I had a few extra minutes that day when I entered the classroom in which I was teaching composition to second-semester freshmen at my university. I teach at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, a public university in rural Arkansas attended mostly by first-generation students of higher education. I try to start each of my classes promptly, but I was early, and lots of my students were already there, each absorbed in a virtual world deep inside a smartphone. I covet their attention at times like this. I want them to begin shepherding their thoughts toward one another, our class, and me rather than careening recklessly from one website image to another.
To begin collecting them and their thoughts, I wrote a URL on the chalkboard. They are conditioned to virtual tasks and they quickly took the hint. Almost immediately they started finding their way to it. “What do you see?” I asked them. “You,” they replied, delighted with sure knowledge of a correct response, and they began reading the blog post intently. I had committed the novice error of distracting them when I needed their attention. I had their attention now but not on the lesson I had planned. “Monitor and adapt,” I heard a teacher’s voice in my head remind me.
I had planned to discuss “Graduation” by Maya Angelou, which I had assigned as reading homework from their textbook. I like to teach the Angelou text because it provides opportunities to point out the value of human potential, which the graduation speaker overlooks in the story. When Mr. Donleavy has the opportunity to talk to a rapt audience celebrating the achievement of local twelve-year-olds, he instead spends his time bragging of kindnesses he has done to benefit others. His talk amounts only to a campaign speech and ignores the real concerns and needs of his listeners. His attitude entirely dismisses the children who hear him, and his tone inspires only reluctant support. Audience members no doubt recognized that his opposition for political office had nothing to offer them, not even the time and attention necessary to appear at their ceremony and orate in distracted words about someone else.
In a typical lesson on Angelou, I would discuss the responsibility adults have for encouraging all children and helping them optimize their potential because some of them may grow up to be famous writers who will tell stories of their childhood experiences. I like to say, “It matters how I treat each of you because one of you may go on to tell stories about me.” This lesson works especially well at my university because the story is set in southern Arkansas, not far from us, and the students understand the cultural implications intuitively. I take particular delight in pointing out that our university gets mentioned by a former name in this story and recount for them a history of our institution. Oh, I had big plans for lecturing that day, but teachable moments arise without warning, and spontaneous reaction is necessary to optimize learning. I could save Angelou for another day, but I couldn’t skip the lesson. In order to begin class, I had to redirect them, but it goes against my better judgement to disturb students when they want to read. So I decided we would read together—aloud, taking turns, finding our way through difficult pronunciations, unfamiliar words, and sinuous syntax. In this case, perhaps one text would be nearly as good as another in serving the reading lesson.
They seemed absorbed by the blog post, and their interest is always productive to learning because a need to know precedes long-term storage of information. When they have a problem to solve, they can exercise critical thinking skills and remember what they discover. As the school where I teach is my alma mater, I can sometimes think in harmony with them. We paused mid-thought to discuss implications. We read about the need to support teachers of color and considered why it is important for children to learn from them. We recalled teachers who had taught us about diversity and how their lessons helped prepare us for college experiences. We wondered as we went along. We considered why a family might move from Alaska to Arkansas and imagined the culture shock a child might undergo as a result.
We puzzled over the idea of preservice teachers and thought about the ways in which teachers are servants. We thought about the literacy experiences newborns and toddlers can have and reflected on our own and their influence on our successes in school. We considered the idea of lifelong learning and its implications for life beyond commencement. They wondered what they would want to study after graduation and imagined themselves in graduate school or taking lessons in fields of study beyond their majors. We talked about the elders in our families and the wisdom they embody. We envisioned ourselves as octogenarians with a variety of interests and expertise to share with our progeny. We thought about the challenges of being non-traditional learners and remembered the people in our lives who say “I wish I had gone to college.” We discussed the reasons why they don’t go to college now.
Perhaps most importantly, we discussed why it is important to be active participants in our own educations, what behaviors demonstrate our active learning to others, and how active learning can enhance educational experiences. We changed readers often, but I did not read to them. I let them read to one another. We soon found that I had outstretched their vocabularies. “Matrilineal,” I prompted—a mouthful. I said it three times “Matrilineal. Matrilineal. Matrilineal,” and they repeated it after me three times. Three is the magic number in writing—three points in an overt thesis statement, three multi-paragraph areas of support in a strong essay. A word repeated three times becomes familiar, but that does not provide meaning.
