An Interview with Peggy Stern About Dyslexiaville: Helping Kids with Dyslexia and Attention Issues

When I was diagnosed with dyslexia in the first grade, the intervention I received helped me to cobble together some basic reading skills, though barely at best. Once I achieved a certain baseline level in remedial reading, I was again on my own. Dyslexia, however, affects far more than just reading, and the biggest problem can be the social and emotional toll it takes on the child—the feelings of shame, inadequacy, and a lack of belonging. Sadly, the social and emotional problems caused by dyslexia are rarely addressed.

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Peggy Stern and John Canemaker win an Academy Award for the animated short The Moon and the Son

the-moon-and-the-sunThere is one woman on a mission to change that. Peggy Stern is an Academy Award-winning film producer/director who also happens to be dyslexic. It was her dyslexia that led her to filmmaking and animation at a young age, and in March 2006, Stern won the Oscar for Best Animated Short for her film The Moon and the Son.

I recently interviewed Peggy about her own struggle, and she spoke of her passion for helping children with dyslexia and attention issues, including the social and emotional complications. That passion led to the creation of Dyslexiaville, a multimedia resource focusing on social and emotional learning for children with dyslexia and attention issues. Their mission is to help kids succeed in both school and life, because of—not in spite of—their learning differences.

Some of the multimedia resources available from Dyslexiaville include the Super d! Show, which is available for viewing on YouTube. The Super d! Show is a series of short episodes about the everyday lives of kids with learning and attention issues, and is designed to instill confidence in kids with LD. Part of the Super d! Show includes DNN, the Dylexia News Network, which is news from all across the country about kids with learning and attention issues. All the series produced at Dyslexiaville are cast only with kids who have learning differences like dyslexia or ADHD.

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Don: Peggy, what can you tell us about your own experience with dyslexia?

Peggy: I was born in 1957, and when I was five, my grandmother noticed that no matter how many times a small book about the seasons was read to me, I could never remember what order they came in. All of that simple sequencing stuff went right by me. I had the same struggle remembering the order of the months as well. I had no idea where to begin. My grandmother was able to see that I wasn’t just switching the letters in words, I was having trouble with sequencing as well.

She took me to meet with a former student who had just graduated and was starting to do some tutoring. My grandmother remembers that the tutor wasn’t convinced of my dyslexia at first. She thought she was dealing with some classic overbearing grandmother who thought she could diagnose such things, but she agreed to meet with us anyway. We arrived at her apartment after kindergarten one day, and the tutor had me sit down at the table and among other things asked me to write my name. That was one of the first things you are taught in kindergarten, but it took me twenty minutes, working through the tricks I’d been taught for each letter, and triumphant at the end, I accidentally had the end of the “Y” sticking straight up, and didn’t even see it. By the end of that first meeting, the tutor was a believer in my dyslexia.

I had a hard time retaining any information about letters or sequences. Often I would come back the next day only to start all over because I wouldn’t have retained what was taught the day before. It took a long time for me to grasp things. I lied to my friends about having a tutor. No one knew where I went after school. I would either say I was going to a dance class, or to my grandmother’s. I was completely ashamed. How I carried that shame around is one of the main things that stuck with me as I became an adult.

It was around 8th grade when I finally became a reader, and then it all took off for me. It was just like the world opened up. I loved reading. I wasn’t super great at retaining every fact I read, I couldn’t take notes in class and there were still lots of things I struggled with, but being able to read opened up the whole world. My tutor had been there at my side, constantly making me feel smart. She kept reemphasizing, saying, “Okay, yes, I know this is hard for you, and this is slow, but look at how creative you are when we talk about a character or do other activities.” She was incredibly magical. One thing she did was have me dictate a story to her, type it up; and then we would work on my reading using the story I had written. By doing that, my tutor made a young child feel like she had something worthwhile to say. How amazing is that?

I am very thankful for a grandmother who took notice of my learning difference. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had a different family. What would have happened to me? And I think a lot about how lucky I was to have this really creative teacher.

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Jordan, Andres, and BrookeLyn, actors on the Super d! Show

 

That’s a lot of what went into me wanting to do something about social-emotional learning, because I think there are a lot of teachers out there who are beginning to understand, and there will hopefully be increasingly more government intervention in the sense that states are going to require more teacher training. All of these things have to happen, 100% across the country. We need to have it mandated, and families should not have to fight and take their kids out of public school. All of that has to dramatically change. But while that is happening, there needs to be some way for the children who are not in a supportive system yet to not feel like they are stupid or that they are being fake. They need to recognize the strengths they have and realize that they are just not being taught correctly yet. That is why I care so deeply about it.

