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.

Posted in Career and Technical Education, Education | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Sacred Valley: Peru, 2009

Summer is fast approaching. Teachers who are traveling abroad with students next month are checking their lists and making last minute tweaks to their travel plans at the same time they are winding down the school year. In 2009, I traveled to Peru with a colleague who was doing just that. She and her husband had recently inaugurated a short-term travel abroad program called HOST–for Hands-on Spanish Travel. The program was a cultural and linguistic immersion experience–we stayed with host families in Lima–and it was a service learning-based program, too–we worked in an orphanage that year. Today, HOST partners with high schools and colleges in the US, offering study abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas and in Spain. I savored every moment of that trip to Peru, but this day in the Sacred Valley was especially memorable.

sm vendorAt every turnout where the bus stopped on the journey to Pisac and at the top of the mountain we’d descend to reach the market at Pisac, as if to warm us up, to whet our appetites for buying, to prepare us for the panoply of choices available there, full-skirted women wearing brown felt hats and red wool jackets, long black braids down their backs and dancing black-eyed children with adoring, pleading, coaxing voices sold us water and water bottle holders, beaded strings for our sunglasses, chullos and whistles and musical instruments. No end to the items they offered, no end to our need for novelty, no end to our need not to disappoint…

sm Pisac TrailCemetery holes in lacy, eroded hillsides, precursors of those we had seen in the hillside in Lima… delicate yellow wildflowers holding their own in dry, vast space…terraces and granaries where Incan farmers long ago worked out the exact altitude at which to grow each of the varieties of corn and potatoes…Incan walls, stones set to withstand earthquakes and the destruction of men…steep stone steps cut into the earth, staircases of them, one after the other, meant to ease the descent—or the climb—but not for us: legs the wrong length, bodies unused to the effort, the altitude, the sun. But exhilarating nonetheless, the walk to Pisac. Accomplishment. Activity. Away from crowds and buying and selling and tasting. Shared venture.

sm 10 child with orangeA rest, a respite: a pig roast, freshly baked bread, a mother teaching her child to take stitches, another black-eyed child sucking on an orange turned inside out. A stroll through the market and frenzied buying. This time the bigger items: blankets and shawls, t-shirts, carved animals, leather pouches and silver bangles. For me: bits of cloth glued on white cardboard, woven designs in black on rust, subtle patterns…

sm 10 girl in pinkOur guide, Nilo, prepares the students for their long walk up the steps to Ollantaytambo’s fortress. I photograph a winsome little girl in pigtails dressed in filthy pink pants and winter jacket. She speaks a little English, knows enough to ask for a sol in exchange for her picture. Who is exploiting whom here? We’re both complicit. But I want the picture and I don’t need the sol. Later, I spend the rest of my soles on straps for walking sticks. A strange request, it seems to the vendor…straps but no sticks. Coming home from Rwanda with sticks, I had to lay them on top of my suitcase and shrink wrap the whole thing…or else pay $300 in excess baggage fees. No thanks. Not again. Just the straps.

sm 10 walls as shopsAnd then a walk down a cobbled lane where even the walls had become shops, a peek into one family’s store where the grandson charmed us and we looked at the sweaters and shawls hung on the walls and laid in piles on a table. A shop bare but for that table, the mother and grandmother seated cross-legged on the floor, weaving. Two granddaughters, yet to learn the skill, the boy to learn what? To market it all? Another craft? A trade? Weaving was in the bloodline, “as old as the sun,” the grandmother told Lee Ann. She bought a loosely woven sweater; I took a photograph of them all.

