The power of reading

Neeraja Raghavan

In our exploration this month, I invite you to dip into a very moving book that I just finished reading. Titled Reading With Patrick, a teacher, a student and the life-changing power of books, it is a true account of a teacher who visited her former student when he was in prison and read with him – first weekly, then twice a week, and finally, every day.

You may well wonder why such an account falls under this section titled Research in Action, but after you read this inspiring book, your question will be answered.

I finished reading this book feeling deeply moved by the power of a teacher, literature and sheer humaneness. In many ways the book was an eye opener for me as regards the condition of African Americans even in today’s America. In fact, the slowness of court settlements in the Mississippi Delta of Arkansas was so familiar – to one who has hardly ever seen speedy settlement of court cases in India. Some of the racial discrimination that the author describes struck a chord in me, as I could connect these to much that happens in India to this day.

reading-with-patrick Michelle Kuo is an Asian American whose parents migrated from Taiwan to USA. Their aspirations for their daughter are those of any immigrant: that their daughter makes it ‘big’ in this land of opportunity. And their daughter does begin to tread that path as she graduates from Harvard University with a degree in Social Studies and Gender Studies. Michelle describes how the ambience at home was one which pampered anyone who was studying: even if it meant denial of comforts and conveniences to her parents. Nurtured thus, she grows into an aspirant for Law School, but first becomes a Teach For America Volunteer and teaches for two years in ‘a tough school’ (an alternative school) in a small town called Helena in the Mississippi Delta.

I found many elements in this school that reminded me of any one of our schools for the underprivileged. Michelle’s primary challenges were to get the children to attend school regularly: a challenge that she confronted head on, by visiting the homes of children who were irregular. I chuckled with amusement when she described a ‘permanent substitute History teacher’ (the school had not yet found a replacement for the History teacher who had quit more than a year ago) who used his time in school to play Minesweeper.

What took me by complete surprise was the utter lack of awareness amongst these families about historical events that had deeply impacted their own race: African Americans. For instance, when Michelle showed the class a picture of white Americans walking with coloured Americans and Martin Luther King, one of the boys declared that this was a ‘photo-shopped’ picture, as there was no way that whites and blacks could walk together. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement were not in these children’s field of awareness! And this is a true account of less than a decade ago.

Slowly, Michelle brings into her classes the habit of reading and delving into American history, poetry and prose. As the boys and girls begin to read, they slowly learn to write. One of her students, Patrick Browning, catches her attention for several reasons. “Patrick never teased people, never bothered them – not about their appearance, not about who their family was, not if they struggled with reading.” When Patrick begins to write, he does so very slowly, with his left hand. His paper is full of words that he crosses out, from ‘mind’ he changes it to ‘blank mind’…his teacher observes how each word presents a difficulty for him. At the end of his painstaking effort, he brings to her a poem that leaves her dumbstruck. It was his first effort and ‘was, in some fundamental way, a real poem’. After he turns it in, Patrick stretches his neck, making a loud crack – and it is then that Michelle realises what hard work writing can actually be! “Physically, it changed you. You forgot to breathe. Your hand hurt. Your shoulders were sore. But it carried emotional challenges, as well. You risked a lot when you decided to write. You took off a mask.”

That her students begin to take such risks as her association with them unfolds is a tribute to this teacher’s methods and intent. She begins a practice called ‘free write’ which, she says is writing on anything for seven minutes, with the assurance that the piece of writing will not be graded or even corrected. The students are free to choose whether or not they wish to share that writing with their teacher. At first, students are full of disbelief that such a thing can even happen. “You’re supposed to teach us,” one of them declares. But once they get convinced of it, “every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy, deep sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.” This exercise works well with students like Patrick, who bends his head immediately and begins to write, crumpling a draft every now and then and putting that into his pocket. Best of all, “when the seven minutes were up, they always asked for more time.”

