Helen B. Cannon

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Helen B. Cannon

This summer I pulled a dusty box from my closet and found a fat, manilla folder taped together, coffee-stained and busting with creative writing essays I had written in 1994. Scattered all over the pages were hand-written corrections and encouraging comments. After rereading the course material, my essays and the teacher commentaries, I knew I had found the catapult for creating my new course. Inspiration appeared clear and strong.

I was searching for ideas to design the second semester of Advanced English for Masters of Business students at the University of Applied Science, Salzburg. The first semester course was called Critical and Creative Thinking in English. I integrated TED talks into my lessons, encouraged students to use their own knowledge and experience and introduced methods to become more inquisitive, innovative and creative. This semester, I wanted them to really prove it. Therefore, over the summer I asked people from all walks of life what their most memorable and effective educational experiences were, and I took it all in.

Whether CEO, worker, housewife or student, young or old, each person could recall with surprising clarity the volcano that was built back in grade school, the report on Venice, Italy they gave in 5th grade or the hand-made, poster-board presentation on micro bacteria. I heard about inspiring professors and teachers who had enriched their students lives. I watched people light up while speaking of these memories and tried to find the common denominator. Why did they retain some knowledge while other knowledge was lost? And most importantly, how can I tap into that enthusiasm as a teacher and bring it to my students? When I asked myself what my most memorable and effective educational experience was, my creative writing professor, Helen B. Cannon appeared right at the forefront of my mind.

Every week Professor Cannon came into the classroom balancing a tall, messy tower of books, articles, papers and manilla folders in her frail arms. Post-it notes flapped and waved from the slanted stack and it a looked as if it might take flight at any moment. She was small, old and thin and would frantically dig for lost documents in her pile of notes. She was always surprised at how quickly the class time went by. She was never done telling us amazing stories, quoting extraordinary New Yorker writers and infecting each of us with her enthusiasm. We were all in awe of her and each of us yearned to earn her respect.

Our course material was a subscription to the weekly literary magazine The New Yorker, a well-respected magazine in the United States. Every week we had to read at least 50 pages of the New Yorker, write one essay according to a particular style and turn in a vocabulary list of new words with definitions. She returned our essays scattered with hand written commentaries:” I’m captivated and listening” / ”Right into scene, This is good”/ I like the sound of your voice here. It’s good and true.” She often wrote thoughtful, personal notes at the end of our papers connecting a part of her life to ours in small, meaningful ways. My papers returned interspersed with her handwriting always felt like a gift. I could hardly wait to get out of the classroom, run to the quad, whip open my folders and read her comments. Once, she returned my folder with a giant book sandwiched between the covers. It was “Onward and Upward in the Garden” written by Katharine White who was a respected editor at the New Yorker. There was a handwritten letter inside from Professor Cannon: “a tangible something to remember me and my message by,” she wrote. I wasn’t the only one, I’m sure. She found goodness and connection in the smallest of details and she teased it out of each of us, one written comment, one passed down book at a time.

I remember Professor Cannon’s rules very well. We could write about anything we wanted from the New Yorker as long as it was tethered to the magazine in some way. We could connect to the cover artwork, any one of the articles, long or short. We could draw meaning from the famous New Yorker cartoons if that is what sparked our interest. At first, I was relieved that we had the freedom of choice but I clearly remember the very next moment when I was overcome with the responsibility that came with it. I realized that if I had the freedom to choose my topic, it was more personal but if I failed, it was also, entirely my responsibility. She turned the tables on us, giving us autonomy and setting us out to draw our own connections and string together original thoughts. The New Yorker was the source, but the insights we drew came from a variety of our individual perceptions, experience, race, age, and upbringing. The removal of the restrictions of traditional assignments was, to me, as daunting as it was empowering.

