I remember fondly my first mentor teacher, Jeannine. For a semester in the fall of 2005, I helped in a first and second-grade classroom in an iconic Denver school building, called Steele Elementary. It was there I met a parent who would later become a force for seed-to-table gardening in a new movement aimed at improving school nutrition and agricultural education in Denver Public Schools. I’ll expound on these wonderful memories and connections in a future blog. Back to Jeannine.
I learned how to make books and how to make them with first and second graders. It was so much fun! Jeannine was very active in giving her students hands-on learning experiences all day long and she also made them read for a really long block of time every day. She read with everybody, one-on-one, all the time. Kids who finished their books were encouraged to reread them once, even twice, if they had time. Reading was about intimate practice. Making books was about community creativity and the process invention.
At strategic times during her semester, she would engineer big class book projects that became community expressions of common experiences and responses to literature they read, or structures they built, or science experiments they conducted. Each book became part of the classroom library and was part of the shared story of the kids.
I believe she knew someone in Ache, Indonesia, when the tsunami struck in 2004. Instead of simply teaching kids it had happened on the other side of the world, it became an opportunity for her students to connect with pen pals. Simultaneously it began an altered book project that became each student’s chance to express what peace and love meant to them and their families. Jeannine found an old, linen-bound book, the type you might have found in your grandparent’s basement, without the mold. Each kid would take home the book for a week, choose a page, and make it their own. They wrote poetry, drew pictures, used paint, ink, white-out, fabric, or any art materials preserving the flatness of the book. She taught her young students how to transform a tragedy into a new kind of understanding about the world and their place in it. It was hard not to be inspired and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn from her.
She taught her young students how to transform a tragedy into a new kind of understanding about the world and their place in it. Somehow, she helped a bunch of 7 year-olds in Colorado, make a connection to a community with whom they had nothing in common, except perhaps their humanness. It was hard not to be inspired. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn from her. Jeannine taught kids that reading is intensely personal and completely connected to human experience. I was a profound and humbling experience for a young teacher on the cusp of a career.
She also started her day, every day, by welcoming her students with music. They walked in at three minutes till the bell to Simon and Garfunkle’s “Feelin’ Groovy”. Whenever I hear the song played I always think about Jeannine and it stands as a powerful reminder to slow down and experience the art of teaching.
Sometimes when I puzzle over why education is in such a crisis, I think that teachers have forgotten, or been encouraged to forget, how much of an artist you must be to do it well. It has always been difficult for artists to justify (to their parents or governments), why art is critical to humanity and can be a calling in and of itself. It helps me to remember that these summer months are essential for me to seek inspiration.
It helps me to remember that these summer months are essential for me to find my muse; (she often disappears during the testing months of March and April) and I spend May cleaning the studio. My job during the year is to see all the hues of each individual kid and mix them in a palette that compliments the whole canvas. I have to manipulate the metal of their armatures to help them create the structures that will support their layers of experience. I have to take risks, trusting that my decisions will sculpt the fundamental shape of their brains in positive and lasting ways.
If you are a teacher but don’t consider yourself an artist, you should. You might be Picasso, Rembrandt, Klee, and Hurst all wrapped up in one person. You are creative, expressive, and visionary. You are not meant to simply analyze data, attend professional development meetings or share memes about coffee.
Teacher friends, enjoy your summer vacations, find your muse, for soon, we will all be called back to the canvas to engage in work that can be both beautiful and emotionally powerful.