She watched as I studied the lovely, shiny little painted boxes my teacher brought back from Russia. And she waited before asking, "Now Susie, do you know what they are made of?" "They're paper mache aren't they?" "Yes they are. Why do you suppose they were made of paper mache rather than wood?" "Well" I reasoned, "If they are from the steppes of Russia, wood might be scarce. Paper was probably cheaper in terms of raw materials, but it would be more expensive in terms of labor cost." "That's good thinking, but those are secondary reasons. Lacquered paper mache is actually preferable to wood because it's stronger, it doesn't warp, and the artists consider it a better painting surface than wood. Now how old do you think these boxes might be?" I knew from the playful tone of voice and the lifted eyebrow that this was a tricky question. I looked over a dozen or so boxes. There was an assortment of ornate fairy tale illustrations, some snowy landscape scenes, serfs in rural settings, a portrait of Czar Nicholas II, and a rendering of Hans Christian Anderson's Hans Brinker skating down the canal. The styles varied from Byzantine to Art Nouveau to folk art. Could I trust style or dress to provide a clue? "I'm not sure about most of them, but it seems unlikely that anyone would decorate with a portrait of Nicholas after the Revolution which was, I think 1917. Since he's painted as an adult, I would assume that one was probably painted somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. I don't really know about the rest, but my guess is that they are probably earlier because, while they are beautiful, they seem sort of frivolous and not in keeping with the Socialist and Communist ideology that came after the Revolution." "That's logical, but do you know what? They were all new but they are all authentic and signed by the painters. You can spot older ones, because they are only marked by the by the factory. You see, during the austere post war years, the small industry for lacquer boxes was enlarged and the boxes were sold to tourists to supplement a weak economy. The Imperial family is still a draw and so supply and demand brought him out of retirement to go onto box tops for tourists like me."
It was a teachable moment and my teacher took advantage of it. Her questioning technique assessed my prior knowledge, required me to compare and contrast, to analyze, to draw on related information, and to defend my position. She then enriched the lesson with additional concepts.
That’s what good teaching looks like. In sixth grade she took us on a virtual Grand Tour. She taught me to go beyond seeing the world. She wanted me to observe, examine and incorporate what I saw into my own world. Never mind that on the day of this particular lesson, the student was 60 and the teacher was 99. Mrs. Burnett was still opening windows. John Steinbeck wrote of his high school teacher
In her classroom our speculations ranged the world.
She aroused us to book waving discussions.
Every morning we came to her carrying new truths, new facts, new ideas
Cupped and sheltered in our hands like captured fireflies.
When she went away a sadness came over us,
But the light did not go out.
She left her signature upon us
The literature of the teacher who writes on children’s minds.
I’ve had many teachers who taught us soon forgotten things,
But only a few like her who created in me a new thing a new attitude, a new hunger.
I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that teacher.
What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.
Mrs. Burnett will be 100 on Thursday. How many living sparks of learning have been captured like fireflies because of her? How many of us did she inspire to become teachers? And how many new sparks have those teachers kindled in children? Some days I fret that will never finish writing a real book with my name on the cover. Somehow, when I read Steinbeck’s words and think of the Unsigned Collected Works of Mrs. Burnett, i realize that the opportuntity to write volumes in the minds of children is mine to claim.
Happy Birthday Mrs. Burnett!
Image: Photobucket: 99alongway CandlesLitColour
The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.