Director's Corner: On Learning Outside the Lines

“Learning Outside the Lines” is a book by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole, and the title of a two-hour presentation that Mr. Mooney is enthusiastically giving all over the country. One of us was able to seize the opportunity to listen to him when he presented in Tallahassee on June 1, 2013. Mr. Mooney was diagnosed with dyslexia in 4th grade and with ADHD in 5th grade. He did not learn to read until he was 12 years old, but nevertheless graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in English. He describes himself as one of "those" kids who couldn't sit still, spent a lot of time in in-school suspension, and was told his future would involve either flipping burgers or going to jail. By age 12, he was suicidal.

Mr. Mooney had an extremely painful educational experience overall. He attributes his eventual success to the facts that his mother was a fighter, and that he met just enough understanding and supporting teachers, especially at the high school level.

When asked about the type of support he received, Mr. Money explained that he was not retained for not reading but allowed to progress on parallel tracks, using books on tape and being read to, so as to allow the development of his thinking despite him not reading, all the while receiving sustained remedial reading instruction.

Also, some (but not all) of his teachers chose to grade his creative ideas without grading his spelling. When asked about medication, he said that he was not philosophically opposed to their use and stressed that no shame should ever be attached to using medication, but he personally opted against medication and worries that it may be an over-used tool.

Mr. Mooney's talk, however, was not about the role of services or medication in "fixing" skills set. It was about the emotional side of his journey, about being understood for who he was.

To be successful, he adamantly explained, he needed positive self-concept, resiliency, and “getting good at something.”

  • Positive self-concept: he needed the image of a positive future; he needed to unlearn that he was the "bad kid," the "dumb kid," and thankfully, he met people who understood those needs.
  • Resiliency: to him, character traits such as resiliency, grit, and tenacity are predictive of future successes, not cognitive skills; again, he met people outside his family who helped him acquire these traits.
  • Getting good at something: in his case, soccer ("Soccer gave me the feeling of what it must have been like to be a smart kid at school").

Mr. Mooney left his audience with several powerful quotes:

"You have to know that difficult children make interesting adults."
"Difference is the norm."
"Don't be mean to kids."

Take-home messages for our school

We like to think that Mr. Mooney would have done well in our school setting. He says he was good at doing things and thrived when he met a teacher whose classroom was project-oriented, so he would probably have done well in our theme-driven approach. He would not have been put in reading groups clearly distinguishing the good from the bad readers but would have been encouraged to read at his own pace whatever interested him.

He would have received instruction in reading and spelling but not been penalized by bad grades. He would have been lovingly encouraged to do his best instead of being compared to his peers. He would have been taught to accept his mistakes as learning opportunities instead of flaws. He would have been accepted and respected for who he was and cheered for what he could do. And, maybe most importantly, he would have been in an accepting supportive environment consistently from Kindergarten through 8th grade, not once in a while depending on the teacher.

Jonathan Mooney is not alone in thinking that resiliency, grit and tenacity are predictive of future success. Read February’s Director’s Corner for more on the subject.