One of the nicest things about blogging is the cross pollination that occurs when other bloggers challenge me to think and write about something I had not planned to consider.
This is the case now. My friend Mary Beth Hertz, an inspired teacher in Philadelphia and an occasional commenter here, responded to a challenge from our mutual friend, Shelly Terrell to reflect on the people from whom she has learned.
Mary Beth has now passed the challenge along to me.
This could be a very long essay. I have lived a half-century and more, done a lot of things and learned so much from so many people, most of whom had no idea they were teaching me and others who thought they were teaching me one thing while I was busy learning something entirely different from them.
In the interest of completing this in a timely manner I will limit this to mentioning the people who were paid to teach me. Perhaps I will honor those other people at other times.
Pearl Lorenz taught me how to stand up for myself.
It was 1963, I was in fifth grade. I had long hair.
The Beatles had not yet made an impression on America; my mother just thought my then very wavy hair looked best falling over my eyes and flowing over my shirt collar. That all the other boys in the class had crew cuts made my hair look that much longer.
My teacher, Mrs. Lorenz, made it very clear that she did not like my long hair; that if I came to school on Monday with my hair uncut she would put a pink ribbon in it.
I did, so she did.
I think it was supposed to embarrass me into getting a hair cut.
It didn’t work.
The first day the other kids laughed. They laughed the second day, too.
When I came to school the third day with the ribbon back in my hair, no one laughed.
On the fourth day Mrs. Lorenz was angry that I was still wearing the ribbon. Perhaps she thought I was mocking her.
She told me to take the ribbon off. I refused.
I continued to refuse the following week, too.
When I came in the third Monday with the ribbon in my hair, Mrs. Lorenz sighed heavily and conceded defeat. I could wear my hair anyway I wanted, with or without the ribbon.
Then she told me that she hoped I would always have the courage and strength to stand up for my beliefs.
And I realized that that is what I had done.
I also stopped wearing the ribbon.
And I learned a lesson about tolerance: its very different from acceptance.
Shortly before I turned 40 I decided to give college another try.
Almost 25 years earlier I had dropped out for a variety of reasons including a major dose of lack of direction.
This time I enrolled in Empire State College, a part of the SUNY system. It was then – and to some small degree still is – a non-traditional school at which each student has a mentor and the course of study is a series of learning contracts for individual or small group studies designed by the two working in concert.
Each eight-week contract is negotiated to specify the subject matter, the curriculum and the forms of assessment. Everything tied into a neat package from the start.
That’s not how my mentor Miriam and I worked.
We would start each study with a question, an idea or a supposition. Then Miriam adapted the process of how studies were constructed to suit my inquisitive mind, my penchant for following tangents, and my fear of being hemmed in.
Miriam would introduce me to a book. I’d read the book and write a paper. We’d talk about it, then Miriam would suggest another book or author. I’d read it and write another paper. In a typical eight-week study I would read as many as six books and write three or four papers.
Only then, when the work was completed, did we write the contract so that it encompassed what I had just studied and written about.
There were no textbooks for most of what we did. Instead, Miriam had me read John Locke, Gregory Bateson, Douglas Hofstadter, Alfred North Whitehead, R. D. Laing, and Ted Sizer. Also John Goodlad, Adler – both Mortimer and Alfred, Freire, Erik Erickson, Jerome Bruner, Castaneda, Gardner, Jung, Grant Wiggins, Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria, and much, much more.
I read John Dewey from beginning to end. Twice.
I loved having the freedom to delve into what excited me, to veer off into what seemed like barely related tangents only to discover unforeseen connections.
Learning this way matched my holistic view of things, and I loved the intellectual rigor of the work.
Part of Miriam’s job was to steer my efforts in the direction of my degree’s requirements and she did so with a very broad outlook on what a degree could encompass. I ended up with a BS in Education Studies with a large minor in psychology.
What I did not realize until I started writing this evening is that Miriam was ahead of her time in education methodology. Twenty years ago Miriam put the abilities and needs of her student first, then bent the system to them.
It was differentiation writ large and an excellent model for any teacher.
Passing the torch…
I could go on, but I’ll give someone else a chance. In fact, I’m tagging Paul Bogush, Crista Anderson, Sandra McCarron, Andrew B Watt, and Will Deyamport to take up the mantle and reflect on who they learned from, and how, in their path toward teaching.