Why I Teach By Jennifer Friedman

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Why I Teach By Jennifer Friedman
By Jennifer Friedman
Head Librarian

I always read the dedication page in a book. It makes the author feel human to me. With only a word or two, maybe a name or even just initials, the author becomes a parent, a child or a partner. The author becomes connected to someone and someplace. If you were an English major, you no doubt recall the dedication page in Howards End. Even if you remember little else, the words “only connect” have likely stayed with you. In a classroom of library students in 2019 this dedication—this instruction or bit of advice—resonates for me in a powerful way.

When a classroom of kindergarten students or sixth graders take their seats in the library, I hold up a book. It may be a work of fiction or nonfiction. It may be a classic tale retold or a brand new story they have never heard before. Together we look at the pictures and listen to the words and something almost magical happens: we listen to one another, we develop an understanding of the plot, we watch one another react emotionally to the story and we make connections to our lives and the world around us. In short, we connect. 

Every year I read a story called Borka to the kindergartners in the library. Borka is a story about a goose born without feathers whose mother knits him a coat to keep him warm. But without feathers Borka cannot fly, and when his family heads south for the winter, he is left behind. Don’t worry; Borka finds love and a place to call home. Kindergarten students inevitably ask me, “Is this a true story?” The students know geese can’t knit sweaters, but they also know what it feels like to care for someone. They truly feel for Borka. The emotions they feel are, of course, real, even when the story is clearly fiction. Connections are made and the door is open for conversations about friendship and family and kindness—some of my favorite topics to discuss with kindergartners.

Shortly after a kindergarten class leaves we may have a class of Middle School students. We quickly change gears, reposition our famous blue chairs and begin again. With the sixth graders this past year I read Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney. This is an important, beautiful and moving book that reads like poetry. It tells of the four students who took seats at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960. First we look at the images and then the words begin to flow. As the events in the story unfold, an uncomfortable reality sets in. The sixth graders too often ask, “Is this a true story?” The indignity, outrage and respect our students feel for the Greensboro four are real. Now, more than in recent years, our students are able to relate their indignation about events in a picture book to their own lives. “What can we do? Can we make a difference in the world? Can protests lead to change?” They are thinking about gun control, about police brutality and about gender equality. They are making connections.

I teach because books and words and images undoubtedly help us connect. We arrange our seats in the library so that we can see each other. We share stories from American Indian culture, China, India, Japan, Germany and beyond. We learn about people who planted trees and marched for freedom in the United States and around the world. We disconnect from everything except each other and the book we are sharing, and we connect.

Jennifer Friedman is Head Librarian at Foote. She started at Foote in 2009 and is the mother of Tess ’15 and Dylan ’21.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Foote Prints magazine.

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