Tag 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.

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