To Teach Well is to Learn From Children

Hello again. My time away from the blog means I've been busy with other endeavors, including several pieces for the print world. I also wrote an essay for the National Public Radio project, This I Believe. My essay is now in their library, although it wasn't selected to be recorded for radio. I share it below, as it includes the writing of several students in my blog photo: Mandy, Erin, and Makeesh.

I believe that to teach well is to learn from children. My students have taught me about how they learn, about their vulnerabilities and strengths, and most importantly, about myself.

Thirty years ago I became a teacher. Perhaps it was an expected choice for a teenager who volunteered in the church nursery and helped to raise younger siblings. After college I learned the ropes of teaching on the job, then fine-tuned my knowledge in graduate school. But in the end, it has been the students themselves that have most helped me become the teacher I am. The more I learned from them, the more I valued them, and the more I valued them, the more I paid attention to their strengths, needs, and interests.

For over twenty years I learned about children in the presence of six and seven year olds, and nothing better documents the small gems of my learning than the students’ writing. The students and I kept journals, writing back and forth daily to one another, which certainly provided writing opportunities for these beginning authors and allowed my writing to serve as an example. Yet, beyond the journals’ practical role of helping the students grow as readers and writers, the students’ entries introduced me to the amazing intelligence and thoughtfulness of young children.

Thin and quiet, Mandy’s personality was mirrored in her spare, beginning writing. In the spring I wrote about the garden I was planning, and Mandy asked what I would plant. I responded that I wasn’t sure, but that I didn’t have room for flowers and vegetables both. She advised that I better choose so the plants wouldn’t get stepped on. Even though her spelling was becoming easier to read, it would have been easy to miss the humor she found in her own advice and the small happy face that punctuated it. A month later Mandy’s family moved. In her journal she wrote, “Please don’t ever, ever forget me.” Because of Mandy, I took even more care to notice and respond to the ideas that kids shared.

It was most common for students to write about their daily experiences. Michael wrote, “Yesterday when I got off the bus little puffs of wind passed by. It felt good to me.” And Joseph noticed that “the snow looked like gold” on his way to school and illustrated his description with bursts of color across a white lawn. It was a surprise to me that six year olds experienced these kind of small moments much like I did and that they could so vividly describe their experiences.

Even if a writing assignment was contrived, like one I borrowed after hearing kids’ responses on the Johnny Carson show, first graders continued to teach me. I asked the kids what spring fever meant, and James wrote: “[It] means that more people might be getting fevers or colds, or the sniffles. But it might mean people are finding more lovers. It might mean the flowers are going away. Or more people are getting tired. It might mean you stay inside and dance.” Joseph, in contrast, approached me several times to say he didn’t know what to write. In spite of my assurance that he should do his best, I later found his paper on my desk with a small note stapled to it: “I ain’t gonna do this. I don’t know how.” My students’ writing transformed the quick laughs on the Carson show the night before. The sincerity of their efforts called me to treat their writing with respect, not as a source of amusement. I learned that their ideas mattered and could inspire amazing life poetry.

Erin brought a keen eye to the talents of her classmates and used writing to compliment them during an end-of-the-year letter project. It seemed she intuitively understood the encouraging power of words: “Dear Arthur,” she wrote. “I like you because you’re like the Incredible Hulk. You’re cool all the time, too. You’re snazzy and jazzy and razzamatazzy. You are the best fighter.” And to Krista she wrote, “I like you because you are beautiful and so calm. You’re so unique, so intelligent, so feminine. You sing nicely. You look like a ballerina. Love, Erin.” In letter after letter, she identified her classmates’ strengths. Most poignant was the letter she wrote to herself: “Dear Me, I like you because you’re an author and you went to the Young Author’s Conference. I’ll tell you a secret. How about it, me? Okay, here’s the secret. Me, do you have any friends?” Makeesh decided to write a second letter to Erin, warning her that, “You shouldn’t write to your own self. People be talking!”

Over a career I’ve taught every subject area, including music and art, as well as my area of expertise, literacy. I’ve developed lessons based on research and national standards, and used many different curriculum materials to support kids’ learning. But in the end, the most important work I’ve done is to help students develop the tools to make sense of their experiences, to express their ideas, and to follow their passions. Then I’ve paid very close attention, allowing me to form a relationship with each one. And while I’ve played an important role as the teacher, I’ve also been privileged to be a part of each unique classroom community.

Indeed, when Anne wrote, “You are very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very special, Ms. Egawa,” I became more of that special teacher who has now touched the lives of close to 2,000 children. I never imagined these experiences when I chose teaching as my life’s work.

I now carry within me a rich tapestry woven from each of these young voices, much of it preserved in writing. Their observations of the world changed how I see it, and how I see myself. Fortunately, I’ve also learned that a teacher’s learning is never complete. Seth reminded me of this final point on his last day of first grade: “Dear Ms. Egawa, You weren’t always a good teacher, but when you were, it was fun.”

1 comment:

  1. That is a touching essay, Kathy. It is so true that really listening to all of the funny and amazing things kids say and write is the best way to help them learn. Learning is what they want to do, they just need to know that grownups they look up to are there to guide and support them.