Earlier this year, I received a precious gift from a student. Sydney emailed me an essay that she had written for a scholarship that included a reflection on what it’s like to be in my class. I asked for her permission to include it as a blog post, as her reflection gives me some hope that my students are learning practices and habits from our time together that transcend subject, grade, and location.
The Wilson Technique of Elusive Answering
In my 18 years, I have not once taken a class that was not important, but I have taken a few that made me feel not important. This, of course, is not the worst feeling to have, as it is largely true. In the grand scheme of things, I am no better than any other person or creature. If a comet was heading towards my state’s stronghold, it would not wait for me to evacuate my suburban residence before it obliterated our, not one, but two capitol buildings. However, this is not about comets; this is about 9th grade geometry. More specifically, this is about the teacher of 9th grade geometry.
Little Sydney (That is, me from the past. Although in reality I was only a few inches shorter than I am at the present.) was a little high school freshman on her way to her first class with the one, the only, Jennifer Wilson. Her name might not be spoken around the globe, and there are certainly no sonnets in her honor, but Mrs. Wilson is definitely a celebrity at home in Small-Town, Mississippi. As if I was not nervous enough walking into my first high school math class, I soon found out that my teacher’s name was listed as a reviewer in our textbook that I would be using, worshipping, and clutching to my frail body in the wee hours of the night in hopes of perhaps absorbing its knowledge in some bizarre form of literary diffusion throughout the year. She is a big deal. I did not know all of this, of course, not yet. I was too concerned with the boy with the curiously curly hair that sat across from me and the question of whether or not to attend the bowling team tryouts next Thursday to recognize that this woman, this marvelous teacher of the extraordinary, was changing the way that I would not only view mathematics, but also how I would approach challenges and obstacles for what I am certain will be the rest of my life.
There is no question that Mrs. Wilson’s geometry class was unlike any class I had ever been in before. She was the first teacher I had that responded with “I don’t know; what do you think?” when a question was asked of her. Looking back, she totally knew the answer. She knows every answer; she’s Mrs. Wilson. But she would not give it to us without a bit of work on our part. She taught me that the best conclusions are the ones that you can come to all by yourself. To the untrained eye, this technique may seem like just a lazy cop-out for being a teacher, but this is not the case. Mrs. Wilson wanted you to know the answer, but not without you first deciphering the question. For a teacher in the system of public education, Mrs. Wilson showed a remarkable ability to genuinely care about each and every one of her students getting the most out of every class period. The Wilson Technique of Elusive Answering is not idiosyncratic, I am sure. It has definitely become pattern for the rest of the teachers in the math department, as it is something that I have come in contact with every year since the first day in her class. This Technique, while somewhat annoying at times (in those days my habit of giving up at the first sign of trouble was much more engrained into my being than it is now), it proved to be the single greatest educational method that I have encountered. I would give up on myself, but Mrs. Wilson would not. She believed that every experience was a learning experience, and that, even on the test, you should discover something that you did not know. I learned much more than geometry that year, I learned how to learn. Mrs. Wilson taught me how to look at a problem, no matter how big or complicated, and think to myself “There is a way to figure this out, and I can find it.” She showed me that the obstacles of mathematics could be overcome with cooperative effort and excessive perseverance. Even greater, Mrs. Wilson showed me that any challenge, not just the ones involving the mass of the sun or the sum of interior angles, can be conquered with knowledge and persistence as opposed to disgrace and defeat. This was the greatest thing that I, as an impressionable teenager could have been taught, inside or outside of the classroom. The impact she has had on how I approach challenges and difficulties is remarkable, and, the funny thing is, she has no idea. To ask that every teacher be as caring and engaging as Mrs. Wilson was (and continues to be) would be a practically impossible feat. But, in a fashion that Mrs. Wilson would be proud of, there is a way to make sure that every student get as much out of their educational experience as possible.
Mrs. Wilson teaches the universal language of mathematics, but mathematics, unfortunately, is the only language that can boast this sort of ubiquity. Speech, one of the primary forms of human communication, has over 6,500 languages and variations. Even taking into account the fact that 2,000 of these languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, there are still 4,500 spoken languages that very important people with very important things to say use in their everyday lives. How many of these 4,500 do I, a high school senior in America, comprehend enough of to understand these important peoples’ important thoughts? I can think of only one. Other than the foreign language courses required by my educational institution, two measly years of Spanish or French, I have had little or no exposure to languages of a foreign nature. If I were put into a room with 4,500 people, each with a different native language, the only person I could talk to would be myself. The blame for my lack of language, however, does not rest on my schooling or myself alone. No one had ever required me to venture into bilingualism prior to high school, thus my high school courses had no solid foundation to build upon whenever the time of learning came. Learning a second language takes constant practice and effort, so attempting to introduce students to a new language once they are already half-grown and expecting them to learn enough to communicate with native speakers of that language, though well-intentioned, is almost naïve. The only way to ensure that young students develop the skills and ability required for learning a second language is to introduce them to one as early as possible. Preliminary language courses almost always require chapters and chapters of vocabulary, vocabulary that could be easily taught alongside the usual English vocabulary of most American public schools.
However, speaking a second language is only the start. It is the key to a chest that unlocks hundreds of new possibilities and hundreds of new people to talk to and share ideas with. For example, the perfect team of people to solve age-old medical mysteries could be roaming the earth this very moment, but those in it are at a loss for words, quite literally, if they are not able to communicate with one another once they meet. Opening these lines of communication early on in students would allow them to jump the first lingual hurdle, increasing their chances of staying in the race. Rather than viewing the language barrier as a wall, students will view it as a staircase, with each step bringing them closer and closer to the world around them. Schools would provide their students with a solid foundation for lingual growth and fluency by introducing them to foreign languages on an elementary level, enabling these students to open their minds on a global scale. The educational reform that I am proposing for my country, as well as any other country not already on the bilingual bandwagon, would take years to introduce and perfect, but it would be a major step in ensuring that students of all ages live their lives with the world in mind. One must speak the languages of the world to be a true citizen of it.
“How Many Spoken Languages Are There in the World?” <www.infoplease.com>. Pearson Education, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
University of Haifa. “Bilinguals Find It Easier to Learn a Third Language.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 February 2011. Web. 26 Oct 2014.