Everyone Can Learn| August 29, 2012
"Am I dumb or smart?” Rivka Tucker spent years trying to answer this question. She couldn’t understand why she was stumped by basic math calculations but could speak foreign languages with ease. The nagging question ultimately catapulted her to become one of the most renowned experts in learning disabilities.
In Rivka’s home in Israel, concerned parents are constantly calling. The details are different, but the message is the same: “Please help my child.”
The urgency to these phone calls becomes all the more understandable when you consider this statistic: “It’s estimated that about 60 percent of frum boys who left the yeshivah world are learning disabled,” reports Rivka, who has been working in the field for more than 40 years. “Recently, a study was done on girls who have left Jewish day schools and are on the fringes; there, too, we discover a large percentage of learning disabled youth.”
Rivka feels personal responsibility to reach as many of these children as possible. “I hardly sleep,” admits Rivka, who works around the clock and travels regularly throughout Israel. “I believe that children with learning disabilities need an advocate and I put my whole neshamah and life into that.”
Behind this devotion is a woman who spent her adolescence struggling to get through the school system. “I went to a prominent non-Jewish girls’ school in Amsterdam,” says Rivka. “When I was a little girl, the only Jewish elementary school was open to anyone who had a Jewish mother or father. Since my father was concerned about putting me into an unclear situation, he enrolled me in public school, where I stayed through my senior year of high school.”
A shy, studious girl, Rivka did well in many subjects. “I learned five languages, including translating,” she says. “But I flunked math. This was in the ’60s when no one heard of learning disabilities and I was labeled lazy and unmotivated. I had to stay behind and repeat 11th grade. All my friends went up. As if it wasn’t enough that I looked different as a chareidi girl, now I also was looked upon as dumb. Staying back a grade only exacerbated the gulf between my classmates and me. It was traumatizing.”
Rivka finished her high school finals, but not without a lot of self-doubt and loneliness. “I had tutors for math — I remember in particular one older woman who taught me at 7 a.m. before school,” Rivka recalls. “Still, I finished high school with a low grade. At the time, there were no specialists like remedial teachers. Since the teachers in school didn’t know how to help me, they stopped trying.”
After graduating, Rivka headed to Gateshead seminary in England. “I loved the learning,” she recalls. “And I didn’t have to know math.”
While she was in Gateshead, a job opened up at a new seminary for baalos teshuvah in Israel. The founder, Rebbetzin Rachel Levi a”h, asked her uncle Mr. Avraham Dov Kohn — who was the principal in Gateshead — for a girl to be her assistant. Rivka still has the recommendation letter from her principal, which stated that she was a highly intelligent girl with firm yiras Shamayim. “That was the first time I saw in writing that I was intelligent,” shares Rivka. “The healing from my high school trauma had begun.”
For two years, starting in 1972, Rivka worked as a madrichah, lived in the dorm, and was a bas bayit by Rebbetzin Levi, who eventually made her shidduch with Yosef Tucker.
“Hashgachah pratis lead me to my new parnassah as a married woman,” Rivka continues. “One day, I was standing at a bus stop with Rebbetzin Levi. While we were getting on the bus, a woman told the Rebbetzin that she was giving a new course about remedial reading in the Bais Yaakov seminary. Rebbetzin Levi told me to take the course because she was worried about what my parnassah would be after I got married since I obviously couldn’t be a madrichah in the dorms. It was such siyata d’Shmaya because no one knew what remedial reading was at the time.” (See sidebar “Learning the A, B, C’s”)
“I loved the class,” Rivka continues. “And I right away understood that if there are reading disabilities, there must be math disabilities, too.” From this course, Rivka developed a tutoring curriculum to help children who had failed to learn how to read in school.
At first, she tutored in two different schools outside of Jerusalem and then on a private basis at home, many hours a week, until 1978, when her third child was born and she decided to devote herself fully to raising her family. Although always keeping a close watch, she never saw any of the warning signs of learning disabilities in her seven children (see sidebar “Early Warning Signs”). Indeed, they all thrived in school.
Making Her Mark
Rivka recalls the moment when she got pulled back into her work as a teacher and advocate for the learning disabled child: “A mother of a boy with reading difficulties called, pleading with me to teach her son because he still couldn’t read at age eight. Even though he was a good boy, the cheder was preparing to let him go. I was so scared to start again but I had such pity for this woman. And, besides, Rebbetzin Levi had recommended me to her.
“The boy caught on very fast to the method I was teaching him and the satisfaction was immense,” she says. After she started teaching privately again, she decided to learn more about the general field of special education. So she enrolled in Michlalah, a frum college program for girls, to earn her bachelor’s degree.
“The first class gave me a migraine,” she relates. “I must have been the oldest one there. My very loyal friend, who had pushed me to study, was waiting for me outside the classroom that first day and she gave me a pat on the shoulder, encouraging me to go on. And so I did.”