Reading aloud is hard work for the inexperienced. My students come from a literacy-poor culture. Their worlds have an impoverishment of aspiration and a paucity of encouragement to read. John Ruskin says, “The main thing which we ought to teach our youth is to see something, all that the eyes which God has given them are capable of seeing” (VI.483). They have been taught to read—to recognize high-use vocabulary and to sound out exotic words rapidly, to devour pages whole, at a glance, never pausing to rest their eyes upon and delight in the nuances of prose at play. They are good at looking, but too often they do not see. What Ruskin tells us about talking is true in their reading: “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see” (V.333). I wrote unfamiliar words on the chalkboard under the URL and showed them the keys to unlocking meaning for themselves.
In “matrilineal,” I underlined the letters L-I-N-E. I put square brackets around the initial [MA] to help them see. I watched them smile as understanding dawned. “Your mama’s side,” they nodded. It was a bright moment. They could see what I’ve been telling them about words having families—mother, mama, matrilineal. We paused to learn patrilineal too, just for fun. We were linguists! We were wordsmiths! We were poets! After a few new words, my students saw the efficacy of making a list of unfamiliar words we wanted to master. Problem solvers! We were cheerfully at work, relishing the textures and sounds and tastes of new words. We were children with toys—taking words in with our ears and our mouths as well as our eyes. We had read, closely and thoroughly—an accomplishment surely, but these are college students, so mere reading wasn’t the entire lesson.
“What did we learn?” I asked them. Besides the new words and the idea that Arkansas is encouraging diversity, “How will you internalize the message?” I understand that they can read for comprehension. These are successful college students, the ones who didn’t flunk out the first semester. Like Faulkner’s victors, they endured. We have fast hold on the meaning. But what about the message? Understanding ideas doesn’t help much unless you can act upon them. An internalized message changes something about the reader’s ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. Reading matters most when it makes a difference. If they are enlightened, they have a light to share. Envisioning a means for sharing is the purpose of reading.
This took considerable thought, but eventually my students were able to vocalize ideas they were forming. There are children in their families whom they want to teach, to spend time with, to share ideas with, just as the teachers they read about are doing. These children can get excited about learning new things, and my students can become their mentors, helping them see just as the teachers we read about are mentoring the little ones in their lives. My students expressed the desire to learn their own fields of study so well that they too can be excited about having knowledge to pass along. They wanted to be passionate about their studies in the way that the teachers I wrote about in the blog post are passionate about their work. They want to have something of value to share with others just as those teachers do.
Learning is enlightenment, and enlightenment is joyous, but learning also brings responsibility. We must use the wisdom we gain for good, sharing the light we have with others lest we all stumble in darkness. It gave me pause when my students asked me, “Is learning always good? Isn’t it bad to learn to use drugs?” I had questions for them in response: Certainly recreational abuse of drugs is bad, but is it ever bad to LEARN? Is there a way to use even this learning for good? If I learn the process for cooking meth and use that acquired knowledge not to cook meth myself but to recognize when a family in my neighborhood is doing so, and if I act upon the responsibility which comes with my new knowledge to save the children of that family from an environment in which cooking meth is a customary way of life, does that redeem my learning? Does it make the learning good? We learned that complicated ideas have no easy answers, but education gives us the ability to consider their implications for ourselves.
Education comes with the responsibility to enlighten others, and good multiplies the potential for good. Ignoring these responsibilities is wickedness. Our duty as educated and enlightened teachers is to find a way to make the wisdom we have gained, the accumulated facts we have mastered, the knowledge we have acquired, into actions which promote good. We must better the lives of others if we want a better life. We must all progress together if we want a better world. What we choose to read matters greatly. When we read something beneath our capacity—intellectually, morally, or emotionally—we miss an opportunity for growth. We limit our light and our opportunity to share. We fail to learn. Most of the textbooks for university students are now written at the seventh-grade reading level, and students struggle through canonical novels which were once considered junior high entertainment. We limit their ability to read complex texts by providing information at a reading level they have already mastered.
Complex texts challenge our understanding and teach us the joy of development, and this is always good. But whenever we read something excellent and challenging, our reading shapes our lives. Comprehension is necessary to learning, but the way we internalize the message will predict the world we live in. Our actions publicly reveal the light we have to share, and making my classroom glow frequently is my duty as a teacher. How far the glow can spread is up to my students. A classroom filled with internalized light glowed brightly in my presence that day.
Ruskin, John. The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-1912, London.