Yann Martel on teachers

Yann Martel is someone I admire a great deal, not because of his celebrity as a writer, but because of his sensitivity to important social issues and his gentle dedication to being a change agent. You may not know that Yann has been mailing Stephen Harper a book every two weeks along with a letter describing why it is significant–partly as an advocate for funding for the arts in Canada–a cause that attracts insufficient and sometimes hostile treatment from our government(s). Wow. Most of us would pay a lot of tuition to receive the kinds of insights that Martel offers freely to the Prime Minister. Even better, he publishes the name of the book, his inscription, and his letters to the Prime Minister on a blog, What is Stephen Harper reading? Go there if you haven’t already visited, and I’m betting you’ll have it in your reader the same day.

But my main reason for this post is to point out a particularly elegant letter Yann wrote to accompany his gift of book #28, “Read All About It”, a children’s book by none other than Laura and Jenna Bush. It speaks so beautifully of the importance of teachers, that I felt I just had to reprint it here. Enjoy:


The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2

Dear Mr. Harper,

This is an unusual book I am sending you, for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s fresh off the press. I bought it the day it was published. None of that pleasing, comforting wornness to it, like an old friend coming for a visit. Instead, a shiny, spine-cracking, new-smelling newness. And it’s a children’s book, not something I’d normally send to an adult.

What won me over to this book was its theme and the profession of its authors. Read All About It! is about the appeal and the importance of reading. Tyrone Brown, the protagonist, a student at Good Day Elementary School, is good at math, good at science, good at sports, but he doesn’t like reading. When Miss Libro brings the kids to the school library to read to them, Tyrone is soooooo bored. He’d rather daydream. But one day, when Miss Libro is reading from a book about an astronaut, he pays attention—and he’s taken in. Suddenly his world changes. It becomes populated by ghosts and dragons and historical figures like Benjamin Franklin (this is an American book) and, most endearingly, by a pig. Tyrone comes to realize that books are a fantastic way to dream. I won’t tell you the rest of the story. You’ll have to read all about it yourself.

The authors, Laura Bush and Jenna Bush, a mother-daughter team, are teachers and, according to their bios on the backflap, “passionate about reading”.

A word about teachers. I love teachers. I always have. If I were not a writer, I’d be a teacher. I cannot think of a more important profession. It has always struck me as odd that lawyers and doctors should have such high standing—reflected not only in their salaries but in their social prominence—when, in the course of a normal, happy, healthy life, one should only exceptionally have to consult either. But teachers—we’ve all met and needed teachers. Teachers shaped us. They came into our dark minds and lit a light. They taught us both explicity and by example. To teach is a magnificent verb, a social verb, implying someone else, whereas the verbs to earn, to buy, to want are lonely and hollow.

I could name so many of the teachers who marked my life. In fact, I will. Miss Preston and Mrs. Robinson were two of my early homeroom teachers. Mr. Grant taught me biology. Mr. Harvey taught me Latin. Mr. McNamara and Sister Reid taught me mathematics. Mr. Lawson and Mr. Davidson taught me English. Mr. Van Husen and Mr. Archer taught me history. The amazing Mr. Saunders taught me geography. And so on. Three decades have gone by, and still I remember these people. Where would I be without them, what frustrated, angry soul would I be? There is only so much parents can do to form us. After that, our fate lies with teachers.

And when we are no longer full-time students, there are all the informal teachers we meet as adults, the men, women and children who know better and who show us how to do better, how to be better.

Pity, then, that we live in a society that so little values teachers and schools. We have, alas, Mr. Harper, fallen upon times in which the common thinking seems to be that societies should be run as if they were corporations, with profitability as the guiding imperative. In this corporatist view of society, those who do not generate dollars are deemed undesirable. So it is that rich societies become unkind to the poor. I see this mean attitude in my own beloved province of Saskatchewan, where the new government is waging, as I’ve heard it put, a “war on the poor”, and this, at a time of unprecedented prosperity. As if the poor will just disappear if ignored enough. As if there will be no broader consequence to the poor becoming poorer. As if the poor aren’t citizens too. As if some of the poor aren’t helpless children.

