Sunday, May 29, 2011

Desire, Drive, Motives, Goals, and Learning

I wrote the following in my journal about 9 years ago.  As I think about the elements of classroom learning, i.e., desire, drive, motivation and goals, it seems appropriate to add this to my blog.  JPM

            A few days ago I called a former student, who must have been in my class as a senior about 20 years ago.  We had gotten to be friends over the years and at least once a year I still call or she calls me just to stay in touch.  She was a special education teacher. In her case, I don’t know whether “special” should modify the word “education” or "teacher."  She was an unusually gifted and mature student. 

            I asked, as I always do, about Steve, her husband, and the children.  Rebecca is 6 and in the first grade; Madeleine is four and finishing her last year of preschool before entering kindergarten, a major step as Madeleine sees it.  But the really interesting part to me was Nancy’s recounting an incident that took place at Hebrew school a few weeks ago.  Rebecca goes to the Hebrew Day School and attends Hebrew classes, taught by an Israeli woman, twice a week.  One afternoon was set aside as a free period when younger siblings were invited to see the classroom and to play some games.  Madeleine enjoyed running around with the other younger children, but her older sister, Rebecca, felt out of place and complained about the “kid stuff,” saying she was too old for this.  Her mother suggested, “Why don’t you just come and sit here with me and we can talk.” Rebecca sat next to her mother and said (I believe I have this word for word), “Mother, I only want to study the Torah, so that when I’m older I can become a rabbi, and then I can teach people how to pray, so they will know that there is only One God.”

            What grace.  Here was a six year old with all the desire “to study the Torah,” and the drive to make it her “only” wish without distraction, and the motivation to learn so that she could “teach other people” with the final goal of having them understand a truth that was already very dear to her, “to know there is only One God.”

            One might worry that a child like Rebecca, especially in our world where most children are allowed, thankfully, to remain children as long as they like, might be too serious and miss out on the fun of being six.  Not at all.  When she is with children her own age, she loves to play, to make up games, even to play with words, both in English and Hebrew, and to tease about her sure Israeli accent. Other children like her.  Who wouldn’t like a bright friend who loves to play and whose motivation for learning is basically within and who can make up games?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My favorite teacher(s)

            Last Thursday I had lunch with three fifth graders at a nearby elementary school.  One of the boys is my "little brother," and we have lunch together every Thursday but this week we decided to join two of his friends in the lunch room.  The conversation included reasons why the boys sat at one table, girls at another, the unlikely dream of an all boys' class, end of the year grade expectations, the afternoon's music rehearsal, and the subsequent concert that evening. 

            But the conversation that really sparked my interest involved "favorite teachers."  All three boys agreed that a particular third grade teacher was the best in the school.  "Anyone who goes through this school will end up saying she was their best teacher.  And it's always going to be that way," proclaimed one of the three.

            I asked why she was their favorite teacher. 
            "Because she's nice."
            "She makes it fun, so you want to learn."
            "She's not mean.  She never yells."
            "She likes us."

            One of the boys interrupted to say, "See, there she is over there (The favored teacher was lunchroom monitor that day).  See that kid hugging her?  That's the way we all feel.  We like her."

            It made me think of my own favorite teachers growing up (Mrs. Butler, Sr. Veronica Marie, Father Leonard, who all taught English) and my teachers today (Connie Wallace and Joni Martin, both professional musicians) and what they have in common.  I guess for me the important ingredients are skill, patience, an encouraging style, laughter, a love for what they do, and a willingness to share it with others.

            Who were, or are, your favorite teachers and why?  If you are now a teacher, do you find yourself emulating those qualities?  If you'll comment below, I'll summarize the comments and use them to create a survey that we can submit later to a larger audience.  Thanks and have a great week.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reading For Fun

             Recently I read of a contest for elementary school students that involved the number of books they could read within a limited time period. I wonder if those contests are always a good idea.       

            The article reminded me of a visit I made to the day school at Smith College years ago. It was toward the end of the academic year and I was visiting the first grade. The children were all busy at their tables reading. One little fellow was tearing through a chapter book as fast as he could go.

            "What're you reading?" I asked. I can't remember his answer, but I do recall his next comment:

"I'm getting started on the contest to see who can read the most books this summer. The person who can read the most books gets a prize." He turned back to his book, abruptly ending our conversation. I'm not sure he was interested in the story he was reading but he was keenly interested in the fact that shortly he would have read one more book.

