Dr. Shawn Anthony Robinson is on a mission to change the narrative for students with dyslexia, particularly for African American boys. He personally faced difficult challenges early in life and was not diagnosed with dyslexia until age 18, but his life changed when he met Dr. Robert T. Nash, who taught him how to read using an Orton-Gillingham method. Today, Dr. Robinson is the owner of the “Pure and Complete Phonics” curriculum and author of the graphic novel series Doctor Dyslexia Dude—just to name a few of his many endeavors—and his message is to empower all students to see themselves as superheroes and allow themselves to be successful.
What was school like for you in the early days when you didn't read yet?
Looking back, I was angry, bitter, and not approachable, and these emotions were attached to not being able to read. Academically, I was lost and didn’t care about school, which led to inappropriate behavior. Not being able to read was psychologically damaging for me.
What support systems did you have to help you stay motivated despite the adversity you faced due to your dyslexia?
I ended up splitting my time between high school and an alternative high school for special ed students, and I had a lot of great teachers and coaches who helped get me on the right path. They instilled confidence in me and helped turn me around by guiding me on how I could control my behavior. For example, they helped me get involved with coaching Special Olympics. That opportunity helped me realize I had leadership skills to contribute, which helped give me a different outlook on life.
In your senior year of high school, you were finally diagnosed with dyslexia. Can you share that story and how that impacted the trajectory of your life?
My mom was at a beauty salon and heard other mothers talking about a program for adult learners with dyslexia at a college run by Dr. Robert T. Nash. She called him up to ask if he would meet with us, because we were looking for answers on why I was struggling academically. He tested me, and I remember I couldn’t spell sight words. At the end, Dr. Nash told me I had dyslexia. He also said he saw a lot of potential in me because I was one of the most literate kids he has ever met; however, the school system failed me. Dr. Nash explained that learning how to read would be one of the hardest things I would ever face in my life, but he would teach me how to crack the code with multisensory instruction. Once he did that, I caught on quickly and took off.
You graduated high school reading at an elementary level, but you went on to participate in Dr. Nash’s Project Success Summer Program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh before being accepted to attend the university for your bachelor’s degree. What was that experience like?
It was the real world and a wake-up call. I couldn’t have the same attitude that I did as an adolescent coming into an adult world. My mentors told me to mature or go home so I wouldn't waste my time or my professors’ time. In college, I began to understand who I was becoming, and I knew that I wanted to give back and serve in some capacity. I always felt like an outcast and didn't want others to feel the same way. Finally, after six years, I earned my undergrad degree.
“I always felt like an outcast and didn’t want others to feel the same way.”
Afterwards, you received your master’s in education and a doctorate in language and literacy. What encouraged you to keep progressing academically at a graduate level?
I wanted to keep going, in part to prove to myself that I could achieve high levels of academic success regardless of where I started. A part of me also wanted to prove other people wrong. I had professors who told me I wasn’t going to be anything or who told me I should do something different, but I just kept plugging away. With my PhD, I wanted to know more not only about myself as a dyslexic, but also about the space that I have lived in so I could try to help others like me. I was in my master’s program for five years, then my doctorate program for seven years, so I spent a total of 18 years in school after high school!
In your research, you focus on the intersection of race, giftedness, and dyslexia. Why those particular areas of interest?
At the time, I had read a lot of literature by Dr. Donna Ford from The Ohio State University, where she discussed traits of exceptional multicultural individuals, such as leadership and academic abilities. Then I started reading the research on dyslexia, but there wasn’t much research on the intersection between the two. I wanted to write about Black and Brown kids who look like me, who are dyslexic, and who possess traits that are characterized as giftedness. For example, Black and Brown kids are underidentified in both giftedness and dyslexia. If they excel in leadership, art, science, theater, they are underidentified. If they can’t read, they are not usually identified as having a learning or behavioral disability. I saw that this needed more attention.
Dr. Nash became a lifelong mentor for you, and he gave you the rights to his curriculum “Pure and Complete Phonics” before he passed away in 2017. What is being done with the program today?
It was an honor for Dr. Nash to give the program to me, because he saved more lives than any researcher that I know of in Wisconsin. I have used his work for adult learners with dyslexia where I teach at the Madison Area Technical College. Last semester, we had piloted a free course, which is the first of its kind in the state, to teach not only dyslexic students, but also ESL learners. We saw some great results from our pre- and post-tests, and we already have two sections for the fall filled up. It’s exciting to teach these adult learners, because I can relate to them, where they did not get the services they needed from the system to be successful.
In addition to serving adult learners, some younger audiences may know you as Doctor Dyslexia Dude, which is a character in your graphic novel series that you co-authored. When did this concept come about?
My wife and I sat down and said we wanted to take the research publications that I’d done to make them more accessible for kids and families. We wanted to try something different that would spread the messages of equality, equity, confidence, and self-empowerment. We knew that graphic novels can help students who struggle to read improve their engagement and comprehension, so we thought let’s try that in order to reach more kids. It has always been priceless to see kids with smiles on their faces and feel they have some hope because they recognize themselves in our books.
At Windward, we have students who, like you, are dyslexic or have other language-based learning disabilities. What words of wisdom would you have so they, too, see themselves as superheroes?
You are not alone, and it is okay to feel the way that you feel. We are all going to experience failure in our life, but how we handle and channel our emotions is what matters. It is okay to think outside of the box because that’s what we do; we are creative in our thinking! Nothing is guaranteed in life, and nothing will automatically come to you, but keep working hard at whatever you are doing. There is no failure when you have done your best.
Note: All information and insights shared in the Q&A demonstrate the expertise and views of our interviewees.