In these dark times, when teachers are treated as expendable, interchangeable incompetents, it is important to seek sustenance where it can be found. I was given, recently, as a gift, Taylor Mali’s slim but nourishing book What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. I am always surprised when a teacher tells me that they don’t know Mali or his poem and then I find myself with the pleasure of introducing that teacher to both. I am grateful that Mali has the YouTube video available to all, if you have never seen it performed this is a great starting point.
What Teachers Make is a history or provenance of many of the poem’s lines but it is also a testament to what makes teaching such a worthwhile, rewarding profession. Mali’s style is unadorned and very easy-going. He very simply, but effectively, points out the heart of what teaching is: nurturing and developing future citizens of our world – not a bunch of proficient bubble fillers, but people who may actually make a difference for the society they live in.
Mali taught for 10 years in a private school setting. Therefore, from what I have gleaned from this book, he was freed from the burden of “teaching to the test.” The lessons he devised for his students were engaging, thought provoking, real world related, and a bit nutty. I could see Michelle Rhee saying: “Great, you taught them to make Medieval shields but could they pass a citywide test?” But, then, this is what reformers often miss and don’t seem to understand – the job of a teacher is to engage a student in learning, to get them to awaken their own desire to learn. Because what every teacher understands is that learning comes from within. In telling about how he learned to correctly spell the words “beautiful” and “definitely”, Mali sums up the essence of that aspect of teaching that cannot be quantified or tested. It is a matter of spirit. Here is what he says:
But there is a larger point about these two backstories that I really wish I had managed to work into the poem somehow: the exhilaration that comes with all epiphanies, those unforgettable bursts of new understanding. We tend to think of learning in the same way that we imagine a child grows taller: as a gradual, steady process marked by occasional spurts of accelerated progress. But the process of learning is more like a series of minor and major lightning bolts that strike the brain constantly. And if you have ever witnessed one of these moments occurring in someone else, then you know why teachers say it’s one of the secret joys of the profession. Especially if they helped make it happen. Teachers make lightning strike over and over again.”
Another excellent example is in the chapter titled “My Best Day as a Teacher.” Mali tells the story of a student named Lilly Wilson who wants to write an essay arguing in favor of making gay marriage illegal. Instead of dissuading her he simply reminds her of the requirement of the paper that it be well researched. After doing her research the student comes back to him and asks if she can switch sides on the argument. Mali wrote a poem called “Like Lilly Like Wilson” in which he says:
And I want to tell her…
[that] changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
Mali goes on to say: “The takeaway lesson for me was that I will never be able to teach anything to anyone as well as they will be able to teach it to themselves if given the opportunity. So maybe that’s what the definition of teacher should be: someone who makes learning possible, which often means simply preparing the ground for you to teach yourself.”
His book, as is his poem, is a testament to what teachers do every day – making a difference.
Robert Coles: Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection
Robert Coles is the author, most notably, of “The Moral Intelligence of Children.” He is the Emeritus James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at the Harvard Medical School. If you teach you should read Robert Coles. Among the many books he has written are “The Call to Service: A Witness to Idealism” and “Teaching Stories: an Anthology on the Power of Learning and Literature.”
Coles has had, to say the least, a very interesting career. He did his field work on children and the stress they encountered during the civil rights movement of the 1960s – most notably working with Ruby Bridges. He has known, and written about, some of the most amazing figures of the 20th century – everyone from Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist and social worker, to William Carlos Williams. What he brings to everything he writes is an acute sense of what it means to be a human being, of what it means to be a compassionate and caring person, and what it means to make an active choice to be a force for good in the world.
“Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection” is based on Coles’s “Literature of Social Reflection” course at Harvard. This was a course that explored the ideas expressed above. As Coles says:
“Through stories, we are given the opportunity to search deeper into an understanding of what we make of our own stories, and of this world in which we live every day. What do we notice and why? What does that say about us, or others? How do we think about the stories of others, and about our own stories?”
