We Remember: Education Update Exclusive Interviews
McCourt Advises Teachers: Be Passionate!
Frank McCourt’s advice for teachers is simple: “Find what you love and do it. If kids see your passion, they’ll be with you.” He elaborated: “Grab their attention with a hook, understand the nature of adolescents, be seductive, be agile, be patient, and have a sense of humor or you are f---ed,” his gentle Irish brogue softening the expletive into poetry.
McCourt, this year’s recipient of the American Place Theatre’s Literature to Life Award, shared his insights about teaching and writing in an interview with Education Update prior to the APT award benefit April 29. APT selected McCourt’s “Teacher Man,” his account of his 30-year career in education, for its most recent adaptation of a novel or biography for dramatic presentations to school groups.
At 78, McCourt admitted he misses the classroom, but makes up for it by constantly talking to universities around the country. He exhibited a balanced blend of cynicism and optimism about the state of education. While the emphasis on testing has become “the assassin of education,” he’s encouraged about the country’s diverse culture that welcomes experimentation and innovation. “Sitting under a tree and staring at the sky” is more productive than watching television, he claimed, “because television kills all thinking,” he said, deepening his voice for emphasis.
To engage students, McCourt recalled how he would use children’s literature, reciting nursery rhymes and fairy tales and showing the connections between them and students’ lives. “Practically half the students could relate to a step-mother,” he said. He’d use reverse psychology, or a negative approach, to introduce classics such as Shakespeare. “I’d read parts aloud and then say, ‘Isn’t this awful? Do you understand it?’ They would say, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t Shakespeare supposed to be famous? Why is this teacher bad-mouthing Shakespeare?’ Then they’d realize I was leading them up the garden path to the glories of his words,” he said.
Yet McCourt, who grew up poor and without books, embraces all forms of literature now. Whether it’s graphic novels, comic books or magazines, he’s an advocate for giving students what they’ll read. “Any kind of book in a kid’s hands is a triumph,” he said.
He suggested using newspapers to teach reading and writing. “I’d tell students, if they wrote like a reporter, their writing would be compressed, detailed, focused and organized,” he said. Yet McCourt, whose autobiography, “Angela’s Ashes,” won a Pulitzer Prize, said he learned how to write from being a teacher. He encouraged aspiring writers to “scribble, not write. Don’t think about it, just write, write, write. Like a sculptor hacking away at a block of granite, something emerges.”
McCourt was thrilled to receive the award from APT, and to see his book adapted by APT co-founder and artistic director Wynn Handman and performed by Michael McMonagle. “Bringing stories to life helps students tell their stories,” he said. #