Recently I was given the task of writing about a meaningful learning experience. The assignment was to include a description of the experience, how my perspective has changed in regards to the experience now that I am a teacher, and how the experience has impacted my teaching. Here's what I came up with.....................
There is a closet at grandma’s house. It’s full of things kids love; Little People, Matchbox cars, baby dolls, and books. The contents and the arrangement of such things have not changed much in the past forty years. The Little People are still in the green barrel under the book shelf and to the right of the folding chairs. The books are on the second shelf. The Matchbox cars are the same ones my uncles played with. The dolls belonged to my aunt and mother; and the Little People house has been played with to such a degree that the once vibrant decals are pastel-like and hard to make out. Of all these wonderful things, the books are the most special to me. At twenty-seven, I can close my eyes and revisit my favorite stories. I can see the illustrations, smell the age of the books, and hear my grandmother’s voice. Many of the stories I know by heart and I smile as I read them to my children. I am pleased at how effortlessly I can make the words come alive just like my grandmother did for me.
I have been blessed in that I still have opportunities to hear stories read by my grandmother. Only now instead of reading to me, she reads to my daughter. I like to sit across from them when they read so I can see their faces, especially my daughter’s reactions to grandma’s funny voices and her masterful way of integrating meaningful interactions into the experience. Recently I realized that my grandmother has taught me so much about reading through the years. As a child, she taught me what it meant to be a reader in a very loving and in-explicit way. She showed me how to love stories by making them real with her voice and actions. Story time was play time and perhaps this unstructured holistic method of teaching is superior to all others.
Now that I am an adult, my grandmother continues to teach me valuable lessons. What was an opportunity to learn how to read as a child is now an opportunity to learn how to be a better teacher. Watching her read aloud to my children is like watching the most perfectly executed shared reading lesson. She stops in all the right places, asks the right questions, keeps the children engaged, and above all makes it FUN! As with any worthwhile professional development, I often find myself reflecting on my own teaching as I observe such interactions. I have realized that I need to draw kids in more by making them feel like part of the story. My grandma has a knack for dramatization. Story time is never a sedentary experience. The children are encouraged to sing, dance, and mimic the characters’ actions. In the past, I feared that too much dramatization would break the flow of the story and distract the students. Recently, I have resolved to do more repeated reading of the same text so that with each interaction I can take more risks and get the kids more involved. What I have found is that this leads to more authentic learning experiences that require high level thinking and application. The same text can be used repeatedly to teach a variety of things. What should be viewed as important is that the students are engaged, motivated, and learning. One of the greatest pieces of advice I have gotten as a teacher is this, “Just because a basal is full of stories, that doesn’t mean you have to use them all or any of them for that matter.” The actual text is just an avenue on which we travel to bring the learner to a concept, skill, or strategy. I have the ability to choose texts based on the needs of my students and that which I am teaching, and I am far more qualified to do so than any text book publisher.
As I watch my grandmother read to my daughter I understand more than ever that teaching is not a skill acquired from reading the right book or going to a particular university. My grandmother does not possess a college degree. In her words, “Taking care of kids is all I’ve ever known.” How humble and unaware she is of her talents. Through what she views as “just taking care of her family”, she has evolved into one of the finest teachers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I never noticed it as a child, but now I occasionally catch her resting her eyes as she reads to my daughter all the while reciting the story from heart. Perhaps in this she has taught me the most important lesson of all. The most effective teaching does not come from a text book or a methods course, it comes from the heart. Michelangelo said in regards to his artistic talents, “I am still learning.” In every way I am still learning, so I am thankful for great teachers like my grandmother.