Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Education: The Anne Rice in My Life

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The author Anne Rice has been in the news recently for publicly renouncing her Roman Catholic faith. She used her Facebook page to make the announcement. Some questioned why this was news at all--Rice had previously left the church when she was 18 and only re-avowed the faith ten years ago. Certainly, NPR News has received quite a bit of criticism for its eight-minute interview of Rice on All Things Considered, which aired Monday.

However, Anne Rice has never been an author to me. Anne Rice was the best Reading teacher I ever had, in the sixth grade at Odle Middle School in Bellevue, Washington. The middle school gifted program I was in had self-contained classes, most taught by two gifted specialists, Linda Oman and Anita Bhat. However, there were more classes for the three grade levels than they were contracted to teach and thus outside specialists were brought in for various courses, usually Science and Math, but in this case, Reading.

Mrs. Rice made an impression right from the first day of school. For students already reeling from the structure of middle school compared with free-form elementary school, entering her classroom was an additional shock. Her diction was absolutely perfect, and it would remain that way the entire year. She made it clear that she would not tolerate students being late or any distractions in the classroom. The fact that we would learn that Mrs. Rice was sensitive to sunlight just seemed entirely appropriate for a strict Reading teacher. Yet, rather than feeling threatened by the expectations, I think most of my class viewed it as a chance to prove we were mature enough to handle it.

Fundamentally, this group of gifted students rather liked Reading, so the fact that we had a teacher that was going to push us was actually rather nice. I don't remember most of what we read in that class, but I do remember being questioned about vocabulary and learning more about the origin of words than I had ever encountered before. Through it all, Mrs. Rice wasn't actually that stingy about giving positive reinforcement, but it did have to be earned, and when you heard a comment like "Very good!" you knew that she meant it.

I believe her class was the first time I ever tackled any Shakespeare, and I specifically remember reading "Romeo and Juliet" aloud. We would be assigned the various characters at the beginning of class, and mostly those assigned Romeo and Juliet would be working for their grades on a given day. One day, I was assigned Friar Laurence and managed to go through a fairly long passage (perhaps the beginning of Act II, Scene III), barely taking a breath. At the end of class, someone commented that they hadn't gotten a chance to get a good grade that day. Mrs. Rice just stated back, "I bet our Friar Laurence today thought the same thing at the beginning of class. Sometimes you have to take advantages of the opportunities you do have." Those of us listening learned an important life lesson that day.

While most of even my high school teachers are now retired or teaching elsewhere, I was amazed to find that Mrs. Rice is still at Odle as she has been since 1981, though she now mostly teaches Social Studies. She even has a web site which expresses her philosophy exactly as I remember it, that discipline creates a level of comfort that leads to everything else one should expect from an education.

I bet today's students are still getting that education in her classroom, and furthermore that Anne Rice is still making sure that they're paying attention to it.

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