Laura Waters

Teach the Way Children Learn: One Mother’s Gratitude for a Teacher

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach,” counseled Ignacio Estrada, director for grants administration at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, “maybe we should teach the way they learn.” This pearl of pedagogical wisdom, what we now call “differentiation,” requires an extraordinary degree of skill and dedication on the part of the teacher. My family considers ourselves to have been multiply-blessed because each of our three older children spent their kindergarten years under the care of a teacher who exemplifies Estrada’s precept. Her name is Helen Bonfanti. A friend of mine used to joke that my husband and I had “cookie-cutter kids,” all towheaded and fair. To many, our first three must have seemed more the same than different, especially since they were born within three and a half years. The principal of our neighborhood K-3 school joked, when we enrolled Jacob, our second child, “It’s another Waters!” Another teacher said, upon introduction to our third-born, Emily, “It’s little Hannah!” Mrs. Bonfanti never made that assumption. Her kindergarten class was a rich environment designed for a disparate group of 25 five-year-olds, some with years of preschool under their little belts and others with scant experience in the world of numbers, letters and social skills in our diverse district. There were stations for phonics, counting and crafts. There was a reassuring routine with space for spontaneity. There was immersion in literacy and lessons in kindness. Most importantly, there was respect for different learning styles, before it was de rigueur, as well as Mrs. Bonfanti’s gift for honing in on a child’s passion and cultivating a love of learning. And all three of our children, alike on the surface but dissimilar underneath, thrived in Mrs. Bonfanti’s kindergarten classroom. For Hannah—our little naturalist who peered under rocks for insects from the time she could toddle—there were lessons on fireflies, which she chased, studied and released. Jacob entered the classroom as a reluctant but proficient reader. That fall, I happened to bump into Mrs. Bonfanti in the children’s section of the local library. She told me that she was there augmenting the classroom library with the sports biographies that would appeal to Jacob. Two years later, we were preparing to visit our family in Israel. Emily was in Mrs. Bonfanti’s class (huzzah!), our shy observer with an incipient artist’s eye. Mrs. Bonfanti handed her a notebook with an assignment: she was to study the patterns of stones we’d see on our trip and draw them in the notebook. As we trekked through Masada, Jerusalem, and our great-uncle’s orange orchard, Emily carefully recorded shapes and textures, thoroughly absorbed in learning exactly as she should be taught. There are, no doubt, many reasons why our older children share a fierce love of learning and a respect for complexity. There are, no doubt, many reasons why all three of them are professionally involved in some aspect of education. One of those reasons is Mrs. Bonfanti’s remarkable skill in teaching each of them the way they should learn and her ability to nurture their separate gifts. We’re forever in her debt.
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight, as well as on her own blog NJ Left Behind. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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