ in her brain just needs time—and great teachers

Tristin Martin speaking to students for Dyslexia Awareness Month in October 2023. Photo Courtesy of Nichole Martin.

By Lucas Henkel

November 17, 2023

Kids with dyslexia thrive when they’re helped early in school. New public education bills could help teachers have more resources and training than ever before.

Nichole Martin learned that her daughter, Tristin, was showing signs of being dyslexic just a few months before Tristin started the first grade.

“We like to say that Tristin has a very deep filing cabinet in her brain,” Martin said. “Sometimes it takes her a lot longer to find which file she’s looking for. People tend to rush her along because they think she doesn’t understand, but she’s just trying to find it, if you give her a second.”

Now 12 and in the 6th grade at MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, Tristin is a strong student. Her mom has worked hard with her teachers to make an Individual Education Program (IEP) that works for the way Tristin learns. But many kids with dyslexia struggle in school, which can lead to them struggling outside of school, too.

“They’re angry, they’re frustrated, they believe they’re dumb,” said Marsha Chance, Executive Director of the Michigan Dyslexia Institute in Lansing. “Once you feel that way—even once you learn to read or are seen as a ‘bright student’—there’s still something underneath that sticks with you.”

Tristin’s mom said undiagnosed dyslexia has a way of affecting a child’s whole life.

“Maybe they have behaviors because they don’t know what the hell is going on,” Martin said. “Maybe if they weren’t kicked out of class and missed yesterday’s lesson that they didn’t understand, maybe today’s lesson wouldn’t be so hard—it’s a total snowball effect.”

“That is what we’d really like to see change,” Chance said. “Kids feeling badly about themselves just because people don’t know how to teach them in the way that they need to be taught.”

Both Chance and Martin feel strongly that Michigan’s public school teachers and staff need more dyslexia resources and training. And they’re not alone.

Right now, Michigan’s lawmakers have an unprecedented level of support for education and educators. Following the 2022 midterm elections, in which voters elected Democrats to lead Michigan’s governor’s office, state House, and state Senate—the first Democratic “trifecta” in four decades—the public education system that was once failing students is on an upswing.

Read more: Michigan Voted in Favor of Public Education in the Midterms

Michigan’s Legislature now includes public school teachers who left their classrooms to run for office—and across the state, they were voted in. Today, former teachers control every education committee in state government, and many teachers serve on those committees.

For the past 20 years, Michigan’s public schools were stymied by Republican leaders who lifted caps on the number of charter schools allowed in state, restricted per-pupil funding, and held kids back when they fell behind in reading—all of which experts have said did more harm than good.

Today, Chance said state funding has already been set aside for Michigan’s teachers who want to get more training teaching students with special needs and learning differences—including dyslexia.

Prior to her current position at MDI, Chance worked as an educator in Michigan’s public school system for over 30 years. “I always say, you probably have about 10 to 20% of the kids in your county struggling with dyslexia,” she said.

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that affects one out of five people, which makes it the most commonly diagnosed learning disorder. People with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. Understandably frustrating, students suffering with undiagnosed dyslexia may feel chronically inadequate in comparison to their peers.

Back when Nichole Martin first heard that her daughter could have dyslexia, she struggled to find help. She eventually called the Carls Center for Clinical Care and Education at Central Michigan University for an appointment to get an official diagnosis. After waiting almost six months for an opening, Martin got in her car and drove more than an hour to the center, where she demanded that her child be seen.

“I went in there and they’re like, ‘What time is your appointment?’” she said. “I told them that I didn’t have one, but I’m here because I need one. By the time I had walked out to my car, they had already called me with an opening.”

Martin’s situation isn’t unique. Parents across the state of Michigan have become frustrated by the lack of support they and their kids have gotten to help address learning issues early enough to make a critical difference in school.

New laws introduced by Democratic leaders, however, are designed to target some of those challenges. Parents and advocates of dyslexic students are also pushing forward with their goal of ensuring public school educators receive the tools and resources necessary to help teach children with dyslexia.

“If you don’t have the legislation, then a lot of schools are just going to say, we’re not going to do it unless we have to because we’ve got to deal with this and we’ve got to deal with this,” said Chance. “That’s a very real problem. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reality.”

How You Can Get Involved

If you want to show your support for schools and educators getting more dyslexia resources and training, you’ve got a few options. First, you can reach out to school board members and administrators, or speak directly with teachers.

You can also make sure the lawmakers who represent you know your education priorities, by using search tools to find them (here’s one to find your state senator, and one for your state representative), then contacting them by phone (voicemails are listened to, so be sure to leave one if prompted), email, or letter. Not sure what to say? Here’s a template to get you started, courtesy of the Literacy for All Michigan coalition.

Finally, it’s good to understand what laws have already been introduced in Michigan to help teach students with dyslexia, as well as jumpstart reform initiatives that haven’t panned out in the past. When you reach out to lawmakers, you can note your support for specific bills, if you wish.

Here’s a breakdown of each of the bills currently on the table:

SB 567: This Michigan Senate bill would tighten state standards for literacy screeners. These screeners help schools identify students who may have dyslexia or have difficulty decoding language.

SB 568: The second part of this series of bills focuses on training K-12 teachers about dyslexia. It would set standards for teacher education programs to ensure future educators have the tools they need to help students with dyslexia.

“They can use these strategies across any curriculum they already have—you don’t have to spend money on a new curriculum,” said Chance. The strategies outlined in SB 568 are based on scientific research—unlike other reading programs public schools have employed in the past.

“The teaching strategies [that can be used] to teach kids with dyslexia also work for people who don’t have dyslexia. It doesn’t take away someone else’s ability to get resources to read—you’re actually being more inclusive of everybody, including neurotypical kids,” said Martin.

HB 5098: This Michigan House of Representatives legislation would create a dyslexia resource guide and advisory committee in the Michigan Department of Education. The advisory committee must consist of individuals with experience working in the field of dyslexia intervention and screening, speech-language pathologists, educators, and literacy experts.

The goal of the committee is to have a well-rounded group of experts that can help Michigan schools and other educators navigate having a student with dyslexia at their school.

HB 5135: This piece of legislation would guarantee that students at every school district in Michigan have access to at least one teacher trained in the Orton-Gillingham method, a structured approach to teach literacy to students with dyslexia.

Author

  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.

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