Thursday, October 15, 2009

Authors, Illustrators, and Teaching: Part 2

Authors and illustrators get treated like rock stars at the National Book Festival. Readers crowd into tents, some literally with standing room only, to see and hear the people behind favorite narratives and artwork. The payoff is worth the effort. Many authors and illustrators are as interesting in person as they are on paper.

In the last post, I discussed three authors and illustrators who provided insights related to teaching. Here are three more who similarly challenged and inspired me.

Sharon Creech was, in honesty, quite different from what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t an author who would embody one of her characters so perfectly that you felt like you were in theater with an accomplished actress rather than under a tent with a writer. Her editor shared the stage and played a role as Mrs. Creech read and enacted a section from her latest book, The Unfinished Angel. With drama and humor, the two wordsmiths captivated the crowd, even those beyond the tent’s borders. (By the way, for the record, unfinished angels speak in English with an Italian accent and make up words when necessary!)

Drama and humor. Tension and laughter. What a great combination for teaching. When I prepare to teach, do I look for the drama and humor in new material? Do I use these tools to not only keep attention but make material more memorable? Do I go the extra mile to bring such creativity to my teaching? I love this quote from Saul Bellow: “No school without spectacular eccentrics and crazy hearts is worth attending.” Do I allow myself to be the “spectacular eccentric” or “crazy heart” when doing so would promote learning?

Up next, another Newbery-winning author, Kate DiCamillo. I must highlight the perseverance DiCamillo personified. When rain knocked out power to the sound system, she continued to take questions and shout answers to the audience. This sounds less of an accomplishment than it actually was. The tent was jam packed and people wandered through steady rain falling outside.

But it was DiCamillo’s anecdote about the origins of The Tale of Despereaux that captivated my thoughts. A young boy suggested a story about a hero with large ears. At first, DiCamillo didn’t give the suggestion much thought. It certainly wasn’t much to go on when trying to write a whole book! But the idea stayed with her, and about five years later, The Tale of Despereaux was published.

Simply listening to students can sometimes provide substantial professional development! In trying to teach a group new concepts recently, one individual kept asking for examples. Every time I’d thoroughly explain something, at least in my own thinking, I’d get asked for an example—sometimes more than one. Listen to the suggestion, I told myself. Keep it in mind. Use it to improve your teaching. As I responded with examples, I could see the a-ha! moments multiply. The request, when fulfilled, made me a better teacher.

Sometimes a suggestion, even one focused on a hero with large ears, is all the you need to communicate in fresh and effective ways.

Finally, my favorite presentation came from Jerry Pinkney. Mr. Pinkney is a five-time Caldecott Honor medalist, and his latest book, a retelling of the Lion and the Mouse fable through illustrations, should catch the committee’s attention this year.

Mr. Pinkney shared his childhood with the audience. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, his parents, neither of whom possessed artistic talents, encouraged all their children to draw. It was something to do—something to keep the children occupied. While young Jerry manned a newspaper stand, an artist caught a glimpse of his sketches. Impressed, the artist invited Jerry to his studio. Before that visit, Pinkney was unaware that art was something you could do for a living, and oh!, the world of colors and artist’s tools that he encountered for the first time.

One caring adult—that’s it, just one caring adult opened up the world that would become Jerry Pinkney’s focus and passion. There’s a thought for teachers, but that’s not the one that I carried away with me.

Almost in passing, this successful, revered, and award-winning illustrator mentioned that he still takes drawing lessons. “You can always improve some aspect of what you do,” he explained, “and it’s important that you do so.”

While I can’t sign up for weekly teaching lessons, I can seek out professional development opportunities that will stretch some aspect of my teaching. Such continual growth is what Jerry Pinkney claims has empowered his success for several decades. My relevance and influence as a teacher may, likewise, depend on my willingness to continue growing professionally.

Drama, humor, wisdom, and growth. Sounds like a good recipe for teaching. In fact, it’s not a bad recipe for life.

1 comment:

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