More on Big Ideas

Phew! Now that that‘s out of the way, I can get around to some other things that I wanted to write about. The brouhaha surrounding teacher evaluations here in NYC depresses me, so I wanted to pick out a nice little nugget from an opinion piece submitted to the Times by the supposedly “bad” (according to the NYC DOE) teacher, William Johnson. His definition of good teachers (and, incidentally, his take on the underlying problem with teacher assessment) is one that I share: “My best teachers, the ones I still think about today, exposed me to new and exciting ideas. They created classroom environments that welcomed discussion and intellectual risk-taking. Sometimes, these teachers’ lessons didn’t sink in until years after I’d left their classrooms.” He then goes on to describe one Ms. Leonard, “the English teacher who repeatedly instructed me to ‘write what you know,’ a lesson I’ve only recently begun to understand. She wasn’t just teaching me about writing, by the way, but about being attentive to the details of my daily existence.”

What I love about this big lesson—”write what you know”—is that at first blush it looks like nothing more than a hackneyed writing tip. I think for most of us who don’t write for a living that’s in fact what it is. But Johnson tucked that piece of advice into his pocket and played with it till his touch brought out its sheen. Ms. Leonard may or may not have intended the larger lesson about adopting a writerly (one could even say critical) stance on the world, but that is the insight that emerged in Johnson over the years.

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