Brainyball: How A 4th Grade Teacher Was Way Ahead Of Her Time

Bob Houghtaling remembers Janet E. MacLaughlan.

Less than an hour before my wedding I received a call from an old friend who broke the news that Janet E. MacLaughlan had passed away. Miss MacLaughlan was my fourth grade teacher and had a significant influence on the attitudes I’d develop towards school as well as myself.  

The world was a different place back in 1963 and 1964. Politics, war, innovation, social norms, medical advances, religion, philosophy, etc., all merged to create a zeitgeist for the period. So it was then. So it is now.

Back then the United States and Russia were involved in a "Cold War," the Beatles had just hit the scene and astronauts were the equivalent of the most popular sports stars. A clash of cultures was emerging. Ten-year-old kids, like myself, were trying to sort out; assassinations, racial concerns, wars and having to duck and cover in preparation for nuclear attacks. Yes, the world was a bit different back in the early '60s.

The school that Miss MacLaughlan worked for had no computers, very little special education services, few social service providers, no such thing as ADHD and police officers rarely stepped inside the building. Like today we had chimeras. Like today we had our notions of how things should be done. Janet MacLaughlan taught in a world where modern math, science and keeping up with the Russians was important. She also taught in a world where parent involvement meant a student better do what the teacher says and, if not, Mom and Dad got a call. With all of this said Janet MacLaughlan proved to be an educator well ahead of her time.

As a youngster I was all over the place - especially in school. "Little Bob" had the attention span of a mosquito in a nudist colony, didn’t like reading the stuff being offered by the Warwick Public Schools and spent far more time playing baseball, basketball and football than on his studies. On top of all this, he liked to talk and socialize a bit too much. In short, I could be a classroom nightmare.

For the first three years of my academic career ‘C’ grades were not uncommon. School was boring except for recess and gym. Nobody was talking about the stuff I liked – The Civil War, Ancient Greece, Rome and sports. Oh the pain.

The fourth grade began much like the previous three. I loved the kids in class, but in general, the day’s final bell couldn’t come quickly enough. Then there was a divine intervention– Miss MacLaughlan had a discussion with my parents. She began saying that I was a nice, well mannered child, but seemed distracted and uninterested. My parents weren’t surprised – but they did tell Janet that I loved reading stuff about history, sports and anthropology. It was then that Janet devised a plan that eventually had me eating out of the palm of her hand.

Looking back, it seems so simple. In fact, it was a combination good teaching, common sense and creativity. Basically, Miss MacLaughlan developed a plan that used my strengths and interests to engage me to learn the stuff that was required by the Warwick Public Schools. She had me do my math by computing baseball player’s batting averages and basketball player’s shooting percentages. She’d also make up situations where Union and Confederate armies would battle it out – all the time getting me to divide, multiply and do fractions pertaining to battle losses, supplies needed and territory gained. I loved it. She got me to concentrate on my studies as well as view reading and math as fun. Oh yeah – through this type of engagement discipline in her classroom was significantly enhanced.

Don’t think for a minute that Miss MacLaughlan let my regular studies slide – I had to do them too. But, by shaking things up, a bit an antsy 10-year-old kid wound up doing way more than he was required. In the end, I would have run through a wall for the lady.

I have written about Janet a number of times before. In fact, one of those articles led to us reconnecting after many years. A friend of hers had read something I had written in a local paper back in the '90s and shared it with Janet. This started the ball rolling.

I was invited to partake in a ceremony where Miss MacLaughlan was to receive an award for community service.  It was a wonderful moment. While times had changed a bit – we connected fairly quickly. In fact, Janet said that she remembered me well. She also told me how much it meant that I remembered her in one of my stories.

Little did she know that it was me who should be honoring her. In many ways Janet helped me to create a philosophy about how to work with people, often times kids, who don’t fit in or are seen as underachieving. Miss MacLaughlan taught me to show them respect, meet their strengths and find ways to discover something they do well. In all cases seeking to cherish and embrace their unique differences. Remember, Janet was my teacher when JFK was assassinated. Folks didn’t have to teach like that back then.

Recently I went to go see Moneyball, a movie about Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and how he used creative means to compete with limited funds and talent. Beane had to think out of the box and come up with new ways of getting things done. It worked so well that eventually a number of other clubs adopted his style. In fact, the Red Sox were and are one of those teams. While they blew a huge lead this year, the Red Sox won two World Titles using the Moneyball method (recognizing the importance of walks, on-base percentages, taking pitches, not giving up outs, Pitch Counts and more). In many ways Janet MacLaughlan pulled an "Educational Moneyball" more than 40 years before it came into vogue. Maybe if she were teaching today she’d call it Brainyball – how a fourth grade teacher was way ahead of her time. She got underachievers to achieve. She found ways to get things done. She used apparently disparate concepts to help the 10-year-old me keep up with other students. History to do math. Math to do sports. Sports as encouragement and buy in.

In today's cookie-cutter world of tests and mandates, individual panache has fallen by the wayside for many kids and teachers. Schools are measured by their test scores and a portion of each student’s graduation requirement is tied to them as well.

While schools in Barrington and East Greenwich prosper – many in Providence and Central Falls are seen as failing. For the former, teachers and administrators are lauded, for the latter blame, school closings and state-takeover occurs. At a later date I’ll explore some of the reasons behind these successes and failures (socio-economics, how schools are evaluated and other factors) but for now let’s stick to the topic of how young students are educated today.

Sometimes I wonder, with all the emphasis on science wings and new technology, whether or not districts would ever add classrooms that dealt with leadership, decision making and civics. It seems as though in an effort to stay ahead of let’s say China (it used to be the U.S.S.R.) we have forgotten the importance of cultivating civility and citizenship. We’ve also set aside process, patience and to some extent child development.

Obviously, science is important. Math is as well. But other subjects should also be considered. What about history, music and the languages? What about teaching leadership and critical thinking? Why the overvaluing of a few disciplines? Why the separation and compartmentalizing? Perhaps all of this testing has a degree of merit. But, does it reflect what really happens in school? It is my contention that when given a chance, many schools do great things for kids that often fall outside of measurement. Does it seem odd that we spend so much time debating over freedom of speech while freedom of thought is being eroded by incessant waves of standardization?

Everyone gets on the same conveyor belt. In a country that prides itself on individuality and ingenuity we sure advocate a whole lot of compliance. At a time when young people should be encouraged to explore, we ask them to comply. And, finally, as our schools continue to search for quality teachers we burden them with constraints, blame and unrealistic expectations (losing sight of the fact that a ruler never helped anyone grow an inch). Sameness is being confused for equality.

Just about everyone wants to belong. Just about everyone wants to be embraced and respected. Way back when, a young educator could have told a small boy to "suck it up" and do as she demanded. Instead she chose another method. She created discipline through creativity, activity and understanding. She also made school relevant and exciting. Janet MacLaughlan understood people. Rest in peace, Miss MacLaughlan. You were special and will never be forgotten. Thanks.

Therese Vezeridis October 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM
Indeed, the Influence of a Great Teacher Lasts a LIFETIME!!! Wonderful story. I recently contacted the Librarian at Central Falls High School, 24 Summer St, Central Falls, RI - Paulette Barden, TEL 401-727-7710 - about donating BOOKS and GAMES for either their Library or After-School program. They are most grateful and appreciative.


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