We have all had one of those teachers who have really stood out amongst an often drab and unremarkable schooling experience. That one individual who took the time to make the interior of the classroom as exciting as the available extracurriculars. While for most this may have taken place in elementary or maybe even high school – many students from the CHYS Department have had this influence in the form of Dr. John McNamara.
McNamara is a professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies (CHYS) at Brock University who certainly takes his research and learned knowledge out of the theoretical vacuum, creating tangible evidence through Brock’s resources. McNamara specializes in supporting children with disabilies, researching the psychology and systematic implications on the learning disabilities spectrum.
“My main goal is to change their developmental trajectories,” said McNamara. “Taking children who have struggled their whole lives and creating a way that they too can be successful.”
Hopefully by experiencing life at Brock through his eyes, you will fully understand the gravity of working with children and the importance of contemporary research and policy-changing activism.
Here is a day in the life of John McNamara.The following takes place between 12:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. Events occur in real time.
12:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.: Student and Community Facilitation
Although many claim to always have their doors open, McNamara’s office door in the Cairns Building is literally always open. Whether it is meeting with one of the many boards he is a part of, his students or parents of children with disabilities, McNamara’s day is self-describedly “busy”.
This open door policy is one of the best assurances of a strong connection to his students, creating an atmosphere of approachability and mentorship.
“I look at my relationship with my students as a partnership above all else,” said McNamara. “Top-down teaching doesn’t facilitate these close relationships, this approach is not hierarchal – instead, I want to build understanding together with my students.”
Beyond his teaching and research at Brock, McNamara received his undergraduate degree here in Psychology. By having experienced the same University from both sides of the podium, he has gained a privileged perspective of the qualities that make Brock unique as well as what students expect from professors and their education.
“Students are at the centre,” emphasized McNamara. “They’ve come to Brock for an experience and it’s my job to give them the best experience possible. Brock has always had a great connection between faculty and students, in part created by its seminar system.”
Responding to first-year inquiries about ‘what a syllabus is’ only takes up a limited portion of his working day. One of his main projects is community-driven – it is his co-operation and leadership within the Learning Disabilities Association of Niagara (LDAN).
Additionally, there often seems to be a barrier between academic and scientific research and the lived experiences of parents within a community. McNamara has attempted to help give parents of children with learning disabilities access to the latest research by meeting with them and discussing their situation.
“I feel it’s my job as a Brock researcher to provide parents with the latest, most cutting-edge research – research that can give them hope. Parents of children with learning disabilities need to hear that despite a diagnosis of a learning disability, there is a lot you can do to allow your child be successful. There is certainly lots of hope, a learning disability diagnosis is by no means the end of the line,” said McNamara.
3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.: CHYS 1F90 Lecture
Later in the day McNamara is forced to leave the relative safety and security of his office for one of the University’s largest and rowdiest lecture halls. Although Thistle 247 may seem like a traditional classroom for many professors, for McNamara it is more like a stadium filled with adoring fans.
Teaching CHYS 1F90 gives McNamara, as well as co-professor Dr. Rebecca Raby, the unique opportunity of imparting wisdom to as well as meeting and discussing with every individual in CHYS and Education in the first-year of their studies.
Although this is a great opportunity for McNamara, it is also a fantastic entrance into the university-life from the students’ perspective.
“After my fourth-year of teaching CHYS 1F90, it’s been one of the best classes I’ve taught. You never know what to expect, but there are always a lot of questions, chances to talk with students. Additionally, we get the chance to provide them with an experience that isn’t intimidating,” explained McNamara.
6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.: Reading Rocks!
One specific attribute of McNamara’s efforts with the LDAN in which the theoretical rubber hits the practicional road is with the Reading Rocks! Program, hosted at Brock on Tuesday through Thursday nights. The Reading Rocks Program represents a partnership between McNamara and the LDAN.
The program pairs children diagnosed with learning disabilities with volunteering Brock students pursuing degrees in CHYS. The hour-long tutoring sessions, held twice per week, are aimed to help students struggling with reading, writing and language abilities to achieve their fullest potential.
The program not only relies on Brock students as tutors, but the entire program is spear-headed (under the supervision of McNamara) by his graduate students Hilary Scruton and Samantha Sendzik.
