Dean Starbuck Bragonier #85

 Portrait by Kira Hower

Portrait by Kira Hower

Dyslexic Champion

Founder of NoticeAbility

 

We're 20% of the population. One in five individuals that you pass on the street today have dyslexia, but we represent 50% of all incarcerated youth. We also represent 60% of adolescents involved in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. 

And yet, 35% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Through countless hours of dedication, they were able to persevere, but the ones that we're reading about and know about represent a fraction of those who could be equally successful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Heidi Legg

Two years ago, Dean Bragonier founded NoticeAbility in an effort to change curriculum for dyslexic kids before his own son hits middle school. Why? Dean and his wife Sally Taylor are both dyslexic and they understand the challenges of learning in middle school. 

What struck me most was when Dean explained that the invention of the Gutenberg printing press meant 20% of our population was left behind with text-based learning. Dean is on a personal mission to take on dyslexia by trying to modernize school curricula for middle school students using modern technology. This fall Martha’s Vineyard public schools will adopt his curriculum district-wide, he will pilot with Citizens Schools and offer his curriculum at three private schools. His interview offers a fascinating insight into the brain, how we learn and why we can’t leave dyslexic kids behind.

What is NoticeAbility and how did your mission come about?

The truth is that prior to my own son being born, I had a lot of negative memories of my own educational experience as a dyslexic. Over decades I learned to address the skills that were at one point very challenging for me and began a career in entrepreneurship. I enjoyed it and really took advantage of what dyslexia lent me in that environment, but the moment that I became a father – and I'm married to a beautiful dyslexic – there was an 80% to 100% likelihood that our son was going to be dyslexic. I found myself reflecting upon my own experience and anticipating what he would go through if I didn't do something to address the issue.

What were you scared about?

Self-esteem. We're fortunate enough to have a level of cognition in our family, based on our own diagnosis, and we are going to preemptively address dyslexia and help him address some of the challenges, but I knew that our effort would only take him so far. I knew that he was going to automatically feel the repercussions of being ostracized for being different and likely interpret that – as I did, as my wife did – as being deficient.

While we are deficient readers, that is only one half of the story. The other half of the story is incredibly compelling and grounds for tremendous confidence but unfortunately that part of the story is rarely told.

As a result, the vast majority of dyslexics – we're talking about 2.5 million kids in the school system today – not only go undiagnosed but even if they are diagnosed, they go unsupported on an emotional level. It comes as no surprise when these young children have bought into this fictitious narrative that they are in some way broken. And when faced with the pressure to define oneself amongst their peers, unless the child happens to be a gifted athlete, chances are they're going to see their only opportunity to fit in amongst those populations that have a very low barrier to entry: the ones that are out in the parking lot drinking beer after school or the ones who are perhaps selling drugs on the corner. That is why the vast majority of dyslexics are upwards of 50% of all incarcerated youth. It's staggering.

 

We're 20% of the population. One in five individuals that you pass on the street today have dyslexia, but we represent 50% of all incarcerated youth. We also represent 60% of adolescents involved in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. These negative outcomes are not a function of intelligence, because by definition, being dyslexic you have to be average or above average intelligence because the delta between your general intelligence and your capacity to read is actually the tool used when diagnosed as dyslexic. We're not unintelligent human beings. To the contrary, but when you are told by your peers or your teachers – or worst case scenario your parents –that ‘If you tried harder, you'd get it or you're not going to be what you hoped you were going to be,’ you start to internalize that message and it does disastrous things to one’s self esteem.

 

How do you explain the polarity between the many poor achieving dyslexics you describe above and the many high achieving we read about?

One of the reoccurring messages that I hear from very successful dyslexics is that they attribute their success to their ability to persevere in the face of adversity. They were literally born into an environment that was not built for them. They were left handed-people in a right-handed person's world and they had to either sink or swim.

Through countless hours of dedication, they were able to persevere, but the ones that we're reading about and know about represent a fraction of those who could be equally successful. They, instead, buckled under the pressure, which is completely understandable. I have been on the cusp of throwing in the towel.

It's a very difficult educational path for a dyslexic. We have to ask, ‘what is the opportunity cost to society when you look at the small yet incredibly successful dyslexics and the statistical number of those who have gone by the wayside because the system has abandoned them?’

What we are doing at NoticeAbility is trying to target those individuals that may not have the resources or the level of awareness in their home or in their classroom and create a curriculum that enables those students to be exposed to the professional paths in which most dyslexics find success. Literally you could profile successful dyslexics based on the cognitive repertoire that comes as a result of our specific brain construction. There's a book called The Dyslexic Advantage. It's essentially my professional bible and they break it down into an acronym called MIND. It's the material reasoning, interconnected reasoning, dynamic reasoning and narrative reasoning and like a true dyslexic I just spelled MIDN, I think!

