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Overcoming the Odds: Outsider to Oxford (Part II)

Following on from last weeks fantastic blog ( part II of this story is equally inspiring.

What do you do when you’re told you child is under-performing at school? Do you sit back and take it or do you take it into your own hands? ‘Reversed- A Memoir’ is one mother’s battle for her son from being called the “worst child seen in 20 years of teaching” to graduating from Oxford University with a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics.

What happened next…

On a clear, beautiful winter’s day in Brisbane in July 1999, my family flew to Texas for my husband’s new job.  Flying into Lubbock, one sees a flat, ominous brown land which appears to stretch forever.

In August, we enrolled Nicholas in school on a day where the thermometer hovered at 104 F. The air conditioning was a refreshing relief as the principal welcomed us and discussed possible options for Nicholas’ future. In an unusual move, she suggested Nicholas not enter the fifth grade, but instead join the fourth graders.

“Won’t he be old when he graduates?” my husband questioned.

“Yes,” she considered, her red fingernails tapping on the table, “we have a class in middle school which allows students to do grade seven, eight, and nine in two years. He could catch up here.”

And this is exactly what transpired. Nicholas had more time in the elementary school, a shorter time in middle school, and by high school, very few knew he had learning difficulties.

When Nicholas entered the new fourth grade, the gap between his knowledge and the classroom teaching narrowed. He took away much more learning from every class.

In Texas, reading improvement is paramount. The school district had purchased the Accelerator Reader program while his teacher emphasized every student must comply by reading a book and taking a computer test.

Nicholas loved the Goosebumps series, which he read two hours a night, six or seven nights a week, to complete his school reading assignment. His reading speed was slow, taking over fourteen hours.

But, reading improves when students keep reading.

Another bonus to Texas life was Nicholas’ accent. His classmates loved to hear him speak, and, for a quiet, shy boy who had rarely spoken in Australian classes, a Tall Tales unit presented by his classroom teacher was the perfect platform to develop Nicholas’ speech and sense of humor. He made friends, and became more and more confident in speaking.

West Texas is also notorious for many hours of driving on four-lane highways with an average speed of 75 miles per hour. Trips to new towns took days. These journeys were enhanced by listening to books on CD. On one car trip to California, we listened to Castle in the Attic, Aliens Ate My Homework, and a local favorite, Hank the Cowdog. Nicholas was taking in the language, the knowledge, and awareness of a skilled reader. This additional, pleasurable exposure to books aided his journey to the top.  

Nicholas also had found a new passion for K’NEX building. In the States, these toys were much cheaper than in Australia, and Nicholas received two 3,000 piece boxes for his eleventh birthday. With so many pieces, and no television at home, he had many hours to build. His remarkable creations were displayed in the school, at the local Toy-R-Us, and the Science Spectrum, turning him into a star. Local newspapers published articles on his achievements and his confidence skyrocketed.

Each year, he shone brighter in the classroom. He continuously achieved the highest academic awards, and it wasn’t long before very few knew the challenges Nicholas had overcome.

In 2007, in his final high school year, Nicholas won the National “Yes, I can” Award from The Council for Exceptional Children in academics for his achievements. He graduated in the top twenty percent on his class—completing subjects of calculus, chemistry, and physics. Many years later, he received a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Oxford University.

As for me, I left my job in Brisbane, and searched for a new life in the wilds of Texas. Early on, I met a lady whose thirteen-year-old son had spent four years in a phonics-only reading program. He completed the course—non-reading.

After Nicholas, I immediately knew I could help him.

My life changed after teaching Nicholas and the students after him. I was hired by the school district as a reading specialist, taking on children who failed to read through numerous reading programs. My students not only learned to read, but also came to love learning, just like Nicholas.

Lubbock Texas, with its flat, endlessly brown landscape became a spring in the desert.

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The author

Lois Letchford has been teaching struggling readers for twenty years. Specialized in teaching children who failed to learn to read through numerous reading programs, Lois has worked with students in Australia, England, and Texas. She has taught failing students at all age levels, with her creative teaching methods varying depending on reading ability of the student, teaching age-appropriate, rather than reading-age-appropriate, material. For beginning readers, she writes poetry, encouraging students to know that they, too, are authors. As her students are more exposed to a wide range of reading, she uses already existing material to re-engage students, where they become active, involved learners who can confidently enter the traditional classroom. Her non-traditional background, multi-continental exposure, and passion for helping failing students have equipped her with a unique skill set and perspective. "Reversed: A Memoir" is her first book.

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