I was challenged recently to “name the one person who influenced [my] passion as a professional and led to your resilience.” There were so many people who influenced my passion as a professional. It starts in fourth grade at Wheeling Country Day, when Lisa Owen shared with me that she too was nervous to be the “new kid” even though she was the teacher. At Mt. de Chantal Irene Smith pulled me out of study hall and told me to meet her everyday at that same time. She explained that I didn’t need to study as much as I needed to read great works of literature and offered that we do that together. It was the late Marvin Bressler, (the man that taught Pete Carril that chess could help Princeton’s basketball players see the court better), who put a box of tissues in front of me before he said, “It’s good, but you can do better. Start again,” as he handed me back my 76 page junior paper. The list must also include Eleanor Duckworth who gave me the words, “Tell me more,” to push students further and whose primary request of us as her students was to look at the moon.
But the challenge was to choose ONE. If I must, I would have to say Eleanor sparked something I knew intuitively all along. To teach we need to understand. We need to know all that we can about a student’s understanding. How does one “teach” that?
Oddly enough, in Duckworth’s class you look at the moon. She asked us to write down every time we saw the moon. What time it was, what day it was, where it was and what it looked like. We could draw what we saw. We could simply write it. Regardless, we needed to pay attention to the moon…consistently.
I know what you’re thinking…Really? Is that something you bargain for in a class at Harvard? That’s the most influential person in your professional life? Yes. Yes. And yes. Let me put the assignment in another light for you. She made us as educators become learners together. She asked us to learn about an object we thought we already knew. She didn’t tell us anything to watch for…didn’t give us a rubric for how to get an “A” in moon observation. She just asked us to pay attention and to keep a moon journal. She was teaching us about understanding someone else’s understanding by going through the process ourselves. Over the course of the semester there came a day when the sky was clear but the moon was missing. You had to be looking to notice that – preconceived notions set aside. You had to let yourself be surprised. Then there is the first day the moon was out at the same time as the sun and childhood concepts of the moon were shattered. Of course we already knew so much about the moon, but the way she taught it allowed room for me to have ownership of my learning – the curriculum or the knowledge wasn’t fixed with right and wrong answers.
Duckworth believes if you want teachers to have original ideas about curriculum development or supporting students’ needs, they need to have practice playing around with ideas about things we think we know – like the moon. She taught me to value my understanding, but more importantly to value the ways other come to understanding – whether that be teachers or students. She once wrote, “It’s worth getting teachers to build on what questions they have, because that’s what matters – what teachers know and what questions teachers have.” It’s not curriculum or tests, it’s teachers paying attention to a student’s understanding. To think you can learn all that from looking at the moon.