Tag Archives: teaching

Everyday [Super] Hero

If I make a promise and decide not to keep it (even if I think it’s a for a good reason), I feel icky. So I feel icky this morning because I promised you two memoir reviews this week, and you’re only going to get one–on Thursday.

But I do have a good reason (you knew that was coming!), and that is because I hit you with two really negative posts last week, and I hate ending the story that way.

What I like to remember is that after negative events start to commandeer my life, all it takes is one good person to turn it around. An everyday hero.

After my negative experiences in the last part of 3rd grade, with the teacher bully and the bus bullies, I was matriculated into Mr. Polonowski’s 4th grade classroom.

He was Miss Slack’s opposite. A phenomenal teacher.

Mr. P, as we called him, was a tall lanky young man with a brush cut (crew cut) haircut and glasses. Before 4th grade, I didn’t realize teachers could be men.

Mr. P’s classroom was ruled by respect, meaning he respected us. So we, of course, respected him.

It was my best year of school . . . ever.

Here are some of the many high points of Mr. P’s class:

  • He set up a long table in the front of the fully windowed wall with Michigan’s natural and cultural treasures: fossils, Petoskey stones, arrow heads, copper, and rock salt. Unlike show and tell, the goodies stayed up for a long time and we were free to handle and examine when our assignment was done. I particularly enjoyed sampling the rock salt ;).
  • We used SRA* reading materials, so I was allowed to read as much and as fast as I wanted, plowing through all the beautiful colors and then back up through them again.
  • Mr. P didn’t require boxes around answers during arithmetic. He never put a kid on the spot. He helped us learn division, to feel pride, and not to dislike math.
  • Mr. P read to us every day. He read from The Oregon Trail and Pippi Longstocking. The way he read them with his deep expressive voice, they were two of the most exciting books I’d ever “read.”
  • We watched science documentaries and got very engaged in our discussions afterward. I still remember those films and how relaxed our classroom felt–how free we were to explore new ideas and information.
  • During lunch, we were allowed to rehearse plays. A friend and I wrote the plays, usually based on fairy tales, and we coerced a few classmates into performing them. I’d started directing plays when I lived in my old neighborhood and still loved it. I think Mr. P also knew that I was a little hyperactive and needed an extra activity.

Sometimes I wonder if Mr. P, everyday hero, stayed in teaching or ended up leaving for business or law or another career. For the sake of the children, I hope he stuck with it.

Mr P


* SRA reading lab was a supply of color-coded reading material. We were assigned a level to begin at and we would read articles and respond to questions within that color level. When we mastered it, we would move up to the next color. When we reached the highest level, we could start back at the bottom of the box and keep reading. It functioned a bit like the Montessori method in that an entire class could be at all different reading levels–nobody would be dragged ahead until she mastered her level and nobody would be held back when she could move forward. Although eventually the color and design were changed, when we used SRA, there were many colors so it was a system that was both tangible and aesthetically pleasing.

Did you have an everyday hero when you were a child?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

Do We All Need to Share the Same Building Blocks of Story?

Ten or fifteen years ago I learned not to take even basic assumptions for granted.

I used to teach a course called “Children’s Literature” at a public university. My students were future teachers–mainly K-8, but also secondary school.  A large percentage of them were first and second generation and primarily from Mexico/Central America.

Children’s literature is divided into different genres of lit, just as is literature for adults.  For children, the genres include picture books, young adult novels, poetry, traditional literature, and more. Traditional lit covers fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. Picture books based on “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly” are both picture books and traditional lit.

I liked to teach stories from the different continents. I particularly enjoyed taking a tale, such as “Cinderella,” which is told in various parts of the world and looking at the cultural differences.  Seven hundred folk (pre-picture books and movies) versions of this one tale exist.

One academic quarter, I got a flyer in my department mailbox about a play being put on by the drama department. It sounded ideal as it was coming at a time we were studying folk and fairy tales. The play was a spoof on some of the traditional tales. Since it occurred ten to fifteen years ago, I can’t remember for sure which tales were included or who wrote it, but they were very well-known tales–maybe “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Goldilocks.”  I brought a couple of my classes to a performance of the play. It was hilarious; I laughed all the way through.

At least, I thought it was hilarious. But most of my students sat there stone-faced. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

The next time class met, we discussed our responses to the play. It turned out that most of my students had never been exposed to these basic tales of the English-speaking and European worlds.  Without knowing the originals, the parodies made no sense.

That showed me that we don’t all share as many of the same basic building blocks of culture, as I had imagined. I knew that these stories were widely available in Spanish, so that wasn’t the problem.

To accommodate my students, I thought, well then, we can spend more time integrating Mexican tales of La Llorona and Quetzalcoatl. Some students thought this was great.

Español: La LLorona, leyenda Nederlands: La_Ll...

Español: La LLorona, leyenda Nederlands: La_Llorona, Mexicaanse folklore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I had another disappointment when I discovered that so many students didn’t have knowledge of tales from the country of their birth or their parents’ birth either. And why? They said their parents didn’t tell them stories. They didn’t have time–too busy working and too tired when they weren’t.

It wasn’t too late, though. It might have been college, but we were in the luxurious world of Children’s Literature, so we read all the tales I could fit into the class. The parodies and revisions worked well together with the originals, but not on their own. That’s ok. It made us all better readers to look at them side-by-side.

So now my pedogogical and philosophical question is: do we all need to share the same building blocks of story?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing