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Morrie: A Primer for Literacy Educators
Thomas Cloer, Jr.
the last ten years, I have tried to focus on emotion and the importance of
affect in the educational process. Tuesdays
With Morrie (Albom, 1997) is about the importance of affect and
affairs of the heart in educational endeavors. There are many of us in literacy
education who believe that the very heart of education is education with a
heart (Purkey & Novak, 1984). We realize that learning facts and knowing
our discipline are important essentials, but not nearly sufficient to meet the
criteria for being a successful literacy teacher.
Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays
With Morrie, like myself,
is becoming long in the tooth, and is fully cognizant of that. Mr. Albom never considered that he would have to learn
about dying in order to know how to live, but that's really what this book is
about. It is about life and death, and coming to grips with things that matter,
especially from a teacher's perspective.
The knowledge that one is dying will tend to alter our
perspectives, those of us who live in a capitalistic, free-enterprise, Wal-Mart
capsule. Morrie, Mitch Albom's favorite college professor, asked Mitch to do one more project with his old professor.
The two could study dying together; Morrie could be research, a human textbook.
Morrie asked Mitch to study him and watch what happens as one
dies, and thereby learn about dying in order to know how to live. "Morrie
would walk that final bridge between life and death, and narrate the trip"
(Albom, 1997, p. 10).
Morrie very early taught Mitch that greetings and good-byes are very crucial.
We as literacy teachers should never overlook their importance. In my fourth
decade of teaching, I still consider greetings and good-byes to be some of the
most critical things I do as a teacher. Morrie was a hit from the time he asked
Mitchell Albom, "Do you prefer Mitch? Or is Mitchell better?" Morrie was thus sending his first
invitation to Mitchell, and was confirming it with "I hope that
one day you will think of me as your friend" (p. 25).
Mitch Albom reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit just after Bill Clinton's tawdry sex scandal broke in 1999. In essence,
what happened was Bill Clinton came clear in the impeachment trial and was not
impeached. However, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was dethroned as was David Livingston, Newt's black-belted (karate) successor, who
was found to have skeletons as well. The Saturday
Night Live actor playing David Livingston asked, "What in hell happened? Clinton sins; Newt is dethroned and I lose my chance as
Speaker of the House! What in hell happened?" Mitch asked himself the same thing after Morrie
stirred his mind with such ultimate questions as, "Have you found someone
to share your heart with? Are you giving to your community? Are you at peace
with yourself? Are you trying to be as human as you can be?" (Albom, 1997,
p. 34). Mitch found himself tied to computers, modems, and
cell phones. Mitch's days were full, but he was really unsatisfied.
He had once sworn he would never work for money, but would join the Peace
Corps. "What in hell happened" is a question most of us ask.
Who Do You Say That I Am?
What can we do as literacy educators to transcend the centuries
in a similar way that Morrie obviously did with his students? What can we do?
As one who believes in the importance of affect in literacy improvement, there
are some basic principles of education that correlate with Morrie's teaching.
These principles have been stated explicitly in the professional literature
again and again by Purkey (1970), Purkey and Novak (1984), Purkey and Schmit
(1987, 1996), Purkey and Stanley (1991), and Purkey (2000). The very first
principle is one that assumes that every student at every level of literacy
education is asking the very same hard biblical question, "Who do ye say
that I am?" Students ask me that as I get out of my car and start to my
office at the university. Who do ye say that I am Dr. Cloer? Some say I'm John the Babbler, some say a liar, or one of the
major problems around here. Purkey & Schmidt (1987, 1996) declare that our
answers to this most critical question in Wisconsin, Oregon, and South Carolina must include invitations, formal and informal,
verbal and nonverbal, intentional and respectful. These invitations must say
"You're valuable, capable, and responsible. We're glad you're part of our
learning community. Now, let's get with it."
I personally believe that most of literacy impairment is more a
result of disinvitation than of being undisciplined or unmotivated. The least
little inviting act in school is like a feast to an emotionally starved person
(Purkey & Novak, 1984). Remember in the book and movie Forrest Gump, children wouldn't let Forrest sit by them on the school bus because he was a
simpleton (Groom, 1986). Many years after Forrest had gone to Vietnam, won the Congressional Medal of Honor, met
three presidents, and became a world famous ping-pong champion and business
tycoon selling Bubba Gump's shrimp, he still thought of the girl Jenny because of that first little inviting act of
offering him a seat on the school bus.
