I spent the past weekend (plus a day) in Boston with my sisters and a friend from college (Southern Illinois University) that I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. When I first met Cheryl, she was a criminal justice major and I was a theater major. I suppose it is somewhat ironic that it led us to jobs that are very similar in education-me as a literacy coach in Maine and Cheryl as director of instructional support at the Indian Community School in Milwaukee.
As we talked and shared some great times together I realized how important it is for teachers to LIVE life outside of school, to immerse themselves in the history, culture, geography, and people of the world around them. This is the world we are trying to prepare our students for. Our goal isn’t to create successful students that exists only within the four walls of the classroom, it is to create citizens who appreciate and contribute to their communities and society in ways that enhance us all. We can’t guide our students toward that which we do not appreciate, understand or experience for ourselves! In the information age with the internet and variety of technology it is easy to forget how important first hand experiences are in shaping our understanding and appreciation of the world. I reflected on several examples this weekend which enhanced my life experience and in essence, will make me a better teacher.
Just mention the word Boston and images of colonial America and the American revolution come to mind. It is one thing to read about history, it is another to walk the same steps, view the same documents and surround yourself with the artifacts that define our history. We walked the Freedom Trail past the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s home, Faneuil Hall, the old state house (site of Boston Massacre) and through Boston Common. The city is dripping with history that teachers can bring to life in their classrooms.
We were also fortunate that one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta was on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, (along with two manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence-one penned by Thomas Jefferson and one by John Adams, and the Sons of Liberty Bowl created by Paul Revere). I contemplated more than once, the significance of these artifacts in advocating the rights of individuals, and how that relates to the advocacy of student rights teachers champion each day. A teacher who can convey the relevance of historic documents and artifacts to our lives today, can help her students embrace their own role in the ongoing history of our society-to help them appreciate that our actions create the history for future generations.
While at the MFA, we also took in the incredible art on display. We were mesmerized by the ancient cultures of Egypt with the ornate artwork accompanying the dead into the after life, by the icons of the Renaissance, the illuminating strokes of the impressionists, the intricate strokes of the realists, and the whimsical strokes of the abstract expressionists. I was juxtaposing the interpretation of the world these artists displayed in their work, with the writing my students create to interpret and explain their world. Each brush stroke is like a pencil stroke, resulting in the culmination of a ‘masterpiece’ when the creator is finished. Each technique so different, each interpreted so differently, each awaiting the eye of the beholder.
Getting out and exploring the geography of your surroundings can not only be awe inspiring but eye opening. I reflected on how small the known geography of my students’ world is for most of them and how important it is for teachers to broaden their horizons to create possibilities. How would their thinking be different if they could envision the narrow cobblestone street of the North End of Boston while reading about immigrants, or hear the seagulls surrounding an incoming fishing boat heavy with the aroma of their catch as they study industry, or walk the varied coastlines of sand and rocky shores as they study weathering and geology. I contemplated ways to bring those experiences into the classroom for our students who are limited in their direct observation of the world outside of their neighborhoods. A teacher’s experiences shape the way they share, I want my own children’s teachers to share the world with them.
Probably one of the most important reasons teachers need a vacation from their schools, is to interact with people from varying professions, regions, cultures, etc. The school year can keep us pretty insulated within the world of academia. The opportunity to immerse ourselves in other regions or communities helps us develop empathy, compassion, understanding, and appreciation for people who do not necessarily think, believe or live the way we do. We break down the walls of “otherness” when we meet and engage with a variety of people from different walks of life. Surprisingly, you often don’t really need to travel too far to experience this variety. If teachers don’t expand their worldview, they are limiting the educational opportunities they could offer their students as well as their ability to appreciate the uniqueness of individuals as human beings and not just students.
Now, I know a lot of people would argue that teachers could do this on weekends or on the week vacation many people get. Some could, but most spend weekends regrouping, recuperating and refocusing on their families, personal needs and even more work. It is only when those needs are met that teachers can engage in the ‘research’ of the world around them-can explore ways to bring the world into their classrooms. If society saw education as an investment in the lives of our children and our future, they would encourage their teachers to have as many rich experiences in life and as deep an understanding of the world as possible. They would honor the need for a break from the classroom for teachers AND students. (I will talk another time on why I think breaks from school are just as important for students.)
As Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” Everything I have done this summer, will influence how I teach the rest of my life. My vacations make me a better teacher because I work hard, play hard and immerse myself in the “real world” that I am preparing my students to thrive in.
What’s on My Book Radar?
On my train ride home from Boston I devoured Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I was totally absorbed by this mesmerizing tale of the adventurous friendship between a young boy and his neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, as they try to save their community from a supernatural being that has invaded the town. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but fan’s of Gaiman’s fantasy style will LOVE this latest offering. Easily read in an afternoon, but will stay with you for much, much longer!
Also recommended is a series introduced to me by my longtime college friend, Cheryl Weber. Welcome to the world of Aldo Zelnick!
Aldo is a 10 year old boy who lives with his family in Colorado. His story is told through a series of graphic novel books whose titles are presented in alphabetical order (Artsy Fartsy, Bogus, Cahoots…) The author, Karla Oceanak, also offers a glossary of words that correlate to that letter of the alphabet- a feature I thought would really turn kids onto vocabulary in a fun way. This series would be the elementary age equivalent to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but with a regional Rocky Mountain flare. (Talk about bringing the world into your classroom!).
So if you are looking for a series to engage younger readers who aspire to read Diary of a Wimpy kid, but aren’t quite ready to comprehend the tragicomedy of middle school- you might want to check out this series. You might have to do some searching though, as they are not on the shelves of many local libraries or bookstores just yet.