YA Corner: Great Teachers, Great Words

In rural Lemhi County, fifth and sixth graders were taught together in the same classroom by the same teacher, Mr. Harris. In 1973, there might have been around twenty-five total fifth and sixth graders. The grades were segregated to two sides of the classroom. The grades had their own appropriate assignments for basic subjects, but some interchange existed, to the good of all. For example, the read-aloud, always held after lunch and always looked forward to with eagerness, was of course shared by all students.

Hearing the stories was the best part of the school curriculum. Many, many of the short stories read came from one of the teacher’s favorite authors, O. Henry, a writer who caused the students to think and use their minds to concentrate on the storyline. Mr. Harris also read the “Little Britches” series by Ralph Moody. That literature could bring the students close to tears of sadness or hysterical laughter. The students’ minds had a clear picture of Little Britches sampling the fermented juices and his drunken hilarity.

During reading time, the students were allowed to take out notebooks to draw or write in. Sometimes covert communication took place and the reading wasn’t attended to, but more often the paper and pencil provided a needed outlet for the boys and girls. A therapeutic activity combined with the therapy of being read to. Some students needed “down time” and could be found with eyes closed and head resting on arms. Other young learners received the words with attentive gladness. They knew the joy of library books already and were eager for more words.

The other significant encounter with literature and the beauty of the spoken word came with the poetry Mr. Harris brought to the class. A regular part of the day was spent with poems: reading silently in English books, listening to the teacher read and recite poems, memorizing assigned poems, and reciting memorized poems in front of the entire class. The teacher modeled the proper way to give a reading of poetry — things such as how to introduce a poem and how to pronounce the names of poets, how to read with expression and text emphasis, breathing and pausing at the right moments for maximum effect. Years and years later, the thought of the poems studied still could bring a thrilling chill. Mr. Harris was in a class by himself when it came to reciting poetry. He possessed a resonant and carrying voice that sent a message right to the center of one’s being. The look of his eyes and their seeming ability to see into a soul could be felt when he recited poetry. One of the first poems learned was “Eldorado” by Edgar Allen Poe. The poem went something like this: “Gaily bedight! A Gallant knight, in sunshine or in shadow, had journeyed long, singing a song, in search of Eldorado…” Not a few students jumped in their chairs at the first two words. Afterwards, pairs of students sat in the hall outside reading these stirring phrases and helping each other memorize them.

Later, all the students had a chance to show off poetry recitation skills on “Eldorado,” with varying degrees of skill and perfection. The class heard several other poems by Poe: “The Raven” and “The Bells.” All looked forward to learning “The Charge of the Light Brigade” when they got to sixth grade. They knew it was coming. That information got passed down from Mr. Harris’ former students. They probably heard bits and pieces of the phrases out on the playground. Some may have heard about it from older siblings. Learning “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was the high point of the poetry unit. It was a rite of passage, and no one would be denied that experience, so help them! Perhaps the children in my sixth grade class in 1973 would have enjoyed the words of Tennyson’s classic poem that much more if they had known this was to be the last year any sixth grader in would recite “The Light Brigade” and the last year Mr. Harris would teach.

Why do we take such comfort from expressing ourselves in the language of words? Joyce Sidman, recent winner of the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, observed: “We speak to send messages to the world. We chant for what we want, bless what we like, lament what we’ve lost. When angry, we curse; when in love, we sing. We have always done this. Since earliest human history…we’ve chanted poems and songs to help win battles, bring rain (or make it stop), bless journeys, and ward off evil. We filled our lives with poetry from morning till night…. Why else would we pray, sing, or write? Finding phrases to match the emotion inside us still brings an explosive, soaring joy.”