All literacy students that have attended one day in any class
at any of our schools are also asking like Alice in Wonderland, "Who in the world am
I?" In Forrest Gump, when Jenny remembered the incestuous sexual abuse and
threw rocks at the house where it happened, Forrest replied "Sometimes there just ain't enough
rocks." Forrest was right. The reason Jenny lived like she lived, did what she did, and
died like she died, was because of the way she had been made to feel unloved,
incapable, and irresponsible. Morrie knew what really mattered; emotions
To arrive at literacy empowerment instead of literacy
impairment, students need invitations the way South Carolina blooms need the cool spring rains. When our
students in literacy education are invited, they start joining in the progress
of civilization in the elementary schools, they start realizing their human
potential in the reading groups, and they start celebrating their existence as
part of the human race (Purkey & Novak, 1984). Literacy students need
invitations the way the old red mountain buckeye trees need the rich, black
mountain soil around my home.
Empowerment – More Than Knowledge
Who are the people working in literacy that will have the most
impact on students?
Purkey and Novak (1984) believe that having knowledge and
imparting knowledge is not enough as a teacher. The guys involved in Watergate
were all lawyers! These lawyers knew more about the law than anyone in America. It is true, as Whitehead (1967) warns, that
fools generalize before becoming precise with much knowledge. We need to know
more about everything. Whitehead says that education is the acquisition of the
art of the utilization of knowledge. Just knowing a great deal isn't enough. We
should produce students who possess culture, activity of thought, receptiveness
to beauty and humane feelings. Scraps of information, he complains, have
nothing to do with culture. A merely well-informed man is the biggest bore on
God's earth (Whitehead, 1967).
Simply being well informed as a literacy educator is really not
enough. If knowledge were enough, none of those lawyers in Watergate would have
broken the law. Physicians would be the healthiest people in America. Psychiatrists would be the best adjusted, and
evangelists would be the most compassionate, kind, and humble people in our
society. We literacy educators that stress the affective domain certainly
believe in the art of the utilization of knowledge. But we declare, as Morrie
would, that the excellence in education movement must involve something more
than abstinence, fasting, celibacy, exhaustion, and high test scores. I know I
personally can live for days on a single invitation. Invitations are as
nourishing to me as my senior citizen Silver B-Complex vitamins. Morrie was so
right when talking about the back and forth of life, and it being like a
wrestling match. "Love wins. Love always wins" (Albom, p. 40).
Most Important: How to Give Love
Morrie's most important principle for life and the classroom
concerned how we interact, and how explicit and intentional we are with our
interactions. "The most important thing in life is to learn how to give
out love, and let it come in" (Albom, 1997, p. 52).
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Native American and U.S. Senator
from Colorado was an idol of mine when I was in undergraduate
school in the early 60's. He was a champion in judo. I read his biography
recently, An American Warrior,
(Viola, 1993), and I was reminded how all that Olympic talent in judo and
political acumen for Washington was overlooked by all his teachers. I was
especially intrigued by the notes in his school folder: "Makes no effort.
Is conveniently absent when assignments are due. Poor in work habits and class
attitude. Dreamy. Ben always has an excuse written out to get out of taking
gym" (Viola, 1993, p. 29). This is the famous athlete, Olympian, judo
champion, senator from Colorado. No one knew how to give him love at school. No
one saw any potential in Ben Nighthorse Campbell; no one even noticed his physical prowess.
Morrie saw things in people that others overlooked. For
example, Mitch said, "He told me I was good enough to
write an honors project – something I had never considered" (p. 133).
Morrie knew that students need to have their potential pointed out to them
regularly, explicitly, and intentionally (Purkey, 2000).
Inviting actions speak more clearly than mere inviting words.
To really love is to act lovingly; to really care is to act caringly. It has to
be regular, explicit, and intentional (Purkey, 2000). It would be silly for me,
for example, to say to my wife of 35 years, "Elaine, why are you always
wanting me to show that I care? I told you and even showed you that I cared
when we were majoring in theater (drive-in theater at the edge of Williamsburg, Kentucky) in college in 1965." That wouldn't get it
with Elaine. I have to act caringly, and do it regularly
People tell me, "Cloer, don't you know people will take
advantage of you. Keep your guard up! You must counterpunch!" The people
who tell me that don't understand. Many of them have even offered an invitation
and had it turned down by a student. They don't understand that a student's declining
of an invitation by a teacher is a way of testing its sincerity (Purkey &
Schmidt, 1987). Don't quit sending invitations because one is declined.
Invitations are to teacher-student relationships in literacy as black mountain
soil is to towering Appalachian hemlocks. I've been studying invitations and
the effects of such in schooling for 49 years (I started in the mountains when
I was six.). It has been my finding that some educators really like students
more in the abstract than in the concrete.
