About the Dog

But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley place. A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

I thought I was done writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, but a colleague recently asked me a question about the dog.

Tim Johnson, I mean: the rabid dog that Atticus shoots in Chapter 10.

Sometimes Chapter 10—the mad dog chapter—is anthologized as a stand-alone short story. In that case, it’s a lovely piece about a boy coming to see his father as a hero. Chapter 11 isn’t accorded the same status—I don’t see it ever as a stand-alone—but these two chapters, which seem to most students at first read to be unrelated to either the Boo Radley story or the Tom Robinson story are, I contend, the two most important chapters in the book. In them, Harper Lee lays the groundwork for the major themes of the novel, and the story of Atticus shooting the dog does more than round out his character by giving us some background information on his “talent.” It establishes him for certain as the hero of the story: an epic hero, to be precise. The Mrs. Dubose chapter gives us the hero’s own definition of courage.

But back to the dog.

Tim Johnson is very much a character in this story. His name is the first clue. He’s not Spot or Old Blue or Rover or any other identifiable dog name. He’s Tim Johnson. A human’s name.

That Atticus kills him is the second clue that he’s important.

Tim Johnson is lurching down the street on a cold February morning. Calpurnia summons the sheriff in a frantic phone call, herds the children inside, and defies common sense and convention by running up on the Radley’s front porch to warn the occupants not to open their door. A mad dog is coming.

photo of rabies notesThe day before we discuss Chapter 10 in class, my homework assignment is for students to look up “rabies” online and write down its causes, its symptoms, and its treatment. The next day, we brainstorm all of that on the board.

The key thing is this: Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system, a disease of the mind. It makes the dog (or person) who has it irrational, unpredictable, and erratic. The victim will attack anything in its path. Rabies spreads by a bite—by mouth—and the treatment is painful. Treated too late, the disease is fatal.

For a dog as far gone as Tim Johnson, the only thing to do is to shootphoto 2 of rabies notes him. And that is what Atticus does. He stands in the middle of a deserted street, takes aim, fires, and the dog falls over, dead.

Like all epic heroes, though, Atticus is reluctant to undertake this task; he steps in only because no one else can or will. Heck Tate relies on Atticus to do the job because, as we (along with Jem and Scout) find out, Atticus was called “Ol’ One Shot” when he was a boy.

At this point, I just let that information sink in and we go on to Chapter 11. Here we learn that Atticus thinks the vitriolic Mrs. Dubose is the “bravest lady he ever knew.” She fights a morphine addiction so she can die free and clear. No need for that. She’s going to die, so who cares if she’s addicted? Atticus says she’s brave because “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

This is all groundwork for the trial. Established beyond a doubt as the hero of the book, we now want to know, will our hero live up to his own definition of courage in the second half of the book? And what about that dog? What does Tim Johnson represent?

Occasionally, an alert student will remember that Atticus referred to “Maycomb’s usual disease” when he was talking to his brother, Jack—and that we all read “prejudice” into that remark. Once in a great while, a student will remember (or the teacher–that would be me–will recall) the description in Chapter 5 of Miss Maudie vehemently attacking the nut- grass in her yard, telling the children that “one sprig of nut-grass can ruin a whole yard.” The wind, she said, would spread the seed all over Maycomb County—an occurrence that would resemble an “Old Testament pestilence.”

If they do remember this early groundwork, that reinforces the unmistakable connection students make when Bob Ewell takes the stand in Part II of the novel. Irrational, unpredictable, and erratic, Bob spews his verbal venom on Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell’s target and the only witness to Bob Ewell’s vicious response when he sees her through the window, accosting Robinson. Rabies, of course, is meant to represent prejudice…

“And Bob’s the mad dog!” I usually don’t need to draw the analogy myself. The students get it.

Atticus knows how the trial will end before it even begins—but he goes forward with his defense of Tom anyway. Why?

Because he must.

He’s already explained that to his brother Jack. It’s the right thing to do, but he runs the risk of his children being morally injured—the trial and the vitriol may be so hard on them that they’ll be resentful and catch the disease. But if he doesn’t do the right thing, he tells Jack, he couldn’t look his children in the eye. So it’s at great personal risk—typical of the epic hero—that he steps forward to do what heroes do.

And why does Ewell bring charges against Tom? Tom isn’t going to report him. No way. So why does Ewell do it?

Because he can.

Prejudice has completely consumed him.

Prejudice has so poisoned the town (except for a few souls like Atticus, Miss Maudie, and we later discover, Judge Taylor and Heck Tate) that Ewell seizes his opportunity to attack Tom. He knows full well that Tom will be convicted. For once in his life, Ewell thinks, he will be the recipient of the town’s gratitude and be “one up” on his moral superior, the black man who lives down the road.

Except that, when the trial is over, the town despises Ewell all the more. The people know the truth, even though the men on the jury convict Tom. Except for a Cunningham who makes the jury deliberate for a few hours—a record for a case like this in the 1930s—the men on the jury are, after all, only men. They’ve been infected, too, and can’t see beyond society’s unwritten black and white rules.

Just as Atticus is only a man. He lifts the gun in the courtroom, fires—and misses. But everyone knows the truth. He has made them know it.

Mayella is shamed, Ewell is despised even more, Atticus is sickened, and Jem learns a bitter truth: The justice system he idealizes is flawed. An innocent man has been convicted. Even his father, whom he idolizes by now, can’t make things right. With this loss of innocence, Jem comes of age.

A lot is being said about close reading these days, and that’s exactly the way all this about mad dogs—and later about mockingbirds—is revealed. With that and some carefully placed questions. I don’t lecture—that’s not my style and not my forte. But we read and reread, the students and I, and through that process, from all corners of the room, comes the understanding that the dog and Bob Ewell are inextricably linked, that the two episodes are meant to be compared.

