Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Understanding the Deeper Meaning Behind "Thank you, Mr. Falker"

One of my favorite books of all time is Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Palocco. In fact, at the 2012 National Book Festival I was able to shake Patricia Palacco's hand and tell her that this was the book that made me want to be a special education teacher. I love the book and I love reading it with students to watch them either connect with the text or grapple with the concept of what it means to be smart and dumb.*

     This year I read it with my third grade lunch-bunch/book club. One of the students in this group is a child with autism. Like many children with autism he is a very literal thinker. Only a few pages into the book he was going crazy with how "dumb" Tricia, the main character is. "Why doesn't she just try harder?" he exclaimed with frustration. "Stop drawing and start working! If I was her father I wouldn't let her draw anymore, I'd lock her in her room until she started reading!"

No matter what I said to him, or what his sympathetic peers said to him, we couldn't convince him that Tricia wasn't dumb just because she couldn't read. One third grader even got into the concept of right brain and left brain and how people have different strengths but he wouldn't let it go. "Whatever," he replied, "My brain doesn't work like that. Everyone just has one brain and it's either smart or dumb."

I think I died a little inside.

I'm also a huge fan of the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, and my school has put a significant emphasis on adapting the culture of Mindset into our daily work. We actively work on embedding Dweck's theory into our routines, our teacher language, and how we talk to kids about their work. Most of our students get embrace the culture.

My friend that day did not. In fact he was so upset about the book he told me he didn't want to come to lunch bunch with me anymore if we were going to read a book about "dumb kids". This kills me because it is a conversation we need to keep having, especially to encourage empathy with the other friends in the class. I have a feeling we will be building slow, baby steps towards breaking down the black or white thinking around intelligence, but I'm determined we can get there. More open and honest conversations about books- more character talks- more books with surprising twists to character development- but we can do it.

Any recommendations?
My moment with Patrica Palacco

*If you aren't familiar with the story it is about a young girl who loves to draw but struggles with reading. She tries to hide her reading difficulties but she believes she is dumb because of them. Once a teacher intervenes and helps her read and begins to see herself as a reader. The best part? (spoiler alert?) The ending reveals that it is a true story about Patricia Palacco herself. I love watching children's faces when they realize that it's true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Had to smile. If there's one type of child who could be expected to see things as "yes or no," or as "black or white," it would be a child on the autistic spectrum. In addition, since this child has an identified disability, and it's not a cognitive one (I assume), it's not surprising that he values the ability to learn quickly (since he has it) and looks down on slower learners. And de-values other strengths (since he doesn't have them) This looks to me like a self-protection technique. You are so right; it will take small steps to get him to widen his view. I have to say though, based on long experience with adults with autism/AS, he may find it hard to ever adopt the more Pollyanna-ish "we all have our own gifts" attitude that we encourage in our schools (as we should).