Happy Birthday to Eleanor Roosevelt, Boss Lady and Badass Teacher!

Eleanor Roosevelt was an awesome woman. Though she was born into wealth and privilege, she fought tirelessly for the rights of everyday people. She also encouraged women to become “political bosses” – yes – “women bosses who [could] talk as equals” and “play the [political] game as men do.”


In fact, “the Lady” wielded much more political and personal power than history has given her credit for. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook (author of the twovolume ER biography I’m reading), ER essentially ran a parallel administration during FDR’s twelve-year presidency. Whenever she disagreed with his administration’s treatment of women, the poor, African Americans and other marginalized groups — which was quite often —  she would openly oppose her husband in public speeches, newspaper articles and other efforts to effect the changes she wanted.

As much as ER loved the political game, she was just as passionate about education. She had loved being a student, and loved being a teacher of history, literature and public affairs at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.

In honor of what would have been her 129th birthday today, here are 5 things that made Eleanor Roosevelt an excellent educator:

1. She championed women’s education in word and deed.

In a 1930 essay for Redbook, and in many other publications thereafter, ER encouraged women to educate themselves in order to gain real political power. They had to “take the pains to study history, economics, political methods [and] get out among human beings.”

And she was confident in the social change that would come as a result: “In my youth I knew women who hid their college degrees as if they were one of the seven deadly sins. But all that is passing, and so will pass many other prejudices that have their origin in the ancient tradition that women are a by-product of creation.”

ER put her beliefs into practice when she bought the Todhunter School for Girls at 66 East 80th Street in 1927. There, she served as vice principal, teacher and participated in all aspects of school life – including writing for school magazines and newsletters, raising money and seeking prospective students.

Todhunter School

2. She was a tough teacher who wanted her students to be informed, critical and active citizens.

ER held her students accountable for their work, and felt disappointed when they performed poorly. She believed that “the girls will have to take certain hurdles in life and that hurdles in school are an important preparation.” ER assigned research projects to promote critical thinking, wrote exams to assess her students’ political literacy (sample question: “Do you know of any way in which the Government protects women and children?”), and organized school trips to courthouses and tenements so her girls (who all came from privileged backgrounds as well) could learn about and be inspired to improve their communities.

She believed that good teaching began with students’ own interests, and that lifelong learning was imperative, saying often: “Education only ends with death.”

3. She loved her job, worked hard at it, and it paid off.

ER described teaching as the “one thing that belongs to me” and also said, “I like it better than anything else I do.”

On her commutes to and from New York’s Grand Central Station, she would grade papers, and read “voraciously” to prepare for the week’s lessons and lectures.

Blanche Wiesen Cook calls ER’s success as a teacher “rapid” and “intense.” Student Patricia Vaill said, “I never forgot a damn thing she ever taught me.”


ER (in dark coat) with Todhunter students and principal Marion Dickerman (third from left)

4. As much as she could, ER remained a dedicated teacher despite FDR’s growing political career.

Throughout FDR’s two terms as governor of New York, from 1929 to 1932, ER made weekly train trips from Albany to Todhunter rather than give up her teaching duties. At the time, this refusal to give up her work was rather unusual for a political wife – and unusual, actually, for any wife of a financially secure husband.

ER juggled teaching, family and business engagements. After teaching all morning, she would attend political events in the evening. On Wednesdays, she returned to Albany and to her roles as First Lady of New York and mother to five children.

Only when FDR was elected President in 1933 did ER finally, reluctantly, leave her teaching career.


5. She never forgot the teacher who inspired her.

ER modeled her teaching on Marie Souvestre, a radical, feminist educator and founder of Allenswood, the school Eleanor attended from ages 15 to 18.

Roosevelt admired Souvestre’s brilliant mind, formidable presence and commitment to creativity and intellectual rigor. ER recalled being “expected to do a good deal of independent reading and research” and working hard on her papers though she had seen Souvestre “take a girl’s paper and tear it in half in her disgust and anger at poor or shoddy work.”

Allenswood was where the adolescent Eleanor began to express her opinions, feel confident in her abilities and take on leadership roles. “For the first time in all my life all my fears left me,” she said.

ER's Allenswood school portrait

ER at 15

Souvestre and Roosevelt became lifelong friends.

