John Muir Laws is a naturalist and an environmental educator in California, Wyoming and Alaska. He is also a research associate for the California Academy of Science, a scientific illustrator and an author of several nature books, including Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide, and his latest, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. Amazingly, Laws is dyslexic, cannot spell, and has never read a book cover to cover.
“I can’t spell to save my life,” he says. “But I can still observe as accurately as the next person. Drawing is a way of recording my observations that doesn’t require me to translate data or information into spoken or written language.”
During his field sketching workshops, Laws tells his students of all ages to record their notes with both pictures and words, but that “spelling doesn’t matter.”
His teaching style is contrary to what he faced as a child in school. Spelling not only mattered but defined his intelligence.
“I would spend all evening studying for a spelling test,” he said. “But I would end up at the bottom of the class. I had one teacher in particular who felt that if a child was teased by his peers, that child would try harder. Instead of passing out the tests, he would call your name so you would have to go to the front of the room to pick up your paper. He would start with the lowest grade and work his way up. So if you were the first person called, everyone would point and laugh, like it was a great big joke.”
Because Laws was already trying “really, really hard,” the laughter and teasing led him to conclude that “I must be a stupid kid.”
Don’t let people who think they know what you’d be good at tell you not to do something you want to do. Find out what you like, then persevere.
In about second grade, his parents brought Laws to the Child Study Unit at the University of California, San Francisco, where a group of researchers were just beginning to study students who made letter reversals or scrambled their letters together.
“I remember that they read Peter Rabbit stories to me,” he said. “Then they wrote ‘Peter Rabbit’ in big letters on a piece of paper with wide lines. I was to copy ‘Peter Rabbit’ just below where they had written. They watched as I was very careful. I took my time. I was doing my best job. I finally pushed my paper across the table, very pleased with having done it right. They looked at the paper and it said Peter Radgit. Oh, boy, they had one—a kid with difficulties.”
The researchers worked with Laws to figure out how his brain worked, giving him puzzles, playing word games, and at one point putting a helmet on his head to track his eye movements while he looked at words.
Though the researchers sat down with his early teachers, explaining the new term, “dyslexia,” it wasn’t until high school that Laws felt any teacher understood or appreciated that his brain was wired differently. His biology and history teachers began to ignore his spelling mistakes, instead looking at the content of his work.
“When my teachers started telling me that I was doing very good, that made a huge, huge difference for me,” he said. “I developed self-confidence and was able to blossom.”
In college at U.C. Berkeley, he embraced his disabilities, utilizing tutoring services, books on tape, oral exams, and a primitive computer spellchecker. He also started a support group for others to promote self-advocacy.
“If I took the initiative,” he said, “walking into my professor’s office before the first day of class to explain who I was, how my brain worked, what I needed, and that I was really a hardworking student at heart, I found that all my professors were tremendously supportive.”
Today, he is still helping others via his teaching, his field sketching classes, his blog and his books. His field guides feature thousands of original watercolors of plants and animals, all painted by Laws.
Laws is also the primary author and editor of the curriculum, Opening the World Through Nature Journaling. This free teaching guide is kid tested and teacher approved and integrates science, language arts, and visual arts through keeping a nature journal—a fine way to introduce children (with and without learning disabilities) to the joys of nature.
You can access the full illustrated text of Opening the World Through Nature Journaling at http://www.johnmuirlaws.com