The Boy Who Was Too Dumb

The Boy Who was Too Dumb (A Tale of Five Children, Part 2)

This story begins in the year 2000 in a large inner city public school. I took several years in the late 90s and early 2000s to develop Montessori-based materials as Education Director of the Early Reading Company. I have continued that work with my colleague Randall Klein with the Age of Montessori's Royal Road to Reading. Our materials were used in one of America’s largest preschool franchises and in both public and private schools in many cities. We had a contract with eleven public preschools in a large Midwestern city. It was a group of low-income schools in some of the poorest, most dangerous housing projects. As you can see from the picture, it was recently demolished.

Cabrini GreenTeaching children to read

I trained the teachers how to use our reading materials and we pretested the children at the beginning of the year on vocabulary, ability to discern individual sounds in words, letter knowledge and word reading. I went into each school every month to observe, assist the teachers and work with children to demonstrate as needed. We ended the year by post-testing the children.

On one of my fall visits I observed a class doing a worksheet. Now remember, these were four-year-old children who have no business sitting at desks doing worksheets. With whatever they are learning, they need to be moving! But it was a coloring sheet, where you color the spaced marked with a “b” one color and the spaced marked with a “d” in another color to make a Halloween picture. It was a rather inane activity to begin with, having nothing to do with the materials I trained the teacher to use. As a Montessori educator who understands and utilizes the concept of isolating each difficulty, I would not use two letters that children so easily confuse right next to each other. I prefer to make sure the child is solid on one of them before giving the second one. And I don't use worksheets.

In any case, most of the children were guessing and one little boy in particular was struggling. The teacher never moved from her chair and shouted out across the room to anyone who had a question.  I brought a small chair over to this particular little boy, just a few feet away from the teacher. I leaned in, had one arm around the back of his chair and reminded him of the jingles we had learned about each letter. I told him we would work together and find all the “b” letters first as we quietly sang the song. He smiled up at me and started to pick out every letter correctly.

“Oh, you don’t need to bother with him”

Upset boyThe teacher shouted to me: “Oh, you don’t need to bother with him; he’s too dumb to get it anyway.”  I momentarily froze. Then I told the boy to ignore what the teacher said and we would work together to finish the page. He fought to keep back the tears, and was barely able to finish the page, even with a loving support next to him.

After that class, I went out onto the sidewalk and started to weep. I had never seen or experienced anything quite like that before. I was angry and horrified at the effect of this kind of treatment, even for one day, let alone if it went on day after day. Four-year-old children have no way to defend themselves from this. I went back in and reported the situation to the principal. She refused to believe me and defended her teacher.  I was later to learn from the administrator of one of my other schools that tenured teachers who fail in the grades are sent down to the preschools. This is so wrong! It  reflects the slow process of adult officials to recognize the vulnerability and vast potential in our youngest children. There are many other union and political issues in play as well, that I will not go into in this blog.

Here was a situation where the teacher did not see the child that was not yet there and failed to build a bridge to help him grow. Her actions were likely going to prevent the full flowering of the potential of this special child and of any other children subject to her verbal abuse and neglect.


crying child with mother or teacherOur next story takes place NOW in a mid-sized city in Montana. It is the story of a little six-year-old boy who cried and screamed each day and was deemed by teachers and doctors to be ineducable. They thought he was autistic. His body was rigid and he could barely speak. His mother and his teacher was beside herself.

After a day when both his kindergarten teacher and school principal yelled at the mother that her child could not learn, she withdrew her child from the public school. She was shattered and did not know what to do. But she knew that her child could not stay in what appeared to be a hostile environment.

This little boy’s parents decided to try a private Montessori school that offered both preschool and elementary programs. The preschool was full, so the administrator decided to let him come into her elementary class. He spent the first few days crying and screaming, unable even to control his bodily functions.

How do you deal with such a child?

The teacher spoke kindly to him and tried to help him settle down. She massaged his arm so that he could relax enough to hold a pencil. She spent many hours with him, one-on-one, showing him how to write and do math lessons with concrete materials.

Within two weeks, he settled down, began to speak and work for extended periods of time on his own. On the eleventh day, he looked into the eyes of his teacher and told her that he was from heaven. She smiled at him and told him that she was too! There are still major, ongoing problems with this child and his ability to focus and learn, yet the progress has enabled him to participate successfully with his peers in a mixed-age classroom.

Once again, we have the example of a teacher who saw the child who was not yet there. By the act of seeing, and imagining the child who is not yet there, the child begins to reveal himself. A healing process begins.

The Family Who is Stuck

The next child is stuck. Her family is stuck. This is another story of what is taking place NOW. The sweet precious child, age five, the apple of both of her parents’ eyes, seems to be perfect. She crawled and stood up, walking by her first birthday. She speaks and laughs with ease, understanding what people say and cooperating with her parents and peers.

Young girl cryingBut then she started kindergarten this last fall. The reading lessons began and this precious one could not seem to get it. She started to come home after kindergarten each afternoon and cry. She was failing.

Her parents went to talk to the kindergarten teacher and were told that their daughter was not able to learn to read. She was failing. She is five and because she does not fit the one-size-fits all course of study that the teacher has to implement or risk losing her job, she is already failing. The parents asked if perhaps there were other ways to help their daughter learn. The teacher said she was doing all she knew how to do.  The parents asked if perhaps she did not need to be tested quite so often. The teacher answered that she had to test every child.

The parents comfort their daughter. They encourage her. But they are not able to move to another school district. They cannot afford to send her to a private school. They cannot afford to home school her.  And so, they are stuck.  Their precious little five-year-old dislikes going to school and already sees herself as an academic failure.

This little girl, and how many more, do not have a teacher who sees the child who is not yet there. She will learn, but on her own timetable. Perhaps she will struggle. But no five-year-old should be allowed to fail.

Inspiring TED Talk

I saw a TED Talk a few years ago by Rita Pierson that made an indelible mark on me. Rita was a teacher of second graders. She told of a quiz of twenty questions she gave to her class.  One little fellow got two out of twenty correct. Now in many schools, he would have received his paper back with eighteen red checks and an F. But this teacher gave his paper back with a smiley face and a plus two. She gave him a hug and told him that she was sure he would do better on the next quiz. And guess what – he did! You may enjoy this link to her talk:

She knew how to see the child who was not yet there, and her act of seeing him created a bridge for him to get there!

Out blog next week will start a series on some new ways to consider what education is and can be in our society.

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