I broke a toe recently. Woke from a deep sleep, ambled around my apartment for just a few moments and then thump! I hit my foot on a piece of furniture.
As I hobbled around in the days that followed, lost in the effort of just getting about, I thought “this is what it must feel like to be old.” And then—“this is what it feels like to have a disability.”
I’d just completed a disabilities module of a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) methods class I was taking. So disabilities were on my mind. Our professor, Susanne Marcus, showed a video on a seminal workshop by Rick Lavoie, a learning disabilities expert. The workshop was called “F.A.T. (Frustration Anxiety Tension) City,” and it simulates the world of a child with learning disabilities.
I think all educators should see it.
Lavoie conducted the workshop live from 1973 to 1989. The video was made during that time, and it remains relevant today.
Lavoie led workshop participants—teachers, social workers, psychologists and parents—through a series of exercises. They were designed to help everyone experience what children with learning disabilities go through as they struggle to keep up their daily lives.
Lavoie created an environment of palpable frustration, anxiety and tension by posing questions to participants at a rapid-fire pace and insisting that they respond with breakneck speed.
No sooner did participants jump through one hoop than another appeared.
In one activity, participants struggled to read a story in which sentences were not linear. Instead, the words were splattered on the page in a jagged formation and broken in odd places.
Another exercise required participants to say with confidence what they saw. It became impossible when participants viewed artwork based on an optical illusion.
Years later, in a workshop called “Beyond F.A.T. City,” some of the original participants reunited and shared comments about how the experience changed them.
"They tended to develop greater sensitivity and tolerance for students' behaviors once they understood what was causing them,” said Marcus, my professor. “[They also saw] that these behaviors may not always be something the student can control."
Using the same principle, Marcus led our class through exercises that helped us experience the world of a beginning-level English Language Learner (ELL). In one exercise, we had to break into small groups and play a card game that we had just learned. But we were not allowed to communicate verbally or through gestures. Needless to say, frustration and confusion reigned. This exercise and others produced many “aha!” moments.
“When you read research, discuss theories or even view films, you can get a taste of what the classroom is like,” Marcus said. “But, until you, yourself, experience first-hand what your students may feel, you cannot truly be prepared.”
I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing as insightful as walking in another’s shoes. It’s a profound tool that can help us achieve the success we’re all striving for in the classroom.
Barrett is a journalist living in New York City and has aspirations of becoming an ESL teacher.