May 22, 2018
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Reflecting on years in a classroom: Teaching is drawing out, not pouring in

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

On shelves in my basement are long banker’s boxes labeled Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine. Years ago, I decided to confine all the paper residue of the years I spent in those five states into one box for each place – part of an effort to reduce the amount of stuff I am carrying with me through life.

On a recent mission to search for something in one of those boxes, I failed to find what I was looking for but gained some new perspectives. Browsing through files from my years as a high school English teacher in Wisconsin and New Hampshire, I realized how fortunate I was to be teaching in times and places where teachers were encouraged to be creative in designing lessons relevant to the lives of their students.

We had prescribed texts and curricula, but within that framework, we were free to tailor our plans to the students as we became acquainted with them. I developed the philosophy that teaching is drawing out, not pouring in, recognizing that students learn as much from the attitude of the teacher as from the material in the books.

As I pulled out folder after folder, I remembered selecting literature for units in which students examined their relationships with themselves, each other, society, nature and God. Readings and discussions focused on life’s basic questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Units had titles like Values and Value Judgments, Parents and Children, Reality and Illusion, War and Peace, Views of Life, Freedom and Responsibility.

I unearthed lyrics of popular folk songs that illustrated the power of metaphor, simile, personification and other devices to convey a message — Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Dylan — “Hello Darkness my old friend,” “Silence like a cancer grows,” “I am a rock, I am an island.”

An exam over a unit titled Communication asks students to compare the lyrics of “Within You, Without You” by George Harrison and “I am a Rock” by Paul Simon, in which both songwriters use images of walls. “Describe how people can build and hide behind walls,” is one of the questions. Others ask, “How do these walls affect communication? Both songs speak of love. Explain how Paul Simon’s comments on love provide an example of what George Harrison says of love. Do you agree that ‘With our love — we could change the world’? What would we be saving the world from? How can a person gain the world and lose his soul? Are you one of them? What do the Beatles mean when they say ‘we’re all one’?”

The Vietnam War was raging, and we were reading Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, The Red Badge of Courage and Hiroshima, trying to understand the eternal lure of war for young boys seeking to become men, only to be confronted with senseless death.

In my retrospective, I took my own quizzes and exams, designed to connect the lives of teenagers with the themes in books like A Separate Peace, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. On one 10th grade mid-year exam, students were asked to imagine they had grown so close in small-group activities during the semester that their group decides to take a trip together, but their plane crashes on an uninhabited island where everyone survives except the pilot: their teacher.

“Using your knowledge of the functions people in the class have performed in group activities and the ideas people have on different topics, describe how your group organizes itself and functions in order to survive for one month on the island,” say the instructions. “Think of the needs that must be fulfilled, problems that will have to be solved and conflicts that may arise. Consider personalities, interests, skills and friendships in the group. Include as many people as you can in your description and explain why you feel each person will perform the tasks he/she does on the island.”

I wonder if any of those students ended up on “Survivor.”

A stronger person would have thrown away these and the dozens of other teaching files years ago, but I have come to accept my weakness for saving. I appreciate the insights that come with one last look at the past before gently placing its residue in the recycle box.

I have learned from my own lessons, savoring the opportunity to reflect on life, to connect with friends and colleagues to whom I have mailed some of my stuff and to wonder about the hundreds of students from those years-ago classes who are now in their 50s.

“We took a hold of life and put it on the blackboard for us to see,” said one of them on her self-evaluation. “We took a hold of life and shared it with each other. It was sometimes hard to believe this class took place in a school.” Asked to explain the grades she had given herself, she said, “I have slacked off at the end of the year. Perhaps my mind got tired from thinking.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.


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