Boys playing in sand, covering their toes and shaking their feet loose; lace curtains at a doorway, shoes on the threshold. A Mototaxi—more than one—coming up the street from the train station at the end. We’d see the station itself the next day on our way to Machu Picchu. A decoration on top of a house—a bird’s nest of symbolic animals and flags and twigs all laced together to bring happiness and good luck to the marriage. Men coming home from work, sacks slung over their backs, their wives or sweethearts beside them and sometimes their children scampering along, too, escorts back to the town. For us, a surprise in the other direction: an oasis in Ollantaytambo: Hotel Pakaritampu, an orange adobe inn—La Casa del Amanecer—luring us in…the gardens, artful and opulent mounds of bright flowers, paved sidewalks inviting us to follow to an airy, modern, uncluttered front desk…an agradable ambiente…we should keep it in our memories forever…a destination for a weekend, an escape for the mind…

sm 10 sunsetAnd then, the sunset, the final glory of the day. White-capped Chicon Mountain in the background, jagged brown peaks like teeth snapping the sky, the sun on the landscape, brilliant orange, the fields looking almost like sand. A woman and her dog, their backs to us, traverse the field, return for the night. Two men are crouched over cloths and bundles spread on the ground. We settle in for the long, dark bus ride back to Cusco. End of the sacred day.

What you have given me…

Thank you, Lee Ann








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Jumpstarting a Career

MilesHarrisonMiles, who impressed me as being someone a great deal older than seventeen, someone far beyond high school, stood confident and poised before three of his bosses, his teacher, and me. He was explaining the computer inventory system at the USDA Soil Erosion Lab (housed on the Purdue University campus) that it is his responsibility to maintain. Miles is a senior in high school, earning six credit hours this year through on-the-job training combined with career preparation classes at school. Here is what he does during the on-the-job component of his Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program:

• Inventories the computers
• Installs and updates anti-virus software
• Installs the script that automatically updates the inventory of computer hardware
• Maintains an intranet website (which he developed) for use by all groups and individuals at the Soil Erosion lab
• Logs the usage of the fleet of vans the facility operates

He works from noon to about 4:00 PM every day as an I.T. intern, a job he found through the I.C.E. program at his high school. State guidelines mandate that I.C.E. students work a minimum of 15 hours a week; some work much more than that.

His friend works nearby at the USDA Livestock Behavioral Research Unit. Sometimes Nestor is handing piglets, and sometimes, seated in high back, cushioned, faux leather chair, he enters research data into a computer, analyzes that data, and confers with the senior researcher who is his supervisor about what the data reveals. Nestor is an I.C.E. student, too.

Recently I accompanied the I.C.E. teachers from the two high schools in my district on their rounds of local businesses and institutions where their students are employed. The students’ jobs could be in any one of sixteen career clusters that include finance, childcare, health systems, and manufacturing among others.

P1040427Besides the two facilities mentioned above, I visited a chiropractic office where Alyna works the front desk. She greets patients, answers the phone, prepares the day’s schedule, processes payments, and enters patient data into the computer system. At a Ford dealership, I watched Jordan and Andrew rotate tires on a truck. They also do oil changes and other routine procedures and even occasionally are assigned to do a brake job. At Dairy Queen, Ariana talked to me about her responsibilities as a crew leader, and at the end of our conversation, she served her teacher and me a chocolate dipped cone (my treat).

About ninety students in the two high schools combined take advantage of the I.C.E. program every year. They are kids who have a strong work ethic, have maintained good grades and a good attendance record at school, and have an interest in a specific career field—or think they do. Working half-days while they’re in high school gives these students a chance to explore a career field and find out if it’s really for them—before they’ve committed time and money to a post-graduate training program. They earn money while they work, and they interact with adults and develop the kinds of job skills—like responsibility, punctuality, and teamwork—that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future.

Some students already have a job when they enroll in I.C.E., and several told me they found it through networking. Others turn to the teacher, whose challenge is to match the students with their career interests. That was the case for Miles, the I.T. intern, and for Nestor, the student working at USDA. While talking to Nestor, his teacher discovered that he had a love for animals, so she contacted USDA, which had a position just right for his interests and talents.

Teachers supervise students employed at banks and daycares, in residence halls at Purdue, and for trucking companies. I.C.E. students work for veterinarians, in restaurants, for major manufacturers, in health care facilities, and for construction firms. In short, they’re everywhere.

I saw six of these kids on the job, and one commonality I observed is this: They all have uncommonly good communication skills. Each of these students was articulate, poised, and comfortable talking to me. The topic was one they knew well. They were all proud of their ability to do their job and eager to share their experience. They exhibited none of the awkwardness kids often display in speeches they give in English class. “I’m really shy,” Alyna told me, “but this job has taught me how to talk to people.” Indeed, she seemed quite at ease as she checked clients in and took payment from others in the clinic where she worked.

