Today, I had my last English Teaching Seminar. Over the past 8 months, 12 students and I studied a little English teaching pedagogy, made vocabulary flash cards, learned how to write out a lesson plan. When we felt like we had something we could teach, we went over to the neighborhood kindergarten and ran a 45-minute lesson for a room full of five year olds. My students learned how to run an activity without using the words, “no,” “don’t”, or “wrong.” They learned how to sit next to a restless student and hold their hand until the child could calm down. They learned that 45 minutes of keeping the attention of a handful of children is exhausting. They learned that just showing up and being there for a child is enough to be showered with love. So today I wanted to let them know they had done something special.
I went to the store and bought a few pizzas, a few bags of chips, some tea and apple juice. The students filled their plates with food and sat and chatted. Some of them talked about what they had done in the seminar. Lilly-Chan said, “I really hated children when this seminar started. But I loved English. Now I realize little kids aren’t so bad.” Mimi-Chan said that before the seminar, she had wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but she didn’t know what that meant. Now she knew she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher even though she had some idea of what it might mean. I sat and listened and when the conversation flagged, I pulled out Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
“I’m going to read a book,” I said. “You can talk about it while I read. You can help each other understand the meaning of the words. There’s no rush. I’ll read the page as many times as it takes until you all are ready for the next page.” And then I opened up the book, turned it to face the students, and started to read…
“Once there was a tree
and she loved a little boy.”
At first, the students would say every line in Japanese. They would turn to each other for confirmation. Sometimes I read the same page two times. Sometimes three times.
“He would climb up her trunk
And swing from her branches.”
They pointed to the picture on the page and matched up words with images. They mouthed the words as I read. They nodded their heads and looked at each other as if reassurance could be found in a glance.
“But time went by.
And the boy got older.”
Rei-Kun whispered, “This is so sad.” And Matsui, sitting next to me, pressed his hands against his eyes. I put the book down and I said, “It’s ok to cry. I’ve never read this book without crying.”
And then one day the boy came back
And the tree shook with joy.
Lili and Mimi, Rei and Matsui, all of the students were listening in that way that is the making of something. They were somewhere else. They were struggling to build a house, find a family. They were a friend left behind, remembering what it means to simply wait and wait some more.
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
“I wish that I could give you something…
but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.”
And I did cry, the ache and tears warm and welcome as they always are. And Matsui covered his eyes. And I saw Lili reach out and hold Karin’s hand. And I tried hard to find my voice. Enough voice so I could whisper out,
“Come, boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
When the story was over, the room was filled with a silence that is not an absence, but the very essence of being. After a while, the students began to talk about the story. Was the tree truly happy? Why did the boy have such a sad life? And then they started talking about other things.
When all the pizza was gone, the apple juice bottle empty, I thanked the students for joining my seminar. I told them that I’ve taught an English pedagogy class every year for the past four years. And I said that after four years of teaching this seminar, I had decided that I will never know exactly what it means to teach. But I was glad we had a chance to try and figure it out together for at least a little while.
So what does all of this have to do with The Giving Tree? I’m not sure that I can say what teaching is. But lately, I think I have come to know something about learning. Learning is the act of students and teachers working together to create the very ground beneath our own feet. It is finding the courage to stand on our own, while standing together. Sharing a story with my students is one way I can join them to create that space to stand. Stories are the way I can be wholly in a class and learning with my students. And when that happens, when we are all learning together, then I too, am happy.
(if you’ve never read the giving tree, I really recommend getting the book. But if that’s not an option, here is a copy of an animated movie from 1973 in which Shel Silverstein reads the book:
and here is a copy of the book in poetry form at allpoetry.com)