Maya Angelou–A Phenomenal Woman Who Taught by Being

“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” ~ Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou died today. The news of her passing hit me unexpectedly hard. Though we never met, she was a presence in my life through her words. What a loss. In my mind she was a phenomenal woman who lived up to the standard she set for herself in the quote above. I, too, would like to be known as these things to my friends, family, and students. I hope to be the kind of teacher she has encouraged us to be. Below, I explore some of her words about education that inspire, challenge, and motivate me.

Angelou has said that the influence of teachers is greater than “the most broad, the most wide, the deepest, the most profound influence you can imagine.” I take this responsibility seriously. Whenever a student I taught a decade or more ago seeks me out to thank me, to share happy news, to ask for advice, or to inquire about my well-being, I am reminded of the impact a teacher can have in a child’s life.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” is perhaps one of Ms. Angelou’s best known quotes and one I remind myself of often. I know that I have the power to uplift or destroy and I want to be sure to use my powers for good.

Angelou encouraged teachers to “Teach because it’s your calling. And once you realize that, you have a responsibility to the young people. And it’s not a responsibility to teach them by rote and by threat and even by promise. Your responsibility is to care about what you’re saying to them, to care about what they’re getting from what you’re saying.” Teaching is not only a calling, it’s an incredibly tough job. To be effective requires more effort than I would have thought possible as a young, idealistic undergraduate. Moreover, teaching is both science and art and it takes years to feel on top of your game. Although I am confident in my level of expertise, I am not complacent. After 20+ years, I am still learning of new ideas to implement and refining my practice because I want to do right by my students. Because I do care about both the information and the child, I refuse to teach by rote and threat or even promise. I want to enrich their minds and their hearts in the brief time we have together in our classroom. This requires constant vigilance and plain old hard work–and I love every minute of it all!

Finally, a quote that appeals to the English teacher in me (and a topic that I’ve written about in a previous post): “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” It is my fervent hope that the reformers who make education policy will eventually involve teachers in the process and realize that we are killing children’s love of learning—especially in the area of literacy. Please, let them read!

Rest softly, dear Maya.

Inquiry + Gradual Release of Responsibility = A Recipe for Success

I’m a big fan of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and Bruner, and their ideas strongly influence my teaching. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction is built on the foundation of their work and appeals to me for many reasons. I have found that inquiry plus GRR has been invaluable in deepening student understanding in my language arts class classroom.

Over the years, I’ve discovered how important it is to scaffold instruction so that students are not turned loose before they are ready and able to be successful. In my opinion, the most beneficial part of the GRR model I use is a form of structured inquiry toward the beginning of the process. It really cements the learning. I’ve outlined my argumentative writing instruction below.

Focus Step: I set the stage with providing the learning focus: Argumentative Writing. We discussed where students might see this type of writing in real life, what forms it may take, and a working definition of the term argumentative.

Structured Inquiry Step: Students worked in groups. I provided each group with multiple examples of exemplary argumentative mentor texts in various forms—editorials, student samples, blog posts, magazine articles, political writing, etc. Their task was to closely read these texts, determine as a group what commonalities they observed, and record their findings.

Guided Instruction Step: Groups took turns sharing their findings with the whole class. The information was compiled on the whiteboard. I then provided explicit instruction in a mini-lesson about how the characteristics they “noticed” fit into argumentative writing using correct academic vocabulary. (They were very excited to have figured these out on their own.) Together, we determined possibilities for organizing the information. They used these as the foundation for strong persuasive writing.

 Group Work Step: The student groups choose a topic to argue. They wrote their arguments and evidence in note form and then organized the information logically. Each group determined their best idea, and then fleshed out this idea into a full paragraph that they shared with the entire class.

Independent Learning Step: I then gave them the opportunity to practice and apply what they discovered in some fun, low-stakes persuasive writing exercises (to be detailed in a future post). Finally, students chose a topic of personal meaning and wrote their own argumentative paper.

 Assessment/Reflection Step: As a class, we determined an informal rubric containing the characteristics previously determined to be used for self-assessment and reflection. They shared their writing with others for feedback, evaluated themselves, conferenced with me for feedback, made adjustments as necessary, and then submitted a polished piece.

I use various versions of this model for many topics I teach. It has been successful for me and I hope your version of Gradual Release of Responsibility works as well for you.

The Class Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I believe that students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they realize this—watch out! The potential for learning in your class will be limitless.

When I was in high school, I started watching “Cheers” on TV. I watched in part because Coach made me laugh, but mostly because I loved the theme song. Every time the singer crooned,

“Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name”

I would think to myself: Yes. Yes, I do want to go to this magical place where everyone liked me and choruses would erupt when I walked in the door. How great would that be? Who wouldn’t want that?

Since I was a child, I was a good student and well behaved so I was largely ignored by teachers and never encouraged to reach for more than just getting good grades. Most teachers knew little else about me besides my academic standing and they didn’t seem to want to know more. I lost count of the number of times I was called by some other dark-haired girl’s name. (The principal even said my name incorrectly when announcing my scholarship at graduation!) I got the message that hard work and good behavior was all that was expected of me. I got used to being invisible. I never stood up for myself. I shut down emotionally. Even though I loved learning, I never liked middle or high school. I wonder if this may have been different if any adult outside of my immediate family had ever told me that I mattered and that I was enough. (See Angela Maiers’ “You Matter Manifesto.”) However, it did make me the kind of teacher that I am, and my students benefit from what I never had.

My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished.

My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know them personally to achieve this environment. The first few days of my class are devoted to learning their names and a bit about them. Several years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite. They give me this feeling in return. And I know all of their names.