A single, strangely-constructed sentence seals it: A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

So about the dog…

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Call and Response

Once in a while, someone is gracious enough to invite me into their room, not to observe or to lend a hand, but to teach the class. To orchestrate the lesson. To set the purpose, plan the activity, lead the students, and make the close.  Last week, a colleague asked me to do just that. I’ve been singing ever since.

It isn’t easy for a high school teacher to surrender his or her classroom to the instructional coach. In elementary school, people come into and leave from classrooms all day long. The principal drifts in and out and is not just there for formal evaluations. Volunteer parents, reading tutors, paras, aides, and specialists of all kinds are constants in the elementary classroom background, and when someone else leads a lesson, it’s not a big deal. Kids don’t wonder why.

But in a secondary classroom, there are no reading tutors and parent volunteers. Aides are largely silent, and when the principal is present, it is almost always to conduct an evaluation. So if someone else leads the class, unless it’s a guest speaker with credentials to warrant a special presentation on the topic at hand, inquiring students are likely to wonder, “Why isn’t my teacher doing this?” Or the teacher may fear that the kids are wondering that.

It takes an unusually confident person–or a person who’s comfortable saying he or she isn’t an expert at everything–to let the coach model a strategy or demonstrate a technique.

It’s not without danger for me, either, teaching that class.  My reputation is on the line and so is my own self-esteem. The students aren’t mine. I have no relationship with them. Nothing to draw on if the lesson goes awry. No prior knowledge about their dispositions, proclivities, interests, or backgrounds. I don’t know their hot buttons or what might make them laugh or cry. I’ve got to establish credibility in the first fifteen seconds and maintain momentum for the whole fifty minutes. If it goes right, it feels at the end like a song.

Recently, I had a conversation with a singer-songwriter new to my town and at the beginning of her career. On a nippy Saturday morning, I watched her perform at our local Farmers Market. She was pounding the keyboard with gusto and singing her heart out. The people gathered around her were swaying back and forth, keeping time with their feet, nodding and bending in sync with her rhythm. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch her.

Afterwards, I remarked on the energy she expended, the connection she’d created, and the fun she seemed to be having. “Call and response” she said, using the term to describe the electricity between the performer and the audience–and I thought to myself then, that’s just what teaching, when it goes well, is: call and response. Like an old-time preacher and the congregation.

The lesson I taught last week was Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” The class had just finished Of Mice and Men, and the teacher had asked me to model for the students the close reading technique I love so well, the one I call the “slow reveal,” where line-by-line the teacher guides the student from the beginning to the end of the poem, helping the students discover for themselves the gradual accumulation of meaning.

I had created a two-columned handout for the students, the poem as Burns originally wrote it and, beside it, the standard modern translation. I asked the students to skim the original first to find the line that Steinbeck was alluding to when he wrote Of Mice and Men, and then my colleague played an online recording of that original poem. They could find the line–The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley–but the poem mystified almost everyone.

We dispensed with the Gaelic for the time, and worked our way through the modern version, focusing our attention on words they didn’t know– timorous, dominion, social union, ensuing–and the capitalized words–Man and Nature. I drew their attention to the two colons–a punctuation mark with authority, used twice in this poem, in both cases to announce a key idea. In the first instance:

But Mousie, you are not alone

In proving that foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft astray

And  leave us nothing but grief and pain

Instead of promised joy!

More words to be sure we know: Foresight. Vain. Prospects. I hear a few gasps as students make the connection to Lennie and George and the collapse of their dream of a little plot of land where they could live and raise rabbits and live off the “fatta the lan’.”  I slip in the word allusion again and move to the turn, a word in a poem that signifies the poet is going to stand an idea on its head.

And Burns does. Nice as the connection of the penultimate stanza is to George and Lennie’s schemes gone awry, it is not all that Burns has to say. The last stanza features  another colon announcing another idea, the one that has propelled this poem about a mouse whose home has been plowed up by a farmer from the realm of simple and sweet to profound and memorable.

In this last stanza, the poet makes the distinction between Man and Nature, between the farmer and the mouse, (as Steinbeck implies centuries later, between George and Lennie): Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

What? The mouse is luckier than the man? How can that be?

I say: “See that word Still? What does it mean here?”

They say: “But.”



“Even though everything I have said is true, there’s more.”

I say: “Yes!”

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

Only this moment touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye

On prospects turned to sadness!

And though forward I cannot see,

I guess and fear!

They say:

“The farmer is cursed by his memory of the past!”

“By its disappointments.”

“He fears the future!”

“He can’t see what will happen and he’s afraid.”

“The mouse lives only in the present!”

“So what do you think?” I ask. “Who is luckier? Lennie or George?  Don’t shout it out. Think before you answer. Relate your answer to the story and explain yourself.”

Hands everywhere.

“Lennie: He dies happy, looking across the water and imagining the farm.”

“Lennie: Because George has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.”

“George: Because at least he’s alive!”

“Lennie: Because he doesn’t experience regret. Or fear. He just thinks about those rabbits.”

Then my colleague played the recording again–the original.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

Ah…it makes sense now. Some of the students even prefer the Gaelic. Especially Gang aft agley. Much more expressive, much more memorable than Go oft astray.

At the end of the hour, as the class was filing out, a boy approached me. He’d been too shy to speak up in class, but he was brave enough to say to me privately, “I was going to say George because Lenny has only one emotion, really. One idea. He’s limited. George can experience things. He can do new things and feel things and see color and well…learn.”

Call and response. Like a song.

