The Secret in Teaching


I met a woman this past week who had been my student 30 years ago. She recognized me and (as I had always told students at the end of the school year) she introduced herself wisely – “I’m Lisa and you were my eighth grade English teacher.” Some synapses fired enough that I did recall her by her student last name. She is now married with two children, one in 8th grade, and she is a teacher.

I have reconnected in person or in Facebook with a surprising number of former students who went into teaching. I’m not presumptuous enough to believe that I had something to do with their career choice, but I’d like to think that I at least modeled some good lessons and behaviors.

She was nice enough to say that she loved my class and still remembered certain lessons and books we read and even a few things I had told them that didn’t really have to do with our classwork. She asked me, “What do you think is the secret to being a good teacher?”

That is a difficult question to answer. I gave her too many possible answers (enthusiasm, willingness to experiment and fail, love of your subject…) but when I got home I thought of a poem to answer her.

The poem is one I occasionally used in class, though I’m not sure it is as good a selection for students as it is for teachers.

That poem is “The Secret” by Denise Levertov. The two girls in that poem remind me of Lisa (not her real name) and others who would come in after school sometimes to talk. At times, they had a question about an assignment or something we read or talked about in class, but once and awhile I knew that their initial question was a pretense to ask or talk about something not really part of the curriculum.

In Levertov’s poem:

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I’d like to imagine that Levertov actually did have two girls come to her like in the poem. As a poet, I would love to have someone come to me to say that a line of my poetry did that.

Levertov continues:

I who don’t know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was.

You read a line or someone says something in class and it is a revelation in that moment.

No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them

Lisa, what is the secret? I know that it is not just one thing, but I know that an important part of it is:

they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.


I am so happy for Lisa and for any of my students or any teacher who want to know the secret, and for assuming there is such a secret. Yes, for that most of all.

What If Steve Jobs Had Been Your Professor?

Steve Jobs was never a teacher in the classroom. He only did a year of college himself. But he was surrounded in his workplaces with talented people. most of whom had college degrees, many who had advanced degrees. He seems to have taken on a teaching role is many of his interactions.

Walter Isaacson has written about several geniuses and innovators, and his book, Steve Jobs, portrayed the Apple co-founder and CEO as a visionary and a difficult and sometimes cruel person to have as a boss.

Jobs didn’t take to college. He attended Reed College in 1972 and dropped out that same year. He wandered a bit aimlessly, then after two years he traveled through India seeking enlightenment and studying Zen Buddhism like a good mid-70s late-to-the-party hippie.

What kind of professor would he have been?

He would have been a tough grader. He would not hold back on his criticism.For example, he obviously did not like his early competitor, Microsoft, and called Windows “the worst development environment that’s ever been invented.”

Jobs was not a real geeky, tech guru. It was really Steve Wozniak who made the first Apple computer and Jobs partnered with him as the sales guys for Wozniak’s Apple I personal computer. His tech side was more of the outside, and he was famous for his demands for sleek and simple designs. He was a good salesman.

I came across a series of videos of a Jobs “teaching” at MIT in 1992, when he was 37. At that point he was  and running his company NeXT, founded in 1985 after he was originally forced out of Apple.

A few years after this, he would be launching a little computer graphics division that would later become Pixar. And the technology and designs that he implemented at NeXT would end up revolutionizing Apple when it bought NeXT in 1997.

But before he would take back Apple in a pretty ruthless fashion, he was in this MIT classroom. I would call this lecturing and not teaching. (I know a lot of you had lectures that passed for teaching in college but…)

With his turtleneck tucked into his jeans uniform and pacing back and forth, he talked about tough topics. (These video clips were on YouTube, but disappeared this past week – perhaps they will return; perhaps the Jobs estate had them taken down.) He spoke about why Windows NT was lousy and how he stole people from Microsoft and why the Apple III and Lisa computers failed.

When asked what he learned by being fired by his own Apple company, he took a very long pause before answering. (This clip was posted by another source and hopefully it will still be there when you read this.)


If Steve Jobs was an adjunct professor at my university, I wouldn’t be sure where to place him. Should he teach in the school of management, computer science, or communications? Would students like him as a teacher beyond admiring him for what he had done?

I think the answers would vary greatly depending on what Steve you had in the classroom: the young Apple founder, the just dismissed from Apple boss, the NeXT/Pixar visionary, the tough, calculating CEO of the new Apple, or the late year Steve who knew his time remaining was limited. Any of them would have been an interesting semester.

Steve Job’s gave a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 that is often quoted (text version). The three stories he tells are three lessons he might have used in the classroom if he was teaching at that point in his life.

