John Ciardi told a story about visiting a third-grade class and reading them this poem. When he asked the children the name of the stranger in pumpkin, they all were waving their hands in the air and yelling out the answer--of course he was Jack--Jack O'Lantern.
THE STRANGER IN THE PUMPKINThe stranger in the pumpkin said:
"It's all dark inside your head!
What a dull one you must be!
Without light, how can you see?
Don't you know that heads should shine
From deep inside themselves--like mine?...
It makes me sick to look at it!
Go and get your candle lit!"
When Ciardi went to visit a tenth-grade class, he read the same poem, asked the same question, and got nothing but a resentful silence, until one of the girls said, in tones of deep suspicion, "Is that symbolism or something?"
Children are born with their candles lit. They have an inbuilt delight in learning all about their world, and a spongelike capacity for absorbing knowledge. But KEEPING those candles lit, or sometimes relighting them, is what good teaching is all about.
Most teachers, not surprisingly, are ordinary, because most people in any field of endeavor are ordinary. They rub off on us a little, so that we do learn to read and calculate, to spout a few dates from history and a few phrases from poetry, and to worry that metaphors are "symbolism" we will be tested on. But much of this is learning pounded into us, learning acquired almost against our will.
Good teachers take that eager curiosity children come equipped with and use it as a wedge: open mind, insert knowledge. But giving children knowledge is only half the job. Great teachers help children make that knowledge their own by thinking about it, using it, fitting it in with the other things they know.
The people who light our candles are the special teachers, the ones who change our lives, the ones we never forget. Most of us, I think, are lucky enough to have at least one or two in our lifetime.
Mind you, there is more than one way of going about being a great teacher. Some teachers are great because their passion for their subject is so intense and wholehearted that it's catching. What they teach need not be inherently fascinating to us--one of my teachers whose love for her subject was contagious taught cataloging, and could enthuse at length about the Library of Congress classification scheme. But the sight of such devotion to a subject can convince us that that there is something in it worth loving.
There are other teachers who start instead with us and sneak their teaching in by way of our own passions. They can teach even the least promising children to read by giving them books about the things they love, dinosaurs and baseball, kittens and shooting stars. They may teach us science as we raise baby hamsters, math as we build bridges for a model railroad, reading as we write stories for each other which will be printed out and bound as books.
Some teachers start by asking children what they want to know about. If the children want to learn about their environment, they teach reading with books like Who Killed Cock Robin? (an ecological mystery), science by having the children conduct population studies of nearby ponds and creeks, math by having them analyze their data, writing by having them share their data by e-mail with kids in other schools who are doing the same thing. What the kids learn is meaningful to them because they wanted to know it, and because they didn't just passively absorb knowledge--they actively created it.
Some of our teachers light candles by simply believing in us. Too many children are told all their lives what they CAN'T do, because they're too dumb, too handicapped, too uncoordinated, too disadvantaged, and when we're told that all the time, we come to believe it, to give up on ourselves. The teacher who tells us, with absolute conviction, that we are capable of mastering a difficult subject, who encourages us and makes sure we understand, lights a candle that can never be extinguished, the light not just of thought but self-respect.
And some teachers work their magic by caring for us when nobody else seems to. Anyone will flower in the presence of love.
I have been fortunate all my life in my teachers, people who genuinely loved the literature and history they taught. But more than this, they made their students part of the subject. We would not just read about the Constitution; we acted the parts of the men who made it, arguing with each other about what it should say. To this day, I remain awe-struck by men who had the chance to give themselves absolute power, and chose instead to enumerate the rights ALL citizens had, which they and their government could not infringe.
We would not just read literature quietly to ourselves. We were expected to recite the poetry, act out the plays, hear the rhythm and melody of the words, viscerally feel their splendid rightness. There's a reason I litter my writing and conversation with quotes--when you say spendid words out loud, they stay with you.
I treasure examples of great teaching. I have never forgotten the teacher who supervised my student teaching. For her final exam in a modern literature course, she asked the students to imagine they were in charge of hell, responsible for dealing out the full measure of punishment the damned had earned by their sins. She listed ten characters from the books they had read and asked them to seat these characters at three tables for all eternity , arranging them so they would inflict maximum anguish upon each other. It's an exam question that serves the teacher's purpose of making sure students have understood the literature, but also serves the students' purpose of making the knowledge THEIRS by forcing them to think about what they know and do something with that knowledge.
I have often thought that in retirement it would be fun to go from school to school taking courses from the great teachers. One of the courses I would take would be Douglas Brinkley's American Odyssey course, detailed in his book The Majic Bus. He took 18 students on a bus tour around the United States to learn hands on about important slices of our history and culture. They visited Jefferson's home and Elvis's, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Wall Drugstore in South Dakota, battlefields and Jack London's ranch, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, Indian reservations and the Golden Gate Bridge. They listened to jazz in New Orleans, rafted on whitewater in New Mexico, took pictures of buffalo in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. All the while the students were reading Mark Twain and Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, and Black Elk, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. As they rode, they took turns listening to each other's music, rap, jazz, punk, metal, classical. And as they talked to each other, and Brinkley to them, about what they read and saw, they fit that knowledge into their own mental frameworks and made it their own.
Good teaching answers in advance the student question, "Why do I have to know this?" For instance, in one school, the kids spend their mornings in regular classes. In the afternoon, their school turns into a town, in which all the kids have work to do. Some of them run in-school stores or snack bars, some produce a daily newspaper, some operate a school government, complete with a court and a panel of students to resolve conflicts. What they learn in the morning they apply in the afternoon.
But great teaching is so sneaky that students never think to ask the question--they're too caught up in the excitement of what they're learning.
You hear a lot about how awful public schools are these days--largely, I think, because of a determined campaign by religious activists who want the government to de-fund public schools and subsidize private schools. But you know what? Good teaching and great teaching are going on in public schools all over the country. If you want to know more about it, start with Ken Macrorie's book, Twenty Teachers. It's just one of many books about outstanding teachers caught in the act, but it shows you at least 20 entirely different ways of lighting candles that nobody can blow out. Ever.
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For an annotated list of other good books
about great teaching, click here.
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Dedicated to one of the best teachers I've ever known, George Bryant Cleaveland
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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