I’m not talking about teachers whose classes were a blast to be in—like Bernie Shellem’s biology, or Jeff Sensebaugh’s physics, or John Walker’s English seminars (all at Oakland’s College Preparatory School), or Bill Heindel’s “cognitive neuropsychology” (at Brown University).
I’m not talking about the teachers who kicked my brain’s butt and made me think in new ways about stuff—like Diane Munro with calculus, or Janet Schwartz with Shakespeare (both at CPS), or Oskar Eustis with dramaturgy, or Spencer Golub with performance theory, or Mark Steinbach with music theory (all at Brown), or Barbara Henderson with absolutely everything early-childhood-related (at San Francisco State).
I’m talking about teachers who did something that affected the way that I now teach. I thought it’d be nice to mention what they did.
In the first few days of 6th grade, Pam Cooke (at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, CA) had us list for her the qualities of a good teacher. We brainstormed a bunch, and then she had us vote on which ones were most important to us. And then she promised to do her best to embody those qualities, and told us that if she wasn’t doing those things, we should remind her. (I’m sure she gave us some idea of what qualities a good student has, but I don’t recall that part.) I know we chose several qualities, but the only one that sticks with me now is that a teacher should be flexible. Not sure why we chose that, really, but throughout the year she would always say, “Hey guys, I’m flexible!” as she changed plans to suit our needs. We laughed at the time, but the idea that the students could and should have some say in what their teachers do, in how their learning proceeds? That was kind of revolutionary to me. And that idea of responsive teaching is something I try to emulate.
Skipping ahead to high school (at CPS), I was taking a philosophy seminar senior year with Felicia Wong. A few weeks into the semester we had read, oh, Hume or somebody, and in class we all sat around busily poking holes in his philosophical approach. Ms. Wong sat and listened for awhile with a frown on her face. Finally she spoke up. “Okay, sure guys, you’re right. But it’s kind of boring. You guys are smart enough to find the flaws in ANYONE’S philosophy, so why bother? Let’s change it around, and start looking for what’s GOOD in each philosopher’s approach, what’s valuable and useful to us.” We all kind of sat there stunned for a moment. And then the discussion got better. The idea that we didn’t have to prove we were smart, that she simply assumed we were smart, was pretty powerful. The idea that we were, in fact, smarter than the material we were studying? That was amazing. It made us feel incredibly powerful, and elevated the level of work we were all doing. When I talk these days about a “strengths-based” approach to teaching? That’s what it looks like.
In college (Brown) I took a seminar in writing creative non-fiction with Catherine Imbriglio. I’ve never written or read more in my life. Each week we read a wildly different creative non-fiction book, and twice a week we brought in writing assignments of our based in some way on what we were reading, and each class we read everyone’s writing and revised our own writing and read some more. A lot of what we wrote was crap, and a lot of the ideas didn’t necessarily sit well for us. But we were reading and writing so much that everyone sooner or later found the thing that hit them just write, and everyone ended up writing some stuff that was truly amazing. I did some of the best writing of my life in that class. And I gained the idea that students don’t necessarily have to deeply understand and absorb every single aspect of every single idea—instead, if you just do enough different stuff, everyone will enter it a different way and find something that’s valuable to them personally.
My first early childhood education class was The History and Theories of Child Development with Cynthia Garcia-Coll. There were over a hundred people in the class, and it was maybe the best discussion class I’ve ever taken. She used a hundred different strategies to get us talking to each other. In “lecture” she would get one person to say their idea, and then another person to say their different idea, and then a third person to examine the differences. She had us breaking into pairs and small groups all the time, and seemed to be everywhere to offer a comment or ask an incisive question. The idea that we weren’t there to hear her say smart things, but instead to enter a dialogue together and build shared meaning around the class material? That’s how I try to teach college, and it’s how I try to teach young children.
On a whim, I took a class called Planetary Geology with Peter Schultz. His field of study was impacts and craters. We spent the semester looking at hi-res photos of the surface of Mars and figuring out what we could figure out about them. The diversity of the students in the class was amazing—there were senior geology majors and freshman physics majors and sophomore theater majors and everything in between. And what was amazing is that Dr. Schultz made everyone feel like a genius in the field. The senior geology major might raise her hand and say something like, “The highlights on the south rim of that crater look a little like the magnesium deposits around the edge of Crater Lake; has there been a spectral analysis of dirt samples looking for alkaline earth metals?” And Dr. Schultz would say, “That’s a terrific question, a really smart connection, and actually a related paper just came out last week that I happen to have in my brief case. Here, read this, and come back next week and tell us what you’ve learned.” And then the sophomore theater major would raise his hand and says something like, “Those wavy lines look kind of like a river. Was there ever, I don’t know, water or something there?” And Dr. Schultz would say, “That’s a terrific question, a really smart connection, and actually a related paper just came out last week that I happen to have in my brief case. Here, read this, and come back next week and tell us what you’ve learned.” Everyone in that class, no matter their background knowledge, had important insight to offer the group. That’s become the foundation of how I teach college students.
Finally, I took a kind of bizarre class called The Arts Literacy Project taught by Kurt Wootton and Eileen Landay and Nancy Hoffman. ArtsLit was a wider program that tried to help K-12 students improve their reading and writing skills by making theater (that’s a hideous oversimplification, but it’s in the ballpark). The program was part research, part teacher trainings, part curriculum in local schools, and part an idea-lab wrapped up in a course for undergraduates. The class wasn’t a straightforward approach to the material—rather, we kind of lived the material. We kind of became 8th graders. We slowly read Sophocles’ Antigone, and did creative writing projects about it, and did theater games and exercises, and eventually created a performed a play we had written based on Sophocles’ play. In a 3.5 hour class, I think we spent over 2 hours each week simply living the curriculum, and only 60 or 90 minutes debriefing and discussing and theorizing. But it was engaging and exciting and, most importantly, effective: at the end of the semester, we really GOT how this approach worked, because we had used it and lived it. This practice-based approach to learning has influenced both my work with children and adults, and even my private consulting with families—the question of “what works in real life?” trumps all the theory and argument you can do, and you only find out what works by doing it.
So, thanks all. You’ve made a huge difference.
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And I’m not even getting into preschool colleagues who’ve influenced me. Boy, that’d be a big one…
How about you? Who’s influenced the way you teach (or the way you parent)? Share your stories with us in the comments. (The “comments” button is at the top.)