Learning to Sew: Lessons for the Classroom

As I scramble once again to finish garments for a jury deadline, I find myself reminiscing about my first experience sewing clothing for myself. As a woman of a certain age, I hark back to the binary days of applied arts in junior high: shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. All the girls in my seventh-grade home ec class had to make a skirt using the same pattern. Each skirt had the same pleats, set-in waistband, and side zipper. Our only personal touch was the choice of fabric. I loved the blue and green shadow plaid I picked, but the process and the product failed to inspire me. I wore the skirt a few times and put it away, along with any thoughts of making my own clothing.

Always passionate about fashion, however, I often thought of becoming a clothing designer [one of the dozens of careers I fancied in high school], conveniently ignoring my lack of sewing experience and skills. My parents’ housekeeper made my prom dress from a pattern and fabric I chose, and the summer before my wedding to a “starving” graduate student, I designed an entire trousseau, but she put it together. I would design; others would sew.

That summer my mother presented me with a sewing machine.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“You love clothes and you won’t have any money for them for a long time…” she replied.

“How do I use it?” I asked my mother, knowing full well that she didn’t even know how to sew on a button.

“I don’t know. Figure it out!” She smiled.

Figure it out I did. How hard could it be, I asked myself as I bought Impressionist print voiles and linings and made two wonderful shift dresses that I wore for years.

For a long time I remained self-taught, making all my clothing as well as our window coverings and bedspreads. I gave up sewing when I went back to teaching full-time, but one of the great joys of retirement was the freedom to sew without pressure. Sewing workshops and guidance from the wonderful mentors in my wearable art group elevated my skills. I had collections of garments made from vintage Obis in runway shows, and I even developed a collection called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” whose color palette and use of vines as a motif was one of my favorite efforts. And here I am working on another collection.

I find myself thinking about the factors that changed my desire to learn:

  • A need to know, since sewing my own clothes was the only way I’d be able to have anything new for a long, long time
  • Some early success to encourage me to keep going
  • The chance to personalize my efforts and to use my own creativity
  • Following success and positive feedback, the desire to take it further, to elevate my skills and understanding
  • Excellent teachers/mentors who challenged and supported my efforts

I see these factors as impactful and available in the classroom setting. Relevance exists in our curriculum, and good teachers help students see that and give them a need to know. In my own field of literature, others write about its importance to hand down culture through stories, expand horizons, grow vocabulary, improve writing skills, and teach critical thinking. All these offer value, but I believe the most compelling reason to teach literature is the way it serves as a vehicle for us to explore the human condition and address the “big questions” about life. What does it mean to be a good person? Is man inherently good or evil or both? What are our responsibilities to each other? And on and on… Through our exploration of literature, we can consider these questions and even the answers provided by some of the authors. In those settings, outside of our personal experience, we can develop our own very personal answers.

Other content area teachers can make powerful arguments for relevance in their fields as well. I came to understand grammar and structure in English through my study of French and Latin. I make constant use of math skills whether it’s calculating ingredients or pan sizes or planning yardage for a garment or roughly adding up purchases in my head as I shop to follow my budget. History offers huge lessons that we should be heeding today. If we look at the rise of populist dictators in the past, for example, we have ample warning for what is happening globally and domestically today.  I use my understanding from chemistry to rethink recipes, from botany as I grow orchids and succulents, and from physics as I seek to understand how things work and how to solve problems. The relevance is there – as teachers we need to make it explicit.

We need to provide classroom lessons that allow students to achieve some success before we escalate our expectations of them, scaffolding their lessons. Starting with more accessible demands allows for those early successes, and then teachers can build upon them. Just as I began with a simple shift and have progressed to lined jackets and drafting my own patterns, students need easier tasks to accomplish before they move on.

Well-designed lessons can also encourage creativity and develop opportunities for students to personalize their learning and tap their own creativity. We need to stop thinking about one-size-fits-all instruction and encourage more open-ended experiences. Thanks to my predecessor’s model, my Advanced Placement English students worked in small groups to develop a director’s notebook for King Lear, transposing the play to another time and place, creating costume sketches and scenery, and explaining their choices. What better way to think about the timeless themes in the play and what they mean to us today? Given the chance to be creative in their approach to the play, students developed and articulated a deeper understanding of it.