After Souvestre’s death in 1905, ER kept her beloved teacher’s picture on her desk, and carried her teacher’s letters with her always.


Marie Souvestre, also a badass teacher

Today also happens to be the International Day of the Girl. What a perfect pairing of women’s education advocates!


15 Ways to Be Kind to Yourself on the First Days of School

Whether you’ve been back for a few weeks, or just a day or two — you did it!

You made it out of bed at an ungodly hour, rocked a fresh first-day outfit, and presented your Teacher Self to a new crop of kids.

You’re taking attendance, writing those first parent e-mails, planning lessons, doing lunch duty, attending meetings, assigning first homeworks, and collecting first homeworks.

Maybe you’re teaching a brand-new course this year, or taking on a new responsibility as coach or advisor, too.

Through all of this, you’re delivering instruction to multiple groups of differently abled, very distractible kids.

So, please remember — it’s OK if…

1. You don’t know most of your students’ names yet.

2. It takes you a full five minutes to remember old students’ names when they say hello in the hallway.


It’ll come to me…

3. Your desk is already a mess of papers.

This week's grading

100% authentic piles of grading

4. You didn’t have time to make that perfect bulletin board / seating chart / welcome letter like you’d planned to do.


I’ve never made a bulletin board this pretty. Ever.

5. You already had to change a lesson because the copier was jammed or occupied.


Sad sight for sore eyes

6. You already had to change a lesson because the computer / projector / DVD player / TV / internet didn’t work.

test colors TV

“Hey, who here is good at TV stuff?”

7. You forgot to turn off your phone during class.

8. You forgot to go to the bathroom, even when you had a minute.

Imagine going to the bathroom when you need to...

Should’ve gone during prep!

9.  Your perfect “first days” lesson was not the raging success you’d envisioned.

10. You haven’t had time to catch up properly with your colleagues because of all the work that needs to be done.

11. You’re already grading or playing on your phone during the first full faculty meeting. (Do as I say, not as I do…)


Official story: teachers don’t have friends or use Facebook.

12. Your second-day outfit was not as polished as your first-day outfit. (Soon, you’ll be proud to have made it to school with matching socks!)

13.  You didn’t have time to make lunch and/or dinner.

School Food - Chicken Nuggets

School lunch it is…

14. You didn’t have time to make that doctor’s appointment.

15. You’re already falling asleep on the couch when you get home!

It's OK to be dog-tired!

It’s OK to be dog-tired!

Remember, teachers do heroic things, but you’re still human!

Rinse and repeat if you’re a first-year teacher.

Also: what would you add to this list?

What a Great English Teacher Makes

Got my first thank-you letter submission of the summer, and boy, is it a tough act to follow.

It’s basically every English teacher’s dream for her students: that they become passionate, prolific readers; sincere, reflective writers; and critical thinkers about themselves and the world.

I couldn’t help but think of Taylor Mali’s famous, “What Teachers Make” in titling this post.

I’m also reminded of “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” from this past Sunday’s New York Times. English professor Verlyn Klinkenborg writes,

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

Thank you to my old colleague Lauren for sharing this letter, and for being the amazing teacher who passed on a “rare and precious inheritance” to this student!



Mrs. Malanka,

Thank you so much for everything that you had done for me this year! 🙂 Even though, initially, I felt as though I was never going to improve my abilities in English class, through your instructions and encouragements,  I was able to transform my past inclinations — to be shy and silent at all times, to cherish books of my savor only, to accept all opinions as truth, and to adamantly write as I had done in the past. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable to share my own stance, and to sort out some other stances that contradicts mine. Nowadays, I am in love with reading! (which is very new for me. As a child, reading used to [be] my least favorite)

I have started my summer reading and will be reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, as you had advised the students who enjoyed Mark Twain’s satirical style of writing that made the readers chuckle every few paragraphs or so. In addition, unlike I have been used to, I learned to ponder as I read, and pay attention to the profound meanings that the authors hoped to portray. And since I had discovered this exhilarating exercise, I fell in love with all kinds of books! 🙂

