During #TeacherAppreciationWeek I wrote a lengthy Twitter thread about five teachers that have had a significant, positive impact on my life. Thanks to ThreadReaderApp, I can present the whole thread here in quasi-essay form:
For #TeacherAppreciationWeek, I’m going to write every day in this thread about a teacher that had a meaningful impact on my life.
Monday: Fred Holden
Today I want to write about Fred Holden. He was one of my English teachers at duPont Manual in the late 1980s. Unlike most of the teachers I’d had in the past, he treated us like young adults, not like children.
Mr. Holden gave us space to think. He was one of the first teachers I ever had who would ask us a question and then just let it hang there in silence while we chewed it over.
After we read Walden and Civil Disobedience, he took the whole class on a camping trip where we discussed Thoreau’s ideas, journaled about nature, learned about constellations, and sat around a bonfire.
He was one of the few teachers I’d had up to that point who seemed to take ideas seriously AND believed that we were also capable of taking ideas seriously.
I ran into Mr. Holden twenty years later around the time I was starting my teaching career. Not only did he immediately remember me, he was able to recall a satirical play I had written for his class. I was so flattered. I told him he was one of my teaching role models.
As far as I know, he’s currently retired from teaching. He grows food on his Floyds Fork farm and sells it at the Douglass Loop farmer’s market. I need to go by there and say hello.
Tuesday: Janet Parker
For Tuesday’s contribution to my #TeacherAppreciationWeek thread, I’m going to write about someone who taught me during one of my worst school years: fifth grade.
My fifth grade teacher was one of the worst I’ve ever had, but I’ll waste no time on her. Instead, I want to talk about the teacher who made fifth grade thoroughly enjoyable and helped me learn valuable lifelong skills.
I started to get severe, stress-induced migraines in fifth grade. To make a very long story mercifully short, part of the solution was to pull me out of school once per week so I could receive individual instruction in computer programming.
My mother would pick me up at school and take me to the U of L education building, where I took hour-long lessons from Dr. Janet Parker, a college professor with the patience of a saint.
Dr. Parker was very interested in computers and education. Google Scholar shows several articles she wrote in the mid to late 80s on that topic.
She taught me how to create all kinds of programs in BASIC: drawing programs, math programs, puzzles, word games, “choose your own adventure” style text-based games, and much more.
Going to Dr. Parker’s office was an important escape for me. It was like a doorway to the future that I was able to glimpse once a week. It put me on a lifelong path of technological proficiency.
I wasn’t just learning about computer programming, though. I was learning about organization, responsibility, math, design, concision, and so much more.
There were no worksheets. There was no busywork. There were no lectures about how I would need this in the future or how it would be important for college applications or career paths. I was learning this because I wanted to learn it.
And my mistakes were my own. If I got frustrated and gave up, it didn’t mean a bad grade; it just meant that the program that I was writing — the one I WANTED to write — wouldn’t get finished. That’s all. But that was important. This was an early lesson in intrinsic motivation.
I’m not a computer programmer today, but the facility and familiarity I gained with computers in Dr. Parker’s office have stuck with me ever since. And I learned that learning can be an exciting, meaningful journey — as long as the learner is as engaged and empowered as I was.
This lesson carries forth into my journalism instruction. My journalism students have free rein to pursue topics about which they are passionate. And if they’re not sure what they’re passionate about, I’ll try to help them figure that out.
Wednesday: Dee Hawkins
For Wednesday of #TeacherAppreciationWeek I want to talk about someone who was never my teacher, but who still inspired my pedagogy and praxis: Dee Hawkins.
Dee Hawkins was an English teacher at Central High School in the late 1990s. She was at the center of a controversy involving books by E. Lynn Harris.
Hawkins had a classroom library of about 200 books, and among them were a few novels by Harris. The books were not required reading, but students were able to borrow them and take them home.
The books by Harris, which had a few scenes describing sex between men, became controversial when a parent objected to their presence in Hawkins’ classroom.
In the late ’90s, Louisville had a lot of LGBT activism. The Fairness Campaign was fighting for a “fairness ordinance” that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. And of course the local Religious Right was highly active too.
