Almost everyone has heard of Anne Sullivan Macy, the remarkable teacher who worked with Helen Keller, an extremely intelligent blind and deaf child from Tuscumbia, Alabama. The relationship between the teacher and the student is explored in the play The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, an iconic piece of American literature that is frequently taught in public schools. This award-winning play depicts the exact moment at which, due to Anne’s expert instructional efforts, Helen was able to grasp the concept of language. This knowledge unlocked a world of isolation for the little girl, allowing her to connect with her fellow human beings, and making it possible for her to earn a university degree at a time when educating women was rare. The scene is sweet. But what strategies, exactly, did the miracle-working teacher use in order to achieve this breakthrough? After extensive reading on the subject, I think I may be able to identify a few of them.
First of all, Anne read every bit of published material available in her day about the education of handicapped students. Knowledge of pedagogy is the first step to effective practice. In addition to this, Anne had the “advantage” of personal experience, as she herself had wrestled with severe vision impairment as a result of trachoma. I’m sure at one time or another, we’ve all met an educator who is particularly effective at working with students who are facing the same challenges the teacher himself faced as a youngster.
Second, Anne was a keen observer, and she made it a point to watch the normal processes of language acquisition. She then replicated those processes as best she could to fit the particular circumstances and needs of her student. Today, we would probably call this strategy recognizing brain-based learning, and coordinating teaching strategies to fit the way the brain naturally learns.
Also, experts generally agree that much of Anne’s success in teaching Helen language was attributed to the fact that the teacher always communicated to her student with complete sentences. Concrete nouns such as water or spoon, verbs such was pump or run, or adjectives such as hot or smooth, may be easy to convey. But abstract ideas such as beauty or truth, or certain parts of speech such as pronouns and some prepositions are much more difficult to impart to an individual unable to see or hear.
Fourth, Anne was especially adept at incorporating experiential learning into her lesson plans. The effectiveness of “learning by doing” has been well documented, but in a day and age when most instruction consisted of rote memorization without necessarily comprehending, Anne’s insistence on teaching through constructed experience was truly innovative. Wading through the creek water, climbing the tree, holding the chick as it hatched from the egg—experiences like these were the staples of Anne’s instructional program.
To learn more about Anne Sullivan Macy, I have included an abbreviated but concise biography of this amazing teacher in my book, Chalkboard Champions: Twelve Teachers who Educated America’s Disenfranchised Students, which can also be found at amazon.com at the following link: Chalkboard Champions.