Additionally, from you, I have learned to try my best to read news articles as frequently as possible to expand my horizon. So far, it has been an fortifying experience. I truly believed that if I were not in your class, taking an AP course, I would never have (or really late) encountered the beauty in reading and writing. I became more used to editing many times and cutting out parts that were [not] important in a coherent essay. Although I still have a long way to go as a writer, I believe you have launched me into the world of reading and writing that I have been avoiding my entire life. So I thank you for this exposure to a fascinating way to look, not only at novels, but also at nature, appreciating the harmony that is embedded everywhere amongst the readers, people, nature, and novels. Thank you so much also for writing my recommendation! 🙂 You’re a great teacher, and this year (English) was honestly the best experience that I have ever had regarding a humanity class!!! 🙂 Oh, and I hope you don’t find the pen* too troublesome; I thought you would enjoy collecting another set of pens! 🙂

Plus, I can definitely see you writing a great novel with such a pen! 🙂

Have a great summer, and I will keep in touch! Thank you!

*The student also gave her a cool feather pen along with the card.

Teaching Octavia Butler: In Her Own Words

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler passed away seven years ago last month. Her most famous book,Kindred, tells the story of Dana, a black woman who time travels from 1976 to the pre-Civil War South. She meets a young white boy named Rufus, who also happens to be Dana’s ancestor.


I just started Kindred with my ninth graders. Octavia Butler is the only writer of color, and one of two women writers, in our curriculum this year.

So it was important to me that she have a legitimate space in my class, and that we face the subject of Kindred — the legacy of slavery — explicitly.

To start, we read her obituary in The New York Times, which quotes from various interviews with Butler.

To the LA Times in 1998, she said:

I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider.

One student admired Butler’s openness and ownership of her differences. Another student said Butler calling herself  “an outsider” even in 1998 made him “depressed” that she would still be made to feel this way so recently.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2000, Butler noted:

“The only black people you found [in science fiction] were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in because I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m writing.”

Several students saw this as Butler working deliberately to fix a problem she saw, and said that they too, had noticed the lack of diversity not just in their reading, but also in the TV shows and movies they watched.

I think her saying, “I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m writing,” shows such a strong affirmation of her own existence — a refusal to be an invisible minority.

Finally, we talked about the observation that ends the article:

“We are a naturally hierarchical species. When I say these things in my novels, sure I make up the aliens…but I don’t make up the essential human character.”

We discussed what it means to be “hierarchical,” and whether humans are naturally competitive, or predisposed to oppress anyone who doesn’t conform to the majority group. Some students who weren’t sci-fi fans also said Butler made them want to discover how she used the genre to make statements about the real world.

I can’t say that I’m a sci-fi fan either, but I’m loving the discussions we’re having. Reading Butler’s reflections  turned out to be a great way to start the unit — she got us talking and thinking critically about race, class and gender before reading a word of her book!

Everything he needs to know, he learned in 4T.

It’s been more than two months since my last post! To help make up for that gap, here’s a story so good, I think it’s movie material…

Almost 40 years later, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein still remembers the feeling of community in “4T,” Paul Tamburello’s fourth grade class at Pierce School in Brookline, Massachusetts. “He knew all of us, and had high expectations for us,” Jeff says. “He was really good about letting us know that he saw what we were doing, whether it was doing well or misbehaving.”

Jeff (right) learns to use chopsticks in 4T.
photo credit: Paul Tamburello

Though he graduated from 4T in 1974, Jeff kept coming back to visit his old teacher, even throughout high school and college.  During these visits, Jeff recalls, “He would always say, ‘What do you remember from 4T?’ Then he would use that information to think about how to approach the class.” This commitment to continual improvement inspired Jeff, who began working at Pierce – first as a recess aide, and then, after graduation from Stanford, as an apprentice teacher to Tamburello for two years, beginning in 1987.

Jeff as Mr. Tamburello's apprentice teacher Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Jeff as Mr. Tamburello’s apprentice teacher
Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

On the experience of having Jeff back in his classroom as an aspiring teacher, Paul Tamburello writes:

I was used to training student teachers but none with whom I had this kind of history. I hesitated. Was my work good enough, rigorous enough, to keep him engaged? I knew Jeff held me in high regard, maybe even considered me a role model. It’s a long fall from a pedestal to the solid, hard earth. Finally, I took the advice I gave my students. Don’t be afraid to try, maybe even fail.