Just Between You and Me

grammarMy wife and I were both reading this morning and I stopped to ask her about a sentence I had just read in an article. “Tim Cook announced last year he is gay.” I asked her if she thought it should be “is” or “was.” Being that we have both been teachers, we actually have these kinds of conversations. She voted for “was” for the sake of parallel construction. I voted for “is” (which is what the magazine used) because it’s not that he was gay and no longer is gay.

Some of my wife’s argument may come from her having taught French for many years. “It would never be correct in French,” she told me.

That led me to wonder if she was a “French teacher” or more correctly “a teacher of French.” She was constantly referred to as a French teacher, but she did not have any French ancestry. In fact, she is Italian. Was she an Italian French teacher? Now that is confusing. She was certified to teach Italian too. She could be called an Italian teacher for both reasons.

After I refilled my coffee cup, she continued the topic and asked me “Would you say ‘Hemingway was a great writer’ or ‘Hemingway is a great writer’?” I would say “is.” He still is a great writer. “Would you say at her funeral that Mary was or is very kind?” I would say “was.” My wife asked why I saw a difference.

Hemingway still is a great writer, even though he is dead. Just like I would say that his A Moveable Feast is a great book. “That’s because the book still exists. Hemingway doesn’t,” said my wife.

It is confusing.

Later in my reading, I came across a review of a new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris who has spent more 30+ year in The New Yorker‘s copy department, home of high standards.

It is a burden that my own 30+ years have been spent teaching English. People both expect my grammar to be perfect, and say they feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to me because I may “correct their grammar.”

When I started teaching, grammar and punctuation were at least a third of the curriculum. We taught it very much isolated from real writing tasks, even though we graded it in those writing tasks.

In the 1980s, that loosened. Instead of being an “English teacher,” may teachers in the grades below high school were referred to as “language arts” teachers.  We still taught that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” and a  few other exceptions. Students never really understood that the verb “to be” was like an equal sign and that meant that you used the nominative case on both sides of it.  Saying “It is I” didn’t sound correct in anyone in the classroom even if the book said so.

In college, I was tortured by a grammar class that taught me about deep structures and linguistics, all of which was useless in teaching eighth grade. I was happily able to almost completely avoid diagramming sentences as a student and as a teacher.

Norris’ book is the kind I have very mixed feelings about reading. I never wanted to be a “comma king” and avoided many grammar gurus and the books they wrote. From what I can glean from reviews, hers is not a grammar textbook and I suspect she may be kinder about everyday speaking and writing than she would be for an article in the magazine. And we should be tougher on published writing.

One reviewer mentions an example of hers concerning the use of dashes. She quotes a note Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Richard Nixon after her husband’s death. The very personal note was in Jackie’s “breathy” style and contained lots of dashes. Norris does the English teacher (or editor) thing and “corrects” it. The grammatically correct result just isn’t Jackie.

It sounds like the book is more of a journey through Norris’ life with words. I do like language oddities. Nuggets like learning that there was once a serious movement to settle the “is it she or he” situation led to a suggestion to start using “heesh” are amusing.  (I might have opted for s/he, but the pronunciation is an issue.)

policeI have a good-sized list of language items that annoyed me in student writing and in the larger world and still annoy me: everyday vs. every day; that damned alot for a lot; it’s vs. its, your vs. you’re and all those; the overuse of “basically” and “literally.” But I can’t get excited enough to do battle over one or two spaces at the end of a sentence or punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks any more. “But you are an English teacher, ” friends say, fully expecting outrage from me about some error by a politician in a speech or in an advertisement.

I am on the edge of all this. I know that “Grammar Girl” has a website, podcast and books and I have checked all of them out and they can be fun, but it is just not a big part in my world in and out of the classroom these days. I still love language, but I am more interested in the stories behind words and phrases and following how the language changes than I am in being the grammar policeman trying to keep things in line and behind the barricades.

Norris’ title plays off a common mistake of “using ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ in phrases such as ‘between you and me,’ after any preposition or as the object of a verb.” She would tell you, like any good teacher, that a little memory trick is to put the “I” first. Though people might make the mistake of saying “between you and I,” I doubt any of them would make the mistake of saying “between I and you.”

Letters to Yourself

When I was teaching middle school back in the 20th Century, I had a little project for my students that I stole from my own seventh grade English teacher. She had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left the junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish we had gotten the letters.

When I was teaching, I decided I would try it and be sure to mail them. I asked students to supply a self-addressed envelope with two stamps on it (to cover postal increases) and the return address was me at the school.  I didn’t do it every year, but I got so many favorable responses for the years I did do it, that I regret not doing it every one of my 25 years teaching.

