Yesterday, my lesson went fabulously with Kathy.
Excuse me for sounding conceited, but I think I am the second best teacher I know.
The first is, hands down, my husband. He can teach anyone anything with such insight and patience it never ceases to amaze me. For example, we took an evening class on sculpted bead making and the next week he decided to share the fun with the family. His lesson was ten times better and more thorough than the original. I learned so much more than I did from the “professional” bead maker. And I thought, “Hey, what the heck? I was with you when you were introduced to this subject, and I heard and tried everything you heard and tried that night, so how is it you know so much about the subject now and can relate the information so well now?????”
He had done some additional research on the internet and mulled the craft over in his mind, but mostly, he has this innate instinct about visual things. And he relates information in such a logical way, using a building block system to lay a foundation of understanding, that it assures his instruction is not only understood, but can and will be applied by any willing student. It’s amazing. He is like one of those computers that teach itself as it goes – his capacity for understanding things by trial and experiment, rather than amassing information by traditional instruction, is almost eerie.
He did it with dance. I had far more experience and formal education in the art, but I always knew he was a better teacher, technically. He could see a body moving through space and it was as if his mind’s eye removed the epidermis so he could visualize the spine and musculature. He could watch a person dance and he immediately knew what was missing– everything that was out of alignment or lacking in the student was obvious to him. He knew how to fix it too – how to impart the necessary information and/or develop exercises to address the weaknesses. He never taught what he’d been taught as a student dancer, for that road was cumbersome and slow. He was innovative in developing a new approach to the universal problem of teaching dance to people, even though they are often somewhat resistant. Always impressed me- his wisdom and insight and CONFIDENCE in his own methods. Others didn’t trust his authority because they needed “credentials” to trust what he taught. But I happened to have those credentials, and I was blown away by his gift. People trusted me because of my background and experience. But I trusted him, and most of what I learned in dance, I can honestly say, I learned from him.
Anyway, his ability to teach anything is remarkable. I watch him teaching Kent to drive now and I can’t help but be impressed. I’ll be freaking out, but he has this unnerving confidence and faith in the kid as the car plows towards the nearest mailbox . . . and in a smooth voice Mark makes corrections and explains WHY Kent needs to incorporate certain considerations when driving. And I watch the improvement in a flash and think, “Wow, he’s good.” (Mark, not Kent – Kent still tends to sway towards the mailboxes when he practices.)
Mark took up wood working with logs only a year and a half ago, but he is now teaching new techniques to the carpenters working on our house (who have been working on rustic interior finish work for most of their lives) and they hang on his every word. He has been asked to help our builder on his next spec house too, because the builder insists he has never met anyone who can conceive of the things Mark can, and then get the workers to understand it and follow through. It is easy to be creative, but hard to make that creativity take solid shape.
Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh yea, teaching. My husband is a remarkable teacher – but I think I am good too. At least yesterday, working with Kathy, I felt like a good teacher.
I had planned a cooking lesson. I figured, since Kathy couldn’t read and she lives a rather oppressed life, her cooking skills (and materials) might be limited, so I packed up a pretty, red box filled with everything she needs. I bought all the ingredients (flour, baking soda, sugar, brown sugar, chocolate chips, nuts, etc) and a measuring cup and measuring spoons and said it was her “let’s celebrate your progress” gift. I also bought Kathy a blender and a good cookie sheet, just in case. She told me she didn’t have any of the above and was delighted to be given these wonderful kitchen things. Now, to me, a wonderful kitchen thing is a 400-dollar state of the art standing mixer. The idea that this woman has deep appreciation for my 9-dollar hand mixer is humbling to say the least.
I had bought her a cooking magazine too, filled with recipes to browse through later. I was hoping this project would inspire her to practice more on her own and I wanted us to practice reading during this lesson in that thematic vein. I didn’t want her to memorize the recipe we were working on and fake it later– I wanted her to transfer the knowledge and prove she “got it” when she turned the pages of the magazine and saw other recipes she could read too.
The hardest thing about teaching someone to read (who speaks English as a first language), is that you have certain assumptions – you think everyone in America has shared basic knowledge. But a non-reader has been living in a prison of darkness that stretches far beyond her inability to read books. So, without being condescending, I must always approach things with an attitude that my student is clueless about how the world works. And sadly enough, more often than not, I am right.
