When I was a student teacher, the school held a luncheon for all the retiring teachers. It was one of the most academically prestigious public high schools in the United States, a place where people should be grateful to teach. After a nice lunch and the easy laughter that comes at the year's end, we gathered around to honor the retirees. I sat next to another student teacher who, like me, had enjoyed a wonderful semester.
They first called Mr. Cragen to the front to give him a retirement gift. I had watched Mr. Cragen every morning ham it up across the office at his messy desk where he ritually pulled down one of the many sticky notes from the wall. Each one had a number on it—to help him track how few days were left until he retired.
As he stood before us, he grew solemn. Without looking up, he said, "I came to work here 35 years ago and remember going home that first day and thinking to myself that I didn't really like the experience." People cleared their throats and grew visibly awkward in the silence that followed his words. "And I feel like today I'm looking up and wondering where the last 35 years of my life have gone, and why I stayed." With this, he shuffled to his table and finished his drink while the rest of us bathed in his misery.
That is, until Flossie Lewis, another retiree, leapt to the front. At 65, she was a legend and still inspiring: She was retiring so that she could pursue her doctorate and write her next book. She immediately set everything right, talking about what an honor it had been to work with everyone there and with students of so many generations.
Ten years later, that afternoon still seems to embody the problem that we all face: how to keep teaching fresh despite many demands, inevitable difficulties, and cynical colleagues. Other factors further challenge teachers' goodwill and stamina when they feel, thanks to state-imposed testing and an increasingly standardized curriculum, a loss of power. Professional independence remains crucial for teachers to take risks, to follow the class where it wants to go, and to engage in the kind of inquiry that transforms a class into a community.
The Need for Community
We need different types of communities to sustain and inspire us. Our classroom is not enough. We seek like minds who are committed to learning and who are interested in discussing what we learn. We find these minds in various places, all of which nourish us at different times.
Some of us take comfort in the printed conversations in books, where we enter into essential dialogues with authors whom we respect. Others seek out a community of colleagues through the Internet, creating their own virtual departments where they can escape the sarcasm and cynicism that might otherwise erode their enthusiasm for teaching. Finally, there remains the heart of our enterprise, the classroom, a place where we know we can drink deeply the energy that our students offer—if only we grant them a place at the conversational table.
Extending the Invitation
Although I draw profound strength and joy from my online community, from the colleagues at work with whom I share my enthusiasm, and from my reading, one particular classroom experience transformed me in a lasting way. In my third year of teaching, I faced a wall of indifference, even a resistance, to reading, which stumped me. I did not know what to do, so I asked my students what they were thinking. This first step toward negotiating with my students helped me realize how much they could help me be a better teacher. Many of their attitudes are reflected in the words of a young man whom I liked very much but never knew how to reach:
I am not reading [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. I do not know the last chapter I read. That is not important because I do not understand this book because this book is gibberish. I will not read this book for that reason. I do not think that your help will help. I would be willing to try once again in English once we get off this book. I was working before we started reading this book. I think Huck Finn is a dumb book that doesn't teach me anything. I would rather read the dictionary. I would value it a lot more. It is also easier to understand since it is written in English.
Reading this late at night during Thanksgiving vacation, I felt utterly defeated. "Keeping it fresh" now seemed like something I had to achieve not only for myself but also for my students. But I taught 150 kids! All sizes and styles, all wonderful. My question to students yielded a pile of intelligence about what they wanted; what they thought; and what they needed as people, as students, and as readers. When you are new, you have to learn to listen, to ask. That's when teaching gets real, gets live. The kids can feel it and will respond to it.
That night, I wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, with the chorus of students' voices still ringing in my ears.
In an era of decreasing commitment to literacy—how else to explain the failure of the state, for example, to adequately fund the libraries?—it is no surprise that most students, too, are bypassing books.
Instead they look elsewhere for information, for entertainment, for experience. I would like to invite you to write to my high school students about your experiences with books, perhaps telling them what role books and literature have played in your life.
I would be just as interested in hearing from the 6-year-old about her favorite book as the 60-year-old whose life was changed by the reading of a book. Send your letters to me at Burlingame High School. Thank you, and keep reading.
When I returned to school the following week, a river of words began to pour into my mailbox and my classroom. We received more than 1,000 letters from people across the United States. We heard from 3rd graders, felons, lawyers, soldiers, musicians—even a cattle rancher. Their voices forced their way into our classroom and into my mind in a way that I could not have imagined. "Keeping it fresh," as I said, means looking after both ourselves and our students. As author Donald Murray described, if there is no surprise for the writer, there can be none for the reader. So it is with students. The letters forced me to learn in the presence of my students, to enter into a real conversation with them about what was important to me—and to them.
