“One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see.”-Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day
The author/illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats has always hit a home run in the elementary school classroom. His stories, seemingly simple with simple illustrations appealed to children from all over the world. I’m sure they still do. “Ezra grew up and lived in New York City, where he saw children of different races and nationalities every day. And as the child of struggling immigrant parents, Ezra knew what it meant to feel like an outsider. When he was a young man, he happened to see a series of photos in a magazine of a little boy who was black about to get an injection. Ezra kept these pictures for many years without knowing why they were so important to him. When he decided to write and illustrate his own picture book, it struck him that all the children’s books he had ever seen were filled with white children. That was when he realized why he had kept those pictures. This little boy was going to be the hero of Ezra’s book, and, in a way, to represent Ezra in the world of his own childhood.”-ezrajackkeats.org
I was a teacher who taught about all cultures in my classroom and didn’t limit my lessons to particular months, i.e. February is Black History Month…March is Women’s History Month…October is Hispanic American Month…May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month and so on. In a way, the designations of teaching certain cultures during specific months forced teachers to at least get a lesson in on that particular culture/race/heritage. There are classrooms that would never get even one lesson if not for those assigned months…sad to say.
This month, personally, gives me the opportunity to revisit writers, artists, philosophers, entertainers, sports legends, actors and so on that I have admired for oh so many years. Today I choose writer/observer James Baldwin and writer Nella Larsen of the Harlem Renaissance era. I used to love listening to James Baldwin when he was interviewed…the tone of his voice was mesmerizing and he never held back. I’ve read everything he wrote and ditto for Nella Larsen who doesn’t have a large body of work.
Here’s what Baldwin had to say about education many, many years ago:
Happy 84th Birthday to Robert Coles. Have you ever heard him speak? Have you read any of his books? Oh What a Man! I probably was introduced to him by mom, who you’ve read several times already, returned to college when I was about 6 years old and attended night school 10 years to obtain her undergraduate degree. Robert Coles remained with me throughout my career as an educator and my unending career as a parent. The above quote is quite personal; my son didn’t enjoy reading as a student, so I would read to him or we would take turns reading to each other and to this day he remembers some very wonderful books that touched his heart, i.e.: The Island On Bird Street by Uri Orlev. In fact, when he was teaching a summer school group in Brooklyn before he got an actual teaching job in NYC, he shared that book with his Chinese students; this was a Chinese student summer learning program in the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn that prepared its students for middle school grades 6-8. That young boy who didn’t enjoy reading now loves it, went onto teach in NYC for 4 years and is currently living and teaching in India for 2 years along with his wonderful lady who is also teaching there.
Back to Robert Coles…I learned this morning that his mom was a big influence on his outlook and that she introduced young Robert to the teachings of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day. I think I read that his mom used to get Day’s newsletter in the mail.
“Coles suggests that one’s worth is ultimately measured not by knowledge or intellect but by how one acts when no one is looking. He encourages his students to look to poetry and literature for a different and valuable perspective on the universal experiences of pain and suffering, and seems to imply that a patient’s subjective health status may be at least as important as the “objective reality” provided by sophisticated forms of medical technology…Coles urges his students to find meaning in the stories their patients tell them, even if they do not share similar cultural or literary backgrounds. Stories give us glimpses into realities we cannot articulate, choose to ignore, or have simply been too busy to notice. Although literature is not a panacea, it can offer the understanding doctors and patients yearn for through the use of image, metaphor, beauty, and epiphany. Medical students and seasoned physicians would do well to read this book. In it, Coles reminds us of the mimetic power of stories and the lessons they teach, again and again.”–The New England Journal of Medicine, 11-22-90