My Dinner with Melvin - September 2002

Do you have a hero in your professional life? An author, theorist or educational leader whom you respect and admire? A mentor? A role model? A guide? A hero?

Most of you probably do. There are some pretty heroic figures in the educational field. Brooks. Lyon. Lieberman. Hagin. Lerner. Minskoff. Hallowell. Coles. Gardner. Mather. Goldstein. Mercer. Osman. Silver. All of these are heroes of mine.

But there is one professional leader who ­ in my mind ­ stands above the rest. I have followed his work since the mid ­ 1970's and I believe so strongly in his child-centered philosophy and approach. There is no other professional who has had a more profound impact upon me and my educational belief system. If you have ever heard one of my presentations, you doubtless know who I am referring to: Dr. Mel Levine of All Kinds of Minds.

Dr. Levine has been a voice of reason, rationality, research and responsiveness in our field for decades. He has filled auditoriums and lecture halls throughout North America (and beyond) with colleagues who are eager to benefit from his insights and his clear-minded approach to kids who struggle in school. Mel invariably gives those eager audiences a great giftthe gift of understanding. I leave every Levine presentation feeling informed, inspired and invigorated.

For thirty years, Dr. Levine has been "spreading the gospel" about the causal factors for school failure and frustration. His consistent drumbeat has been the profound fact that kids' seemingly irrational and unproductive behaviors are caused by physiological factors that are beyond the child's control. Basically, Dr. Levine challenges the belief that "the child IS a problem" by countering that "the child HAS a problem."

In the past few years, foundations and national media have recognized the wisdom and effectiveness of Mel's approach. He has emerged as one of the pre-eminent educational professionals of our generation. A thirty-year "overnight success."

I was a follower (read "stalker") of Dr. Levine's for decades. Over the years, we began to exchange collegial correspondence. This exchange developed into a warm, personal friendship. We are kindred spirits in regards to the way we look at the world of children and we share a common belief that "demystification" ­ a rational, reasoned and understandable explanation of a child's needs and affinities ­ may be the greatest gift that you can give to a child who is struggling with learning.

Because of our busy travel schedules, Mel and I seldom have the opportunity to break bread together. An opportunity to do so arose last week when Mel was addressing a group of educators and psychologists on Cape Cod. Janet and I joined Mel and his wonderful wife, Bambi, for dinner at a great little restaurant in an 1850-era home in Brewster. Sensational meal. Great wine. Terrific company.

I so enjoyed these times that I spend with Mel. We have developed a tremendous amount of respect for one another and the roles of "mentor" and "student" are freely exchanged during our conversations. Every meal with Mel is invariably sprinkled with his wonderful anecdotes and blazing insights. His rich experience with ­ and affection for ­ children is obvious.

Mel is always several years "ahead of the educational curve." The topics that he was championing in the 70's came into general practice in the 90's. The causes that he embraced in the 80's are just now becoming common issues. If you want to know what the major educational trend will be twenty years hence, talk to Mel today.

So would you like to peek into Mel's crystal ball? What issue is he currently embracing? One word ­PRODUCTIVITY.

Our current misguided love affair with assessment and high stakes testing will present insurmountable obstacles to the legions of kids who have productivity difficulties. These kids may well have mastered the targeted material, but are unable to demonstrate that mastery via the traditional channels of writing or speaking. They have significant difficulty planning and monitoring their learning and are often labeled "immature", "disinterested" or "lazy". Their report cards are filled with comments like: "If she would only apply herself" and ".not working up to his full potential." School is an exercise in frustration and failure for these kids. A daily, six-hour episode of F.A.T. City

These children have difficulty with output. They are simply unable to demonstrate their knowledge or mastery and the adults in their lives often attribute this to a lack of motivation or initiative. These children suffer tremendous humiliation and isolation as a result.

I recall an incident wherein a seventeen-year-old boy had a composition posted on a lobby bulletin board at a special education school where I worked. He brought his parents and younger siblings in to see the display. I asked him why. He shuffled his feet and looked downward. "I'm seventeen years old, Mr. Lavoie," he said, "and I've never had one of my papers put up on a bulletin board before." This bright, capable kid was simply unable to produceat least to the satisfaction of his teachers. America's classrooms are filled with these struggling students.

These kids need a champion to embrace their cause. Hold on, kids. Mel's coming!!