It's not particularly hard to identify the most influential teachers in my life as I think about them time and time again, year after year. Miss Dmytryk (5th grade), with her inexplicably frequent reminders that "Patience is a virtue we must all strive to possess," and who once commented, "I think you're going to be a writer some day - or a comedian!" Mr. Byron (also 5th grade), who called me "Wild Bill Cody,' made up long streams of mental math problems, and gave me the single most enjoyable educational experience I ever had as a student when, along with a dozen other kids in "Integrated Day," I got to design my own curriculum and decide how to use every minute of my time for a whole semester. Mr. Luippold (9th grade), who in his work at a middle school, teaching French, leading a bike club, and taking kids to France, prefigured much of my career, not to mention provided the place where I met my wife (on my junior year trip to France). Jean-Pierre Berwald (grad school), who inspired me to be a lifelong learner and who introduced me to Stephen Krashen's work. My wife (of 25 years), one of the finest instinctive teachers and best administrators I've ever seen, always sensitive and intuitive about what kids need and how to get it for them, not to mention the reason why our own kid is so cool - once, when I was asked advice on how to raise an only child well, I responded, "Well, unfortunately my secret won't work for you - I got married to (my wife)." However, realizing this is "Day of the Teacher" and wanting to play by the rules, and recognizing it would be cheating to pick my wife, I want to write my letter of recommendation for one teacher only. I choose Mark Springer.
To whom it may concern:
Mark Springer is one of the finest, kindest, and most visionary teachers I have ever known. For much of my career, I was working toward being student-centered without necessarily having a clear idea of what that really meant in practice. Then, when my school was starting a middle school program, I bought Watershed (based on an integrative, interdisciplinary 7th grade course Mark helped design) and quickly realized that these students were more in charge of their own learning than any others I had seen since my old 5th grade "Integrated Day" class. I was so excited I wrote Mark the moment I finished the book, asking for his advice. He wrote back quickly, thanking me for my interest and answering all my questions. However, he added, he felt Watershed fell short of what he really wanted to do, and he thought I might be interested in some articles and other writings on his "Soundings" program that would eventually be described in a book of the same name. Reading through them, I was stunned. Here was truly student-centered teaching like I had never dreamed possible, with real democracy and genuine student voice. I told him of my desire to adapt those ideas for my Humanities 7 class, and he was gracious and supportive. Eventually, I was able to see him in action at his school; you could tell how much his students loved him, and how very much they were learning alongside - not instead of - the state standards in particular and their self-designed academic curriculum in general. Through years of correspondence, and through meeting several times at NMSA conferences, Mark has continued to guide my thinking by example, by gentle prodding, and also by kindly including me in the siblinghood of democratically-oriented teachers even though in comparison, to quote Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land, "I am only an egg." Egg or not, my teaching has been transformed in a deep, meaningful, permanent way through my friendship with Mark, and I am profoundly grateful.