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Sunday, September 04, 2011

Reading Teachers

Three books, a dozen teachers, two expert voices, and a brightly painted room. The result was an hour of reflection and enjoyment, an escape into a space we had forgotten existed. Our own pleasure in the magic woven by words, the ability to travel into experiences not our own, and the possibility of discovering empathies--if not answers--in these narratives. When we at Teacher Plus were wondering what we could do to make the day special for our own community of teachers, we hit upon the idea of a session where teachers would turn listeners--not for the purpose of taking ideas back into their classrooms but to rediscover the simple pleasures of listening to a good story. The books we chose were simple, easy to obtain volumes that told stories that, despite their varied setting, were universal in the themes they addressed: boisterous classrooms, distracted students, difficult teenagers, and the never quite defined aims of education. But these themes were not wrapped in polemic or abstract intellectualisms. They were at the centre of real teacher interactions in the everyday. The first of these was an extract from what some may dismiss as an exercise in sentimentalism: A Cup of Comfort for Teachers, from which we drew a piece called "Why I teach". How doubts and uncertainties about children are revealed as nothing more than prejudice and misconception and how, so often, these are proven wrong once we just open our minds and listen. Children surprise us constantly, but we need to be ready to experience surprise. The second set of readings came from a book that is perhaps less familiar to many--Frank McCourt's Teacher Man. Those who have read Angela's Ashes would know his style, and this one does not disappoint. Whether it is talking about facing a class of hostile adolescents from troubled and poverty stricken homes, or wondering about how and why we teach, McCourt delights and strikes a chord with many of us. The bit we read was from McCourt's experiment with the word "gibberish" to drive home a grammar point in English class. Suddenly boys who had nothing but impatience with parsing sentences were alert and interested in playing with words. And finally, that old classic, To Sir with Love. The song by Lulu that never fails to give me goosebumps opened our memory banks and many of us traveled back to the well-loved film of our childhood. Our readers, Aarti Phatarphekar and Ranjan Ranganathan, brought the text alive with their evocative reading. We laughed with Braithwaite and his rough kids, and thought back wistfully to the last scenes in the movie, which underscored the transformation that is possible when a teacher cares about his/her work and the children who are part of it. We find answers and echoes in books, both fiction and non-fiction, in unexpected ways. They open our minds to different ways of thinking and doing that we, in our limited worlds, would never have encountered first hand. More than one teacher remarked that she was going to the nearest bookstore to look for a copy of one or other book.

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