They Do That All The TIme
“I know it is almost the last day of the school year,” said the teacher when I dropped off a book in her classroom, “but do you have a few minutes? Could you please check Jacob’s eyes?
“Sure, better late than never,” I said. “How about right now? Jacob, got a few minutes?”
Jacob was one of twenty-seven fourth-graders in this class, one of the quiet ones who accomplished very little. I had been coming here once a week all year, doing writing lessons with them and helping them become more fluent and comfortable with their writing. I was a known person for these children, including Jacob.
We sat down in the hall, next to a long table and facing each other.
“Thanks for coming with me, Jacob,” I said. “I will just need you for a few minutes. Ms. H. and I have been wondering if maybe your eyes are not seeing as well as they might, and if reading and writing are no fun for you because of that. When you are reading does the print ever get fuzzy?”
Jacob smiled his usual quiet smile. “Yes,” he said simply. “No one has ever asked me that before.” He smiled the quiet smile again, while I said Oops to myself and smiled back.
“Let’s find out what’s going on,” I said. “Turn your chair so you are facing me, please” he did this “and look at the black dot on this pencil eraser.” I held the pencil vertically, with its eraser end up to show him the dot. Smiling in a teasing way, I added, “And tell me how many pencils I’ve got here.”
“One,” he replied politely.
“Right,” I said. “Now I am going to move it around and I want you to follow it with your eyes – only your eyes,” I added as his head began to turn. “Keep your head steady if you can.”
(Let this be a lesson to you, I told myself. Just keep a Beany Baby in your bag at all times, so you always have one to put on a kid’s head to keep it from moving!)
Jacob’s eyes followed the pencil across his field of vision as I moved it slowly to the left, then to the right – maybe six seconds. By the time the pencil moved back to the center, Jacob’s eyes were glistening and he gave his head a shake.
“That’s hard on your eyes, isn’t it,” I said. He nodded, blinking. He is a very silent guy, I reminded myself. “Do your eyes hurt or sting a little?” I asked.
He nodded and blinked a few more times. I lowered the pencil and its black- dotted eraser.
“What we just did is called tracking,” I said. “When you read, your eyes have to move across each line of print and also down the lines of print so your brain can make sense of the words.” Jacob was looking at me steadily. “You knew that,” I said. He nodded once, the polite small smile still in place.
“If you don’t like to read, it might be because it hurts to move your eyes,” I suggested. “Do your eyes get watery like they just did, or feel uncomfortable when you are reading, especially reading at your desk? “
“Yeah, “ said Jacob in an A-Ha kind of voice.
“How about when you are reading something on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom?”
He shook his head. “No,” he volunteered. “I can see the whiteboard just fine from my desk and my eyes don’t hurt.”
“Hmmm,” I answered. “So tracking is not so much of a problem when the print is not close to you and it is bigger.” Jacob nodded again. “I can see why you wouldn’t want to do much reading of books if it hurts!”
“And mostly what we do on the whiteboard is math,” he said. “And the numbers and words in our math books are bigger than the letters in a book I read at my desk,” he added. A little pause. “But sometimes the words and even the numbers on the whiteboard move around too.”
“That’s good to know,” I said truthfully. I shifted in my chair and held up the pencil again. “Okay, there is another thing your eyes must do besides track back and forth and up and down. This is called teaming, or convergence. Both eyes have to look at the same thing -- letter, word, number, picture, whatever -- at the same time, together. So you don’t see double letters and words.”
Jacob sat up straighter and looked at me hard, without the smile. “That happens to me a lot, “ he said, unexpectedly voluble and almost eager. “I have to blink and squeeze my eyes to straighten the words out.”
I took my trusty pencil and a plain piece of paper and printed the word
on it in letters 1/2 inch high. Then I wrote the word again on top of the first one, leaving 1/16th of an inch between the strokes of the two sets of letters. The two words looked shadowed.
“Like that?” I asked Jacob. This time his face lit up.
“Yes!” he replied. He looked at me expectantly now. “That happens all the time!”
“Well, let’s see if we can figure out why.” I held up the pencil again, eraser on top, black dot facing him. “I’m going to bring this black dot in toward your nose, slowly, and your eyes will feel funny; please just keep your eyes on the black dot.” I smiled what I hoped was a conspiratorial smile, adding, “You might see two pencils, or maybe two of me, but don’t worry.”
As I slowly moved the pencil toward his nose, his eyes began to cross. Good, I thought. When I got to within a couple of inches of his nose I pulled the pencil slowly back and his eyes uncrossed.
