I took Louisa May Alcott into the classroom with me. But I didn’t realize this until during a class in graduate school when I was already well into my career. While studying the revolutionary teaching practices of Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, I became curious about how his pedagogy showed up in Louisa’s novels. So I reread Little Women and Little Men.
Best sellers when they were published soon after the Civil War, Alcott’s books have been criticized as overly sentimental and sermonizing. But the books have also been lauded. The New York Times, for example, ranked Little Women in the 100 best young adult books of all time.
When I first read Alcott as a kid, I hadn’t care about reviews or best seller lists. I read for the story, identifying especially with Jo, who is socially clumsy, hotly-opinionated, geeky, and always trying to make something happen. Like Jo, I wanted to paddle my own canoe and write a book. But as I read Alcott’s books again, I realized how much she had fed the practices of my teaching.
When I began teaching, for example, paddles still hung on the walls. And with my room just down the hall from the principal’s office, I could hear the whacks. This sometimes took me back to the scene in Little Women when Mr. Davis punishes Amy for bringing limes to school. Amy “set her teeth, threw back her head defiantly and bore without flinching several tingling blows on her little palm.” Alcott uses this scene as a contrast to more thoughtful interventions like the “conscience book,” which was used in a weekly conference with students about their progress in overcoming bad habits, improving manners, and growing in virtue. Alcott, I realized, had set in me a proclivity for peaceful teaching, to use love rather than fear as a motivator.
Alcott also shows scene after scene of adults being honest with kids. Professor Bhaer admits to Nat that he, too had a problem with lying. Marme tells Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life . . . and I still hope to learn . . . though it may take me another forty years to do so.” And I found that when I was honest with students about my temper, my forgetfulness, my worry, they took courage, knowing they had company on the journey.
Most of all, Alcott helped me to create an ambiance. “We have such good times here,” a student says of the school in Little Men. “It’s the nicest place in the world.” And so. Like Alcott, I tried to bring nature into my classroom and paintings and music and drama. I tried to create corners that were calm and counters full of mind-wrenching puzzles and activities to get bodies moving.
Rereading Alcott’s books gave me a chance to ponder my teaching. Were the ever-ringing bells and the constantly-changing school terms and the passing years wearing me down? Or was I holding to my ideals?