| Double Take |

A Class of His Own

If our gifted son had been learning-disabled instead, he’d have a tailor-made curriculum


Malky: My son is part of the class, and the school should be finding ways to engage him
Mr. Finestone: Your son is one of 30 students, many of whom are struggling, and your expectations are unrealistic



Slam. Thud. And—

Maaaaa! I’m not going back to school anymore!”

My heart sank. Ezra was back, and from the sound of it, the promises I’d made while cajoling him to leave in the morning (“I’m sure it’ll be better today — you’ll learn something new and interesting”) were proven wrong. Once again.

Ezra marched into the kitchen, grabbed a handful of pretzels, and slouched on a kitchen chair, scowling. “I already knew everything the teachers taught today. Everything!”

“Everything?” I kept my voice mild. “Even the Gemara?”

“Rebbi just chazered what we did yesterday!” Ezra exploded. “He didn’t say a single word that was new. I know what we learned yesterday! He said it 100 times! I was so bored I just asked to go the bathroom and I stayed outside for ages. Some other kids were out of class and we chilled.”

Seriously, that was the highlight of his day?

Okay, I can’t pretend I didn’t understand. Ezra wasn’t the most socially adept kid, and he felt good that the kids out in the hallway deemed him cool enough to socialize with. But….

“Kids in your class?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“No. Like one fifth-grader and some fourth-graders… whatever. Then the principal came and sent everyone back to class.” He said it like he was describing a jail cell. “And then in the afternoon we just did more stupid math and stupid science and I knew it all already. From last year!”

I had nothing to say.

I knew all this, too; it was a problem. Simply put, Ezra was smart. Really smart.

He’s in sixth grade now, but this has been going on for years. Some years have been better than others, depending on the teachers, but recently, it’s just escalated to new levels.

He’s the kind of kid who gobbles up history and science books for fun, at home. He reads on a high school level, if not higher. He’s bored and frustrated in class and gets 100 percent on every test without studying.

At the beginning of the year, I’d told him to hang in there. Hopefully, the rebbi would get a feel of the class, the teachers would realize he needed more stimulation and enrichment, and something would change.

But the beginning of the year was definitely over — we were heading for the long haul now, and nothing was changing.

I had to do something about it. But what?

“MR. Finestone sent me out today.” Ezra said, shrugging.

Oh, no, please let’s not go there again.

“Oh?” I asked, trying for a neutral tone in the hope of hearing more.

“Yeah. It was totally worth it. I had a library book in my bag so I sat and read for the rest of the class. It was way more interesting than what he was teaching, anyway.”

I tried to remember what he’d taken from the library the other day. Oh yes, that one about space travel, and… something about physics? I barely understood the titles. He definitely got his brains from Dovid.

“What happened in class? Why did the teacher send you out?” I didn’t want to interrogate him, but I did need to know what happened.

Ezra shrugged again, an I-don’t-care attitude plastered all over his face. “He was teaching stuff all wrong and I told him. He’s a history teacher and he doesn’t even know the dates of the Civil War battles by heart!” He shook his head, like an old grandfather utterly mystified by the sheer lack of education in the younger generation.

But this was his teacher we were talking about.

“Ezra,” I said, tiredly. “How did you tell the teacher about the dates?”

“I just told him,” Ezra said. “And he was going on and on about raising hands, and it wasn’t the point, I was just telling him that he got the dates mixed up, and—”

I could see where this was going.

We’d been here before, and not just once.

Because Ezra is so bright, he’s also bored. Bored kids either switch off totally, or start acting out… and I did not want us to go down that route. Ezra wasn’t a troublemaker. He Just. Needed. More. Stimulation.

I’d been planning to call the teachers anyway, to try and discuss what they could do for him. Now Mr. Finestone would probably call me. If not today, then the next time this happened, or the next.

I sighed and looked up the teacher’s number. May as well get in first; it would give me more of an advantage that way.

Spoiler alert: The conversation with the teacher was useless.

“I’m happy you called, Mrs. Green,” Mr. Finestone said genially. “I take it that you’ve heard from Ezra what went on in class today?”

“I did, and he’s very sorry for interrupting you like that.” Mipnei hashalom, right? I’m sure Ezra was sorry, deep down. He was a good kid. Just a bored one.

“I’m glad to hear. I hope we can put it behind us.”

I cleared my throat; here was my cue. “I actually was hoping we could discuss something. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Ezra is very well-read, and he’s pretty ahead of the game in terms of his general knowledge.” I named some of the books Ezra read at home, “for fun,” and Mr. Finestone murmured his polite admiration.