I began by explaining how recipes work, showing her that the ingredients are listed first as a sort of shopping list. This lets you know if you have all the ingredients on hand. Kathy smiled and said, “Gee it’s nice that they do that for you.”
“Yes, they try to make things convenient . . .” I said, just then realizing it was true.
I pointed out that the second part of the information is the actual instructions to cook the item at hand. I showed her how almost all products you purchase today have recipes on the back. There is a cookie recipe on the back of the package of chips, and a peach crisp recipe on the back of the brown sugar package, and a recipe for biscuits on the back of the flour package, etc…. She thought this fascinating and asked why they bothered to print all that. This lead into a nice discussion of marketing and how companies work to sell a product – but it also made me suddenly aware of all those recipes I come across in my daily life that I tune out. I don’t pay attention to all that writing on the packaging because, as a reader, I am inundated with information in a given day. I fail to notice what is often before my eyes. When you become aware of that truth, you can’t stop noticing everything around you. Like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you swear everybody in town is driving that brand because you are noticing it for the first time.
We spent a long time going over the recipe, working on the words I knew she would struggle with, such as “Vanilla”, or “Blending” or “Granulated”.
Kathy has never cooked anything that requires a recipe. She makes scrambled eggs or fried steak. She heats up frozen dinners. She has never made a baked good from scratch because that requires “detail” that she can’t presume to guess. I had to walk her through the process of baking – such as blending all the dry ingredients first in a separate bowl, then creaming butter and sugar in a different bowl, then adding eggs one at the time. I had to talk about volume and consistency, etc… And as I did, I was vividly aware once again, of all the things I take for granted that I can do, but that a non-reader can’t. She has never used a measuring spoon or cup so I had to explain how that works. We went through the recipe and I had her point to what spoon was used for “½ tsp”, and what line on the cup denoted ¾ cup. And she struggled with it, because this was all new information to her, and her mind is being stuffed full with so many new things she can’t keep it all straight.
I explained that this lesson was not a cooking lesson – but a reading lesson. I really couldn’t care less how the cookies turn out, but I think it is important we see if she can pull the project off on her own – because practical application of her reading skills is mandatory for ongoing success. And if she likes cooking, she can try other recipes (with Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, there is plenty to aspire to) Cooking will keep her working on learning new words. It invites natural practice, you see, because her sitting down to struggle over a golden book everyday might lose it’s appeal. That kind of practice is cumbersome and easier to put off. . .
I reminded her that I know she is smart and therefore, she can follow directions. If her husband or son helps her by reading the recipe, the value of this endeavor will be lost. She promised me she would make the cookies while she was home alone. Making these cookies is a bit intimidating for her, because it’s more complicated than you realize, but she needs things to do, and the challenge of making cookies like the rest of the world will feel like a great accomplishment. She sees examples of things like this on TV and feels badly about herself, as if the whole world has been invited to a party and she can’t join in. Now, hopefully, she will be like “normal” people.
Kathy said she prays the cookies will come out good, because she is invited to lunch with a counselor from court, and she would love to bring a few cookies as a gift, proof of her progress. I pointed out again what spoon to use for the baking soda (the culprit I’ll blame if her cookies bomb.) She stared at that spoon intently and said, “I’ll remember”.
Ha. That’s my girl!
So, today, Kathy is be home cooking. I am sending her good wishes from afar.
I keep thinking about that lesson – it reminds me to be grateful for basic skills, such as knowing my way around a kitchen without a second thought. I pulled out my sugar bowl this morning and thought of Kathy struggling to measure out 3/4 cup for the first time in her life. . . I guess I’ll never make cookies again without the image of this woman coming to mind. I’ll always wonder if today’s batch of cookies is the first in a long life of cookie baking, or the one and only because, the lesson failed to accomplish what I dreamed it might. . .
I am doing a lot to enhance Kathy’s life, but honest to God, she is enhancing mine in the most poignant ways at the same time. You get out of the world exactly what you put into it. God’s ultimate balance. I trust it.
But this counts for cookies too. You get out of them exactly what you put in – Gee wiz, I hope Kathy doesn’t screw up the balance and overload the baking soda!