I believe in the strength and power of words to change lives. Undoubtedly you would agree. And it is plainly evident in our path of discipleship. From fervent testimonies shared in houses of worship to profound and revelatory counsel from prophets during General Conference to the peace and comfort taken from reading holy scripture — all bring us hope and understanding. A strong theme in the Book of Mormon is the keeping and preserving of records. One example that continues to give me pause begins in the book of Omni. Mosiah, when he found a separate group of people in the land of Zarahemla, marveled at the corruption of their language because they had brought no records with them. But even more tragic, “they denied the being of their Creator” (Omni 1:17). Though both groups had ventured forth from a similar land and originally shared a language, those people failed to bring their written words and scriptures, consequently losing the clarity and structure of their language and sadly losing their relationship to God.

Not long after, King Benjamin causes his sons to “be taught in all the language of [their] fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which were delivered them by the hand of the Lord…that [they] might read and understand of His mysteries” (Mosiah 1:2, 5). The words of King Benjamin are as beautiful and powerful and moving today as they were when he first spoke them.

Great teachers inspire us as do great words. Because we are always in a state of learning, forgetting and learning again, our need for great words and teachers is perennial. I like an expression of Mary Oliver: “If you say if right, it helps the heart to bear it.” And lastly, here is piece of poetry in tribute to Mr. Harris and the many fine teachers we look to.

Teacher

I loved my chair — next to the window,
which was there if I needed it.
I loved the odd, crabbed hush in the room
as we slumped and settled in our seats.
I loved the quiet shift that happened — how the air brightened, expanded,
began to hum — as you slipped in,
wild hair and rumpled sweater,
scribbling numbers on the board.
I loved how I hated numbers, had always
hated them, would continue to hate them
until I saw them sprout from your hands.

I loved the silence that slowly fell
as we tried to figure out the path
you were laying down, the tangle of truths through which we must weave
to the heart of whatever mystery
you would reveal to us that day,
like a half-moon we might never see
unless we looked up.

— Joyce Sidman in “What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings”

About Becca Hyde

Becca Hyde began a career as children's librarian right after graduating college. She was also a grade school teacher for a couple of years simultaneously. After many years of choosing to stay home with her children, she is back working at Marshall Public Library as the Early childhood Librarian. Which is a delight! Becca also continues to be choir accompanist at Pocatello High School. She lives on a hillside with her husband, Joe, children and several wandering herds of deer and a moose or two.
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4 Responses to YA Corner: Great Teachers, Great Words

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A lot of emphasis gets placed these days on good teachers as being those who create opportunities for students to learn rather than simply lecturing or “telling” students, and rightly so. Yet gifted teachers also are effective users of language: storytellers, communicators, inspirational speakers. And often some of the most important things they do involve introducing their students to great language. Some of my most vivid memories from my elementary days are still of teachers who read to our class.

  2. Harlow says:

    I’ve been compiling a list of my reading, and it’s interesting to see how much of it started in things other people read to me. My sister and I used to beg our mother to read out of the Childcraft Encyclopedia, poems like “Pirate Dowdirk of Dundee,” “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,” “Little Orphant Annie,” and the story of Abinadi from a book of Book of Mormon stories. There was also a story about an organ grinder with an invisible monkey. The red hardback had the front cover ripped off, and no title page, so I don’t know if I ever knew the title or author. I asked my sibs a few months ago, and even Dennis, with his remarkable store of stories, titles and authors, didn’t remember it.

    And I haven’t even mentioned Theodore Geisel and Theo. LeSieg and the Early Reader series (or whatever it was called) which my mother subscribed to and read to us.

    In grade school I remember things like Homer Price, Me and Caleb, Across Five Aprils, Ben and Me, The Silver Sword, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (love the rhythm of that title) Little Britches, The Boxcar Children, and a retelling of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. (I finally read the whole thing about 10 years ago, Brian Stone’s translation. I also have Tolkien’s but haven’t read it yet. I read the description of Sir Gawain cutting off Green Knight’s head to my son as we were driving up the road to Dead Horse Point. Later in the trip he had me read the first Goosebumps book, Welcome to Dead House. I was surprised to feel a frisson of terror at the end.)

