Tuesday, December 12, 2006


As I reflect on the challenges facing teachers and the question of how one goes about teaching well, I find myself thinking about the great teachers that I have had, and how they have influenced me. One of those teachers is Alex Pickens.

In 1969 I had just graduated from college and been accepted into the federally sponsored Teacher Corps program, something like the Teach for America program that now exists. I did not know when I signed up that they had a program in Hawaii, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself in Wist Hall on the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, taking an art methods course designed for elementary school teachers. Alex Pickens was at that time the head of the Art Education department, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man with an air of genial authority.

There were twenty minutes left in class. I was sitting in front of my easel, staring at the gouache painting that was becoming muddier and soggier with every stroke of my brush. It was no use. The picture was a mess, and so was I. Time to start cleaning up and get ready to go home up. I was just reaching to pull the paper off the easel and throw it away when Dr. Pickens spoke to me from over my shoulder.

"You know, Bruce, that's very interesting, that effect that you have right there." He pointed at one corner of the paper, at the edge of my gigantic lake of mud, where a yellow wash was just peeking through from underneath a scratchy brown brush stroke. "It kind of reminds me of the surface of a lake seen in the sunlight. Why don't you take a clean sheet of paper and try doing some more of that?" He patted me on the back as he moved on to the girl beside me.

I looked at the painting again. Sure enough, that one spot was interesting. I pulled the paper off the easel, tacked up a new one, and began work.

As I think about my college and graduate school education from a distance of nearly 40 years, I really can't remember much about the classes, or even the names of the instructors. But I remember Alex Pickens.

What made him different? Well, he knew his subject matter. I learned about techniques in elementary art, and to this day I remember them all: how to work with clay making architectural tiles and pinch pots, how to make animal masks out of cardboard, how to make linoleum prints, how to make your own pigments for gouache painting by grinding different colors of dirt in a mortar and pestle. But with rare exceptions I have never had the opportunity to use any of these techniques in the classroom. As it happens, I moved from teaching elementary school (for four years) to teaching middle school (11) and high school English (22 and counting). And yet Alex Pickens is with me every time I sit down to conference with a student over a piece of writing, every time I correct a paper, every time I try to help steer a student discussion.

I don't always live up to the standard he set for me. I don't always have his light touch, his ability to identify what is going right when the student is convinced everything is going wrong, his way of finding just the right words to give a student a way to re-enter his work with fresh insight and energy. But I have his example, and even today, when I find myself with twenty minutes left in class and my students' eyes beginning to glaze over, I know to look around for what is going right, and try to work with that.

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