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"I didn't want to see other children struggle the way mine had." - Heather Fleming

Heather Fleming is the founder of WY Lit, a non-profit created to reduce the cost and socio-emotional impact of illiteracy in Wyoming.

She moved from New York City to Wyoming, where is currently enrolled in master's program in Reading Science studying evidence-based reading instruction.

Her son's early difficulty with reading motivated her to move to Laramie to get him extra help and to start WY Lit.

Show Notes:

  • How Heather ended up in Wyoming
  • What motivated Heather to create WY Lit
  • What evidence-based reading instruction is
  • How to access gaps in a child's reading comprehension
  • The definition of dyslexia

Emy diGrappa: Welcome to First, But Last brought to you by the Wyoming humanities. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the Equality State because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wondered what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening. Today we are talking to Heather Fleming. heather co-founded the nonprofit WY Lit to help prevent the social and economic impact of reading failure in Wyoming. Welcome, Heather.

Heather Fleming: Thank you very much. I'm honored to be here.

Emy diGrappa: Well I was really interested just to read your bio that you sent me and just to learn that, one, you moved here from New York City. So tell me about your journey to Wyoming.

Heather Fleming: Sure. So our journey from New York City to Wyoming was via the Baja California Sur, a southern state in Mexico. My husband and I were both Wall Streeters and when we decided to leave Wall Street, we decided to move with our then three and a half year old son to the Baja where we stayed for three and a half years. And really, it was motivated out of just a need to kind of recover from many years on Wall Street. And while we were there, he was in a small Montessori school where it was kind of about half American children and half Hispanic children, Mexican children. He was really struggling to learn to read and we didn't really understand what was going on. But by the time that he was about seven and a half and was still having trouble kind of learning letter names and sounds, we decided that it was time to move back to the States.

Heather Fleming: My husband is from Cheyenne, Wyoming. He grew up here and he's a third-generation Wyomingite. And he found a position teaching trading and investments at the University of Wyoming. So we decided, given that position and given that the schools looked really well-equipped to kind of handle a child who may be having learning difficulties, we decided to move to Laramie.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. That's quite a journey and amazing that you ... Well first of all, I didn't know your husband was from Cheyenne, but that's very interesting that you came back here. And so after you brought your son, you realized he had a reading disability. I don't know if that's the correct terminology. Is that correct?

Heather Fleming: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. Yes, absolutely.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. And so then from there, what was your passion to start the nonprofit Wyoming Lit?

Heather Fleming: Sure. We thought something was going on with his reading, but not being a reading specialists, we weren't sure. And after about three years, so kindergarten, first and second grade, of being told by the school that he was just a late bloomer and he would catch up and that they didn't think anything was wrong and when we brought up dyslexia specifically, they assured us that they did not see signs of that, we decided to pay to have him privately evaluated. And it turned out that he was in fact ... is dyslexic. So at that point he was not in a very good place, emotionally. Children who are bright and who fail for many years in school every day begin to really lose their self-esteem, starting as early as kindergarten. So he was not in a great place when we received that diagnosis.

Heather Fleming: And so our family decided that Hayden and I would move to Denver for him to attend both a camp and a school for bright dyslexic kids to try to catch him up. At that point, my husband decided to relocate from Laramie to Cheyenne, where he took a job working in the Treasurer's office and we spent the next two and a half years commuting back and forth. So this was, as you can imagine, it was very expensive. It was very emotionally inconvenient for our family. And when we came back, I just decided that I really ... I didn't want to see other children struggle the way mine had because of a lack of understanding of dyslexia and to a certain degree, lack of understanding of evidence-based reading instruction. And so really it was the experience we had with Hayden that inspired the founding of WY Lit.

Emy diGrappa: So explain and give me a definition of what is evidence-based reading instruction.

Heather Fleming: Sure. So evidence-based reading instruction is instruction that is where both the kind of the why and the what and the how is based on what current cognitive neuroscience tells us about the way that a brain develops reading skills, the things that can get in the way of those skills developing and how to use effective assessment to identify specific skill gaps and then systematically remediate those skill gaps

Emy diGrappa: That's really a huge deal. Were you frustrated that you didn't feel like that was happening for your son?