    And lots of others, to pleas of, “just one more chapter.” “Tomorrow.” I associate these stories with the classroom just east of the gym at Wasatch Elementary, which would have been 4th or 5th grade, but the titles I’ve listed are from lots of different levels, so I’m sure all my teachers read to us. Up to 6th grade. I was in Mr. Baggs’ class, the shop teacher, so we would spend one or two hours a day in his classroom and rotate to other teachers as their kids came into shop class. One day Mrs. Arrowsmith substituted for one of the teachers. She had been my brother Kevin’s 6th grade teacher, but had retired before I could get her.

    She read us a poem that started, “It was battered and scarred and the old auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his while.” She said this wasn’t really a poem about a violin. There was something else going on, another story being told, and we were supposed to write about that something else. It was frustrating to try and write because the second half of the poem spelled out the meaning, “so many a man with life out of tune and battered and scarred by sin is auctioned off to the thoughtless crowd much like that old violin. . .” What more could I say?

    I really resented the poem for explaining itself, till I saw Greg Newbold’s illustrations, which greatly improve it.

    It has been my good fortune at times to pick up Dick Estell, The Radio Reader, when I’m travelling. The first time I heard he was reading from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House. I remember a passage about FDR’s first or second campaign, and how some people claimed his name was really Rosenfelt. I also caught a couple of half hours of A Gathering of Saints, Robert Lindsey’s book about the Mark Hoffman murders. And whenever I can I like to listen to Selected Shorts.

    I like what you said about being able to do other things while your teacher read. It reminds me of what I’ve heard about Cuban cigar workers pooling their money to hire a reader to sit in the middle of the factory and read all kinds of stuff while they worked.

    And speaking of rural education, my wife grew up in Custer County. I’ve been counting the number of people in high marching bands in the Strawberry Days parade the last few years. If I see a large school with a small band I think about budget cuts. So Juab, a small school in Nephi, had 1 major, 9 instruments, 2 cymbals, and 8 drummers, while Timpanogos High in Orem, whose studentbody may be more than the population of Nephi, had 2 rifles, 3 flags, 13 instruments and 3 drums.

    A lot of schools have more people in the marching band than attended Challis High. “Did Challis have a marching band?” “Yes, I was in it one year.” “What did you play?” “Clarinet.”

    She does not have fond memories of being read to in school. Her older sister did almost nothing but read, and liked to play teacher. It kind of turned her off to reading. So she married a man who reads constantly. Looking up my notes on bands I found a ditty that stuck in my head that day:
    Old Muqtadah El Sader he had a son and daughter
    He doddered around
    All over the town
    Old Muqtadah El Sader.

    With sounds like Muqtadah El Sader coming over the radio you’ve go to do something. The next day, listening to a Radio Lab show on music and sound I heard a word that inspired the following story: There was a man who could outswear sailors and he got into a bad accident–severe head trauma. He recovered fully but could no longer swear. He had become ineffable.

    “You laugh at your own writing?” Donna said.

  3. Harlow says:

    I went to Provo High, and though they’re considerably bigger than Juab, I don’t think they send a marching band to the Strawberry Days parade, or the Cedar Hills Family Festival, or American Fork Steel Days or Lehi Nephite Days (or whatever they call it–maybe Provo High is anti-Lehi-Nephite).

    Interesting to hear that people are laughing ineffably at me on Twitter, and I don’t even twit, though my wife says I’m twitter-pated sometimes, which is better than being constipated, I suppose. Back when I was learning to love making nonsense mouth noise my mother used to say, “You have diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain.” It never quite Oquirrhed to me to ask what that meant–I just enjoyed the rhythm of it, another of her mysterious sayings like, “Enough is enough and you know what too much is. Plenty.”

    My brother Dennis captured a lot of Mom’s wit in a poem called “Selvage” (one of my favorites). I wonder how much of her life she remembers at 95. I find I can get her to eat a few bites sometimes if I say something like. “It’ll put hair on your chest.” I said that once a few years ago and she said, “Who told you that?” “My mother.” “She lied.”

    I’ll have to ask if she remembers about my verbal diarrhea.

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