First Person: Learning Differently, Teaching the Same

By Ann Nomura
Friday March 28, 2008

My husband and I chose a Montessori School for our children because of small classes, low teacher-student ratios and a belief that our children’s imagination and curiosity should inform if not guide their education. We somehow managed to make every conceivable parenting mistake. 

Our son began first grade, we thought happy and prepared to learn. So we forced him to do his homework in spite of his tears and protestations. We assumed his teachers wouldn’t give him work he couldn’t do. Then we got a report card stating his teacher’s concern about our son’s motor development because of the difficulties he had copying words. He had also begun to quietly refuse to do assignments in class, he could not finish activities in the time allotted and he frequently looked and acted confused or distracted. 

My husband and I redoubled our efforts to get our son to complete his school assignments. His frustration and our anxiety built and built. His younger sister who learns quickly and brags incessantly began to pass her brother in many areas. Since we could get little help or guidance from their school, we began looking into programs and testing. A neighbor who had two children who needed special help sent us to the Raskob Institute. 

After two thousand dollars and ten hours of testing we got a detailed report informing us that our child learned quite normally but that he had anxiety about learning. They also politely suggested that developmentally inappropriate materials and teaching might be contributing to the problem. We hired a learning specialist through Raskob and our son made rapid academic gains, and more important, his confidence and calm happy ways returned. 

In spite of all evidence and expert advice, we tried to keep both children in their private school. We had long painful meetings, we had written plans, we had good intentions, and we got bad advice and still could get little or no accommodation for our son or family. 

In a fit of sheer frustration we called the Oakland Unified School District enrollment office looking for two openings for our children. The enrollment office found us a school with spaces for both of our children. We transferred to Oakland public schools with low expectations and high anxiety. 

When we paid a visit to our children’s new school, Mr. Stenger, the principal, listened to our concerns about our son and then pointed out that “all children learn differently; our job is to find the best way to teach them.” He had no reservations about having our children and our family thrust on him mid-year in an emotional and academic panic. He also told us to speak directly and openly with our children’s teachers. 

We left a huge packet of reports, test results and questions in our son’s new teacher’s box. Ms. Haruyama called us the same night and had read the materials. She knew more about teaching and learning than most of the experts we had worked with. Our son’s comfort and ease with writing and math began to improve dramati-cally after only a few weeks in her class. 

Our daughter began to complain, “My mother gave me to public school and put me in kindergarten.” Her teacher, Miss Pessin caught me in the hall and said, “Your daughter’s a good reader but she has a tendency to sight read, so I put her in a small group to work on the phonics.” 

My hard-case daughter then began to complain that her class work was too easy; the next day she came home with a huge stack of homework assignments. We haven’t heard a complaint since. 

Our children couldn’t have more different learning styles, but Kaiser Elementary teaches them both effortlessly. Embracing diversity doesn’t just mean throwing different people together and treating them the same. It means having wildly different children and meeting their different needs so they can all excel. 

Our children adore their teachers, their principal, the parents and other staff and their classmates. They love the freedom to be themselves and to learn in their own ways. The Oakland public schools have created a wonderful place for our children.