Heather Fleming: Yes. And as most parents, when something is going on with our child, I think we do ... I saw a quote once. It said we do better research than the FBI. And so I spent the two years, two and a half years, that we were down in Denver researching on how teachers are taught to teach reading. And I also did a number of years of training in sort of evidence-based instructional practices. And so yes, so I was frustrated. My husband and I were both frustrated that that our son's difficulties weren't identified and remediated early, which would have prevented a lot of the emotional kind of damage that he has suffered. But then I became sort of more motivated to start this nonprofit to continue to empower teachers once I discovered that, in fact, the bulk of teacher prep programs do not empower teachers with the skills to really be effective reading teachers.

Emy diGrappa: What kind of training do you put them through? How do you help them?

Heather Fleming: It is my current view, having seen some programs that are really effective at preparing teachers and currently enrolled in a master's program in reading science, which is based on kind of the best instructional practices ... It is my view that teachers need, in undergraduate and graduate, really a kind of extended embedded instruction in the rules and structure that govern our language. So this includes the development of oral language skills, the development of phonics skills, so the connections between sounds and letters, the importance of teaching morphology or word study, kind of Greek and Latin roots. If you start to teach [inaudible 00:06:55] to children early, they then have skills to attack unknown words as they come to them as their academic texts become more complex. That includes instruction in really the importance and how to teach vocabulary in a really engaging manner. So not sort of look up the definition in the dictionary, but learn how to take the words apart and discuss what the different parts mean and have the children use these words in everyday conversation.

Heather Fleming: And then it's instruction on what things can get in the way of children acquiring those skills and how to differentiate among them. Is it because a child has a language-based learning disability like dyslexia? Is it because the child grew up in a household without a lot of exposure to books or to rich oral language? How do you identify what has gone on in this child's life that may be preventing them from developing reading skills? And then specifically, what do you do? How do you assess their gaps that need to be remediated? And then how to do so in a both a general education classroom and a special education classroom.

Emy diGrappa: And so tell me a little bit about dyslexia, because I know there's some general definitions out there, but because your son has it, you probably have a much better language to talk about it.

Heather Fleming: Sure. So as you probably know, dyslexia is defined as a language-based learning disability. What this means is that skills that require language processing, so that includes reading and spelling and handwriting, oral and written language construction, can be impacted. And so what's really going on in a dyslexic brain, when we look at neuroimaging, of dyslexic brains, we see that ... In non-dyslexic brains, there are three major parts of the left hemisphere of the brain that do these language processing tasks. That part of the brain does so very efficiently. When they look at dyslexic brains, what they typically see is actually less gray and white matter at times in that part of the left hemisphere. And they also see a reduction in connectivity among those three parts of the brain. Interestingly, they also see that when a dyslexic tries to perform language processing tasks like reading or spelling, instead of the left hemisphere areas lighting up on an MRI, they see a lot of areas in the right hemisphere lighting up. And we know that the right hemisphere of the brain is actually not meant to do language processing tasks.

Heather Fleming: And so a dyslexic child will need a lot more exposure to the skills that are required for reading and everything related to the language tasks I talked about. Reading, spelling, handwriting will be impacted. And so what we also know, which I think is thrilling and really why it's important that we get K-3 reading right, is that when they look at a dyslexic brain of a child who's had no kind of evidence based intervention, they see again, left hemisphere not lighting up, right hemisphere lighting up. And when the child then receives proper intervention, they actually see that the language processing reroutes back to the left hemisphere where it's meant to be, which is very exciting because it tells us again that if we provide the right kind of intervention early, we can really remediate reading difficulties like dyslexia.

Emy diGrappa: Well, when they're processing in their right brain, is it because something in their brain is kicking up the creativity to figure something out?

Heather Fleming: That's an excellent question. And that exact question is being studied. Why do we see compensatory activity in the right brain? It is difficult to prove creativity scientifically. People who work with dyslexic kids will say that they see evidence that people with dyslexic brains tend to be very creative and tend to see solutions kind of in 3D ways that non-dyslexics don't. But it's a good question and it's not totally understood why sort of the language processing is rerouted to that part of the brain.

