May 7, 2018

TEACHER APPRECIATION: Teaching from the Heart

This week, May 7-11, is NATIONAL TEACHER APPRECIATION WEEK. There's no better time than now to acknowledge the truth: the vast majority of teachers choose their profession with their hearts. They do so with the full knowledge that, in a financial sense, they will not be compensated fairly. Not early in their careers. Not late in their careers. In comparison to professionals with similar levels of formal education and experience, and in comparison to teacher-compensation in other developed countries, there are many better ways to make a secure and substantial living.

But it's all about the heart. Teaching has always been as much a vocation, a calling, as it is a career. In other words, Teaching isn't a job, it's an identity. That inspiring reality also explains the ease with which school boards and government entities consistently underpay and undercut the professionalism and dedication of teachers, and yet teachers work on, devoted to and grateful for the learners in their lives. It's fair to say:

 Teachers gotta teach.

Lee & Low Books, 2018
Which leads me to review a remarkable new picture book: MIDNIGHT TEACHER: Lilly Ann Granderson and her Secret School.  It's written by prolific and award-winning author Janet Halfmann and is illustrated by the equally distinguished London Ladd. Before I comment on this book, take a peek at what others have said since its release:
From a starred review on Kirkus:
"Midnight Teacher is an inspiring testament to an amazing instructor and pioneer in education. Lilly Ann Granderson's steadfast courage in the face of adversity provides an inspiring model for all who attempt to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges." 
From Publisher's Weekly: 
"The painful but uplifting narrative may spark readers’ curiosity about other enslaved individuals whose stories have not yet been told."
From School Library Journal: 
"In the afterword, Halfmann delves further into this hero's legacy: her grandchildren and great-grandchild would go on to become college grads, U.S. congressmen, and more. Ladd's illustrations, rendered in acrylic and colored pencil, are realistic and done in an earthy palette of sandy browns and rich greens. Ladd adroitly conveys the tone of the narrative with dioramalike scenes and uses perspective to add intensity. VERDICT A top choice for any library serving elementary school—aged children."

I'm proud to say that I consider Janet as my professional friend, always providing me with  writing inspiration. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, and this book blends those two talents. It's an extensively-researched biography of perhaps the least known and most inspiring teacher in American history. Research is rarely easy, but Janet faced particular challenges, as she describes in an interview on the Lee & Low website, here. 

Without further delay, I'll share my opinion:
Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School is an intense and moving biography of a remarkable woman. I won't give away the intriguing details, but at each turn in her enslaved life, she found ways to sustain herself and improve herself, then she lifted the lives of others by teaching. Rare circumstances allowed her to learn to read, and read well, at a very young age.  She read everything she could get her hands on, including discarded newspapers that revealed a potential path to freedom in the North. She realized as a child and throughout her life that education was the key to FREEDOM. The enslaved people surrounding her understood this, too. The power-based reasons for prohibiting the teaching of slaves is explained simply and well in the book. 
Even as a child, she confronted the serious risks of teaching other enslaved children, sneaking off with them to share the keys to literacy, and they welcomed Lilly Ann's brave efforts. Lilly Ann continued her calling to teach despite numerous changes, including being sold from border state Kentucky to deep-south Natchez, Mississippi. 
Each scene in this descriptive narrative is accompanied by deep-toned, thought-provoking images. Text and illustration combine to provide readers with remarkable insights into the driving forces that kept Lilly teaching throughout her life, long after the Civil War and slavery ended. 

The cover image is quite literal, illustrating that Lilly had to sneak through the darkest nights to pursue her goal of teaching others. It is also deeply symbolic, suggesting that education, literacy, and knowledge are the flames of FREEDOM, and not just freedom from enslavement. I believe that Lilly Ann Ganderson would agree that teachers are not simply transferring factoids and details, not meant to measure success in tests or by echoing back simple facts. Teachers are LIGHT BEARERS, providing a beacon, working to open the eyes and guide the way for learners. When one of Lilly's students surprised her by using newly acquired understanding of the alphabet to write FREEDOM, it brought tears to her eyes. 

I believe teachers everywhere have many such memorable moments in which they've been brought to the verge of tears by witnessing a student making a leap of insight, gaining independence, or even asking a question that new learning had inspired. This book would be an ideal gift for a teacher you know who deserves a bit of appreciation. It will be a welcome addition to the classroom library, and won't develop permanent coffee stains like a WE HEART TEACHERS mug will. 


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful review. I am so honored to have had the opportunity to tell the story of this brave and inspiring but little-known teacher. I'm hoping someday the name Lilly Ann Granderson will be a household word. Thanks so much to all the teachers who share so much HEART every day!

    1. Janet,
      I share your enthusiastic effort to spread Lilly Ann Granderson's name far and wide. I'm convinced that the more teachers learn about her, the more her story will be shared. What I particularly loved about her was her expectation that each of her students would, in turn, teach others. "Each one teach one" guided my years in the classroom. Thank you for your extensive research and the compelling application of facts to story. And thanks for stopping here to comment.


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