“There were two pencils,” he reported.
“Good,” I said. “Now we will do that again and I want you to say “Two” when you see two. I’ll pull the pencil back and you will say “One” when there is one pencil again. Does that make sense?”
We did it again, at the same slow pace. This time his eyes crossed as before and he said “Two” at about seven inches away from his nose and, when I pulled the pencil away, he said “One “ at about twelve inches away.
“Terrific! Thanks, Jacob.” I put the pencil down. “I do think it would be good if your mom or your dad could take you to get your eyes checked. Would it be okay if I emailed them about this?”
“Email my dad,” Jacob directed me promptly. “His name is Bill.”
“I will,” I promised. “And maybe we can work together to so you don’t see double words any more.”
“Okay,” Jacob said, with his same polite smile again.
“See you in fifth grade, Jacob,” I said as I got up and we moved toward his classroom door. “Have a good summer.”
“Thanks, you too,” he answered.
Brandon is an articulate fourteen-year-old -- “I’m almost 15!” – in a big middle school in a suburb of Seattle. He is neither too short nor too tall for his age, neither fat nor thin, with a ready smile and active eyebrows when he smiles. From behind his black-rimmed glasses, he makes good eye-contact with strangers and with his teachers – there are a lot of them in his day – and seems to have good relations with his peers. With the boys, that is – he still steers clear of the girls. Once they notice him, I bet the girls will be very interested in him, though.
Brandon is a student in a group of thirty children in two large classrooms with two teachers and six aides and assistants. All these students are mobile, all but one have fluent English as their first or second languages. They are all in Special Education.
When I first met Brandon, he was a little wary of me, a stranger, asking him to do odd un-school-y things like skip, crawl, stand on one foot, and follow a pencil moving back and forth in front of his eyes. He had a respectful but quite skeptical smile, and his eyebrows were in constant motion commenting on these requests of mine.
“What’s that for?” he asked, smiling politely, when I brought out my paper eyeball – a one-inch circle printed with a cartoon-y eyeball pasted onto the end of a 4” by 1” piece of stiff paper as long as a pencil.
“I want to see how your eyes move,” I answered, gesturing to him to sit in a chair opposite mine.
“O . . . kay,” he replied, drawing out the syllables in a skeptical but polite voice. I could almost hear him thinking, “Whatever…..”
Holding the eyeball facing him, I moved it slowly from side to side. “Use both eyes,” I added as I moved it steadily about 6 inches from his face. Back and forth, five or six times, and his eyes were moving and not watering. His right eye was rock-steady, moving exactly as the paper eyeball moved across his face.
But his left eye was on its own track, moving in toward his nose in a random unpredictable way. Sometimes it started at the right place, moved a little in the right direction, then snapped back to the beginning point; sometimes this eye paused and jiggled somewhere randomly on the path the paper eyeball was making across his field of vision.
“How many eyeballs do you see?” I asked him, calmly, as I continued.
“You only have one in your hand,” he answered politely, raising one eyebrow to make the response less impolite.
“True,” I agreed. “But if your eyes are not working well together, you may see two.
I’m just askin’,” I added, trying for a little teenager talk.
He shrugged. “Sometimes I see two of what I am looking at. Then I blink hard and usually it changes to one whatever.” He smiled – he is an attractive young man, and the smile amplifies his attractiveness. “Sometimes I see two of you!”
“Well, that probably won’t be very useful,” I smiled back.
We did a few other exercises, a little crawling up the wall to practice cross-lateral movement (I call this exercise Spiderman). Then we sat still and I explained why we were doing all this, and asked if he knew how long he had been wearing glasses and what they were for.
“I got them when I came to this school, two years ago.”
“Do you know what they are supposed to be doing for you?” I asked.
“Help me see clearly,” was the prompt reply.
“And do they?” I asked.
Shrug. “Sometimes,” he said.
“Did you know that your left eye moves on its own, differently from your right eye?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“The doctor said that it would get better with the glasses.” I waited. Another shrug. “Hasn’t changed much yet.”
I told Brandon about the near-far exercise he could do with his paper eyeball, and he said he would try to use it, as requested, 14 times twice a day until my next visit.
And on my next visit I brought along an optometrist friend on his day off who quickly checked the four other kids who had, as did Brandon, one eye that moved differently. I had given these children the same near/far exercise, but unlike Brandon’s, their traveling eye had the same alternate track all the time. Brandon’s was the only one that had no pattern to its movement. On the way out of the school, my friend and I reviewed the kids.
