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Catch the light and color when you take time to read

Publication Date: 2009-05-15

from the El Paso Times, May 14, 2009.

Go forth and explore your classroom joy.

It is easier to teach a subject that has well-defined boundaries and clearly marked entry and exit points than one that relies on the learner's attitudes, emotions, and proclivities for its successful transmission.

While reading from the essays of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, or expounding the virtues of a poem by Keats or Shelley, my English teacher, Mr. Biswas, frequently asked us to look for the colors and sounds of words, and to weigh sentences or lines on the air of possibilities.

Such injunctions, clothed in nebulousness and eccentricity -- that is how they seemed to us -- were difficult to understand, and when understood difficult to appreciate.

With time, however, I learned that there was a difference between saying something and saying it well, and that the latter was contingent on such intangibles as the texture of words and the felicity of sentences.

When I became a teacher, I reasoned with myself that my primary objective ought not to be to make accomplished writers or fastidious grammarians of my students -- the former is not possible except where the will of the student accepts the ink from Heaven; and the latter is too prone to tedium and defeat -- but to teach them the value of well-expressed sentiments in speech or writing that catch the light at different angles.

To celebrate language, a teacher cannot live within its utilitarian ambit; instead, he must seek the lofty perch to which the quotidian commerce of words and thoughts sublimate
themselves. In other words, he must abandon the comfort and linearity of planned lessons for the excitement and uncertainty of a roiling linguistic and literary landscape in which serendipity and unorthodoxy may play a part.

In Blue Balliett's novel "Chasing Vermeer," Ms. Hussey, a sixth-grade teacher, announced to her students on the first day of school that what they were going to work on that year depended on "what we get interested in -- or what gets interested in us."

Since awakening children's minds is a great challenge in today''s educational milieu, the philosophy espoused by Ms. Hussey should give every teacher a jolt of joy, for what child would not look forward to a period of instruction where some fancy or predilection may take root and propel activity and learning to unexpected places.

Some years back, a boy with a keen talent for seeking drama in ordinary events, declared with boisterous certainty that a plastic lizard that another boy had brought to class was in fact a student who had been absent for several days.

The boy elaborated that Miss Magic, who was known to cast powerful spells during recess with a wand constructed from a mulberry tree's branch, and who often assumed the personage of Hermione in Harry Potter novels, had been the architect of the metamorphosis.

I abandoned the lesson plan, for the urgency clearly was to convince Miss Magic to release the absent boy from captivity. This required a campaign of well-constructed epistolary entreaties, and students sat down to work on their missives.

A civic-minded girl, who was equally interested in maintaining the classroom's reputation, sprang to her feet, and told me that, ipso facto, we should report perfect attendance: 21 students and one lizard.

She would provide the evidentiary document.

Ramnath Subramanian, a sixth-grade science teacher at Eastwood Knolls School in El Paso, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address: ramnath10@aol.com

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