Penny Shepherd-Hill has a heart for students who struggle.
As a child, growing up in Pitt Meadows, she had chronic ear infections.
In elementary school, her teachers clapped syllables.
“I didn’t have a clue what they were doing.”
She grew frustrated. She couldn’t participate in group reading. She felt marginalized.
Now she helps others who feel the same way, those with dyslexia and other learning deficits.
As the new principal at James Cameron School, every day she sees students who were once wilting, now blossoming.
She wants to help others and will appeal to them and their parents as the special education school, on Dewdney Trunk Road in west Maple Ridge, hosts an information night, “Dispelling Dyslexia Myths,” Thursday, Oct. 27, from 7-9 p.m.
Shepherd-Hill was originally a painter. She was one of four B.C. artists selected to create Christmas decorations for Bill and Hilary Clinton’s tree at the White House in 1994.
Her ornament, depicting the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” is now in the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C.
She painted the four calling birds, five golden rings and six geese a laying.
But after her marriage ended, Shepherd-Hill closed her art studio and sought work more suitable for a single mother of four children.
She graduated from Simon Fraser University with a standard teaching certificate in 2001, then secured work at Maple Ridge Christian School, teaching grades 2-3.
For several years she struggled to connect with some students. She talked to a colleague, who suggested she attend a conference in San Jose, Calf. about dyslexia.
Shepherd-Hill spent $5,000 of her own money to attend the week-long conference.
What she learned there made her cry.
“You mean, I can help these kids?”
She used to think that people with dyslexia saw letters backwards.
“That is a myth.”
Dyslexia is, she said, a “weakness in phonological awareness.”
“C-a-t,” not “ca-t.” Three sounds, not two.
But teachers can help students break the alphabetic code, so they can decode language.
Shepherd-Hill uses the example of a young boy whose mother asked him what colour of “Freezie” he wanted. He couldn’t retrieve the word red from his mind. He smacked his mother.
Most people would think the boy is bad, Shepherd-Hill said.
“All behavior serves a function.”
Students know when they are struggling. They get anxious, frustrated. They develop stall tactics to hide their struggles, to avoid doing work.
Shepherd-Hill said the same young boy, when presented a selection of Freezies and asked to pick the red one, did so.
Others with dyslexia might confuse words, such as “sausage” and ostrich,” or “humility” and “humidity.”
Miss Molly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick.
So she called for the doctor to come quick, quick, quick.
If kids can’t rhyme, they should be assessed, Shepherd-Hill said.
Another indicator are nonsense words, such as “spid.” A child with dyslexia won’t be able to sound it out.
Dyslexia is genetic. Once a student is diagnosed, Shepherd-Hill encourages other family members to get tested.
She tells the story of one student whose father is a railway engineer. She asked how the father did when he went to school. Was his spelling poor?
“Terrible,” was his response.
Now he gets recorded verbal reports at work, she said.
The right and left hemispheres in a dyslexic brain are not equal. The right hemisphere is 10 per cent larger than the left – the side most people use for reading.
The right hemisphere is the creative side. But in the dyslexic brain, it is also used for reading.
Dr. Sally Shaywitz, at the Yale University School of Medicine, postulates that there is converging data with reports from many investigations showing what has been referred to as a neural signature of dyslexia: a failure of left-hemisphere posterior brain systems to function properly during reading.
Shepherd-Hill said, with maturation, there appears to be compensation in anterior regions of the brain around the inferior frontal gyrus – a ridge on the cerebral cortex – so that differences between older non-impaired and dyslexic children are confined to two posterior regions, the parieto-temporal and occipito-temporal systems.
The parieto-temporal region is believed to serve word analysis and is the system emergent readers use.
The occipito-temporal region is believed to be responsible for the rapid, automatic, fluent identification of words. It is from where “pictures” of a words can be retrieved within milliseconds to integrate and perceive linguistic information from strings of letters.
In 2013, Shepherd-Hill went back to school, graduating from Trinity Western University with a professional teaching certificate.
She sent her practicum paper, “Good spelling is more than memorization,” to Dr. Linda Siegel at the University of B.C.
Shepherd-Hill thinks the education system is failing students by not teaching teachers how to help those with learning disorders, such as dyslexia.
She said 15-20 per cent of students have some form of dyslexia.
Of the 34 students at James Cameron School, 90 per cent have more than one deficit, such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
This fall, Shepherd-Hill moved to James Cameron School, where students are taught “explicit spelling.”
They get to see and hear words, utilize lettered tiles to spell them, then write them out. They learn rules about soft and hard sounds, that “dge” always follows a short vowel.
The multi-sensory approach helps create pathways in the brain for recall.
James Cameron School has a wall of fame in a first-floor hallway. On it are some of the students who came to the school wilted and have since blossomed.
Kate Crawford is the poet and a nurse.
Jenna Wiersma has a theology degree and is currently a support worker at a low-barrier homeless shelter.
Nathan Pennykid came to James Cameron in Grade 5 and not only learned how to read, but also how to learn. He graduated from Grade 12 at the top of his class, earning a Governor General’s bronze medal, and is now in his second year at university, taking environmental studies.
The coursework Shepherd-Hill wrote for her masters degree was on teaching confidence to teach spelling to all students, more than just providing a list of words to memorize each week, with no rhyme or reason, and giving a test on Friday.
“That’s not teaching spelling.”
Dyslexic kids are always sick on Fridays, she said.
Dr. Shaywitz argues: “In an era when we can image the brain as an individual reads and literally see the brain at work, it is unacceptable to have children and adults struggling to read when they could benefit from what modern neuroscience has taught us about reading and dyslexia.”
Shepherd-Hill is now conducting research with Siegel and writing a thesis.
Spelling and reading are two sides of the same coin, she said.
Spelling is encoding. Reading is decoding.
There is no shame in having a child assessed for dyslexia, she said.
“Kids aren’t stupid,” she added.
“Great minds think different. Thomas Edison was dyslexic and he lit up the world.”
“Dispelling Dyslexia Myths” takes place Thursday, Oct. 27, from 7-9 p.m. at James Cameron School, located at 20245 Dewdney Trunk Road, Maple Ridge.