“The question is,” I continued valiantly, “is there anything you could offer him as enrichment, extra material, something that he’ll find more challenging than what’s being given to the rest of the class?”

I felt like I was reading my lines in a play; this was such déjà vu. Every year, a bunch of new teachers, same story. I just didn’t understand why none of them could figure this out on their own.

“Mrs. Green, I believe that the material being taught is stimulating,” Mr. Finestone said, a little stiffly. Oh, no, I needed the teachers on my side. “If Ezra would participate more, ask questions, join the discussions, maybe he would feel more stimulated.”

“I hear that,” I said, diplomatically. “I was thinking more in terms of the work — maybe he could have a more challenging worksheet or assignment, or something that takes the material a little further. He would definitely behave if he was given something like that to complete on his own.”

“Look, I want him to succeed, I want to make this work,” Mr. Finestone said. “I’m going to think about it. I have an idea or two. Let’s see how it plays out.”

The grand “idea or two” turned out to be “Ezra helping other students after he finished his work.”

In other words, a grand flop.

“The teacher told me to help other boys, but I didn’t want to do the same worksheet over and over. And they’re not interested in me helping them. They just want to copy my work.”

Ezra isn’t stupid. This was a bad idea, I knew it, he knew it, but the teacher didn’t get it.

“Some of the kids were making fun of me, calling me Mr. Green, like I’m a teacher.” Now he sounded too casual, like he was putting on a brave front but really trying not to cry. Oh, no. We’d been through enough with Ezra struggling in first and second grade. He just doesn’t have the social capital boys need — he doesn’t like sports, he wears glasses, always has his head in a book… that kind of thing.

We sent him for social skills tutoring, and things have really improved. Baruch Hashem, he has friends — things are okay in that area. But highlighting him as the “teacher’s helper” and setting him apart from his classmates was not going to help.

“And in the morning, whenever no one answers, Rebbi makes this whole big deal, like ‘Ahhhh, Ezra is going to help us out now…’ ” Ezra mimics the rebbi perfectly, and I have to hold back from letting a chuckle escape my lips.

It wasn’t funny, really. My son was a student, he wasn’t there to keep the class going. Or make the rebbi feel good — see, someone understands what I’m saying.

This wasn’t what I wanted at all. It wasn’t what Ezra needed. And the school… they had to put more effort into catering to his needs.

I wasn’t the only one; I’d discussed this with a couple of other mothers blessed with bright, gifted children — whose needs always, always get sidestepped because the failing students’ needs are more pressing.

Of course the struggling students need help. But our kids do, also.

That night, I brought it up with Dovid. We’ve spoken about it before — many times — but now I wanted to take real action, do something.

“We pay tuition. He’s a part of the class. The kids with disabilities get their needs met — he needs to be differentiated for, too,” I said.

Dovid gestured agreeably. “Go ahead, set up a meeting with the school. I agree with you. Let’s talk to them and see if they can do something.”

The principal, Rabbi Weiss, was willing to meet, he just had a calendar overbooked until the end of February. After I harassed the secretary for the better part of a week, we got a 20-minute slot on a Thursday afternoon, when Rabbi Weiss and Mr. Finestone would both be available. The rebbi couldn’t attend, but I figured this would be a start, and surely if they put some plan in place schoolwide, it would trickle down to the kodesh classes also.

The principal’s office was small and crowded, awkwardly positioning us around the desk. Mr. Finestone, seated beside Dovid, leaned forward to address both of us.

“I appreciate that you took the initiative to come in, Mr. Green, Mrs. Green. I know you share my concerns about Ezra’s recent behavior in class, and this is a good place to start in trying to create a plan going forward.”

Ezra’s behavior? No, no, no, that was not the issue. Fortunately, Dovid jumped in.

“Thank you, Mr. Finestone. Of course, the behavior is an issue, but we actually wanted to talk about the root of the problem — simply, that Ezra feels very bored and under-stimulated in school, and we’d like to discuss a plan to help him feel more stretched and challenged in the classroom.”

Thank you, Dovid, for speaking up before I lost it. Ezra was a good kid — he never looked to make trouble. He was simply bored out of his brains.

Rabbi Weiss spoke up, “I know that Ezra is very bright and talented, we’ve had this discussion before, on the phone,” he said, nodding in my direction. “And one thing I’d like to put out there, as I believe I’ve mentioned before as well, is that the simplest solution is to have him skip a grade.”

Dovid looks at me, I nod slightly. I’ll answer this one. There’s no way we’re letting them give us that skip him a grade speech again.