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Set the Stage for a Productive Parent Conference

P1000130If you have never experienced Parent Conferences—or even if you have—you might be nervous. As a new teacher, you know you’re under scrutiny, and every veteran teacher has at least one horror story about a conference gone awry. I know I do. Admittedly, the parent is there to find out about you as much as to find out about his/her child, but being prepared ahead of time will help you avoid sticky or empty conversations. Plus, what they’ll find out about you is that you’re a professional who really cares about their child.

Here are some ideas for keeping the conversation focused on the student’s needs and progress and for creating the partnering relationship with parents that is such an important component of student success.

1. Think about creating a handout (a chart, for example) that outlines your course or the work for the semester or your expectations. Write it in layman’s language, but keep it professional. Add a section at the bottom (or side-by-side with the units) explaining how parents can help with each topic or unit or project.

Parents can help in so many fundamental ways—even if it’s just nagging their kids about due dates. For example, parents can

  • Quiz students on spelling and/or vocabulary. Check that students have signed in to the electronic programs you use. Show the parents how to access the eBooks you use as well as programs such as Turn It In, Write to Learn, Vocabulary.com, Quizlet, Spelling City—etc. Tell the parents why you use this program—to many of them, these electronic tools are a big mystery.
  • Listen to their students’ speeches.
  • Help with math problems (if you use a different system than parents are accustomed to, be sure to tell the parents that!).
  • Drill students on the multiplication table and other foundational math skills.
  • Talk through a writing assignment and make an informal outline—a form of pre-writing that many kids need.
  • Ask students to read and then summarize orally what they’ve read.
  • Memorize the elements chart—even in high school parents can help with basic skills and processes.

2. If you post your assignments on your web page or on an electronic calendar, explain to the parents how to access that information (Be sure to keep it updated!). Your web page or other system may be far more elaborate than just a posting of assignments, but however simple or complex it may be, parents can easily check the student’s assignments if they know how to access the information.

3. If the parent says the student has trouble staying focused, suggest that the parent sit down with the child while he does his homework. Set a timer and take breaks. Reward the student when the work is done. Positive reinforcement is so much more effective than negative consequences at the end of the grading period.

Sometimes parents find it hard to sit down because they really can’t help—the assignment is beyond them or they, frankly, don’t find it interesting to watch their child do homework. Suggest they get their own project going and do their “homework” side-by-side with their child. Menu planning, sorting coupons, reading something for work the next day, catching up on correspondence, reading a novel: Whatever it is, they’ll be modeling the process of homework—and getting something done themselves!

4. If you have copies of projects that students have done in the past, show these as examples of what your expectations are. (Take the names off.)

  • Preview areas where the individual student (whose parents you are talking to) might struggle as you move forward with instruction.
  • Show parents samples of their own student’s work. That will help to keep the discussion focused on what the individual student is having trouble with or needs to do.  If you don’t already keep classroom portfolios, assemble an informal collection before conferences. Have students insert the latest test, their best work, and an assignment they had trouble with.
  • Show the parent something you’ve graded so they see the kinds of things you’re looking for—and so you can point out the problem areas concretely.

5. Explain the on-site tutoring resources available to all students. In some schools, teachers provide tutoring in math and English labs during their extra duty hour. Sometimes, a teacher provides extra help routinely during the prep hour or after school.

Let parents know when you, personally, are available to students outside of class time. Can the students email you at home? If so, what’s the cut-off time? You do have a life and you do go to bed!

Give the parent a business card with your prep time and contact information–so they don’t call when you can’t talk to them. Explain that they need to call or email you for information. If you promise to call them on a regular basis or whenever, say, Susie forgets her homework, you’ll have just one more thing to remember. Of course you’ll call if there’s an emergency or an incident or something urgent, but don’t promise to call or email on a regular basis. Let them do that part.

6. Create some space early in the conversation for the parent to ask questions or to tell you what they are concerned about. In other words, don’t talk non-stop and never let them get a word in edge-wise. That will just be off-putting. What you are aiming for is a dialogue, and all of these suggestions are really possible entry points for that conversation, or responses to questions, or strategies for dealing with problems.

If the line at your door is long and you think the night (or afternoon) will never end, remember this: The students whose parents take an interest in school are the lucky ones. They are the students most likely to succeed.

I used to enjoy parent conferences—I really did. I felt like I was welcoming friends into my own home. (That not an exaggeration. We spend enough time at school that our classroom qualifies as a second home!) As the years went by, I really was greeting old friends—I’d had my current students’ older siblings by then, and eventually, I’d had my students’ pP1000133arents even (!). I’d been partnering with these folks for a long, long time and they knew that I really cared about their children’s progress.

We show parents that when we meet them as professionals—warmly, genuinely, and with partnership in mind.

Happy conferencing—you’re a pro!






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Post-it Note Progress

P1030322Discovered by serendipity, the Post-it note is a staple today in offices, industries, and retail stores. According to my source, it’s one of the top five office supply items of all. FedEx leaves Post-it Notes on the door when no one is at home to receive a package. The post office uses Post-its for forwarded mail. That label across the bottom of the envelope, which sticks completely and for the full length of the paper—but can be peeled off completely as well—represents an advancement in Post-it Note technology, showing us that good ideas just get better.

Post-its are ubiquitous in classrooms, too. Every teacher I know uses them. I use them—and teach kids to use them—to

  • Substitute as a place to write margin notes in their rented textbooks
  • Write summaries (the size of the Post-It determines the length of the summary)
  • Jot down ideas or questions for discussion
  • Create temporary labels for piles of materials
  • Mark significant passages or reading progress

There are even Post-its the size of posters. Teachers without whiteboards write daily objectives on these giant Post-its, swapping them out from day to day. Groups jot their notes or their conclusions on these temporary posters and hang them on the walls to serve as speaking notes. They can leave the notes up afterward for the whole class to review.