There were days I shook my head and grinned in wonder. Jeff’s initiative was taking our relationship into rich uncharted territory. This was giving the term “student teacher” a whole new dimension. It would give us things to talk about for years to come.

By our second year of co-teaching, it was, “Jeff and I expect you to…” or “Mr. Tamburello and I expect you to…” as we ran the classroom. Jeff may be the only kid in America who got a post-graduate degree in fourth grade. It was the richest experience of my 34-year career.

In 1992, Jeff finally had his own classroom: he began teaching Social Studies and English at Brown Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts — only five miles away from Pierce School. Mr. Tamburello continued to guide his student of now 18 years:

“I would emulate a lot of the things I learned from his classroom, including his sense of discipline, and the positive environment he established.” Jeff adds, “Now, when I would go back to visit, he would still be trying new things, and this would give me more homework to do as a teacher.”

Jeff’s memoir about these experiences, On My Teacher’s Shoulders, was published in 2012.  On his decision to write a book about Mr. Tamburello, Jeff says, “A big motivation was to honor the different, but related types of impact he played on me over the course of 30 years. It was not a static relationship: each time [I came back] there was something different that I had to learn and he had to teach me. I feel very fortunate that he had the strength and humility to let me know what he was gaining each of those different times. That helped me understand the reciprocity of shared important experiences.”

Paul (left) and Jeff (right) at Paul's retirement partyphoto courtesy of Jeff Kelley Lowenstein

Paul (left) and Jeff (right) in 2012
photo courtesy of Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Many of us are fortunate to have had teachers who’ve shaped us for the better, including what kind of teachers we are and aspire to be. I also love how this story highlights the lifelong learning and cameraderie that can grow between teacher and student — and how the distinctions between these roles can blur in exciting, unexpected ways.

Have you kept in touch with a teacher long after leaving his or her class? Have you returned to teach at a school you attended?

This is It (Extended Version)

All the frenzied grading for first quarter is finally done, and I’m in weekend detox mode:

OK — now I will take out the overflowing trash; now I will clear the sink and do the laundry.

And, for something more fun, but no less cathartic for me: sharing a day in my life as an English teacher.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

7:12 a.m.: Leave the house.

7:47: Arrive at school. Happy it’s Tuesday, the day I get first period off!

7:52 – 8:43: Review directions for next week’s parent conferences, and spend way too long grading two essays.

8:48 – 9:32: Class #1 today is ninth grade; I administer a quiz on the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet (two students are absent, to my dismay); they sign up for parent conferences. After the quiz, I institute a seating chart for the first time; they’re a great class, but have been way too chatty lately.

We go over questions from last night’s reading, and then get to the good stuff: acting out the scene where Romeo spills his guts to his cousin Benvolio about his unrequited love for Rosaline. They giggle as we discuss what chastity means, and a usually reserved student takes her role as the woebegone Romeo quite seriously. I’m impressed!

9:32 – 9:45: Gather up laptop, zapper, and 27 Oedipus books on a cart to wheel to the next class. Write the day’s agenda and HW on the board. Oops — I forgot the wireless doesn’t work in this art room. Now I won’t be able to check their Odyssey books in or Oedipus books out.

9:50 – 10:30: Class #2, tenth grade — out with the epic hero, in with the tragic hero. Getting the books to and from the students is a production anyway, because they need to remove copious amounts of Post-its from their Odysseys. But I’m glad they’ve been annotating their reading! They sign up for parent conferences in the meantime.

We stage the first scene, and get our female Oedipus to stand on a table to address the citizens of Thebes. A funny kid races to lie down at the foot of the table, i.e. the palace steps. They get the story’s first moment of dramatic irony!

10:35 – 11:14: Since my schedule is different every day, I nearly forgot I had a third class in a row to teach. Another 9th grade class. They get a slightly longer quiz on the Prologue to “make up” for word traveling from the first class. Again, someone is absent. Make-up quizzes are annoying and possibly useless.

This class also does a nice job with acting out the scene. Our Romeo is a lanky boy this time, and he drags his feet dutifully to convey his mopey mood. We also have time to talk about oxymorons, and how they help us think about the play as a whole.