To give you a couple of examples with material reasoning, a dyslexic can look at something like a blueprint for a very complicated architectural structure and I can build it to completion, in almost virtual reality in my mind. I can actually enter the back door and I can go up the stairs and I can turn left and I can open the door into the closet and I can tell you exactly where I am at any point, even though it's purely hypothetical and in my mind. This is why a vast majority of dyslexics find success in architecture or engineering, for example.

Another, interconnected reasoning, is a tremendous asset especially for entrepreneurs. It is this incredible ability to see patterns, like you said, and continuity and narrative from seemingly disparate pieces of information. If you take a guy like Charles Schwab or Richard Branson – these are individuals who look at an entire industry and they are able to look at certain market trends and see things that most analysts cannot even come close to understanding and then they bet substantially on those outcomes and as we know, Schwab and Branson happen to do very well at it. Thirty-five percent of all entrepreneurs have dyslexia.

I’ve read that it’s about all these interconnected neurons by synapses and how entrepreneurs often have more synapses. Is that true?

Yes. Dyslexics have these things called mini-columns and they're imbedded in our cortex and they serve, essentially, as the telephone poles and it turns out that the proximity of these mini-columns is tremendously important. For individuals with autism, those mini-columns are spaced very, very closely together. As a result, their axons are much shorter and their ability to do highly repetitive, very specific detailed tasks is off the charts.

Dyslexics are on the complete opposite end of the brain construction. Our mini-columns are spaced considerably further apart then the general population which, many of the neuroscientists are postulating, accounts for the fact that our axons are actually bridging the gap between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and from that very unique construction, we are given these cognitive advantages.

You have another set of skills?

Now with that construction, unfortunately, the visual and the language component of our brains don't synchronize the way every else's does. In my opinion, it's a small price to pay, but then again I'm on the other side of it. If you asked me when I was in elementary school, I would have given my left arm to not have that brain construction.

This country is founded on this notion of diversity. Yet, one of the areas that we've neglected is cognitive diversity. An individual with autism has got a tremendous value proposition to society when it comes to these very specific tasks. I'll give you an example: there's a Belgian guy, father of a child with autism. He noticed his son's propensity to do these repetitive tasks and he went to a telecommunication company and said, 'Hey, look…every time you drop a new smart phone, I know that you've got a bunch of techies trying to bust that by entering codes to see if it'll break when it goes to market. My son will do that and he'll do it for eight hours straight and he won't ask for a break,' and so this guy now has a consulting firm in both Belgium and the U.S. filled only with people with autism. These individuals get paid well above market value because nobody can come close to them on this particular skill.

What is your goal with NoticeAbility? Are you trying to change the educational system?

The question we are asking is how can society take full advantage of the psychological and intellectual resources that we have? We've got to start noticing ability. If you notice ability, you see no disability. And that's a glass-half full approach.

I've created what I believe will be a mechanism for those individuals to trigger that paradigm shift within themselves by exposing them to pre-professional content that applies to those professions where individuals with dyslexia are disproportionately represented in terms of success: We created a entrepreneurs' curriculum. Next will be our base curriculum for engineers and architects.

What age of student are you targeting?

Middle school, specifically, and that's very purposeful. In a best-case scenario, a dyslexic student will get reading remediation beginning in kindergarten through approximately sixth grade and that is hallowed ground. That is the time that they have to roll up their sleeves and plug away because the neuroplasticity is still malleable so they can acquire this cognitive skill. I want to get to these individuals before they get to high school when the workload is going to increase ten-fold and the pressure to define oneself among their peers becomes acute.

Is there shame?

I think that's a very subjective answer. I know that I started feeling that shame – my mother tells me I felt it the first day of school – in first grade when I got off the school bus, broke into tears and said, 'I'm the stupidest kid at school,' and unfortunately this is pretty much the most predictable reaction of most dyslexics. They believe that false notion at the very beginning and it's not because they're not intelligent. It's because the school system is predicated on the notion in that the only way to transmit education is through text.

We're both in our forties. Today, compared to when we went to school, you could be learning in school by video and audio. That’s very accessible as a format to be adopted, right?

Exactly. You're right. The level of cognition around these things has grown exponentially in our lifetime and that's fantastic but identifying the problem is again one half of the equation. We've got to identify a solution and the panacea for the dyslexic learner is to find a solution to access content without having it hidden behind a bunch of squiggly lines that we call 'text.' We need to find different conduits for content to be delivered to these students because it's not a matter of intelligence. It's a matter of transmission.

