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Thursday, September 09, 2004
I'M READING ABOUT HELEN KELLER AGAIN

Not sure why, but she has always been one of my fascinations. Actually, I find Anne Sullivan Macy and the relationship between the two women the main fascination. I find it extraordinary how Anne Sullivan, a young women barely out of her teens, was able to intuit a pedagogical method that most teachers would probably take a lifetime to put together.

A decade or so after her initial breakthroughs with Helen, Annie sent her insights on the matter to Alexander Graham Bell. She is specifically speaking of imparting language skills here, but I think her ideas are applicable on many other levels even beyond the classroom.

"Thank heaven, I didn't have to follow a curriculum when I began teaching Helen. I am convinced she wouldn't have learned language as easily as she did. It seems to me, it is made as difficlut as possible for a child to learn anything.

Helen learned language almost unconsciously. [In schools today] it is made 'a lesson.' The child sits indoors, and for an hour the teacher endeavors more or less skilfully to engrave words upon his brain.

As I look back, it seems as if Helen were always on the jump when I was teaching her. We were generally in the open air doing something. Words were learned as they were needed. She rarely forgot a word that was given her when the action called it forth, and she learned a phrase or even a sentence as readily as a single word when it was needed to describe an action.

Children learn language more quickly when they are free to move about objects that interest them. They absorb words and knowledge simultaneously. In the classroom, they cease to be actors in the drama. They sit and watch the teacher, which does not excite their curiosity particularly. Passivity does not stimulate interest or mental energy. The child learns eagerly what he wants to know, and indifferently what you want him to know.

...Young children need more out-of-door lessons - lessons about living things - trees and flowers and animals - things they love and are curious about. The number of subjects taught is not so important as that children should learn language for the joy of it. The miracle of education is achieved when this happens.


My sister teaches on a university level and frequently shrugs, "You can lead a man to a university, but you can't make him think." We experience the same challenge with our Act One students. We offer them a wide panoply of classes, but unless a student can see how a particular class might serve him or her "right now", they don't really get engaged. Too often, I find myself looking into glazed expressions while I plead, "Please trust us, this is very crucial stuff." Considering Anne Sullivan's words, I think the problem is that information is only "crucial" when someone is searching for it, as the resolution to a personal problem. You can't force that "problem mode" on students.

Beyond the classroom, though, how do people learn anything? I mean beyond the sheer memorization of facts here. How do people internalize something and make it part of their belief system/presuppositions? It's because they are searching, aware of a need and a void.

This is what I find in teaching RCIA, anyway. You have to let the students tell you what they want to learn, to some extent. You lay out a lesson, and then try and guage which part of it tips off an unanswered question inside of them. This invariably means you don't cover your whole curriculum, but the mustard seed they end up getting will have saving power.