Sequim Gazette Wednesday, May 14, 2003
Sequim Gazette Staff Writer
Education therapist Melinda Pongrey helps people of all ages figure out how to learn.
Focusing on clients who have been struggling with learning, Pongrey works to understand how their brains process information, using the body's auditory, visual, motor, tactile, spatial and language systems. She then creates exercises and tools to help them catch up on reading, writing, math, social skills, time management or whatever areas are problematic in their lives.
"People with learning differences are not lazy or abnormal," she said. "They have different wiring, which can distract them. I work to help the person and those around them understand those differences, and learn to function with them."
As a way to comprehend how learning differences might be distracting and discouraging, she suggests trying to draw or write while looking at the pencil and paper in the mirror. Most of us cannot do it.
"Amazing things can happen when people are given the tools they need to learn," she said.
Ary Webb, now 12, went to public school until third-grade, when he just didn't seem to be progressing like the other students. His mother, Kerry, began to home school him, but she didn't have much luck teaching him reading and writing, either.
"At a program at Olympic Peninsula Academy, I met Melinda Pongrey, who talked about different ways of learning...Her methods have become the main core of our home schooling, " she said of teaching sons Ary and younger brother, Corbin.
Pongrey spent time "playing games" with Ary, and in the process recognized that he comprehends in a more visual way than most. She gave him exercises to help him recognize letters, including flash cards of the identifying features of different letters, which look like hieroglyphics to the average eye, but help dyslexics differentiate between similar letters. He completed dozens of exercises in which he identified similar grouping of letters, so that, according to his mother, "he no longer has to decode each word separately."
Pongrey's literature explains, "Reading includes figuring out how the marks on the page represent sounds and words, then figuring out what those words mean by linking words and sentences to their meaning, and then storing the information in your memory bank by linking the information to something you already know. If you read effortlessly, reading is like balancing when riding your bike--after you learn, the process is automatic and mostly unconscious...If you haven't mastered riding, it requires your full attention and riding is a scary, fatiguing, usually short-lived event."
Pongrey worked to find books on topics that would interest Ary, including sumo wrestling and medieval knights. She taught him to take "picture notes," instead of words.
When he was doing his homework on knights, Kerry was taking notes on cards, and Ary started taking picture notes.
"Then I use my picture notes to type notes into the computer," said Ary, showing a pile of papers with small drawings, some recognizable, some not.
"From my notes, he wasn't able to type the report, bu his own notes made sense to him. I realized that we simply don't think alike," Kerry said.
Kerry said that dyslexia runs in her family. When she noticed the learning problems in Ary, she worried that he, too, would not progress. But since spending eight months with Pongrey, everything has changed.
"I used to put books down without finishing them. But now, I read the whole book," said Ary.
"Now that he has these tools we can really see Ary going to college," said Kerry.
Learning how people learn
Pongrey grew up in Port Angeles, but now lives in Port Townsend. More than a decade ago, she got a job in special education in the Chimacum School District, where she was required to take continuing education classes. As one workshop, she met Judy Schwarz, the author of "Another Door To Learning,: the program where she learned how to assess and teach those with learning differences, including various kinds of dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, language delays, motor-spatial and visual-spatial difficulties.
"I just couldn't stand watching kids who were failing kindergarten," she said, explaining what sparked her to additional training.
Often, she said, people who suffer from a learning problem also experience psychological and/or social ramifications, as their differences impact how they interact in society.
After training in Tacoma with Another Door to Learning, seven years ago Pongrey opened an office for them in Port Townsend. When the Tacoma home office folded, she started her own private practice, called Sisiutl, named after a mythical beast that transforms people's greatest challenges into their greatest gifts. She provides assessment, instruction, workshops, training and consultation to clients of all ages as well as parents and teachers.
After working with Dr. Al Phillips' patients in Sequim, she recognized that having a Sequim office might be helpful to Clallam County clients. She now works three Tuesdays per month in Phillips' Sequim office in the Blue Mountain Professional building on Old Olympic Highway.
Pongrey works with private pay clients, often referred by teachers and therapists, as well as those referred by the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
"She's a gifted teacher and a very non-critical person," said Phillips, a psychiatrist.
Phillips said he has several patients who had a terrible time in school and were convinced that they were not bright and not able to learn.
"She has been able to talk with them, hear information that enables her to develop an approach that they can use for learning," he said, mentioning a student struggling to get through junior high school, who after 10 weeks with Pongrey, was able to work at college level.
"He gained the confidence," said Phillips, stressing that besides learning, the attitude changes are all-important, "to believe he can learn and tackle anything life presents...If teachers could approach teaching in a similar way, we'd have a great deal of improvement in the rate of learning and pleasure in living."
It goes beyond school. Sixty-two percent of students with learning disabilities were unemployed one year after graduation and 31 percent will be arrested within five years out of high school.
"It could be a lot more fun at school for a lot more people if more teachers understood (these assessments and specialized study tools)," said Pongrey. "Even within large categories like dyslexia, each person is different. That's what makes direct instruction so important," she added.
Ary's Letter to the Sequim Gazette
I am Ary, from "Ary's Story" in the article printed last week on learning differences. I am writing to tell you about how great dyslexics are. These people are good at learning other things besides school. Most of these people had a hard time with school but turned out to be famous dyslexics. Bill Cosby, John F. Kennedy, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Cher, Thomas Edison, Mozart, Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Nolan Ryan, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Whoopie Goldberg, and Dustin Hoffman. I think this list is cool, because I am a dyslexic.