Monday, March 23, 2015

The Right Side of Normal

When LionHeart wasn't reading at age 5, I was concerned.  When he wasn't reading at the same level as his big brother at age 6, I was more concerned.  By age 7, I was in a state of panic!  There were doctor's appointments and testing.  I rejected the terms dyslexic and learning disabled that are slapped on so many African American boys.  Then I stumbled upon a book that set me free.  The book's title is The Right Side of Normal by Cindy Gaddis. I read the characteristics of the Right Brain Learner and I instantly saw an image of my LionHeart. These words embody the essence of him: imagination, picture based (3-dimensional), global, whole, association, intuitive (heart), resistant, internal perfectionism, process and space. As I continued to read, I discovered that Right Brain Learners typically begin reading between the ages of 8-10.  The discovery brought tears to my eyes.

After LionHeart's recent showcase performance with Tam Tam Mandingue and Farafina Kan, I realized I had not fully respected that LionHeart had been learning deeply all along.  I elevated traditional learning (sitting down with curriculum) above experiential learning (cooking, physical movement, technology, art, music), and downplayed the latter.  I had an epiphany right after his drum teacher put his hands on LionHeart's head and told him that he had four responsibilities for the upcoming performance.  A the age of 8, LionHeart was charged with not only remembering complex African rhythms (no music to read -- it's coming from the heart and spirit), but also which song went with which ensemble (he's playing with three), which song to play for the dancers, and when to solo.  Obviously, there's no learning disability; it's just that music speaks to the way he learns.  In the words of Dr. Umar Johnson, a noted African-American child psychologist, a learning disability is the opinion of the evaluator, not a scientific fact!

When I began to reflect upon all of LionHeart's activities where he experienced the most success and delight, it became crystal clear that he was already learning in a way that he could understand.  He gets it and he feels accomplished. In his study of Capoeira, he is learning Portuguese and the complex movements of the Afro-Brazilian martial art.  He's also learning to play a third instrument: the Berimbau!  The more I read about the Right Brain Learner and how different his timetable is from a Left Brain learner, the more I began to relax and trust that as long as he is learning, everything else will fall into place.

Playing a few bars from a Stevie Wonder tune his brother taught him.

In his study of piano he is learning the language of music - no small feat.  He loves to create, he loves costumes and loves to learn through technology and games like Minecraft.  In fact, we are taking a class with Minecraft Homeschool right now.  Why, why, why have I been discounting all of this as "extra" instead of making it his main work? Well, I'm a product of the traditional educational system that puts value on only one kind of education - organized, sequential, book-based information, which is the gift of the left brain learner, according to Gaddis.  In a school setting it makes all other children look disabled if they don't learn in the same way.  Why would I continue to speak Spanish to someone who obviously speaks Swahili? If I teach him in a way he can understand, he will learn.  He will thrive. Sadly, many children never get the opportunity to be taught in the way that they learn and end up feeling angry, worthless, depressed, or worse, just give up and live down to the low expectations.

My Right Brain Fashion lover.

Understanding and teaching to what Gaddis describes as the universal gifts of the Right Brain Learner opens up his world of learning.  Right Brain Learners are characterized as being highly imaginative and  possess the ability to think in pictures.  Gaddis lists some of their creative outlets as computers/video games, art/photography, puzzles/mazes, fashion/sewing, building/electronics, theater/showmanship, math/numbers, music/dance, and cooking/gardening.  Uh, can you say LIONHEART! This description couldn't be any more exact! I can certainly build his learning around these areas.  Gaddis says in her book that "by extensively engaging in preferred creative outlets up to the 8 to 10 year time frame, the creative child develops the traits and strengths necessary to navigate the left-brain tasks they'll encounter at the next stage."  Makes perfect sense to me!

Lion Heart loves to work in costume.

As a Left Brain Learner with right brain tendencies, I crave order and sequence.  Teaching out of order pains me.  But I had to learn to adjust.  According to Gaddis, the Right Brain Learner is a global, big picture learner.  They want to know the whole before the details will ever matter.  I was perplexed that LionHeart understood the concept of multiplication and division, but struggled with basic math facts until  I read that I should allow him to experiment with Algebra and Geometry, which will motivate him to learn math facts – the details.  Recently, I took an online class called Natural Math where these concepts were explored.  Experiencing multiplication through fractals was a delight-filled experience for LionHeart. I was able to present it in a way that he understood.

I cringe when I think about the kind of learning I would have continued to push on LionHeart had I never discovered this book.  Gaddis describes schools and many curriculums as using a scope and sequence that favors the gifts of the left brain dominant person - “product-driven, sequential learning, that is word and symbol focused.”  The Right Brain Learner is process driven, wants to know the why, wants to experiment and discover.  Creativity and exploration drives the learning of  Right Brain Learners whom Gaddis describes as “creative children that love to learn, but hate to be taught.”  John Holt says something similar in his book How Children Learn.

LionHeart loves Hip Hop, especially Break Dance.

