This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, September 2015: A Unified Kingdom issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 14 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “A Unified Kingdom.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

It was my third time teaching Jack how to factor. Bent over the kitchen counter, sitting on a barstool, I explained again how we use the coefficients of a quadratic equation as clues to “break” the equation into two products of sums to graph it, find “zeroes,” and you know, to understand hidden meanings of the universe—all the usual reasons we do math. “It’s reverse FOIL,” I calmly re-emphasized, thoughts racing on how else I could model the steps. Those steps were already written on multiple index cards. There were pages of notes with detailed samples on the college ruled sheets of paper. He had diagrams galore and typed up explanations in case he couldn’t read my handwriting. What was interesting was that this ninth grader understood plenty about math. He didn’t struggle with everything. He knew how to multiply the sums and their First, Outer, Inner, Last terms to get an equation of second degree order. He just struggled to have his brain comprehend how to go the other direction.

Our differences have the potential to unite us, if we can only share with each other our gifts. Blessed are those with Learning Differences, for theirs is the secret of resolution.

Working through yet another example problem, I repeated the steps again: “We have to list all the numbers that multiply to ‘c’ but ADD to ‘b’. when we find that pair that does, we know what our sums will be.” A weight in the pit of my stomach grew as I would soon have to complicate the steps and add another layer of reasoning and critical thinking, as is usual with math. There is always something more, something beyond. And I just knew the teacher would put one of the harder quadratics to factor on the test, one of those where the “a” in ax^2 + bx + c would be something other the number one. I made him practice and practice, knowing I needed to build automaticity, like a coach on a soccer field drilling passing sequences. I knew there was an equal chance that he’d either forget it all or completely ace his test on Friday. Jack had a learning difference and ADD. His performance in school varied from high to low, depending on unknown circumstances and unknown circuitry in his brain that makes him need intense one-on-one tutoring sessions to pass Algebra 2., a website and a partnership of organizations designed to help support parents of children with attention and learning issues, including a series of simulations for parents and educators that recreate the experience of having a learning difference. Divided into categories for Attention issues, for math and reading, parents can place themselves in their child’s position. While experts know not exactly the reason for these issues, the speculation is that their neurotransmitters and dopamine receptors work a little differently. If asked to repeat a list of five tasks, students with ADD, ADHD, or other such learning difference may only be able to repeat back two or three of them, depending on how the tasks were presented (orally, visually, etc,). Their brains are hypersensitive to stimuli. Instead of listening to a teacher drone on about subjects, verbs, and predicate clauses, their brains hone in to the tap, tap, tapping of a pencil on their neighbor’s desk. They struggle to control what their brains naturally prioritize: pencil over teacher, teacher over pencil. Psychologists call this ability to prioritize and control stimuli one’s Executive Function. Inattentiveness or hyper-attentiveness, combined with the inability prioritize and control emotions or behavior, can cause underperformance in school for many students. A study by MIT lists the symptoms of childhood ADHD as “a general inability to focus, reflected in difficulty completing tasks, listening to instructions, or remembering details.” All skills necessary to be successful in the classroom.

Learning Differences as Assets in and out of the Classroom

One of my students has ADHD. Liam is skinny as a stick, with sandy-brown hair that falls into his eyes; he struggles to sit still and forgets to raise his hand. He shouts over other students and points out their flaws. He has said things to annoyance like “that lady was fat” or “What! You don’t know what a kilometer is!?” Once, Liam stood up on his chair in the middle of class and croaked like a frog. This kid was brilliant. Any higher order problem where he had to solve for unknowns and make complicated connection (like factoring), he completed with ease and eagerness. He could not, however, multiply or divide 1356 by 48. Any rote, boring, or tedious math problem resulted in notes home, talks with the counselors, intensive cajoling, positive and negative behavior consequences—in other words, a ton of work for me as his teacher.

Dr. Richard Friedman wrote in The New York Times that “recent neuroscience research shows that people with ADHD are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking.” He goes on to explore a study of hunters and gatherers among the Ariaal people of Kenya that showed “nomadic men who had [a dopamine receptor for novelty seeking connected to ADHD] were better nourished than the nomadic men who lacked it. Strikingly, the reverse was true for the Ariaal who had settled: Those with this genetic variant were significantly more underweight than those without it.” He argues that “in the right environment, these traits are not a disability, and can be a real asset.”

