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Patience leads to teaching students with special minds

Posted: April 25, 2013 4:37 p.m.
Updated: April 26, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Paula Joseph/C-I

Nancy Silverman (right) tutors a student in a classroom converted from an old feed room of a horse stable. Silverman said the small, 10-foot by 10-foot room has less distractions for her students.

Growing up in Bucks County, Pa., Nancy Silverman always knew her life would be filled with rewarding edification. She would begin as the student; she would become the teacher. Though unforeseen at the time, her first lessons would not come from a book but from life in the revered lessons of patience and waiting. Shortly after being accepted to Temple University, Silverman realized this was not going to be her time for school. College would have to wait, but she had no doubt it would be there when she returned. She would spend the next years giving her new husband a shot at his education in veterinary school while raising their two young children. Somehow she knew her turn would come and with her old friend “patience” by her side, it did -- 18 years later. Silverman was 36 years old when she entered State University of New York at New Paltz, her children teenagers. Little did she know at the time her capacity for waiting would act as one of her most valuable attributes in her place as the teacher.

In Silverman’s passage from student to educator, she quickly became aware of a unique trait she held: her ability to easily identify certain learning differences in children, an arduous task for many. Regrettably, this knowledge would play a role with Silverman’s own daughter, Lara. Lara was extremely bright, but there was something Silverman could not put her finger on; to be so smart but, in tandem, be falling through the cracks. This is the painful part for the parent. The incredible need to help a child but not knowing the how and the what.

“Unless you live with someone with a learning difference, you can never know how difficult it is. I felt if I could help just one child, it would mean something,” Silverman said.

She knew she was on the right trail in the course of her studies. It meant something to her; it would be her mission. And there was no looking back. Silverman graduated Summa Cum Laude in Education with a biology and geology concentration. However, in the midst of this success, striving to find the missing link in her daughter’s brilliant mind continued to be a center of distress not only for Silverman but her daughter as well. This cause of anguish gave further impetus to Silverman’s mission as an advocate for Lara and the many students she would ultimately come in contact with.

After college, Silverman took her first job as a teacher at Warring Magnet Academy of Science and Technology in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y, City School System as a science specialist and head of the department. Ninety-eight percent of Silverman’s students were minorities and, sadly, she watched the streets of New York claim them often. She would teach the Warring Academy after-school program for the gifted as well. She was surrounded by these incredible, brilliant minds, yet Silverman often noticed in these students, the absence of a certain connection in their complex brains.

“I would have these remarkable kids with an incredible thought process in my science classes but they weren’t succeeding in other areas. They were visual learners. I knew this much,” she said

And, again, her mission would become clear. Silverman would discover there was a name for this specific learning difference she was experiencing in her students. It was one that occurs in individuals with average to above average IQ’s, and where they hold a significant discrepancy between their ability and their performance: dyslexia. She knew her life’s work would be that of teaching children with dyslexia and unlocking the powers of the their minds.

About this time, Silverman would marry her second husband, Norman, who, coincidentally, had dyslexia. They would have a daughter, Rachael, and convinced that she, too, would have dyslexia, Norman insisted she get the necessary training. And as fate would have it, Silverman found herself surrounded by great pioneers driven in a quest to educate those with dyslexia. She would contact the Kildonan School right in Bucks County, Pa. The Kildonan School was founded by Diana Hanbury King to meet the needs of dyslexic students by strengthening language skills, by providing stimulating subject matter courses, and by building confidence and self-esteem and uses the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach for dyslexic students. Upon making contact with the school, Silverman discovered the first program of its kind -- a program opened to public school teachers for training in the Orton-Gillingham Approach. Luckily, she would be a part of this first group training.

“I was the only science teacher, the rest were special ed teachers,” Silverman said. “We had to understand the structure of the English language along with the phonetics and that was difficult for traditional learners like myself. We never had to know the whys and the training was tough. This approach has been described as language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible.”

Silverman completed her training, and because “reaching these kids early gives them the best outcome,” she would remain constant in Rachael’s home schooling and training.

In 1998, when Rachael was five, Silverman and her family decided to move to the South where she would continue teaching dyslexic students. She says she never sees her students as ones with a learning disability. She opens her eyes to their brilliance, to their gift.

“We know from Dr. Samuel Orton, a prominent dyslexia researcher, that dyslexics have a different brain type and that the traditional learner’s brain is different from the dyslexic brain. The language processing centers are different. It is a physical brain difference. One can’t call it a disability. We are all wired to read and write -- that is a learned behavior. The traditional learner has more “avenues” in the brain to find the information. The dyslexic brain does not retrieve well,” Silverman said.

She now has more than 120 credit hours in the Academy and continues to teach her gifted students. Silverman has served on the boards of Sandhills School and the South Carolina-International Dyslexia Association. She holds a Masters Degree in Curriculum Development and Technological Design.

Silverman believes she may get more from her students than they get from her. She sees her students as “incredibly the finest human beings who are funny, witty, gifted, exceptional individuals who are overlooked in everyday classroom situations.” When Silverman looks back, she says there were moments in teaching a particular child when she believed they would never get it. But what she says is really the special part in her work is not when she sees that her student finally “gets it” but actually when the student sees his/herself getting it. That is the special moment.

“I can see their progress, but when they know it, that is the moment I’ve worked so hard to see,” she said

Silverman doesn’t believe that dyslexics need a cure but a whole new approach and they need to be judged by their gifts, not the written word. A student of Nancy’s once said, “Mrs. Silverman made me feel good about myself and who I am.” Silverman says those words matter the most to her and she considers it her reward.

If she had another lifetime, Silverman said she would work on the emotional side of dyslexia.

“Dyslexia has with it a component of not being able to gage who you are in the big picture. You don’t know how to make them aware of how gifted they are. They can’t measure their gift and that is the sad part,” she said.

What Silverman does know is she has to win the child and get them to believe she will help them.

“When they are comfortable with me is when they begin to get the work,” she said, adding that she believes dyslexia are our future. “They visualize things in a different way, an unspoken and imaginative way, and are exciting, challenging, and alive.”

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