Slice of Life: Between the Words


“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”

Alfred Mercier

When I was 7 or 8, my grandparents took me to a performance of the U.S. Navy Band. This was a huge thrill, as I’d never been to a live concert before. I can remember sitting in the audience, being mesmerized by the music. I was amazed that the sounds I was hearing were being created by the people and the instruments on the stage before me.

The memory of that night came back to me as I listened to Krista Tippett interview Yo-Yo Ma on her radio program, “On Being” over the weekend. During their discussion, Mr. Ma explained his “philosophy of curiosity about life and of performance as hospitality.” As I listened to this wise and generous man, it occurred to me that many of his ideas about music applied to education, and that infusing our teaching with them would make our classrooms better places.

Mr. Ma talked about the necessity of being flexible with plans. “The plan is always going to change. And you need to make sure that the audience is always the most important person in the room.” Such simple advice. It’s one of the most essential lessons I learned as a beginning teacher. Yet, in the day-to-day deluge of SLO’s, standards, testing, etc., I sometimes have to remind myself that the children at the heart of my plans are the most important people in the room.

Earlier this year, Mr. Ma was honored with the Fred Rogers Legacy Award. When asked about this, he recalled a conversation with Fred Rogers: “…do you know what a present that is, when you play something for somebody? It’s just like giving them a present.” To me, this captures what is at the heart of the interaction between teacher and student—I want to share this precious gift with you. Everything we share with our students should be selected with the care and thoughtfulness we put into choosing gifts. For, as Mr. Ma also said, “When you receive something that’s living, that goes inside you, because it becomes your own.” I want my students to own the stories we share and the lessons they learn when we’re together.

When Ms. Tippet asked him to describe his idea about beauty, Mr. Ma explained that he thinks of beauty as “an encapsulation of a lot of different things in a certain moment” and  “…when that encapsulated form is received, there’s a moment of reception and cognition of the thing that is, in some ways, startling.” This was the feeling I had sitting in that auditorium so many years ago, listening to the “music between the notes.” The wonder and joy within me at “that moment when something [was] transferred…a transfer of life,” seemed like a miracle to me. I’ve seen this same joy on a child’s face at that moment when she realizes that she has read a word or a sentence or a book. When she discovers the magic between those words. These are the moments of beauty that I strive for each day.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

8 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Between the Words

  1. Love that his words took you to a long ago memory, Catherine, & then you applied his own learning & philosophy to teaching, too. Love “the children at the heart of my plans are the most important people in the room.” I’ll remember this! Thank you.


  2. I love listening to Krista Tippett. I suppose because she deals with humanity.
    The connections you make here something to reach for; a beautiful analogy and reminder of what matters.


  3. I love how you structured this post around Yo Yo Ma’s philosophy of making music compared to your teaching philosophy. Such important things to remember. Our students are our focus. I don’t think I mesmerize them quite like his music would, but I embrace their thoughts and creativity. I am bringing in more poetry this year; poetry creates beautiful moments.


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