Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mira's Method

Mira Erickson (1971)

In June, the International Center of Catholic Charities, lost its esteemed and beloved director, Mira Nikolic Erickson (1940 - 2014). Her memorial service was held in the place she worked and dedicated much of her energy - the center itself. Former students, volunteers, friends and family gathered on this occasion to honor and reflect on the life of this “classy,” “inspirational,” and driven matriarch, who spent so many late nights and early mornings ensuring the projects she focused her positive energy and expertise on succeeded. 

Four years ago, while earning a certificate in teaching English at the New School, I met Mira when searching for a place to gain invaluable teaching experience. The International Center (then located on twenty-third street) had a history and reputation for volunteerism and civic engagement. Mira interviewed me and asked if I’d be willing to offer a structured class of my own creation for one night a week. I agreed and have been doing so ever since. From that initial meeting, I knew that despite the warm smile and support, Mira was someone who did not suffer fools. I would be given an opportunity to prove myself - nothing more. She had little patience for pettiness or negativity, but was always supportive and encouraging to those willing to work and better themselves. Mira also had a unique way of finding the best in people and giving them opportunities to act on these better qualities.

Mira new what it was like to arrive in a new place alone, but so full of hopes and dreams. She came to the United States in 1962 as a student from Yugoslavia. Mira came here to complete the degree she had started at the University of Belgrade at Smith College, the esteemed independent women’s liberal arts school located in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was refreshing to hear stories of Mira’s youthful adventures from her longtime friends and colleagues, It was also inspiring to reflect back on the historically significant decade she would live through while attending school as a young women.

In the late sixties, Mira began working with Dr. Caleb Cattengo in New York. Dr. Cattengo would establish Educational Solutions in 1968 and transform the field of language teaching by developing his “the Silent Way,” which  became “an approach to teaching languages that let students do all the talking. The teacher guides students into correcting their own mistakes, giving them first-hand experience navigating the ‘new’ language.” Mira was a lifetime proponent of Cattengo’s approach. She gave her teachers and students room to grow and to acquire knowledge through their own efforts. Admittedly, teachers and students accustomed to more disciplinary, or teacher-driven lessons, would find Cattengo’s unconventional “Silent Way” challenging; nevertheless, learning itself is a challenge that ultimately lives with the individual student, not the teacher. This is not to say that Cattengo’s “Silent Way” completely disregards the needs of the student. The “Silent Way” does not mean there are no grammar lessons or tests; however, the impetus for learning must come from the student, thus allowing the learner more autonomy to grow and own the newly acquired knowledge. 

Ultimately, Mira would appropriate Cattengo’s silent way and take it further by establishing her own (un-official) “method.” Mira’s method was one in which the student became part of a supportive and unique learning community, where no student was ever left alone. By providing a place of support for students to not only learn the language, but to also gain confidence and self-assurance to ultimately acquire communicative proficiency. She wanted all her students and immigrants to go, as Mira so succinctly put it, “from newcomer to New Yorker.” And part of becoming a “New Yorker” was for each student to develop their own unique voice and story.

When I reflected on Mira’s life at her memorial, I thought of the incredible and inspiring influence she had on so many immigrants lives. Accordingly, I decided it would be most apt to read from Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus” (which is mounted on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty). And like that mighty statue, that stands so proudly in our great city’s harbor, Mira was a true guiding light to those the “tempest-tost” onto this land. Mira Erickson was “a mighty woman,” who, in so many ways, was also a “Mother of Exiles” to those who came to her for support. Although she will be missed, her influence still burns bright in the dreams and lives of the many students and immigrants she helped become New Yorkers.

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