Robert McLaughlin's Learning Story


In February some years ago, I was asked to teach a 7/8 grade combined classroom in a small rural K-8 school for the rest of the year. I didn’t know the students. So, I realized, I needed to do all I could to get to know them as quickly as possible. Among the many things we did together, I asked some of the brawnier kids to take some computers (they were much heavier then) out of a storage closet and set them up. This one 7th grader — I’d read the file on his test scores the night before — was supposedly able to read only at the first grade level. He set up one of the computers, then pulled out the manual (computer manuals were not very readable back then), and then properly connected the keyboard and monitor. He then, to my amazement, looked through the manual and started to enter a program in BASIC. I asked him how he knew to do this. “Oh, it’s no sweat, the manual lays it all out”, he said.”Say, would you mind creating a how-to guide for the other kids, helping them learn to do what you just did?” I asked.”You bet,” he said. I gave him a couple weeks to work on this. In the meantime, a week later, his mom came for the parent-teacher conference. “What have you done to my boy?” she asked angrily. “What do you mean?” I gulped.”What have you done to my boy?” She insisted. “You’ve got him doing homework!”I then started to describe the litany of reasons why teachers ask kids to do homework, hoping one of them would make sense.She interrupted me. “Nah, you don’t understand. In seven years, he’s never done *any* homework. How did you get him to do homework?” For the first time, after making me sweat, she grinned. “He’s spent every free moment working on this computer manual,” she continued.A week later, he brought his how-to manual to school. He gave it to me at the end of the day, so he couldn’t see me assess it while he was there. I looked at it that night, carefully, knowing it was important to him. I was so happy — it was clear and very well done.First thing the next day, I gave it back to him and was eager to talk with him about it. He refused to take it back, said he’d look at it on his way home in the afternoon.The following morning, he came into class and, in front of everyone, threatened to assault me. He was quivering in anger. “You didn’t even read this!” he yelled. “I put all this work into it and you didn’t even read this!” He drew his fist back, ready to take me out.”What do you mean? I sure did read it” I said.”If you read it, then where are all the red marks?!” (i.e., where are all the places where mistakes are noted). He couldn’t *imagine* writing anything that didn’t have lots of mistakes.I told him to show his manual to Ben, the “class brain”, and if they could find even a single error I’d failed to note, I’d give them both $10.It was at that moment that I saw his life change: for the first time, he realized he was far brighter than he’d ever imagined. It turns out that his father was a car mechanic. He’d been helping his dad and never saw reading a complex car repair manual as requiring intelligence. So, here he was, a 7th grader, reading supposedly at just a 1st grade level, and fathoming a computer manual that many with graduate degrees could not understand.He unclenched his fist and gave me the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.I was so happy for him, seeing him realize his own undreamt abilities. But I also was worried: how many kids had I taught where I’d not lucked into tapping their abilities?What, I wondered, can we do to make sure that we awaken and affirm the abilities of all kids?