The Boy No One Could See

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO of All Kinds of Minds and co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

When writing Schools for All Kinds of Minds, I had multiple insights I wanted to share.  Many of these insights were supported by social science research.  For example, Malcolm Gladwell and Karl Weick show us how “small wins” can be tipping points for change.  And numerous researchers have documented the value of using neuroscience findings to better understand the many moving parts of learning and better understand students.

But some of the book’s insights were based less on research and more on what we’ve learned from our collective experiences as teachers.  Chapter 4, “Digging Deeper: Knowing Students as Learners,” captures one such insight.

Knowing your Students is Vital

In Chapter 4, we urge educators to become “kid watchers” to find those relevant pieces of data that could be life-changing.  I have heard from so many children that they want a teacher in their life that really knows them.  For me, embracing the All Kinds of Minds approach described in the book is a way to demonstrate that you really know a child.  I’m driven by seeing too many kids disappear from the radar screen of teachers or parents. 

I’ve also seen the power of one “small win” change the course of a child’s life.  This is a story from my own family, one that was running through my head during the book’s creation.

Michael: Under the Radar

Michael is part of the kind of upper middle class family in which we assume the kids will be just fine.  But behind the doors were a relatively absent father and a mother battling her own demons with mental illness. 

He dealt with his family challenges by trying not to draw attention to himself but finding some things that made him feel proud.  Neither a bad nor exceptional student, school provided little guidance.  Michael became a fantastic skateboarder in elementary school and taught himself how to play multiple musical instruments.  By high school, he was pegged as a skateboard slacker, and he increasingly distanced himself from school life.

Moving On … But to What?

By the start of his senior year, Michael had fulfilled all of the graduation requirements and had taken the SAT.  The school granted him permission not to attend school if he enrolled in community college.  Michael moved out of his house and never looked back toward his high school. 

After two years of community college, Michael accompanied one of his friends on a visit to New Mexico State University.  He figured that while he was there, he would talk to someone to find out if he could get in, so he grabbed his SAT report and community college report cards.  

A New Beginning

Upon reviewing the documents Michael had brought, a student advisor asked him, “Did you know you nailed a perfect score on your math SATs?”  He told Michael that he could get scholarships, questioned why he took such low-level math courses at community college, and encouraged him to pursue engineering.

These were new questions and ideas for Michael.  No one had ever explained “placing out” of courses or looked at his SAT scores.  That day, he completed the university placement test well before the allotted time.  

He drove home, packed all his belongings, and cut off 14 inches of hair.  When he stopped by his parents’ house to say goodbye, he responded to their look of shock by declaring, “I’m an engineering student!”  Four weeks later, he had scholarship dollars and was enrolled in advanced math as an engineering student at New Mexico State University.

“Small Wins” in Action

In five minutes’ time, someone noticed a critical detail that not only changed how Michael saw himself, it changed the trajectory of his life.  The student advisor looked beyond the surface at the skateboard slacker, noticed data that revealed mismatches, and saw a boy with extraordinary mathematical talent that had escaped the eyes of many teachers as well as his own parents. 

This story is the inspiration for Chapter 4 and a powerful example of why it is so important to continually watch for the nugget of data that can make all the difference in knowing a child and ensuring they are on the path toward success in school and life.

What happened with Michael came about, in a sense, accidentally – not through the careful observation of a teacher skilled in “kid watching.”  We wrote Chapter 4 to help teachers make such “aha” moments deliberate, and not leave these kinds of life-changing insights to chance.

Tell Us Your Story!

Do you have a story about how “kid watching” really paid off?  How getting to know a student as a learner really made a difference for that student?  What are your strategies for getting to know your students as learners?  Share your experience with us below.

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you!

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5 thoughts on “The Boy No One Could See

  1. It is so rewarding as a student to receive this type of positive focused attention from a teacher. I’m probably preaching to the choir when I say that a teacher can have a lasting impact on a student’s life for years to come.