            Across the room at another table another boy was grinning at a picture in his book. He called me over, "Look at this," he laughed and then he began to tell me about the story he was reading and how the picture depicted an event that he thought was hilarious.

            I left the classroom that day thinking there is a real difference between reading as a means to an end, and reading for the fun of it, and wishing that, as important as the first type is, it would be nice if it could be done in such a way that children could also keep forever the joy of the second type of reading.

  "To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting."
                                                                            E. Burke

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Appreciating Teachers

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
Jacques Barzun

            Last week was teachers' appreciation week.  Candy, flowers, potted plants, and home-made cards were no doubt the order of the day.  There's even a good web site,, devoted to teacher appreciation.  But, once again, it deals for the most part with things we can buy or make for teachers.  I wonder if there are other ways we can show our appreciation. 

            During the past week I visited two first grade classrooms: Miss Lazzarini's class at Tavelli Elementary in Fort Collins, CO, and Ms. Herrera's class at Slade Elementary in Laramie, WY.  The week before I had visited Ms. Gimlett's class at Dunn Elementary in Fort Collins.  I read from story books that I hope to publish and found three groups of attentive, bright, inquisitive and frankly, endearing children.  Their rapt attention and then their spontaneous questions, enthusiastic applause, and also their critical judgment were a surprise to me.  They were excited to share with me the stories of their own lives, and those other stories they had read, and to talk about authors we both knew.  One class was working on poetry for mother's day and another was studying authors of fiction. They told me they were now reading chapter books, although they still liked story books as well. Bottom line, I had a blast. 

            I'm used to dealing with the other end of the academic pipeline, college and graduate students, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Then I realized that this is where it all starts.  The teachers I met, and their assistants, were there not only to teach the content of the first grade curriculum but, more importantly, to excite a group of children (from 17 to 26 in number) about the world around them and about the various ways, including books, to explore that wondrous world.  

            So, thank you, Miss Lazzarini, Ms. Herrera, Ms. Gimlett, and all you other teachers of our children and grandchildren.  I hope we don't wait until next year at this time to express our gratitude again.  Every day should be teachers' appreciation day.  As important as the candy, flowers, cards (and, in my day, fancy handkerchiefs) are, I only wish I knew of other ways to express that gratitude.  Any ideas?   If so, please hit the word "comments" below and let me know.  Thank you.

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”
Carl Jung

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Believing the Children ...sometimes

            Editors and agents often warn us children's writers not to put faith in the praise that our own children, grandchildren, and friends heap on our cherished writing efforts.  The argument runs that they will love whatever we write.  It's a good point and something we need to keep in mind.  Although I understand the importance of these precautions, and would never mention the kids in a query letter or a pitch session, I wonder if there are also times when we would be wise to listen to the children.

            The children I know best all have their own distinct preferences regarding reading material, as with everything else.  As evidence of this discrimination, I have heard the following comments:  "This one's not so good, Pe'pe'," or "It's ok, I guess," or, more happily, "Now that, Pe'pe', is a cool story."  Sometimes these preferences are dictated by what they perceive to be cool among their peers, but just as often their choices are based on their own tastes and inclinations.

            If one is writing for children it seems that some of the most important feedback will come from the kids, themselves.  James Barrie was encouraged to write Peter Pan by the children of his dear friends, the Davies.  Some of Francis Thompson's best poetry was inspired by the children of his close friends and patrons, the Meynells.  A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh was named after a teddy bear belonging to his son Christopher Robin Milne, whose name and personality, as we know, was adopted by the other main character in those great stories.  Lewis Carroll (George Dodgson) was reputedly begged by Alice Liddell, the daughter of close friends, to write down for her the story he had made up of Alice in Wonderland.  Having written it down for her, he was later encouraged by the enthusiasm of the children of another friend, George MacDonald, to have the book published.

            While these childhood preferences may, in some instances be idiosyncratic, there are also common themes.  Luckily for us, these commonalities have been recognized by the best agents and editors, and have even been catalogued for us.  See, for example, the blog by Laura Backes,

            If there is any truth in the maxim that our loved ones will love what we write, it may be because what we write for them is our best work.  And, in the case of children, when it doesn't come up to our highest standards - or theirs - I have found that they are unflinching in their willingness to say so.

            How about the children in your life?  Do they tell you what they like?