One letter was written by a young woman new to the United States; her teacher had asked her class to respond to my letter:
Dear Mr. Burke:
For me a book is a big part of my life. It makes me feel good, and while I'm reading a book, I want to know more and more about it. If you really want to have a really cool adventure, read a book. But you need to pay attention and imagine that you are the character of the book and that the things that are happening in the book are happening to you.
My life have change since I started to read different kinds of books. One of them was When I Was Puerto Rican because before I read that book, I felt that I was the only person who thought that almost everybody around me didn't like me cause my skin's color and because I am Latina. That book taught me that the people has to like you for what you are, not for what you have, don't have or because what you look like. I'm very proud of reading books and very pleased with them. My life is not so hard like when I got to the USA. Now the books are my friends, company, and they make me feel better when I'm sad or when I'm alone. This is how I feel about a book.
—Helen Garcia, High school ESL student
This and other letters came into our class like missives from the real world. We talked about passion, about what mattered to people. Many of my students realized that at 16, they did not yet know what they cared about and that a fascination with a particular rock band would not sustain them in adult life.
Each day, as I read the best of the letters, the students marveled that people took the time to write to our class. The letters described reading in ways that they had never heard before. The boys were especially moved by the letters from felons such as Eddie Burnett, a man serving a life sentence for murder:
Books . . . I became fascinated with law books. Unfortunately, my introduction to those law books came about as the result of having broken the law, repeatedly. Had I discovered law books before breaking those laws, I would in all probability have become a successful lawyer. . . . I know for an absolute fact, based upon what I have read after it was too late, that I would have succeeded in some legal endeavor whatever it was.
Hell, every time I read my monthly National Geographic I want to go to those wonderfully exotic far off places. With each issue of Smithsonian I want to visit the wondrous treasures that our museums hold. . . . From smashing the atom in a supercollider to the thoughtful prose of a Robert Frost, I will continue at 43 to learn facts and mysteries through reading books. And I will honor my obligation to try and pass on to others what I have learned. My job is much harder than yours. I have to put pictures of naked women on the outside of my books and magazines in order to trick others into reading them.
More money is put into prison construction than into schools. That, in itself, is a nation bent on suicide. . . . We'll certainly need more prisons if our students won't read books. And if our legislators don't send our students books to read, they themselves should be imprisoned.
Hopefully your editorial will receive more illuminating responses and experiences of specific literature with which to inspire your students. Perhaps you can use mine to exemplify the consequence of failure and point out how easy it is to slide into submoronic idiocy.
Language is the crux of communication. We learn from the experience of others—that becomes written history, in books. . . . Endeavor to persevere. I salute you.
—Yours truly, Eddie Burnett
Instead of teaching by the district's itemized list—which I recognized as important—I moved toward what Arthur Applebee calls "curriculum as conversation."
I began to sit with students, asking more and telling less, all the while filling up with the same joy and excitement that I had witnessed in Flossie Lewis when I watched her teach. I think that we were learning how to learn and giving one another permission to do so in that class.
Keeping It Fresh Means Continuing to Learn
One lasting outcome of that class has been my need to have some new thing that I am determined to learn or to do better every year. I've grown to think of teaching as a juggling act: Each year I master the routine; then I come back in the fall and choose something new to add. I feel sometimes like the juggler who has everything going in the air and then asks the kid to throw him a live fish, which he must work into the routine. With practice and patience, he eventually does. This keeps teaching alive for me and keeps me honest in the presence of my students, who are consistently aware that I always try to learn.
One of my favorite stories is Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus," in which Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a mountain for eternity. I talk about how we all have our boulders to push up the hill of life: work, family, relationships. And we talk about how we can get up and push that rock up the mountain—day in, day out.
Our discussions recall my early teaching experiences. Mr. Cragen let the stone roll over him, seeing in the task no room for creativity. Flossie Lewis brought style to her work. She dressed up as a historical character one day and recited poetry by Keats the next; she established a relationship with that rock—which is to say, with her students—and through this relationship was transformed into a remarkable teacher.
Being a teacher offers so many blessings to those who can invite the world into their classroom. A simple question might yield just such a powerful response:
Is reading important to you? Yes, because if you don't read and if you can't read you can't learn and if you can't learn you can't servive and no one wants to die and that's why reading is important to me.
—Stephen Schueler, 2nd grade student
Applebee, A. (1996). Curriculum as conversation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jim Burke teaches English at Burlingame High School in California. His most recent book is I'll Grant You That: How to Get the Money You Need to Do the Things You Want (with Carol Prater, Heinemann, 2000). He may be reached through his Web site at