In The Story of My Life, Helen Keller recounts her struggles with deafness and blindness. Almost every American student learns Helen Keller’s story at some point in middle school or high school. I was one of those students. I don’t, however, remember exactly when I was taught her story or even if I ever read it. Helen Keller’s story is so much a fabric of our culture that I feel like I have always known about her. Because I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Helen Keller, I was not excited to begin the unit about her with my students. My decision to teach the autobiography instead of the play was based on the Common Core standards and their focus on non-fiction. I asked myself, “How can the autobiography be as poignant as the play?”
Well, until I began reading Keller’s story and sharing it with my students, I realized that I knew almost nothing about her.
As often happens when I teach an unfamiliar piece to my students, I was pleasantly surprised with their response, which, in turn, increased my enthusiasm about the unit. If you’ve never read Keller’s autobiography, I suggest you do. In it, Keller recounts her struggles in intimate and precise detail. I asked the students to record Wow! moments, questions, and connections they made while reading chapter 6. One of the most popular wow moments that the students noted was “She knows more words than I do! How did she learn them being deaf AND blind?” Helen Keller articulately explains her learning process and her relationship to Annie Sullivan, but even so, don’t we all wonder at her accomplishments? If you don’t, you need to reread parts of her autobiography. If you don’t have the time to peruse the entire book, peruse a few chapters. I recommend chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, 20 and 22. Ask yourself how Helen Keller became a world famous speaker, an author of twelve books, a progressive and relentless advocate for people with disabilities, a speaker of five languages, and a world traveler?
After much thought, I’ve come to this conclusion:
Helen had a patient, persistent, and loving teacher who, as Annie herself said, taught Helen like a seeing child.
In other words, Annie believed in Helen.
Annie Sullivan had a growth mindset.
I hesitate to use the phrase “growth mindset” because educators have heard so much about it lately, but it clearly explains what made Annie Sullivan such an inspiring teacher. I’m also reticent to use the phrase because I think some educational leaders misinterpret the it. (I could write an entire blog post about that topic, but I’ll save it for another time.) If you are unfamiliar with growth mindset, you can watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk called “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Even if you are familiar with the concept, the video is worth watching.
One of the most powerful messages that Helen’s story conveys to teachers one hundred years later is the power of a growth mindset. Annie never allowed herself to believe that Helen was not capable of learning. And guess what–Helen learned more in her lifetime than many of us could learn in two if you think about where she started, trapped in her own mind, her own darkness, with the inability to communicate how she felt or what she thought to herself or with the outside world. And please let me note that Helen did not learn because Annie told Helen that she was great all the time. Helen learned and grew because Annie believed Helen could be better, and as a result, she made Helen aware of her mistakes.
In chapter 6 of her story, Helen Keller writes, “At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information.” I asked my students to analyze this quotation and think about what it reveals about Helen Keller’s character. When I reviewed the students’ responses, one stuck with me: “Why did she ask few questions in the beginning?” This question honed my focus for a brief moment and provided me with an insight: Aren’t many of our students like Helen? Like Helen, they do not have the background knowledge or the words they need to discern what questions they should ask. It’s our job as teachers to build that background knowledge and those vocabulary skills so that our students become questioners. After all, aren’t the best learners curious? They want to know more about a subject, like Helen, whose “field of inquiry broadened” when she was finally given the words she needed.
Sarah Tantillo (who you can also find on WordPress) writes in The Literacy Cookbook that “comprehension in general, not just reading comprehension . . . applies to listening, seeing, smelling, touching–everything you do in order to try to understand.” If Helen Keller could develop an understanding of her world through Annie’s teachings with only three senses, then even the most reluctant learners can learn in our classrooms. They may have other disabilities that are not sensory-related, but they are capable of developing an understanding and curiosity about the world in which they live.