I had success, but it took a village. I learned though, because I had my grandmother and my tutor to speak up with the people close to me. When I was in high school, I wasn’t afraid to say: “I really need help, could you read this over?” I had people around me who would help reorganize my papers for me. It wasn’t so much spelling errors, as it was that my topic sentence would be at the bottom of the page.

A key point was that I wasn’t too embarrassed to ask for help. That is social-emotional, that’s me having had somebody make me feel okay about showing this weakness that had to do with how I wrote or how I spelled. That’s what kids need, and every kid deserves it.

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Professor Boom investigates the dyslexic brain on the Super d! Show.

 

Don: One thing I’ve learned is that not all people with dyslexia are alike. There are things we all have in common, but we each have our own unique strengths, and some may have more of a struggle with one thing than another. How has this fact influenced your work with Dyslexiaville?

Peggy: When I approached someone about funding, he said to me, “So, are you going to be teaching reading through the web?” And I said, “No.” He then said, “Well, if you were doing that, I would fund you, because that’s what needs to happen. And we need to make sure every kid has access to that, but otherwise, I’m not really interested.”

And I thought, “Well ok, so it goes.” I then said to him, ”I don’t think you could replace the kind of intervention that needs to happen in a classroom, or with a tutor, or in a resource room, because every dyslexic child tends to learn differently, and varied programs and kinds of intervention are needed to find what works best. Teachers have to find what is going to be the best way for that child. That is what science has shown us, it isn’t the same in every child.”

The idea that there is some program that we could put out there on the web that would suddenly have kids doing it and they’d be transformed, is not going to happen. But I do think we can use the web for other things, and that’s why I’m very excited to be doing this. I do think we can use media to build community, and we can tell stories that make people learn about themselves and understand how they learn. It can show them what their strengths are, and that will help them with whatever intervention that they get.

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Filming an episode of the Super d! Show

 

Also, we’re really trying to help turn this generation into advocates for themselves. Kids tend to blame themselves for their learning differences, or in some settings they’re still told that they aren’t trying hard enough. And even with a kid who might have accommodations, for instance, and happens to have a substitute teacher, and is told they aren’t allowed to use their calculator for a test. The child sort of figures, “Well, I don’t know what to say, because I know I’ve been given an accommodation to use this, but this is the teacher, they’re the authority.” So we’re really trying to have episodes in the program that get at that idea, that get at that ‘self-advocacy.’

Don: How are your own experiences reflected in the show?

Peggy: My own experiences and those of my two co-writers and directors are reflected in the show. David Bailen, he’s 25 now, but I’ve known him since he was 12. I had made a film about his mother, and had found out from her that he was dyslexic. At 12 years old, his super-d-show-logo-transparent-smallschool didn’t know how to deal with him, and he was going to have to change schools. He’s super talented. He’s a musician, a songwriter, he’s an artist, and he turned into a screenwriter. And so he wrote the first 11 episodes of the first season. David was the first person who I turned to. He was at NYU, studying film and screenwriting, and I started talking to him about this. He was involved from the beginning.

Then there was Max Strebel. I also met Max when he was a freshman at NYU, and at that point, I had already done a film that was with the head of animation at NYU, and that film had won an Academy Award. So I had already started talking to people about wanting to do a film or a project about dyslexia, and I wanted to use animation, and I was going to work with the same animator. So, one of the other teachers at NYU knew about that and in her freshman class, this young student came in, and he showed her a film that he’d done about his own dyslexia. It was an animated film called “Words,” and it was amazing. It was only a few minutes long, but it was all hand drawn and it was really powerful. She said I had to meet this kid. So we met and I actually used some of the film in some fundraising I was doing. I said to him, “I love what you’re doing, let’s collaborate.” And so I brought him in early on. And really, the three of us were the initial core group and we all drew from our own experiences.

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The Dyslexic News Network, sharing news from and about kids with dyslexia and learning differences, including viewer-submitted videos, which helps to foster a sense of community and belonging for students who have LD.

 

Don: How did Dyslexiaville first come about and what was your goal for the show?