“We can’t do that. You know Ezra — his social skills are weak. He often hangs out with the younger boys in the school. It was a challenge to get him to integrate well into his class in the first place. Having him skip would be social suicide.”

I could picture the scene all too clearly: kids poking fun, think you’re so smart, kid? Ezra losing his old friends, struggling to find his place, resorting to acting silly to get attention… it would destroy him.

Rabbi Weiss motions with both hands, a helpless gesture. “It’s a difficult situation. If you don’t want to skip him, he’s bored and under-stimulated. If you do, there’s the social issues.”

“But why are those the only options?” I asked. “There are kids in the class with, I don’t know, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. You wouldn’t tell the parents to keep them down a year — the teachers differentiate for them, offer modified worksheets, tests, whatever. It’s the school’s responsibility to meet the needs of every student in the classroom, and that’s all we’re asking for — that Ezra has those needs met. Maybe he could use more challenging worksheets, enrichment assignments, something to make him work a bit while the teacher continues teaching the majority of the class at a slower pace.”

“He knows the material, he feels like the teacher is just repeating things over and over, so of course he starts acting out,” Dovid adds.

Rabbi Weiss leaned back in his chair and sighed. I knew before he opened his mouth that we hadn’t gotten anywhere.

“In an ideal world, that would be truly helpful,” he said. “But you must understand, the classes are big, and your expectation simply isn’t realistic. We can’t create a curriculum just for him. The teachers are doing their best to engage and interest him, but beyond that, there’s nothing we can do.”

If I could tell the school one thing, it would be: You understand your responsibility to cater to the weaker students. Why don’t you feel responsible for boys like my son?


Mr. Finestone

The Keurig hummed and I sank into a chair, inhaling the scent of coffee — just what I needed.

“How’s the sixth grade?”

I turned around. Mr. Mashinsky stood behind me, eyes glinting over his own oversized coffee mug. He was the fifth-grade teacher, tall and jovial and surprisingly insightful about the boys.

“Early days, early days.”

Technically, we were a good few weeks into the school year, but the Yamim Tovim had come early in September, and after Succos was kind of a new start in its own right. By now, a couple weeks in, I had a feel for the class as a whole, but I was still getting to know the boys as individuals.

“Not the easiest class, eh?” Mr. Mashinsky gave a commiserating smile. “If you want something to look forward to, the fifth grade is a whole lot easier this year. Something to look forward to, ha ha.”

“If they don’t deteriorate with age,” I said, darkly. Fifth grade was a different ballgame from sixth; I’ve seen it time and again.

“Oh, they’ll be fine, you’ll see,” Mr. Mashinsky said easily. “They’re nothing like the class you have now. So many struggling students, not easy.”

“Right. And then you have boys like Moishy Hirsch and Ezra Green.”

Mr. Mashinsky smiled fondly. “Ah, yes. Moishy and Ezra… a couple of others, also, way ahead of the game. I kept saying this last year, the challenge with that class is the polar extremes. So many academically challenged boys, different learning disabilities… I remember having to make three different modified tests at one point. And then there are some who are seriously advanced. It’s unusual.”

“Exactly. It feels unbalanced.” I thought back to previous years, previous classes. “We usually have the 25 percent who are a little weaker, 25 percent above average, and 50 percent solidly in the middle. This class is nothing like that, I’d place maybe 50 percent on the weaker end and then a few superstars who could easily skip to seventh grade. There’s only a few in that golden middle.”

“Right,” Mr. Mashinsky agreed. “I also had to simplify my classes a lot last year. I used to give out extra worksheets to the brighter kids, some of them didn’t mind the slower pace, but others — like Ezra– just needed to be busy.” He gave a mischievous smile. “I made him a workbook once, maybe 20 extra worksheets on the topic we were learning — thought it would keep him quiet for a good week or two. He handed it in the next day. Said it was fun and he did half of it at home.”

“I could see him doing that.” Ezra Green was the kind of kid who loved to learn, it was obvious. He was always skipping pages in the textbook, reading ahead, asking questions about science books he’d read at home. “What about grading it all? I’m reluctant to assign so much extra work because it’ll take me so long to grade it.”

Mr. Mashinsky shrugged. “It wasn’t the point really. It was more about giving him something to do. Bored kids are trouble, right? So I would glance over the booklet, give him a comment or two… I knew the answers were all correct anyway.”

Something irked me about that. But then the bell rang, bringing a halt to our conversation. I had a class to teach.


he first phone call I had with Ezra Green’s mother started off on the entirely wrong foot.