Rivka had another reason to strive for academic success: “I did it a lot for my mother, who had returned from the Shoah totally alone. She was raised in Germany where academic professionals were honored. I knew it would give her pride if I could study and receive university accreditation. That motivation kept me on track when I wanted to quit.”
The transition from full-time mommy to full-time college student was “murderous,” as Rivka puts it. “I took classes during the day, while the children were in school. Then, after putting the kids to bed at night, I would put on earphones to listen to the lectures I had attended that day. Both because of the language and the content, I had to hear them several times in order to internalize them.”
The lectures on learning disabilities also became a source of healing: “I loved hearing that I was normal, that I wasn’t dumb, that I wasn’t lazy. It was a revelation that my difficulties had a name.”
Rivka earned her BA over two and a half years, and then went on to earn her MEd, followed by a difficult course through David Yellin College, taught entirely in Ivrit, to prepare herself to become an educational diagnostician.
When Rivka reentered the field with her newly acquired degrees, she was determined to reach every child she possibly could. “When a frum child, especially a boy, can’t read, there is nothing else he can do to prove to his parents and his rebbi that he’s smart. If he can read, he’s bright, he can learn. If not, that’s the end of it,” says Rivka, explaining yet another reason behind her dedication to work. “I was astounded by how much reading (or lack thereof) is connected to the emotional wellbeing of a child.”
Later, when she started testing children for all kinds of other difficulties — like concentration issues, memory problems, and language delays — she realized that she could do something from her “little corner,” as she puts it, which might make a difference.
That’s when she developed her workbooks. “They’re really just early screening tools,” says Rivka. “Any teacher with some direction can use the informal tests inside the workbooks to identify problems at an early stage.” There are two sets of workbooks — the first, called Signs, is geared for ages four to six.
“The earlier we detect the children’s problems, difficulties, delays, disabilities, you name it, the earlier we can intervene, deal with it, and minimize the emotional damage,” Rivka asserts. “If the problem isn’t spotted before the child gets into the upper grades, it can cause serious harm to the child’s self-esteem and academic progress.” The second assessment tool, called Signals, is geared to children in second through eighth grade. The main goal is to detect discrepancies and strengths.
Rivka understands the unique nature of the frum community and the language that reaches them best, so her diagnostic tests include Jewish questions — for instance, about the three different fast days, or what arba minim is — instead of the secular questions on standardized tests that are outside the experience of the average chareidi child. She’s found that children who were previously mislabeled as lacking in intelligence were, in fact, simply tested on material that few chareidi children are expected or even encouraged to know. Even the illustrations in the workbook use pictures of frum people so that the children can relate.
At first, Rivka was the only one using these screening tools, which are available in Hebrew and English. Now her students — hundreds of them — are trained to use the workbooks, as are other special education specialists. Rebbis, menahalim, and guidance counselors also use these tools in the admission process, and to guide students who are displaying troubles of various kinds in the classroom.
Rivka no longer teaches pupils how to read, but rather, she explains: “Once diagnosed, I send the children to the appropriate professionals. Around the country, I have former students who I trained in the method. Under my direction, they will work with the child. Then I see the child again to reevaluate him and make sure he’s on the right track.” She adds, “I’ve seen so many children by now that I can see and get a sense of the children very quickly.”
Over the last few decades, Rivka has noticed a shift in the professional approach to learning disabled children, one that she is gratified to see. For many years, the focus was entirely on academic concerns, with scarcely any attention paid to the social skills and social competency deficits that are often part of the life of a child who suffers from some kind of learning disability.
“It seems that many children have problems with tact and are socially maladjusted or plain isolated and rejected,” Rivka observes. “Some children have NVLD, which is a learning disability that manifests itself by lack of ability to read facial expressions, maintain eye contact, touch inappropriately, etc. These children suffer greatly. They do not have Asperger’s or PDD and are intelligent. They’re in regular classes and want to have friends but don’t know how to create these friendships. There is little written about it for frum kids and you just can’t use the secular textbooks or games to develop it.”
With vivid memories of her adolescence, Rivka is acutely aware of the embarrassment a learning disability can cause. She remembers one particular student who wanted his reading lessons to be kept completely quiet. “One of my son’s friends had terrible trouble with reading. He was already 16 and didn’t want my son to know that he couldn’t read. I taught him in his own home so that no one in my house should see him. Today, he is a wonderful sofer stam. Every Purim, he still brings me mishloach manot, stone drunk. No one in my house understands why.”
Rivka was initially reluctant to reenter this field when the needs of her own large family were pressing. So how has she managed the constant pressures on her time? “I started receiving many phone calls from all over the world asking for my advice in the field. I decided to explain to my now-grown children, that this is my gemach. When a parent has a child with challenges, that parent wants to know now what to do. To tell them to call me back, to tell them not to leave a message, to not answer them now, it’s not my personality. I wanted to be available when the parent is in need, not when it is comfortable or convenient for me.