Emy diGrappa: Do you see, I mean in general, not just in Wyoming, but kids who have dyslexia, do they tend to fall through the cracks in school, just because we don't understand the full spectrum of what's going on and how to help them?

Heather Fleming: Yeah. Dyslexia occurs across the continuum of IQ, but again, people who work with dyslexic kids will tell you that in general, these tend to be kids with average to high IQs. And so they compensate for not having these skills. They memorize through kind of second or third grade when they tend to kind of hit the wall. And so they do fall through the cracks. And we don't do a good job, again, in teacher prep programs of explaining to teachers what dyslexia is, what it's not, how to recognize the signs early, and what these kids specifically need, kind of how to differentiate a dyslexic kid from something else and to understand what they need. And so many dyslexic kids who, frankly, based on intellectual ability don't need to be in special education, end up in special education because they do fall through the cracks. So that's a good question and I think you're right.

Emy diGrappa: That is also really sad.

Heather Fleming: Yeah, it bears mentioned that dyslexia is the most common cause of reading and spelling difficulties. And so it's estimated that somewhere between 17 and 20% of the population is impacted by dyslexia. So in any given classroom you're going to have three or four kids, three to five kids, who are dyslexic and who are not identified. And when you begin to sort of know what you're looking for ... I can look at a sample of second grader work on a whiteboard in a hallway in a school, and point to children who I can tell you just based on their handwriting are likely poor readers. And this always astounds principals and teachers, but you we simply do not empower teachers with this knowledge.

Emy diGrappa: And that's a really difficult problem to tackle, which is why it's really exciting that you have this nonprofit called WY Lit. What are the challenges in terms of making changes, real, real changes, which is sure why you started the whole nonprofit ... But as you've gotten into it, what has been your experiences in making changes in the school system?

Heather Fleming: Behavior change is hard. It's hard for anybody, right? I go crazy when my iPhone updates because I don't like that change. And so kind of trying to empower teachers with additional information, and this includes university professors, empower people with additional information that will make them kind of self identify, "Hey, maybe there is something more that I could use, some more knowledge that I could use. Maybe this would help me move my students forward," is really the only way to impact change. You can't jam anything down anyone's throat because they can simply choose not to use it or not to buy in. I've done some things well. I've done some things very inelegantly, learned a lot about kind of process change writ large during this journey.

Heather Fleming: Again, behavior change is hard. It's hard to get professors who have been teaching kind of the same thing for 30 years, who have academic freedom and tenure, to buy into the notion that they perhaps need to empower teachers with some different skills. Equally, it is hard for teachers ... Teachers experience, or they describe experiencing, this kind of mid-career shame sometimes when they agree to do additional training and then think, "Oh my gosh," and they sort of tick back over the kids. They name the kids they feel like they failed. And so it's emotional. Teachers need to be really supported. They need support of their cohort of teachers. They need support of their administration, and they need to know that it's not their fault. They were not empowered with these skills, undergraduate or graduate.

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. That's interesting about teachers feeling guilty about kids they've failed. And maybe that's a really emotional place you don't want to go back to, and so you don't want to go forward either. I mean, it's just kind of strange.

Heather Fleming: Yeah. Teachers get into teaching because they love children and they want to support them. I would never presume to blame a teacher for this. I mean, it's simply unconscionable for people, in my opinion, to make teachers feel badly, which is why again, we've really tried to ... When I go and visit schools, I try to ask, "Tell me about questions. Tell me about ..." Whoever will talk to me, "Tell me about what you think your challenges are in terms of literacy. Tell me about your population of children. Tell me about what you think is important. Tell me about where you see difficulties," just to try to understand kind of where it is they're coming from. And then I will say, "Are you open to me sharing some additional information?" Because again, being really respectful to teachers in this process, I think is critical.

Emy diGrappa: I do too. So as you've been at the level that you're working in your nonprofit, do you work with the legislature?

Heather Fleming: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: How do you go about like lobbying for yourself basically?