Officially, she called because he’d been sent out of class. No, she wasn’t one of those mothers demanding an explanation, convinced that their child was 100 percent in the right and how could the teacher even suggest otherwise. She was polite and apologetic and seemed happy to brush over the being-sent-out-of-class bit in favor of the real point of the call.

“While we’re on the phone, I actually wanted to speak to you about something,” Mrs. Green said. “Ezra is very well-read, I’m sure you’ve noticed, and he’s ahead of his age group in terms of his general knowledge.”

“Yes, of course. He’s very gifted.”

“So I was wondering if you could offer him some enrichment material, or extra work that would challenge him,” she continued.

I took a deep breath. This was what bothered me — the assumption that more work, more assignments, would make the difference. And putting the burden all on the teacher. Really, this was a class — some kids struggled, some sailed, but overall, we had to cater to the average students.

“Mrs. Green, what I would suggest first is for Ezra to look for the stimulation within what’s already being taught,” I said. “I would encourage him to participate more, ask questions, join the discussions, contribute his knowledge.”

I thought of how Ezra sat usually, nodding along, sometimes finishing my sentences, every so often throwing out a correction in that bored, I-know-better-than-you-know voice. If he’d come to the table with a different attitude — if his mother could encourage that different attitude — it could make all the difference. Instead of sitting there waiting to catch me out, he could share a story or insight, take our class discussions to the next level — that would enrich the class and himself, all at the same time.

She didn’t back down. “I hear you, but I was thinking more in terms of the work, like maybe he could have a more challenging worksheet or assignment, or something that takes the material a little further. I’m sure his behavior would improve if he was given something like that to complete on his own.”

I thought of what Mr. Mashinsky had said in the teachers’ room, how he’d given a booklet of work never to be graded or reviewed. I didn’t agree with that approach. It was busywork, wasting Ezra’s time. Just because he was brainy and bored didn’t mean he should sit there filling out repeated worksheets on the same topic, just to keep him quiet.

“I want to make this work,” I said slowly. “Let me think about the best way to do it.”

How could I encourage Ezra to participate more on a deeper level? Maybe there was another way to get him involved?

IF the sixth grade was generally a challenging class to engage, teaching them math took things to the extreme.

We were doing work on fractions, finding the lowest common multiple and the highest common factor, and of course, Ezra and some of the others knew it before I’d even explained (“It was at the end of the fifth-grade textbook, I read it last year,” Ezra muttered, intentionally loud enough for me to hear), while Levi, Chaim, Aryeh, and a bunch of the others were still struggling to work with mixed numbers, forget about factors and multiples.

When I felt like a good percentage of the class understood the basics, I gave them work to do, and called a small group over to the front to explain the key principles again. Ezra tagged along, and I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Ezra? Something you didn’t understand?”

“No, but I finished the page already.” He showed me his exercise book; line after line of neat equations written out. I didn’t need to look closer to know they were all done correctly.

“You can go on to the extra questions on the next page, they’re a little harder,” I told him.

“I did those, too.” He gave me a reproachful look, like what did you expect?

“Mr. Finestone, is the first answer six and a half?” someone called out.

There we went again, the top students flying ahead, the weak ones still pre-basics, and the few in the middle losing out on my help because I was too busy catering to the ones who were really struggling. With all due respect to Mrs. Green and her son, I really couldn’t give more attention to a kid who was sailing smoothly through the material. It was a first-world problem, you’re too smart, poor thing.

But maybe we could turn the situation around to everyone’s advantage.

“Ezra, great work,” I told him. “I see you really understand the material. So I’m going to ask you now to go around and help any of your classmates who aren’t sure about anything.”

“Ezra, come to me first!” two boys called out at once.

Ezra looked a little put out and I wondered why. He was bright, he knew what he was doing, and explaining the material to others was definitely both stimulating and enriching. But then he shrugged and walked over to Baruch in the first row, leaning over the desk and pointing out where he’d gone wrong in the work.

Whew. Now I could focus on the boys around my desk, the ones who were really falling behind — and help them with the basics.

Before long, the classroom was a quiet hum of activity, most boys working through the textbook questions, some with a modified worksheet I’d prepared that led them through the material step by step. I walked around answering questions, and Ezra helped out, sitting first with Chaim, then with Levi, then with Baruch again.

It was the perfect solution, I thought. Ezra had something to do, the boys who needed it had some extra help, and as for me — well, try teaching math to a class of 31 with wildly differing capabilities. It was an impossible task, and this was a win-win-win answer.