A couple of years ago, in my capacity as an instructional coach for teachers in my district, I hit upon another use for Post-its, one that involves measuring shifts in attitude. I wanted to know, originally, where the secondary teachers I was working with stood vis-à-vis implementation of the Common Core, and then, after I had finished with my professional development presentations on the subject, whether what I’d said and had the teachers do had had an impact. I wanted to know if what I was doing was changing attitudes.

How do you measure an attitude shift?

Furthermore, I wanted to share that information with the teachers.


How could I do that?

Somehow, I hit upon the idea, at the start of my Common Care presentations, of giving everyone in attendance a Post-it note (all the same color) and asking them to array their notes along a spectrum from left to right. I drew a line across the whiteboard at the front of the room and at strategic points along the line, I wrote the following summations of opinion:

  • Far Left: This is just one. more. thing.  It’s all going to go away, so why should I change?
  • Left: You’re kidding? Really? Okay, but where do I start? I’ve got a lot to learn.
  • Center: I’m on the fence.
  • Right: I’m just over being on the fence. I have some reservations, but all right.
  • Far Right: Let’s go! I’m excited! I’ve read a ton, know the standards, tried out a few things. I’m ready to jump in!

The teachers had no idea that I planned to ask the same question again at the end of my sessions. They assumed my visual survey was just a way to assess prior knowledge (which it was) and take a reading on staff opinion (which it also was). They did not write their names on the Post-its and I didn’t watch while they affixed theirs to the wall.

When the workshop was finished, several hours later, I gave everyone another Post-it—this time in a different color—and asked them to do the same thing: Place their Post-it on the wall somewhere along the same spectrum. I deliberately turned my back so I couldn’t see who put theirs where.

P1030326Here’s what the Post-its revealed. (Pink is “before”; blue is “after.”) Of course, the response wasn’t universally enthusiastic—I didn’t expect that—but I was gratified to see that the overall shift was from left to right, proving, above all, that understanding something goes a long way towards supporting it. Or put another way: Education matters.

P1030328Since then, I’ve shown teachers who are trying to measure an attitude shift in their classes this same (quick and non-scientific) strategy, and it has worked for them, too.

For example, here’s one from a business teacher who wanted to know if her financial literacy course had made an impact on her students’ spending habits. She extended the concept to measure the shift in two classes simultaneously.

At the start of the term, the five points on her line were these:

  • Far left: Spend every cent I can get my hands on—and more.
  • Left: Hmmm. Maybe I should save some.
  • Center: Save half (if I can). Spend half.
  • Right: Budget for expenses. Save all I can.
  • Far Right: Invest so my money can make money.

Freeeland 2In this picture, you see the results from two classes: one pink, the other yellow.  The spread on the bottom is the beginning of the semester; the one on top, the end. Notice the movement to the right in both classes–although the two yellow Post-its on the left represent the same two students, before and after. (Ah, well. Some people never learn.)

Because these Post-its would be up on the wall for the whole semester, we both assumed students would forget where they’d placed theirs. So the teacher had her students write their names on the backs of those little pieces of paper. That way, by turning them over at the end and finding their names, the students could see how far they’d come individually. Freeland 1

This year, another colleague, a high school Spanish teacher, is going to use the strategy to measure the development of her students’ comfort level with speaking Spanish. The purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate in that language, but developing speaking skills is usually a challenge—for both the teacher and the students. Adults (and I’m counting high school students as grown-ups here) often feel inadequate when they open their mouths to speak in a foreign language. They know the words they use are basic, and the grammatical mistakes they make are embarrassing—because they wouldn’t make those same mistakes in their native language. So my colleague and I brainstormed a long list of opportunities, first just to hear spoken Spanish outside the classroom and then to interact with fluent Spanish speakers—a list of possibilities that grows progressively more interactive and engaging as the year goes along. Of course, the activities are a requirement of the course because her hope is that through authentic speaking experiences, students will become more comfortable—and ultimately more fluent.

To measure the students’ growth, here is the continuum my colleague will use:

  • Far left: Silencio! I’m scared to open my mouth!
  • Left: I’ll speak if I have to, but I don’t like it.
  • Center: Comfortable—as long as it’s memorized conversation!
  • Right: It makes me nervous, but it’s fun at the same time!
  • Far right: I love it. I enjoy speaking Spanish!

She plans to have the students chart their progress three times during the year: in August, in January, and in May. That means three colors of Post-it Notes.

Except that a good idea just got better! Fearful that after a whole year the Post-its will lose their sticky and flutter to the floor, my colleague is going to write the attitude points on pieces of construction paper, laminate the paper, and have the students use large Avery dots (in three colors) to mark their progress.

And now I am curious: How could you use this visual survey strategy? What attitude shift would you like to measure?


Link: www.todayIfoundout.com/index.php/2011/11/post-it-notes-were-invented-by-accident/

Posted in Instructional Coaching, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Primary Source

Why We MarchIf you live long enough, you become a primary source.

I was the guest speaker in an AP US History class about three weeks ago, there to talk about my brief stint in Chicago the summer before I married—marching there with MLK, Jr., the types of jobs I did for VISTA, and the state of the Chicago Public Schools 49 years later. Neighborhoods are unchanged; schools are still segregated. Poverty is at the heart of it. If you follow school politics, you know the Chicago Public Schools are in an even more deplorable condition than they were a half century ago.