I recently read the biography titled Mankiller (Mankiller & Wallis, 1993), a book about the
female Cherokee Chief, Wilma Mankiller, and how she was relocated as a child by the U.S. government to the inner city of San Francisco. In her book she tells how that every single
person in school laughed at her name. She and her sister sat up at nights
practicing talking so as to lose their accents and sound like the other kids.
She writes that she spent most of her time trying to be as inconspicuous as
possible in high school. She was never much of a scholar and doesn't have many
memories from her years in high school. None of her teachers left enough impact
for her even to remember their names. My good colleagues, the unwillingness to
invite is just as lethal as the willingness to disinvite. Mankiller's teachers
and Ben Nighthorse Campbell's teachers didn't put into practice what Morrie
declared to be the most important principle. "The most important thing in
life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in" (Albom,
1997, p. 52).
Inviting Forth Excellence
A colleague and I recently conducted and published the results
of a large scale study involving high schools, middle schools, and elementary
schools (Cloer & Alexander, 1991). We hypothesized that we could predict
teacher effectiveness by simply having teachers react anonymously to
ideological statements about students, teaching, and the enterprise of
education. We then divided the teachers into inviters and disinviters. We found
in that important study that teachers who were inviting and did not store their
toxic waste in students, did not launch SCUDS at students, were judged
statistically significantly more effective, and brought about more excellence
in education than was achieved by the disinviting psychological terrorists. The
terrorists, as a group, were rated ineffective on seven different performance
dimensions by a professional evaluator or rater who had no idea as to how these
people responded to the statements.
As I get longer in the tooth, I realize more clearly whatever
is done in teaching is done forever. Affirmations, confirmations and
validations of students last forever. As Purkey (2000) says, all the devils in
hell can't erase a single dot of an "i" in an invitation that is sent
from caring, knowledgeable literacy educators, because whatever has been done
is done forever.
I was watching the movie Schindler's
List recently. Spielberg's assistant director is my wife's first cousin,
and he spends a good deal of time at our mountain home trying to get me to
reveal where I fish in the Appalachians for native trout. We watch his films, and that
film Schindler's List affected
me. Oskar Schindler saved 2100 people from a horrible early death.
He was pronounced a righteous man and had a tree planted in his honor –- but
there is much more than that. One could see at the end of that disturbing movie
many of the Jewish people that were alive many years later only because of Oskar Schindler, and they each placed a small stone on
Schindler's grave because what Schindler did, he had done forever. He had taken
on immortality through their lives! Morrie answered Mitch's question well about whether or not Morrie
worried about being forgotten after death. He said, "I don't think I will
be. I"ve got so many people who have been involved with me in close,
intimate ways. And love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone"
(p. 133). If literacy educators want to gain immortality, if literacy educators
want to live on even in a time they won't get to see, then they should affect
some student's spirit in a positive way. Exploring the art of student
empowerment is really a worthwhile endeavor.
I will never forget in the movie, Dances With Wolves, what Kicking Bird said to Lieutenant
John Dunbar. He said, "Of all the trails we take in life, one matters
most, and that is the trail of a true human being." We must look for that
trail, get on that path, and stay on it because of the promises we must keep.
Our contracts must read that through our teaching lives we will invite, we will
love, we will empower. These are promises we all must keep before we sleep.
Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and
life's greatest lesson. New York: Doubleday.
Cloer, C. T., Jr., & Alexander,
W. A. (Winter, 1991). Inviting teacher characteristics and teacher
effectiveness: A preliminary study. Journal
of Invitational Theory and Practice, 1 (1), 31-41.
Groom, W. (1986). Forrest Gump. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
Mankiller, W., & Wallis, M.
(1993). Mankiller: A chief and her people.
St. Martin’s Press.
Purkey, W. W. (1970). Self-concept
and school achievement. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Purkey, W. W., & Novak, J.
M. (1984). Inviting school success: A self-concept
approach to teaching and learning. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Pub. Co.
Purkey, W. W., & Schmidt,
J. J. (1987). The inviting relationship: An
expanded perspective for professional counseling. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Purkey, W. W., & Schmidt,
J. J. (1996). Invitational counseling: A
self-concept approach to professional practice. New York: Brooks/Cole Pub. Co.
Purkey, W. W., & Stanley,
P. H. (1991). Invitational teaching,
learning, and living. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association.
Purkey, W. W. (2000). What
students say to themselves: Internal dialogue and school success. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, Inc.
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Whitehead, A. N. (1967). The
aims of education. New York: Macmillan Co.