What frustrates me is that if my 40-something dyslexic peers want to learn how to change oil on their car, they don't go to the manual. They go to YouTube and they watch it. And yet that is not the case for kids in school.

How do we utilize something that you and I will use a thousand times today and introduce it into the classroom where these dyslexics are going to benefit tremendously by having those different accessibility points?

I've been flattered by the amount of support and enthusiasm that this idea has garnered but, at the end of the day, I think it's so straightforward and it needs more support.

OK, how do we apply it?

This is when I give a shout-out to our neighbors here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thank you to Harvard University and MIT because what these wonderful institutions have done is they've created an online learning platform called edX. Furthermore, they've open sourced edX which means that little tiny nonprofits like mine can get a multimillion dollar learning platform for free. And for pennies on the dollar, I get to utilize this instrument and create curricula that I can then transport anywhere in the world through Internet access.

Have you started to build that curriculum for middle schools?

Through the generous support of The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation and The Martha's Vineyard Public School District, the Martha's Vineyard Charter School and the Island Wide Youth Collaborative, we will launch The Martha’s Vineyard Learning Differences Community Enrichment Project. I will provide professional development training to approximately 20 Vineyard school teachers and 16 community/parent volunteers. I will also co-teach NoticeAbility's Entrepreneurs and Innovators curriculum to roughly 150 middle students with dyslexia alongside teachers at each of the district's five elementary schools, the Charter School and an after-school program at the IWYC. 

I've got a smile on my face because I contacted the Harvard School of Ed. and went to them and said, 'Do you think this is a good idea?' I was able to get four students from Harvard School of Ed. to work on this project because I'm not a traditional educator. I need traditional educators to help translate my ideas through a language that the system can use and digest.

I then went to Steve Wilkins who's the head of the Carroll School, a private school dedicated to helping dyslexic students thrive, and asked if I could build it with 10 of his students and try out information on them and encourage them to give me their honest feedback. That's exactly what I've done for the last year. I've called these students my associates. They're not my students because they're my equals. They are my contemporaries as far as I'm concerned and they have enabled me to adjust those aspects of the curriculum. Had I built it in a vacuum, I would’ve missed the mark and they've been very, very candid and wonderful in the process.

Would you describe The Carroll School for people who don’t know about it?

The Carroll School is one of the nation's most progressive, effective dyslexic LD-specific schools in the nation. There are a handful of gold standards and Carroll is one of them.

Who does or will fund you?

The curriculum is our secret sauce and in order to train teachers how to use our curriculum, we offer professional development. There's this wonderful mandate that will be activated as of July 1st, where any general education or special education teacher who wants to keep their license active are required to take 15 professional development points in special education in Massachusetts. This is a very progressive step. State mandated. But it's just a matter of time before we see it on the national level, state-by-state.

It's the traditional startup nonprofit model. We get a bunch of generous individual donors who helped us get up and running and then we started to augment that with foundational funding with a mission to address this population and then of course you transition into, best case scenario, government funding. The idea is that if we can prove our efficacy through this pyramid that I just described, the U.S. government, I think, should start to take a look at this. It is all metrics-based and that's why we've been very, very metric-centric in the construction of this, because everybody who drops a dollar into the nonprofit world needs to know that it's not being wasted. I applaud this very strong emphasis today on results-driven philanthropy and I'm quite confident in what we'll be revealing to our donors.

What will this curriculum look like? If I’m a 9th grade teacher, what are you going to give me as tools?

One of the things that our research has revealed is a problem with professional development organizations. There’s a fundamental disconnect between what I teach you as a teacher and what you are able to then instill in your classroom.

Why?

The teachers wind up saying, 'I learned something about dyslexia but it's just too much to translate it into my classroom.' What we're trying to do is say, 'Look, you don't have to worry about a thing because here is five user names and passwords. You can distribute this to each one of your students and tonight they can go online onto our secured platform, they can register for the class, and tonight they can start downloading and watching videos, audio lessons – all the content that is in our lesson plans is now distributed through an online platform.’

Once that student comes into their class next week, they will have completed a couple of assignments that reinforce the lessons of the lesson plan and they meet with the other students who are dyslexic. The class starts off with a mindfulness exercise followed by a positive affirmation exercise: 'My name is Dean. I'm dyslexic and I'm highly creative. I'm a great problem solver.' We are trying to create a new neural pathway associated with the definition of dyslexia in the minds of these individuals.' Then everyone breaks off into teams of three and they go into their SOUL (self-organized, unbridled learning) Centers and there's one rule: you have complete autonomy among you and your peers provided you subscribe to the conflict resolution techniques taught in this class.