The book is broken into five parts and Coles covers a wide swath of writers and historical figures. His list includes: James Agee, George Orwell, William Carlos Williams, Raymond Carver, Edward Hopper, Tillie Olsen, Ruby Bridges, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Conner, Dorothy Day, Ignazio Silone, Elie Wiesel, John Cheever, Walker Percy, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Gauguin, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and a potato chip truck. It is that eclectic and wide-ranging.
What he does is bring you, gently, to an understanding of how literature and our social fabric are necessary to each other, how each are influenced by the other, and how we can use literature to come to a better understanding of ourselves. At a time when the Common Core Standards are saying toss out the novels and teach more non-fiction, here is a heady argument for the necessity of retaining a good balance of both.
Here are some excerpts from various parts of the book that will give you a good idea of its argument.
“Writers such as Agee and Orwell become part of the world they describe–they bring us to those worlds. This companionship, this gesture of affiliation, of understanding, is itself “noble”–as noble as the description of the coal miner’s body; as noble as Agee’s wonderful elevation of sharecroppers trying to survive against great odds. Isn’t it “noble” for you and me to be encouraged to regard others with respect, consideration?”
“With what attitude, what movements of the heart, mind, and soul, if any, do we respond to various human beings, under the various circumstances of our privilege, our competence, our professional training—-summoned or not? How do we evaluate one another?… What do we do with the thoughts that cross our minds, our own memories or experiences that are brought to play by the particular people we meet, our students in the classroom, our patients, or our clients if we are in a courtroom? These are the struggles we all wage with ourselves. And can they be fairly or adequately resolved by multiple-choice exams, even when the issue is a matter of information or factuality, or intellectual capacity? This is the way so many are judged today: the numbers pinned on them, courtesy of those exams. What we are dealing with is human subjectivity in all its variations, in your life and in mine.”
“Does one gain knowledge of oneself, of others? How do we find, as Dr. King put it, the “beloved community”? Where and with whom? We must ask ourselves that as we meet an invisible man, as he journeys through corridors of power and discovers hypocrisy and phoniness and duplicity, all masked with righteousness — no, self-righteousness parading as righteousness.”
“It can be painful and illuminating to go through these novels because these literary figures enter our pantheon, our company, our consciousness, initially, as outsiders who are often taking aim at us. But then they became an integral part of our own lives, as we absorb them, take in their summoning moral fire, aimed so adroitly: there for us to behold in our reading, and respect and reflect on and, most of all, respond to in our reading and in our lives.”
I hope these excerpts give a sense of the incredible passion and fierceness of thought that Robert Coles brings both to life and literature. I think the word reflection is the key ingredient here. Reflection is considered a necessary part of a teacher’s make-up. After all, an important aspect of what we do is teach our own students how to reflect, how to ask questions, how to change or improve on the qualities of their character. What I came away from, over and over again, in the many pages of this book, was a better sense on how to reflect on myself and, hopefully, make of myself a better person and better teacher.
One theme that is presented throughout the book that I think strikes hard at certain educational notions of today is this: the idea that a test determines both the value and quality of a person. Again and again, Coles points out that many of the world’s greatest people got where they did without taking a test. William Carlos Williams, who worked his entire life as a doctor serving the poor and working class (writing in the evenings his poetry and stories), went straight to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School – “he didn’t go to college; he didn’t have to take any premed courses; and he didn’t take the MCAT test, but went right to medical school.” Or Raymond Carver, the great short story writer, who “was able to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop without a college degree or the test scores that now figure so prominently in the admissions process, alas. How ironic it is, given the life histories of some of our best writers, that multiple-choice tests bear such consequences for young, aspiring storytellers.”
In other words, or to play on a favorite phrase of the reformers of today, what good is being able to take a test if you do not learn how to live and reflect on life and understand how complex and difficult our world can be, at times, and how you can help make that journey a better one for yourself and others. This is the heart and soul of what Robert Coles writes about. As with many of the people he writes about, Coles is addressing the moral issues that, as teachers, we must wrestle with daily. Teachers are a big part of handing one another along – we are doing just that with our charges. Robert Coles helps guide the way for us.