Of course, depending on how well the student composed the letter, it would have some impact to see your thoughts from five years earlier. Those years from 13 to 18 are big years of change.

I gave them a form to fill out too, asking them to list favorites (movies, TV, food, music) and best friends, goals, plans and such. They could also just write the letter. Some just did a quick scribble – and that is what they got back five years later.   I actually mailed envelopes to students who didn’t even do the assignment with a note reminding them of that – partially because I didn’t want them to blame me for losing their non-existent letter, and partly because that might have been a good message from their younger self too. I got a few interesting comments on those non-letters – mostly from students who wanted me to know that they had changed in a good way from the younger person.

I was reminded of this recently because one of my students who did a letter years ago became an English teacher herself and, via Facebook, I found out that Ines paid the letter forward.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher had us write letters to our future selves. The week I graduated from high school, I was so surprised to receive a letter from…me! It was the letter I had written myself so many years earlier. I don’t remember now what I wrote but I remember loving the idea so I did it for some of my own students.

I just mailed all their letters that they wrote a couple of years ago. I hope they are as excited about receiving them, as I am in sending them.

I also had students write letter to famous people and amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I posted on the bulletin board. This was in the days before email and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

It all seems rather quaint today, I suppose. But when my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Jaded as we are by online communication, I think all of us still get more excited by actual paper mail when it is something unexpected than we do by an online message.

And some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. there were autographed tennis balls, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did. Another asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home. Many of my students wrote to the young adult authors that we read in class. We wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers.

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that I don’t mean just the format. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

Summer Love at Community College

One reason I might go to a movie is because it has  Tom Hanks in it. He is the Jimmy Stewart of out time. (and I really like Jimmy Stewart.)

He’s in a new movie with Julia Roberts called Larry Crowne.  It’s getting lukewarm reviews, but Tom co-wrote, co-stars and directed it, so I will go see it.

It also is about a student (Hanks) and a teacher (Roberts) at a community college. I teach at a community college, so I’m curious.

Most movies and TV shows about teaching make me cringe.  Whether the teacher is portrayed as a fool or a hero, it never seems like real teaching. It would be tough to get me to go see something like Bad Teacher, which is also out this weekend – and making more money and getting better reviews than Tom’s offering. I don’t need to see some teacher that fulfills all the worst things that some people believe about teachers and schools these days.

Community: The Complete Second SeasonI started watching the NBC sitcom Community with its first episode and, though the situations have never really touched on anything I have encountered at my own college,  I like the show. Yes, all the instructors are fools and the administration is even worse (that part is semi-accurate) but I never expect schools on big or little screens to look like what I’ve seen in schools as a student, teacher or administrator.

It’s interesting that the show and Larry Crowne share the plot of following an adult who is forced out of a job (because they had no college degree) and who turns to a community college.  That is actually a very real situation for many of our students.

Larry’s first teacher is played by Julia Roberts. Ms. Tainot (Get the pronunciation correct!) teaches Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks.  We definitely offer public speaking but I’ve never seen that particular flavor of it in a catalog. Larry connects – with his teacher and eventually with the course – and he gets to give his speech and even quote the wise words of George Bernard Shaw.

The movie is summer fluff so the issue of today’s hard economic realities which have triggered greater community college enrollments and even increased federal funding gets no real serious treatment.

I’m okay with that. The old movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said about an artsy film that he was shown, “If I want to send a message, I’ll use Western Union.” As reviewers have suggested, this is a film in the Frank Capra/Preston Sturges mold, so don’t expect much social commentary. Still, the class is a cross section of the varied community college population found in most urban schools.

Larry also takes an economics course. I hated economics as an undergrad and his overinflated professor, Dr. Matsutani (played by Star Trek‘s George Takei), is a poke at the teacher who probably thinks he should be at MIT rather than at a two-year college.

Stephen Holden, reviewing the film at,  said that it was “a rom-com fairy tale so tepid and well behaved that watching it feels like being stuck in traffic as giddy joy-riders in the opposite lane break the speed limit.”  Then again, he also says that it is ” a putatively adult Hollywood film featuring certified grown-ups… who more or less act their age. ”  That part sounds like a relief compared to much summer film fare.

Larry’s prof is unhappily married and an extracurricular relationship develops between the two of them.  I don’t like to root for extramarital affairs, but geez these two actors are so likeable…

I like watching a movie that deals with things that I know something about. I like films that are set in places I know. Sometimes that is combined with what is actually a good film. That was the case this year with the film Win Win which was about coaching wrestling, making some tough choices and it is set in northern New Jersey – all things I know something about. Plus, it was a good film with good actors (Paul Giametti, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Ryan) and a  good director (Tom McCarthy).