 As teachers we can and should build ever escalating demands into the curriculum, as long as we’re there to support students if they struggle. Mastery of a give skill should be followed with the next most demanding level of that skill, whether it’s moving from a simple paragraph to an extended essay or narrative, or moving from simple short story analysis to deep reading of longer, more complex literature. We should start with accessible tasks but continually elevate our expectations. We need to be there to help students when they find those tasks increasingly challenging.

This kind of teaching requires a more constructivist classroom, a far cry from the bell-to-bell talking at students that I was trained to do. Problem-based learning helped me make that shift, and the students and I both benefited. But those factors can be embedded even in a traditional classroom approach if we put students’ needs first.

So I’ll return to my sewing machine and my looming jury deadline, grateful that I was able to make that shift before I retired, hopeful that teachers and students today will continue to make shifts like it, too.

Finding our Common Humanity

“Kids and Cuban friends on balcony of Hotel Leon Varadero Beach Dec ’54”

We just returned from an amazing ten-day kayaking trip in Cuba, and I’ve been thinking about how much I learned and how I learned it. Though we love to kayak in foreign waters – a wonderful and different way to explore new places – a bigger draw for this trip was my long-time wish to return. In 1954 my family spent part of winter break in the first resort hotel in Varadero Beach, Cuba, during Batista’s regime. I knew nothing of the politics or corruption there, so for me the trip was wonderful, set apart from our other frequent family travels by two distinct epiphanies.

First, my beloved brother Peter, gazing at the wondrous expanse of silver-white sand, challenged me to help him figure out just how many grains of sand there were covering the shoreline. I would never have thought about that without his prompting, and we spent endless time collecting sand, estimating the number of grains each time, and trying to extrapolate those findings into a likely total. Peter introduced me to a new way of thinking about the world around me.

The second involved the local children we befriended. I don’t remember the name of the boy, but I will never forget Marielle. I’ve always loved languages so, although I was only seven, I had brought a Spanish-English dictionary. I worked to learn phrases so I could talk with locals. A bit older, Marielle wanted to learn English and often glanced longingly at my book. She lived near the hotel, so my parents agreed to walk me to her home before we left so I could give her the dictionary to keep. This was not the first time I’d visited a place with a different living standard from my own affluent suburban upbringing – our parents were invested with our understanding that diversity. Other places had failed to make a lasting impression. This time, though, I visited the home of my new-found friend. Her family had so little, a dramatic contrast to the lifestyle I’d always taken for granted. That visit taught me not to take my comforts for granted, not to be so egocentric.

This long-awaited trip to Cuba reinforced that learning. We had the privilege of staying in casa particulares, private homes owned by Cubans who rent rooms to tourists. The Cuban economy uses a dual-currency system: Cuban pesos for locals who are paid by the government, and Cuban convertible pesos, worth 25 times as much, for use by tourists. This system creates what our wonderful guide Roberto calls an “upside-down pyramid.” Professionals like his doctor father and teacher mother must live on a miniscule salary in Cuban pesos, while those who manage to work in tourism improve their financial standing dramatically. Having lived through the 1990s economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba stranded, he himself changed his career path to tourism so he could help support his family. Putting any political judgments aside, I found the resourcefulness and friendliness of the Cubans we met inspiring.

The biggest lesson I bring back from this experience is our common humanity. Two of my favorite experiences emphasized this. Our hosts just outside the old town of Trinidad welcomed us warmly. When Marisol said, “Mi casa e su casa,” she really meant it. Hot and sweaty on arrival, we were treated to Canchanchara, the traditional drink. Once fluent in French and Italian, I’d made little progress in my study of Spanish before the trip, and Marisol and her husband and son spoke virtually no English. But we communicated with gestures and smiles and my occasionally looking up words in my second Spanish-English dictionary. The next afternoon, when we returned from a hike through the old town after a river paddle, again sweaty and tired, we sat on their back portal. Her son came to invite us back into the gardens where it was cooler, and they surprised us with refreshing limonada. The pictures I’d brought from our 1954 trip fascinated the family, and we felt a strong human connection.

The next day we visited the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, where we were treated to a stellar performance by a local choir. Music is a constant in Cuba, and we’d enjoyed singers and bands throughout our trip. This time, however, felt very personal. The choir began with a heart-felt rendition of the American song Shenandoah, moving me to tears. The other pieces were in Spanish, but their spokeswoman kindly explained the content of each before singing. I loved the piece about the person who though he could sing, who really sang like a duck as exemplified by their quack-quacks during the song!  During their last song they invited us to come up and dance with them – a wonderful experience! Afterwards they invited questions and comments. Overwhelmed, I barely managed to get my words out… but I told them that I could not sing and was the duck, making them all laugh, and that I had loved their performance because they made me realize that for all our differences, we shared a common humanity that too often gets forgotten. My tears weren’t the only ones.