Being able to communicate with team members is even more important than being able to talk to someone like me about the program. Jordan stressed that when he talked about working with a crew in his bay. “You have to know when and how to ask for help. You don’t want to look stupid, but you’ve got to know when to ask for help so you don’t screw up.”

Miles explained that he has to communicate with people from a variety of cultures for whom English may or may not be the native language. English sometimes isn’t even the language of the software these scientists use, yet it is Miles’ job to facilitate the efficient use of the computers. Miles has to communicate effectively with all of the researchers and employees at his facility; his job is not just about installing software or fixing glitches.

Another commonality: These students are all developing the critical thinking skills that are essential to success in any endeavor. Whether it’s figuring out a software installation problem, working in tandem with a crew, or listening to a patient’s problem and scheduling appropriately, the students have to make judgment calls. That takes confidence, and it is confidence that these students are building through their on-the-job training.

Often the students take introductory courses early in their high school years and then, as seniors, pursue employment and the career exploration study that I.C.E. involves. Their experience often translates into a post-high school position. Jordan, for example, is out of high school now. He just happened to be on the job and a member of Andrew’s crew the day I visited the Ford dealership. Jordan explained that he had taken the automotive technology courses offered in high school, spent his senior year in the I.C.E. course, and now is employed half time while he attends advanced classes in Automotive Technology at our community college.

“I got hired at 17 because I was in the I.C.E. program,” he told me. “It made me more competitive than other people.”

P1040425The I.C.E. experience doesn’t always lead to a career in the same field. Andrew, for example, is planning to switch fields and become an electrician. But his employment in the automotive industry has clarified his career goals. “Not only that,” he said, talking to me while he worked on the truck’s tires, “the job has given me life skills.”

Ariana said the same thing. I asked her what the benefit of the I.C.E. program—in her case, working at Dairy Queen—has been. After all, she’s already enlisted in the Army and is on a trajectory to become a “multiple launch rocket systems specialist.” Dairy Queen seems some distance from that career pathway. She was quick to reply. “It’s taught me responsibility,” she said. “And discipline. Especially discipline.”

While their teacher grades their classroom work, which involves formal standards-based study of topics such as financial literacy, legal issues, and ethical behavior—all of which are tied to SCANS foundational skills—it is the employer who assesses the students on a quarterly basis and issues a performance grade. That grade is reality-based. After all, these jobs are for real, and the employers have customers and clients whose satisfaction is paramount.

I don’t think people in general know much about programs like I.C.E. High school students—at least those not involved in the I.C.E. program—typically think I.C.E. is just a way to get out of school in the afternoon. Admittedly, some of the students I talked to were not wild about the traditional high school setting—sitting in desks, listening to teachers, learning from books—and vastly prefer the “hands-on” experience they enjoy with I.C.E. But not one of the students I interviewed said that getting out of school early was a motivating factor in joining the program. Their responses were much more mature than that.

In Miles’ case, one benefit was the glimpse he’s had of the level of education needed in and beyond college for the various positions that exist in Information Technology. He’s developed a practical understanding of the distinction between training in Computer Information Technology and schooling in Computer Science. “Enrolling in I.C.E is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he told me.

In fact, that’s what they all said.

These days we hear a lot about preparing our students to be “College and Career Ready.” The Common Core and other standards systems are heavy on the college part, but we don’t hear much about the career side of the equation. I.C.E. is an exception. These students are indeed ready to launch their careers—and that means both post-high school training (the college side) and post-high school employment (the career side).

I.C.E. isn’t for everyone, but neither is the traditional 4-year program for everyone. Students like Miles, Andrew, Alyna, and the others are ready for the responsibilities of employment in their chosen fields, and they’re jumpstarting their careers by enrolling in I.C.E.

I have to wonder if a lot of other kids are missing the boat by not taking advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

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Looking to Learn

IMG_1120The students—sophomores in high school—had just finished a unit on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had seen Hotel Rwanda, completed activities that taught them about the stages of genocide, and visited the recently released United Nations Rwanda commemorative site.

Now it was my turn.