The teacher had read my blog post about JFK and touching—or maybe not touching—him when his motorcade came through my town during the 1960 presidential campaign. When she asked me to talk to the class about what I remembered, the substance was scanty—all inspiration and no information. But our conversation drifted to the Civil Rights Movement and for that I had more content—or thought I did. I agreed to talk to her classes.

When I got down to thinking about what I would say, of course, my memories turned out to be pretty meager in this department, too. It would have taken me about one minute to relay the following: “I was in Chicago; King came; I marched. We met in Grant Park, went through the streets of Chicago, ended at City Hall. He was up on a platform and I was too far away to touch him. We all joined hands. We did sing “We Shall Overcome.” I felt good.

So I had to do some research. I started with a box of letters and memorabilia from my college days. My mother had saved every letter I wrote home for the four years I was in college. In that box was a red pocket folder with a few “artifacts” from my time in Chicago the summer after graduation. In the folder was a flyer: Why We March. No date, but a little printer’s mark, indicating that the item was printed, not xeroxed, and a few details of the back story.

Names: Ben Willis and Mayor Daley. Al Raby. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations.

I found a book–out of print—and ordered it: Northern Protest by James R. Ralph, Jr., Turns out, his account of King in Chicago had been a source for Isabel Wilkerson, whose astounding and fascinating story of the great migration of southern blacks, The Warmth of Other Suns, captured a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

In Ralph’s book, I found the date of the March: July 26, 1965. 15,000 people. The largest civil rights demonstration Chicago had ever seen—so said the Chicago Daily News.

I read further in the book and then online about 1966, the year King returned and lived in Lawndale (western suburb, black, the destination of many African-Americans migrating from the South) and the cat and mouse game Daley played with him, the marches that turned violent. All the online texts were about 1966; the Eyes on the Prize video, all about 1966; the accessible newspaper coverage, all about 1966.

How could I prove I had been there? Even the papers in the online Southern Christian Leadership Conference archives are about 1966.

Finally, I found two articles in the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper of the day, about the 1965 march—written two days after it was over. The Tribune archives for that year: not online. The Sun-Times? I’d have to sign up for a 7-day free subscription and then I’d probably forget to cancel it.

Finally, finally, I happened upon an edu site (Students, listen: edu sites always yield the best stuff!)—the University of Illinois at Chicago–that had a summary of 1965 and had reproduced on their site the very flyer I had in my hands. Oh, wow! I’d hit pay dirt and was excited beyond belief.

So funny. The kids would have believed me, but I wanted the proof that what I held was indeed a primary source. This was, after all, an AP history course.

That summer–1965–Al Raby, a black schoolteacher from the South side, had become the head of an umbrella group of community organizations, all (until then) working independently for better schools, better housing, better employment opportunities. But the focus was on the schools, still (11 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education) 90% segregated. The CCCO marched every day that summer on City Hall. They wanted Daley to dismiss Ben Willis, the Superintendent, because his policies perpetuated segregation. Recently, the schools had gone to double shifts because they were so crowded–that is, the black schools had gone to double shifts. Some white schools had empty desks. But the CCCS was getting nowhere–Daley was a formidable and cagey foe–so they appealed to King, who had led a huge rally at Soldier Field the summer before in 1964 (estimated attendance: from 30,000 to as many as 60,000) and was at that moment looking to expand the movement into a northern city.

A perfect meeting of purposes.

King was in Chicago in 1965 on a five-city tour called the People to People campaign to see which city would be best—Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, or DC—for his northern protest, his “Freedom Summer” in the north. That was to have been what 1966 would be.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. In 1966, King moved into an apartment in Lawndale, deliberately moving there to draw attention to housing inequities. He was still interested in employment and education, but the focus that summer was on open housing. I explained to the students about redlining—the sly and exclusionary tactic of delineating certain areas of the city and then refusing to sell property in those areas or provide financing to people of color who wanted to buy there.Online, I had found maps of Chicago with the neighborhoods clearly marked off. I brought these to class, and I reminded the students of Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play, written in 1957, A Raisin in the Sun—still in our 9th grade English anthologies—about a black family that prepares to move into a white suburb of Chicago (a play with connections to Hansberry’s own family story). Many of the students had read the drama, nodded in recognition. I recited some lines from Langston Hughes, lines the students knew (Thanks, English teachers!!!):

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

Or does it explode?

It exploded in 1966: rioting, marches that turned violent, Dr. King himself hit by a rock thrown at a march in Marquette Park on the South Side. And Daley repeatedly outmaneuvering King. Ultimately, fearing violence in Cicero (a white community that bordered Lawndale and the West Garfield area where I’d been stationed in 1965), King settled with Daley–a 10 point agreement that did make some inroads–and called off the Cicero march. Stokely Carmichael and others, though, went ahead with it on their own, and the march in Cicero did turn violent–bloody and awful.

But in 1965, the year I was there, Chicago was by and large peaceful. It gave King hope that the non-violent tactics of the south could work in the north.

Isn’t history wonderful? It can tell you all about what you were involved in.

Consider this, though: If King hadn’t come to Chicago–or any other place–the laws would not have changed; even less, the climate. If the Civil Rights Movement of my day had never happened, would there have been a Women’s Movement, a Native American Movement, Stonewall and the Gay Rights Movement, a Latino Movement? King’s compromise in 1966 was a setback, and the assassination was devastating…but ultimately, progress.

But so much, too much, left to do.

The kids asked me how I reacted to MLK’s assassination. I put my head down on the dining room table and cried, I told them. I remember that distinctly. It was the death of a hero.

The message to the students: Your voice matters. I was one insignificant person in 15,000 that day–but 15,000 insignificant people were not insignificant in their impact. 15,000 helped to convince King to come. He came, and even though he didn’t achieve exactly what he sought, progress was made.

