Every Child Can Learn?

7.28.14 Sax iStock_000028194066_SmallBlues singer Otis Spann once sang,

I tried to tell the city boy what to do,
But it looked like to me he just couldn’t learn.

‘…he just couldn’t learn.’  You might get away with saying that when singing the blues, but for teachers, we can never say a child can’t learn.  It’s considered giving up or politically incorrect (i.e. career suicide).  Just listen to politicians and highly paid administrators (most of whom have not spent much time in the classroom).  They’ll say with great confidence, “Every child can learn.”  What they don’t say (or won’t admit) is that although every child can learn, they might not learn what you want them to learn or they might not learn it as quickly as you want them to learn it (see what I wrote about Common Core).  To give you a taste of what I’m talking about, let me introduce you to Bennie.

Bennie was one of my darlings from the Special Ed. class I taught.

You may remember from an earlier post that I had taken a job as a long term substitute teacher for a Special Ed. class which was labeled ‘severely disabled’ (severe autism, Tourette’s syndrome, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and more).  These kids faced intense learning challenges.  I was teaching these adolescents things like: how to use a stove without burning themselves, how to use a public restroom safely, or how to count – very basic life skills.

Although he was as sweet as could be, Bennie was among the most challenged.

At 13 years old he was supposed to be learning basic arithmetic but he still had not mastered what is known as ‘one to one correspondence’.  In other words, if I held up three fingers and counted, “One, two, three,” Bennie would hold up five fingers and proudly shout, “Three!”  I worked for weeks using every technique I had been taught and a few I just made up, but I still could not get him to consistently associate a set of three objects with the symbol ‘3’ the word ‘three’ or the concept of three (or any other number).  He’d hold up however many fingers he felt like and say whatever number came into his head.

Bennie was the kid with Tourette’s syndrome.  Fortunately, he had led a sheltered life so he did not shout vulgarities but, along with the odd involuntary burps, ticks, and yelps which escaped his lips regularly, he would shout, “Carmen San Diego!” “T is for terrible, terrific…” and other cute gems.  He couldn’t count, but somehow he memorized a few words from the dictionary or PBS TV which he’d shout out at all times of the day or during a lesson (this will be important later).

And if that wasn’t distracting enough, Bennie was hyperactive.  We couldn’t cure it so we simply adjusted to it as best we could.  If he was sitting down he’d violently rock back and forth in his chair – we rarely tried to stop him unless he was in danger of falling or hurting someone else.  The rest of the time we ignored it until in the midst of a rocking episode Bennie’s Tourette’s would kick in and he himself would shout, “STOP THAT ROCKIN’!” followed by a shy, “Oops!”  You could tell by the different tones of voice that the ‘STOP THAT ROCKIN’!’ was a reenactment of an adult at home yelling at him and the ‘Oops!’ was Bennie’s embarrassed reaction.  It gave me an idea.

If I could hear the adults he lived with, I wondered if I could teach Bennie something (other than one to one correspondence) that they could hear at home.

One of the things I brought to the classroom was music.  I played Bebop tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s Greatest Hits, and the Japanese Salsa band Orquesta de La Luz (hey! it’s L.A. – diversity – just go with it), and to my surprise Bennie learned both names.  He preferred Orquesta de La Luz and we’d dance to it.  What we lacked in graceful movement we made up for in unrestrained enthusiasm.  But since John Coltrane was an easier name to say I concentrated on that.  Every time Bennie would shout out, “Carmen San Diego!” or “T is for terrible.” I’d answer with, “John Coltrane!” and it stuck.

I wish I could have seen the reaction on his mom’s face when, one day at home, Bennie shouted out, “Carmen San Diego! John Coltrane!”  Oh to be a fly on the wall.


At the risk of putting too fine a point on this story, I want to make sure you see that this is more than just a charming, somewhat humorous anecdote.  I also want to make sure you realize that I’m not making fun of the Special Ed. kid.  Yes, we were having fun, but I always did my best to love and respect all my kids.

The other more important part of this story is what I said at the beginning, although every child can learn, they might not learn what you want them to learn or they might not learn it as quickly as you want them to learn it.  Bennie was able to learn but he had a very tough time with what the school district said he was supposed to learn based on his Individual Education Program (aka: IEP).

I was only Bennie’s teacher for about two months.  Maybe if I had more time I would have hit on the teaching technique which would have helped him more with his number concepts.  But the key word is time.  Too often teachers are given unrealistic time constraints and then labeled failures when they are unable to meet deadlines that are idealistic rather than practical.

Bottom line: Don’t tell me how to teach,
show me, in my class, with my students.

If you liked this blog post, I’m sure you’ll like my book

What Happened to David

Paperback now available at Vroman’s Bookstore

and on PayPal and Amazon

eBook available on Kindle, iBook, Nook and most eBook retailers

1 thought on “Every Child Can Learn?”

  1. What a glorious story, it made my heart dance to read it.
    I can relate to what you say here because I was unteachable.
    For one year however I did fly, a teacher encouraged the creativity he saw in me which others didn’t….I was good at something, I wasn’t useless.
    Its finding the key, the trigger which opens up all kinds of possibilities in an otherwise colourless world for those of us who do not learn the conventional way with ease.
    I reckon Bennie would always remember Mr D just as I have never forgotten my Mr P, Mr Penkeith.


Leave a Reply


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: