Teach! As Anne Sullivan Taught Helen Keller (#182)


A Year in the Life: Ambient Math Wins the Race to the Top!
Day 182

For one year, 365 days, this blog will address the Common Core Standards from the perspective of creating an alternate, ambient learning environment for math. Ambient is defined as “existing or present on all sides, an all-encompassing atmosphere.”

And ambient music is defined as: “Quiet and relaxing with melodies that repeat many times.” Why ambient? A math teaching style that’s whole and all encompassing, with themes that repeat many times through the years, is most likely to be effective and successful. Today’s post will focus on Anne Sullivan, the miracle worker, as a prototype for being an effective teacher.

The Anne Bancroft/Patty Duke portrayal of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller is riveting.  I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but I watched it again last night and was taken with the raw passion that Anne brought to the task of teaching Helen.  The two started out hating each other (I don’t think that’s overstating).  Helen was so violently resistant to Anne that the family was on the brink of letting her go as Helen’s live-in tutor.

But upon realizing their and Helen’s limited options, they agreed to Anne’s unusual plan: to take Helen away from her family.  They were not good for her, pitying and indulgent.  She needed strict discipline if she was to learn anything.  So Anne removed Helen from the family to a cottage on the property, and so began the mighty struggle.

Anne was given two weeks to accomplish her task, then Helen was to return to her family.  At the two-week mark, she was to give Helen back at 6 pm that evening, and says this:

“Give them back their child and dog, both housebroken, everyone’s satisfied. But me, and you. (HELEN’S hand comes out into the light, groping.) Reach. Reach! (ANNIE, extending her own hand, grips HELEN’S; the two hands are clasped, tense in the light, the rest of the room changing in shadow.) I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave. And I know, I know, one word and I can—put the world in your hand—and whatever it is to me, I won’t take less! How, how, how do I tell you that this——(She spells.)——means a word, and the word means this thing, wool? (She thrusts the wool at HELEN’S hand; HELEN sits, puzzled. ANNIE puts the crocheting aside.) Or this—s, t, o, o, l—means this thing, stool? (She claps HELEN’S palm to the stool. HELEN waits, uncomprehending. ANNIE snatches up her napkin, spells:) Napkin! (She forces it on HELEN’S hand, waits, discards it, lifts a fold of the child’s dress, spells:) Dress! (She lets it drop, spells:) F, a, c, e, face! (She draws HELEN’S hand to her cheek, and pressing it there, staring into the child’s responseless eyes, hears the distant belfry begin to toll, slowly: one, two, three, four, five, six.)”

For me, this is a metaphor for everything we attempt to teach every child.  We must be adamant in our determination to bring the light of human heritage in its essence to those in our charge.  Nothing can preempt that urgency.  Not standards, not testing, not disjointed and inappropriate subject matter.  All that matters is the light.  Every child instinctively knows it and will settle for nothing less.  So much “misbehavior” is this questing for that light on the part of the child!  Let us not let them down, let us as their teachers strive to be equal to their passionate desire to know, to take their places in this challenging world, to do their parts to live their lives as vital players in the drama of the light making its way.

Here are the closing scenes, Helen’s discovering that water is the same as the word “water” and of Helen and Anne, student and teacher, finally recognizing each other as such.  Knowledge ensues in an environment dedicated to imaginative, creative knowing, where student and teacher alike surrender to the ensuing of that knowledge as a worthy goal. More Grade 3 tomorrow!



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