INTERACTIVE Author Q&A with Taylor Mali

  • May 8, 2012

A new twist on our author Q&As today: a chance for you to ask your own questions! We ask poet and author Taylor Mali some questions to start, but you are invited to submit your own questions that he will answer over the next few days.

Usually, we at the Independent get to ask all the questions and it is certainly a role we enjoy.  But today and perhaps from time to time, dear reader, we’re going to invite you into the interview room.  How about it?  For 48 hours Taylor Mali, author of What Teachers Make will respond to reader questions.  Readers, here’s your chance.

To ask a question, just leave a comment below, or on our Facebook page, or tweet @wirobooks with #Q&A. You have 48 hours to submit your question for Taylor Mali!

What Teachers Make
is a book “in praise of the greatest job in the world,” an impassioned defense of teachers and why we need them now more than ever. Taylor Mali, a slam poet and teacher-turned-teacher’s advocate, has inspired millions with his original poem “What Teachers Make.” It’s his powerful response to a rich man at a dinner party who asked him what teachers make and sneeringly commented that anyone wanting such a low-paying job as a teacher shouldn’t be allowed to be one. It leads to that other bit of nonsense about teachers: Those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach. It’s a wonder these days that anybody can learning anything.

How do we teach, learn, celebrate and cultivate character and honor in a culture of want, greed and values based on the power of the purchase? What made us start to focus on the dollar rather than character, and stop valuing the work of teachers?

The short answer is: I don’t know. But starting a national conversation must be part of it, right? Insofar as there is such a thing as a “national conversation” and not just myriad blogs and cable news channels propping up talking points. Let me also say that teachers have been too quiet in the past; they’ve let others define who we are and what we do. Yes, we’ve had more important things to do — like educate children — but teachers need to get back into the spotlight to talk about the value and difficulty of what they do.

It’s a miracle that you bit your tongue at that dinner party and wrote a poem instead.  What kept you from wanting to “kill all the lawyers,” as you mention in your poem?” Is one of your teachers responsible for your tolerance and restraint?

What kept me from wanting to “kill all lawyers” was the knowledge that to despise an entire group based on the behavior of a few individuals is the definition of prejudice. I know there are good lawyers out there who fight for justice and get paid little. And yes, my poem takes a cheap shot at lawyers in general because it’s so irresistible. But my poem is also based in truth. That I had the patience to bite my tongue on the night of that party has more to do with not being witty enough to craft the poem (or something like it) on the spot.

You never touch on gender.  A teacher once told me that girls exhaust themselves on their studies but that boys always keep a little something in the tank. Is this true, and are there other notable differences in the learning habits of girls and boys?

How interesting. I did spend the last four years in the classroom at an all-boys school, so perhaps some of the subtleties of gender difference were lost on me. I think your teacher is right about boys always keeping a little something in reserve; in a different setting, I could propose an evolutionary theory to explain that reality, which would be fun to debate/debunk. From when I did teach in a co-ed class, I remember this: Girls aren’t as comfortable skipping around on a test. When a girl comes to a problem or question that stymies her, she will burn through much of the remaining time allotted for the whole test on just that question, whereas a boy is more likely to skip it and come back later if he has time.

Oscar Wilde said that “nothing worth knowing can be taught.” This sounds like a description of talent, and maybe it can’t be taught but discovered and honed? Have you ever had a kid with such broad and natural ability that you merely had to stand beside him or her and point? Conversely, have you every completely misread a student’s ability?

I think the goal is always to stand by the side and point. That’s what teaching is (as long as you get to have latitude in your definitions of “side” and “point.”) As for misreading a student’s ability, sure, I’ve done that many times. But usually that involves me kicking them out of the nest a little too early because I think they can fly. They flap their wings as best they can, and then splat. But failure is instructive! There’s some great quotation about decisions and experience that goes something like this: “What causes good decisions? Experience. What causes experience? Bad decisions!”

In your book you make the reader believe that a teacher is really training a mind to function, that the details are only peripheral. “To teach is to make learning possible.” Why does so much schooling feel like so much tedium to so many?

I don’t know for sure, but I would argue that it is a combination of a lack of challenge, misalignment of goals and uninspired teaching. All the studies I remember (as well as my own empirical evidence) suggest that teachers don’t raise the bar high enough for their students. Teachers get comfortable teaching the way they always have, and they forget to push the students to achieve a little more than everyone thought possible. When you learn your multiplication tables, why stop at 12 x 12? Why not go up to 20 x 20? It would be very useful in life to just remember that 13 x 17 is 221. On the other hand, not everything you learn in high school needs to be “useful in life” in order to have value. Sometimes what you’re actually learning is how to buckle down and do the stuff you have to do whether you like it or not. When you’re in the middle of that and you haven’t been adequately briefed on why it’s important, I’m sure it feels like tedium. And lastly, in addition to being beat down, insulted, and burnt out — or even as a result of those things teachers get lazy.

