Joan Levine

Mislabeled and Misunderstood

Faculty member who has dyslexia and ADHD persevered through school, becomes inspiration to CSUF students and wins award.

September 8, 2006

by Mimi Ko Cruz

Joan Levine, lecturer of special education, knows what it feels like to be labeled stupid in school and at home, and she doesn't want anyone else to have that experience.

As a child, Levine couldn't figure out how to read, spell or add numbers correctly. Though she attended summer school every year from elementary through high school, she made little progress. Yet, she managed to struggle through undergraduate school at UCLA, where she earned her bachelor's degree in music education.

"I was not diagnosed with learning disabilities until 1981 as a graduate student at Cal State Northridge when I was married and with a child," Levine said. "I could not keep up with the demands of the program. I knew I learned differently from the second grade, but was treated as dumb, stupid and lazy."

Her father frequently used those words to describe his daughter and would say "he had more brains in his little finger than I had in my whole head," said Levine, who is dyslexic and has ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"There wasn't any special education when I was a child, only remedial math and remedial reading. I got by because I had a good imagination, learned how to compensate and cope well and was a very convincing story teller."

When Levine was using sign language to teach a class as part of her graduate program, one of her CSUN professors noticed she was reversing signs and misspelling words. She then was tested and diagnosed. From that day, she began taping her lectures, hired note-takers and tutors and had her tests read to her. She received her master's degree in deaf education from CSUN, earned a doctorate from Columbia Pacific University and began teaching special education at CSUF 10 years ago.

Levine's learning disabilities became the reason behind her desire to train future educators how to teach students with disabilities, and her work has been recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children, an international professional organization with 45,000 members dedicated to improving educational outcomes for students with special needs. She has won the CEC's 2006 Susan Phillips Gorin Award.

The award is the highest honor that the CEC student membership bestows on a professional council member.

Levine is the faculty adviser for Cal State Fullerton's CEC student chapter. She established the chapter, recruits student members and oversees chapter programs and activities.

"I work with my students, faculty and other professionals because I love what I do," Levine said. "It is the job I chose and not because I expected any reward."

Her learning disabilities influence her teaching style, she said.

"What I see as important is looking at the whole person and putting more emphasis on what a person can do rather than on what he or she can't do," she said. "We miss out on a lot of very talented people because we won't look beyond the disability and that is very sad to me. If I can make a difference in the life of just one student, then it is worth all the time and effort I put into this job."

It is because of Levine's work and attitude that she deserves the award, said Belinda D. Karge, chair and professor of special education.

Levine "is an awesome faculty member, mentor to many prospective teachers and adviser of our chapter of the Student Council for Exceptional Children," Karge said. "She is an advocate for persons with special needs and she believes in the potential of all persons. She, herself, has a learning disability and is a role model exemplar for others with disabilities."

Levine also serves as an inspiration to her CSUF students, said Nanette S. Fritschmann, a past president of the campus council.

Fritschmann, who received her master's degree in education-special education in 2002 from CSUF and now is a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas, nominated Levine for the CEC award because she "has great empathy for all students, yet expects them to do their best."

In her award nomination letter, Fritschmann wrote that she was a pregnant student with a full-time job when she took her first master's course with Levine. She wrote: "Dr. Levine welcomed me into her class and, through her engaging lectures and activities, helped our class recognize that all people are to be appreciated for what they are and what they can be."