The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I just try to concentrate on concentrating."... ...Martina Navratilova.

Commentary of the Day - December 9, 2003:  Where Was I?  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

My worst demon has always been that I have the attention span of a flea, albeit an educated flea. In spite of my limited attention span, I made it through school successfully although I always had a reputation of being flaky. It has become easier with age.  If I fade out now, I tell people I'm working in my head on something for my next article. People buy that.  The truth is that I am mentally sunbathing on a beach in Bora Bora fitting into a bikini that hasn't fit since 1984 with a tropical drink in my hand and perfectly straight hair despite the humidity while my equally fit husband searches for the perfect wave.

With that as an introduction, it should not be a big surprise to anyone that I have a difficult time sitting through lectures.  On average, I lasted about fifteen minutes through each one-hour lecture at the International Dyslexia Conference in San Diego last month.  After fifteen minutes of concentrated effort, I either slipped out the back door of the room or I slipped into my own Inner Sanctum and got a relatively good Inner Tan.  It's not that the lectures weren't interesting.  They may have been.  It's just that after fifteen minutes, I was ready to move on.  It's the story of my life: I have half-read books all around my house, a computer filled with beginnings of articles I may someday finish, unfinished macramé projects, and six incomplete manuscripts piled on my desk.  I start conversations and lose interest in the topic after the first few minutes; I am adept at segue.  A movie has to be extremely good for me to watch it from the beginning to the end.  My husband gets angry with me because I make a big deal about what we watch on TV; then I stop watching to do a wash, reorganize my file cabinets, or defrost the freezer.  It's just how I am.  I start focused and fade away fast.

My justification for attending the International Dyslexia Conference was to find strategies to help me teach my students at the multisensory learning clinic where I work.  The students I work with are dyslexic, have some kind of attention deficit disorder, or have a combination of these and other problems all mixed up in their young bodies.  At the conference, I learned a lot in the short time I listened to each lecture; I also did a lot of reflecting about my own inferior attention span in comparison to the attention spans of my students.

Before I worked with students with learning disabilities, I was one of those people who questioned whether ADD and ADHD really existed.  I remember dropping off a form at the nurse's office at my son's school; the nurse had about fifty paper cups lined up with fifty medicine bottles.  When I asked what she was giving to the line of students who marched in one after another for their daily pre-lunch visit, her answer was "Ritalin."  I was the skeptic.  Did that many children have problems or was this just a case of the easiest way out for a parent with a child who was behaving poorly at home and in school?  I had read enough of those frightening yet questionable statistics.  Could it be possible that six to eight percent of our population has ADD or ADHD, much of which is undiagnosed.  Could I be one of those undiagnosed cases?  And if I am, why can I pull myself in and function productively while others cannot?

I've seen some of my students on and off medication, and the difference is significant.  With medication, using multisensory techniques, I can help them learn.  Without their medication, they're riding skateboards in space or doing cannon balls off the high dive.  On the days when their parents forget to give them medication or if their medication is wearing off, I often have children who bounce, spin, chatter incessantly, have no self-control, and would be virtually impossible to teach.  Imagine one of these children in a traditional classroom setting with thirty other students.  If it's a bouncing student, he or she is a discipline problem to a classroom teacher.  If he or she is zoning out, the student misses crucial, formative lessons.  Translated into real terms, these children become deficient, get poor grades, socialize poorly, and often become problems for their teachers, their parents, and eventually themselves.  More specifically, try to be the dysfunctional child in a world like ours where the average fifth grader learns from one to five thousand new word meanings each year, where the average high school student knows 40,000 distinct words.  Try coping in a world where readers in the 90th percentile read 1.8 millions words a year, where readers in the 50th percentile read about 300,000 words a year, and you're struggling over whether the word is bed or deb and if you made your 3 backwards again.

That is how I know that my limited attention span isn't something that requires medication.  I have functioned and succeeded.  The children I work with can't.  Perhaps there are some children who are unnecessarily medicated.  I don't know.  I'm not a doctor.   What I do know is that the children I work with aren't.

The other day, one of my more mature students and I were having a discussion about how difficult school can be for her.  When I told her that I tend to daydream and have a short attention span, too, she asked me if it ever caused me a problem in school.

"No " I told her.

"If you know you have to concentrate, can you?"

"Yes," I answered.

Then she told me that isn't what it's like for her.  "I can't control myself," she said, "no matter how hard I try, I can't get back inside with everyone else.  It's lonely out there."

©2003 Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a former English teacher and freelance writer from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.

The IP comments:  The issue of how prevalent "attention deficit disorder (ADD)" and "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)" really are among school age children has been a matter of some controversy in the medical community.  Unfortunately, these are syndromes that are not defined with precision, and many children who are labeled with these conditions actually may not have ADD or ADHD at all but may have one of a number of other anxiety disorders that cause inattentiveness and hyperactive behavior.  While these other anxiety disorders have symptoms that mimic ADD or ADHD, the treatments for them are not the same.  Dr. Keith Conners of the Duke University Medical School has written an informative article on the issue.  The bottom line is that if you think your child has ADD or ADHD, or if your child's teacher(s) have suggested that your child might have ADD or ADHD, you should seek professional help to determine the correct diagnosis and treatment.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.