• Mary Jo Dyre

Every Student: A Unique Learner



Lessons From My Students

By Karen Brinke


I have learned many valuable lessons from my students. Lillian introduced me to Autism. She taught me that a diagnosis did not define who she was. Autism only defined how Lillian learned.

This tiny porcelain doll-like child entered my Montessori preschool classroom when she was three years old. Non-verbal, but inquisitive, she was very interested in learning to use the materials carefully laid out on the shelves. I began to offer her lessons of practical life and sensorial awareness. They were developmentally appropriate and required no verbal communication on her part to complete. She enjoyed using these hands-on materials and the consistency of working with them. Even without language, it was evident Lillian was a highly intelligent child.

Maria Montessori observed that children, from birth to age 6, experience "sensitive periods" for learning specific skills and that, once satisfied, the young learner will readily move on to the next lesson. Order is the first of these periods. One day Lillian took me by the hand and led me to a lesson with the Matryoshka Russian Nesting Dolls. As the teacher/facilitator, I demonstrated each step of the lesson: remove the tray of dolls from the shelf, place them on a work table, unroll the mat, separate the dolls from their stack, line them up from largest to smallest, put them back together in the opposite order and finally place them back on the tray. She watched intently and when the lesson was finished, she took it from the shelf and proceeded to perfectly replicate the lesson given, step by step, fifty-two times. When she finished, she sighed, replaced the tray back on the shelf and walked away. She never touched that lesson again.

Not long after that, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Lillian continued to develop and, eventually, language came. She began to observe several of the older children in the classroom as they worked on the more advanced lessons, particularly reading, rather than doing lessons herself. One day, in her second year, she walked up to me and announced names and birthdates of every student in the classroom from memory. I questioned how she knew this. She took me to another part of the room and pointed to the wall chart listing all the students’ names and birthdates. Through observation, she had begun to read. She had taken ownership of her own learning at four years of age.

I spoke with Lillian today. She is a personable, articulate and accomplished young woman. She has earned a Bachelor's degree in English, a Master's degree in Library Science, and is currently working as a para-legal. She plans to return to school in the fall to pursue a Master's degree in English and would like to teach at the college level.


Karen Brinke trailblazed an "early learning path" on The Learning Center campus that still speaks to the future of education.


WHAT WE KNOW FOR SURE: From our youngest learners to the wide-open horizons of our incoming high school students, EVERY STUDENT IS A UNIQUE LEARNER.






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