How What I Learned in First Grade Helped Me Teach

Yoder School, the memoir I wrote about my learning, is the backstory to my teaching. I didn’t go around talking with students about my teacher Alvina or how I felt when Mr. Pollard understood about me being so different in Flint. I didn’t tell my students that I listened, actually listened, to their excuses about homework because Mr. Cline at the community college hadn’t believed that I missed his quiz because my car was stolen from our driveway. So though I didn’t explain all this to students, these memories traveled with me into the classes I taught at the middle school and the prison and in parent education.

It was Alvina, my first teacher, who set in me the pattern to reflect, to take what I had seen and heard and to hold it up for examination. She’d take us to a chicken house or send us to the woods. And then she’d ask us, “What did you see? What did you hear? And we’d write our daily diaries.

IMG_7336A butterfly came out of our cocoon, I wrote on Wednesday, February 7, 1963. Its wings were crippled.

And the next day I wrote, Our butterfly was dead.

Life, I could see, wasn’t always right.

Later, though, I wrote about a different butterfly, one that unfurled its wings and flew away.

Life, I could then see, was sometimes beautiful.

Alvina taught me to collect stories and to carry them with me. And to use one story to inform another. How could my bad citizenship mark in first grade and my parent’s solution of a bird workbook help me when I felt restless in Mrs. Lott’s room in Flint? And later, what could I do when a student felt restless in my classroom?

All through grade school and high school and college, I did what Alvina taught me. I collected the stories that informed much of my three decades of teaching. And these stories became Yoder School.

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