Teaching Thomas: “he’s just not a good student”

That is what Thomas’ mother constantly repeats to me. She loves her son so much – I can see that. But at the end of every session, Thomas (I assume in celebration that he no longer has to sit and do more worksheets with me) runs and skips around the house, yelling and blabbering nonsense words, behavior that society sort of expects out of a young boy. His mother always looks at me and sighs, shaking her head and telling me that he’s just not a good student. She keeps telling me that in comparison to his classmates and her friends’ children, he can’t read as fluently, spell as accurately, or write grammatically correct sentences. In my opinion, she sees him as a remedial student, whose future success is in peril if intervention (in the form of more studying and more tutoring of course) is not conducted. Of course, I’m supposedly part of that intervention. I try to tell her that academics is not everything, that I’ve seen peers who are A, B, and C students succeed along with me, and that her son is a very bright kid.

One example that happened today of how smart Thomas is. This incident made me crack up right away. I was giving him a spelling test on words that we have accumulated through reading story books. The word we were on was “told” and he had spelled it correctly, whether he knew it or he was just guessing. He asked me, “what does ‘told’ mean?” I responded by saying that it means to tell someone something but in the past, like “Yesterday, I told you a secret”. He responded by trying to clarify my explanation by asking, so is it like “could”? “Could” is another one of our spelling words. Obviously, he associates the word “could” with “told” because they look alike, both with the “o-ld” in the spelling structure. It’s also obvious that he still didn’t understand what “told” meant. He’s been learning some simple past tense forms, mostly by adding -ed, but “told” is irregular so I asked him how to say “run” but the in past, like “Today the dogs run to the park. Yesterday, the dogs…” He said “ran” as I expected and so I compared that to “tell” and “told”. All of this went smoothly and he seemed to understand the idea and meaning of “told”.

The interesting thing is that shortly after, he pointed to our little grammar session that I had scribbled all over a piece of scatch paper and he said “Look! You gave me the answer!!” I told him, “Yes I did, because you asked me a good question. If you don’t understand a word, you can always ask me.”

The next word was “should”. He wrote it down and pointed, asking if it was correct. I told him I can’t tell you the answer, unless you have a good question to ask about it. And guess what question he asked? From going over the word “told”, he learned that asking the meaning of the word leads me to spell the word for him as I explain it to him and so he asked me to define the word “should” for him, even though I know he knows what it means. How smart is that!

Even though it’s not the conventional form of intelligence in terms of knowing information and getting good test scores, I think knowing how to get the information you want and finding the shortcuts to get there is itself a form of “smart”ness. The mother knows this. She knows that he’s particularly keen at finding shortcuts that allow him to do something in a easier way. But she considers this lazy and a bad habit. I wonder if it is. Maybe  I’m too optimistic but I’d be more inclined to recognize the competencies that Thomas displays rather than his inadequacies. After all, isn’t the skill of knowing how to “work the system” and “play the game” something we reward in the real world?

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