A student hands in an essay that’s two weeks overdue. I hope I don’t lose it.

11:20 – 11:36: Wheel the cart of books and laptop to a nearby classroom that does have a wireless connection, and check books into the system. Return books to the book room, and load up with enough books for this afternoon’s class. Time consuming.

11:42 – 11:50: Back to the office to take care of housekeeping: attendance for this morning’s classes; check e-mail; fix a mistake I made on turnitin.com.

11:52 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.: Grade and enter 47 Prologue quizzes over lunch. I love the instant gratification of grading multiple choice.

12:33 p.m.: First bathroom break of the day.

12:38 – 1:18: How did it take me so long to grade 1.5 essays before class?

1:22 – 2:02: Class #4, another 10th grade group; this time, I can get on the wireless to check their books in and out.

A gift: Someone has left a model of a skeleton in the room. The kids can’t resist touching it and puppeteering it; we must use it in our class performance!

Five girls and one boy lie on the carpeted floor to play “suppliants” — citizens of Thebes pleading with Oedipus to rid the city of a plague. The skeleton is also given a suppliant pose, and helps us show this plague is BAD.

2:05 -2:16: Return books, and load the cart with new ones.

2:20 – 6:00: This part is murky to me; I spent no more than ten minutes talking to the people in my department, but somehow, 3.5 hours passed as I graded five essays; edited a study guide for tomorrow’s 10th grade classes; and made sub plans for tomorrow.

As usual, preparing sub plans took a lot longer than it should; I was foiled twice by a broken elevator (it’s hard to cart stacks of books down stairs); two more trips to the book room; and two of two copy machines out of service.

6:33 – 8:4o: Dinner and decompression, i.e. watching the first half of This is It. My knowledge of and respect for Michael Jackson grows exponentially.

8:41 – 10:42: more grading

10:43 p.m. – 12:24 a.m.: talking to my fiance/working on this post!

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)?

A day in my life as an English teacher includes lots of rewarding interactions with students…

…but it also involves grading essays in school, at night, and/or on the weekend. This week’s share of three sets was more than usual because of the ending of the marking period, but even one set a week will easily take five hours to finish:

What does a day in your life as teacher look like?

Blogging: 1; Grading: 0

I’ve got 75 essays staring me in the face; they need grades and comments by Thursday. The end of the first quarter looms.

And yet, I can’t pass up the opportunity to write for A Day in the Life — created by fellow bloggers (and math teachers) Sam Shah* and Tina C..

I’ve tried to show what it’s like to teach on this blog, but have not yet captured the fine details of a full day.

Challenge accepted!

What does a day of teaching look like for you?

*Interview with Sam forthcoming!

On Catcher, Part One: Don’t go, Holden!

In a recent post on Slate, fellow English teacher Jessica Roake bemoans how much her students hated reading Catcher in the Rye, even though she desperately wanted them to like it. The story “is no longer a book for cool high school students,” she sniffs. “For most teenagers, an authority figure’s approval is the kiss of death.”

Having just finished Catcher with my ninth graders, I have to disagree with the idea that literature taught in school needs to be “cool” or current — and that kids won’t like what adults like.

I hated Catcher in high school, but loved it when I read it again as a teacher who’s seen her share of sarcastic, funny, and troubled teens. Many of my students engaged with the story, too.

We giggled every time Holden claims he’s “suave as hell” with the ladies, and read his “goddam”s aloud with aplomb, along with his many other “cusses” (9th grader diction, no lie).

We considered the much-discussed symbols in the story in ways that sometimes drifted into amusing absurdity:

(Possible sequels for the book: “Pitcher in the Wheat,” and “Shortstop in the Soy,” anyone?)

What the kids seemed to enjoy most, though, was discussing whether Holden was a typical teen or a mentally disturbed individual. We used a “chalk talk” (great strategy I picked up in a wonderful theater class):

Quite a few students showed surprising self-awareness and self-deprecation, noting that the typical teen experiences “Extreme Hormonal Mood Fluctuation,”  and “Aren’t most teens somewhat mentally disturbed?”

They also commented on Holden’s sexual hormones, and I got to say “horny” in class for the first time:

My favorite comment though, may have been the rational rebuttal to what all the “cool” kids are saying these days:


(You Only Live Once, but You Only Die Once, too.)

