What Students With Learning Differences Really Want Us to Know

column | EdSurge Podcast

What Students With Learning Differences Really Want Us to Know

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Mar 27, 2017

What Students With Learning Differences Really Want Us to Know

A few weeks back, EdSurge traveled to SXSWedu to hear talks about technology and chat with educators and entrepreneurs. But while there, we met someone who spoke about how edtech could better serve students with learning differences in a manner we’d never heard before. In fact, that individual, Ben Gurewitz, is a student with learning differences himself.

Gurewitz is a Bay Area native and currently a freshman at the University of California, Davis—but that represents only a small fraction of how he spends his time. As cofounder of the Diverse Learners Coalition and an active participant in Student Voice, Gurewitz seeks to use his own experiences with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and slow processing disorder as a platform to create change both inside education organizations and amongst the greater populations.

Gurewitz came to the EdSurge offices in Burlingame, California to speak about his own learning experiences in K-12, where the education system is failing to reach students, and whether or not technology is the most important component of serving all students. Get the full Q&A below, or check it out on the EdSurge podcast.

EdSurge: Welcome to the podcast, Ben! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Ben Gurewitz: I am a freshman at the University of California at Davis. Go Aggies! I am from San Francisco. I went to a small high school there in the city, and yeah, that's a little bit about me. Whenever I introduce myself, I always say that I'm dyslexic, dysgraphic, and I have slow processing disorder.

What exactly is slow processing disorder?

Slow processing disorder is the process it takes for me to see something, or hear it, or listen to it, internalize it, and then understand it. So, while it might take you a certain amount of time to process something, it takes me double or triple the time to process that.

I was diagnosed in 5th grade. That's when my parents formally knew that I had a learning difference, but we've kind of always known that something's been up since I was born. There were complications in my birth, and so they've kind of always known, but it wasn't formally a learning disability until about 4th or 5th grade.

You've been in school for quite a while now, so, what has your experience been as a student both when you were in K-12 and now in college?

So, I think having these learning disabilities has played a tremendous part in my experiences. Middle school and elementary school were extremely challenging for me. Excruciating. When students would be writing a whole page of text, I would be lucky to get a sentence in. So, as they were always moving ahead, I was trying to play catch up to where they were. It's just, it's a never ending cycle.

And, so my struggles first started academically, but quickly moved to more than just academically. Socially, also emotionally, mental health issues, and I felt incredibly ostracized from my education system. I felt that my education system wasn't for me, and that was really, really challenging.

But, I was able to transfer schools to a school here on the Peninsula (in the Bay Area) where I was really able to get the support I needed. I learned things like metacognition, self advocacy, motivation, determination, resiliency. It made all the difference because students with learning differences… you can't learn the way everyone else does. You have to do it differently.

So,I was able to take those skills to high school where I was successful. I mean, I got into UC Davis. And this first year, it’s really been the first time when I have really felt like I've been in an environment that really wants me there.

It's been a struggle, still. There's a lot of bureaucracy, so you have to work through it. And, you have to really, really work hard to get the accommodations you need, but once you get them, it allows you the ability to take education into your own hands. And, that's where the learning begins. So, that's where I am now.

Ben, you've really spoken a lot with student voice, specifically at the SXSWedu panel during which I saw you speak about students standing up for themselves and asking for what they need. You said earlier that you feel like the education system as you know it really only targets a certain group of students. Why do you think that is?

I know this to be true because when the big business barons, you know, we have Carnegie, or Vanderbilt, or Rockefeller... When they created the education system to fill jobs, they wanted a significant level of subordination, where [people] wouldn't question what they were doing. They'd go into their factory jobs, and they'd do it, and that's what would happen.

Guess what? The education system has not changed, and it's 2017.

That is a scary reality.

Right? That being said, ideas about education have changed. That's the good thing, but the way we practice it remains the same. That's why so many people are working to make change.

Here’s the thing: the root of the problem isn’t that the education system is broken, right? I used to think it's broken, but I don't anymore because it's created to target a specific audience, and that audience continues to be targeted in the exact same way it did when it was created.

Just to play devil's advocate, despite this system, you have excelled—you’re at UC Davis, you're on the student advisory board for the student disability center. What worked for you?

What worked for me what that I had to work incredibly hard to overcome all the challenges. And, because I worked so hard, I was able to gain the skills valuable to make me successful.

Had I not been given resources, had I not had the fortune and the privilege to be able to develop these resources, things would be different. I am a product of my family's success, and because of that, I've been able to be successful. But, it is important to understand that A) I speak about it because it's the truth, and I feel very passionate about it, and B) and more importantly, not everyone can access these resources.

And, while education should be the great equalizer, it needs to better serve its purpose. Right? If it's only serving a small amount of students, we're missing so much talent out there. I cannot express how much talent we're missing, and it's very important to understand that. First-gen students, impoverished students, students of color, students from rural parts of the country, students with disabilities, students with mental health and PTSD issues...

I’m curious about those resources you mentioned. What pieces of technology do you feel really changed the game for you?

Being dysgraphic means I can't handwrite to save my life. When I had to fill out a housing application yesterday, I got an email from the landlord being like, "What did you write?" Having technology has been my equalizer.

I have a Mac, and on it, I have a whole host of technologies. I have a technology called Sonocent. What it does is it records the lecture, divides up the components of the lecture, and then to the side of that, you can take notes. So, while you're listening and reviewing, you can listen to what the lecture says AND read your notes. If you have slow processing and you miss things, well, it's right there—as opposed to having to ask people you don't know for their notes, which kind of gets embarrassing.

Being able to type a lecture, or being able to type my essays has made all the difference. It really has. I mean, the answer isn't just, “Let’s create as much technology as we can.” The answer is, “Let’s be smart about how we use technology.”

So, if someone came up to you and said, "Technology can solve all of the problems out there for students with learning differences," what would you say to them?

I wouldn't believe them because that's not true.

It should be a holistic approach. ...and it's different for every single individual. There's really no solution to everything. There's not “one size fits all.” It's more “one size fits none.” Take a dress. I can't just give you a dress and expect everyone to wear it, you know. It has to be something that works for you.

I'm going to ask you one more big question. You know, a lot of our readers are adults, and being an adult myself, I think sometimes adults don't do a good job of listening to students. Do you have any advice for adults out there in terms of how they can do a better job of listening to students like yourself, or any students, in general?

A lot of the work that I've been doing is really mobilizing students to be a part of the conversation, have a of the table. So, my work began when I saw people having conversations for me and about me, but I wasn't invited to the conversation. They thought they knew better than me when really I'm the expert on myself.

...and so, all the listeners and readers out there, I really encourage you to consider bringing in students, because they are not only the voices of tomorrow… they're the voices of today. And, that's why I’m gathering data, and gathering stories, and gathering testimonies from the students who have experienced this firsthand, and then finding ways—effective ways—to share these stories. In fact, some friends and I are currently working on a site we’re looking to launch called “Successability” featuring these stories.

Ben, thank you so much for chatting with us. I'm going to do one last thing: Ben is looking for an internship this summer! You’re a education policy wonk, right?


If anyone out there knows an organization that works in education and politics, please connect with Ben!

Let me know! I’m @BGurewitz12 on Twitter. Thank you for having me.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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