The Brooklyn BrainLady

teaching & learning, in a fancy dress

When I was little, my brother asked me to play video games with him once a month. That was about how long it took for him to forget that I have almost no ability to make a person who is not me move by pressing buttons. I also did not want to “share” the Rubik’s cube “we” got for Christmas, nor did I want to play chess. His idea of fun baffled me. 

Since then I’ve heard tell of people like him…people who can move objects IN THEIR MINDS. They can look at something, picture it a different way, and know what parts to move to make the object match the vision they conjured.


My strengths fell squarely in the verbal domain. So when my upstairs neighbor’s air conditioner was dripping onto mine, it took several sleepless nights to solve the problem. I consulted with local wizards at the mothership (Home Depot) and secured magnetically-backed foam created expressly for this soundproofing purpose.

The biggest obstacle was getting the foam to precisely match my A/C unit and removing a piece to allow proper airflow, like so:

AC outside view

Visual-spatial folks would eyeball it, cut, and go eat ice cream. Verbal folks like me do this, “I need lines to cut. I can’t draw on foam. I will have to draw lines on the magnetic side. It is the *opposite* side. I will have to flip it over. But there is water pouring from above. I will have to work away from the site, using a model. I will make a foam-side model and a magnetic side model. I need a sticky note. I need a pencil. I need measuring tape.” And I end up with something like this:

AC diagram
It takes a conscious effort for me to think this way. I read somewhere back in teacher school that 80% of learners are visual. Fifteen years of personal observation verified this, and yet I still struggled to teach those learners. Why would I want to teach in a way I myself don’t understand?

At the age of 22, this question was no laughing matter. I didn’t get a choice of content and, as a 5th-grade teacher, geometry was part of the deal. According to a Johns Hopkins study in the late 70s, variability in spatial abilities was found to be predictive of educational and occupational outcomes. My students were depending on me to foster their innate talents.

Would the next Steve Jobs be overlooked because I can’t figure out Legos?

Over the years, I’ve gotten over this by asking students to talk to me about how they approach problem-solving or how they derived an answer. I don’t just do it because it’s best practice or because students have to learn how to show their work (all fair points). When I ask students to talk to me, I remind them that I learn best verbally and their explanations help me “see” their learning process. I need the words, even if they don’t. Not one student has ever refused my request, even when their struggles with expressive language make my request incredibly difficult. They always try to help me. And I’ll pull out a sticky note to sketch what they’re saying, and give it back to them, “You mean like this?”

We’ve learned so much about each other in this way, the words and the wizards. And I dare say a little of their magic has rubbed off on me.

AC all done

To learn more about specific language impairments (SLI), check out BishopBlog or watch this outstanding video created by RALLI (Raising Awareness of Language Learning Impairments), an internet campaign dedicated to helping us better understand our learners’ struggles with language.

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