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Ventura County Perspective

An Invitation as a Letter of Introduction

Ventura County's Teacher of the Year, Robert Borneman, Shares His Philosophy of Teaching, Joy in His Profession

October 04, 1998|ROBERT BORNEMAN

Editor's note: Robert Borneman is Ventura County Teacher of the Year, selected last week as the best of the county's 6,000 classroom educators.

A Ventura native, he teaches geography, world civilization and English as a Second Language at Oxnard High School.

In these two essays, Borneman shares his philosophy of teaching--and reveals the joy of learning and living that help bring his classrooms to life.

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Close your eyes for a moment and step into the classroom. Welcome to a room where the walls are merely illusions--the world is our classroom!

What do you see? Behind you loom the limestone temples of Tikal, to the east you can see rows of Qin terra cotta warriors, before you lie the pools and courtyards of the Alhambra in Granada, and in the west hellish smoke and flame billow out of the town hall of Sarajevo.

What do you hear? The medieval mysticism of Hildegard of Bingen floats in the air, a student plays Schumann on the piano while Louis Armstrong's trumpet sings soulfully. Listen! A chorus of immigrant children sings along with Doris Day: "Tea for Two!" Pause and hear a cluster of students debate a passage from the Diamond Sutra, while yet another circle plays a game, clapping and chanting, "I am clever! You are handsome!" Meanwhile, a Greek play is being performed--the world is our classroom!

The walls of our classrooms are illusions--but we must fight to keep those walls illusory. We are immersed in a rapidly resegregating culture. In a class down the hall my students are reading Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima." Anaya's book pulses richly with the fundamental struggles of spirit and flesh. But in the hands of some, Anaya's art is reduced to a cultural party favor: It ceases to be a bridge to the heart of humanity and becomes an insular wall of (false) cultural security. "La curandera, el idioma y el racismo--these are your cultural heritage," they are told. In the faculty lounge, I am reminded that these same students "will never be able to relate to Shakespeare. How can they possibly connect to the world view of a dead, white European male? They need something they can relate to, something from their culture."

The walls of our classrooms are illusions--bitterly so when the size of each class swells to 38. I am reminded in the latest study that Japanese students in Japan do well in class sizes of 60. I fear my reply that American and Japanese cultures are not synonymous is not heard beyond the illusory walls of my overcrowded classroom.

Before you open your eyes, turn your vision to a moment in my past. I am standing before 38 Mexican immigrant children. To my right, gangly and nervous, Alejandro does not sit when the bell rings. He shifts about his desk, twisting, turning. I suspect Alejandro has learning disabilities but neither his former nor his current national education system is well-equipped to deal with the complexities of special education across linguistic barriers. He is one of 38 who are to receive today's lesson: placement of the auxiliary verb "do" in questions and negations in the simple present tense. I explain the grammatical process in Spanish. Alejandro squints, pauses for a moment and resumes his gymnastics about the desk. I model a sample sentence then . . . I call on Alejandro, prepared to talk him through it, step by step, word by word, as I have for the past three months. I plan to teach him. But it is he who teaches me! Suddenly, his body trembling with excitement, he moves to the board and writes, "Do we have our books?" I am amazed! I congratulate him (wondering if it was a fluke) and write the next sentence on the board. Now his hand shoots up and he writes out the answer perfectly! He beams as I grin in joyful disbelief. An illusory wall has been shattered for both of us!

Now, open your eyes and see him four years later. He is reading "Bless Me Ultima" and has just finished studying Shakespeare's famous sonnet: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments . . . "

Alejandro has learned not to admit impediments, as have I in our classroom without walls.

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