Heather Fleming: So this was kind of trial by fire last year. My partner, Kari, and I understood that an existing kind of dyslexia screening and intervention law ... that some changes were being made to it. And we took that opportunity to really rewrite a good part of the existing bill in a way that we thought was more reflective of reading science and evidence-based instruction and appropriately using data from assessments. And it was a pretty incredible process. We had the opportunity to partner with the Department of Ed and one specific district who wanted some changes to the bill and legislators and to a different degree the Wyoming Teacher's Association.

Heather Fleming: The changes we've made are not perfect and they could be refined, I think. We did what we could, kind of given the constraints of all of the stakeholders, but what we tried to do was explain to all parties the changes that each party wanted and then why certain changes probably made more sense than others and then work to kind of partner with the legislators so that they understood why we were making these suggestions. It was really a process that I do not think would have happened in any other state. I think because we are small and connected, everybody felt more on board and less kind of ... It was just not as contentious a processes as I think it would have been other states. I really credit our Joint Education Committee for being willing to dig into some pretty complex literacy issues that nobody should expect them to be conversant in. And almost to a person, they did. It was a pretty incredible process to be part of.

Emy diGrappa: Well, that in and of itself is exciting. So my last question for you, Heather, is because we are celebrating Wyoming as the first state to give women the right to vote, do you have any thoughts about women in Wyoming and progress and things that could change for the better for women in Wyoming?

Heather Fleming: Yeah. I've been thinking a lot about this since I knew we were going to speak, and I feel like the answer is, in a slightly roundabout way ... I worked on Wall Street for 15 years. I did not feel like I had a lot of good mentoring from women. When I got to Wyoming, the support and mentorship and guidance that I have received from women in different positions of authority here has just been incredibly humbling. And I think that certainly the changes that we hope to make around literacy, I think will happen in large part due to the guidance and mentorship that I've received from various women. I view my role as both moving our effort forward, but also trying to empower other women. Maybe it's parents of struggling readers, teachers who are interested in change, but feel kind of alone, kind of supporting them in the way that I've been supported in order to move this effort forward.

Emy diGrappa: Well, that was supposed to be my last question, but it's not because I just thought of something. Because when you talk about challenges your kids have in school and you're a single mom, how do they address that if no one is backing them up or supporting them or if they're kind of out there on their own? They're just surviving. They don't know their child has a problem. You know what I mean?

Heather Fleming: It is primarily for those mothers for whom this effort began, because I just thought ... We had the resources to just up and take my kid to a private school. I have the flexibility to not work and in a currently paid job and to run this nonprofit. The people who are in most dire need are single mothers. You know, many parents of struggling readers are themselves struggling readers. They are embarrassed. They are insecure about what they're even allowed to advocate for. So being able to create networks of parents ... And the Parent Information Center, it bears mention, is an incredibly valuable resource. Terri Dawson and Erin Swilling and Juanita Bybee are really good resources for parents of kids who have any kind of educational difficulties. I think it's ParentInformationCenter.org. Yeah.

Heather Fleming: So the people who really need this kind of net underneath them to empower them about their rights and about what kinds of powerful questions they can ask to try to move the school and their children forward is an enormous part of what we're doing, sort of the pillars of WY Lit are developing. One of them is offering teacher training to existing teachers or even to teachers in teacher prep programs. Another enormous pillar is creating a statewide network of support for families, and particularly single mothers.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. I love that. And thank you for doing that. That just made my heart soar to hear that. You saw that need just immediately. So it's been so great talking to you Heather.

Heather Fleming: Yeah. May I add one thing that has inspired me that I just wanted to mention?

Emy diGrappa: Sure.

Heather Fleming: My sister-in-law, Ray Dinneen, with her mother years ago founded and runs Climb Wyoming. I don't know if you're familiar with Climb, but I've learned a lot from Ray and I've really tried to understand what has made her program of supporting single mothers effective and kind of what things impact them. And so the work that she has done has largely informed our strategy.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's great. That's wonderful, and I hope to have Ray on our program soon. So thank you so much, Heather, and I look forward to seeing you.

Heather Fleming: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for listening to First, But Last Brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at ThinkWY.org, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the Equality State. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.

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