Category Archives: teaching

A Little Love Goes a Long Way: How Mr. Rogers Shaped My Teaching Philosophy

“Love is at the root of all learning.” These are the words that resonated most poignantly with me after finally seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Fred Rogers. As a part of the generation of children who grew up in his neighborhood, I came away from the film feeling like I’d just spent nearly two hours hugging my long-lost grandfather. I’m not setting out to offer anything like a balanced review of the documentary, as much as the academic portion of my brain is itching to analyze the rhetorical devices the narrative employed. What I can say is that this is not a film for skeptics; the target audience is clearly those who spent their mornings or afternoons in the “neighborhood.” It’s a film that, whatever else it does, activates the nostalgic nerve endings of childhood memory.

Beyond that, though, the film was, at least for me, an invitation to reflect on Mr. Rogers’s legacy and a call to those of us who’ve now taken places as adults in our own neighborhoods to live out that legacy. As I listened to the story of his life, I realized in one of those rare Road-to-Damascus epiphanies that Mr. Rogers’s assertion that “love is at the root of all learning” encapsulates my philosophy as a teacher. If you are a teacher, whether you teach children or adults, your first goal is to motivate, because motivation is the momentum that fuels learning. Students must want to learn, and in my experience, the key ingredient is encouraging them to believe that they can learn; learning might not come easily, but it can come. When I encourage my students to learn, to keep trying, to revise mistakes in their writing, or to revisit passages in a text they’ve been grappling with, I’m telling them that I believe in their capacity to learn, and more than that, I believe in their capacity to succeed. I believe in who they are and what they can accomplish in this world, and for that faith to be authentic, it needs to come from a place of love.

Mr. Rogers teaches us that we need to learn to expect and accept mistakes, because mistakes are a part of how we learn. Guiding a student through a path of mistakes to understanding requires patience; what is patience if not a form of kindness, and what is kindness if not a form of love? Of course, we teach by example; if we want to teach others to cultivate self-confidence, we must demonstrate that in ourselves. Growing up as the only student with a disability in a very small elementary school, I spent much of my childhood struggling to find my place in a world where I never seemed to fit. Classmates jeered at me to get out of the way when I had to stand inches from the blackboard to decipher the day’s instructions or laughed at me if I was a page behind the rest of the class when we read aloud. One of my first and most vivid memories of school involved being held down on the playground while boys shoved leaves in my hair. Sometimes I’d sit on the curb during recess and wonder, if God had made me as I was, why were others so unkind? When I’d hear Daniel the Tiger singing “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake,” he articulated my own confusion; why did God make me as he did if he knew the struggles I’d have to face? Then, after school, or on days when I was home sick, I’d sit in front of the TV, just close enough to see Mr. Rogers looking out of the camera, directly at me as he sang, “I like you as you are, exactly and precisely.” Mr. Rogers didn’t know my name; he didn’t know where I lived or went to school, and yet he looked into my heart and told me precisely what I needed to hear.

Most often when I think of Mr. Rogers, a single, vivid memory comes to mind. In this memory, I’m no older than 4 or 5, curled up on the sofa beneath a pile of blankets, home sick from preschool and watching PBS. Mr. Rogers appears on the screen, singing “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and I smile, tummy ache, aching throat, or whatever childhood ailment I’m suffering now forgotten.
“Okay,” I reply, directing my words to the TV. “I’ll be your neighbor. Just let me get a little closer.” I climb down from the sofa and cross the room, tangle of blankets and all, until I’m close enough to the TV screen that I can place the palm of my hand against the glass as if I could touch his face.

At that age, I almost invariably had to sit within a foot or two of the TV screen to see clearly, but this was more than the mere pull of a childish curiosity to see; this was a desire for physical closeness. I believed, perhaps, in my 4 year-old mind, that if I got close enough, I could throw my arms around Mr. Rogers in a hug and feel the fabric of his sweater tickling my cheek. In a blurry and confusing world, I’d found a space where I felt safe to grow—a place where I felt cherished, and this yearning for contact felt no less natural than cuddling up to my father or my grandfather.