I began my semester by telling my students about Professor Cannon, waving about my battered manilla folder as I explained how autonomy in the classroom had worked for me, and I hoped that it would resonate with them, too. There is simply too much readily available and constantly evolving information in business today for me to be a funnel for these students and to improve their fluency in English at the same time. In 1994, the freedom of picking and choosing from the New Yorker was awesome. Today the internet is a yawning chasm of good and bad and everything in between. Since I had instructed them in critical and creative thinking in the semester before, why not let them make intelligent decisions, on their own, on what is relevant in modern business? After all, these are Masters students, many of them already working full time with their finger on the pulse of what is happening, in real life.

Each small group got a very broad and current topic; Urban mobility, Diversity, Augmented Intelligence,The Future of Higher Education and Big Data. They have to lead a 60 minute course while integrating 10-15 new vocabulary words, phrases or idioms. They should involve their classmates and encourage them to speak at least 50% of the time. The course could be bound to even the furthest concepts on the spectrum of that topic as long as their own interest is strong and they can infect their classmates with that same enthusiasm. I warned them that this is not an assignment to appease the teacher nor should they show up with a stale presentation or a lecture. Each group will be evaluated by another group of peers and I spend the hour taking part in their lessons and writing down improvements in grammar, pronunciation, presentation as well as giving an overall evaluation.

At first, I sensed a lingering insecurity from some students who had been schooled in the old, Austrian system of rote learning, memorization and standard presentations. Mostly, they wanted to be ensured that if they really went off the beaten path, would they still get the grade? After an intensive introduction course, and the assurance that digging deep, far and wide into their topic was actually the desired goal, the idea was well received.

The students are ambitious and smart.They stepped up to the challenge as I had hoped and the strong competition between the groups served as an extra bonus. It was a risk to put the content into their hands as I had to give up the reins and trust that they would find relevant content and give it a pulse. It’s a learning experience for all–myself included. Loosening my control in the classroom gave me the opportunity to see the students from a different angle. I realized things I never could have known otherwise. I saw introverted students suddenly shine, typically quiet students fielding questions from brainstorm sessions and integrating that new knowledge effortlessly into their session. I also saw how typically high achievers and big talkers assumed they could wing it, or rely heavily on the participation of their classmates without first warming them to the topic. I also witnessed students who had prepared an average hour, turn it into an excellent hour by feeding off the enthusiasm of their classmates.

The idea branched from my Creative Writing course with Helen B. Cannon and her inspirational teaching. I believe that the common denominator I was looking for this summer is connection. Those who lit up while speaking about their most memorable and effective educational experiences did so because they had searched and found some spark of interest in their topic and added their own signature to it. Just as Professor Cannon had challenged us to bind ourselves to the New Yorker, but to throw our lines out far and wide. Even a mundane topic can come alive if a spark of interest can be found at the farthest end of it’s spectrum. I asked my students this semester to dig deep in their big, noisy topics and find the seed with which to grow their ideas. If they could plant that seed in the classroom and make it grow, I believe they had the power to create deep-rooted and lasting connections. If firmly planted, the memory is there for life.

I will never forget Professor Cannon for her inspiring teaching and am grateful for her life-giving lessons. I decided to write her an email, to let her know how valuable her lessons had been to me. Soon after, I received a beautiful letter in return letting me know how much the note had touched her. She is at the end of her life, barely able to walk but happily surrounded by hundreds of books, still feeling the need to teach. She invented a letter writing course entitled Epistolary Literature inspired by the letters of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop and numerous other authors. Ten students are invited to her home to read aloud the letters they have penned to compliment the historical exchanges.

I had assumed that she would have received letters all her life from former students as I’m still confident that the majority of the class was quite taken with her passion for words. The respect and admiration at the time was tangible.The exchange triggered a righteous determination inside me to reach out to the great teachers in my life and tell them how grateful I am. I want to let them know that bits and pieces of their knowledge continue to ripple out into the world and some have landed, resculpted, in a classroom in Salzburg, Austria.

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