You can change the world, I told the students. You can. But you must stand up, speak up for what is moral and right.

Apparently, the talk was inspiring. Kids clapped, thanked me, and some came back to hear the presentation twice. (I talked to four classes.) The teacher asked me to partner with her next year and do all this during the Civil Rights Unit instead of as a guest speaker. To which I readily agreed and suggested that next year the kids do the research, now that I know it is there and so much is available online.

In all these years, I have not spoken at length about marching with King, though it is something I look back on as significant in my life. Oh, I had mentioned it a few times to kids in school, but not as part of a long discussion with facts and details and questions and answers. I was never quite comfortable. In the first place, I had forgotten the facts. In the second, I was stopped by the feeling that throwing it into a conversation—even one about racism in this country or one about the pernicious effects of poverty—would have been gratuitous, even self-congratulatory. And what was there to congratulate myself about? Of course I marched.

So here I am, old enough to be a primary source and to have had the chance to tell this story.

What did it feel like to speak to these students? Was I comfortable? For starters, time seemed to melt away. Once the details came back to me—through the research—it didn’t feel like nearly fifty years had gone by. It didn’t feel like it had been that long ago. And, armed with information, yes, I was quite comfortable. I had something to say beyond a one-minute delivery of basic information. The students asked great questions, stayed awake the whole time, and seemed to genuinely care about the topic. They put me at ease and at the same time, lit my fire.

I was comfortable because I was at the front of a classroom, not at a dinner table, not in some random gathering place where the conversation is supposed to be focused on a problem, not on personal biography. The occasion and the venue were right.

But maybe it is even more simple than that.

Maybe it is just this: I do love to teach.

Posted in Education, English Language Arts | Tagged | 4 Comments

Time for Reflection

P1040504If you’re traveling abroad with students—whether touring, volunteering, or participating in an exchange, you don’t have to worry that your charges will take plenty of pictures. Given the omnipresence of cell phones, not to mention that a carefully chosen camera is pretty much de rigeur for a trip abroad, you can be sure the kids will catch those Kodak moments. What could get lost, though, are verbal images—the pictures people paint with words. Journal entries recall different details about a trip than photographs do. Words capture mood and tone and nuance–subtleties that cameras often miss.

Furthermore, journal entries lend themselves to reflective thinking. You’re going abroad for a reason: to learn a language, to fulfill a mission, to discover another country and culture, to make friends with people from afar. You, as the teacher leader, want to facilitate the reflection that comes at the end of a trip because reflection spells the difference between mere observation—noticing a difference between cultures, say—and internalization—altering one’s viewpoint because of that observation.

For example, when I traveled with students to Russia, almost the first thing they noticed was that the Russians didn’t stick to a timetable. My students would be up, dressed, and ready to embark on the day’s adventure at the appointed time. We’d (most of us) gather at the school—and invariably have to wait—sometimes a half-hour, sometimes, forty-five minutes—for everyone to arrive. No one apologized, and the bus driver didn’t blink an eye. The fact that Russians were frequently “late” might have remained an observation but that we teachers specifically asked the students to reflect on the importance of schedules in the US. Then they would discover, though dialogue with their counterparts, that the Russians thought the Americans were obsessed with time. We all wore watches, and our magazines are full of ads for watches. A timepiece—the Rolex—is even a status symbol. In school, we Americans live by bells. And bells at odd hours: 10:02, 11:18, 1:44, for example. When the bells don’t ring, schools are paralyzed. It was all pretty funny and certainly instructive: Through reflection, we learned that understanding a cultural difference like that could help us avoid being irritated with each other and, ultimately, avert conflict.

Making time for reflection is critical for achieving the goals of any trip abroad. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Take turns taking notes: Purchase a journal that is reserved just for the purpose of taking lecture notes. When you’re in a museum or art gallery or at a presentation, have the students alternate taking those notes. Only one person needs to focus on writing down the facts, the dates, the statistics. Everyone else can use their personal journals to record impressions or draw pictures or make diagrams—whatever will help them to remember. Later, you can Xerox the official notes for everyone else—or, if the notes are taken on an iPad—you can instantly email them to everyone else.

2. Keep a group journal: In this case, you purchase a journal that is the official Log of the Day. The students circulate the book, taking turns writing about the events of a particular day. While you might think this would result in dry reading—a straight chronology—it doesn’t. The students will comment on what they are seeing and doing, and their reactions to the experiences of the day will dominate the discussion. Their voices will be strong, clear, and uninhibited. They know their audience—each other. An internal dialogue will quickly develop. Nicknames, group jokes, asides, graphic symbols, and friendly joshing back and forth will capture the students’ personalities and recall the trip later from a completely different perspective. As a writing teacher, I came to cherish these group journals. I would only occasionally see the book as it changed hands, but at the end of the trip, they’d give it back to me. I’d make copies for everyone. Once again, technology has improved since my day, so today the same thing could be accomplished with an iPad.  In that case, the entire piece could be forwarded to everyone at the end of the trip.

3. Make it a point to conference every day for at least half an hour. By carving out a little time just for your group to talk together, you can take the group pulse and get a feel for how individuals are reacting to the cultural differences they are experiencing. My students lived with Russian families—their Russian “bothers” and “sisters” had lived with them in the fall in Indiana. Questions of etiquette frequently arose. How do I refuse more food? How does the shower apparatus work? Why isn’t there any hot water? Is it okay to change money on the street? Sometimes the questions were more serious than that. Medical issues. Homesickness. A death in the family. Once, a tornado had destroyed the home of one of my students. Problems like these involve everyone when you are a group abroad. Cut off from family, the group becomes your family. It’s also a good time to pose questions of your own: What has been your biggest challenge so far? What has surprised you? What have you changed your mind about? What has been the most fun? Has that surprised you? What lessons have you learned so far?

