Empathy helps teacher aid students on their rougher road to knowledge


Two people turned Jesse Barnes' life around last year while he was a sophomore at Liberty High School.

One was his mother, Cherl Collins, who had just earned a degree from Morgan State University and inspired him to go to college.

The other was a man who is living proof that Jesse's learning disabilities don't rule out a career as a teacher, which is what Jesse hopes to pursue.

That man is Donald Mongold, who, like his students, has a learning disability. He has dyslexia.

"I still have a very difficult time with spelling," Mr. Mongold said as he held up an electronic spelling device that looks like a large calculator. "That's why I have this.

"Sometimes I know the word I want, but I can't even look it up in the dictionary because I don't know what letter it starts with," he said.

Mr. Mongold, 27, lives in Westminster with his wife and 5-month-old daughter.

This is his fifth year teaching in Carroll County.

Learning disabilities are not completely understood by educators.

It is a category that includes a range of problems students might have processing information.

"It's a frustration that prevents you from learning, and prevents you from letting other people know what you have learned," Mr. Mongold said.

"The students in my world geography class may know what an ecosystem is but they can't put it into a sentence for you," he said.

Mr. Mongold's teachers detected his learning disability when he was in third grade in Moorefield, W.Va.

Getting through high school and college meant hard work, studying and re-studying while his friends went to parties, and not being too proud to ask for help along the way.

He developed his own study aids, such as recopying his notes right after a lecture in more detail and using a more careful hand.

He would read his notes aloud onto a cassette tape and listen to them over and over. He would lecture to himself in the mirror.

In his graduate studies at Western Maryland College, where he is working toward a master's degree in liberal arts, Mr. Mongold uses flash cards.

Even though most people think of primary math lessons when they hear about flash cards, Mr. Mongold uses them to call up such sophisticated ideas as Plato's theories of the soul.

A card with one word -- "immortality," for example -- helps hirecall a whole idea.

The way teachers work with students' learning disabilities is to modify lessons that other students get, he said.

"But as long as I live, until the day I die, there is no modificatiofor a lack of effort. Kids must put forth the effort," he said.

Mr. Mongold has a thought for the day written on the blackboard -- "Education: You have one when you take advantage of the opportunities a school provides to you."

Jesse, who is 17 and lives in Gamber, has decided to put forth the kind of effort that got his mentor, Mr. Mongold, through college.

"I re-read a lot. I make up different ways to study," Jesse said. One thing that helps him is totally clearing his desk of anything other than what he's working on at the moment. He spreads and scatters all his notes and materials out on the desk, and plunges in.

"I like to work sloppy, with all my notes spread out," Jesse said.

Jesse was separated into a special class by the time he reached second grade. It wasn't until fourth grade that he realized there was anything special about his class. Now, he attends regular classes, and gets help when he needs it.

Depending on the degree of difficulty a learning-disabled student has, he or she might have to take a special class in a particular subject. Otherwise, such students get tutorial help.

Mr. Mongold also team-teaches some classes that have a mix of special and regular education students. The students usually have the intelligence to understand the concepts in a regular class, he said, but just can't take notes as fast or process the information as quickly.

Even before Jesse realized Mr. Mongold had a learning disability, he felt his teaching style was special.

"He makes you work, but he makes it fun, too," Jesse said. "He'll crack a joke in the middle of a test and it just helps keep you from getting nervous."

Mr. Mongold remembers from his own school years that tests can be difficult.

He knew his class material, he said, but his disability got in the way of reading the test. Because he asked for help, teachers would read the questions to him and he would mark his answers.

Now, providing alternatives to straight book material, Mr. Mongold uses visual aids such as charts and films.

One day last week, he used a CNN-produced television program his world geography class. He began the lesson on the environment with a discussion of how greed leads to the destruction of natural resources.

To drive home his point about what fuels greed, he pulled his worn, brown leather wallet from his back pocket and pulled out a dollar bill.

"Will it last?" he asked the students.

During the film, he often interjected comments to make sure students saw the relevance of, say, a scene of starving people.

"Somalia, right now," he said.


Donald Mongold will be guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Learning Disabilities Association of Carroll County Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m., at Westminster High School's second-floor cafeteria.

For information on the association, which also provides support for parents of children with learning disabilities, contact Stephanie Tighe, president, at 795-8621.

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