“Congratulations for reding with me” or What does it mean to teach?

October 8, 2009


For four years, I attended college, but I also went to school. Two (sometimes three) days a week,  I woke up at eight, trooped to the Avery Café for eggs-and-cheddar on a bagel, and carried my coffee through Morningside Park to my job as an assistant teacher at PS X. For four years, I played with letter-sound puzzles and addition card games, listened as my students struggled to sound out words and add dialogue to their stories. I corrected homework and filed endless (usually useless, legally mandated) assessments. Faced with a weekly onslaught of childhood disease germs, my immune system became the stuff of legend. I was even, briefly, the math fairy (but that’s another story.)

At the end of each year, my students wrote me thank you notes. I would like to think that these cards were a spontaneous expression of gratitude for all those graded homework packets. But although my Irish ‘fro has never been so lovingly rendered in magic marker, I know that the notes were the product of a carefully orchestrated Teachable Moment. The class probably sat in a circle on the carpet as the (always fabulous) Mrs. S explained that Miss. Hulse had just graduated from college and was about to move away. Perhaps my students searched for Guatemala on the map, and then sounded it out, syllable by syllable. At the end of the lesson, Mrs. S wrote a model on the white board, which I imagine went something like this:

“Dear Miss. Hulse,

Thank you for reading and writing with me. Congratulations on graduating from college. Have fun in Guatemala!

Love, Second Grader”

M used the new vocabulary words written on the board, but he didn’t use them quite correctly. On the cover of his construction paper card, he wrote “Congratulations for reding with me.”

The teacher in me groaned, realizing that many rounds of “ea” word bingo had been played in vain. But I knew that, unwittingly, M had told the truth. Because I did more than file tests and wipe noses in my four years of teaching; I also served as a witness to those magical moments in which a child moves from sounding out words to seeing instantaneous meaning, from articulating vowel sounds to articulating identity and experience.

The students I loved the most were not necessarily the most fluent readers or expert writers. Instead, they shared a common ability to link the stories we read with the reality they lived. They included A, the child of African immigrants who confused “n” and “r” but spoke thoughtfully and seriously about the violent death of Martin Luther King.  And J, a hold-over student raised by her grandmother and 21-year-old aunt who, after reading a series of books set in Harlem, observed how hard poor women must work to provide for their families. And finally, S, a girl with a sassy attitude and sly smile who explained why the heroine of Tar Beach dreams that she can claim buildings and bridges by flying over them. “In her imagination,” S said, “she is free.”

The world was theirs for the reading.

I don’t think I can take credit for these moments, but I do believe that teachers can help create the spaces where transformative learning happens. My questions, then, are these: What does it mean to teach for freedom? What might a practical pedagogy look like it, and how does policy support or inhibit learning? Finally, what might the classroom tell us about the politics that surround it?

I’ll be spending the next ten months in Guatemala, where I’ll reflect on these questions by researching bilingual literacy programs that serve indigenous women. I don’t expect to come up with definite answers, but I’ll be recording my experiences and observations all the same. I hope you’ll keep “reding” with me.


5 Responses to ““Congratulations for reding with me” or What does it mean to teach?”

  1. Jeff Stroebel said


    I’m immensely proud of you! When I knew you best as a young teenager you possessed an incredible desire to learn, passion for social justice, and concern for others. To see you bring all of these factors together as an adult in such a worthy enterprise is extremely exciting. I’ll look forward to following your blog.

    Best wishes from a former teacher,
    Mr. Stroebel

  2. Laura said

    Emma my dear,

    I’m so excited for you as you set off on this incredible adventure. Have a wonderful time and learn a ton. I miss you already!

    All my love,

  3. J said

    I think I may be tearing up a little…you wrote about those moments so beautifully. Each and every one of those children benefitted from having you in the classroom – even if they still got stuck with “ea”. As a former teacher, I lived for these moments in my classroom. Yet, I often felt that I had to fight for the space to provide for this sort of freedom. Our day was always so packed with mandated assessments, curricula and meeting after meeting after meeting. Although I do not have a true answer for you, I think that a first step would be in allowing teachers the freedom to have transformative learning experiences as adults and committed learners….otherwise, how can we expect them to foster similar experiences for children?

    Have you read any Maxine Greene or do you know about her ideas on social imagination? Remind me to share them with you.

    GOOD LUCK!!!

  4. Nora said

    emma! i hope you have arrived safely after your multi-multi-leg trip to guate. it was so wonderful to catch up again, and i love your blog already.
    my plan to come visit you is in the works now! january! CANNOT WAIT (though i’ll probably see you before then).


  5. Rudeman said

    Emma – you’re the awesomest. What a crazy juxtaposition. I’m at Cambridge, old school, old money, etc etc, you’re in Guatemala. Remember ’54 and the people will be free!


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