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Kind words and miscues.

I teach foundations of education courses to prospective K-12 teachers at Lane Community College. Last spring, on the last day of class, I asked students to come to class with stories to tell about teaching and learning--formally composed stories that exemplified one of 12 "big ideas" covered in my course. First they wrote their exams, and then they told their stories. When Gaby told the story of what she had learned about communication that very day, it made everyone laugh until tears came to our eyes.

Gaby, a self-described "science nerd" and an exceptional midlife nontraditional student reads whatever is required and whatever is recommended. She uses her time in the classroom wisely and wouldn't presume to waste the time of her instructors with a process question. So when I asked for blue books, Gaby hid her perplexity over the definition of a blue book from me and then looked up the subject online the moment she got home from school. rewarded her first query instantly with an entry for The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Strauss, accompanied by advertising that assured readers that this book was "a must for teachers!"

"Then this must be what Merrill wants her students to purchase," Gaby reasoned sensibly.

Since I positively rant to my future teachers that they must know how to write well, Gaby was sure that she knew what book to purchase in the college bookstore. A busy mother, student and practicum teacher living an hour's drive from the college, Gaby knew she would not have time to pick up the book until the day of the exam, but she planned to arrive at the college early on the day of the test to allow for bookstore lines.

When the first bookstore clerk could not help her find the book I'd asked for, Gaby controlled her growing anxiety and tried a second and then a third employee. Not a single person in Lane Community College's usually so helpful student bookstore knew anything about this special order for education students of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. How could this be?

Gaby, ever punctual and always prepared, knew she was going to have to sit this exam without this essential tool. She hadn't had to face a situation like this since returning to school as an adult; she followed directions carefully!

Discouraged and anxious, she slowly opened the door to the foundations classroom. Her fellow students were busy preparing for the test by sharpening pencils, putting away backpacks and setting out on their desks ... blue books, short stacks of lined paper stapled together into booklets.

By the time Gaby told this part of the story, even though we all knew what was coming, the laughter had mounted to an unseemly level.

What we teachers say is not always what our students hear; the messages we intend to convey can become garbled in the transmission. The more open we are to the idea of teaching as listening and learning as telling, the more we grow through the process.

Gaby is modest, but she is as gifted a writer and speaker as she is a scientist. Gifted teachers are gifted learners--and learners well versed in humility. At the beginning of the course, I shared Parker Palmer's story about "The Mystery of Good Teaching." In this story, Palmer wrote about teaching from the microcosm and helping students to make autobiographical connections to a discipline. In her own story, Gaby--who became a fan of Palmer's early on--had used humor effectively to teach about teaching from the microcosm as Palmer directs us to do. She was able to laugh at herself. This is the most important lesson she taught me--a lesson I now think about every time I ask students to bring blue books to class for an exam. It's a lesson I need to relearn on a regular basis, especially during the month of June.

I am grateful to Gaby for the inspiration. I am grateful every day of my life that I have work to do that feeds my spirit, that makes me laugh, and that connects me to the lives of children and the passionate adults who care for them. I teach.

Merrill Watrous teaches foundations of education in the Cooperative Education Division of Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. She can be contacted at
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Title Annotation:educational courses to K-12 teachers
Author:Watrous, Merrill
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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