In short: don’t underestimate teenagers’ abilities to connect with classic literature.

Meet a Real Teacher: Daniela Flores

Meet the amazing Daniela, a fourth-grade Spanish and English teacher in Grapevine, a suburb of Dallas, Texas.  Daniela’s past life as a journalist shapes her teaching, as does her experience as an English Language Learner.

And I think I’ve got a new motto: GOYA/KOD!

Type of School:
Title 1 Elementary School

Years taught: 3

Number of students this year: 35



You left a position with a prestigious news agency to become a teacher. What motivated your choice, and what have you realized about its impact?

I had a great journalism professor in college whose passion for the profession was so palpable I was ready to take on the world when I graduated. After college, I got to work with and learn from some of the most talented journalists I’ve ever encountered. They had that passion, too. It took me a while to admit to myself that while I liked what I was doing and have a huge respect for the work, I didn’t feel the same way they did about journalism. I wanted to find my passion and that led me to bilingual education.  In the years since, I’ve realized I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

You teach a bilingual Spanish class. What are your students’ backgrounds? Can you explain what bilingual education means, and give us a snapshot of your class?

My students are mostly either from Mexico, or first-generation Americans with Spanish-speaking parents. We follow a dual language enrichment model at my school. This means my fourth-grade students receive half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English.  Our goal is to educate bilingual and biliterate 21st-century learners.

Your family is from Monterrey, Mexico and you grew up speaking Spanish. How does your background inform your teaching?

I think my background helps me understand my students because I lived the same thing they are going through. I know how exciting, difficult, exhausting, but ultimately rewarding the process of learning a new language can be. I always use that to guide my teaching. Perhaps more importantly, I know what it’s like to feel like you’re between two cultures. I use all of this to create relationships with my students and guide them in taking the best from both of the worlds they live in.

What do you most enjoy about your work?

Interacting with my students. Their enthusiasm and dreams fill me with hope for the future. Their calls for help remind me how important it is to have someone who believes in you. Last year, a student said to me, “Ms. Flores, I’m a girl with so many dreams. I want to be a lawyer, a chef, a teacher, a vet…” My job forces me to see the world very realistically, but my students allow me to see its endless possibilities.

If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

I would remove the extra pressures that take away attention from my students and their learning. The students are the reason I got into education.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

To quote “Bad Teacher”: “Shorter hours, summers off, no accountability.” Not only are those ideas false (!), they would not be the reasons anyone who really believes in education would become a teacher.

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

My main journalism professor, Dr. Robert Cole. Even though I did not stay in the world of journalism, he taught me you should be passionate about what you get up to do every morning. Seeing his love for journalism led me to find my love for teaching. I was nervous he would be disappointed in me for leaving journalism, so I didn’t tell him.  Now I realize he would be happy I found my calling. Today, I want to tell him I’m still following GOYA/KOD*, just in the world of education. Thank you for showing me what loving what you do looks like, Dr. Cole.

*Get off your ass and knock on doors!

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

Surround yourself in greatness. Find the best teachers at your school, in your district, on Twitter, anywhere, and learn everything you can from them.  Also, don’t forget about yourself. When a former journalism colleague who had been a teacher gave me that advice, I had no idea what he meant. But you’ll figure it out very quickly!

Kafka’s Ice Breaker

My first day of school today began with an inspiring speech by David Steiner, the Dean of Education at Hunter College in New York City.

He asked the gathered faculty, “What does it mean to be educated?” — the same question he’d posed to his own students, who were studying to be teachers.

Their reaction? Silence.

It was indeed a jarring, uncomfortable question. How many of my former students would I consider — or would consider themselves — educated after taking my class? Despite my undergraduate and graduate degrees, could I claim to be educated?

Steiner addressed his difficult question in the words of Kafka:

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

I loved this way of thinking about teaching, especially teaching English, so much that I had to read more. Kafka writes:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Kafka’s words are gorgeous, and thrilling. His statement reminds me too of T.S. Eliot’s, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” from  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I can’t wait for this school year to crack my frozen seas, and disturb the universe in doing so. I plan to take as many students down with me as I can…