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Inquires into Teaching and Learning
“My lovely five year olds,” Ms. Muir cheerfully announced, “please join me on the carpet now for a read aloud.” As an obedient kindergarten student, I quietly walked to my assigned red square on the rug. My classmates pushed all the chairs in and ran around the table once, making the trip to the carpet longer than expected. Once all the students settled, Ms. Muir proclaimed, “today we will read Ms. Wishy Washy.” This was my favorite picture book at age five, although fourteen years later I fail to remember what the plot of the story even is. When I recall these days of sitting and listening, I admire the security I had in following the rules. There was no need to worry because as long as I followed the directions, the teacher’s words would protect me. “Ms. Wishy Washy knew she wanted to be a washer. Does anybody know what they want to be when they grow up?” Ms. Muir asked prepared for twenty small hands to rise in the air. “An astronaut,” one child yelled. “A cop,” a young boy proclaimed. “A princess,” a young girl said as her classmates giggled. Answers flew out of the children’s mouth, except for mine. I simply sat with my legs crossed and my slim hands in my lap, glancing ever so often to my left where my mother stood grading homework as a volunteer in the classroom. The answer to Ms. Muir’s question continues to weigh on my mind as each grade passes by.
My life is exactly like a puzzle. As the years pass by a new piece is added in an attempt to complete the overall form. This is the only way I will find out who I truly am. The newest addition has been a piece labeled, my biggest accomplishment so far: getting into New York University.
When I was five, I had no idea what going to college entailed. I imagined it to be a classroom filled with big kids, an updated version of my own kindergarten classroom. Despite my curiosity I paid little mind to the future because its content was far too unknown. I merely followed what I was expected to do, like the good girl my parents bragged about. As I moved on from elementary school to middle school to high school, I knew that the college I chose to attend and what I decided to study would completely be my choice. However, where did I want to go? What did I even want to study? In kindergarten, I knew what I wanted. Playing with the over-sized Barbie dollhouse, so Barbie could finish making dinner for Ken, was an activity I always wanted to do during center time. I also knew what I needed - a new book to read every week so I could be smart. However understanding what I wanted to play and what I needed to do at such a young age was not enough. There was something I did not quite know yet about myself.
For three years, from kindergarten through first grade and onto second, Ms. Muir followed her students wherever they went. In other words, she cared about her students so deeply that she refused to teach a new set of children and remained with the same twenty-five kids to watch them grow. As a student, I understood Ms. Muir’s expectations and performed at that level although I never spoke in class. It was my weakness. It was easier for me to write since my strength lay in the words I wrote on paper. The only place I felt comfortable expressing my feelings was at home which I shared with my mother and father. One afternoon during the Christmas week-long break from school, I confessed to my mother how I wanted to go back to school. Her face scrunched up as she said, “I’m sorry mija, but I can’t take you back to school. Why don’t you go play with your stuffed animals?” I followed her suggestion, believing it was a clever idea. Lining up six stuffed animals in a straight row on the couch and grabbing This is the Teacher from my shelf, I began to read aloud, “This is the teacher all ready for school.” Pausing I looked at one of my teddy bears and yelled “Teddy, is there something you want to share with your classmates?” When I received no response from my bear, I felt discouraged. Relating myself to Teddy, I wondered why we both remained quiet in the classroom, almost as if we were afraid of stating our own words. As a child, I preferred to listen to others because I had trouble trusting people with my own words. I still feel the same way at times although now I am able to put my own input when necessary. However, I ignored this thought and moved on, continuing to read to my stuffed animals, the same way Ms. Muir used to do in the classroom. Now I understand that some children like to speak while others prefer to listen, and it is a teacher’s job to understand that sometimes the quiet words mean the most.
When my mother called, “Dinnertime!” from the kitchen, an hour of pretending to teach and assigning homework had passed, and the school I had established in the living room was closed until the next day.
“Being a teacher is hard work,” I sighed throwing my stuffed animals on my bed and returning to the sofa to eat arroz con pollo with my family.
“A teacher?” my mother asked curiously.
