Friday, October 06, 2006

Teacher Man

On what seemed to be a never ending flight to Phoenix with my grandmother, mother and aunt – I was able to start and finish Frank McCourt’s latest novel, Teacher Man.(An excerpt can be read here.)

I like to know what drives writers to write as they do – and am thrilled when they share. It serves as such a wonderful model for frustrated writers of every age to hear how those who have been published and received a public stamp of approval (can we say “Oprah”) share their ups and downs as well. Writers on Writing from Australia and California via podcast are two great examples of clips to show students. Reminiscent of Stephen King’s On Writing, McCourt shares the story of his teaching life – specifically the teaching of writing. While I was distressed at times by his attitude towards teaching, I found myself reading on to find what pearls of wisdom this accomplished author imparted to his students.

While this might not be a book that I would share with students, I think that teachers of writing might be inspired by reading it. Here are some “gems” that I captured:

1.We need to be learners alongside our students – and tell them that. At the beginning of each term, McCourt would tell his Creative Writing classes,
“We’re in this together. I don’t know about you, but I’m serious about this class and sure of one thing: at the end of the term, one person in this room will have learned something, and that person, my little friends, will be me.”(p. 199).
McCourt characterized this as presenting himself as the most eager and “elevating himself above the masses” but I think it is a smart strategy – particularly in writing. I would often show my students my “writing” where they would give me feedback, suggest revisions, and sometimes tell me I needed to start again. It was easier to have them work with one another once I took the risk and shared what I wrote. And I learned from them – particularly those who struggled with writing themselves. They gave me insights into my own writing – and into the “voice” I used that I could not find myself. Being my audience, they strengthened my writing as I hoped to strengthen theirs.

2.Sometimes, the most powerful teaching moments come when you go with the flow. In Chapter 13, McCourt share the story of how the adolescent need for food turned into a powerful reading/writing/performance of recipes complete with music. It brought his class together as a group and they practiced some power peer review – yet throughout it all, McCourt could think only of the “other” teachers at the school who were dutifully following “The Curriculum.” Yet somehow – out of chaos, an amazing curriculum responsible lesson emerges!! Students find “voice” in writing restaurant reviews based on “Mimi” and learn some powerful lessons in persuasive writing. We could all learn a lesson from this – how many times have we wanted to capture the enthusiasm of our class, only to be stopped short in our journey to the “end of the curriculum?”

3. Grammar matters – but it is not the life and death of writing! There are several instances throughout the book where McCourt admits his grammar faults. He cannot diagram sentences well – in fact, at one point, a student takes over the class. But he attempts some amazing lessons on parts of speech (including an analogy to a ballpoint pen) and shares those discussions with the reader. What is powerful about this are the conversations – he lets kids say they don’t see the point and models well how to encourage student questions of authenticity to turn them into learning experiences. I am not a grammar guru myself – but this is how grammar should be done!!

A nice airplane read – I wonder what our stories would tell us about our teaching?


Melodee said...

I definitely need to read this book. It sounds like it is one you can't put down. The author of this book and the thinking of Kelly Gallagher seem to be very much the same. He also feels the same about the power in writing right in front of the children, modeling every step of the way. He demonstrates this in his video "Building Adolescent Reader". His snipets as he calls them are powerful. I have done this with students and it definitely helps to motivate them to become risk takers and write. Just as we have to model reading strategies for our students, we need to do the same for strategies in writing. I highly recommend Kelly Gallgaher's book "Deeper Reading." It is not just about reading, it is about writing as well. He also feels you can't separate the two. He has a new book coming out in the fall. It should be available in December. I am anxious to get it and read it.

As far as the tip about adolescents and food, I totally agree. It is amazing how motivated they are when food is involved.

Lisa said...

I would like to comment on the idea that was posted yesterday. It dealt with getting kids to write more. After reading what was written, I feel much more confident allowing a student in my writing lab to spend time on the computer for e-mail. He attended camp for the first time this summer and wanted to write to his new friends. I told him yes because it was a writing class and he would be writing. This avenue will be very helpful for him because he has significant fine motor delays. His adaptive computer will be helpful for him in writing. I guess the important thing is that he will be writing (and it won't take him so long to write so little).

Anonymous said...

Do you remember the teacher who influenced you the most? Was it someone who shared something of himself with you by way of personal anecdote, or was it someone who showed you how to believe in yourself and in what you are capable of? The teacher who most influecnced me was my seventh grade English teacher. She showed me her love of poetry and the English language and challenged me to read and write as I never had before. She shared her own writing with us and revealed how difficult and how rewarding it was to work on a piece and make it better. She had very high standards and believed in all of us. I couldn't wait to get to her class and I knew that my effort and work would be valued. Most of all I learned to trust myself as a reader and writer and to take risks in my writing. Going with the flow, working and learning right alongside the student-- these were daily occurrences in her class. Thank you Miss Mahaffey. You still serve as an inspiration to me!

Shirley said...

Oops! I wrote the last comment, but forgot to sign my name.

Dana Leone said...

I always tell people that I teach to learn but, I don't think older learners believe that. My younger learners are always looking for me to say "I never thought about that" and their look of glee overwhelms me more than the revelation itself. I wonder when we loose that confidence that we have something to contribute and if that is the point learning becomes a chore or another hoop to jump through. Beyond that thought, I missed grammar 101 and never really recovered but still I find poorly written papers a trial to read

JoshC said...

I haven't read the book "Teacher MAn" yet but my wife has and she recomends it. I think that the author has a lot of great ideas. It seems that the point to his teaching is to engage the students in creative ways. If they are entertained in thier work then they are much more likely to enjoy, complete and finish that work.