Dyslexia takes center stage

Martha’s Vineyard students with dyslexia pitch their creativity at Alex’s Place .

Owen Metell gives Permapaper a thumbs up. —Stacey Rupolo

How do you protect important papers from an unfortunate coffee spill? What’s the most effective and convenient way to use technology to find lost items? How do you make man’s best friend available on demand? On Thursday, Dec. 22, three teams of students from Dean Bragonier’s innovative educational curriculum for students with dyslexia — Noticeability (NA) — gave their sales pitches for these ideas to a packed audience at Alex’s Place.

NA is a nonprofit organization that caters its curriculum to the strengths of the dyslexic brain, and seeks to empower students to wear their dyslexia like a badge, rather than a mark of shame. It just concluded its debut semester in the Tisbury, West Tisbury, Edgartown and Charter schools. Two years ago, the Times reported on founder Dean Bragonier’s efforts to raise funds by swimming around the Island over a six-week span, and his successful launch of an Island program last summer.

At the heart of the NA curriculum is the fact that while certain things, like reading and comprehension, are more difficult for students with dyslexia, there are other areas where they excel. “We have an ability to look at a situation and identify seemingly disparate pieces of information and blend those into a narrative or a tapestry that makes sense to us that other people can’t see,” said Mr. Bragonier. “This translates into an exceptional level of success in entrepreneurship, engineering, architecture, and the arts.” He cites that 35 percent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, 40 percent of millionaires are dyslexic, and 50 percent of NASA employees are dyslexic.

The focus of NA’s first semester was building students’ entrepreneurial skills, culminating in a simulated “Shark Tank” episode at Alex’s Place where three teams presented an everyday problem, formulated a business plan to solve it, and worked to convince a packed audience of the effectiveness of their solution. The students radiated confidence and seemed excited to be in a safe, positive environment where they could express themselves.

From the Tisbury School, Ben Yancey and Owen Metell gave a convincing demonstration of their product, Permapaper, which is designed to prevent damage to important documents. In a skit the pair wrote, Mr. Yancey, dressed in a ski outfit, is ready to go on a field trip when he trips and spills hot chocolate all over his permission slip (as well as some of the audience in the front row). Mr. Metell explained how their product could have prevented the accident, and Mr. Yancey endorsed the innovative paper with a big grin and a strong thumbs-up. The duo were charming and persuasive, and they clearly enjoyed the experience of performing.

A trio of Charter School boys conceived of Zipdogs, a dog-rental service that eliminated the downsides of pet owning. The team proposed partnering with the MSPCA, renting out dogs to its customers, and taking care of all pet-related expenses. They created a prototype of the dog facility through Minecraft, a video game that allowed them to build digital models, and led the audience on a tour of their building. Christian Turner explained the nuts and bolts of the company’s business model, while Jack Hayden and Kent Healy demonstrated different scenarios where Zipdogs would be effective.

“Families want a dog but can’t have them because they are too busy, don’t have enough money, or they live in an apartment,” said Mr. Turner. “Elderly people also want a dog to help them get in shape, to get rid of their old-man body.”

Yvette Turner, Mr. Turner’s mother, was awed by seeing her son speak onstage, especially after struggling for many years in school. “Nobody wants to have an issue at school,” she said. “Christian really, really struggled. This program has been wonderful for him and his self-confidence. He has more self-confidence; he can actually talk with his friends and his peers. He feels good about himself with them. His reading has taken off.”

Edgartown trio Emily Anderson, Michaela Benefit, and Marina Lee concocted a

solution to the age-old question, Where are my keys? Their company, In the Box, would provide its customers with the ability to track items small or large. A microchip called Boxlets connects to a smartphone application and bracelet that alerts a person, through a tone or electric shock, if they’re moving away from an important item.

“Yes, this is about coming up with a business plan and going through this process,” Mr. Bragonier said after the presentations, “but more important, I think, it’s about what you just saw. For this kid [referring to himself], when I was a sixth grader, the last thing I ever wanted to do was be identified publicly as being dyslexic or having a learning difference.

“I think that each student has experienced a revelation to one degree or another,” Mr. Bragonier said. “I have seen individuals who are apprehensive or, shall we say, bared some of the scars that I recognized in myself at that age, that were a result of believing that because we have difficulty learning how to read that we are somehow deficient. I’ve seen a lot of those scars filled in by evidence that they are gathering of what makes their brains so powerful.”

“I really liked the class,” Ms. Anderson said. “It gave me a new perspective on learning disabilities and how you can create your disability as a pro, not a con.”

“I feel like knowing that there are more people out there with the same disability as us makes it more comfortable and more welcoming to know that we’re not alone with dyslexia,” Ms. Benefit said.

“I have pretty bad dyslexia,” Ms. Lee said. “I’ve always been told what I can’t do. But this program has told me what I can do.”

“I won’t say we’ve created a panacea, but we’ve created a counterbalance,” Mr Bragonier said. “I’ve seen a lot of these kids become invested in this notion that there is a silver lining to dyslexia. And that’s really what our objective is, to build that confidence.”

NA is currently taught in juvenile detention facilities, youth nonprofits, and a handful of schools in Massachusetts, including one in Chelsea, and on Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Bragonier looks to expand into the Oak Bluffs School and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School soon.

“If this is any indication of the future of this learning-difference movement, we’re crushing it, we’re absolutely crushing it,” Mr. Bragonier said.