Memorable Teachers, Memorable Teaching

I can still sing the lyrics to a song written to the tune of the Notre Dame Victory March by my third grade teacher, Barbara Goldberg, for a class play entitled “Paul in Foodland,” built around our science curriculum on food and health: “March, march to the salad bowl/Join with the ranks of the salad patrol/Pour on dressing if you choose/You’re on the right side/You can’t lose…” Now, I became a professional singer/actor as a teenager and continue to perform today, so song lyrics tend to implant in my brain–but since third grade was a few decades ago, I’m going to give a lot of credit here to Mrs. Goldberg.

I can also clearly recall a lesson delivered by my ninth grade social studies teacher, Lew Shaten, who began our exploration of world history with an activity he called “Country X.”  We were provided with a list of political, economic and social facts about an unnamed country, and had to guess how it would interact with its world neighbors.  The payoff came when we learned that Country X was actually pre-World War I Germany and compared our adolescent predictions with the facts of history.

I still thank my eleventh grade math teacher, Jim Rubillo, for cheerfully insisting day after day that instead of memorizing pre-calculus formulas, we commit to memory instead the principles that guided the derivation of the formulas.  “If you understand how and why the forumla applies,” he would say, “you’ll always be able to solve the problem.”  Believing that I lacked an intuitive understanding of math, I was thrilled to discover that there were multiple ways of tackling a problem.

And my twelfth grade English teacher, Marie Hildebrand Bintner, continues to watch over the shoulder of this professional writer on a daily basis:  “This is wonderful, Barbara…but is that the best way you can say it?  What do you really mean?  When you’re comparing two ideas, keep the comparison close–hip to haunch!” she would say with a wink and a smile.

What did all of these teachers have in common?  In one way or another, each personally engaged and challenged my classmates and me.  They provided information, but asked us to step up and actively contribute to the discussion.  And they consistently let us know that they had confidence our contributions would be of value.

My children had similar experiences with the best of their teachers when they were engaged, challenged and inspired with self-confidence.  What skills and strategies must a teacher have at his or her disposal to provide such memorable and effective learning experiences?  What are your most memorable classroom experiences as a student or as a teacher?  In future posts, I’d like to tease out the specifics and explore how these translate into meaningful, practical approaches to learning that all educators can use.

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