Dwight Kelly: Discussion on Dyslexia

Dwight Kelly (’14), in many ways, fits a Sarah Lawrence paradigm: his First-Year Studies is a neuropsychology class called “Brains, Minds, and Bodies,” but he doubles as a sculptor and activist. For his conference project last semester, Kelly, working with his professor Elizabeth Johnson, forwent the typical 15-20 page research paper in favor of a different format. Kelly extensively researched dyslexia (he himself is dyslexic) and prepared a roughly hour-long academic presentation on the topic titled “Strange Territory: Investigating Dyslexia in the Brain and World”. He gave the talk in Heimbold in late January. Watch it here. Below is a recent interview with Kelly about his project, where he is going with it, and his some of his experiences.

N: How has this project been developing since you gave your talk and where is it going?
D: Okay, I always thought of this thing as fairly long term and that I was going to continue with it so I’ve been thinking about potentially bringing it to other institutions and venues this summer. So I’m working on that, this is definitely something I feel strongly should be shared. I want to —
N: You’re looking to give the talk more times?
D: Yeah, and alter it for different audiences. I’m working this summer at camp for dyslexic children so I’ve been thinking a lot about developing a version for a younger audience.
N: How are you going about doing that?
D: Well, I think sort of adapt the definition [of dyslexia] into something they’ll be able to understand more. And then I think also try to connect it directly to their experiences with reading and spelling and things — it’s difficult to understand that. And also so that they’ll be able to communicate that to their teachers and stuff. So I need to figure out how to bring it down to that level.
N: That seems like a good way to simplify — to figure out the root of things
D: Right. So that’s sort of where the vision is going. In terms of research, I mentioned at the presentation that I want to go into dyslexic creativity, which, there’s been this correlation that has been sort of noted, the list of famous dyslexics, but which hasn’t really been accepted into the definition or seen as something necessarily scientific. But I’ve been researching that this semester and it really seems that there is a strong evidence for global visual strength. And dyslexics being able to pick up on anomalies in a large sort of visual presentation. [Dyslexics are] able respond to those very quickly. Dyslexia is all about inefficiency so the fact that they’re able to identify missing parts of an image, like someone is running on a beach, there’s no footprints, for example.
N: Wow, that’s really interesting
D: They’re able to do that very quickly with the same amount of accuracy as non-dyslexics — in fact they can do it faster. So that’s really interesting. I would actually like to see that incorporated into the definition of dyslexia and have the disability removed from that and just say “dyslexia is a condition which has these weakness —
N: Like a different appropriation of ability?
D: Right, with reading, and also strengths with global visual. That’s really exciting.
N: What were the biggest challenges you faced in choosing the lecture format and also, the flip side of that, what was the most fun?
D: The lecture was harder than I thought it was going to be. Part of why I chose that format was because I didn’t feel up to writing a paper with all my other responsibilities first semester. But, as it turned out, I think it was probably equally challenging in many ways. Perhaps I was more able to meet those challenges than I would have been in a different format. But, you know, to be able to have all that information, sort of, at hand and be able to draw on that with only a little bit of prompting was definitely hard. In the paper format you can sort of use your notes–you know, draw on that. So you don’t necessarily need to know it with that same sort of recall.
N: They say the best way to learn is to teach
D: Yeah, so that was sort of a surprise, I guess. And a challenge. That was also really enjoyable, I think, the lecture format was really nice from a variety of perspectives. First of all it’s impact —
N: Yeah, you can see that people are learning what you’re learning. It’s not something you always get. So then more about Sarah Lawrence. How have you found support for the dyslexic community here and what, if anything, could be improved upon, or what’s already really good. Or where can people go who are looking — you talked about that a little in your talk —
D: I think SLC in general does a very good job of supporting this community. This is sort of alternative learning in general across the spectrum — which is one of the reasons I came here. And I think the general system is the strongest aspect of that. The fact that we have dons that can deal with this kind of thing and that there are smaller classes and I think that the teachers are somewhat open to alternative options to begin with. I think also the alternative grading is a big one for me, which allows me to sort of forget about that and not get caught up in the grade which can be really paralyzing. Now, that being said, beyond that, in terms of extra support and accommodations, Sarah Lawrence offers what you’d expect and that’s been very good for me because the system itself is already —
N: — sort of designed to be accommodating
D: — sort of designed to be open to all sorts of possibilities like that. But what I would like to see is to have a lot of those extra options — which are determined by the individual professor you’re working with — to be incorporated on a systemic level.
N: Like the option of having a lecture be your conference
D: Exactly, so that’s built in. Because right now, while that is an option with many of our faculty here, it’s also up to the faculty. To see that kind of thing understood and built into the general pedagogy.
N: Okay, what’s the most interesting or compelling discovery you’ve made in this process? And that can be a personal thing or a more general intellectual thing, I don’t know.
D: I think for me the idea that there is science behind dyslexia as being something that encourages creativity and endows creative strength is really huge. The idea that we can revise the definition that right now is dominated by disability to something that is just a general condition that includes both strengths and weaknesses, both of which are documented by research is really something positive. Talking to my parents and talking to the parents of other dyslexics, there is all this uncertainty about how are they going to fair in the education system, how, particularly after education, what is a career going to be like. So I think knowing about this global visual strength can really help both adapting education so it better suits this community, also a potential diagnostic tool that could pick up dyslexia at a young age, which is really important. Also, I think in terms of careers, knowing about that so that you can choose wisely when you’re looking to the future.
N: It sort of seems like the way our education system functions on a broader scale is not necessarily conductive to anything really, but especially, I can imagine, in the dyslexic community it’s particularly difficult, Sort of the focusing on testing —
D: — and increasingly. Sir Ken Robinson has a great quote: “As we go up the educational ladder we educate from the bottom up,” so by the time we get into college we’re educating just the head. There is sort a hierarchy that he talks about within the arts and the arts are definitely below the other disciplines and that’s really problematic when that is the strength of this population and not having those kind of outlets within the education system.

In addition Kelly’s erudite talk and the interview, the following excerpt of talk given by Sir Ken Robinson (who Kelly admires, and mentions) offers compelling insight about the state of our educational system, particularly in the context of differently-abled learners.

Nina Sparling (Editor, “What’s Up”) is a bi-coastal aspiring bread baker frustrated with the current food system. Originally from Berkeley, she moved to New York, complaining most of the way, until she found the Met and figured out the subway (but still has serious envy for Bay Area vegetables). Currently a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, Nina studies languages, political ecology, and geography and tries to figure out how they all relate.

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