Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Attack of the Neo-Dadaists

Last week, I sat in on an occupational therapy assessment session of my eight-year-old step-son. It was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways.

Afterwards, I realized that I'd been thinking about learning disabilities as a "brain thing." There is something neurologically distressed, which can affect emotional capacity, cognitive function and academic results.

But it is now clear to me that my step-son has a physical disability (as well). His struggle with some simple physical tests was illuminating.

I'm surprised, though, at how surprised I was, because I've known all along that "fine motor skills" are something that he can experience trouble with.

The extent of the trouble astonished me.

Also last week was parent/teacher night. My step-son is in grade three, and according to his report card he is a middling student. He is, however, happy, which is more important.

Last year, his teacher gave him better marks, but he was terribly unhappy.

As parents, we encourage happy over unhappy - and file the report card under irrelevant.

What is relevant is the Independent Educational Plan (IEP) that we helped his teacher draft early in the school year. This plan provides direction to the teacher about how to support our son's learning needs.

For example, his non-verbal learning disability means (among other things) that he has a weak working memory. So he has trouble putting together a sequence of instructions: do A, then B, then C.

His teacher gives him two questions to complete. When he's done those, he goes back to her and gets two more questions. His learning is more more incremental than that of neurologically normal children.

If he is expected to process information at the rate of neurologically normal children, he overloads and becomes emotionally distressed. If his environment is modified (slowed down, mostly), he is able to learn just about anything.

Getting the balance right is the most important - and challenging.

In the months ahead, we will all be learning more about occupational therapy - and how to help our son overcome the physical challenges that also act as barriers to best results.

Why is this blog posting called "Attack of the Neo-Dadaists"?

Because I've been thinking about my previous post on "Professional Poets," and I wanted to say again that there are more important things in life than who serves of literary award juries.

But I wanted to go further, too.

Because ... yes, the jury process can be improved.

And ... yes, something doesn't seem right about this year's GG jury for poetry.

And ... yes, Di Brandt's comment about "neo-Dadaist ... circles in Toronto" is obscure and oddly beautiful.

But have you read the recent report of the provincial auditor on the state of special education in Ontario?

My step-son loves to read. His teacher says he's a great reader, and we agree.

His report card mark in this area was "C".

Why? He struggles with context. He struggles with interpretation. He struggles with organizing his thoughts into coherent arguments. He struggles with putting together the big picture.

He loves stories. He loves violence. He loves jokes.

In graduate school vernacular, he is a naive reader. And that is okay; he's only eight; we have time to help him figure out how to make the connections he needs to make to find "meaning."

Making meaning is what I once thought was the purpose of literature. Then I went to graduate school, where I learned (I'm oversimplifying) that neo-dadaists deny the possibility of meaning.

I just made that up.

I still don't know what neo-Dadaists are, but if Di Brandt wants to have a debate about the "important poetics of our time," I say: reality is challenging enough.

[What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.]


As yesterday was John Lennon's death day (1980), one final awkward plea: Just Gimme Some Truth.

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