Now, roughly 30 years later, I find myself striving to cultivate that trust when I stand in front of a class. I know that when students enter my classroom, their bookbags aren’t the only baggage they carry. Those burdens, whether caring for family members or juggling multiple jobs, can sometimes make the task of writing a 3-page paper or reading a textbook chapter seem insurmountable, and a little love and encouragement can go a long way toward lightening the shadow cast by such obstacles. I’ll try to chat with individual students before class, and always, regardless of what’s on the day’s agenda, I spend the first few minutes of every period asking everyone how they’re doing. More importantly, I conclude each lesson by wishing them well for the rest of the day and reminding them that my office door is always open. This is not just a formality; it’s an invitation. It’s a way of letting them know that they always have someone to turn to, and I know when I extend this invitation that on any given day, there might be a student for whom this gesture of kindness, however small, is the only one they’ll receive. Of course, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Mr. Rogers alone taught me this; I was blessed with many teachers who exemplified the link between love and learning. I like to think, though, that perhaps just a little, I’m helping keep Mr. Rogers’s legacy alive—just, as he might put it himself, by being me.

A Teacher’s Breakup Letter to Summer

Dear Summer,
It pains me to tell you this, but we’re through. Finished, like the bottle of sunscreen I just tossed into the trash.
“but why?” you’ll ask. “We always have so much fun together.” You’re right; we do, but I can’t take this anymore—can’t take your fair-weather flirtations, here today, gone tomorrow. You do this to me every year, and every year I swear I’m not going to fall for your warmth and charm, but your warmth and charm are like Hugh Grant’s smiles; they get me into trouble every time.

You stroll into my life with your flip-flops and your trendy sunglasses, smelling of sea-spray and sand, and I hear the ocean lapping against the shore when you whisper promises of endless devotion; the world is ours. Time is ours. No one and nothing can come between us—just you and me, together.

Picture of cocktails and ice drinks (image credit Stokpic)
Wasting away in Margaritaville

Remember? Remember the heat? The passion? Remember when you said it would never end? I thought you meant it; I believed you when you said it. I thought I was the only girl you said that too, forgetting that when you pick up and head off around the world, you probably feed the same lies to the Southern Hemisphere. Don’t believe it, Southern Hemisphere! It’s all a lie! Summer is the relationship commitment-phobe of seasons! It’s all fun for a while, but just when it’s getting serious, just when you start to say that you could get used to this, you’re alone, with nothing left of your time together but sand in your socks and an unfinished Netflix queue that you’ll never watch, because you just can’t face it alone.

I trusted you, Summer. I let you into my life and into my heart; I tried on swimsuits for you! Think about that! The horror of communal changing rooms, molding, massaging, and mashing myself into a slip of fabric that displays everything except my dignity (because I no longer have any) just to look good for you.

First, there was the bliss of having you near and knowing that I could have my way with you, because the best part of being with you was that I made the rules; whatever I wanted to do, wherever I wanted to go, you just smiled and said, “I’m yours, baby.” So we slept in and cuddled up in bed in the mornings with a cup of coffee and a favorite book, because we had nowhere to be—no appointments, no classes to teach, no papers to grade, just an endless canvass of time to fill with our dreams. We visited friends, talked late into the night, drank wine, and ate more ice-cream than my mild lactose intolerance permitted, but that’s the other thing about you; you convince me to live dangerously.

Sometimes we’d look at the clock after an evening of binge-watching Netflix, realize it was 3:00 in the morning, and I’d suggest calling it a night, but you’d pull me down onto the sofa and whisper seductively in my ear, “Just one more episode. Don’t you want to find out if Kimmy’s boyfriend will be deported? I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. Live in the moment.”

Remember when I’d wake up at 4:00 in the morning to the sound of rain pounding against my window? Remember how you’d let me snuggle back down beneath the covers and murmur as I drifted back to sleep that it was okay, because I didn’t have to get up in an hour to commute to work in that wet mess? Remember that, Summer? Remember those mornings when you’d wake me with a smile made of sunshine, pull back the covers, and ask me how I wanted to spend the day? I always loved that about you, how you were totally cool with me taking control of the relationship…at least in the beginning.

But now you’ve started to pull away. When I wanted to stay up late the other night to finish reading my book, you reminded me that I need to start easing my body clock back onto “school time.” When I wanted to spend a rainy weekend watching TV and playing word games on my iPhone, you said I should probably start using my time more productively to work on my syllabus. When I wanted to sleep in, you dragged me out of bed so that I could run errands on campus.