“You are sure right about Brandon,” Dr. J told me. “That kid needs a completely different set of lenses to help his left eye correct that problem.”
“Don’t know how he will get that,” I commented sadly.
“No,” he agreed. “Maybe he’ll tell his parents he needs to see the eye doctor again, and maybe….”
October Work -- Jeremy
For most of my working life, I have focused on literacy or, as I prefer to call it, reading and writing. (I have never found a first- or second-grader who knows the word “literacy.”) Now, unexpectedly in retirement, I have begun to focus on movement and vision.
Both these areas, amazingly, are directly related to how children can learn to read and write. Makes sense that being able to see would have a connection to reading and writing, doesn’t it? Of course.
But why movement? Because neurological development, also known as neurodevelopmental patterning, is the basis for everything that makes us human. We begin in the womb, with small movements as a small fetus. We humans take nine months of gestation to arrive at a place where we can exist outside the womb, but we have made enormous growth while we are in there.
Sometimes the growth is not complete enough, due to a thousand possible problems. Then the child is born with what we gently call defects. But the work of the human body and brain to develop into a whole functioning human is not over at birth: it must continue for at least the first two years of life. There are eight developmental patterns the infant must achieve during that time; if one of the patterns is incomplete or unsuccessful the child will, most likely, have problems with learning (not to mention living).
Lately I have been working with some children in a Special Education classroom of old children, aged 11 to 13 -- way past age 2. How many of them might be able to cope with learning and life better if they had had a chance to complete their neurological development in a timely fashion? Impossible to tell; fascinating to consider.
But all is not lost. In spite of the nearly universal lack of understanding of neurodevelopmental patterns among the educators of this country, there are interventions, activities, and exercises that can finish a child’s neurodevelopmental patterns. (Sometimes even grownups can be successful at repatterning themselves.)
So now, after many years in many classrooms K-grad school helping all ages learn to be readers and writers, now I am volunteering here are there to help children finish the neurodevelopmental work they need to succeed in school and life.
In one school there are fifteen children who spend their days in two middle school classrooms separated from the rest of the school by a courtyard, working with a total of two teachers and three aides. There are more boys than girls in this group, but not by much -- the numbers are surprisingly even. (VERY generally speaking, based on my observations and others’ anecdotes over the years, more boys end up in special ed because their failures to learn are often accompanied by failures to behave.)
In these two classrooms there are black children, Hispanic children, white children, Israeli children, Muslim children, Somali children, including several for whom English is not the first language. One of these is a girl who speaks mostly German, which no one else speaks.
Jeremy is twelve and African-American; he is five and a half feet tall, about half that distance around, with a sweet, sweet smile. He is perfectly willing to do whatever I ask. I have worked with all the children individually during my first few visits to this class, and they have been puzzled but willing. Jeremy is no exception.
When I ask him to jump along an eight-feet-by-three-feet strip of linoleum, he nods and lumbers over to the end of the strip (he has watched some of the others do this) and heaves his 200-pound body upwards. His feet do not leave the ground, but I am not sure he can tell. He smiles as he takes a step further along the strip. Then he heaves his body again and takes another step, smiling. This is how he jumps to the end of the strip.
“Nice work, Jeremy,” I tell him.
“Tha’s hard,” he answers, still smiling.
“You’re right,” I answer. “ Now I want you to get on your tummy on the linoleum” – he has seen others do this also – “and move from one end to the other. You can use your arms and your legs.”
Jeremy gets down onto the linoleum, putting down one knee and then the other, balancing on his hands, then slowly lowering his body until he is lying on his stomach. “You can use your arms and legs,” I remind him. He pushes a little with his feet, then bends his right knee and pushes a little with that. His body moves only a tiny bit. He looks at me. I look at him. He moves in the same way, working hard, to about the middle of the strip.
“Nice work,” I repeat. “Now you can get up and we will do some other things at the table.”
Jeremy, on his stomach, cannot readily get up. After a minute, though, he turns onto his left side and heaves, then somehow gets one leg underneath himself and comes to a sitting position, then gets to his knees, and then, carefully, to his feet. He smiles. He does have such a nice smile.
“Thanks, Jeremy,” I say again. We walk over to the table, where I ask him to sit opposite me. Another sweet smile as I take out my paper eyeball – a flat one-inch paper disc with unlikely eyelashes drawn on it, glued to the top of a piece of stiff paper about one inch by six inches. “This is my eyeball,” I tell him. He nods. He has seen it before as I have worked with other children.