This choral group is as good as any I’ve heard, yet they struggle to raise the money to record their work, and they must sell their CDs to pay for their trips to competitions despite how professional and accomplished they are. Once again I was reminded of how much I take for granted.

All of which made me think about why I became a literature teacher in the first place. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel widely, to meet people from other places who live very differently from ourselves and to realize how much we still have in common. We appreciate many of the same gifts: a laugh, a smile, a song, friends, sharing a good meal… But anyone who can read simply needs a library card and time. Through stories and books, we can discover so much about the rest of the world.

I was excited to see some progress in the 80s and 90s – albeit excruciatingly slow – to have children’s textbooks include a variety of people, so that all students might see themselves reflected on the page. As a teacher I helped include books in the curriculum that showed my students very different lives. If I were still in the classroom now, I would look for even more ways to do that. The canon is broader than it used to be, but educators can be more strategic in what they choose and how they use it. I used to tell my freshmen that Romeo & Juliet is a story they can recognize: two teenagers so “hot to trot” that they sneak around behind their parents’ backs, heedless of possible consequences. When my sophomores read the riveting memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, they had to imagine what it was like for Melba Beals and the other eight students to integrate Little Rock High School, to face down the hatred and opposition of segregationists. When my seniors read The Plague by Albert Camus, they faced a world where medical care could not save the victims. Well-written stories bring other worlds to life. We need to include them in our curricula. Our students can and should learn that while much divides us, more unites us. The human experience transcends local differences.

The Debate on the Canon Continues

Shayna Murphy recently posted an intriguing blog arguing that too many classics taught in today’s high schools may not “necessarily [be] the right fit for a modern-day classroom.”[1] This argument is hardly new, but she thoughtfully suggests more modern and accessible books that address some of the same issues. Murphy also suggests that we can always teach both – unlikely given today’s packed curriculum.

I enjoyed following her thought process and liked many of her choices. Why not replace Moby Dick with The Martian or The Scarlet Letter with Handmaid’s Tale? But I’m having second thoughts… based on why I believe in teaching literature in the first place.

Great books open up the world to readers, who:

  • can’t help but recognize that across time and place, people are basically still people
  • also can’t avoid the reality that the times shape the culture, and we can gain a better understanding of the human experience as it changes and evolves
  • can understand the issues they face in their lives by exploring them through the lens of a book
  • can begin to recognize the diversity of human experience instead of assuming that their own way of life is universal

“Literary study should … provide us with many complex models for understanding and responding to others and to ourselves,” said University of Connecticut professor Patrick Hogan.[2]

So I have no qualms about selecting books and asking my student readers to stretch themselves to understand. Through books they can expand their understanding of people and human nature. Some of the traditional canon excels at that. Limiting their reading to contemporary works may be easier, but it deprives them of a global view of human nature over time.

I’m a Margaret Atwood fan and read Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published. As a teacher, though, I can’t help but wonder if my students might read it on their own or at least watch the televised version. Is it valuable to ground the oppression of women in a book like The Scarlet Letter? And Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying may be a challenging read due to its rotating cast of narrators and his extremely long and complex sentences. But recognizing the impact of point of view, learning to appreciate a different approach to language and style, discovering the society of the Gothic South in the 1930s – how does the value of these compare to the relatively easy read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is far more sentimental and also available on video. And are we ready to ignore the role that As I Lay Dying and others on the list, like The Great Gatsby have on the novels that follow them?

I know Beowulf was tough to teach, but surely it’s another seminal, foundational work. J.R. Tolkien, whose work many of my students read avidly, called Beowulf  “’this greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,’… [and it] informed his thinking about myth and language.”[3] Don’t students benefit from learning more about how novels and other forms have evolved?

I’m all for opening up the canon. My last two years of teaching we rolled out a regular sophomore English class that included eight books, half of which were non-fiction [often neglected] and all of which were relatively contemporary. But we could do that because we had so many classic works embedded in the English classes of other years. We don’t need to make the canon a binary choice. Let’s be more inclusive as we keep some classics. Let’s help our students discover many worlds beyond their own.


[1] https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2016/09/01/books-we-should-stop-making-high-schoolers-read

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/educating-teenagers-emotions-through-literature/476790/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/books/jrr-tolkiens-translation-of-beowulf-is-published.html