Most schools will label (ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, learning disabled, dysgraphia, dyscalculia) or attempt to "fix" or "remediate" a Right Brain Learner because he struggles when taught in ways that are considered the norm.  Gaddis goes on to say that "labels were created to explain the difference between your child's intelligence and his inability to perform in the classroom."  As parents, we are not bound by that faulty reasoning.  We can learn about and understand the natural learning path for our Right Brain Learners.  It doesn't mean our children won't learn the skills needed to attend college or be successful in life.  It means, as my grandmother used to say, "there is more than one way to skin a cat."  Teaching to the strengths of the Right Brain Learner can be easily accomplished if you homeschool.  But, what if your child attends a traditional school?  The Right Side of Normal has 495 pages of perspective-shifting information and resources that parents will find useful in helping to facilitate strength-based learning that celebrate the unique gifts and talents of Right Brain Learners.

LionHeart loves to make art, especially drawing and painting.
When I stumbled upon the website, I knew I had to review this book for my blog.  I wanted other parents to be liberated from thinking something was wrong with their children if they were struggling with what I call "paper-based learning" - the usual textbooks and curriculum.  Although I was given a digital copy to review, I'm old school - I need paper.  So I'm ordering a copy that I am sure will become my highlighted, sticky-note tabbed reference for ways to support my Right Brain Learner as I continue on the journey.

If you click on this link, you can read a 28 page excerpt. 


  1. Love this! So glad you are now able to see the strengths of your sons learning! I recently discovered and read this book too after struggling with my son's lack of attention to detail, missing arithmetic facts but understanding the concepts so easily, difficulty with simple spelling and grammar, yet he can memorize tons of songs in the guitar without reading a note of music. It certainly took the pressure and stress off me. I'm a left brained thinker and it was so hard for me to see things from a right brain perspective. I love how It recommends a different sequence and time of learning for right brained kids. Think of all the kids who are diagnosed with something needlessly who would benefit from just learning differently!

  2. Thank you for sharing your review. I look forward to reading it. I find it so difficult to completely give up on the set curriculums-although, I am able to easily alter them to work. We do minimal "paperwork" and a TON of ands on learning. I also learned this year that when my kids who have dyslexia WANT to learn something, they will. :) They will even read. LOL.

  3. Thank you so much for your comments. I am learning so much from parents of Right Brain Learners. I am just so thankful to have this change in perspective. In the beginning, I compared his learning timeline to my older son. That's all I knew. When I look back to when he was 4 and 5 years old, he exhibited classic Right Brain learning characteristics. While I was trying to get him to sit down to learn, he was creating, making how-to videos and wearing costumes. He was only able to learn the initial letter sounds when I started using Montessori, which allows him to experience his learning.

  4. Reading this, I am increasingly encouraged. Mali and Laylah demonstrated early on different learning styles and for ther our homeschooling journey to be meaningful we will have to learn and understand both. I continued to be inspired by your journey. Being full time workers the homeschool experience is difficult, but we are both committed. We are still beginners but happy in the decision we made to homeschool our babies.

  5. LaTonya I am so happy you found it useful. I keep the book on my night stand and when I wake up, I read a little each day. It was a liberating discovery. Thank you for reading.

  6. Monica,
    I just stumbled upon your website today after I read about you in an article on The Washington City Paper, as I'm researching and considering homeschool and/or online learning for my older son. Like you, I have two boys--6 and 10 months. The 6yo is in first grade and really struggling at his charter school (we're also DC residents, Ward 7). I've recently begun learning about the "right-brain learner" via and I said, "bingo, this describes our child perfectly," and some of these traits (visual, hands-on learning) is what we've communicated to his teachers during several conferences and IEP meetings. Even the psychologist and speech therapist hired by the school to evaluate and/or work with him as part of IEP services have mentioned to me and in their reports that he excels at hands-on and visual activities, but to me, it seems the school is unable--or unwilling--to explore and try to adapt teaching to his learning style outside of the two yearly experiential expeditions they implement, which is automatically apart of the school's model, but mostly implemented when they're actively working on their two expeditions for the school year. He's been labeled as having a learning disability, and they're trying to remediate in hopes things will "click" and he'll catch up to grade level based on the "left-brain" method of teaching. Discovering was already enough to make me begin seriously researching and considering homeschool, but discovering your story, site, and this blog post in particular about LionHeart is icing on the cake for me. Reading about LionHeart felt like I was reading about my own son. While I'm in the beginning stages of research and consideration, your story is simply inspiring and a tremendous resource for parents and kids in a similar boat whose bright kids are falling through the cracks of the public school system simply because they don't understand, or don't want to adapt to the visual, creative right-brain learner. I've bookmarked your site, and will use it as a regular resource as dig deeper into homeschooling and hopefully soon have my son on the path to success based on his strengths and interests. Thank you for sharing your story!

  7. Shawnita thank you so much for your comment. I am so happy I could help. I would highly recommend purchasing the book Right Side of Normal for all kinds of ideas and encouraging about how to teach our blessings. Another book that was a tremendous help to me is The Dyslexic Advantage. I actually plan to review it soon. I loved the book so much that I purchased it on CD so I could listen to it over and over again. Please feel free to reach out to me via email if you need more information:

    1. I will definitely purchase The Right Side of Normal. I visited the author's site right after I left my earlier comment. And thank you for recommending The Dyslexic Advantage. I've been eyeing this book for a little while now, so I will be getting my hands it and the CD. Thank you again, and thank you for providing your contact info. I'm saving your email now, as I'm sure I'll have more questions as I navigate this stage and next steps. Homeschooling is completely new to me, but I need to take my son's education in my hands to provide him the support he needs to realize his strengths and passion in a way that best serves him. This will also be a great foundation for my younger son when he approaches the years of "formal" education.
      Thanks again, Monica!