Right and Wrong

As devoted readers of these columns will attest, sunshine, lollipops and unicorns have nothing on my opinion of a father-daughter hike on a crisp fall day where the twigs pop under your sneakers, the stream runs cold over the stones, and the panoramic view from the top of the mountain is breath taking. Remembering the sunscreen, bug spray, and PBJs are--like the Swiss flag--a big plus.

Forgetting the first aid kit and the binoculars goes without saying. But what could be better than the shared experience of silently watching a red-tailed hawk fly away with a black snake in her talons? (In the interest of journalistic integrity, I should disclose that my daughters and I have never seen anything of the kind on our rambles. Indeed, we frequently don't see an animal bigger than a mosquito, but the point remains.)

Still, it is possible to get hiking wrong. A forced march filled with instructions--"Look at that tree!"--interrogations--"Did you make up your math test?--and recriminations--"I hope you appreciate this trip because I have a lot of work I'm missing at the office"--can be miserable. Simple silence can communicate that parents and kids like to spend time together in the outdoors. Whereas a bombastic monologue inhibits introspection and enjoyment. A parent who intones, "Walk faster, there's a more interesting tree up ahead" might as well just stay home in front of the television.

Similarly, it is possible to get the education of children with learning differences horribly, miserably wrong. Blaming children for the way they process information is seldom productive. Marginalizing these kids, punishing them with dumbed down curriculum, attacking them with endless worksheets, and sequestering them away from "normally achieving" students--all are a recipe for poor outcomes.

I toured a school recently that got it right. In another setting, these students with mild to moderate learning differences would have been discarded as unable or unwilling to learn. But with four to eight children in a classroom, infinitely patient teachers, and inspiring curriculum, these kids were absorbing information at 100% of capacity.

In the lunchroom, students and teachers sat together, chatting animatedly and amicably. I sat with the director of admissions, the athletic director, and the head of residential life. Student after student came up to our table, shook my hand, and introduced themselves. "Nice to meet you; where are you from? Thanks for coming to visit." Really? "Thanks for coming to visit"?

You can't fake that sincerity . Genuine pleasantness in adolescent populations usually known for self-absorption and snarkiness is rare. No amount of preparation can inspire kids to introduce themselves to an adult visitor. These kids were the real deal--active and involved with their educations, connected to the success of their process and their school. "Nice to know you." Wow. Talk about your lollipops and unicorns.

That our culture does not have the resources or the will to provide appropriate education for more than a fraction of our population of school-aged children is the subject of another newsletter.

Was this school a "good" school? Measured by the list of "top" colleges to which their high school graduates matriculate, probably not. None of these kids was going on to get a PhD in philosophy from Princeton. But considered from the standpoint of going on to have productive lives rather than ending up playing video games in basements indefinitely, this institution is top-notch. The vast majority of these kids go on to college. The vast majority of kids with learning differences in other settings don't.

My daughters and I will never win an Olympic medal in the non-existent category of "fastest hike up a mountain with a gurgling brook and a view of the valley," but there is something to be said for the experience none-the-less.

Similarly, shouldn't we all be proponents of helping our children find the best placement, the most appropriate school, the place where they can thrive? Is the occasional rainbow too much to ask?


(Not mentioning the actual name of the school I visited is intentional. I pride myself on not promoting any specific boarding school, college, residential treatment center, product or service of any kind in these newsletters. However, if you write to me privately, I will connect you with the school with the wonderful support for students who learn differently.)

3 thoughts on “Right and Wrong

  1. Deborah

    Thank you. This one forced me to think. I recently had an experience when I volunteered this weekend. One of the “younger” volunteers with me is what we would call “slow” 40 years ago. She was much older than the teenagers I am used to. She can drive, she graduated high school and college and now is in a school to be a ________ tech. I am not sure if she was trying to do her best or not and I am not sure of what she is capable of doing but her lack of being able to help out in the way I was used to made it a long frustrating day.

    Your column made me realize she DID help even if it wasn’t what I was used to. She was friendly with the people who came to speak with us and had I realized that if I gave her better guidance she might have been more helpful than she was. Thanks for making me rethink this past weekend.

  2. Cat Jennings

    Greeting David,
    as always I enjoyed this edition of your thoughts and insights on education and parenting. This is one of your special talents, combining education with real-world parenting challenges, mistakes, and glories!
    Thank you again for what you do, I wish you and your family the brightest and happiest holiday season.
    Best Cat
    Still looking for your spidermans

  3. NanV

    Hi David,
    I’ve been reading and enjoying your blogs for many months. You so effectively communicate what’s at the heart of the matter, summing up what’s important for anyone who have a stake in the education of our youngsters. (that should be all of us) This one prompts me to write. I’ve been teaching for quite some time, taking deep breaths whenever the federal and state agencies administer the next school improvement medicine. Here are a couple of things I note in your blog. Neither college acceptance rates nor standardized test scores will tell us about the quality of school. Class size matters. Well, every piece of research on class sizes for the past 30 years has told us that. It’s the well-being of students that matters.
    And now a few pie in the sky (perhaps) questions:
    Do our schools really need an army of behavioral specialists, special educators, and paraeducators to see to the well-being of students? How about small classes with caring teachers committed not only to academic achievement of their students but to their total well-being?
    Why must our education system so completely focus on repairing student weaknesses and academic deficits?

    Keep blogging and Happy Holidays!


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