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A Change of Tune

After overcoming the challenges of dyslexia and a turbulent academic journey, Wilson Reading System® (WRS) alumnus and multi-instrumentalist Calum Bell is striking a chord in Boston’s Celtic music scene.

The son of professional performers, Calum grew up to a soundtrack of lively traditional Irish and Scottish tunes and ballads, set in an historic 18th century Massachusetts inn where the Marquis de Lafayette is said to have danced on the 80-foot ballroom floor. Here, some of the most prominent musicians in the genre gathered to perform, and an annual fiddle camp drew an impressive crowd each summer.

In contrast to these idyllic moments, Calum struggled with reading, writing, and math from his earliest school days. He recalls years of feeling angry and frustrated by school and the various ways he experienced it.

As his parents sought help for their son, Calum attended an independent school for kindergarten before it closed, followed by another independent school before trying homeschooling and a public charter school. He remembers feeling embarrassed as he watched friends and peers advance in their studies and grade levels.

His difficulties with focus and high energy led Calum to be incorrectly classified as having behavioral issues. With his learning disabilities not properly identified nor addressed to meet his specific needs, disciplinary measures, such as withholding recess, only backfired.

When Calum was 11, his mother learned of a tutoring option and reached out to Nanci Shepardson, a WRS Certified Teacher. Working one-on-one, beginning at Step 1.1, Nanci led him through the explicit, cumulative, multisensory word-level study of the complex English language.

During this time, Calum was formally diagnosed by a neuropsychologist with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and severe dyslexia, the true root of his challenges.

“Nanci made learning really fun and she integrated technology into it, which was exciting. I think the biggest thing, though, is she believed the diagnosis and understood if I couldn’t sit still it wasn’t because I didn’t care, it was because it was hard. Her tutoring was a contrast from all the other schools. She was the first teacher to believe the whole situation, which was really helpful for me.”

At 16, Calum entered a dual enrollment program at his local community college, simultaneously earning high school and college credits in Gateway to College, a national program for at-risk teenagers who are disengaged from traditional school settings. Homework, studying, reading, writing, and taking tests on a variety of subjects took backstage to his art. With regular gigs in Boston, at events, schools, and other venues, he withdrew after a year and a half, obtained his high school equivalency diploma, and went full time into his chosen field.

Since his first performance at age seven with his family’s band, Calum has gone on to learn 15 instruments, predominantly by ear and without instruction, in all five main types: wind, string, percussion, keyboard, and brass. Of these, he plays many at the professional level, including fiddle, flute, banjo, guitar, piano, bodhran (Irish drum), and bagpipes of all types. He and his mother also perform as the duo Celtic Bells through the organization Young Audiences of Massachusetts, including most recently at a virtual St. Patrick’s Day event held by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

“Calum’s story is one of perseverance and grit,” shared Nanci, now Wilson’s Senior Educational Technologist. “After every lesson we had together, he would look me in the eye and say, ‘Thank you for teaching me today.’ It never got old. He has a tremendous gift, and he’s finally come into his own.”

“I’m really not a school person, and as a 21-year-old, I can safely say that’s okay,” Calum shared. “Kids who are like me find themselves lost and parents feel hopeless. It’s very important for me to say, ‘If school is challenging for you, don’t give up hope. There’s more to life than school. But learning to read is essential. You can’t do anything without reading.”

Calum now enjoys reading nonfiction books, including books on music loaned to him by renowned musicians. He’s also considering enrolling in a music conservatory to expand his knowledge.

Watch a recording of Calum playing a traditional Irish tune on multiple instruments.