Back to school: Part One

Posted 10.15.07

I seldom write a two-part column, but I'm making an exception this fall because I want to share some memories from my years as a teacher.

I've recently returned from Chicago where I attended the fortieth reunion of my first - and favorite - class at The Latin School of Chicago. A prestigious private school with an enviable student/teacher ratio, the small faculty all had degrees from top universities.

Specialists in our own fields, none of us had gone to teachers' college. The school trustees, all parents, wanted us to develop our own teaching methods instead of adhering to rigid lesson plans.

Already a published writer, I was hired to develop a new curriculum for grades seven and eight. The Upper School ranged from grades 7-12, and since our seniors were passing advanced placement tests allowing them to bypass college freshman English, the goal was to move all the course material down two levels.

My task was to ensure that all the grade seven students could express themselves in clear and correct English by the end of the year, as well as to introduce them to Shakespeare. In grade eight, they'd further develop their writing skills, read another play by Shakespeare, and be introduced to different genres of writing: poetry, essay, drama, short story, and novel.

I was delirious with joy. Shakespeare has always been my first love. Furthermore, I had a free hand to select my favorite books for them to study.

The first thing I learned about education is that the best teaching happens when teachers are enthusiastic about the material. That can't happen if English teachers are forced to teach classics they hated when they were student ("Silas Marner" comes to mind.), or when Phys. Ed. teachers are assigned to teach English.

I also learned that delivery and presentation make the difference between eager students and apathetic ones.

The first week of school, I made a bet with both the grade seven and grade eight classes. "If you can honestly say you don't like Shakespeare by the end of the school year, I'll take you out for a banana split."

I'm proud to say that after teaching at The Latin School for six years, I never had to pay off on that bet.

The kids were your usual assortment of 12-14-year-olds. They may have come from wealthy families, but they had the same quirks and problems of all adolescents.

John, for example, was the quintessential "naughty boy." He and Bob had to be separated to keep them from whispering, poking, and jabbing each other. John talked non-stop, and I don't remember a single day when I didn't catch him chewing gum.

But I loved this little boy, and he loved me. On closing day of grade eight, he presented me with a gift: a crudely made wooden spice rack he'd created in shop class.

It still hangs in my kitchen.

John went on to law school, became a Public Defender in Chicago, then left law to take over his father's company.

He kept in touch with me, and is organizing class activities surrounding the reunion of the Class of 67.

Next time I'll tell you more about this class, and tell you how I handled the difficult problem of plagiarism.


Barbara Floria Graham is the author of the 20th anniversary edition of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2007 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/10.07