Sunday, April 1, 2012

Authentic Reasons to Write

In March I took a long vacation. Along with visiting friends and family members, sightseeing and sunning, reading occupied a significant part of the time. Several items in particular caught my mind's eye. Even when you vow to get completely away, when you love your work and are as steeped in it as I am, you never fully forget. After all, literacy is the plate so learners are always experiencing new thoughts and ideas through reading, writing, and engaging in conversations.

Three texts that I encountered during my vacation surprised me and prompted me to write. I finished Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn. Kuhn looked at the life of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis through the books that she chose to read, especially as a young person, and those she chose or agreed to edit as a professional editor during the last twenty years of her life. The second text was given to me by my brother-in-law. It was a copy of a letter written to the editor of a local newspaper in New Hampshire by his grand-daughter, my niece. And the third one I found in the March edition of the inflight magazine. It was another opinion piece that crafted an elegant response to author, Jodi Picoult's ["Note to Self" from 12/2011 entitled "Calculus. Trust me: You will never use it."].

Of course, all of these are examples of authentic reasons for writing by adults in the real world in our present time. The book was inspiring as it showed that as persons we try, and even think, that we are the creators of our own lives. Yet anyone may come along in the moment, or after our passing and reinvent us in a particular light. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through Jackie's history as a reader and a supporter of writers, I could not help but wonder what an intrepidly private person would have thought about such an unveiling of what mattered so much in her personal and professional life.

My niece, an eleventh grader, felt compelled to refute the assertions made publicly by her former Kindergarten teacher. Essentially she admonished the teacher for pigeon-holing some students based on the family situation, poverty status, or ethnicity. The teacher voiced an opinion that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was ill-conceived when asserting that it should not matter where a student is from, that the child has a disability, or what the child's status/ethnicity is. Every child should have the advantage that comes from her teacher's high expectations. My niece asserted that it took her several years to overcome the lack of instruction she experienced in Kindergarten. My niece was quite articulate when she stated, "People are individuals who learn in different ways and live their lives according to how they learn. The difference is the early childhood teachers, and whether they have taken their time and effort to teach you how to use your innate talent to learn." There are some poignant reminders here. We are reminded that every teacher counts; those K students know very quickly how the system works. We are teaching a hidden curriculum every day. The question for each of us is, "Which one am I teaching?" Differentiation matters. Teaching is a very hard vocation. However, recognition of each person in the class as an individual with talent and energy is the first lesson that every preservice program should teach.

"All those lovely synapses formed during math class may unconsciously help Jodi formulate the plots in her best-selling novels.", wrote M. Kandel. As an elementary teacher I taught math as well as all the other core subjects. Whenever I could, I taught math at the start of the day. Over the years I taught, the wisdom for teaching math changed and I was a champion of math thinking. When I took math as a graduate student, I was frustrated to learn that my preparation had been woefully inadequate. I did not know how to think mathematically. I was angry with teachers who simply taught me rote formulae. So, I read everything I could get my hands on to prepare for the class before it started. And my math life started in my twenties. I loved the changes in math instruction that involved open-ended problems. They made us all think more and provided many opportunities in the classroom for rich, exploratory conversations and elegant, albeit fourth grade, proofs.

So I am not sure of all the lessons that I learned from my vacation reading, but here are a few. Though I already know this, it is good to know so many people agree - teachers matter greatly. They can make a huge difference in ways that they may not know. Jackie taught several people that they had important books to write and nurtured them through the process. The books were very different because the authors were different individuals. Students are people who are individuals with talents and energy that need to be nurtured. That's the vocation of the teacher. No learning is unused. It can make us more alert, creative and vibrant. Marjorie Kandel, letter to Jodi Picoult author said, "...the difference between training and education...training teaches us specific skills; education teaches us to think."