Friday, April 9, 2010

Thank you Mr. Fred Rogers, you're my hero.

As many of you know, I've been flung back in the job market.  I've filled out many applications, and composed many essays.  My blog has been more conversation, something I write more for fun.  The way I write for fun is obviously different.  (other people do this too, right???)
I thought I would share some of my "serious" writing.  What's below is one of my essays that goes with a job application.

This is the question:

Describe a particularly meaningful learning experience, and explain how this has influenced your approach to teaching.

This is my answer:

Many positive learning experiences helped to create my approach to teaching.  Many wonderful teachers helped to shape who I am today.  Growing up in the nation’s heartland in central Kansas, it may appear on the surface as though I have had a fairly typical life for this time and region of the world.  I was parented by two hard-working parents, one a lawyer and the other a college professor.  I attended schools well known for their learner-centered approach to education and a strong commitment to preparing students for work in the 21st century.  My days were spent from early until late engaged in productive activities.  In addition to attending classes, I played sports, practiced the piano, did my homework, played with the neighborhood kids, and I went to church. 

My learning experiences were learner-centered due to my teachers’ and parents’ deliberate, focused attention squarely on learning.  When instruction is learner-centered, the action focuses on what students (not teachers) are doing.  Being learner-centered focuses attention on what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retraining and applying learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning.  Because the instructional action features the student, the learner-centered orientation accepts, cultivates, and builds on the ultimate responsibility students have for learning.  My teachers or parents could not learn for me.  I had to do it for myself.

When I rethink my learning experiences, I recall many that were influential.  For example, I learned a great deal about my own voice when writing and illustrating a book in my third grade class, and dressing up in the sixth grade to resemble my great, great, great Grandfather, Judge George H. Lillie, and presenting a portion of his Kansas Constitutional Convention (1859) speech to my classmates.  These learning experiences are influential because they were facilitated by teachers who allowed me to bring my background and interests to the content area curriculum.  The learning activities were structured through a series of related steps leading to outcomes that I understood and hoped to accomplish. These learning experiences gave me space to be creative as I added to my existing knowledge and developed new skills. I remember struggling to learn algebra and geometry, and working to demonstrate my secondary-level knowledge and understandings of English literature; American history and government; and elements of music and patterns and structures found in composers’ techniques within various genres, styles and historical periods as I studied and learned music theory.  Through the study of languages, I learned about geography and culture while I learned at the introductory level to read and speak Latin, German, and French.  However, no learning opportunities have ever influenced me as much as my experience growing up with a severely disabled sibling.

I have one brother, Patrick, who is nearly two years, my senior.  Patrick has lived everyday of his life as a member of our family in our family’s home.  Patrick’s communication, social, and problem-solving skills development stopped when he was approximately thirty months old. Patrick requires 24-hour care.  Patrick has never spoken a word, and yet Patrick has learned to communicate his preferences, priorities and concerns using objects, pictures and the assistance of other people.  Patrick communicates with clarity, power and fervor his happiness and love.  His message is more convincing and goes far beyond that which most hope can be effectively communicated with elegant words.  As my parents and I often say, “Patrick is the best teacher. Patrick shows everyone who will only look what really matters in life.”

In the early 1980s, Dr. Gary Mesibov, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Division TEACCH, diagnosed my brother’s Autism and severe mental retardation.  At that time, a medical diagnosis of Autism was rarely made.  Individuals with Autism were often misunderstood and mistreated.  My parents took a stand against experiential treatment using psychotropic drugs and harsh, intrusive interventions.  They helped to pave the way for parents, community members and professionals in today’s society to use a new lens for seeing and understanding individuals with severe disabilities.  Through their lives, advocacy and teaching, my parents lived and demonstrated new approaches to teaching and learning, which are now well-known as positive behavioral supports and structured communication techniques.

Growing up in a household with a disabled sibling has tremendously shaped my life.  My critical thinking skills, my sensitivity to others’ needs, my ability to recognize when others are in need, and my compassion for helping others are all concepts that I believe I learned while helping my parents care for, positively instruct, support and love my brother.  Our ability to live as a strong family has come from our deeply rooted faith.  From this, I believe I have learned to be a flexible member of a team, always listening and contributing to targeted goals in a timely and effective manner.  I believe I can enable today’s children and youth to learn these invaluable skills.

Now, as an adult, I have come to love the study of servant leadership.  Perhaps this is because I grew up with two of the most pristine models in my mother and father.  They provided me with an ethical sounding board, a model marriage relationship (they’ve now been married 42 years), the ability to see beyond labels, and the belief that education helps to overcome barriers.  I tell people that my parents tricked me; I thought I was learning reading, math, science, social studies, government, history, religion, and music while I was a child but I had teachers and parents who were teaching me about integrity, faith, about doing the right things, in addition to all those academic and technical things.  I believe that the tools I have gathered from my life experiences not only help me to be a better teacher and life-long learner, but also a better Christian, a better companion, leader and friend. 

One of my favorite ways to think about teaching, education and service is captured in a quotation by an American teacher, minister, and song writer, Fred Rogers (1928-2003), the television host of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood:  “At the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person.  Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings that is our job.  Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds.  Life is for service.”

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