Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Teaching, Filmmaking and Lime Jell-O


Ms. M asked me some time ago to contribute to her blog, and though I am not a teacher, I'm giving it a shot. For inspiration, I paged through some of my old elementary school yearbooks from the mid-1970s. (Or “classbooks,” as they were officially called, probably to distinguish them from bigger, fancier high school yearbooks.)

I got to thinking: What makes a great elementary school teacher?

As I've often mentioned on my own blog, I went to a public school in rural Florida, in an area that was fast changing from cow pastures and orange groves into suburbia. I was surrounded by a mixture of kids, from those whose parents worked in the groves and on the ranches to those whose parents commuted into Tampa. The demographics created some interesting cultural clashes, but that’s another story.

I may not remember the entire periodic table of the elements, or how to do long division, but I do remember all my teachers. I suppose most of us do. It’s amazing how readily a child’s brain absorbs and retains some information. (I suppose this is why I can still remember the plot of every episode of “Gilligan’s Island.”)

There was Mrs. Courbat, in the fifth grade, an older Southern lady who contributed very '50s recipes like Miracle Whip Chocolate Cake and Lime Jell-O Salad to our class cookbook. I suppose they would be fashionably retro at a party now. Or maybe not.

There was Mrs. Young, my second grade teacher, who I smacked on the behind one day as she walked past my desk. She hauled me out of my seat and smacked me right back. I suppose that response wouldn’t fly these days, but I deserved it.

There was Mrs. Simmons, our music teacher, who had us all sing “Free to Be, You and Me” and “On Top of the World.” Coach Johnson was my nemesis, because I hated sports, and he used to yell at me for daydreaming in the outfield.

But the teachers who stand out the most in my mind are those who seemed to really see me. They understood who I was and what distinguished me from the kids at the other desks.

My first grade teacher was Mrs. Westphal. At the time, I was fascinated by rocks. I had a burgeoning rock collection, mostly chunks of sparkly pink and gray granite retrieved from the local railroad track bed. Mrs. Westphal occasionally went to rock shows – I think someone in her family was a collector – and she would often buy an inexpensive rock or two and bring it to me. A quartz crystal, maybe, or a piece of flaky mica. I always appreciated the fact that she noticed my hobby, and saw me as special enough to give me a gift.

My third grade teacher was Mrs. Pope. She was always a favorite, mostly because she was a nurturer. This was around the time my parents got divorced, and while I don’t have specific memories of Mrs. Pope’s class, I think she provided warmth and stability at a time when I felt neither. It’s not that we ever spoke at length about the divorce – but she did spend time with me, and again, seemed to really see me, not just as another kid but as an individual.

Finally, there was Mrs. Eisenstein. At this particular school, students who were recognized by teachers for their academic abilities, and then managed not to embarrass themselves on an IQ test, could be deemed “gifted” and sent to a special class. In fact, that’s what we called it – Special Class. Mrs. Eisenstein taught Special Class.

She was a favorite because she really, really challenged us. And it wasn’t the kind of challenge that makes you roll your eyes and blow the dust off the cover of some thick, cumbersome research book. It was the kind of challenge that makes you come alive.

We made a movie in her class with a hand-held Super 8 camera. We wrote a script, fashioned costumes out of old, cast-off clothing and hammed it up during filming. I remember the story involved a ghost who flashed in and out of scenes – an effect we achieved by stopping the camera, having the “ghost” actor step out of the scene while everyone else froze, and then starting again. When we watched the finished product we laughed uproariously. It was a terrific project that taught me lasting lessons about cooperation and filmmaking, but we wouldn’t have won an Oscar.

We also studied mythology in Mrs. Eisenstein’s class. She made it come to life – a fascinating world of centaurs and minotaurs and gods and goddesses. Pretty amazing stuff for a third- or fourth-grader.

My point here is that it doesn’t take much to be a truly life-changing teacher. Giving kids a novel experience, sparking their imaginations and seeing them for the individuals they are makes a huge difference. I am indebted to all my teachers – even Coach Johnson, I suppose, though I hate to admit it.

(Photo: Me, in the fourth grade. I don't know why Gary, a classmate, wrote next to my picture that I had a bad temper. Fourth-grade sarcasm?)

12 comments:

  1. Steve thank you so much for guest posting! I love reading your story. I'm off to catch up on your blog now.

    M

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  2. I enjoyed this post!! One time I asked my son and his friends who their favorite teacher was and they all picked the same one. I asked why and they said, "He let's us drink pop in his class." It doesn't take much to impress a bunch of 7t graders!!
    Connie
    welcometofirstgraderoom5.blogspot.com

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    1. That pop will get them every time.

      Ms. M

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  3. It's funny the things we remember. In first grade, Mrs. Maxwell let me lead one of the reading circles (I got to sit on her cool rolling stool) - so she was a GREAT teacher. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Rudisill cut off my explanation of why I hadn't been able to pick up my new glasses that day - so she was a BAD teacher. In reality? They were probably both really good teachers, but I'll never remember them that way.

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    1. It's amazing what events leave a lasting image with us.

      Ms. M

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  4. I loved reading Steve's reminisces! And I am glad that he remembers his first grade teacher. I used to wonder if my students would remember first grade. I don't really remember much about my own experiences so it's great to know some memories hold strong. I wonder what my students will remember of my time with them.

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    1. You know I on occasion wonder this too. Actually I often wonder how old my first, first grade class is now and what of what I taught them they remember and use.

      Ms. M

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  5. Officially became your latest follower using Google friend (even though I have been following you using Reader).
    Come and check out my Dr. Jean giveaway!
    My Second Sense

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  6. Melanie here! I absolutely loved this piece, please email me--I have a question about your blog :) MelanieLBowen[at]gmail[dot]com

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    1. Will do later tonight Melanie.
      M

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