Okay, Summer, I can take a hint. You don’t want me anymore. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that in a relationship, but when you say it, it hurts so much more, because you always come crawling back, and every time, you promise me that this time will be different. This time, you won’t leave. This time, we’ll be together forever, and every time, like a fool, I fall for it. Well, I’ve got news for you. I’m done falling for it. I’m telling you to leave now, before you have the chance to quietly pack up your things and slip away suddenly, because it always feels so sudden. I brace myself for it every time; you’ve left me before, and I know you’re going to do it again, but I always allow myself to forget—to just bask in your presence, because if you’ve taught me one valuable lesson, it’s the importance of living in the moment and savoring life’s little pleasures.

So, I thank you for that, Summer, but it’s time for you to go…until you show up next time and remind me how much fun we had last year, and I fall for you all over again.

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.


Who are your favorite storytellers?

for the Love of Lists: Freewriting my Favorite Things

In my wanderings across the Internet on the many writing blogs I follow, I recently stumbled across Things We Like via Cheri Lucas Rowland’s blog. the site publishes contributions of–what do you know–things we like. Deciding that everyone needs a fun freewriting exercise now and then, I submitted my list, which the site published last week.

I subsequently noticed that on Rowland’s blog, she later expanded her list to a beautiful, care-free, open-the-floodgates exercise, and the English teacher in me melted. These exercises lend themselves well to honing the writing craft because they challenge us to sit back, drink in our surroundings, and capture them in solid, concrete terms. Never one to miss an opportunity to experiment with an exercise that might serve as a useful tool for teaching concrete language to my students, I thought I’d let loose the writing fairies and have a go at expanding my own list. I share the results here in the hope that they might serve you a little slice of joy and inspiration.

Things I Like

• Dancing barefoot in my kitchen to The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”
• The way flecks of sunlight bouncing off the surface of the ocean look like dancing fairies
• Feeling like I’ve swallowed a drop of warm butterscotch every time I hear Colin Firth laugh

Image: Colin Firth
You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love your smile, Mr. Firth (photo credit Henny Garfunkel)

• When my dog wags his tail at passing squirrels
• French toast for dinner
• Opening the windows to the sunshine on Saturday mornings
• Sparkly eyeshadow
• The first pumpkin spice latte of fall
• Snoopy Halloween cards
• Falling helplessly, tragically in love with Frank Churchill every time I read Jane Austen’s Emma
• The way my nose twitches when I Walk past the Christmas tree tent in front of the grocery store during the holiday season
• The eggplant icon in the emoji keyboard on my phone; it’s so completely arbitrary, and I’ve been looking for the perfect conversational context in which I can legitimately use it
• The “Blue Soup” scene in “Bridget Jones’s Diary”
• The way matthew Rhys looks like Mr. Darcy even when he isn’t trying to look like Mr. Darcy. Exhibit A:
Image: Matthew Rhys
Brooding, Byronic hero is the new sexy. (photo credit ABC Corporation)

• The way the fresh cut rose fragrance from Yankee Candle turns my apartment into an English cottage
• Long text-message conversations with friends analyzing the precise shade of Jonny Lee Miller’s eyes
• Binge-rereading the Harry Potter series every summer
• Taking the first bite of those enormous chocolate peanut butter cups you can buy at Cracker Barrel
• Pretending I’m Bridget Jones every time I eat a chocolate croissant
• The perfectly blended margarita
• Feeling that all is right with the world when I have peanut butter in the pantry
• nicknaming ex-boyfriends after unlikable characters in nineteenth-century novels
• The satisfying crunch of pickles in my tuna sandwich
• The delicious decadence of waking up in a hotel room and lying in bed till noon
• The hum of lawnmowers on Saturday afternoons
• The sexy, sophisticated click of high-heels on hardwood floors
• Licking the foam off the top of my cappuccino
• The bird in the tree outside my window that always sounds like he’s laughing at a private joke
• Ordering extra butter on my popcorn at the movie theater
• Feverishly typing on my laptop in an airport lounge and pretending people fancy I’m an important journalist rushing to make deadline
• White bunny rabbits with pink noses
• Putting on a sweatshirt straight from the dryer
• Dresses that create an optical illusion that my breasts are bigger while simultaneously shrinking my waist
• Realizing that last summer’s swimsuit still fits
• Laughing so hard my stomach muscles hurt
• Obnoxiously correcting people’s grammar on Twitter
• The way the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” theme song makes me think for 15 seconds that all of my problems are nonexistent
• Vanilla ice-cream melting into a warm brownie