The heart of the memoir begins after Michelle completes two years in this school and then moves on to join Law School, where she pursues Law. Her description of the years in Law School is perceptive as it is vivid: the sudden experience of having and spending large amounts of money, as compared to her years in the Delta, is just one of her new experiences. Having secured a position thereafter in California, she is in her final semester at Law School and soon to begin her new job, when, three years after leaving the Delta, she receives the devastating news that Patrick Browning has been arrested for murder.

The author is Founder Director of Thinking Teacher (www.thinkingteacher.in), an organization that networks with teachers across the country. Thinking Teacher aims to awaken and nurture the reflective practitioner within each teacher. By taking (action) research out of the classroom, Thinking Teacher develops the (action) researcher in the teacher. And then, by bringing research into the classroom – as in this series – Thinking Teacher’s goal is to help build deep inquiry and rich learning into the teaching process. The author can be reached at neeraja@thinkingteacher.in.

This is an article for subscribers only. You may request the complete article by writing to us at editorial@teacherplus.org.

What are your beliefs as a teacher?:

Teachers’ responses

A teacher, if she does her job well, can be the guiding light and inspiration to not just a few but to all whom she comes across. If she takes on the challenge, she can inspire not just students to reach unfathomable heights, but also parents who can be an inspiration for a better society and better human conduct. In a nutshell, a teacher can be the change agent of a society.

During the 37 years of a rich career, I have stood by a fundamental principle of the relationship between a child and a teacher and that is to develop a bond of trust and faith, which opens doors for effortless learning, interaction and love between the learner and the mentor. In today’s age and time, this is supported and accelerated by millions of teaching aids and technology which didn’t exist before. While this makes a child’s life richer in experiences and gives us a canvas to provide him with greater learning, it also requires careful monitoring, parental discern and prudent application in a child’s life. Grammar and vocabulary lessons can be replaced by songs and education series on a tablet without forgetting that parenting, teaching, mentoring is still equally relevant. My lesson to parents today will be – do not forget the three precious words – “under parental guidance”. Give your child a fuller, bigger, better view to this world of learning, more than what it was in the past, but with the care and love which is eternal and unalterable.

Saroj Bhasin
Former Headmistress and PRT-Science
Bal Bharti Public School

As a teacher, I found it really challenging to pen down my teaching philosophy. But the challenge was worth it.

Yes, our usual route of planning a lesson, implementing it and then assessing students was something that I felt was definitely the best approach towards the teaching-learning process. But going on with the reverse process demands a thorough revision of one’s perception of the instructional strategies.

Thinking over again and again and to be honest, I must confess, I went through the article at least 3-4 times to absorb it and develop my comprehension for a new way of designing instructional strategies. Yet, I would say that penning down my teaching philosophy, identifying the core ideas of what is to be taught, listing out the main concepts within the core ideas and then designing my assessment method needed exercising all the faculties of my brain and I felt confident that this way I will be able to really develop my students into thinking individuals rather than letting them grow up into dogmatic beings.

Smita Sharma
Principal, SGJ DAV Sen. Sec. Public School, Haripura

My teaching philosophy: Self discovery and learning through enquiry, observation, analysis and cross analysis of information based on one’s own beliefs and opinions. Students should be confident, articulate and be able to convey their ideas and beliefs. Students should be able to read, understand, analyze and comment on text of different genres and complexity.

Identify and interpret various literary and poetic devices. Coherently present ideas and use language to interest and convince readers of one’s understanding and perspectives. Be able to write for various purposes ranging from creative to formal writing. Apply various grammatical concepts with appropriate usage while writing.

General organization chart

Individual work 55%
Small group work 20%
Whole group work 25%

General-organization-chart

Learning Environment Chart

Teacher presentation 50%
Class discussion 25%
Group work 10%
Individual work 15%

Learning-Environment-Chart

The teaching and learning environment in my classroom is more teacher-driven than student-driven which I would say is not exactly ideal as a student-driven learning environment would be more desirable.

I can make the environment better by assigning more group work and whole class discussions and assignments to encourage student-driven learning.

Michael Moses
Kalimpong