Tamara Vreeken is co-founder of the dyslexia advocacy non-profit HOI Foundation in the Netherlands. As a NoticeAbility international partner, HOI Foundation has translated our online Entrepreneurs & Innovators coursework –literally re-filmed the videos in Dutch - and also re-cast the course to fit the local needs. We celebrate all of our partners – those teaching in schools, our homeschool parents, and our independent tutoring partners- and look to continue expanding the number of young people helped by their efforts, no matter what language it’s in.
We caught up with Tamara recently and learned about the adaptations she and her co-founder Stephanie Raber have made to fit their local classrooms, the expectations of parents, and the roles the school and local government play in supporting struggling readers. All things we thought you might want to hear about, since as we’ve found, it’s different in different places, and NoticeAbility wants to help you adapt our courses to fit the needs you see where you are!
NoticeAbility: Tell us about you, and why you are working on helping students with dyslexia.
Tamara: When I grew up my teachers thought I was dumb and lazy. My parents were confused because they had a child who was an obviously smart and curious, ordinary kid at home. My mother found out, though a American friend, that there was something called ‘word blind’ (now known as dyslexia). My father, who could speak and read in Dutch, English and French, had a lot of trouble at school too. Through me he found out he is dyslexic too, as his father was and that side of his family. Now we know much more about dyslexia in Holland, but when my three dyslexic children went to primary school, I was so surprised about the lack of knowledge on dyslexia in the school. I saw my bright children go down. Down in self-esteem and in believing that they can be anything they want to be in life. In Holland the common knowledge is: dyslexia is a learning disability. Children can get extra help, but there is no room for developing the strengths of the dyslexic children. I wanted to change this. I belief self-esteem is the most important thing in life to be happy and successful. Together with Stephanie, we started the HOI Foundation. [The capital-letters H, O, I you can flip upside down and from left to right but the form of the letter stays the same.] The mission of our foundation is to change the perception of dyslexia from a disability, to a brain that works differently and has challenges AND strengths, by bringing scientific knowledge and tools to support this. So all dyslexic children have the opportunity to learn to their full potential. We started to working on solutions and built an organization dedicated to do just that. We are very proud to work with NoticeAbility as it perfectly fits our mission and was exactly what Holland was missing!
NoticeAbility: Wow! Thanks. Great to hear about your personal journey, and how it sparked this movement to pay it forward for others. Who participates in the courses, and why?
Tamara: Children with diagnosed and suspected dyslexia can join. Parents want to know that the self-confidence of their child is protected and nurtured. For many dyslexic children, school is a place where they only learn what they are not good at. They tend to fail day after day, sometimes for years before they get extra help or are diagnosed with dyslexia. Fear of failing, loss of self-confidence and enormous frustration are very common. The course developed by NoticeAbility brings back the self-confidence. The parents in Holland want to know that the course materials that NoticeAbility has developed were built in partnership with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; that’s important to them. And we have worked with different age students: the youngest class was with students ages 9-12, and then we also have students participate in the ages of 13-14 as well.
NoticeAbility: So, how does the NoticeAbility course work for you logistically?
Tamara: We do it a bit different in Holland. We teach the program just once a week, for 1.5 hours over 10 weeks. Because we do the program during after-school time, parents don’t want to come to the location twice a week. So during the 90 minute sessions we watch the videos together as one big group (instead of on their own screens); that way I can keep everyone focused and on track. Then we talk about the video. And work in the SOUL Centers (small group project-teams). I have a minimum of 6 kids in a class so I can make two groups and they can present to each other. And I can’t do more than 14 kids at once. That’s how we fit it in.
NoticeAbility: What is the impact for students? What do parents say?
Tamara: From what I have seen, it really boosts their self-confidence. I wish I had this kind of experience growing up.
The nicest reply by one of the students was: 'I now know my dyslexia is a super-power and it sometimes is still very annoying.' And that is what it is. It’s still hard work at school, we can not change that. But to have them know they have fantastic abilities too, is a major change in their lives! Also parents see the difference in their children. One mother noticed her daughter walked with her head up instead of down, like she did for years. Fantastic results!
NoticeAbility: What adjustments have you made to the course?
Tamara: It is very do-able, though for some of the lessons we needed to adjust it a little. For instance, for the customer interview sessions, it can take some time, so we adjust. Depending on the location of the class, we ask students to go outside and ask people on the street, or I ask them to take time as homework to ask some people in their neighborhood. Making the final presentation is a bit tight to complete in one lesson. But they manage. They are so skilled with powerpoint and some of the other computer programs! The course helps bring out the talent in students, but the motivation in the group is everything. Sometimes it doesn’t work as well if they truly don’t want to be there. I work hard so the course is fun and exciting, not just another thing they HAVE to do.
NoticeAbility: How are you engaging teachers in schools?
Tamara: So in addition to NoticeAbility’s online teacher training, we also give a half-day workshop for teachers. In this training we give more information on the MIND strengths. And some details on how the program works. I show them the curriculum with the script and everything. Also, I think this is the most important thing: I introduce some cases so teachers get to talk about what dyslexia means for students. I try to inspire them in ’seeing’ the kids. Not just only to see the bad behavior some have developed to cope in school. But to try and see the talent they have.
NoticeAbility: What challenges do you find in getting support for the program?
Tamara: The NoticeAbility program is about fostering new ideas, and as a creative group experience it is meant to be free and unbridled. Teachers and parents can find this hard. They ask things like: “How can we just wait and see, and let sometimes let students move around, be loud, and be silly with their ideas? What will happen? Is that even learning?” I try to train them, and reassure them that while it might look to them like chaos, that’s one good way for great new creative ideas to come out.
NoticeAbility: Do you have any advice for teachers who might follow in your footsteps?
Tamara: Do it. Make it happen - these young people need support, and you are so capable - it makes a big difference for each student you touch.
NoticeAbility: Thank you so much for your work!
Tamara: You are welcome. And thank you!