Slowly I move the eyeball across his field of vision horizontally, across and back three times. His eyes begin to glisten, but they do not wiggle or shift back and forth. His focus is steady. After the third pass he blinks.
“Makes you a little teary, doesn’t it,” I say. “Your eyes are working hard now! They are watery because they are tired.”
We stop. “Thanks for working with me Jeremy,” I say. “When I finish with Jose would you like to go outside and do some hopscotch spelling with me?” He nods, and smiles, and goes back to his regular place in the room.
Jeremy’s neurological development and his ability to access the world is severely constrained by those extra pounds he doesn’t need. I will hope that as I continue to work with him that he may feel more confident in his movements and become more able to hop, jump, crawl, and – maybe – skip.
A child who can skip and crawl is just about as neurodevelopmentally able as anyone can possibly be. When I do these activities in regular ed classrooms, though, there are usually about half who cannot do the tummy crawl that demonstrates a “finished “development. I suspect the percentages will be higher with Jeremy’s class.
Back to School will be special this fall, 2017
A big and long-overdue change is coming to all Washington schools this fall, soon, in October.
What else is new, you ask? Are there not always changes?
The teacher who has taught third grade brilliantly for many years is told she will be teaching second grade; the fifth-grade teacher is (glad to be) pregnant and will be out for several months; new retrofitting of the water system will reduce the size of the playground by one-third until – they say – October 1.
No Child Left Behind is definitely out. A different accountability is in place, and will gradually become the new initials teachers live by. Staff meetings will be on Thursdays instead of the Wednesdays they have always been. The whole fourth grade is seriously top-heavy with boys, which will make that hallway louder. And, oh yes, yet another new reading program is in the building. Toss out all the earlier programs, successful or not.
All to be expected, all will be dealt with, some will be improvements, and some will be disasters. Keep on teaching. Wait and see.
Here is the Big News: children in Washington no longer have to wait to see if they can see to read. Twenty-five percent of children in Washington's elementary schools have some vision issue, most commonly in their near vision -- seeing the letters on the page -- or their distance vision -- seeing the whiteboard
The new near-vision screening will be happening in early October, to screen all K, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7tth graders, IN ALL DISTRICTS of Washington State.
The Optometric Physicians of Washington (OPW) and the nine Educational Service Districts of Washington are coordinating this new screening. The OPW has sponsored and created a training video under the auspices of the University of Washington Bothell’s vision support website, www.educatingyoungeyes.org. Here you will find (after September 21) the training video for how to do the screening as well as downloadable printed instructions.
OPW can also send a developmental optometrist to any district that would like to have two hours of additional training in this screening process.
Hooray! Maybe we can catch some of the 25 percent of elementary children who can’t see to read, at last, and get them on the road to learning and school success.
Letters to Follow, A Dancer’s Adventure, By Paddy Eger, Tendril Press, 2017
Paddy Eger’s heroines just get better and better. Letters to Follow, A Dancer’s Adventure, the third volume of the 84 Ribbons trilogy, flows as nimbly as the feet of Eger’s dancers through adventures, adversity, and accolades during a year of dancing and maturing on two continents.
Lynne, the central figure in the third book of Paddy Eger’s trilogy of the lives of young ballerinas, is a delight. She is a good dancer, an excellent member of the corps de ballet of which she is a part, and, best of all for the readers of Letters To Follow, a character who grows and changes throughout the book in utterly believable and admirable ways.
The title of the third volume, Letters to Follow, refers to the letters which Lynne promises will follow the postcards she sends from the Intermountain Ballet Company’s tour of France during the summer of 1957. Lynne does a lot of growing as a ballerina on this tour, but more impressive is her growth as a young woman at the edge of adulthood. She is faced with many challenges and overcomes them all.
Scenes of Paris, large and small towns in France, and the hard trip Lynn must make over the Pyrenees mountains are all drawn with detail and a kind of fondness, as though Eger has been to all these places herself as a young dancer. The reader feels very much a part of the dance company’s frenetic life as they tour from town to town.
As a coming-of-age novel Letters to Follow could stand alone just fine; as the finale to the Paddy Eger’s dance trilogy it is very satisfying, leaving the reader hoping for another sequel “to follow.”
How Much of a Word Can You See?
“Well, yes, sometimes the words switch places when I am reading, like that just now,” said Quinn with a smile. She had just been reading aloud to me as part of a timed fluency test required by her school for fourth-graders. “But if I notice it, because the words don’t make sense, I go back and read it again.”
