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Laughing and Learning: A Teacher Memory

Some of my favorite books as a kid were the Wayside School books by Louis Sachar. To me, school had always been a very proper place with lots of very specific rules and particular ways to do things. But Wayside was filled with funny surprises, absurd situations, and plenty of chaos. Could school and silliness really go hand in hand? It took a while, but I finally encountered my own little piece of Wayside.

Mr. Hanks was legendary at my high school. He taught advanced biology, and he was tough. His homework was exacting, his quizzes were demanding, his exams were grueling. But his legend had nothing to do with his high standards and everything to do with his laid-back, happy, and often mischievous personality.

You see, Mr. Hanks was the teacher equivalent of a class clown. He taught the class myna bird to say silly things. He shot rubber bands at us during class. Every once in a while, he would pull out his Super Soaker, just to keep things entertaining.

He also infused every part of our learning with fun. We capped off our unit on bacteria by making root beer and sauerkraut, then having a party. He awarded an extra point to anyone who wrote “Charles Darwin is awesome!” at the top of their homework. And before every major exam, he burned a page of the sacrificial biology textbook as an offering to the test-taking gods.

I don’t think I have ever worked harder than I did in that advanced biology class. Science was not my forte, and I struggled through every assignment and every test. But what could have been an incredibly discouraging and ultimately defeating experience was instead filled with humor and perspective. Mr. Hanks’s lighthearted approach created an environment in which I was comfortable enough to continue to strive, even though I knew I wouldn’t always succeed. I didn’t ace the class, but every time I finally understood a concept, remembered a fact, or got just one point higher on the next quiz, it felt like a triumph.


Author Bio:
Lori Ess is the associate director of title presentation for Scholastic Book Clubs. Before coming to Clubs, Lori was a children’s librarian in Queens, NY. She loves fantasy, mystery, mysterious fantasies, and silly picture books for toddlers.

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May 9, 2013