In a Psychology Today article, “The ADHD Personality: A Normal and Valuable Human Variation,” the authors argue that “ADHD-like characteristics are socially valuable.” He explains that being highly distractible allows one to identify dangers and advantageous differences in environment and being impatient means one is not going to stay in a rut and pursue behaviors that “aren’t going anywhere.” Impulsive action can result in courage and bravery. Difficulty following instructions implies an independence of mind that lead to other ways of seeing and doing. Lastly, the author argues that “emotional reactivity may be a good counterweight to the tendency of overly controlled people to hold in their emotions and ruminate.” No grudges for the ADHD, they move on too quickly! However, students with ADHD usually standout as troublemakers, children that disrupt order and struggle in academics, social relationships, and mental well-being. We forget to view their “ bravery, inventiveness, independence of mind, or emotional reactivity” in school and other environments as assets. We focus too much on the negative.

Learning Differences and the Kingdom of God

Those ADHD traits of bravery, novelty, independence of mind, the need to seek for experience and the emotional reactivity must balance with their negative accompaniments of distractibility, impatience, impulsivity, and the consequences of being difficult with regard to following instructions.

But doesn’t that sound very much like the traits we ascribe to the people of God?

The Israelites, recently released from slavery, bravely marched toward the water of the Red Sea, allowing space for God to enact a miracle. Did they not rejoice in jubilation in Exodus 15: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song!” Three days later, they have forgotten and complain about having no water, unable to prioritize the teacher over the pencil.

Peter, too, in the New Testament is praised for his impulsivity one moment, blurting out, “You are the Christ!”, followed by Jesus’ chastisement a few verses later: “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter later jumps out of the boat to walk on water, denies Jesus three times, and is the man on whom Jesus said He’d build His church.

The kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom. Our weaknesses are also our strengths. The first shall be last, the last shall be first, for what we do not do to the least of these, we do not do to Jesus. Blessed are the impulsive, for they dare to enter the kingdom. Blessed are the distracted, for they will see the hidden and forgotten. Blessed are the emotionally reactive, for they dance before God.

Working with Jack made me a better teacher. By understanding all the ways he did not get factoring, I went deeper into the principles and concepts behind this skill. As a result, I entered into the way of the often unseen. Numbers are made up of other numbers. They can be composed of other expressions and whatever else the math world wants. Without Jack, I would never have seen all the hidden possibilities there are within this finite and concrete skill. I’ve changed the way I teach to accommodate his conceptual misunderstandings so that other students might have deeper spaces and stronger foundations in which to work out the complexity of factoring. Others, like Jack, who perceive the world differently due to a learning difference, may now grasp the concept in better ways than before. Months later, he is now very successful at factoring. It took a little trial and error but we came up with a strategy, a way to organize all the steps needed to factor—a chart in which he lists all the coefficients, which basically allows him to think on paper in a structured way.

Through this experience, I changed as a teacher and as a citizen of a compassionate kingdom. We, teacher and student, had to persevere in order to find our different goals of success. We both had to see what lay beneath a wrong answer in order to figure out how to move toward the right one. But I think I grew more than Jack. I had to see what I did not see before and what I would not have seen if Jack had not struggled. His learning difference revealed what is so often hidden. And it is in this unity of our differences, our struggles, our weaknesses, that God builds His kingdom. Our differences have the potential to unite us, if we can only share with each other our gifts. Blessed are those with Learning Differences, for theirs is the secret of resolution.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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1 Comment

  1. I’m gonna have to think about this one for awhile. I have ADHD. I was diagnosed as an adult. Every time you wrote “they/their/them”, my brain was inserting “we/our/us” and then wondering if it was true. Not to accuse you of anything! There’s still so much we don’t know about how the brain works, and no two brains are alike.

    For one thing, I *crave* order. I crave consistency. I’m an introvert and am prone to sensory overload. Order gives my brain less to process: I can pack everything up into “drawers” and dismiss them. Which has its own problems, but it can be useful. I notice right away if something doesn’t “fit in its drawer”. Something could be broken, or lacking, or out of place. I don’t need a spell-check, because misspelled words don’t “fit”. Error checking and quality checking is right up my alley, and I can spot patterns or trends as they emerge – as more and more things fit into the same drawer.

    Which means that things like righteousness (as in, “having no flaws”) takes on special meaning for me. I know how flawed I am, and therefore grace and mercy must be powerful indeed. Redemption puts everything in order, in ways I didn’t know were possible. Peace is a clean and ordered room where the chaos of my mind can run free, inventing and creating all it wants, and I don’t have to tidy up afterwards.

    You mention how you’ve learned more about math because your student’s difficulties force you to, and that’s true. That’s blessing-as-compensation: hardship teaches us things that nothing else can, but doesn’t change the fact that it’s hardship. I would argue that ADHD is a blessing in and of itself: the wiring of our mind affects what we see. You see things I can’t, or are very difficult for me to see. But I see things you can’t, or are very difficult for you to see. ADHD has been a burden for me and has put me through many hardships, but in itself it is NOT a hardship.

    Oh, and thank you for putting in all that hard work for your students. I know that not every teacher has the time/resources to do so, and it’s a valuable gift.

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