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Posted at 3:00 PM ET, 05/ 7/2010

Learning Stories: Tell your own

By Valerie Strauss

Powerful learning environments, highly effective teachers and fair and equitable public school systems: What do these actually look like?

To find out, the non-profit Rethink Learning Now campaign is asking people from various walks of life to talk about their most powerful learning experiences.

Hundreds of people, including Education Secretary Arne Duncanalready have sent in their “Learning Stories, and you can hear and see them on video here.

Rethink Learning Now is a coalition of education advocates, civil rights groups and philanthropic organizations focused on successful education reform and its three pillars: learning, teaching and fairness.

The purpose of the stories is to demonstrate, based on shared experiences, what is known to be true about powerful learning environments and highly effective teaching. Each story, which ranges between 300 and 1,200 words, is written in response to one of the two following prompts:

*What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community? It could be a club, a church group, a school experience, a course, or something else, and it could have taken place at any point in your life.

*Who was your most effective teacher, and what was it about that person that made him or her so effective in helping you learn?

To add your own Learning Story, go to between now and May 26, and follow the directions.

Spend some time on the site and see other stories, 25 of which will be put into a book.

Here’s one Learning Story, from Maritza Brito of Toms River, N.J.:

Mr. Jackson was my 12th grade English teacher. I was a slacker. Several of my previous teachers had confirmed that fact. Mr. Jackson never gave up on me. He never came close to an insulting comment or anything that I as a hypersensitive student could misconstrue as malintended.

I was lazy in his class, but he gave me chances. He told me he wanted me to do well. I believed him. Not only did I believe that, I also believed that he believed that his subject was something truly special.

We were reading Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, and many other writings. Mr Jackson didn't just have us read Canterbury tales. We were in it. We became part of it. I remember creating monk costumes and parading around the school chanting Gregorian chants. He stayed over night at the school one night to roast a whole pig. Some students and their parents joined him to keep him company. The next day everybody brought in something for the feast and dressed as our characters we became a part of that story. That was amazing. He didn't have to do any of that.

Then came Shakespeare. I mean are you kidding me?... I was way too cool for Shakespeare. Anyway that was going to be a lot of work figuring out what in the world that weirdo was talking about. I basically was refusing to read it. One day he called on me and I still don't know what the question was. So I gave a ridiculous answer and waited to be humiliated. He gently responded, "Oh no, no, no, no, no." Then he delightedly squealed in his (what we referred to as his) mad professor voice, "Oh I see." And with the magic of his words he turned my nonsense into sense. Did I secretly get this Shakespeare? To this day I have a huge appreciation for Shakespeare... maybe even a love, from MacBeth to Romeo and Juliet, to his sonnets.

Then came the kicker. The epitome of what Mr. Jackson taught us. Alexander Pope -- You already know the quote don't you? "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again."

Mr. Jackson taught us to question, and to seek answers to those questions. Many other teachers focused only on getting us to sit down and shut up. They were happy if we didn't fight in the class and just as long as we let those who wanted to learn, as long as we let the smart kids learn. Mr. Jackson saw us all as teachable. He never gave up on us. He was caring and creative. He loved and knew his subject. Most importantly, he didn't teach to a bunch of kids who didn't want to learn. He made you thirst for the knowledge that he had to offer. He made you question the obscure and the obvious.

I am sure Mr. Jackson is no longer teaching but he has taught me lessons that will last for the rest of my life.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 7, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Learning, Teachers  | Tags:  great teachers, learning stories, teaching, what makes a great teacher  
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