How Jerome learned to read

Children are more than the deficits and disorders on which we put more and more emphasis. Children have a unique talent and a natural born desire to learn. There are ways to stimulate those. This is how Jerome learned to read.

Dawna Markova | April 2004 issue
Jerome was a six feet tall, bitterseet chocolate, 14-year-old sixth grader living in a migrant labor camp with his mother and two sisters. I was the ‘learning specialist’ on a Florida school. My office was the former broom closet. The principal referred Jerome to me on the day school opened. ‘Just keep him out of trouble. He’ll never be able to learn to read; he’s trainable, not educable. Train him to behave in my school.’
Jerome’s cumulative folder was full of labels listing all of his deficits and disorders. His deep eyes held both mischief and misery. He told me the first day not to bother trying to teach him because he wasn’t ever going to read. Everybody agreed on that.
That is, everybody but me.
The attention in our society has become more focused on deficits. By doing so, not only do we limit the possibilities for our children, but we might also champion their innate gifts. We call them ‘hyperactive’ and not energetic, ‘inattentive’ and not imaginative, ‘oppositional’ and not independent, ‘oversensitive’ and not empathetic. And so Jerome, whom I met several decades ago, was labeled as ‘retarded’ and ‘resistant’ instead of … well yes, in stead of what?
In stead of chess champion, for example. I learned from Jerome’s mother that he was the chess champion of the migrant camp. One night, I went to watch him play, which was evidently rather unusual. No white teacher had ever done such a thing. I found Jerome surrounded by a small crowd, sitting on boxes or squatting. As Jerome paced, no one made a sound. His eyes scanned the board, and then suddenly he pounced. ‘Checkmate!’
Back at my broom closet, I had an idea. I brought a large book to school. Its title was spelled out in gold letters: A Black History of America. Jerome had never seen a book with photographs of African Americans, and did everything he could to try to get me to read it to him. Finally, after my persistent refusals, I offered him a chance. We would play a game of chess. If he won, I’d read the book to him. If I won, he’d have to learn to read it.
It must have been divine intervention. I was a beginning chess player and Jerome was an expert, but I won that game – the only game of chess I have ever won. It took us the rest of the school year, but Jerome did learn to read that book. We explored the pattern his mind uses when he plays chess and figured out how to use that pattern to help him read. It was laborious, but Jerome appeared to learn quickly. In the end, he could read.
Despite the success of his attempts to learn how to read, I mourn when I think of Jerome. He’s not the only child who thinks his only power is to refuse to learn something. I feel despair when I hear someone say how children are ‘unmotivated’ and ‘resist learning.’ They may be resistant to education, I think at these occasions, but they can’t be resistant to learning, can they?
The word educate comes from educare, which means to lead forth that which is within. But what schools and parents are doing, is instructing from the outside in. We decide what children should learn, how they should learn it and how long it should take. Then we evaluate how well it has been learned. We dismiss rather than foster children’s own self-awareness of what works best for them and what is most important to them.
The result? Children hardly develop the capacity to discern what is right for them. They become adults who don’t trust their own judgment and need someone on the outside to determine the direction their life should take.
As a grandmother, a teacher, a psychologist and a human being, I would like to know how to foster the art of learning from the source – inside the child – out. I want us to begin to study, identify and develop children’s strengths and assets with the same intensity and fervor with which we have studied their deficits and disorders. I want us – in short – to pay attention to the message of children like Jerome.
I write this to and for other parents because we can profoundly change the way we have been taught to think about our children’s abilities. We can start an evolution in which the full range of children’s natural intelligence can flourish, where all who are different can belong and uniqueness is not a disability but the norm. We can shift our perspective from worrying about what is wrong with our children to wondering what could be possible for them.
Being different is not a disorder. That is an important principle for parents who want to transform the forces that limit the expression of their children’s natural intelligence into ways to stimulate their development. Nature loves diversity. Intellectual diversity is a natural condition, and a gift to our species. There are many ways a child can learn. If I hold one of my grandchildren and rock her while reading, she can pay attention for hours. But if I were to hold her brother Sam and try the same thing, I’d be black and blue. So I’m forced to search for a different way so he can concentrate.
Another principle would be: Track assets, not deficits. Watch for a moment an infant learning to reach for a cup – an essential developmental task because this is how children learn to feed themselves. First a baby reaches and gets Mommy’s hair. Then air. Then Mommy’s hand. Then air. Then cup. Then cup, cup, cup. For an infant’s brain it’s natural to track success and discard failure. The brain ignores each miss, or so it seems, and records each successful encounter.
Adults are doing the exact opposite. Most of us end each day by tracking all the things we –and our colleagues – haven’t done or haven’t done well: What’s wrong, what’s the matter. Few people focus on what works, what’s right, what really matters. But more important than a to-do list is a ta-dah! list, including the moments we are proud of. Parents can accurately measure a learning environment, by just asking, ‘How safe is it to make a mistake here?’ Capacity is increased through experimentation. Experimentation requires making mistakes. An environment that judges, corrects, criticizes or labels a child for making mistakes is one that decreases these mental capacities.
Watch a baby learn to walk. Every step is falling forward: falling, collapsing, falling, collapsing, falling, catching, step. Initially, we understand that learning involves repeated and different fallings. When do we forget this and assume that ‘falling’ is failing? It looks like children are not allowed to fail. If they do, it is we who have failed them. But children need to be enjoyed and valued as much as they were as infants.
It’s time to help create an evolution in the way our children are being perceived. If you’re a mother or a father, you began helping your child move forward when he or she was an infant and took those first faltering steps toward your outstretched arms. You wondered when your child would walk, not if. You encouraged your child to risk that reach. In the end, learning is nothing more than discovering something is possible
Dawna Markova is an expert on how people think, learn, and communicate. She is a research member of the Society for Organizational Learning and author of How Your Child IS Smart, Learning Unlimited en Kids’random Acts of Kindness. She is the parent of an adult son.
Adapted with permission from Mothering (January/February 2004), an independent magazine that brings new insights to an ancient issue: parenthood. The experience of parenting is being celebrated bi-monthly with personal stories and profound research journalism in the field of education and health. For information on subscriptions: Mothering, PO Box 1690, Santa Fe, NM 87504-1690, United States,,
Asset-focused parenting
How can you continue to help your children’s forward movement so that they can develop relationships of trust with their own minds?
Instead of focusing on what goes wrong, begin to study and amplify what’s right about both you and your child. As you tuck your child into bed, ask for and share three things that went right during the day.
With your child, begin a joint study of the causes of positive events. What was it about studying for that math exam that made it possible for your son to get such a great score? What was it that made you feel so excited about what happened at work? What made it possible for your daughter to learn to play soccer so readily? Was it watching someone else or being told how to make a particular play before she had to do it? How did your children resolve that fight instead of beating up each other?
Post ‘strength’ stickies on the refrigerator, a different color for each member of the family. A strength is anything a person does that gives them energy when they do it and that they’ve always been able to do really well. One would have a sticky for strategic thinking, another for inquiry and a third for communication.
Have ‘Family Focus’ meals. Each dinner can be a time when the entire family focuses attention on one person, asking who is your latest hero or heroine, what activity has made you happiest that week, what three things went well, how you’ve used your strengths to face a challenge, etc.

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