This end result is reached through highly effective and informal methods. Rather than simply photocopying worksheets and writing on a chalk-board, the one-on-one environment allows each tutor to specifically design programming and lessons based on the individual child.
While the term ‘lesson’ might make you think of seat-work, these tutors’ ideas of lesson-planning consists of creative games that implement important concepts of learning speech, phonics, sight words and language. The children pick up on important literacy skills while having fun – it’s like the classroom every teacher dreams they could truly provide.
When children are diagnosed with learning disabilities, explicit and systematic intervention is the best way to change their developmental trajectories. By providing one-on-one support, the Reading Rocks! Program establishes close connections, scaffolding and supporting children in necessary areas.
“If we see change, that’s my ultimate goal,” said McNamara.
This change is very common in children participation in McNamara’s programs, especially those students who stay in the program for multiple years.
“Our experience of seeing positive results has been fantastic,” said McNamara. “It has happened many times that parents of children in the program have come to myself or the tutor in tears. Not only in how much it has affected that individual child, but the entire family. That’s the experience that keeps us going.”
7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.: Family Life
McNamara — past his community involvement, his work with LDAN and his involvement in both research and teaching at Brock — he is also a husband and father of two.
As if being a CHYS professor didn’t put enough pressure on McNamara to be a ‘good father’, his partner, Dr. Laruen McNamara is also a professor in the CHYS Department.
“If you’re going to talk the talk, you had better walk the walk,” stated McNamara. “I always see them off to school and do anything I can to get home by 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. Quite frankly, if you ever need to find me on weekends, search out basketball courts and baseball diamonds throughout the city – I’m always there to watch my children play”.
Beyond that which can be traced with the simple movement of a clock’s hand, there is also an ongoing struggle that transcends the limits of time. A goal that has no definite time-line, but that is instead engrained within the backs of researchers minds – eliminating the stigma of disability.
Whereas campaigns such as the “See the Ability” billboards and media blitz encouraged individuals to think of children with disabilities for their unique strengths rather than biological weaknesses, McNamara proposes a more personal approach to disassembling the stigma.
“One of the issues with the stigma of disability is that we are faced with two competing ideas. We want to support kids with their reading so that they fit into traditional school systems, but that doesn’t help stigma,” said McNamara. “We also want students to realize they don’t have to overcome their disability, they simply have to become who they are. We need to focus on making them feel good about themselves. Yes, we want them to be better readers, but we need to be challenged through adversity and okay with differences.”
Ultimately, adversity is a double-edged sword. While it may provide children with difficulty making it through traditional schooling, inhibit learning and delay developmental processes, it is also a way to bring about unconventional strengths and resilience. Perhaps the best example of this is something I heard during one of McNamara’s lectures for a third-year CHYS course.
“If a baseball and a bat cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?”
This supposedly simple question from the Cognitive Reflection Test and described in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book stumped not only myself, the Brock Press Photographer and most of the third-year students in the cramped Thistle classroom, but University students across North America – even Harvard.
When McNamara asked the class for their response, many replied with “10 cents”. This answer is proven even by the simplest math to be incorrect.
If the ball were to cost 10 cents, the bat, being $1.00 more than the ball would be $1.10, and adding these together, .10 + $1.10 would equal $1.20 – easily seen as the wrong answer.
Therefore, the ball must cost $0.05 and the bat must cost $1.05 since $1.05 + $0.05 = $1.10.
So, what is the importance of this test and what did it prove to a classroom full of future children and youth workers, policymakers and teachers?
After seeing that most of the class predictably got the answer incorrect, McNamara stated that a simple way to increase students’ accuracy in answering the question was to make it more difficult to read. Italics, a smaller font or blurriness all accounted for the increase of the average individual’s ability to correctly solve the question.
Quite simply, adversity or difficulty in progression forces children to look at seemingly conventional tasks and circumstances in an unconventional way. Children with exceptionalities are often forced to think about things in a different way, not necessarily better or worse – just unconventionally. When society becomes okay with unconventionality, the stigma of disability will disappear and society will be able to see disability as a game changer rather than an obstacle.