Parent Kristine Barnett’s book “The Spark” must-read

Originally published on September 8th, 2013. Featured again on February 8th, 2014.

Copy of The Spark cover # 2 500 pxl

As a retired teacher-educator and former special education parent advocate, I found Kristine Barnett’s book “The Spark” a real eye opener.

I found it an eye opener, not because Kristine’s insights surprised me, but because they confirmed what I have long believed — that special education labels can be negatively deterministic and that autism is still seen as a lifelong disability, rather than, for some at least, a different way of interacting with the world.

For me, the first major instance of proof of that type of determinism, was when Kristine took Jake out of a special education pre-school program.  Essentially, the teacher had demanded that he not be allowed to bring his alphabet cards to school again.

What that signified to Kristine, and rightly so, was that the teacher had basically given up on Jake ever learning to read — even though he was only three at the time! I mean, I am a reading specialist. I taught kids with mild to moderate autism to read as late as age eight or nine!

Anyway, thankfully, Kristine started a program called “Little Light” where she set about preparing Jake and many other children with autism, for a mainstreamed Kindergarten class. My interpretation of how her preparation differed from the formal pre-school class was that she believed the kids could learn and she was willing to go with the flow — by letting their interests, and those of the other children in her group, decide what they did and when they did it.

Of course, when Jake finally did arrive for the first day of Kindergarten, the principal was hesitant because of the earlier autism label. Fortunately, Kristine and her husband Michael talked him into giving Jake a three-week probationary period, during which time he adapted just fine.

Unfortunately, however, the challenges with the school system had only started. When Jake was around ten, Kristin and her husband Michael participated in a meeting of teachers and school officials to talk about a possible gifted program for Jake. His genius was already obvious to everyone.

Yet, they no sooner got the meeting started, and the words special education and IEP came up. No wonder Kristine got up and walked out of that room.  I can well imagine the comments those so-called experts made when she did. “She just doesn’t understand. Blah. Blah. Blah.”

Well, as it turned out, it was those experts who didn’t understand.

Needless to say, this book is easy to read because the chapters flow chronologically and the chapter titles are descriptive. While the chapters on family and health problems can be long at times, they are important in terms of the context of Jake’s life. He is who he is because of who is parents are and everything that happened to him.

Endnote: See also my first post on the subject of Jacob Barnett, based on Paul Wells’ article in Macleans. It explains that Jake (Jacob) is currently attending the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

6 thoughts on “Parent Kristine Barnett’s book “The Spark” must-read

  1. Pingback: Crux: Kristine Barnett’s book “The Spark” must read for parents & educators | Jack's Newswatch

  2. Unless things have changed gifted programs are part of the special education bailiwick so in my opinion Ms Barnett acted irrationally when she walked out of the meeting with teachers and school officials without even hearing what they had to say.
    Although there’s always room for change, we don’t need to look back all that far to see a system where the only modifications provided were placing the less capable students at the front of the classroom and having bright students skip grades. Things have improved but unless tax dollars can afford to provide a teacher for each student it will always be difficult to provide a perfect program for each and every child.


  3. That is true Fran. Special education in most places in Western society covers all exceptionalities including giftedness and the reason for that identification is mostly related to financial issues. School boards, at least in Ontario, for example, don’t get the extra funding per pupil without an IPRC (Identification, Placement and Review Committee) or IEP (Individualized Education Program.)

    However, I completely understand why Kristine walked out. She did not want Jake labelled and within the special education system after what had happened. You are also right that no teacher has the time to prepare a perfect program for each child, but there are ways to individualize (e.g., teach all the kids how to use something as simple as post-it notes to prepare for writing or doing projects). Which is why I wrote a book on learning strategies and how teachers can include all children.

    Moreover, when I was teaching elementary school, I frequently had gifted children who were not Identified as exceptional but still gave them modified activities.


  4. Fran, on the issue of labelling, Kristine is bang on. When I was in private practice I worked with two university students who had learning disabilities. They each asked me if they should register with the Special Needs office for accommodations like notetakers and more time for exams. I said no because they needed to do their own notes, no matter how bad they were, to learn the content of the lecture or seminar. Plus, I was concerned they would be labelled by their professors (my colleagues at the time), not because they were prejudiced but because they were concerned.

    Well, one registered and one didn’t. Two years later I heard that only the one who had NOT registered got accepted into a master’s program. Why? You guessed it. The department was concerned the work load would be too heavy and difficult. Yet, having worked with the two men, I know that both would have done equally well.

    Parents need to balance the needs of their child and the long-term effect of special education labels.


  5. I’m beginning to see a trend. I have received some private messages via Contact Form. Parents think what Kristine did was amazing. Those within the education system, or former and retired teachers, think she was a whiner and believe that Jake would have ended up at the same place he is today but perhaps a bit later in life when he was more mature.

    Plus, that Kristine’s expectations of the public school system were unreasonable, similar to what Fran said, because it is impossible for teachers with 30+ kids to do truly individualized programs.

    I asked my husband about this as he recently retired after 35 years. He felt it WAS quite possible to provide a type of individualized program for a few children with reading groups, individualized projects, and so on.

    So, perhaps Kristine over-reacted at the time of the Grade 5 meeting. It is hard to say because Jake went on to attend college and did very well. However, as both an educator and a parent of a child with autism, frankly, I don’t think she did over-react.

    But, I am open to a discussion here. I don’t want anyone to not leave a comment just because they have a different point of view.


  6. By the way, many thanks for commenting Fran. Feel free to keep the debate going. That is what makes blogging interesting. If you are a current or former teacher, what would you recommend a teacher do who has a child like Jake in their class, to accommodate him? There are ways and thats where I hope this discussion goes. Curriculum planning is both an art and science and change is possible. Similarly, what constitutes special education should not be etched in stone.


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