In Defense of English: or, the Day I Sherlocked the Internet

When you teach English, you learn a great deal about the colorful palette of poetic language people resort to when expressing their ideas. In the seven-and-a-half years since I began teaching, I’ve learned, for instance, that Martin Luther King Jr. preached passive-aggressive resistance, that he and Malcolm X were assignated, that nuns live in a covenant, and that our continual depletion of the Earth’s resources is part of a viscus cycle of human destruction.

I’ve written in the past about the fact that these errors result from human laziness due to the reliance on spell-checker, autocorrect, and predictive text. All of the above words (with the exception of assignated) are Standard English words, so a spell-checker won’t register their incorrect usage within the context of a sentence in which they clearly don’t belong. The Urban Dictionary, however, does define assignate as follows: “To take off someone’s $3000 designer glasses, wipe your butt with them, and put them back on their face.” Ya know, because you were wondering. You’re welcome.

Over at You Knew What I Meant, a fellow English teacher posits that students might also be mishearing certain words, an opinion that, if more willing to give students the benefit of the doubt, is nonetheless entirely plausible. (If you call yourself a grammar geek, and you aren’t following this blog, why aren’t you? But I digress.) I know I’ve certainly misheard expressions over the years, and had I not bothered to check the spelling and pronunciation, I might never have been any the wiser. In the popular Christmas carol, “Here we Come a’Wassailing,” for instance, I could have sworn as a child that the lyric actually went “Here we come a’Waffling.” Wassailing. Waffling. Perfectly understandable. Sort of mistake anyone might make.

I don’t offer the above examples of carelessness as anecdotal evidence of my own self-righteous adherence to perfect grammar. On the contrary, just this past week, a friend of mine was kind enough to point out several hilariously ridiculous errors in my own work that, because we both recognized how an incorrect homonym can completely change the meaning of a sentence, proved both a lesson in proofreading and an entertaining diversion in my day. We’ve affectionately termed our typo-spotting game “Sherlocking,” after a scene in the BBC television series “Sherlock,” when the great detective takes the time to correct a criminal’s grammar before sending him to the gallows.

You are all charity and benevolence, Mr. Holmes.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my Friday morning was off to a snickering start when I read the following Tweet from the BBC:

While the actual article headline assured readers that Lee wasn’t “pressured” into releasing her second novel, the damage had already been done. Merriam-Webster defines pressurize as “to press (something) tightly into a container.” No one can ever erase the images my mind conjured of Lee being forced into an enormous pressure cooker. In my score-keeping, this ties for first place with the time that Kristen Stewart told a reporter that she’d “literally implode” if she couldn’t act. OK, now, I know that Bella Swan tends toward the melodramatic, but I find it hard to believe that not having one’s dream job would result in collapsing inward in a very sudden and violent way.

Last Sunday, I dared to Sherlock the writers of “The Big Bang Theory” on a post written in honor of International Women’s Day, discussing what makes the main female characters such amazing role models. I tried to restrain myself. Truly. You must know this. I did everything I could to keep my hands otherwise occupied. I played fetch with my dog. I ate a cookie. I sat on my thumbs until they lost all sensation. Nothing helped. I just had to point out that, given the subject matter of the article, describing Bernadette as “the dependent character who has her life in line” doesn’t quite carry the intended meaning. Did they mean independent? Dependable? Either possibility would make far more sense in the context of the sentence. The writers of the show have since expressed their undying gratitude to me with a pair of tickets to the next taping. Bazinga! No one ever actually responded to my tweet. I don’t expect to be thanked for doing my duty as I see fit, but I ask you, in my position, what would Sheldon Cooper have done?


If you spot any errors in this post, I give you leave to shamelessly Sherlock me. It is your duty as a devoted reader.