, Derry, New Hampshire

December 13, 2012


John Edmondson
Derry News

---- — Teachers are shameless kleptomaniacs. We steal everything we can get our hands on.

I’ve taught long enough that I struggle to remember which of my most effective moves in the classroom are my own inventions or ones pilfered from a graduate class, a book, or a colleague down the hall. Still, a few instances of grand larceny stand out.

I launch my writing workshop classes the same way every year. Thanks to educator Nancie Atwell, my sixth-grade students learn on day one that writing topics are everywhere, if only they’d open their 11-year-old eyes to find them.

I share with them that I noticed this or that on the way to school that morning — a boy riding a bike, a girl waiting at a bus stop with her dad — and how these mundane occurrences spark my own memories and unearth an event worth writing about. It works every time.

But Atwell’s classroom management tips left me flummoxed. I couldn’t deal with multiple notebooks in which I was supposed to keep copious notes on each of my students.

Then, lo and behold, a workshop presenter, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, solved my problem.

I learned that I should cut out a portion of a cardboard box, cover it with contact paper and attach large, lined index cards to it. During a writing conference I simply had to flip to a student’s card, where I had plenty of room to jot down pertinent information. No muss, no fuss. It’s the beautiful organizational tool I’ve used for 20 years.

I’m amazed that so many of my colleagues remember so little about their own educations. It’s as if those 12 formative years were just a hazy dream. I remember almost everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I stole one of my most effective teaching practices from a high school English teacher who taught me 40 years ago.

There was nothing “cool” about Herman Menzer, beginning with his name. His pants were too short and his wingtips a little too shiny. He met his wife through a dating service, almost unheard of at the time. And sharing that information with a class full of teenagers did not exactly enhance his reputation.

But Menzer could teach. His open-ended essay questions forced me to read deeply and write concisely. And the twist he often added has proven to be a big hit with my sixth-grade students.

Menzer gave his students the opportunity to write their own essay questions, the theory being that writing a great question meant you already knew the answer. I’ve never forgotten how hard I worked to craft my questions, and the pride I felt seeing my question on a test, the same test I would no longer have to take.

I keep reading that most teachers teach the way they were taught, which might explain a lot of the problems in education today. But that’s an issue for another column on another day. My advice to teachers today — whether it’s original or not — is to steal the best and forget the rest.

John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.