Are they in this group for the whole day?

No. This is one period once a week and 10 modules that make up the arc of the curriculum. What happens in public schools is that you get individualized education plans (IEPs) which are all part of the federal and state mandate for equal opportunity for educating all students. IEPs have certain resource blocks where they are pulled out to either have extra help, tutorial space, and such. This is a very applicable curriculum to insert into those resource blocks. The context of the curriculum may be entrepreneurship or engineering but more importantly it's providing a context through which curriculum creators can deliver the three panaceas that are being paraded in the education space for dyslexic learners: executive functioning, social and emotional learning, and meta-cognition which is understanding how it is we learn.

The problem is that these three disciplines are being taught currently as extra disciplines. For the dyslexic learner, it's just another headache.

And it doesn't solve the self-esteem issue, but if we bake it into something that is inherently compelling…

Isn’t this something all kids could gain from learning?

Exactly, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Why isn't this being offered to all kids? And the answer is twofold: the first one is that it is predicated on the cognitive assets of dyslexia and the cognitive deficiencies associated with dyslexia. It is a remediation tool for the social and emotional growth of a very damaged student. The second thing is I want to take care of my people. I know how much pain is out there in this population. There are kids that are literally killing themselves or finding their lives locked up behind bars. I don't want to gloss over them. I'm building this for my boy.

The written word was an efficient way to distribute knowledge. Is this a natural evolution given the technology today and what happens to reading?

Immersive reading, I understand from other people's accounts, is a very pleasurable thing. I will never do it.

So is playing hockey.

And that's exactly it. There are things in which I lose myself in a good way that you, yourself, may not enjoy but if education and one's future is predicated on a very finite technology, then you are literally locking people out of potential and so it's crazy.

If I came over to your house one night and you were stoking your wood-burning fire to heat your house and I was like, 'Hey, don't you know about like electric heat or like, hot water heat or maybe even solar?' and you're like, 'No, no, no, no. This stove works.' Well, it's as crazy as being like, 'Well, hey we've always taught kids through text. Forget about video and audio. We've got something that works here.'

No, you don't have something that works. It works for some but there are also some really cool technologies that you should consider.

How can people help your mission?

To get into any school you have to have buy-in from the highest. Superintendents and principals are the fundamental decision makers. A parent who is passionate about their dyslexic child's education has not only a legal right, but obviously feels a deep-seated moral obligation to getting everything that that student deserves. I think that's probably the best way to go after administrators to get acceptance, but we have positioned this so that the cost to educate a student through our program is approximately $500 per year.

Here in Massachusetts to take a dyslexic student and place them in a publicly funded private school is $42,500. I think it's a matter of time before superintendents start realizing, 'Wow, we can treat kids, give them the education they want, satisfy their parents who have every right to be demanding, and keep the kid in the community with their friends and potentially give them a curriculum that is going to empower them to go off and join the 35% of all entrepreneurs who have dyslexia or the 40% of self-made millionaires who have dyslexia.’

What public opinion would you like to change?

Look, this is a net gain to society. Let’s say you don't care about the students' needs. We can spend $88,000 a year to incarcerate a youth; we can spend $25K for a 30-day detox; or we can spend $500 to empower them and have them potentially go out to Silicon Valley and start the next Facebook. The ideas that I've seen from these kids are mind blowing.

And what they do at Carroll and Landmark School or LAB School in D.C. – these are incredible institutions but they come at a very significant cost and they should because they're resource-intensive schools. But you have to live in those cities and you also have to have that sort of money to put into your child's education and the vast majority of families don't have that money.

Will you launch into more schools along with Martha’s Vineyard?

We launch our first curriculum in September of this year in one entire public education district, the Martha's Vineyard Public School District, which is five elementary schools plus a charter school plus an afterschool-youth-serving organization, and then here in Boston we're going to do some pilots with Citizen Schools and the idea is to get into a juvenile justice system which I'm currently working on. We are also going to try a couple of homeschool applications with people in Botswana, Australia and I think the U.K. It’s pretty crazy because it's all online-based. We can be in all those countries.

How and where do you get your news?

The Week Magazine. Short and sweet articles draw from a spectrum of political persuasions

If you could have anyone over for dinner, what would it be?

Mohammad Ali... A true dyslexic champion

Favorite Book?

Uh... I'm dyslexic. Next question?

Favorite Film?

Apocalypse Now... Colonel Kurtz is the perfect example of Nietzsche's Ubermensch. Watch it again. It will blow your mind.

Favorite Song?

My wife's rendition of "You Can Close Your Eyes"