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Crooked Seams, ADHD, and Basic Writing: A Narrative of Personal Experience

posted: 6.13.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

600px-S6173aWhen I was in junior high in the 1970s, I did not know I had ADHD.  First of all, ADHD did not exist as a diagnosis. Secondly, girls in the “smart” class were supposed to be perfect. If we weren’t, we often heard that if we only tried harder, we could live up to our true potential and do what everyone else was doing—the same way everyone else was doing it.

Well, I know I can find my true potential, I would respond in my head. But the teacher might not even recognize that I completed the required assignment, because my work looked very different from customary expectations. In fact, if teachers were looking only for surface features, they would not recognize potential at all. They would see only what I could not do.

In a required home economics class, for example, we studied sewing and interior decorating. I failed a project because I chose to make a sleeveless smock rather than a piece with sleeves, and because my seams were crooked. After that I got in trouble because I wanted to design my “ideal bedroom”—all in black. There was more trouble when I changed the black to red. But no one explained to me why black and red were not appropriate colors for interior decorating. I was expected to know this fact, which I considered to be questionable.

What does this have to do with Basic Writing, you might ask? Although my writing was not “basic,” my differences in small and large motor coordination often created awkward learning situations. My inattention to standard requirements and my passion for imagining alternatives to the standards were often mistaken for resistance, if not outright rebellion. I was learning, but not in a way that my teachers could easily recognize.

So the connection comes in that precarious space of creating outside the box—or outside the standardized curriculum. The prevailing wisdom suggests that teachers use diversified instruction to account for multiple intelligences and individual learning styles.

But this advice excludes several especially significant components. For instance, diversified instruction is not simply a methodology, but a practice that fosters respect for students who benefit from that diversity. Students are learning to take ownership of writing and of learning. Writing can be a messy, risky process.

We can learn to remain nonjudgmental if we encounter messes and risks that seem alien to us. We need to understand the roots of our discomfort, and to become aware of students’ discomforts as well. And we need to accept and account for the many different roads, crooked and straight, that lead to the processes and products of writing.

Categories: Developmental
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4 Responses to “Crooked Seams, ADHD, and Basic Writing: A Narrative of Personal Experience”

  1. Joanna Howard, Montgomery College Says:

    On a personal level, I can well relate to getting in trouble for thinking outside the box–in second grade, I drew angels with wings attached to their waists rather than shoulders, and our teacher treated me like a dunderhead for it. Years later, I wondered how she knew with such firmness that angel wings attached at the shoulder, and I wondered why she didn’t just ask me why I put them at the waist (My 1960’s dresses all had sashes that tied in the back, and seemed like a logical place to add a pair of wings.).

    Your last paragraph discusses something that rings very true for me–I tend to have moments when I misread student “discomfort” as a failure on my part: failure to explain an assignment well, failure to create an assignment that works, or failure to be the always wise, comforting teacher who guides her students to learn to write perfectly. And I trace my own anxiety to worrying about time, worrying about not wasting students’ time with something unworkable and so on.

    More and more I am able to appreciate just how messy and risky learning to take ownership is, as well as how much students do learn in a class even when they appear to be struggling. I’d like to see examples of all of the “different roads” that students take as they learn to write. Can you suggest any good places to start?

  2. Rochelle, LaGuardia Says:

    I LOVE Susan’s post. There are so many different ways to learn and to be a good student (and teacher, I’d add), but sometimes it feels as though we’re all expected to fit one particular educational mode…Personally, I can truly relate to much of Susan’s story; I too failed home economics, and I was a messy, disorganized, talkative student who found it difficult to focus! (Luckily, I went to a relatively small high school where the teachers were patient with me and let me be an individual.) Now, as I teach, I try to remain aware that an awkward learning situation doesn’t necessarily mean a student isn’t learning. And, as Joanna mentioned earlier, I would welcome a follow-up post, with examples of some of the different roads students take as they learn to write.

  3. Brenda Tuberville, RSU Says:

    Susan, I can really relate to the home-ec experience–I was not blessed with the “home-ec” gene like my older sister was, so I was often taking the path of least resistance (I’ll bet my sleeveless smock’s seams were more crooked than yours!), praying each day that somehow my meager efforts would keep me from being tagged forever as “not home-ec material.” I try to remember that when dealing with students who feel they were not “blessed” with whatever writing “gene” might be out there; their reticence and resistance are many times only outward manifestations of an overwhelming fear of being found out. (Erving Goffman’s work with stigma deals with this, too.)

  4. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Dear Joanna, Rochelle, and Brenda,

    Thanks so much for your comments and wonderful, empathic stories of learning “differently.” My article in Modern Language Studies 40.2 (2011) partly addresses Joanna’s question. In my next post for “Bits,” I’ll take on the topic of “different roads” in more detail. Thanks again for the inspiration.