It’s been a while since I wrote a book review on here, but after finishing Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree I knew I share this book.
“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”
Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.
Fish in a Tree focuses on Ally, a student who is very bright, but can’t read. In order to get out of reading and writing, Ally acts out in class. She is terrified that someone may realize she struggles with reading and writing that people will think she is dumb. I have had students like Ally. It can be so easy to become frustrated with a student who acts out, and to react in frustration. Mr. Daniels, Ally’s teacher, is the kind of teacher I want to be. He recognizes that Ally’s actions may have an underlying cause and works to gain her trust. He looks for her good qualities and is incredibly patient with her.
I strongly connected with Ally as I read about her fear of being labeled “dumb”. As a child I struggled to learn to read, and even after I remember not wanting to ask questions in class because of that same fear. I think everyone, at some point, has experienced this. For this reason, I have always loved the Albert Einstein quote from which Hunt derived her title: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Teaching practices have changed a lot since I was in school. In one social studies class, we had a lot of map tests where we were required to correctly label on the countries on a continent or all major geographical features. Without a word bank. If you had just looked at my map test grades, you would have thought I was terrible at social studies. But, I got good grades in the class. Why? Because my teacher gave us other types of assessments (like essays and projects), where I could demonstrate that I did understand what I was learning.
I wasn’t so lucky in other classes. I had classes where we only ever had a single type of assessment, usually tests. As someone who does not do well on tests, this meant I routinely felt dumb. Now, teachers are being taught the importance of using multiple types of assessment for this exact reason.
Fish in a Tree should be required reading for teachers. And students. And everyone.