A Few of My Favorite Things: A Very Special "Back to School" Episode

The House of Hatrack headed back to class this week so let's talk about school. Specifically, who was your favorite teacher and why? Did he/she have any effect on your life beyond the walls of the classroom?

When I decided on the topic I didn't have to even hesitate to know who I would be telling you about. Hands down, the title goes to Mrs. Fran DeLamater - high school English teacher extraordinaire. I was in honors English in high school which meant that we pretty much had the same group of 20 or so students in class every year and we had Fran twice. We never would have dreamed of calling her Fran to her face, we respected her too much for that, but in the halls and after school it was Fran because someone that fun and awesome just didn't feel like a "Mrs."

The first time I had her was sophomore year and I'm sure we did good things in class but it was a long time ago and a little fuzzy now. We had her again senior year for AP English. That's when things really took off. First, I consider myself to be a pretty good writer of essays and papers (fiction not so much). Fran didn't just teach us how to write, she taught us how to WRITE with our own voices, to make our papers our own and not just a cookie cutter response of what we thought the reader expected. For the first 9 weeks of class she had us put private code numbers on our papers instead of names so that her knowledge of us as people (remember we were all in her class two years before) wouldn't color her responses. Criticism was always constructive and gentle. The running joke with my best friend was the number of times that his papers came back with the comment "I think you're reaching here." Eventually he learned to not do that but she let it happen at his pace with burning down everything else he had built in his papers.

She also taught us to think quickly. Every Wednesday was Prompt Day. Walk into class, get a writing prompt. We never knew what the topic would be. Sometimes we would have to interpret a poem that we had never seen before. (Proud moment - Having Fran tell me on Thursday that I had nailed my interpretation of an Emily Dickinson poem.) Sometimes it would be a short prose passage. Often it would be an open ended prompt where we had to use a classic literary work of our own choice to answer an interpretative question. I remember once using a passage from Dune as an example of the necessity of violence as a plot device and another time when the first thing she said to me when I walked into class was "No science fiction today, Quasi." She knew me so well. Anyway, Prompt Day - no prep, fifty minutes, 300 - 500 words. To this day (almost thirty years later) I don't write rough drafts, even for ten page papers.

When I started thinking about what I wanted to share in this post I realized that Fran was a bigger influence than simply teaching me how to write and to appreciate literature. I teach math for a living - just about as far removed from English as a school subject as one can get - and I use her as a model far more than any math teacher/professor I've ever had. What made her class so fantastic was that she had FUN teaching it and she let us have fun learning it. I've already mentioned my heavy use of science fiction as subject matter - she accepted it without recrimination - and other kids brought their own tastes and interests to class just as much. We would make jokes in class and if she didn't find them funny she'd let it pass. On the other hand, making her laugh was like getting a gold star. You had to be smart and on point and original to accomplish it but when it happened she would let loose with complete joy. The ultimate proof of her humor came during senior year. We were reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar which meant we all had assigned roles and we sat in class reading it out loud to each other, like a radio play. One day she got a call from the office that they needed to see her right then. We were seniors, we were honors students, she had known us all for years. She told us she had to go and we should just let ourselves out when the bell rang. I convinced everyone that it would be hilarious if we rearranged her classroom before her freshman Basic English class came in for the next period. Her desk went to the center of the room. The student desks went in circles around it. The bell rang. We left. The next day we come back to find everything right where we left it. With a twinkle in her eye she thanked us for reconstructing the Globe and left it that way until we finished the unit.

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I've always referred to my own classroom as being an exercise in controlled chaos. I got this model from Fran. Everybody has their own thing to bring to learning, let them use it. I don't remember ever raising my hand in her class but I certainly participated. If you've got a question about what I'm teaching let me know. I might not see a raised hand but I'm going to hear you asking a question so just ask it. Also, I know a lot of my students (especially now at community college) don't want to be in math class so if I can make them laugh (vodka fractions) maybe they'll pay a little more attention. And if I laugh at their jokes maybe they'll feel like I'm really paying attention to them.