“I strongly feel that Hashem gave me a gift to be an expert in my field, and He gave it to me in order to help others. Yes, sometimes it was on the cheshbon of my kids, yes sometimes it came first. But my children learned that there are people in need and I can help them. I think it made them into better people,” asserts Rivka.
Today, she sheps nachas not only from the accomplishments of her seven biological children, but also from the hundreds of students she has helped to read over the last three decades. “My first student in the ’70s is giving one of the biggest shiurim in one of the largest litvish yeshivos,” she smiles. But only she will ever know who he is. The father of a child she helped told her, “In Shamayim, after 120, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will show you a group of boys and tell you: these are your yeshivah boys!”
It’s not only yeshivah bochurim who have benefitted from Rivka’s tutelage. Many years ago, she had a 60-year-old student, a woman who came to Israel at age 14 from Morocco, married young, and raised a large family, and never learned to read Ivrit. For her 60th birthday, she asked her husband for reading lessons so she could finally daven in lashon hakodesh. Rivka guided her step by step. This woman now davens in Hebrew, her success evidence that it is never too late to learn.
Learning the A, B, C’s
A quick look at remedial teaching
In a typical cheder, children develop reading skills by first learning the names of the letters and vowels. Then, through practice, they sound out their A, B, C’s (or Alef, beis) until they’re reading. For many kids, this method works perfectly fine. When it doesn’t, parents turn to remedial teaching experts like Rivka Tucker.
Whether it’s in language or mathematics, what exactly does Rivka do to help kids achieve success?
It all depends on the particular child. With reading, for instance, “if the kid was not able to internalize the lessons, we use a more visual approach,” explains Rivka. “If the child’s visual perception isn’t strong, we use an auditory approach.” Whichever method is chosen, the child is taught how to “translate” the symbol — such as a letter (or vowel, in Hebrew) — into a sound.
“In the method we developed, the student writes the letter and traces the letter before he’s taught to translate from symbol to sound,” Rivka elaborates. “I tell the child, ‘Write B,’ and he writes the letter while the letters are in front of him on a chart or in the letterbox — a teaching tool where the child can feel the letters and ‘write’ with them on a felt board in case he has motor problems.” This approach follows Maria Montessori’s teaching philosophy that writing precedes reading.
Adds Rivka, “Because the child is told, ‘We don’t read here, we write here,’ it lowers his feeling of incompetency and allergy to the skill. So many kids have developed an aversion to reading because of their difficulties and this method works through the back door — he doesn’t realize that he’s learning to read.”
After three to four months of writing, the student naturally “switches” to reading. “They’re so busy with the orthographic system,” marvels Rivka, “that they start reading without even knowing it.”
Early Warning Signs
Worried that your child might have a learning disability? Here are five red flags that experts watch for:
Late Speech. Has the child’s vocabulary stopped growing? Is he using filler words to compensate? If he comes from a multilingual home, is he having trouble acquiring the language that’s spoken outside of the home? Some struggle is normal — the experts are looking for neurologically based language issues. Some sound advice: Be sure to get regular hearing checkups because if there’s a problem, it can cause an initial delay in language development.
Discrepancy. One of the telltale signs of learning disabilities is an uneven development of the cognitive processes. Consider the child who is great in puzzles but can’t tell over the parshah, or the child who is loquacious but won’t sit in front of a book.
Social Rejection. If a child is awkward with his friends, is never invited out, plays by himself, shows a lack of tact, or embarrasses his friends in public, don’t ignore the problem. It could be the first sign of a deeper learning disability. For instance, a child who has language delays may not be able to decipher the natural ping-pong of conversation or understand figurative speech, which makes it difficult to socialize. Or the child might be perfectly bright, but hasn’t naturally developed social intelligence — such as the ability to read facial expressions, postures, and gestures — which likewise leads to isolation among peers. Socially inappropriate behavior can be quite subtle, says Rivka. “For instance, one girl went up to her principal and picked up her sleeve to check the time on her watch. There are also the kids who breathe into your face, or stand too close and you go backwards and hit the wall because they don’t understand the social space issue.”
Lack of Phonological Awareness. This means that the child can’t understand the concept of rhymes and may not fully grasp that language is comprised of sounds; her speech may also be unclear. Usually, the child will have difficulty reading because the ability to read is actually the ability to understand that for each sound, there is a symbol (a letter of the alphabet).
Gross Motor Clumsiness and Sensory Integration. Think of the child who falls a lot, can’t catch a ball, won’t sit on the swing, hates to be touched, or is always putting objects in his mouth long after that developmental stage has passed. Or consider the child who hates to play with water, glue, or sand, and is always taking off his shoes, shirts, or socks, or will only wear a certain soft T-shirt. These sensory issues can cause concentration problems (which easily lead to academic struggles) and social issues (which, as noted earlier, may hint at underlying learning disabilities).
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 306)
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