Prof. edits new book on learning disabilities

by Charles Gardner | 10/19/00 5:00am

Dartmouth education professors Pano Rodis and Andrew Garrod published a compilation of 13 student narratives and 5 scholarly essays this past summer entitled "Learning Disabilities and Life Stories."

Learning-disabled students from Dartmouth, Landmark College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Greenfield Community College contributed the first-person narratives, which center on the difficulties and pressures such students face in their social and academic lives.

Professor Rodis noted that the stories are drawn from greatly varying student experiences -- though five of the narratives are by former Dartmouth students, several of the others were contributed by students who did not enter college until their late twenties or thirties, or who attended institutions or programs designed to deal exclusively with learning-disabled students.

In addition to the student narratives, the book features five essays by noted scholars and psychologists, among them Lisa Delpit and Robert Kegan. The scholarly essays, Rodis said, attempt to integrate the student narratives with information found in scientific literature.

Rodis, who proposed the project to Garrod three years ago, said the recruitment processes for the student writers varied from college to college.

At Dartmouth, a description of the study was sent to Nancy Pompian, head of the Academic Skills center, who alerted learning-disabled students to the opportunity to contribute.

At other institutions, advertisements were placed directly in school newspapers, while at Landmark College, the only college in the United States specifically dedicated to the education of learning disabled students, faculty members were contacted by Garrod and Rodis and dealt with their students separately.

Once students agreed to participate, they worked hand-in-hand with both Rodis and Garrod, as well as Mary Lynn Boscardin of the University of Massachusetts and a number of doctoral students, to produce their stories.

Rodis began his first year of full-time teaching at Dartmouth this year. He completed his doctorate in School Psychology and Counseling Psychology at the University of Massachusetts last April.

Rodis said his interest in producing such a book was motivated by his personal and professional interests, and by a desire to fill what he saw was a gap in the existing literature on learning disabilities.

"When you went to the literature, what you found was mostly scientific works," Garrod said, commenting on the problem he and Rodis hoped the book would address. "We want to enliven and deepen understanding by attending to individual voices."

Rodis, who saw the need for a book that provided a more comprehensive perspective than ones that treated disorders as existing separately from personality and social sensibility, decided to combine forces with Garrod, who has edited four collections of student stories over the past eight years.

The first of these, "Adolescent Portraits," published in 1992, has sold over 30,000 copies, according to Garrod, and is currently used at over 100 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada, as well as in Education 55: Adolescent Development, at Dartmouth.

"First Person, First Peoples," published in 1997, focuses on the stories of Native American students at Dartmouth, and is also used in the Dartmouth curriculum.

"Souls Looking Back," a compilation of stories by black students, and "Crossing Customs," which examines the reactions of international students to college life in the United States, were both published in 1999.

"Learning Disabilities and Life Stories," like several of its predecessors, has already been adopted for use in the college curriculum: the book is currently part of Rodis' own course, Education 51: Educational Psychology.

Both Garrod and Rodis expressed their hope that the book would begin to address what they feel is lacking in the study of learning disabilities and that it would allow the public to glimpse, from a much more comprehensive, holistic viewpoint than previously available, the difficulties people face in overcoming these disabilities.

Rodis also said he hoped the book would help inform people of the tremendous impact learning disabilities have on a large number of people, many of whom are unaware of their disabilities until relatively late in life.

"Learning disabilities, according to different estimates, affect anywhere from 5-20 percent of the population," Rodis said. "These disabilities can underlie problems with literacy, poor conduct and attentional issues, among others."

Both Garrod and Rodis said they feel that their book will provide hope for all those living with similar problems. "We want to show the adversity that these people have to face, but at the same time, to show that success and a learning disability are not a contradiction," Garrod said.

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