Fitzgerald is usually the only F. Scott on my mind; however, it is a different Francis Scott who is Key to the title of this post. It seems this Key was trying to get my attention. He crept in with the splendid golden sunrise on a recent autumn morning spent in Charleston when I found myself standing on the harbor in sight of Fort Sumter, which for some reason triggered the lyrical Fort McHenry in my mind. Again he appeared to me in the morning as I drove blithely to school by the dawn’s early light and heard the NPR reporter announce the 195th anniversary of the patriotic penman’s hymn. This undeniable intrusion of the other Francis Scott and his national anthem got me thinking about the very American institution for which I work—the public education system. I have been teaching high school English for a decade, yet each year I feel a renewed sense of pride and excitement about my career. Each year I commit myself to learning at least as much as I teach, and each year I am spellbound by the magic that unfolds. It is with honor that I wave the flag of being a teacher, and with equal honor that I proclaim myself a learner; for I believe that there is nothing more star-spangled, more American, than looking through the optimistic eye of the young and asking questions with a willing spirit.
Educators have had more questions than answers lately. In the over 350 year history of the American education system there has never been a time of such seismic shift as now. Technology has been the harbinger of change, yes; the evolution of the right-brained paradigm has also facilitated welcome innovation. I have found the momentum of teacher-initiated inquiry and discussion to be absolutely captivating. Day and night, teachers around the globe are tweeting, blogging, and meeting in real and virtual space to ask the important questions of our work. How can we offer our students access to our world, the world of words and writing, in my case; and to the world, the world beyond our classroom walls? We are asking ourselves what must stay in our rooms—critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration—and what must go—memorization, isolation and control. Nothing is textbook now, not even textbooks as more and more schools say goodbye to packaged information and hello to the burgeoning world of resources available at the touch of a button. While we are in the business of having answers, it is our questions that matter most at present.
There is no question that the image of the lone teacher at the helm of an apple bedecked desk has long been relegated to Norman Rockwellian Americana, though the egotism of the sage on the stage mentality has lingered. Some teachers have struggled to accept the fact that, thanks to Google, anyone with a computer can be a sage if simple facts are all that are required and if so, it is quite easy to be upstaged, even by the very young. I am willing to accept the fact that my value exists not in my cherished mental encyclopedia of author facts, literary terms, or my ability to spot a pronoun when I see him; my value exists in opening books to my students that cause them to open doors, open windows and turn on the lights within their own minds. My value exists in my own authentic search for illumination, my own passion for learning and my willingness to be student as much as teacher.
This spirit of asking transcends pedagogy and enters the realm of the ubiquitous teacher network du jour. Once a teacher embraces the world of connection and adds her voice to the discussion she opens herself to the potential for requests from fellow educators. I was recently contacted by an English department chair from Corpus Christi, Texas seeking insight into how to incorporate 21st century tools in her class structure. A teacher from Kansas City, Kansas who came across my blog asked if I could explain the how and why of my ning and wiki. An instructional consultant from my own county asked me to write a spot about the innovations in my classroom for her educational newsletter. A group of teachers from a neighboring district just visited my room for the same reason. The network of interested educators is real, the connections are valid, and the questions will come. It has been, in my experience, an honor to be asked for my contributions and a thrill to oblige when the improvement of education for young people is the goal.
The beauty of the questions is that they go both ways. I am able to ask everything from the mundane to the momentous of the many helpful people in my networks. A recent twittered plea for help getting my Honors 11 kids to not obsess over letter grades yielded a number of clever responses including using subway line letters to help them get beyond the usual grade assumptions, and having the kids do two versions, a bad job and a good job of the same essay so as to confront their need for perfection. Teachers are helpers by nature but are often isolated by geography and inhibited by lack of time. The new virtual networks easily facilitate discourse and promote teachers helping teachers to get their needs met and questions answered.
Sometimes the offer to help comes before the question. I was mesmerized by the city of Berlin when I was there this summer. My desire to learn more about the city and specifically the Berlin Wall was ignited by the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and the remarkable stories told within. The evening after I visited Checkpoint Charlie I tweeted from the little hotel lobby that I wanted to read Wall literature and learn more about Berlin alongside my students in the coming year. Almost immediately I received a reply from a man who shared that he grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin and would be happy to be a resource for my class. A generous offer to reach across the globe from a man who could not reach across the street in his youth, and I didn’t even have to ask. This is educational munificence at its best and I love it!
At Open House after I shared plans for my seniors to read the amazing Maus graphic novel series and the haunting memoir All But My Life, the mother of one of my students mentioned that her mother narrowly escaped to freedom as a very young girl in Nazi Germany. I asked this mother if she would come in and share the incredible family story with my students. She agreed to do so, has since had many poignant conversations with her elderly mother about the events, and is coming to class next week! A student of mine has asked her grandfather who was a soldier and liberator in World War II about his story as well and we are hoping to have him visit when he is in town. Incidentally, a parent asked his son if he could borrow and read Maus because his son was giving it such rave reviews. Questions lead to connections and the result is an enriched learning experience for my students and for me.
In the inaugural run of the Love and Relationships literature class at Turpin last year my students and I were swallowed whole by the fabulous novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. We pored over the pages and we discussed at length Mother Love and the joy and pain of growing up….we marveled at the magic of Lisa See, who is as much a weaver of tapestry or a painter of mural as a writer. I thought to myself; why not ask Lisa if she would speak with the amazing kids in my class, young adults who had fallen in love with her novel? So after seeking and finding a virtual connection, I simply asked her. And guess what she said? Between nationally televised interviews and final edits of her latest New York Times bestseller, Lisa graciously spoke to my room of enthralled kids in Cincinnati from the comfort of her California home–on her husband’s birthday no less! It was a highlight of my career to hear my students ask interesting questions and to hear Lisa take such care with her responses. I had tears in my eyes as we said our final goodbye to Lisa at the end of class but the last words I heard were a student saying, “That was the coolest thing I have ever done in my life!”
While perhaps a sweet bit of youthful hyperbole, the effervescent response of my student was an inspiring reminder to me that I can always ask for contributions that will make my classes exceptional, and more often than not the answer will be yes. I am not alone in my endeavors in B304 in this new century of unprecedented connection, nor is any teacher who seeks connection denied access. In fact, all a teacher has to do is say the word “please” and the walls of the classroom will disappear to reveal the entire world waiting to teach alongside her. It seems very fitting that the first four words of the national anthem contain the key, thank you Francis Scott, to making our American schools great. If we want to be better teachers, better learners, all we have to do is ask ourselves and others: Oh, say, can you…?