In one of The Greenwood School’s four, barn-red cabins tucked up against the treeline behind the main buildings is the small, intimate classroom of master Language Tutor and Language Tutorial Department Head, Marilyn Bookwalter. Each week seven Greenwood boys meet with Marilyn, one-on-one, or sometimes in groups of two, to learn reading and spelling — skills that don’t come easily to students with language-based learning difficulties. These students have come to Greenwood because traditional educational settings and practices have not met their needs. At The Greenwood School they are in good hands with Marilyn Bookwalter.
Marilyn’s teaching is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach to the treatment of dyslexia, a method approved by the International Dyslexia Association. This approach is described as language-based, multi-sensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive and flexible. Flexibility is key, according to Marilyn. “I try to meet each student where he is, and to adapt and adjust accordingly. It’s only fair. Our brains are all different so we have to individualize our teaching in order to be the best educators. Thank God our brains are all different. It makes for a more interesting life, doesn’t it?”
Marilyn’s calm demeanor and ready sense of humor immediately put students at ease, even if they do roll their eyes at her corny jokes. “What is a syllable?” she recently asked a student. “A bull that sits around and makes jokes!” She giggles, her eyes twinkle, and the student visibly relaxes. Marilyn strives to make her classroom a calm, comfortable place for learning. She provides healthy snacks when students are hungry, and chewing gum to help improve concentration. “I always look students in the eye, and ask how they’re doing. I want to make a connection, to let them know that I care about them. But it has to be sincere. That’s where my love of young people comes in. When a student feels that you care, then they’re going to give their best. Who in the world doesn’t want human kindness?”
Marilyn’s classroom walls are uncluttered, decorated with a few maps one of the United States, one that shows the relative geographic sizes of countries, and one of Europe, where several of her students are from. On one wall she’s hung a poster describing the physics of race cars because cars are currently on the minds of several of her students — one races GoKarts at a motor club in the Northeast and another just got his driving permit. Bringing geography and physics into her language arts classroom doesn’t seem unusual to Marilyn; Greenwood’s integrated curriculum approach comes naturally to her. She’s innately curious and wants to foster that curiosity in her students.
The boarding school environment at Greenwood facilitates connections between adults and students. Marilyn is frequently on campus on Sundays, preparing for the week ahead. But she never hesitates to engage with the Greenwood boys during this time. This past spring Marilyn spent some of her Sunday prep time helping a student study for his driver’s exam. “I’d bring in his favorite bagel and we’d go through the test questions together.” It’s this personal touch that The Greenwood School’s small size and low student-teacher ratio fosters. And students appreciate it. As one recent Greenwood graduate said, “Greenwood is a community, a big family. Because it’s a boarding school you see your teachers more often and it’s always easier to ask for help.”
Greenwood’s Master Language Tutor, Marilyn Bookwalter is a life-long learner. She received her undergraduate degree in Education and Child Studies from Smith College and went on to get a Master’s Degree in Language and Literacy. She is currently in the middle of a three-year Practitioner Certification program (stressing the multi-sensory teaching approach) through the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. While Marilyn has a deep knowledge of the subject matter, she acknowledges that new research is always coming out on the topic and she strives to keep abreast. “The beautiful thing about this field is that you keep learning more and more, because new research is always coming in,” she says. “It’s endless and fascinating.” Marilyn’s dedication to the field has earned her the respect of her peers. As Greenwood’s Academic Dean, Kara Garvey-Knapp notes, “Marilyn goes above and beyond what is necessary to ensure our boys learn how to read well. She is always pouring over new research with an eye on how it will help support our students.”
Marilyn’s expertise is apparent as she gives an example of the multi-sensory approach to teaching. Demonstrating how emergent readers learn to distinguish between the consonants “P” and “B” when spelling, Marilyn says “Put your hands on your throat and say ‘B’. “Now say ‘P’. Feel the difference? The B sound comes from the vocal chords, whereas the P sound is created on the lips.”
Marilyn uses an image of a dyslexic student’s brain to demonstrate the effects of the multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. Before employing this approach, the student tries to read by relying on the frontal cortex of the brain, the executive functioning area that matures last. Through multi-sensory remediation, more of the brain is being used so more cognitive connections and associations are made. This means that information is more easily accessible as there are more ways the information can be triggered and retrieved from the cognitive learning center of the brain.
In addition to recruiting the senses to enhance learning, Marilyn also pulls from the history of English, linguistics and Latin to reinforce her lessons. “Given the breadth and depth of their learning, Greenwood boys learn more about our language than most college graduates,” says Marilyn proudly.
Marilyn has pursued two of her great passions, teaching and language, for most of her adult life. In high school she was passionate about the French language and thought she’d become a French teacher. Then she discovered dance. She spent her early adulthood as “an ardent student of ballet,” working in Vermont with the Champlain Academy of Ballet, Main Street Dance Theater and the Vermont Dance Company, as well as taking master classes with La Grande Ballet Canadienne in Montreal. She taught both ballet and tap, but after an injury cut her dance career short, Marilyn moved back to Putney, met her husband, John, and began a family. It was because her son struggled with dyslexia that she became passionate about teaching students with learning differences. “Nothing moves a person more to try to make a difference in the world than having a learning difference visit your family,” she says.
And Marilyn has made a difference. Now in her seventh year at Greenwood, Marilyn has taught more than 70 Greenwood boys. These students have gone on to study in four-year colleges, like Adelphi University, Marist College and University of North Carolina, have entered vocational training programs, and have successful careers. Listening to Marilyn speak about her students’ successes, it’s clear that she gets great satisfaction from her work. “You get a student who’s a nonreader and two years later they’re reading, it’s worth a million dollars,” she says, “It really is. You know, Sigmund Freud once said that only two things matter in life: one is love, the other is work. Well I’m all good, Freud. I found meaningful work that I love.”