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As teachers we constantly look for ways to engage our students in their own learning. It can get discouraging sometimes to look out into a sea of faces and know that for some – or many – the information they need just never connects. It can be the same for our own professional development – we attend speeches or lectures that may contain important lessons, but are provided in such a way that we cannot connect with the ideas. The thousands of educators that attended the ASCD Conference last weekend in Chicago had the opportunity to get a taste of how to truly connect with an audience, when on Sunday they were treated to the words of Dr. Maya Angelou as Keynote Speaker.
As Dr. Angelou entered the conference hall, the air was electric with excitement and awe. Even at 85, she invigorates a crowd as if she were a rock star! She started to speak and the crowd hushed to hear her every word. From beginning to end, she did not lecture, she did not follow an outline – she simply told stories.
Her stories wove a intricate series of experiences into the one lesson she wanted to impart to her audience: There are a lot of times in life that we can’t see the good -- the "stars and sun in the firmament" -- because the clouds block our view. That is why the rainbow is so special: it shines through the clouds themselves. “You, “ she told the crowd of 10,000 educators, “are rainbows in the clouds.”
She began her stories by talking about how she and her brother were sent to live with her grandmother and uncle in Arkansas when she was very little. Her uncle taught her the times tables and how to read. She related story after story about how her uncle had been a rainbow in her life, and how she subsequently met person after person who had been changed by her uncle.
She peppered her stories with moments of encouragement and inspiration for the educators she spoke to. “You have no idea the power you have,” she told us. “Encourage each other to continue with some sass, some flair…. Continue with compassion and passion, humor and style!” She told us how she is often asked how she got to be who she is, and she responded “I have had a lot of rainbows in my life.”
Her story of an experience several decades ago particularly brought her point to life. After she read the poem she’d written for President Clinton’s inauguration, she received a call from the United Nations. They were preparing to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the UN in the city of its origin, San Francisco. Would she compose and read a poem for the occasion – a poem for the world? She told us how incredible this request was. When the UN was founded, she lived there in San Francisco. She remembered watching all the diplomats and peacemakers go in and out of the new UN headquarters. She'd learned that people would be paid $150/hour to be translators and she wished she could be one of them. She knew she had a penchant for languages and she would be good at it. But, she was a 16-year old unmarried pregnant girl, unusually tall, and black – so she knew she’d never be able to get a job with the UN. Then, fifty years later, the UN asked her to write a poem for the world.
“Imagine,” she said with a voice still full of awe, “Imagine my feeling when I was asked to come back to San Francisco and deliver this poem. I thought of everyone I could think of who had been kind to me…I could hardly keep from weeping in gratitude. What I have is an attitude of gratitude – to all the men and women who were kind to me and encouraging to me.”
She shared that famous and stirring poem, called “A Brave and Startling Truth.” It starts:
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
She concluded by telling us, “It delights my heart to encourage you to continue.” Be rainbows, she said, because you already are. It was the kind of encouragement that every educator needs – a nourishment to the soul and an inspiration for an audience that often faces negative recriminations and censure from the public.
Maya Angelou, when asked to speak to 10,000 educators, didn’t give a speech. She didn’t lecture. She told stories and she shared poetry. And yet, in the short time she shared herself with us, every heart in the room was touched and every soul nourished. It was a great reminder that as educators, we can communicate great truths simply through the magic of telling stories.
To buy Cari's book that details her sudden unemployment, "How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks" please click here.