Just before THE pandemic broke out, I was asked to present something about a holiday in a creative manner. It was for a great in-service course for teachers I took with Debbie Ben Tura on the topic of creativity in EFL Teaching.
The first word that comes to mind when thinking of my father is the word “book”. Or rather “BOOKS!”
Books were part of who he was.
My father was a voracious reader from a very young age. He read everything he could get his hands on. Almost all the birthday gifts he ever asked for, from his Bar-Mitzvah and all the way up to his 85th birthday, were books.
These books were rarely works of fiction. My father had an insatiable curiosity about the world, – he wanted books that gave him information, that analyzed events and examined the processes that led to these events. These were reference books he needed for his work as a historian (and many books that had no bearing on his work – he was just interested in the topic) biographies of the people who made history, a variety of dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and more.
There were always several books on his nightstand. He would read several books at once along with the three daily newspapers he read and the magazines he subscribed to.
Books didn’t have to be read from cover to cover – they were there to be at your fingertips whenever you needed to read or reread the relevant parts. My father was puzzled and dismayed by Wikipedia – he felt that books and encyclopedias must be written the way he wrote the three books that he published – products of painstaking, methodical research conducted by specialists in their field.
My father had his own unique system for unofficial “field research”. He would talk to every taxi driver, waiter, nurse, hospital orderly or falafel seller he ever met, questioning them about where they came from. He would amaze them with his extensive knowledge of towns/cities and regions around the world, whether it was Eastern Europe, Iran or the United States, or his familiarity with Arab clans and Druze history. But he was never trying to show off, my father always wanted to know more about local life, what was that person’s personal perspective of life there in the past and in the present. He found it impossible to understand how a person could go off to a weekend at a B&B on a Kibbutz or a small town abroad and come home unable to report on the number of people who live there and what their sources of income are.
If it so happened that my father had not heard of a place – well, perhaps it was time to get another book!
For a significant part of my childhood, books were our family’s main possession.
Naturally, my father gave books as birthday gifts too. Our sons received Atlases of explorers, books about inventions and Greek mythology for children. I can’t recall how old they were when they got the book about breaking The Enigma code, but the one on how the alphabet evolved tied in nicely with the process of learning to read.
Interestingly enough, the one place my father tried to get people to look beyond books was in his history classes. He always tried to get his students to see that history was not a page in a book but was a “live” thing populated by real people, who influenced history and related events according to their own perspectives.
One beloved strategy of his was to secretly arrange with two (or three) students to suddenly burst out “fighting” (with a bit of theatrical play acting if possible) in the middle of a lesson without any warning. Then he would ask the whole class to describe what they had just witnessed. The students discovered that though they had all witnessed the same event, their accounts of the event varied! This was an eye opener for them and a good introduction to many a lesson.
Guest speakers were commonplace in his college lessons – my father brought in dozens of well-known people who shaped local history. He set up a video-recording project, to document these interviews for future generations, as he was acutely aware of how the window of opportunity for interviewing these people was closing fast. He took his classes on field trips – putting history into a visual context.
On my father’s 86 birthday he didn’t ask for any books nor did he get any.
Although my father took his last breath at the end of August (two months after his birthday), I began mourning months earlier, when Alzheimer had claimed his ability to read. The father I had always known was no longer there.
And now we are left with his library. He “pruned” it several times during his lifetime, there are much fewer books than there ever were before. Nonetheless, we are still dealing with several thousand.
Several thousand – yet I’m devoting a great deal of energy in finding good homes for individual books. Homes where the books would be welcomed. One history teacher at the school where I teach agreed to come – he took about 20 books. I’ve brought a few to other teachers and to the school library. Another teacher at my school likes biographies in English and was pleased with the five books I first brought her. She didn’t want the next 20 I brought, so I donated them to our wonderful “readers-for-readers” corner in our local library. There are lots of English speakers here, I saw that the books disappeared quickly. Other books that were written for the general public, not scholars, are slowly going there as well.
I don’t know if I’ve even donated 100 books yet, it has hardly made a dent on the shelves. Scholarly reference books are harder to donate (not sell, donate!) than one thinks – libraries are concerned with space and so much is now available online.
But I’m not yet ready for drastic measures in clearing out books. Going over the bookshelves, picking out certain books for certain people does something positive for me.
“Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.” by Judy Blume is certainly not a book about a teacher and a teaching career. It’s a young adult book about growing up and figuring out one’s identity.
It depends on how you are reading it.
There are those times at school when I have really long days and I need some quiet time to recharge around noon. At least once or twice a week I drink my tea in the classroom instead of going to the staff room and read books from our tiny class library. It’s an eclectic collection of graded readers and books at wildly different levels, composed of books that were donated or ones I’ve picked up at “free-book-corners” at the municipal library.
Now that I’m working my way through the Blume book (I must have read it when I was about ten years old but that was a long time ago!) I find myself zooming in on a minor character in the book with a running commentary in my head. The character is, of course, the teacher, Mr. Miles J. Benedict, Jr.
“Really, Mrs. Simon, (aka Margaret ‘s Mom), did you have to groan when Margaret said she had a first-year teacher? And claim that there is nothing worse? Couldn’t you have kept that thought to yourself? How about giving the new teacher a chance?”
“How did you manage that impressive feat, Mr. Miles J. Benedict, Jr.? The entire class didn’t write their names on their quizzes, as an attempt to pay you back for changing their seating placements in class after they misbehaved. Not only didn’t you say a single word about it, but each student also got the correct quiz back with his /her name on it! What classroom management technique did you employ here? Was it the fact that you had samples of the students’ handwriting from the first day of class when you asked them about themselves? How did you stay so calm?”
