Jules Csillag on Dr. Moats, Dr. Sacks, and Choosing Kindness

Noodle Expert Jules Csillag shares what she would want to learn from Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Oliver Sacks, and the lessons she took away from a bullying teacher.

Noodle Expert Jules Csillag shares what she would want to learn from Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Oliver Sacks, and the lessons she took away from a bullying teacher.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Answering these questions is harder than school! For me, it's a toss-up between Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Oliver Sacks (maybe I could get each for half-a-year?).

Dr. Moats is a stellar researcher, speaker, author, and speech language pathologist (SLP). I respect her work because she is a tireless advocate for students with language and learning disabilities, and she spends a great deal of her time proving what works (and calling "hooey" on what doesn't). Her advocacy for students has also led to better teacher and SLP training programs, especially in the areas of early reading and writing. From her, I'd hope to learn more about reading and writing development (including more about the way she makes sense of the seemingly nonsensical English language, advocacy, and writing for multiple audiences.

From Dr. Sacks, I'd hope to learn more about neuroscience and more about empathy — not only does he demonstrate this quality admirably, but I would hope to learn more about how he views the world by delving into his neuroscientific perspective. And, of course, I would be eager to hear more about his world views and how he writes in such an engaging way. With his amazing storytelling, I bet I could listen to him teach for hours at a time!

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

A middle school guidance counselor once said that all of my actions impact someone else's life. It was in the context of an anti-bullying lecture (e.g., if you are mean to someone today, she may remember it forever — a truth I can attest to if you look at my answer to the fourth question). The comment is both obvious and profound. Several hundred — if not a thousand — times each day, we can make the choice to be kind or mean, to be active or passive, to think or to do ... Each of these decisions has an impact on others. While this may be stressful for some, I view it as a necessary responsibility, one that has led me to make choices that benefit others on a consistent basis (at least from my perspective). In turn, my life has been richer because, as a result of these choices, I've been surrounded by others who are helpful, interesting, and collaborative.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

The "where" is tricky, but I have a "how." Wherever you go (and you should go somewhere that interests you), I would recommend that you observe and ask. Whether this teaches you something about a foreign culture or a geographical phenomenon, observing and asking will often help you remain respectful and able to change your perceptions. We frequently go into new situations "knowing" so many things, but it is crucial to observe in order to allow new experiences and ideas to flow in.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

6th grade. Electricity test. 53 percent. I'm tempted to include the teacher's name because, of course, I remember — but that part is irrelevant. What is relevant is that he felt the need to announce to the class that I "lowered the class average." For someone as community-oriented as myself, this was a particularly painful blow. It inspired me, at least in part, to go into a student-resource field: Even at the time, I knew that it wasn't shaming I needed, but someone to help me master the content. Years later, I also learned that a single person's opinion doesn't matter — I went into a scientific discipline and succeeded.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I entered my field after working at Camp Towhee, a camp for children with learning disabilities, and realizing the functional and social impact that learning disabilities can have, above and beyond the academic effects. My studies in linguistics and psychology paved the way for a career in speech language pathology since these disciplines depend on sets of skills and focuses that complement each other perfectly. I just wanted to learn more about language and the brain (and I continue to learn more every day!).

What also really appealed to me was the ability to pair my science-loving mind with my more artistic, creative side. As a speech language pathologist, I've been pleasantly surprised at the breadth of our profession; I have opportunities that range from treating articulation disabilities and organization disorders to working in hospital-, community-, and school-based settings. No two days are the same!

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