Good for Quinn for noticing!
Too bad that she has to “go back and read it again” just to make sense of the text, and too bad that as a fourth-grader she has had to do this for five years already! No wonder she is beginning to resent school and to have feelings of failure about herself.
As I watched her – and I was listening to her at the same time – I could see that she moved her head as she read, not her eyes. Many children who are behind in reading do this. It slows them down, and it gets pretty tiring. It is a hard habit to break.
‘Have you had your eyes checked lately, Quinn?” I asked her.
“Well, the nurse checked us all in September, you know,” she reminded me.
“True,” I nodded. She was referring to the distance vision screening required by most states at the beginning of grades K, 1, 3, 5,and 7. “And have you been to an eye doctor too?”
“No,” Quinn replied, shaking her head. “I don’t know if I have ever been to an eye doctor, just my regular doctor. He has the same eye chart the nurse uses,” she added helpfully.
“I am sure he does,” I said, sighing inwardly. The chart the nurses use is called the Snellen chart, after the person who devised it more than a century ago, and it is used to assess how well a person can see at a distance of twenty feet. Useful, perhaps, for seeing a chalkboard if there were indeed any chalkboards in classrooms these days. (And even if there were reading to be done at a distance, whether the board twenty feet away were brown, green, or white, it is not the same as reading from a book or a paper at a distance of 7 to 15 inches.)
If the pediatricians don’t know that there is a difference between far and near vision, it is no wonder that parents and teachers don’t.
When I am working as a volunteer for elementary classrooms with Quinns in them, I am usually doing some reading or writing with the least successful students in the class. They usually read aloud to me, and I can watch them as well as listen.
As Quinn W. read to me, her head was bent over the page and her whole body was leaning forward. Her eyes were probably about eight inches from the text. A few times she used her finger under a word, but she did not use it to track all the words (as many second-graders do, just to know where they are).
On one line of her first was the word “position,” which Quinn initially read as “potion” and then corrected to “position” as the rest of the sentence required that word in order to make sense. In another passage she was required to read she came upon the word “electricity.” Her first attempt at this word was “electity,” which she could hear was wrong when she said it, so she moved her finger under each letter and read it again, correctly.
Quinn was reading words that were not too hard for her, but her eyes were almost literally playing tricks. When she tried to read the word “position,” her eyes were not working together on the word, Probably one eye saw the “po” and the other saw “tion” and only because she knew that had nothing to do with water skiing did she go back to check it out, at least once with her finger tracking the letters.
I hope Quinn can get to an optometrist soon, so that she can get some help with the way her eyes are going after print.
SAVE THE DATE!
Second Annual Vision and Learning Symposium!
On Friday, November 6 and Saturday, November 7, Educating Young Eyes will bring together classroom teachers and other educators, vision specialists, lawmakers, social justice activists, judges, nurses, and doctors for the Second Annual Vision and Learning Symposium at the University of Washington Bothell's Discovery Hall.
Erin Jones, who is a candidate for the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2016, will be the keynote speaker Friday evening to kick off the Symposium. Erin has been director of the AVID program for Tacoma Public Schools, and director of Equity for Federal Way Public Schools, and an electrifying speaker all over Washington.
Kathy Lambert, District 3 Councilwoman on the Metropolitan King County Council, will deliver the keynote on Saturday morning.
On Saturday there will be breakout sessions concerning -- at least --
To register (registration opens September 1), go to
Clock hours will be available for educators and others.
News about Children’s Vision
Change is coming to children’s ability to see the words they are reading!
In the Washington Legislature this session, House Bill 1865 is moving along.
House Bill 1865 will require schools to test for near vision as well as for distance vision, so that teachers will know that their children can or can’t see to read, not just whether they can see the no-longer-used chalkboards in their classroom.
The bill has passed the House and is in the hands of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. That Senate committee held a hearing on the Bill on March 17th. Testifying on behalf of the bill, retired Shoreline teacher Katie Johnson reminded the legislators that “Children do not read at twenty feet away!”
The Senate will be voting on House Bill 1865 in the next two weeks.
If you live in Washington, call your state Senator and tell him/her (politely) to support children's vision!
Teacher, K-MA; writer, mostly non-fiction and poetry; author, three books about teaching writing K-6. Still teaching, still writing: now fascinated by how children's vision issues get in the way of their READING. Latest book: Red Flags for Primary Teachers.
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