“Mr. Finestone, I’m done,” a few boys chorused at once.

I glanced at the clock; ten minutes until the bell. Perfect time for my closing activity, to assess the boys’ knowledge and see where everyone was holding.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that more of the class seemed to be confident in the material. Clearly, Ezra was good at this. Plus, having his help meant I could focus on some of the boys who were lagging behind, giving them real attention.

Maybe this was the solution we were all looking for.

And then Rabbi Weiss asked me to join a meeting with the Greens.

“A meeting?”

“Yes.” Rabbi Weiss sighed. “They called me — and I think you spoke with the mother already? About Ezra. They want more differentiation, challenging work geared to his level.”

“I did speak to the mother. And I’ve been trying to give Ezra more responsibility, have him help other boys… but there’s a limit how much extra I can prepare for him. He already does all the extension questions and extra worksheets that I prepare. Usually before I finish teaching the material.”

Rabbi Weiss nodded. “I know, Mr. Finestone. This isn’t about your teaching, and it’s really been a problem over the years. He’s not the only very gifted student we have, and it’s difficult. Some parents will skip their child a grade, but many don’t want to do that. The Greens are adamantly opposed to it. But they want to discuss giving him something else, maybe an assignment on a higher level, something he can research and work through on his own….”

“Rabbi Weiss, with all due respect, they’re asking for the impossible,” I said. “You know this class. I’m already preparing modified worksheets and tests, and there are so many boys struggling to understand the basics. I give him some extension work, but there’s no way I can prepare each lesson on an entirely new level as well as what I’m doing already. There are more than 30 boys in this class, it’s just impossible.”

“I’m with you,” Rabbi Weiss said. “But let’s explain that to the parents. Maybe they have some ideas. Maybe they’ll create some enrichment assignments, and you can just oversee. And we can bring up the option of skipping a grade again. Maybe they’ll realize it’s the best idea, if they’re so determined for him to be challenged academically.”

The meeting, of course, didn’t work quite so simply.

The parents came in with their complaint: He’s bored, he’s under-stimulated, that’s why he’s giving you attitude. I’d heard this all before.

Rabbi Weiss took the lead, guiding the conversation to practicalities. “Ezra is a very bright and talented student,” he said. “And I want to bring up the most obvious solution to all this, and that is to have him skip a grade. He’s well above his age group in academic abilities, and this might be the best answer.”

“We can’t do that,” Mrs. Green said emphatically. “His social skills are weak, and we worked so hard to help him get to where he is today in his own class. He would never make it with older boys. It would be social suicide.”

She was right; I could see that myself. For all his academic abilities, Ezra was socially immature, struggling to navigate the social scene and pick up on cues that most boys his age got naturally.

But didn’t the parents see that that wasn’t our problem? He was in a class that was being taught according to the general level of that age. Creating a new curriculum on a higher level was impossible.

Mrs. Green didn’t agree. “There are kids in the class with dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. You wouldn’t tell the parents to keep them down a grade — you differentiate for them, offer modified worksheets, tests, whatever. It’s the school’s job to meet every student’s needs. That’s all we’re asking for — that Ezra receives more challenging worksheets, enrichment assignments, something to make him work a bit while the teacher teaches the majority of the class at a slower pace.”

“He feels like the teachers are just repeating things over and over,” Mr. Green added. “Of course he starts acting out

Just repeating things over and over?

I hated when parents did that. Let them try to teach a class of 30, each boy with his needs and struggles. In fact, let them talk to a parent of one of the struggling boys — a boy who is floundering, blank-faced, and needs the material repeated a dozen times or more just to get a glimmer of understanding. Would they still be going on and on about extra challenging material for their son with his “problem” of finding things too easy?

Rabbi Weiss, at least, understood. “Mr. Green, Mrs. Green, you must understand, the classes are big, and the expectation here is impossible. We can’t create a curriculum just for Ezra. The teachers are doing their best to engage and interest him, but beyond that, there’s nothing we can do. And it’s really up to you to decide if you want to move him up a grade or create some enriching assignments for him yourself. Of course, the teachers would be happy to allow him to do them during class, when he’s finished the class work.”

“You know, Ezra’s been helping other boys in the class, that’s definitely stimulating,” I added. “And whenever it’s possible, I do give him extra work and additional exercises. But to create a new curriculum on a higher level isn’t something that any teacher in a big class can handle.”

If I could tell the Greens one thing, it would be: We’re doing what we can to help your child, but creating designer lesson plans for 30 students is impossible. 


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 985)

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