Now, I guess you will smile at the irony of my situation: I had resigned from a stressful post as a university Senior Lecturer in Dyslexia Support, due to a life event which had changed my perspectives, and decided to retrain in Complementary Medicine. In the past, I had helped countless students find ways to learn more easily and succeed in their goals, whilst here I was: a failing student of Anatomy & Physiology.
I wonder if my lecturer still remembers me sobbing in her office a few months before my Anatomy & Physiology exam: “I just can't do it... I'm going to give up...” Despite putting in many more hours of study than my peers, being very literate, and already having a string of academic qualifications to my name, I had hit a brick wall when studying A & P. I struggled to remember most of the 200 bones and 600 muscles, as well as the thousands of facts, processes, diagrams, numbers and spellings that are specific to the study of A & P. Like so many of your students with SpLDs, the situation I found myself in was a painful reminder that I couldn’t handle rote learning, directional information, or demanding short-term memory tasks - at least not without great effort and personalised coping systems.
How the idea for a new kind of textbook was conceived
Over the years, I had worked with many student nurses, physical therapists, complementary medicine practitioners, sports scientists, beauty therapists, and dancers with SpLDs, struggling to pass their A & P exams. Lecturers often appeared to be unsympathetic to these students’ difficulties, and could/would not adapt their teaching style, hand-outs, slides, or exams. Moreover, many of the available textbooks were presented in a dry, wordy, cramped, confusing or monochrome style. After spending a frightening amount of money on semi-useful textbooks, I had that light bulb moment: I’d use create my own learning system and supportive materials. All the other students – and eventually my lecturers - on my course wanted to ‘borrow’ these strange yet intriguing materials that they saw me creating.
To be or not to be? At that stage it didn’t enter my mind to attempt publishing a textbook with a major academic publisher – which happened 10 years later. However, the fact that so many people kept saying that I should get the materials published prompted me to attend a workshop at Edinburgh Book Festival entitled: ‘How to be a Published Author – a Beginner’s Guide’. The presenter (a famous published author and publisher herself) tried her best to put us poor deluded creatures off the long and rocky road to publishing: ‘we were less likely to get published than win the lottery’; ‘we would starve to death if we thought we could live off our royalties’; ‘everybody would hate us if we said we were writers at a party’; the writer’s life was lonely, exhausting and required obsessive-compulsive behaviours’; ‘writers had to be attractive and only the same group of superstars got promoted by publishers…’; ‘you have to be a tough-nosed marketing person taking every opportunity to publicise your book etc etc. As somebody who isn’t interested in money and self-promotion, this nearly killed off any shred of enthusiasm left. Was I put off? Almost totally, but I didn’t know what to do with all the materials I had put together and I gleaned 2 or 3 bits of essential advice that helped me clinch a contract later on. I now run supportive workshops that help others reflect on getting published and take their ideas through to a finished product, hopefully avoiding all the pitfalls that I dived into.
Step 1: identify the book’s guiding principles and essential features
These were the essential elements that I wanted the book to embody:
A simple organising structure: this became ‘the 10 most effective, tried and tested strategies that help students learn’.
The study skills elements were to be embedded into the topic area as opposed to a ‘generic’ approach, which research showed did not help students as much. This approach would also be applicable to many other subject areas.
I wanted to produce some simplified yet dynamic visual aids: an important aspect of this was the extensive use of colour-coding as a deliberate strategy for visual learners. (These were to cause a considerable ’challenge’ for me, my co-illustrator, the publisher, the typesetters and the copy editors…)
Numeracy, reading and spelling difficulties needed to be addressed.
I had to use a multi-sensory approach and devise imaginative storylines to help remember complex processes - such as the Circulatory System Illustrated below. The content needed to be humorous, if possible, as this aided memory (especially if the humour was questionable at times!).
Crosswords needed to be created to aid revision and spelling.
The book was not to be a substitute for the students’ A & P textbooks and lecturers’ notes: it was to be a supportive complementary back-up system.
The tone needed to be supportive, and acknowledge in a positive way that learning can be stressful and frustrating.
The layout needed to be accessible, and the written style needed to be as dyslexia-friendlyas possible: this good practice would benefit all students.
The book was also designed to inspire staff working with students. The materials had to be user-friendly and adaptable: every practitioner likes to put their own slant and context into materials and approaches.
Step 2: Identify the Contents of the book
These evolved continually and finally turned out as the following chapters: Introduction: The Memory Bottle; Relax and Take Control; Bodymaps; Timing is Everything; A Picture is Worth a 1000 Words; Use all your Senses; Think-a-link; Memory Tricks; Spelling: the 'WAM' Way; Read Right; Cool Calculations; Crosswords; and Useful Resources.
‘The Blood Brothers’ illustration and accompanying storyline (not published here) is used in the book to aid comprehension and retention of the Circulatory System.
Step 3: The third step was to systematically apply the strategies, which I had been developing with students for over a decade, to myself and observe the results. These strategies involved information-processing, visualisation, memory, minds mapping, stress and time management – the ‘usual stuff’ in an unusual context. So I turned myself into a human laboratory/ guinea pig/ observer/ experimenter. The results were fascinating and, more importantly, successful. Despite weeping on my tutor's lap and having no confidence in myself, I achieved 96% in the exam – quite embarrassing really, after the anxiety I had put myself and everybody else through. And the systems worked – at least with one person.
Nearly a decade to finish the book…
Step 4 was to road-test the materials and approaches with friends, colleagues and students. They used, evaluated, suggested and improved the worksheets, cartoons, drawings, storylines, mnemonics and mind maps (called ‘Bodymaps’ in the book) that I had produced. This took several years, especially as I knew that the book needed to be radically different from the countless other Anatomy and Physiology and Study Skills textbooks already in print.
Working with a publisher
I will spare you the final steps from getting a publisher to offer a legal contract to seeing the finished product sold on Amazon. In the tradition of X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, there are a large number of completely unfamiliar, seemingly arbitrary and painful hurdles to get over in a particular sequence. The major issue is that delivering goods, which meet with a publisher’s in-house editing, printing and financial requirements, can conflict with your own ideology and ideas of good practice. I was soon made to understand that incorporating all the ideal elements of my wish-list would make the book prohibitively expensive to produce. There are always many compromises to make in any project and I have often been reminded by my publisher that I am not J.K Rowling!
Charmaine can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org .The illustrations in this article are reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers Palgrave Macmillan and come from Great Ways to Learn Anatomy and Physiology by C. McKissock, 2009.