Thursday, December 14, 2006

Teaching Moments To Live For

In the classic film, The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan patiently attempts to teach blind and deaf Helen Keller a language spelled into her hand. Annie realizes that it is just a game of random movements to Helen, that the key to Helen’s mind is an awareness that these random spellings have meaning. Every object Helen touches has a name and that name is represented by a word. Finally, the day comes, as Annie furiously pumps water with one hand and spells the word “water” into Helen’s hand when Helen “gets it.” The audience sees Helen’s face twitch with deep concentration, then relax as an eager awareness spreads over her features. We call it the “Ah Ha” moment. From that moment on, Helen became an avid and quick learner.

While maybe not that life changing, every learner has an “ah ha” moment where after struggling to understand, an inner light comes on and our minds say, “Oh I get it!” I remember that feeling as I stood at our fourth grade blackboard with three others, trying to solve 17 divided by 9. Frustration rose up through me like unwanted stomach acid. Futilely, I wrote 1, r 8 and heard my teacher behind me say, “Karen got it right.” What did I do right? I stared at the problem in front of me and suddenly realized why it was right. “Oh, that’s how you do long division.” Suddenly, every problem seemed easy.

When I taught kindergarten, Missy seemed so on the verge of reading. She could sound the words phonetically but every word was a major hurtle for both her and me. One day as she held the book between us, she looked at the picture then read the sentence below it easily. Her confident voice conveyed that her brain had made that crucial correction between symbol and word. “You can read!” I exclaimed. “I can read!” she said, her face a circle of smiles. We both got so excited, that I hollered to the three year old teacher to watch my class while we raced down the hall to the day care supervisor’s office. “Missy can read!” I yelled and the three of us shared the special moment together.

That moment of awareness happens as we teach others about Jesus too. Jeff was one of those goofy kids who asked questions just to get the teacher off topic. My training told me to brush him off and stay with my lesson plan. But my intuition told me to respectfully yet briefly answer his question, then get back to the lesson. Some days he was infuriating, pressing the point for a wasted 15 minutes as he insisted on an answer. There were days I told him, “Jeff I’ll just have to get back with you on that later.” However, over time, I noticed Jeff’s questions slowly changing to thoughtful, deep questions. I saw him growing in his understanding of God’s word. I prayed for the day he would accept Christ. I thought it would be soon since Jeff came from a strong Christian family. But Jeff always held back, wanting one more question answered.

“I just don’t get this Trinity thing,” my questioning sixth grader announced one day. I tried to explain how ice, water and steam are still water but three different things. “I still don’t get it,” he said. “Well Jeff,” I acquiesced. “Some things you just have to accept whether you get it or not.” A few Sundays later, he said, “I don’t get this cross thing. How could Jesus the Son of God die as a man? Why did he do that anyway?” I carefully explained, for perhaps the tenth time how the sinless divine Son of God was God’s perfect choice to deal with the need for punishment of sin. This time, however, I saw that light of awareness slowly dawn in his eyes. Jeff became more thoughtful and quiet over the next few weeks, then quietly announced to his family that he wanted to accept Christ and he wanted his minister/uncle to baptize him the next time he came to visit.

I think there’s no greater delight in teaching than to share the delight of the “Ah Ha” moment with a learner. It reminds me to keep teaching, to be patient, to answer the questions because I never know when the light may come on and the face is circled with the smiles of understanding.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My Favorite Teachers: Part Three

While I could write multiple posts about some of the wonderful teachers who impacted my life and shaped my thinking, helping me become the person I am today, this will be the last installment. With perhaps a few interruptions for Christmas, I want to share next about some of the students who have also impacted my teaching and enriched my life. For today, however, here are several teachers who I remember with much fondness.

Dr. North: A history professor at
Cincinnati Christian University. Dr. North was a superb storyteller. He would drop these delightful stories into his three hour lectures that would make the moments fly. I still remember laughing so hard, I couldn’t take notes as he told how churches on the American frontier came to use individual Communion cups. From him, I learned the importance of story in my teaching.

Mr. T: Mr. T was my high school government teacher. Several times during that semester, Mr. T came to class drunk. One day, he staggered in, tripped over the trash can and swore, using words I didn’t think teachers were allowed to utter. I was horrified, the other students laughed at him, we all lost our respect for him. Yet, another time, he gave us a pop quiz, using an overhead projector to display the questions. Because of my vision problem, I couldn’t see the questions; however, without my asking for help, he offered to let me stay after class so I could stand close to the screen without embarrassment of having to look close in front of the others. In a day when mainstreaming was still in its early stages, I learned that attitude rather than law will bring about the most change for education for the handicapped. I also learned a huge lesson in not judging others. On the outside, he was a gruff, surely teacher with a serious problem, but deep down, he was a kind, compassionate man.

Mrs. W.: You would think Shakespeare would be an unpopular high school English elective, especially with this serious, no-nonsense teacher, yet her class was packed. I think we appreciated her high standards. On the first day of class, she announced, “You will not want to be absent in my class. If you do, you will miss out. We’re going to be covering a lot of ground each day.” So concerned that I not miss out on a single day, I even turned down attending a scholarship awards luncheon, which I learned later was not a smart idea. Mrs. W. brought Shakespeare to life. That year was the 500th year anniversary of his birth, so we had a birthday party for Shakespeare, complete with an English menu and Shakespeare recitations. I recited Portia’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice,” using a brand new mop head as my wig and a graduation robe for my judge’s gown!

I wish I knew her name: I had gone to visit my great-grandmother for the weekend. My aunt and uncle took me to their huge Baptist church for services where I was shown to a class of more than 50 junior high students. I was horribly homesick and intimidated by strangers and unfamiliar settings. Yet, after we were divided into smaller groups, my teacher welcomed me warmly and introduced me to the other girls. She then had us act out the story of Josiah and the Temple workers finding the Book of the Law in the Temple renovations. It was the first time I had ever seen drama used in Sunday. Why back in my church, we just listened to the story and filled out a worksheet! This was new! This was interesting! Moreover, she gave me one of the key roles, the workman who actually found the Book of the Law. I have never forgotten that Bible lesson. Being able to be involved in the lesson cemented that story into my brain and set the stage for my educational philosophy about the importance of interactive learning. I also learned the importance of including visitors. I never had the chance to go back to that church but, oh, I wish that lady knew the tremendous influence her teaching had on a one-time visitor.