4. Give students a list of journal topics that will inspire reflection:

• Three things I should have brought…
• Three things I didn’t need to bring…
• Three things I didn’t expect…
• Three things I’ll never forget…
• Something I’d like to forget…

• Things I love about Russia (or any country)…

• Things I miss about the USA…
• Things that made me sad…
• Things that made me glad…

• A surprise
• A disappointment
• A moment of gratification
• A moment of annoyance
• A wish
• A hope
• A dream

• Advice I’d give to someone else traveling here…
• Advice for people traveling to America…

5. At the very end of the trip, set aside an evening just for reflection. You can do this in a hotel gathering place—a lobby or a floor lounge or even in someone’s room if it’s large enough. You can sit in a circle on the floor in the airport while you’re waiting for a flight. But don’t let the students disband without discussion and final assessments.

Here are some of my favorite final questions and some  answers from some of my Russia Travelers:

What do you admire about Russia?
• People who hadn’t met me brought me food.
• Their knowledge of their history. So many of our kids don’t care or know our history.
• The boatload of information coming out of nowhere whenever we walked anywhere.
• Nothing is wasted. We had leftovers for breakfast.
• Art and monuments everywhere. Even the bus stops on the way to St. Petersburg were mosaics!
• Walking arm in arm is okay.
• They don’t label people. They don’t make assumptions.
• Russians are more easy-going.
• Hard-working people working in their dacha gardens.
• The whole dacha thing is so mellow.
• They live so simply [at the dacha]. They get water from a well. They’re self-sufficient.
• I admire the desire to communicate. Her mother tried to talk to me in English.
• Sasha’s mother used a dictionary to communicate with me.
• Articulate, poetic answers.
• They appreciate their history. They are proud to be Russian.

What do Russians seem to value?
• Sit down dinners: They take pleasure in eating meals together. They take time to sit down even when something is on the schedule.
• Close-knit families.
• Friendships are really close—people go out of their way to help friends.
• Pride in their country, their city—it’s somehow different than American patriotism.
• You can be late here.
• Conversation at dinner.
• Pushkin—Even the bus driver could recite Pushkin by heart. We have nothing like it.

What do you realize Americans value?
• Convenience
• Independence
• Sanitation—you can drink water out of taps.
• Good roads
• Hot water
• Space
• Privacy
• Structure and schedules
• Laws and government: Taxes do help us—I understand that now.
• Direct answers.

What have you learned from your experience?
• Patience
• Independence
• Appreciation. I take things for granted at home.
• I’m okay. I can handle myself. Now I am not too scared to travel.
• People are people no matter where you are.
• A week [in the country] and all the girls were sitting together finishing each other’s sentences—people are the same everywhere.
• We were on the other side of the world, but we were at home.
• It meant the world when his father spoke to me in English.
• I learned I could do this. Growing up, I couldn’t spend the night at a friend’s…but I wasn’t homesick…here I am halfway around the world and I wasn’t homesick at all.
• I learned I can step out of my worrying self.
• I’m not the only person in the world.
• Everyone doesn’t speak English. We’re all the same, but the common barrier is communication…yet we found a way around it.
• Russians think America is so wonderful. I want to say, “Do you see where you live?”
• They haven’t sold out their culture. A fortress is next to a block of apartments. In America, “old” becomes a park you have to go to or it’s a space for advertising—it isn’t just a part of what’s there. Russians embrace their culture.

How will this experience affect you in the future?
• I’m not so scared to try something.
• I don’t have walls anymore…I knew this exchange would open doors…
• I have more confidence in myself now.
• I always hated cities before we came, but I learned I can’t be so close-minded. You just have to try it.
• This experience has made me stronger. I felt isolated sometimes, but I could get through it…if I could do this, I can do anything.
• I found my Russian family, but I feel like we were all a family.

What was the hardest part?
• Walking away.


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CRAM: A Whole Lot More than Fixing Computers

IMG_6541Literacy across the curriculum. Why is it so important? What does it mean for instruction? And what does it look like in a course like Computer Repair And Maintenance (CRAM, for short) where, as far as most people know, students just make repairs to the laptops their peers carry around and use every day?

When my district made the decision in 2011 to issue laptops to every high school student in the district, it was clear there had to be a way to maintain those computers. Hence, the CRAM class was born. Today, the CRAM classes at our two high schools enroll about 35 students each semester.

Interested students sign up for a two-hour block: One hour every day is given over to instruction. Students learn to troubleshoot problems, make simple repairs, configure the devices, install programs, and a whole lot more. The students are staggered throughout the day for that second hour in CRAM. That’s when they man the helpdesk. When students bring their laptops for repair, the CRAM students get hands-on experience with technology and they also build the interpersonal skills that are so critical for customer satisfaction.

But it’s the whole lot more that makes this class an example of what literacy across the curriculum is all about. I had the opportunity to observe my colleague’s CRAM class at my high school a couple of weeks ago. The students were making their weekly presentations about information they glean from reading about hot topics in technology. My colleague supplies the students with a list of tech websites and the students select articles of interest to them. Their assignment is to distill the information and update their peers in a brief, but formal, presentation. All of the students speak from a podium and use the ENO board to highlight the main points in what is really a professional roundtable discussion. Often, on the day I observed, they stepped away from the podium, and they all used gestures and facial expressions that complemented their remarks. They were highly articulate and spoke from a position of comfort and authority. Naturally, they managed the technology with ease. A speech teacher would have been proud.