“Yes, I taught Teddy his ABC’s today. He didn’t want to listen to me at first, but I wasn’t going to leave until he understood it,” I responded by acting like a true professional.
This simple act displays how the world a child sees depends more on reality and less on imagination, as Adam Gopnik recounted in “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli,” published in the The New Yorker Magazine. In the essay, his daughter Olivia forms an imaginary friend who is too busy in the New York City scene to play with her. Concerned and seeking some sort of understanding, Gopnik concludes that “Charlie Ravioli, prince of busyness, was not an end but a means: a way out onto the street in her head, a declaration of potential independence” (Gopnik 80). To me imitating Ms. Muir’s actions and reading to my stuffed animals was my leeway into pre-adulthood merely at the age of seven. I was still unaware of the crime and hate outside in the Manhattan streets, the betrayal and hurt of friends who disappeared and even of the mistrust and lies boys promised. Back then I was still oblivious to the larger world since I was too absorbed in the innocent mind of a seven year old, a mind I envy and through the years have lost. I used my surroundings to help me figure out what I enjoyed doing the most. Because even at such a young age, people still wondered what I would grow up to me. It was the one decision that connected me to the reality that stands separate from my imagination. I had control over making my own choice.
As I continued to grow older, earning high grades and working extremely hard, I left middle school wanting to find out who I truly was. From sixth to eighth grade, I had a group of three girl friends that barely knew anything about me. The first year at Baruch College Campus High School, I began to define myself with the help of seven new lovely friends. They identified a passion in me I had overlooked throughout the years, discovering a new piece to the puzzle. When my friend Wanda published a blog post about her experience as a high school freshman thus far, I surprised her with a post in my very own blog now titled Speak…or Forever Hold Your Peace. One entry in particular captures the change I went through in the span of one year as I wrote, “I thought I would be the same person from a few months ago. I mean if someone were to have asked me to write a poem or something from my heart, I would have said whatever, I don’t care. Strange thing is, now I do. In fact, my weakness is that I care too much” (Arce). I learned that sometimes words help define a person in the most subtle ways. Therefore, with the introduction of my own blog to my life I created two voices - a public and a private one. Although my blog is on a site available to hundreds, I consider the feelings I mention and the thoughts I explain in my entries to be personal. It is a way to capture all of my ideas into one organized place and share it with the people I care most about. I use my own experiences, those of my close friends, readings, and even song lyrics to create stories about what I consider to be my new found identity. My entries capture the essence of my private voice - words in print written for myself, that remain hidden from the spoken word. On the other hand, my public voice entails the words I write for others and not for myself. I value my private voice more because it has helped me discover what I wrote as a post in 2008, “sometimes you just have to try to see where it will take you” (Arce).
At times in the luxury of my own room during my high school years, I considered myself a terrible writer because I wrote for myself. The stories were real and the words were for me. It amazed me whenever I looked down at the page and I understood what every sentence meant and I hoped so dearly that others would too. However, I learned that they did not want to understand: teachers wanted requirements met. Even various authors of the English Journal confess, “so rather than teach writing, teachers spend weeks closely monitoring and efficiently requiring students to write topic sentences with two supporting examples, slot in transitional devices, and decorate paragraphs with vocabulary words” (Brannon et al.). Even when I was expected to write an essay about feminism regarding Virginia Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own for my AP English class I was expected to organize my ideas into one introduction, three main arguments and one conclusion. The process became implemented, enforced, and tedious with each passing year. I was left with little creativity and little freedom to explore my own words. By the end of senior year, I was afraid to admit it, but I only wrote because I had to and no more.
Applying to college scared me each time I saw the words “Declared Major” with a blank line next to it. Teachers, family members, friends, and even strangers expected me to know what I wanted to do with the next four years of my life. Therefore, I entered New York University, believing I wanted to be a writer and declared as an English major. I refused to leave that line blank. In my first semester at NYU, I was required to take Writing I as a class. As the essay assignments began, I felt the same way I had towards the end of senior year. My own words were no longer a part of me. They were not my own, but my writing teacher’s. For that reason, I decided to make a choice - removing writing from my life the same way it had entered, surprisingly and immediately. My high school dreams of majoring in English diminished. Although I have the potential to make writing a living, the same way Ms. Muir would tell me I had the potential to form complete sentences at the age of five, I do not want it to happen. I prefer to choose a path that I feel developing more and more each day, a passion I found on my own, without the help of my friends, and have made sure to embed into my daily routine. This moment is where I let the child in me influence one of the most important decisions I have had to make in helping to find out my complete identity.
