The Brilliance of Mr. Pemberton

The Brilliance of Mr. Pemberton

Amit Basu, Martin Jürgens,

and Robert S. Murphy

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In honor of Mr. P, who’s final cohort at Canadian Academy (Kobe) will be turning 50 this year.

Our classmates always end up indulging in a long heartfelt discussion of “Mr. P” at reunions. Although we are diverse (internationally and academically), we’ve concluded that Mr. P was “the best teacher” we will ever have. What made him so brilliant? If you asked him, he’d probably point to his bald spot and grin. Mr. P was able to make you laugh with his self-deprecating humor and amazingly animated well-timed jokes—and it raised our respect for him. More importantly, as a teacher, he made us ponder our own growth and learn how to do what he did: shine brightly, but also be able to make light of our accomplishments. Did we say this was all in the 6th grade? Looking back, we realize how much we grew academically and metacognitively. Our love of learning naturally received a huge boost. We can’t think of a year in our lives in which we collectively matured in so many areas while being ecstatic about the process.

Mr. Pemberton was a young teacher from Tennessee, only in Japan for two years. In 1981, we were in his last cohort at Canadian Academy in Kobe. Each morning we eagerly entered his amazingly well decorated and stimulating classroom. Mr. P began each day with the usual daily announcements, and he would then ‘mock’ us in an over-the-top way about yesterday’s blunders—both ours and his. Admittedly, it sounds awful, but he was able to make it work brilliantly, both academically and psychologically. We quickly began loving the celebration of our mistakes (as well as our successes). Mr. P gave us the opportunity to grow from mistakes. instead of shying away. Today, most teachers are well-versed in growth mindsets (= allowing failure to lead to improvement); we now realize how critical it can be for the development of resilient learners—but, remember, this was 1981.

Mr. P’s curriculum design was complex and quite ahead of its time. We covered the three Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), using dynamic scheduling, so that the same subjects were not always at the same time each day—another futuristic novelty! As a daily pedagogical routine, we were provided with two to three “autonomous hours” when we had the power to choose what and how we wanted to study. Choices included: (a) daily journal writing, (b) catching up with homework, (c) text review, and the most exciting of all the options (d) traveling around the classroom to complete long assignment packets based at active study stations that were meticulously built on the walls.

To this day, we can recall all of those study stations. Example 1: For solo work, we had a huge map of India, with yarn and thumbtacks connecting cities to articles posted on the wall and deep-thinking questions regarding history, culture, and geography. For group work, we were shown two Indian movies (one in the theater, one in class), dined at Indian restaurants, and explored our cultural differences and similarities in class. Our multi-national peers shared and bonded, largely due to Mr. P’s infectious enthusiasm for the topics and his humor. Example 2: For solo work, he had audiotapes, readings, and paintings of classical composers and painters. For group work on Van Gogh, not only did we discuss his history and critique his art in class, but we also listened to the heartfelt song “Vincent” to diversify our understanding and solidify our passion; for deeper appreciation, we even spent weeks creating our own art. There were also two major term papers, requiring two revisions each (in 6th grade!).

While covering content from required textbooks, Mr. P taught his own content with multi-media, differentiated instruction, autonomous management, and solo-to-group learning. For the average teacher, this would have crumbled into a chaotic organizational mess, but, for us, it was a year of unprecedented academic growth and educational bliss. Mr. P was a once-in-a-lifetime role model who imparted some of the best life lessons at a formative period in our lives. He taught us how to enjoy growth, behave with others (while exploring our individual quirks and interests), celebrate/learn from mistakes, and deeply appreciate the virtues of making a difference in the world. We say without hyperbole that all three of us are happily in our current positions because of the brilliance of Mr. P, and hope that he would be proud of how his saplings have grown.

* Sadly, Mr. P passed away soon after returning to the USA, so we regret never having had a chance to display our gratitude as adults, nor ask him why he was so ahead of his time. Many of Mr. P’s pedagogical techniques are only now being shown to have solid neuroscientific rationales. For a detailed retrospective neuro-based explanation of the discussed pedagogical techniques, see NeuroELT Perspectives (Murphy, Stubbings, & Uemura, 2017, pp. 24-25).

Amit Basu received his B.A. from Reed College and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His carbohydrate chemical biology lab at Brown University studies carbohydrate-carbohydrate interactions and develops new anti-bacterial agents. He teaches organic chemistry and chemical biology, and is developing a course on language and chemistry. [email protected]

Martin Jürgens has a B.A. in photography and design, an M.S. from Rochester Institute of Technology and an M.A. in Conservation from Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. His research has focused on historical and contemporary photography. The Getty Conservation Institute published his book The Digital Print. Identification and Preservation in 2009. [email protected]

Robert Murphy received his Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Nottingham and M.A TESOL from the University of Birmingham (UK). He researches Teacher Education and authors neuroELT-based textbooks. He is co-founder of the FAB neuroELT conferences, stemming from studies in Mind, Brain, and Education (Harvard Graduate School of Education). [email protected]

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