If you will indulge me, I will begin this statement with a story:
In 2011, I put together a student trip to the Mississippi Delta, ten students for a full week in the Spring. (Why the Delta? I explain below.) We were lucky in our scheduling, because the unveiling of the Mississippi Freedom Trail historical marker at the gravesite of civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer occurred during our visit, an event which also marked the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, attended by some of those Riders. I was thrilled to be able to take my students to the occasion. As we gathered at the memorial garden, some of my students noticed a young bird on the ground, cast out of its nest. And, being kids, they teamed together, got up in the tree, and returned the bird to the nest. Later, during the unveiling ceremony, where my students were among the very few white faces, a Freedom Rider came to the podium, and in his remarks told the story of what he had just witnessed, a group of young people struggling to return an injured bird to its nest, saying so because he felt it was an action that represented the spirit of Mrs. Hamer. My students were, of course, surprised at the public recognition; there were certainly proud smiles all around. That moment struck me, though, as quite profound — here we were, a white group in a black neighborhood in Ruleville, Mississippi, once a hotbed of racist violence and a central battleground in the long freedom struggle. And here are these young people being recognized by the previous generation’s activists for being there and for their act of kindness, even as those same students are learning, actively, about this all-too-hidden history. I could not help but be glad at my good fortune, that I as an educator could have a hand in such an event.
I mention this story not only because it was a proud moment for me as a teacher, a moment when I could see a change in my students, but also because it represents the multivalent approach I have, and I feel all educators should have; if I may express it alliteratively, it is three “M”s, modeling, molding, and mirroring. I always seek to bring these aspects to my teaching.
Modeling is perhaps the most obvious, and must run as an undercurrent to the entire teaching endeavor. It is important not just to cover the material or impart the information; one must express, openly and daringly, the experience of that information. There is an excitement, to use a literary example, to sitting down and figuring out the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury, or reciting and listening to the closing of Gatsby. In the classroom, demonstratively and interactively, the teacher can model this excitement, the joy of language. And, as in my story above, it can become much deeper. I have always made race and racial reconciliation a cornerstone of my teaching career. In bringing my students to the Delta, to that Ruleville neighborhood, I stepped with my students across a racial line that could otherwise separate them from the world; I modeled the respect and understanding that is required to cross the color barrier, and I revealed to them, just as when we read Baldwin and Hughes in class, a part of the world that is to be found there.
Certainly, then, modeling is a way of communicating information, but I place that endeavor principally under the category of molding. Here, the teacher acts as guide and facilitator, opening doors through which the student can peer, and learn. This is not rote learning or dry lecturing; it is instead exploring, parsing, and asking. I am a big fan, and students always respond well to this, of the many things that are hidden So yes, here is Mockingbird, but here also is Raisin in the Sun; Dickinson, but also Brooks and Toomer; Martin, but also Hamer and SNCC. We have a great opportunity as educators to form and shape new minds, and we have the great responsibility to insure that these new minds follow the paths of virtue that we can all agree upon. Through no fault of my school’s American history program, my students knew little of Hamer. I had them read Hamer’s “Is this America” statement from 1964, led them through thoughtful processing and response, told Mrs. Hamer’s story in pictures and song, and brought them to her memorial garden, the unveiling of her marker. Similarly, also in 2011 I arranged for the Emmett Till traveling exhibit to be brought to my school for a month-long stay. It is more than merely imparting information; it is an opportunity and a responsibility to mold, to tell the story again and again, to work with the information of yesterday and today and create the world of tomorrow.
Third, then, one must hold a mirror, one must be a mirror, for the best that is in the student. The young people we are entrusted with are just finding their voices, just establishing their paradigms and values. We must listen to them, and listen carefully. In doing so, and in responding and leading thoughtfully, one can reflect back to the student that which is best about their own thinking, their own judgments. Kids get it wrong, and they get it wrong often. A fair share of education, unavoidably, is correction. But there must also be a valuing of the student, a demonstration that she/he is heard, a validation of his/her voice. Yes, it is very much like a group of young people to climb a tree to save a bird. Yet it must be recognized, as the Freedom Rider did at the unveiling ceremony, when young people practice compassion, empathy, or interest.
In addition to this approach I have to my educational practice, I also strive to use an interdisciplinary framework. The study of literature is also the study of historical context, and the study of history is empty without literature to enlighten it. Similarly, although this is somewhat a road less traveled, I have a very humanities-oriented approach to my STEM teaching. Computer coding is a language linked to the past, all the way back to Classical conceptions of logic, as much as it is a tool of the present. Computer Science is a world of puzzles and problem solving, with solutions that can be elegant in their efficiency and application. Thus, even in the somewhat cold world of technology, the “three Ms” hold true, modeling logical inquiry, molding with new layers of active information, and mirroring the inquisitiveness of the student while acknowledging the accomplishment of a problem solved, a challenge met.
The independent school, which has long been my milieu, is the locus wherein growth is available and occurs, for the educator as well as the student. In my years at an independent school, I have benefited from the atmosphere of academic rigor and have found reward in the emphasis on enrichment that calls for continuous advancement and development for the entire community. The independent school opened up entirely new areas of interest and inquiry for me in the form of professional development opportunities and, more importantly, the chance to take new material and integrate it into the curriculum. The independent school is a land of growth, an environment that is all-too-rare in the educational world. The educator in the independent school can, and does, make a difference.
And that is what I strive to do, make a difference. That, indeed, is the core driving force. In teaching, just as in my writing, I wish to impart meaning, not just information, whether it be examining the long march for Civil Rights, parsing Browning or the Bard, or teaching a computer to solve a classic logic puzzle. These are all meaningful things, all part of the independent school experience, and at my core as an educator. I have taught many, traveled with some, and benefited much in my career as an educator; it is my wish to continue to grow, and assist others to grow, in this endeavor.