I haven’t finished rereading the book yet. My apologies to Margaret but I do hope there will be more about how the new teacher goes through his journey of coming into his own as a teacher in the remaining chapters. There is something fascinating about “seeing” the process as told through the eyes of a student, not as reported by a teacher.
The only problem is that Blume’s book is a work of fiction. Could a teacher really do that handwriting trick and stay so calm? What do you think?
Peter Hessler’s “River Town – Two years on the Yangtze” is a completely different kind of book. Put aside for a moment the truly fascinating aspects of the book related to history and life in a remote place in China in 1996, this isn’t a “Saturday’s Book Post” review. In this book, not only does the American Peter Hessler write about his experiences teaching English as a foreign language in a small teacher’s college in China, but he also relates what it was like to study Mandarin, in China, from a teacher who spoke no English.
The interplay of language and culture is what makes Hessler’s experiences particularly worth discussing for teachers. Take the issue of praise vs. criticism as an example. How criticism is delivered, how much, how often and how severe it is employed as a tool, is related to culture. Teachers everywhere encounter students bringing different cultures and behaviors from their respective homes into the classrooms. Even if the differences are not as extreme as Hessler describes.
Interestingly enough, Hessler’s book is also a book about a young person trying to establish his identity as a person worthy of respect, especially outside the classroom’s walls. In China, according to the book, the teacher is always respected inside the classroom…
I read for pleasure and to broaden my horizons and most of the books I read have nothing to do with teaching. But I must admit that there’s something fascinating about examining the roles of teachers in books and how they are perceived. I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason for it.
“I led the pigeons to the flag” – do you know how many American first graders, native speakers, solemnly recite that each morning while pledging allegiance to the flag? As William Saffire presents it in 100 Years of The New York Times: On Language :
“The most saluted man in America is Richard Stans. Legions of schoolchildren place their hands over their hearts to pledge allegiance to the flag, “and to the republic for Richard Stans.” With all due patriotic fervor, the same kids salute “one nation, under guard.” Some begin with “I pledge a legion to the flag,” others with “I led the pigeons to the flag.”
Fanselow’s section on Active Listening reminded me of this article, because he focuses on understanding how difficult it is for native speakers to understand / repeat / write correctly words they aren’t familiar with when they hear them. Then he highlights the question: what are learners of English as foreign language actually hearing when we model language? Is it what their teachers expect? Or are they blithely leading pigeons to the flag some of the time?
I’m so glad I read this section of the book too. Obviously, I can’t comment or try the suggested activities as they are not suitable for my classes of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. But Fanselow answers the perennial question that teachers, who have a hard of hearing student in their regular English class often ask:
“Why does my hard of hearing student do so much better in his/her other subjects? When I have a conversation with him/her outside of class the student seems to understand me well! Perhaps the student needs to listen harder?”
You can’t “listen harder”. The hard of hearing student understands you better in his/her native language because he knows the language better.
Fanselow doesn’t mention this in his book but I would like to point out the issue of acoustics. Poor classroom acoustics doesn’t help anyone and is certainly a big problem for a student who doesn’t hear well. Acoustics affect the teachers as well! Here is an extremely short (and teacher friendly!! ) Buncee presentation with some useful tips that could help make your day less tiring and make a significant difference to students: “The Sound of an “English Room”.
It may very well be that “all the world’s a stage” but somehow it seems to me that the stage is actually a classroom. Not only does life give me “private lessons” on a daily basis (with no “opt out” option… ) everything I learn seems to connect to being a teacher and to my own classroom.
The latest case in point is a lecture I recently attended, supposedly having nothing to do with the classroom. As you may have noticed, I’ve become fascinated by genealogy research since I received those letters from pre-war Poland and began my “Who Were You,Dora?” series of posts. It was a panel on historical writing from different perspectives with the famous historian Deborah Lipstadt and the historical-novelist Rachel Kadish, moderated by Ilana Blumberg. It was fascinating and I enjoyed hearing both speakers. I would happily attend a much longer lecture given by each of them!!
Frankly, I hadn’t heard of Rachel Kadish before the talk. I made the effort to go to the lecture after a long day at school, just before national matriculation exams, because I had wanted to hear Professor Lipstadt speak – it was worth it! However, it was actually some of Kadish’s words that have been “dancing” in my head all week.
First of all, Rachel Kadish referred to a quote which I later found online, attributed to E.M. Forster “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
Isn’t that a great answer to the perennial question – “why do I blog?!
I often write comments on education-related blog posts that I read. Only through writing can I clearly work out what is it exactly I agree or disagree with, or which elements will be useful for me in class. That’s why I also reflect, in writing, on handbooks for teachers in my blogging challenges. Finding the right words, or “weighing my words” helps me define my thoughts.
I was so surprised to learn, following the lecture, that Rachel Kadish had a speech impediment when she was a child. It certainly isn’t noticeable today. In an article by Kadish in the New York Times called “Weighing my Words” she explains what words meant to her as a child and ponders the connection between those experiences and her becoming a writer.
As an EFL teacher of Special Ed., examples of real people who manage to turn a problem, which made them miserable as children, into an advantage later on in life are important. It’s particularly helpful to encounter such examples in contexts that are not given in some teachers’ in-service training course.
We teachers need to transfer a great deal of “positive energy” to the students, particularly those who are having a rough time of it. That means our “inspiration banks” must be filled often, from a variety of sources.
And what about the book “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish?
I haven’t read it yet. Planning to get it as an audio-book for my birthday. So a review of that will come later on.
Teaching English as a FOREIGN language to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students