Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cousin Ida

We are one day from the end of our month’s discussion about Common Core State Standards. Like Steve Sheinkin's blog yesterday, I purposely waited till the end of the month to steal - I mean figure out how to talk about CCSS. I reread the blogs to see if anything is missing. There is. We’ve not yet discussed cousin Ida. This surprises me because cousin Ida is the whole shebang, the common core when it comes to standards.
My cousin, Ida Kravitz, was a teacher and later an administrator in Philadelphia. She still lives in the same house where as a child I spent so many hours learning to love learning. She taught numerous subjects, but history and reading were her babies. Here’s what made her a great teacher:
First, Ida knew her material cold. Say a country, give a range of dates, and off she'd go. Second, she revealed an unapologetic passion for whatever subject she taught. Her enthusiasm was contagious. And third, you couldn’t help but get sucked in by her extraordinary story telling. These three points: facts, passion, and good story telling are what I consider the most important standards for teachers and for writers, and come to think of it, for much of life.

As a kid I was a daydreamer. I spent classroom time in a world of make believe, passing notes to friends, and sneaking tiny pieces of the tuna fish salad sandwich on rye bread that my mother made for lunch. Tuna fish salad is not a good thing to give to a kid who daydreams and sneaks snacks in class. The teacher can smell the tuna when you open the wax paper wrapper. (No baggies back then.) It’s better to give kids peanut butter and jelly, or cheese, or baloney.
In those days classes were taught from very dry textbooks. History covered this king and that, this battle and that. More time was spent learning the chronology of French and English royalty than about slavery. I remember only a half paragraph devoted to Native Americans. When I asked, really, really politely, why, I got into a lot of trouble. A lot of trouble.
I tried hard to concentrate but history especially was bor-ing! Since I was close to failing, a B- was considered failing in my family, my totally panicked parents brought in the top gun: COUSIN IDA.
            Once a week, and before a test, I was driven across town to Ida’s house where she tutored me in history. This was no easy feat because Philadelphia is spread out and the drive took up most of the afternoon.
            Ida would ask what period a test covered. England, 1485 – 1558.  “Ah, the Tudors!” she’d rub her hands gleefully, “Now that’s a family! This will be fun.” She then proceeded to fill my head with stories, stories of sex, intrigue, and murder. There were details, marvelous details – how people dressed, what they ate, how they ate, who they loved. Between roasted wild bore, damask, brocade, bosom-popping dresses, and red stains on bed linen, she threw in the names of royals, laws, and a battle or two. It was unforgettable.
            I started to get top grades in history. After a bit some of my classmates would wait for me to return home from cousin Ida’s. I told them all the super stories I had learned. The retelling of Ida’s stories reinforced learning, and was a way in with the popular kids. It was a win-win. 

When visiting schools it’s heart-warming to meet many a cousin Ida. If Common Core standards help teachers deconstruct our books to benefit their students, I say go for it. But please, please, please don’t overlook cousin Ida standards.
This month some INK writers deftly deconstructed their own books following CCSS key ideas. Others explained why they did not. One thing all the INKers have in common is they are Cousin-Ida-Writers. So let’s keep our eye on the prize: learn the subject, share it with passion, and tell a good story. That’s a common core we can all agree on.


Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Susan, this is a wonderful post, not to mention a really good story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Susan Kuklin said...

It was my pleasure Marfe. I've always wanted to honor this magnificent teacher and this, I thought, was a perfect venue, at a perfect time.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I read this blog post first thing this morning, but I was on the road and I couldn't comment on my phone. I loved it, though, and it informed my whole day (I was talking to students and profs) and I kept looking at people thinking: are you a Cousin Ida? I hope so. Yes, you are! Here's what I think, and have been thinking for a long time: no matter what standards are implemented, the most important thing is great teachers. And to have great teachers, we need to attract them. And to attract them, we need to pay them really well. If I were Queen of the Universe, I would make sure every child in this country had a teacher like Cousin Ida every year. And we could call it the Cousin Ida standard. I can't imagine everyone wouldn't get behind that! (And of course they should teach using great nonfiction books.)

Shelly Rosen said...

Did cousin Ida teach at Stokley elementary in the 1950s?
If so, she was my 6th grade teacher & the best teacher I ever had.
Is she still living & does she allow visitors? Thanks. Shelly Rosen, retired teacher and her former student

Susan Kuklin said...

Shelly, I just saw your comment. I'm not sure where Ida Kravitz taught. I thought of her as a high school teacher, and later a H.S. principal, sadly, Ida died a month ago, in June, after a long illness. We miss her.