Thursday, August 4, 2016

#SOL16: Teacher as Intellectual

Rob teaching.


Early today I was in a 6th grade English class in Newark when I heard a young girl share how she and her group were inferring possible relationships between Stanley's great, great grandfather and potential reasons why Stanley has ended up at the camp. The children are beginning the year reading Louis Sachar's Holes.

The teacher told them, "Oh, I see you're putting together information.  Your putting together clues from the sentence strips."

It was then I thought of Rob and how a year ago he wrote this unit--the last work he crafted. Rob authored this not knowing that inside the apex of his right lung was a disease that would kill him seven months later. Life cannot be guaranteed beyond the moment where we stand.

I think now how my husband, a most talented teacher, anticipated ways to ensure lots of engagement among the middle school students he taught.  He sought their engagement with literature and with one another. Today I was thinking how melding the social with the intellectual is stamped all over the work the children are doing and it is gratifying to see how much the students enjoyed working with the sentence strip engagement Rob designed.

Leaving holes in the work at hand helps students to begin to co-create the novel they are reading.  My husband's work as I saw it being played out reminded me how powerful authoring is.  Wolfgang Iser's notion of textual gaps greatly (in)formed this work.


A few weeks ago as I began to sort through the many books and papers in our guest room--a room Rob used as a study, I collected several of Iser's books from different shelves, resettling them together. The Fictive and the Imaginary, The Implied Reader, and The Act of Reading were three books Rob referred to when writing this grade 6 unit. He was so deeply interested in Iser's work--an interest that spanned decades. I am thinking now about the intellectual work of teachers. The units Rob and I have composed have never been intended to be used as written. Even though they are mostly written alongside teachers, they nonetheless require teachers to make alterations and revisions as they teach--as they see fit and in the best of classrooms that privilege is extended to the children as well.

No one can correctly anticipate the emerging interests, strengths, and needs of a teacher or students. Being responsive to emerging conditions is critical when teaching and learning and Rob kept this understanding central in his work.

He was a teacher of teachers and this morning I was reminded the distance between the perception of teachers whose work is limited to merely following already established plans--teacher-proofed materials--and the more energetic work of teacher as intellectual. In devaluing public schools, teachers, and teachers' work for these last thirty years, we have allowed public education to be rewritten by hacks, co-opted by con artists and do-gooders, and subjected to the whims of people hawking goods. We have allowed learning to take a back seat to teaching and content to be determined by what can be easily assessed. Students have been situated more as props to be taken out during election years and used as needed. Teachers and students are so much more than mere technicians.

Like climate change denial, our devaluing of pubic education and public educators will likely harm our planet in ways we can little imagine and can little afford. Life cannot be guaranteed beyond the moment where we stand and we should not waste it trying to replicate what ought not be replicated. We cannot afford to allow the word, intellectual, to remain a dirty word. Let's be brave and not settle for the simulacrum.

Rob's work reminds me to make the original.


  1. Your thoughts about teaching and it's practice as an intellectual craft speaks to me so powerfully, Mary Ann. I am not familiar with Iser's work, so I am adding the books you name to my TBR list. And, you have given me a battle cry for the new school year: Let's be brave and not settle for the simulacrum.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post.

    1. I feel so strongly about the incredible worth and necessity of teachers. Should be our national treasure.

  2. Thank you for speaking up for teachers and the way it should be.

    1. My pleasure. We have allowed too many misinformed voices to narrate schooling in the US. These are people who have never taught or did so in very small bits of time.