Peggy: I attended a conference on dyslexia and creativity. They had invited a lot of different people, film makers, writers, and all kinds of people to come and talk about their dyslexia and what they ended up doing. So, I was there as a filmmaker and I presented some of my past work, and I ended by talking about what I was developing for Dyslexiaville. That night, a woman came up to me and said, “I am on the Board of Dyslexic Advantage, but I also have two children who are in 3rd and 5th grade who have dyslexia, and my husband has dyslexia too. I’m living this right now, and I love what you’re doing.”

She started donating her time and working with me. She lived in Seattle, and we would talk once a week, and she got very involved and was the co-producer with me on the first series. And what was great was that she had younger kids, so while we were taking from our own experiences, I had mine as an almost 57-year old and then these 22, 23-year olds, and then Kristi who had her 8 and 10-year old. And we just pulled all our thoughts and ideas together and knew we wanted to touch on three things.

We wanted to touch on identity, and kids coming to understand who they are as a learner; we wanted to touch on self-advocacy, which I mentioned earlier; and we wanted to touch on this concept of community, the idea that you’re not alone and you’re not the only one. So each episode touches on some part of those three things.

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Super d! Show cast members having fun.

 

Don: What has been the response to the show? Do you feel like you’re connecting with your audience?

Peggy: One example is a teacher who’s in Providence, Rhode Island. She actually filmed her second graders responding to the episodes. She said, “Hi Peggy, I’m Tracy, and I just watched the Obnoxious Teacher episode,” and the students all gave feedback, such as, “I really liked it, and I liked it because…” They were very enthusiastic, and the teacher had asked them specifically try to say why they liked it. So this one little girl said, “I really liked how Kia ended up not drawing the moustache on the teacher, because I think that it was true that she didn’t like how he was making her feel, but she didn’t want to turn around and do the same thing to him.” So I was really thrilled to see that a second grader understood that level of the story.

And then I’ve gotten things from tutors who are using the episodes. They say that they sit there and just watch as a smiles appear on faces of the kids. By the end of the first episode, they’re just beaming. Literally, it is not even a verbal response, it’s just this kind of body language response and this smile. A teacher wrote me a beautiful little paragraph about that.

 

That’s part of the beauty of it. A child could watch this story, and if they see themselves in it, it might make them say to their parents, “Hey, do you think I have anything?” Because a lot of things don’t get identified early enough.

There are so many things that go into the world of a child. Knowing if we we’re hitting the right tone was extremely challenging in some ways. I had made a film about Chuck Jones, the animator who created Bugs Bunny, and he really guided me with one of the things that he said in the film. I had asked him, “How did you know that kids would like your stuff? And he said, “Oh, I can promise you, we had no idea. We just figured if we could make ourselves laugh, then probably kids would laugh because we were all kids, and we just made sure that we laughed.”

I just loved that, because it felt like I shouldn’t make it so complicated. You don’t need an algorithm, or you’re going to have 16 people going to go and give you a psychological assessment of every age. Just try to be authentic and true to our own experiences as kids who grew up with LD, and what we thought was funny.

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Super d! Show cast member Charlie on set.

 

Don: Do the kids on your show have any film experience?

Peggy: None of these kids had ever been filmed before. Some of them had been in school plays, but they had never been on a set, they had no professional experience, and honestly, none of us had too much professional experience doing fiction with kids. We were all pretty new to the genre.

And yet, because the kids knew that the grownups were all LD too—the director, the producer, me—there was just a lot of safety. And when we would be going through the scripts with the kids, often with kids I knew were shy about reading out loud, I would just read their part for them. The idea was never to feel tested, that everyone was going to have the time they needed, and we would get there in the end and we would help each other. It wasn’t hierarchical particularly, so I think that really created an exciting environment.

And so for me it is really gratifying both to see what these fifteen kids in the cast got out of being in the series, and then hearing what kids are getting from seeing it. And the other thing I can share about the kids is that I’ve been hearing that kids want to watch them over and over, and that was a goal that we had, obviously. I mean, by making things sort of fun, and funny, because I think that repetition is important, you take it in more. Kids often want to do that, but you have to make it worth their while. It has to be fun.

Don: What are some of the social and emotional topics you’ll be touching on in season one?