  2. I’ve been a first grade teacher for 25 years. After I did my training with All Kinds of Minds I shared with every teacher I could that this was the type of training that every teacher should have. It combines the insights most teachers develop after years of experience and backs it with research. It also takes it to the next level by providing a method and tools to implement this highly successful and empowering program.

    The article, The Boy No One Could See, brought to mind how a small moment with a teacher can change a child. I find myself being able to take just 5 minutes with one of my struggling students and doing a mini “demystification”. Just sharing with a child that you know that he or she is having a tough time with something and saying that you’re going to help find a way to make it easier is all you need to do to ease that burden.

  3. Wonderful story about Michael! My own interactions with students usually take place outside of the classroom, since my work involves interviewing kids about their lives and learning and publishing their voices via What Kids Can Do (in books like “Fires in the Mind”). So I often turn up such vital information not so much by watching (as teachers more likely have the chance to do) but by listening very closely for hidden clues as a stream of conversation rushes by, filled with allusions to things I may not catch on first pass. I have learned always to trust my curiosity in these situations, asking, “Can you tell me more about what you were saying before …?”

    I remember Dina, for instance, telling me about her mother, a Jamaican immigrant whose family circumstances meant she never went to college. Her mom had worked many jobs–bank teller, dental and nursing assistant, home health aide, even housecleaner–but she had always wanted to be a doctor. “When she was growing up,” Dina added with a grin, “high school students learned about anatomy by killing a live chicken.”

    “Really?!” I said. “Tell me more!”

    Dina was happy to expand on her amusing story. The headmaster, she said, would wring the chicken’s neck, so that her mother and her schoolmates could dissect the whole carcass. They dipped it into a bucket of ice cold water to coagulate the blood, then cut it up to study its different parts. “When I was 12,” Dina said, “my mom took me to the live market near our apartment in the Bronx and we bought a live hen so she could teach me the same thing.”

    “So you did that too?!” I said, astounded. “Tell me more!”

    And then, as she described the dissection of the hen on her kitchen table, Dina began to talk about her own hidden interest in science. “Ever since I was little, I have felt an itch to find out what makes the natural world work,” she said. “I want to know what’s inside the things that I see, so I am always looking for a way to take them apart, to understand them more. In a sense, I dissect everything.”

    Dina did not yet know where she would take that interest. College was still a dream to her at that point. But as we talked on, she began to open up with questions. What would it take for her to become really good at dissecting the natural world? What should she study, and when, and where?

    It was the beginning of a conversation that could change a life. Tell me more!

  4. At my school the children in their Grade 7 year ( In America it would be the first year of Junior High) are selected to be leaders. There was a specific young boy Jabulani who desperately wanted to be a leader but because of his behaviour and academics did not get elected. I saw his strengths but there were things that he still needed to develop. At the end of the last term he was once again not elected and I could see that this young man was devestated and angry. I asked him to help with some of my books at break and then got him to sit down. One could describe it as a very short demystification session, but in those few minutes I told him that he is going to be a great leader and spoke about his strengths. I also told him that I saw his disappointment and anger and that he had a choice as to how he was going foreward. Throughout the rest of the term he would “check in” every now and then just for a few words – it is not cool to talk to the teachers after class!
    Two year later I was “grabbed” from behind in the shop -and it was Jabulani who gave me this huge and and told me that he was doing fine. He was a class leader, played sport on the highest level and was getting his grades up.
    This year he paid a visit to our school as he was chosen as the junior mayor of the city of Johannesburg. His words were: ” It took a teacher 10 minutes to make me think differently about myself. I knew that I could reach goals and that I could go places. I have been able to do that in sport, my academics and leadership” He is now also the Head Boy at his school.
    In my class he was exposed to teaching that was based on the All kinds of minds model, but this child needed those specific 10 minutes . This has made me more aware of the holistic needs of children and I hope that I have not let opportunities go by where I could have helped a child.

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