We shouldn’t really lower our expectations for films during the summer. We shouldn’t lower our expectations for students in summer classes. But, I guess we do.

My Letter to Juliet Capulet

Juliet or The Blue Necklace (1898) by John William Waterhouse

I went with my wife this past week on “date night” to see Letters to Juliet. (We had already seen Date Night.) It was light and likable. It made me want to go to Verona and Sienna. It made me think about my own letter to Juliet. (Here’s my post about the film.)

Back when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to seventh graders, I discovered that visitors to Verona, Italy often left letters addressed to the fictional Juliet Capulet.  People also mail her letter – sometimes only with the address  “Juliet, Verona, Italy” and they reach their destination. That’s Santa Claus status.

More amazing (and the reason for the film) is that the letters get answered. That has been going on since the 1930s.

It is believed that Shakespeare’s play was based on a similar true love story of young lovers who were separated by warring families. But truth is not the reason that Guilietta (her Italian spelling) is asked for advice in the ways of love for hundreds of years.  Fiction doesn’t stop lovelorn people from all over the world from seeking her advice on matters of the heart.

Letter writers don’t expect a reply from Juliet, but they do expect a reply. That  response will come from one of a group of volunteers in “Il Club de Guilietta” (“The Juliet Club”) who pledge to answer all mail.

There are letters in many different languages from all over the world. Letters are given to native speakers and sometimes to volunteers who focus on particular kinds of advice. I have read that a letter goes beyond the lovesick, the volunteers may turn to a psychologist or a priest before responding.

The film, Letters to Juliet, is the story of  one letter that is answered fifty years after it was written and what happens because of that reply. (more on the film on this related post)

Juliet Capulet is one of the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet who falls in love with Romeo Montague. If there was a historical Giulietta, she became Juliet in the narrative poem by Arthur Brooke which is very likely to have been how Shakespeare became acquainted with the story.

Juliet is the youngest child of a wealthy Verona family. It seems that she had older siblings before the time setting of the play, but she is the only surviving child and therefore even more precious and protected.

Brooke said she was 16, but Shakespeare made her just about to turn 14. That may have been partially to allow a young boy to play the role on stage (Remember, females were not allowed on the stage in WS’s time – see Shakespeare in Love for a great take on that), but that also changes the dynamics of the R&J romance. It also made her much more identifiable for my middle school students.

The idea of getting married at 14 seemed very strange to my students. But the idea of parents being opposed to your friends and prejudices against groups did not seem so foreign.  I also had students whose heritage included “arranged marriages” like the one that the Capulets have planned for their daughter and Count Paris.

In many cultures and time periods, women did and do marry and bear children at such a young age. In Shakespeare’s England, most women were at least 21 before they took the plunge, so even his audience had a similar reaction to the characters as my students.

Romeo and Juliet are impulsive, passionate, and idealistic. So were my students. And those qualities are both wonderful (and why I loved that grade level) and the path to heartbreak and tragedy.

Let’s remember that the play ends in a double suicide. Scary stuff to deal with when teaching kids of that age. Tragically, I could find real life examples in the news every year that I taught the play – once in the town where I was teaching.

I got hold of the address for the Juliet Club and asked my students to write letters to her if they felt they had something to ask. I wrote one myself.

My letter to Juliet was written as if I was 14 again. It was a time when I was in love. Before you scoff at that, I caution you that one thing you learn in dealing with kids that age (in a classroom or in your home) is that you can’t trivialize their perception of being “in love.”  Crushes are not silly, but serious.

When I was that age I was in love with a classmate. We had a few “dates.” Those included meeting up at a movie, walking home together, being at a school dance and dancing together and a few kisses and hugs. Pretty innocent stuff by 2010 standards, I know, but very real to me.

All that ended when her parents found out. Their reason? I wasn’t Jewish.  They had assumed I was because my surname could be Jewish.  They told her we could not “date.”

I was shocked. We weren’t on the path to marriage. Why was my religion an issue? She obeyed her parents. We stopped dating. We saw each other every day at school. I seemed to be more upset than she was – which didn’t help me deal with it. It was entry into Shakespeare’s play when I encountered it a few years later.


My first look at the play was, like many of my contemporaries, through a film version. Mine was the 1968 Zeferelli film version, and I joined many of my friends in having a crush on Olivia Hussey. (The low cut dresses and brief nude scene certainly helped fuel many crushes.) For my students, it was the Romeo + Juliet 1996 version directed by Baz Luhrmann


There is a book that collects a group of those letters, Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love, that the film is “based on” and is out to coincide with the film’s release.

*  full text and audio of the play at