Learning to Learn

This is Teacher Appreciation Week. Sunday’s Humans of New York was a young man talking about a teacher who changed his life. It’s a beautiful story. I’m sure many people have great stories like that: a teacher who made the difference in their ability to process information, see themselves more clearly, envision possibilities for their future that were well beyond what seemed expected or obvious. I have a couple of stories like that, too.

I also think about the people who’ve had not a singe positive experience of education, not a single teacher who cared enough about them to be that one beautiful story. I think about the poet I studied with freshman year of college who regularly belittled us. She told me I was a greeting card poet. She asked us to critique a Roethke poem and then told us we didn’t have the writing talent to be allowed any opinions about Roethke’s writing. Sigh.

But this is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m going to set those unfortunate stories aside. Who have been the stand-out teachers in my life?

The first answer to that question is easy: Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, my third grade teachers. They co-taught the experimental class I was lucky enough to be placed in. We had lots of options for learning through lay, for self-directed learning, for small-group activities. Our classroom was the school’s old cafeteria, so it was huge. We had stations all over the space — with books, with toys, with tools, with animals (which I enjoyed until I was bitten by the gerbil) with big floor pillows.

I’d worked with Miss Rittenberg before that year. In first grade, I’d been sent to study reading in her second grade class because at that point I’d been a reader for almost three years and many of my classmates were newer readers. And then she was my second grade teacher. So I got the wonderful experience of working with the same good teacher three years in a row. She knew me, knew how I learned and what I liked and how to draw me out of my painfully shy silence. Such an incredible luxury, finding a teacher who liked me, saw potential in me, encouraged me, knew how to support and inspire me … and then to have that teacher year after year.

loved my third grad class. I loved the non-traditional shape, size, and set-up of the room. I loved my teachers. I loved the freedom I felt in that class. I’m sure I wouldn’t have known to describe it that way, but that’s the overarching color of all my memories of third grade: I was free, I was in charge of … my brain, I guess. I wasn’t being pushed to do what everyone else was doing, I could move ahead in a book or stay behind to repeat something over and over if I wanted to. Freedom.

To this day, my favorite way to learn things is like third grade. I never had another learning environment like that, but it has been at the base of my thoughts about education ever since. When I read Mosaic of Thought in the late 90s, I was far from third grade. I was already an adult education teacher, working with emerging readers, adults reading between first and third grade level. I spent a lot of my time back then trying to remember how I’d learned to read, trying to remember how I’d learned to read for meaning. Though it wasn’t really the answer to those questions, one of the first things I thought about was being sent to Miss Rittenberg’s class as a first grader, being given the chance to read closer to my level rather than being made to wait for my classmates. And that wasn’t about learning to read but was about facilitating learning, about acknowledging that people take-in information differently and that it’s possible to meet learners where they are and encourage them to keep pushing forward. I remembered how good it felt to not be held back, how good it felt to discover books.

Reading Mosaic was an incredible gift for me as a teacher. The book resonated with me on so many levels. The description of the ways to help learners come to reading, come to books, felt entirely familiar, felt like third grade. I didn’t know how those ideas of teaching would translate to the adult classroom, but I was instantly ready to try. (And so, happily, was my teaching partner and our bosses.)

Some things were definitely not going to be transferable. I wasn’t going to hold a student on my lap during reading time, for example! But there was so much to think about in the “simple” question of how to we become skilled, thoughtful readers?” And again I thought about third grade. What I remembered from my experience in Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa’s classroom was part of what I was trying to create in my adult literacy classroom.

Almost immediately after I started blogging in 2008, I stumbled onto Two Writing Teachers. The creators of the site — Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayers — taught children, not adults. Reading their posts, I quickly realized they were my modern day Rittenberg and Felepa, that their ideas about teaching connected with my Utopian memories of third grade. Many of the teachers whose blogs I’ve read as a result of finding TWT have given me that same vibe.

Third grade shaped the way I envision classroom learning, and that’s huge, but it’s not the only thing I got from that year. I think it set me up for trusting my own mind. A lot of the learning I did in that classroom centered around things I chose to work on, things I chose to explore. I have no memory of anyone ever telling me there was one clear “right” way to do the work or find the answer.

After third grade, I was shoehorned into an uber-old-school classroom with a teacher who was nothing like my third grade teachers. We had moved to a new town and I didn’t know anyone. We knew nothing about my new school, so my parents couldn’t advocate for my placement in a classroom that might have suited me better (which is probably how I wound up in that experimental classroom in the first place … and, too, I doubt my new school had any classes that resembled third grade even vaguely).

“Freedom” was definitely not a way I have described fourth grade … or fifth or sixth or seventh … All the same, I made it through with my dream of third grade in tact. I made it through with my understanding that learning could happen in a lot of ways, not just with the teacher standing in front of the classroom telling us what to know and how to know it.

I was a weirdo in a lot of those classrooms, letting my third grade brain show out in some of the projects I created or the work I turned in. For the most part, my “weirdness” was tolerated, though sometimes only barely, and I was allowed to keep moving forward.

The things I learned about learning and about my own ability to think was made strong enough by what I experienced in third grade that it was able to survive the rejection of independent thought, self-direction, and creativity that I faced in the classrooms that followed.

I stayed shy and meek, and in some ways those traits gave cover to my weirdness. My thinking and learning were mostly silent endeavors. I looked studious, and I was, just not always in the ways my teachers might have imagined. And looking the part could be enough for teachers who weren’t interested in investing too much time or energy in their students — or, as the case sometimes was, in me specifically as the lone Black child in the sea of white children who “belonged” in the room.

So I’m kicking off Teacher Appreciation wee with a hearty thank you to the first teachers I ever had (outside my family) who saw and cared about me, who helped me start learning how to learn. Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, I honestly can’t imagine who I would be — as a person or an educator — without you. Thank you.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

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One thought on “Learning to Learn

  1. Pingback: Being Seen – if you want kin, you must plant kin …

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