March 14, 2006
In an effort to thoroughly reevaluate my teaching practices and do research for a paper I’m writing, I’m presently reading Donald L. Finkel’s ’’Teaching with Your Mouth Shut’’. In the first chapter, he gives his readers a writing assignment:
|“||Thinking back over your whole life, what are the two or three most significant learning experiences you ever had? That is, list the moments (or events) in which you discovered something of lasting significance to your life.||”|
I know this question is not necessarily asking about traditional educational experiences, like ones we have in school. However, I can’t help but applying it to those questions. I can think of three.
The first is from Kathryn Farmer when I was in seventh grade. She used to pass out, every Friday, these wonderful white books called The Adventures of Ulysses, probably something like Charles Lamb’s book. She would read as the class followed along in their books. I remember being fascinated by tales of the Cyclops’ cave and gruesome eating habits, of Circe and her spells that turned men into pigs, and of Penelope and her dilemma with the suitors. She could read the section of Ulysses stringing his bow a hundred times, and I would still be on the edge of my seat. I’m not sure if she had any particular lessons in mind by reading to us, but I began to foster a love of reading, especially Homer and Edith Hamilton’s retellings of the Greek myths. I remember going to the library, checking out the Iliad, and reading the whole thing. I’m sure it was a simplified version appropriate for a middle school’s library, but the kernel of an appreciation for the richness of western literary culture began with Mrs. Farmer and her obvious love of Homer.
Another one—I thought about this during my long lunch—perhaps not quite as profound intellectually as Mrs. Farmer’s, came when I had to learn to drive a car with manual transmission. I remember learning the facts about clutches and stick shifts from my friend Jeff Clay, but the application of those facts was left entirely to me when Dad threw me the keys one Sunday afternoon and sent me to Wendy’s for some hamburgers using his little red Italian sports car. I can definitely say that this lesson—with all of its shudders, stalls, and false starts—made a lasting significance to my life. My body has never forgotten how to drive a stick.
Finally, I learned with the help of one of my favorite professors at USF, Robert Hall, the distinction between a rational understanding of death versus an existential understanding of it. This lesson, taught through a Continental Modernism course and all of its concomitant miserable-isms plateaued at Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyitch. Perhaps this was an intellectual lesson coupled with the serendipity of a diseased appendix, but it’s one that has been with me ever since, like a literal marking on my abdomen the passage from childhood to experience.
The Follow-Up Questions
Finkel asks that the reader write the experiences before continuing. Then, he asks the following questions.
1. Did it take place in a classroom?
The first began in a classroom; the last ended in a classroom. The second certainly did not.
2. Did it take place in a school?
Most of the first did. Some of the third did as well. Again, negative on the second.
3. Was a professional teacher instrumental in making the learning experience happen?
Again, with the first I would have to say yes. The third would be a no, really. No for the second.
4. Was a teacher-like figure (e.g. a coach, minister, school counsellor, theater director) instrumental in making the learning experience happen?
For the first: affirmative. For the second, no. For the third: would an author count? I’ll say maybe.
5. If the answer to 3 or 4 is “yes,” then what did the teacher (or other person) actually do to help you learn?
For the first—that’s easy: she read to me enthusiastically. I learned about Odysseus, and I learned a love for literature. For the third, a professor helped me put my experience into perspective, by helping me put angst into words. By giving my confusion and suffering a name, I was able to handle it better and learn from it. The lesson here, perhaps, is about the only universal trait that humans face: death. Literature helps us to cope—to empathize.
- Finkel, Donald L. (2000). Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. p. 6.