Peggy: We got a little bolder, I would say. One of the new titles is going to be Anxiety, one of them is Procrastination. You know they are trying to get at this real social-emotional topic, which is, yes, you’re in school and you might be even getting intervention and help, but that doesn’t mean that your emotional relationship to having LD is completely easy. They bring up a topic and present strategies to each other about how to cope with it in the story. About how to cope with your own anxiety.”

Don: Tell us the story of how the 12th episode was written?

Peggy: Ari, who is the main character in the episode where the kid gets lost in the park, wrote the episode himself.

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Cast member Ari, who wrote episode 12 of the Super d! Show.

 

Ari is extremely funny and he actually wrote an episode during the shooting two years ago. He brought it to me and said, “Will you look at this?” I was blown away. I showed it to the other kids, and asked them if they were willing to learn some new lines. We ended up shooting it on the last afternoon. We squeezed it in there. So that will be up there and it was written by 10-year old Ari. It is about memory basically.

So we have this interview series that will be going up that is called, “Not So Late Night with Ari.” Initially, he is interviewing the kids in the cast, and it will be little mini-docs about each kid in the cast and their own experience with LD. Then we hope to bring in others, both kids and adults, well-known and not necessarily well-known. They will be short little 5-minute episodes, geared for the kid-audience.

Don: How much effort do the kids put into doing the show? Do they memorize their lines?

Peggy: What’s interesting is that within the fifteen kids in the cast, there is a huge range of working memory and ability to memorize lines among them. Jordan, who is featured in the Wall Street Journal article about Dyslexiaville and who plays Professor Boom, happens to be very musical and has an incredible ability to memorize lines. She’s dyslexic, and goes to the same school as some of the other kids, but memorizing lines comes very easily to her. She said the way she did it, is she would put all the lines to a song and melody that she knew and would just keep running it in her head.

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Behind the scenes of the Super d! Show with cast members Jordan and Ayanna.

 

And so we actually encouraged all the kids from the beginning to read aloud themselves, or if their reading wasn’t strong enough, to have a family member read their lines on an iPad so they could listen to them almost like a song, and that really helped. But there were a few of the younger kids who did struggle more.

And I have to admit that there are definitely scenes where I am literally sitting out of frame and I am on the eye line of the camera, so then they would be looking at me and I would be mouthing the words. We only had to do it in a few cases, but it would help.

The kids look professional up there, but they worked hard to memorize this stuff. And they worked hard to do as well as they did and I just give them so much credit for their determination, and then on top of that, they weren’t just performing it in a classroom. We were on a soundstage and a set, with 12 adults around doing camera, lighting, and costume.

Don: I think when they work so hard and make it look easy, that people don’t necessarily appreciate how much effort actually went into it.

Peggy: Yes, and I think it’s an important thing to show. It is a stereotype that these kids who need extra help aren’t trying hard enough. Kids with ADHD or dyslexia or any kind of processing or learning difference try harder than everybody else. They have to. They have to do things over and over. And just like these kids have strategies with their homework to either concentrate or stay on task or whatever it might be, they had to add learning their lines, and remembering where to be on the set, and doing things over and over into their lives, and they had to do that as a child with a learning difference. I think they have found some good strategies and saw that they could help each other. It was wonderful to watch, I mean it was just incredible, the kids were really, really amazing at figuring out how to do this for the first time.

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Super d! Show cast members sleeping…or maybe not🙂

 

Don: How can we help support this project?

Peggy: Get the word out. That can be by sharing your article and by others knowing they can send it on and go to our webpage at www.dyslexiaville.com where they can sign up for the newsletter. Then can go to YouTube and subscribe to our YouTube channel as well.

It also helps us when we go to future partners and funders to show that we’ve been able to reach this many people just through word of mouth, confirming that there is such a need for this material. So, really showing that people want to watch this, and are watching this; and then getting people to share their comments is important.

We are just doing everything we can to get the word out there and ultimately we do hope we can get some partners. It would be exciting if an Amazon or a Netflix realized that this is a huge audience. 20% right? And people are saying even if it’s not 1 in 5 are LD, but 1 in 10 of the school-age group that we’re targeting, that is still millions of kids. We really believe these episodes should be shown that widely, with that kind of distribution. You know, on an Amazon, or on a Netflix, we would love to partner with someone like that. That’s why we started this way, so we can build a grassroots audience, and… so far so good!

Conclusion: If you have any questions or would like to make a comment or share an experience, we would love to hear from you. And check out Dyslexiaville.com, home of the Super d! Show.

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