When I was in junior high at my parish grade school, St. Peter’s, I walked home on warm-weather days with my good friend from up the block, Andrea. We chatted about mundane events of the day, caught up on vital social matters, and made plans for the next sleepover. About halfway home, we’d hit Edgevale Road, a side street that sliced through the grid of our neighborhood at an angle.
At that point, our conversation would turn to English class, and, more specifically, the short story we were reading in our literature anthology. We’d discuss the piece, kick around some ideas raised in the critical thinking questions which appeared at the end of each story, and try to decide which question we were going to select for our one-page responses.
Why would adolescents just let out of school talk voluntarily and excitedly about homework? Because they had an inspiring teacher like Mrs. Shirley Renaud, the 7th and 8th grade English teacher. Mrs. Renaud created a classroom environment like no other we had ever experienced: she allowed us to choose which critical thinking question to answer, she expected us to generate thoughtful and complete responses supported by evidence from the story, she highly valued originality in our ideas, she had us read our responses aloud in class so we could consider and discuss perspectives different from our own, and she gave us immediate feedback in class and later in writing when she collected our responses.
This was the first time an adult had really paid much attention to what we thought about anything. She clearly respected our views as long as we could support them. And did we ever notice! We stepped up to the challenges she issued, took pride in our work, and strove to exceed her expectations, all the while developing confidence in ourselves and our ideas and a healthy respect for the ideas of others. She also taught us to plumb the depths of the literature we read, mining the language for clues about the story, the plot, the characters, and the images the author had presented. Her approach made us want to come back to class the next day to find out what everyone else had to say.
Those learning experiences in junior high forever changed how I operated in school and in life. I didn’t realize it until much later, but I took with me to high school, college, and graduate school the lessons Mrs. Renaud taught us about critical thinking, audience, multiple perspectives, feedback, critique, collaboration, discussion, originality, insight, evidence, support, and writing.
These lessons eventually informed my own teaching and powerfully influenced my interest in helping other teachers foster the same teaching and learning strategies in college classrooms through the Writing Across the Curriculum program I directed.
Most of my schoolmates didn’t end up in the field of education, but given their extraordinary successes in all kinds of industries and endeavors, it would appear that the early cultivation of critical thinking and communications skills more than paid off—in school, in work, and in life.
Such is the power of a single teacher on upwards of 1,000 minds over the years. And that conservative estimate doesn’t take into account her indirect impact on my students and the hundreds of instructors I trained. In faculty workshops, I would invite instructors to share the story of a previous writing experience and connect it to their path to teaching. I would then trace my own teaching and writing life back to Mrs. Renaud.
In 1972, we were just kids, after all, focused on navigating the complex whirl of the school cafeteria and negotiating terms for the next slumber party. Mrs. Renaud masterfully saw to it that our brain development far and away surpassed what our social psyches would have ever permitted. And for this, I thank her from the bottom of my heart.
And now for the obvious question: who was your Mrs. Renaud?