“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It’s pretty rare that we have the opportunity to reconnect with the teachers who most inspired us to become the adults we are now, but for so many people I talk to, those life-changers were English or language arts teachers. I believe this is because, as language builders, these teachers are so intimately connected to the becoming of students. They help their students turn their internal dreams, ideas, passions, and curiosities into communicated thoughts that will shape the stories of their future.
Is there no greater task in life than that?
In 1992, Mrs. Biles played a definitive role in shaping my story. That year she took our entire English class to camp by a lake in Appalachia to bring us closer to Thoreau’s experience on Walden Pond. I remember being deeply immersed in the wonder of the landscape and the discomforts of rustic living, transformed by the writing of my own transcendental poetry and a profound appreciation of what that movement was all about.
This adventure was par for the course with Mrs. Biles. Our reading and writing were always grounded in the experiential. We held scrimshaw as we read about it in Moby-Dick. We knew what a trial looked like in Salem so we could picture the events in The Scarlet Letter. Mrs. Biles and the history teacher collaborated so our reading would be informed by an understanding of context.
Mrs. Biles’s skill wasn’t limited to experiential learning, however. She had a powerful influence on how I write today because of the way she gave feedback on my writing. She was always asking questions that pushed me to take ownership of my ideas and their articulation:
- What if you choose to use more variation in sentence structure?
- What if you make this more concise?
- What would you leave out, leaving room to make the remaining thoughts more powerful?
As her student, it always appeared to me that Mrs. Biles was simply born to be an exceptional teacher. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate all the work she put forth behind the scenes to make that incredible class possible.
She spent countless hours planning engaging lessons. She spent many more giving thoughtful feedback on all our papers so we learned to look for ways to grow, not just the letter grade on the front page. She took the time to plan with colleagues so our learning was coherent across classes. She sought opportunities outside our school to learn and grow with others.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about how fortunate I was to be the beneficiary of her labors. She helped to shape the person I am today. When we recently reconnected at my father’s funeral, I had the opportunity to tell her this. She smiled and said she’d always had high expectations for my future. In a life-comes-full-circle moment, I explained how those expectations led me to my current role at NCTE, supporting English teachers like her.