Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Surprise Encounter

After posting about my encounter with Sir Ken Robinson in the airport, I remembered that I had another surprise encounter with an author recently.

I went to a charity lunch to benefit a wonderful women's shelter where I occasionally volunteer, and one of the speakers was a very charming author I didn't know was going to be speaking.

Her name is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and she is the author most recently of Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a young adult novel about a young middle school teacher in Brooklyn. I had never heard of the book, but after hearing Ms. Bynum speak, I'm going to get myself a copy.

Hearing Ms. Bynum speak was such a pleasant surprise. She talked of how this novel grew out of her own experiences as a middle school English teacher in Brooklyn, and she told some very entertaining anecdotes about the mistakes she made as a teacher, and funny things her students did. It was clear that she had been very enthusiastic about teaching English, and that her students probably loved her.

She also talked about the transformative power of reading--for her students and for everyone. She said that in her experience both writing and reading give one the unique opportunity of becoming deeply immersed in someone else's consciousness, and this teaches empathy.

Ms. Bynum also talked about the writing process, and studying writing with Michael Cunningham (whose writing I also admire). She talked about figuring out what story you want to tell. She quoted Cunningham, who said that you should be able to imagine that the last sentence of your (or anyone's) book could be, "And after that nothing was ever the same again." I thought that was a great point. In screenwriting, they often talk about how the two hours that comprise a movie should tell a story about the pivotal point in the main character's life. You should be able to say the same thing, that nothing was ever the same afterward, at the end of a movie, too--at the end of any good story.

It was nice to hear Ms. Bynum talk about writing about one's experiences, good storytelling, and the power of reading.

I have also been reading the Fairacre Series of novels by Miss Read, about a teacher in a village school in rural England in the middle of the last century, and have been enjoying reading about teaching and marveling that I recognize so many of the issues that Miss Read writes about, even though she wrote about them something like 69 years ago. So perhaps after finishing my reading about English country schools, I'll move ahead in time and across the ocean, and read about teaching in Brooklyn a few years ago, in Ms. Hempel Chronicles.

I'd love to hear about everyone else's favorite books about teachers and teaching--do you have any titles to share with me?


litlove said...

What wonderful advice - and nothing was ever the same again - I love that! I shall have to look out for the book too. My favourite teaching book is probably a non-fiction book by Jonathon Smith called The Learning Game. It's his memoir, but it has lots of discussion about the business of teaching. This is a subject dear to my heart, so I'll be interested to see what other commenters suggest.

Iliana said...

Oh that Ms. Hempel Chronicles book sounds great! Of course I'm trying to think of a book about teachers or teaching and can't come up with anything.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--I'll have to get The Learning Game. It occurred to me when I was listening to this author that I enjoy books about teaching, but had never thought about those books as belonging to a separate category before. I'm hoping to come up with a good list!

iliana--I was thinking that most of the books I've read about teaching are really old (maybe even outdated), like Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase, James Hilton's Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Good Morning, Miss Dove by Frances Gray Patton. They're all books I read when I was pretty young, but I really remember enjoying them. I was thinking it would be fun to read more about teaching, maybe something more up to date. I think I'll start with Ms. Hempel Chronicles, as I so enjoyed the author's talk :)

Anonymous said...

I read this book. It starts off with a great description of sitting in a middle school performance watching students dance to popular music and realizing how raunchy the lyrics to the songs are even though the parents don't seem to notice. Overall I found it uneven but the first half -- more about her teaching-- was very good.


Gentle Reader said...

Liz--I remember you telling me about that scene when you were reading it--but I didn't remember the book--how funny that I went and heard that woman speak!

Grad said...

What a lovely posting. I'd love to have heard Ms. Bynum speak. I'm not a writer, but what she says makes sense. Finding the story you want to tell might be the hardest part. Also, have you read, To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield? I've been meaning too forever, but haven't gotten around to it.It appears to be along the lines of an extended Goodbye Mr. Chips. Can't wait to get into it.

Bookfool said...

I don't think I've read anything about teachers or teaching -- at least, I can't think of anything. Loved both of your "encounter" stories!

Gentle Reader said...

Grad--I haven't read To Serve Them All My Days, but that's a great addition to this list--I'll look for it. Thanks!

Bookfool--Thanks! I didn't realize that books about teachers and teaching were an interest of mine, but I guess they are! I would also include books about school, so I could say that even Harry Potter fits in this category ;)