Lately I have been thinking about what creates real readers and writers. Much of this thinking comes out of the work I am doing in creating and planning a graduate course I am teaching this summer called: Passion, Purpose and Play: Creating Real Readers and Writers.
(See here if you are interested in one of our UNH Summer Literacy Institute courses as we still have some openings.) http://www.unh.edu/english/media/pdfs/Archive%20NHLiteracy/2013SummerInstbrochure.pdf
I think back…what made me a reader? A writer? And there are sharp moments in time that changed my thinking and the way that I saw myself forever. One of those moments was when I was a sophomore in High School and my teacher was Mr. Dave Krauss. We were reading Lord of the Flies. Nothing revolutionary as many high schools today are still doing the same thing and reading many of these same classics some 30 years later. But something in this experience for me was different.
I recall heated class discussions and at one point I even remember my face flushing to a bright crimson red as I stood up and shouted out, “That is NOT fair!” The entire class stopped and looked back at me and Mr. Krauss said, “Tomasen, I need to see you after class.” I was mortified. As a resident “good girl”, always sitting in the back of the class, don’t make any trouble kind of student, I felt as if my face might pop as it got even redder and my eyes begin to sting with tears.
After class I walked up to Mr. Krauss’s desk full of shame and defeat he asked me to sit down and asked me what was so upsetting. Our discussion started with the idea of fairness and he assured me that “nothing in life was fair”. I argued that life should be. He did not disagree but talked about how there would be merit to thinking about things not in terms of fairness, but in terms of how each individual person is in this world. He didn’t yell at me. I didn’t get in trouble. In fact, it was the opposite. He encouraged me to speak my mind more frequently and the he welcomed my thoughts and ideas just like everyone else’s. For the first time in my life I realized that perhaps I had something to say “in class”. This was huge for me. My thinking mattered for the first time in my entire school career.
Fast forward 30 plus years to where I am planning for this course and out of nowhere jumps into my hands the original copy of Lord of the Flies that I read in High School. For the life of me I didn’t remember ever even having it, and yet here it was. The cover looked outdated and as I opened the book the spine cracked with a pop as the old book cardboard smell wafted into my head. What was revealed inside was sheer magic.
Marked in red pen and some pencil and then some blue pen was MY thinking as a sophomore in High School. Words and phrases were underlined and in the margins were the words, authority, changes in attitude, role of society rules? It had never dawned on me that perhaps the reason this book stuck with me, that this experience was one of great magnitude might also have been because I was able to actually WRITE in this book and keep track of my thinking.
I wish I could remember the circumstances around this annotating. Was the school getting a new set because these were worn out? Was this common practice? Not that I remembered. What did Krauss know that nobody else did? And as I looked at the red ink I was instantly transferred back to remembering the actual red pen, the one that I used to use in my practice teaching in my bedroom. “The” red pen of authority. It was old and clear and the ink was clotty. As I looked at my own handwriting I could recall moments of writing in this book and feeling so “grown up”. Grown up in a way that made me feel smart. I recall writing things just because I could even if they were not great thinking. I loved the act of writing in this book!! I don’t remember doing this again until college and again the nostalgia of marking and writing in between and around the lines makes me feel giddy!
So could it be that something as simple as annotating a text is playful and inspires passion and great purpose? These words, in our schools, are not in vogue. It is rare we talk about the passions, the purposes or the play anymore. And while I have always hated the red pen as a student and teacher of writing, it was this old crimson that recorded my thinking and allowed me to participate in discussions that made me a real reader with authority.
It was during this course that I decided I would be an English major. I wonder if Mr. Krauss understood the power of what he was creating for me as a student in the name of passion, purpose and play? And underlying all of these “p” is thinking. Thinking is fun! It promotes passion, creates purpose and is playful and discovering one’s own thinking is priceless.
I would love to find Mr. Krauss. The last I heard of him he was working at the Admissions office at UNH and when I was a student I visited him. He has long been gone and I have no idea where he ended up. As a fellow educator I wish he could read this and understand just what he did for me and how it created the path that I am still on…one that is still seeking equality. One who still stands up, turns bright red and shouts, “That’s NOT fair” regardless of the lessons learned years ago that we live in an unfair world.
Somebody’s gotta do it!
It’s only fair.
Think about it.