In the book you quote William Durant’s assertion that “education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance,” which either sets us up to be angry enough to always take in new information or makes us know we will always be thirsty for information. Either way, it sounds like a good mindset for learning. Is learning a form of trading old information for new or better?

Yes. That’s exactly what learning is. And studying the whole cognitive process to develop new policies and protocols for implementing that new information.

American educator and semanticist Kenneth G. Johnson said “Education is going forward from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.”  Maybe it is always best that our hold on the facts be tenuous, that way, there’s room to grow and accept change. Would you agree?

Absolutely. One definition of the word listening is “being open to the possibility that you are wrong.” If you go through life knowing you are 100 percent right about everything, then you’re never really listening to anyone.

William Gibson writes in his book Distrust That Particular Flavor that “we are the only species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.” Perhaps forgetting is more useful to our species than we know. Do you agree?

Not really. But I’d debate it with you for an hour if you had some guacamole and baby carrots. I’d take the position that we have outsourced our memory to these constructed artifacts and have consequently weakened our minds. What ever happened to mnemonics, the Greek word for the study of memory and how to improve it? On the other hand, the Greeks also had nepenthe, a mythical drink that induced forgetting. There are some things I would like to forget. (I’m so sorry, Rebecca.)

Why does it seem as if it’s so much easier to hold onto ignorance than intelligence?

Because ignorance is bliss, and who doesn’t want to hold onto bliss? Intelligence involves change, and change never feels convenient.

In your book, you include Churchill’s quote that “we forge a life by what we give.” Is it possible to inculcate this into the minds of all children?

Yes. But only by example. In fact, teaching by example is really the only way to teach.

What is your Website address? Perhaps some would-be teachers will read your interview, buy your book and sign up to be one of the next generation of unforgettable teachers.


Taylor Mali’s Back-and-Forth With Readers

Alan – May 9th, 2012 10:58 am – What do you think a teacher should do to reinvigorate themselves and bring new energy to the classroom?

All schools are governed by different sets of criteria that inform their curriculum so it’s hard to come up with a specific practice that would apply in all cases, but here’s something: Start incorporating the use of a Mnemonic Peg System in your teaching. You’ll be teaching the art of memory along with whatever you’re teaching. You don’t have to use the lists you find as examples on the internet (although there are some good ones out there); you can let your students come up with their own. An activity like this makes the act of cognition part of the lesson plan. Learning the facts of a history lesson that you are teaching becomes almost a byproduct of the study of memory. Basically, it’s a change in angle, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Aime – May 9th, 2012 12:32 pm – Do you think there is a method of teaching that is equally effective for all students or is a teacher required to develop slightly different teaching methods to account for the different learning strategies of different students?

Absolutely you have to develop different teaching strategies for each student, especially in younger grades. They say when you teach history to 25 young kids, you’re actually teaching 25 different histories. But that takes a time, mentoring, and experience. And you can’t do it if you have too many students in all your classes!

D’An – May 10th, 2012 12:34 pm – In your opinion, how important are the arts and humanities in secondary education?

Vital, mysteriously so. I can’t explain why in a way that would make any politician agree with me, but once you cut dance, music, drama, and art, you have already lost whatever battle you thought you were fighting.

Renee – May 10th, 2012 1:46 pm – Do you think that programs like Teach for America are helping the profession and the students?

That’s a loaded question, and you probably know it. Here’s my answer: I LOVE the idea of Teach for America although I wish the minimum length that a corps member had to serve were three years and not two. But I hate the way some school districts are using TFA teachers to put bodies in classrooms that really should be reserved for the best, most effective, veteran teachers. The system we have currently provides little financial incentive for experienced teachers to gravitate to the classrooms that need them most. A young, driven, intelligent, and caring college graduate is certainly better than NOTHING, but the system is needs the kind of reform that TFA cannot bring about on its own. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that TFA corps members can be MISUSED in a way that they make the problems worse.

TD – May 10th, 2012 3:06 pm – What are some strategies you think teachers (and parents) can use to help students build the skills they need to settle conflicts peacefully, to respect other people’s cultures and values and to care about other people’s feelings?

I don’t know. What do you think? I’ve had some success broadening the minds of my students by inviting different guests into my classroom or using the internet to get in touch with people on the other side of the world. But I was lucky, because the administration, community, and parents I worked with and for all gave me a great deal of flexibility and respect. If you’re likely to run into comments like, “This is a democracy, and that means we don’t need to study this!” then you’re likely to run into some problems.

Leroy – May 11th, 2012 3:37 pm – What impact has Teach for America had on the preparation of teachers?

[I think I answered this above].

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

comments powered by Disqus