Registering for my classes for my second semester as a freshman at NYU, I decided to take charge of the changes I had decided to make. Tuesdays were going to be the busiest day out of the week, having class from eleven to six straight, but Tuesdays were also going to be my favorite day out of the week as I would attend my first out of many teaching courses – Inquiries into Teaching and Learning. On my first day of class, I heard Professor McDonald announce over the loud shuffle of backpacks and coats, “don’t forget your assignment is to make a time line of your most memorable learning experiences.” I thought about all that I had learned - from learning how to tie my shoe in kindergarten, how to read in second grade, how to forgive my friends in middle school to learning how to appreciate my family all throughout. The list is endless. As I exited the NYU building in the direction of the C/E train station on my way to work, I recalled how most of my learning experiences took place in one particular school – PS. 33, the school I attended from kindergarten to grade eight, and the school in which I currently work as a teacher’s assistant. My transformation from student to teacher’s assistant was similar to one Jorge Borges describes between the private Borges and the famous author Borges. He says, “Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and I went from the mythologies of the city suburbs to games with time and infinity, but now those games belong to Borges, and I will have to think of something else” (Borges 200-201). A couple of months ago in my first semester of college I too tried to free myself from the sophisticated, yet doubtful writer in me. When I was applying for college, I tried to free myself from not knowing what I wanted to be by choosing a path that had been a current hobby of mine - writing. In second grade, I tried to free myself from boredom by pretending to teach my stuffed animals.
Throughout the years, I have attempted to escape, and each time I move on to a new piece of the puzzle. However, when I heard about the America Reads work-study program at NYU, I knew I no longer wanted to free myself but instead return to the beginning, to a moment where I had little worry and so much joy. With that in mind, I requested PS. 33 as one of my preferred schools on the application for America Reads. In addition, when I spoke to the new principal of PS.33 I asked to work with the kindergarten class, located one classroom away from the same place I had learned my ABC’s and 123’s. My first day at work brought back so many memories, especially one in particular: the day Ms. Muir asked her students what they wanted to become when they were older.
When I arrive at the kindergarten classroom in PS.33, after my Inquiries into Teaching and Learning course, I greet Mrs. Harvey, the teacher I work with while I put my coat away. The children storm to my feet and begin wrapping their tiny hands around my waist. They are so adorable. The kids love the idea of a college student coming to read to them before gym time. As I sit down on the rocking chair, all the children crowd around me eager to listen to what I have to say. I am flabbergasted and this is already my fifth month working with these fifteen bright students. Each time I immediately think back to my childhood as I try to remember what it was like in their shoes, excited and full of kid energy. I do not want to let them down, and each time they forget the sound of a letter or how to spell their own name, I am right there by their side ready to show them how much potential they each have. When I finish, I am impressed with the ease of getting the kids back to their desks to draw a picture of the story. As I walk around the classroom, stopping to compliment a child’s picture, I remind myself why I am in that classroom. It takes an extraordinary resilient and determined person to say, “I’m going to be great in life” and stick to it. We all live to be happy, and seeing the smiles on the children’s faces puts a smile on my own. I am determined to find my happiness with the sound of a five-year-old voice.
That same day when I arrived home to begin my teaching assignment, I shuffled through the papers I had collected over the past nineteen years until I found what I had been looking for: a loose-leaf sheet of paper glued to a black construction paper. It began, “When I grow up I want to be a teacher.” It was the basis of my learning - an attempt to do something and make it turn out just like I imagined it because in life I knew that did not happen too often. I want to teach because it was the first career I loved, writing came second. I am convinced that I will find a part of me in each child I end up teaching, because when it comes down to it, the five-year old in me makes up the biggest part of my puzzling life.