The Religious Right folks, including Frank Simon, came after Dee Hawkins with a vengeance. They threatened Hawkins with violence and tried to get her fired. The CJ’s Veda Morgan covered the story:
Hawkins stood strong. She defended her decision to include all kinds of books in her classroom library. She argued on behalf of her students’ right to read books they could enjoy and relate to. And she patiently, firmly argued against homophobia.
I was inspired by Hawkins’ strength and resolve, but I was also impressed with her classroom library and the idea that students engage best with reading that they select and can relate to. Students who can make choices about their education make the best learners.
There were a lot of things that influenced me to become a teacher, but seeing Hawkins calmly defend herself and her students in front of an auditorium full of angry protesters was definitely a key factor.
Hawkins and her students ended up winning the battle, by the way. A JCPS committee ruled that the books could stay and then placed the matter into the hands of Central’s SBDM — who also ruled in Hawkins’ favor.
A few years later, when I had my own classroom at Shawnee, I had my own classroom library as part of the Ramp-Up program. I made sure that I had books that my students would want to read, including E. Lynn Harris books, “The Coldest Winter Ever,” “A Child Called It,” and so on.
I’ve had some stressful times as a teacher, but I’ve never had to deal with death threats and people trying to get me fired. Dee Hawkins taught me that these battles are worth fighting and our students are worth fighting for.
Thursday: David Lavery
My #TeacherAppreciationWeek thread continues today with appreciation of a professor in Tennessee who taught me (and many other people) that close analysis can be applied to any text, not just Serious Literature and Great Art and Classical Music.
In the early ’90s I was working on my bachelor’s degree in communications at Memphis State University (now known as University of Memphis). I was looking for easy COMM credits to finish my degree, so I enrolled in a course about science fiction film.
David Lavery taught the hell out of that course. Yes, we watched movies in class, but we also discussed them. We read and wrote essays about them. We argued about them.
We talked about author’s intent, the role of the audience, separating art from artist, postmodernism, symbolism, imagery, the difference between homage and ripoff, and so much more.
For my final essay in the class, I wrote about the ways in which John Carpenter’s “The Thing” reflected America’s anxieties about AIDS and male intimacy. Writing about that movie helped me watch it (and other movies) in a whole new way.
Professor Lavery helped me discover a whole new genre of writing (film criticism) and a whole new way of watching movies and TV shows. He reinforced the idea that writing reflectively and analytically about a text could reveal layers and layers of additional meaning.
On the last day of the course, Professor Lavery took me aside and praised me for my essay about “The Thing.” He gave me a copy of Baudrillard’s “America” and recommended that I read more postmodernist authors.
Unfortunately, Professor Lavery passed away in 2016. After his stint in Memphis, he taught at MTSU and became widely hailed as an expert in TV shows like Buffy, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and many more.
What Professor Lavery had done for me, he had also done for so many other people.
Lavery organized academic conferences about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He wrote a whole book about Joss Whedon. He spent his life saying “This stuff is actually meaningful and worth our time, in many ways.”
He didn’t just study and write about popular culture, though. He was also fascinated with British author Owen Barfield, to the point where he produced and directed an award-winning film about him.
I wish I could have taken more of Professor Lavery’s courses, attended his conferences, and had more discussions with him about movies, politics, popular culture, and everything else. Rest in peace, Professor.
Friday: Diana Donsky
Ms. Donsky was a witty, fierce, passionate teacher who did not suffer fools gladly. She loved teaching, loved language, loved literature and poetry — and she imbued us with that same love.
She made us memorize Chaucer’s intro to the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” And she made sure we understood the ribald nature of the Miller’s Tale.
Ms. Donsky loved learning for its own sake and she didn’t mind making literate jokes and witty puns that students were not always quick to catch. In a time of anti-intellectualism, Donsky never failed to heap contempt upon those who scorned arts, literature, and academia.
She passed away in 2003 and was inducted into Manual’s Hall of Fame in 2017. I visited her grave yesterday. Rest in peace, Ms. Donsky.