The topics—mostly mysteries to me—included 5G (the coming standard for wireless), the Linksys wrt199ac wireless router, even a history lesson from a young man named Eric: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know about the Ethernet.” He included a poem he’d found, a parody of Housman’s “I Think That I Shall Never See”:

I think that we shall never see

A graph more lovely than a tree,

A tree whose crucial property

Is loop-free connectivity.

Their peers asked questions, made connections to prior discussions, debated the pros and cons of a particular issue. The questions from the students were serious and largely technical. When a presenter concluded, my colleague opened the floor for discussion.

James, for example, updated the class on AT&T’s mobile router. She–their teacher–asked, “How would you use this router?” and a discussion of its pros and cons ensued. Responses were immediate; there was none of the delay or reluctance to speak that sometimes happens in a class. These students were comfortable with the content and eager to share their thoughts.

An explanation of the Heartbleed bug was another topic. “Will it really destroy the internet?” asked my colleague.

“No,” said Bailey. “In terms of physical destruction, no. But loss of trust is the consequence of malware and Heartbleed and other viruses.” That’s a thoughtful reply and indicates the upper level thinking skills that conversations in this class demand.

The discussion wasn’t deadpan, though. Though they were always respectful and professional, these kids have a sense of humor: Tongue-in-cheek, one boy asked Jonathan about a piece of hardware he was touting in his report, “What color does it come in?”

“Carbon fiber black,” was Jonathan’s quick reply.

During these presentations, other high school students approached the helpdesk with their malfunctioning laptops. Whenever that happened, a designated CRAM student quietly removed himself from the discussion to service the client. He spoke in low tones, and the student needing help followed suit. IMG_6554

A week later, I returned to the class to observe the students, seated in a circle, conducting a formal discussion of net neutrality, a hot topic from the week before that had struck everyone as deserving more attention than a tech report. Their teacher (using a problem/solution format that was formerly utilized in an event called Discussion in National Forensic League speech competition) directed the students to outline the problem and the aspects of it that are unalterable, present a variety of solutions, and then select the best one. The discussion lasted for a full class period—in fact, it went over to the next day.

I was amazed by the range of the students’ remarks, by how aware they are of the world beyond high school. I heard them say

  • ISPs could starve out a website.
  • ISPs are more likely to target big businesses.
  • Let’s be frank here: The Supreme Court is an older generation and the justices don’t understand the impact they’re making.
  • This is kind of like gas prices: People notice, but the increases are gradual and people get used to it.
  • ISPs can affect not just our economy, but the global economy.
  • We need to create a new FCC.

There was much talk about customer bases, profits, Fortune 500 companies, and VPN workarounds—a connection several made to the Arab Spring and the way that protesters got around their countries’ internet blocks.

Each person presented what he felt was the best solution; others responded. One boy, for example, said that we ought to direct the FCC to call internet providers “common carriers.”

“But remember,” said another boy, “We want to connect to other countries.”

Another solution: “We should Install a VPN on every computer—then the ISPs can’t block anyone.”

And the response to it: “Pirates will break it.”

Finally, Bailey pointed out that web neutrality is a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted solution—a recognition that bespeaks maturity and a thoughtful, in-depth consideration of the issue. How often do even adults view an issue as black and white when really, whatever the topic under consideration, it’s complex? IMG_6552

In the end, their “best” solution was indeed a multi-layered one: Forming a Technology Standards committee, which would be made up of highly qualified IT professionals, that would have the power to create regulations, much like the FCC. It would receive its power to implement those regulations from the federal government. The committee would submit its proposed regulations to a public vote to ensure checks and balances. The first two proposed regulations would be a) creating more local ISPs to eliminate current ISP monopolies and b) developing standard tiered Internet usage guidelines to ensure a continued free exchange of information while allowing the ISPs to earn a profit.

Well, I was impressed. Who wouldn’t be?

The students considered the issue from multiple perspectives and arrived at a solution that addresses multiple concerns. This entire project is a demonstration of the kind of learning the new standards encourage: informed debate, reasoned responses, credible evidence. IMG_6549

Students come to the CRAM class with different levels of knowledge and experience. They receive elective credit for the course, and at the end of the year, they can choose to take a test over the skills they have learned: the CompTIA A+ Certification exam (the computer industry standard). Passing that exam yields an industry standard certificate that can lead to employment. Students can retake the class another year if they choose—the only problem is fitting it into their already crowded schedules. Nevertheless, next year students will be able to take an advanced class—Network II—that will culminate in an opportunity to demonstrate advanced career skills on the Comp TIA Network + Certification exam. At one of the high schools, because of a partnership with Vincennes University, students can receive dual-credit for both years of study.

“If only this had been possible when I was in high school,” remarked my colleague. “Potentially, our students can graduate with 8 college credits, two industry standard certificates, and two years of work-related experience.” IMG_6547

My colleague at the other high school explained a different benefit of the CRAM class: Students gain hands-on experience with laptops. “Many individuals in the IT world do not know how to repair laptops,” he told me. “In fact, our students gain experience that can lead to expertise in small device repair—like cell phones—that other technicians lack.”

He went on to list what he sees as the other top benefits of the CRAM class: Obviously, the certificates; definitely, the interpersonal skills. “Our students learn to communicate,” he told me. “They have to support others, and that means they have to communicate effectively.” IMG_6556

The newly-released Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects mandate the integration of reading, writing, and speaking skills in technical disciplines. The CRAM class is already equipping these aspiring IT and Computer Science experts not only with the technical skills and experience they need, but with the literacy skills that are so critical to success in post-high school coursework and in the workforce. CRAM is a whole lot more than computer repair: It’s real-world learning at its best.

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