Conversations with Great Teachers
Publication Year: 2010
In the spirit of Studs Terkel's Working, Bill Smoot interviews master teachers in fields ranging from K--12 and higher education to the arts, trades and professions, sports, and politics. The result suggests a dinner party where the most fascinating teachers in America discuss their various styles as well as what makes their work meaningful to them. What is it that passes between the best teachers and their students to make learning happen? What are the keys to teaching the joys of literature, shooting a basketball, alligator wrestling, or how to survive one's first year in the U.S. Congress? Smoot's insightful questions elicit thought-provoking reflections about teaching as a calling and its aims, frustrations, and satisfactions.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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One of my most memorable moments in preparing this book occurred during my interview with Arthur Lane, a retired fencing teacher in his nineties. In response to one of my questions, he instructed me to pick up a fencing foil. He cradled my hands in his and adjusted my grip. Then he had me move the foil this way and that, explaining why this grip was the best, and I understood in both my hand and my mind that it was. The understanding was embodied, literally. When he removed his hands, I could still...
1. Teaching in the School Room
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What I hope to teach is pleasure. Maybe it’s because I am at a school where the kids are pretty able, but I think the teaching of skills is really secondary. It just happens with the work they have to do. What I just want them to do is really see how literature is a way to enjoy life, and to live a better life, because they’re more sensitive to feelings and ideas and the depth of life—you know, as T. S. Eliot said about Dante, the “heights and depths of human emotion.” And when Holden...
2. Teaching in the College Classroom
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You hit the nail right on the head when you said I was basically emulating the people who taught me. I was appointed as an assistant professor at Harvard in 1984, and I got the big premed physics course. They are basically premed students who do not want to learn physics. They were there because they had to be. I never asked myself how I was going to teach...
3. Teaching the Healers
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The students have finished med school and an internship and they’re undergoing specialty training in dermatology. Our job as the clinical faculty is to give them an idea of what it’s like in the real world. It’s an experience that they won’t necessarily get in the university. Let’s say this is a patient with seborrheic dermatitis. We can tell the student, “Gee, you’re going to see an awful lot of this in the outside world. It’s often something the patient is...
4. Teaching the Creators and Performers
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It’s a summer camp. The kids in the circus arts class are from eight years old to eleven or twelve. I set up a lot of circus equipment. We have a flying trapeze. There is a globe [a large ball on which a person walks]. They can walk on it, run on it, juggle on it, use the hula hoop on it. They do that for three or four days to learn balance, and they have a rope to hold...
5. Teaching the Fixers and Makers
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Actually, we lament the changes in our trade quite a lot. The general trend in industry toward breaking jobs down to their simplest components for speed and profit—and not necessarily for quality—has really affected our trade a lot. You can still see quality work here and there, but a lot of our work is done in shops now. So they’ll build a wall in a shop,...
6. Teaching the Athletes
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My life seemed without purpose for a long time. In high school I was such a star that I didn’t develop a personality to go with it. I thought I was somebody, but if you think you’re somebody, then you’re not open to becoming somebody. I never had the personality to go out and create who I am. At Stanford, I never made the starting team. I was a failure. I had this “catch and shoot” shot—not off the...
7. Growing the Body and Spirit
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I began with Tantra when I was fifteen, and I came across a book that talked about Tantra being the integration of spirituality and sexuality. I was still a virgin, but the concept fascinated me, so I started on this path really young. I started reading, and then I found a boyfriend who was interested in the same subject, so we played around and explored. Then...
8. Teaching at the Bottom and on the Edge
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The Clemente Program is all about the humanities. Students come for eight months, and during that eight months they take a class in U.S. history, a class in moral philosophy, a class in art history, and a class in literature. There are also writing classes mixed in as well. We have also added public speaking as a part of all of our classes because we recognized that...
9. Teaching the Protectors
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10. Teaching in the Corridors of Power
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Everything I do I learned from being a teacher. I think this work demands three things I learned from teaching. One, the ability to ask really good questions. You can’t just ask any old question; you’ve got to ask the right one. And then when you get the response, you’ve got to do something with it. Two, the ability to listen. And three, the ability to move...
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I wish to thank these fifty-one great teachers who gave generously of their time and energy in granting me interviews. I am grateful to my wife, Jenna Chan Smoot, for her love and support, and to my friend Jack Metzgar for his encouragement. I am indebted to the late Studs Terkel and his lifelong example of finding wisdom from listening to people. I owe a debt of gratitude to my agent, Jon Sternfeld, for believing. And I am grateful to my own students—past and present—for being who they are.
Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2010