Well, in this race in which they are left behind, the poor are joined by students. Because investing in the education of a six-year-old, with a return that will be seen only in fifteen years or so, once that student has got a job and has started paying taxes, is not an investment worth making if one is looking to make quick money. And so we fund our schools minimally, burdening university students with levels of debt that neutralize their ability to be wealth-generating citizens. How can you buy a car, a house, appliances, how can you contribute to the economy, if you’re crushed by a massive debt? The corporatist agenda is thus defeated by its own ideology.

Teachers are at the forefront of resisting this negative trend. With whatever means they are given, until they burn out, as they too commonly do, they continue their effort to produce intelligent, knowledgeable, caring citizens. Teachers are pillars of society.

Most teachers are women, certainly at the elementary school level, just as most readers are women. Laura Bush and Jenna Bush, teachers and readers both, are in that way typical. One is left wondering: while wives and daughters are teaching and reading, what are husbands and fathers doing? In our society, does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

Yours truly,

Yann Martel

encl: one inscribed hard cover book



Third International Conference on Design Principles and Practices

Third International Conference on Design Principles and Practices
Berlin, Germany
15-17 February 2009

This conference is a place to explore the meaning and purpose of ‘design’, as well as speaking in grounded ways about the task of design and the use of designed artifacts and processes. The conference is a cross-disciplinary forum which brings together researchers, teachers and practitioners to discuss the nature and future of design. The resulting conversations weave between the theoretical and the empirical, research and application, market pragmatics and social idealism.

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Not too old to punk

Like most of the rest of the virtual gang I run around with, I’m enjoying the heck out of the recent fascination with “everything edupunk.” And saying something like “enjoying the heck” will brand me very quickly as someone who never did qualify to wear any label that might be considered cool. D’Arcy Norman even identified some of his edupunk heroes, and I would add him to my list for sure.

I wanted to pick up briefly on something that Rob Wall wrote today:

I’m not sure what to make of edupunk. It might be the meme of the week. It might be a cultural movement within the edtech community. It might be a manifestation of our collective mid-life crisis (a lot of us seem to be in the neighbourhood of 40). It might be, and I suspect it is, a combination of all these things.

I sympathized with Rob’s sense of wonder, especially since I’m well past that “neighbourhood of 40”. I think that “edupunk” is a wonderful example of finding a resonant label for something significant that has been rattling around amorphously for awhile. We’ve seen it before: lots of teachers were doing Webquests long before Bernie Dodge came up with a great name and provided some structure for them. But at the same time I’m not arguing that this is a trivial naming exercise: quite the opposite. A good label that can help people who have been emotionally and intellectually passionate about something to finally see its shape from a higher vantage point can have a galvanizing effect. Wouldn’t it be fun if we looked back in 10 years and knew that we were in on the ground floor of exactly that kind of thing?

I’m a stranger to anything “punk”, but not to counter-culture. We had different slogans in earlier times, but they also had a galvanizing effect. “Make love, not war” is cliché now, but at the time it meant something (well, two things actually, although the first was more elusive for most of us). Around 1970, Abbie Hoffman wrote a wonderful book entitled “Steal This Book.” Read it if you really like counter-culture stuff and even if you don’t. It says a lot about what rebellion means at an individual level.

The main point I want to leave you with is that in order for any label to live a long life, it needs to go beyond anger and righteous indignation. Certainly it needs to stand against something in a powerful way, and I think “edupunk” has that nailed. But to endure, I think it also has to offer a vision of something better. And in this case, I think “edupunk” has that flavour too. It doesn’t just seem to be about a sense of moral outrage directed against commercialized, corporatized, institutionalized education for example; it also seems to be about sharing, openness, freedom and liberation.

Then again, maybe it is just a very cool label.