Since I have been to Rwanda several times, their teacher asked me to visit the class as a guest speaker and bring a new perspective: Rwanda after the genocide. The students wanted to know, and she wanted them to learn, how a country recovers from such devastation.

She had another motive, too: A veteran educator, she knew well that student teachers benefit from seeing more than one teacher in action and from developing a repertoire of instructional strategies before they’re released to fly on their own. Her student teacher would be present, would observe the lesson, and would present it herself at the end of the day when I could no longer be there.

I jumped at the opportunity to talk about Rwanda, but I didn’t just want to talk about my experiences. I wanted to try out a strategy that the student teacher—any teacher—could use, not just that afternoon, but for another topic in another time and place.

I had gone to Rwanda in 2006 to study the genocide there, to see if I could discern a pattern in the genocides of the 20th century. Indeed, I did discover a pattern, and that informed my own instruction in the years after that (See my post Night in Rwanda). I have returned twice since then to support a non-profit organization, Every Child is My Child, in its mission to provide secondary school scholarships for students who pass the national exam at the end of 6th grade. (See Educating Every Child). The route to recovery is through education. Although Rwanda now sends 96% of its children to primary school, education that ends at 6th grade does little to lift a country from a culture of subsistence farming to a competitive position in the global community.

So my objective for the lesson was to point the students in that direction: to understanding that education brings opportunity—for the individual student and for their country.

The students were clustered around square tables, four to a group, perfect for the activity I’d devised. For each table I’d put together a folder that contained a fact sheet about Rwanda (facts and statistics culled from the Internet), a map of Africa, a map of Rwanda, and two sets of photographs. Set A contained 10 pictures I’d taken as a tourist, and Set B included 6 photos I’d taken in Rwandan classrooms. I’d carefully chosen them for their power to evoke questions, then copied each one ten times on my printer and laminated the lot so they could be used again. Indeed, three sections of sophomores would be handling those pictures. I wanted them to be intact by the end of the day and useable again another year.

My colleague introduced me, gave the kids a little background on my current role and my visits to Rwanda, then turned the lesson over to me.

Before class, I’d written these seemingly random words on the board: gorillas, subsistence farming, genocide, coffee, telecommunications, and $350. I asked if anyone in the class could explain the connections between and among the words. I knew the students could talk about the genocide, but I wasn’t surprised that no one ventured a guess about the other words and how they might be related to that ominous one.

“So,” I started, “let’s begin by locating Rwanda on the map. The smallest country in Africa (with the densest population) and a poor one, Rwanda is hard to see. “Find Lake Victoria and then slide your finger to the left just a little way.” Found!

The students noticed not only the diminutive size of the country, but that it was landlocked—surrounded, except for its sister country, Burundi—by much larger countries. Then we looked at the companion map, the one of Rwanda itself. Inverted V’s indicated mountains, and someone spotted the volcanic region in the northwest corner. “What’s that all about? Isn’t Africa all desert and savanna?”

I asked them to skim the information on the fact sheet, but as I knew, an array of statistics is not particularly engaging. Stats only make sense when you have something to hook them to. That’s where photographic Set A came in. The students passed the 10 photographs around the table, looking, as I’d directed them to do, for anything that seemed unusual or interesting. After they’d examined the pictures and remarked to each other about what they saw, we began examining the pictures one by one.

IMG_0151The first was of those volcanoes and another was of a gorilla I’d seen. The pictures gave me an opportunity to talk about the movie Gorillas in the Mist and Dian Fossey–some had seen that film or knew of her work–and explain that the gorillas are Rwanda’s major tourist attraction, but that access to them is limited. Only a few people a day can see the gorillas so they don’t become habituated to humans. The country is not going to grow rich through tourism alone.

Another photo was of the countryside–hill after hill, all of the land, every square inch, cultivated: subsistence farming. We talked about what that means, not just in terms of a country’s GDP, but for a family, for the kids, for education. While 90% of Rwandans are involved in agriculture, the country still must import food. In our county here in Indiana, farming is big business, but in the pictures from Rwanda, there were no silos, no tractors, and no cultivators. People use hoes and machetes and pull every weed by hand. Then the students remembered the machetes in Hotel Rwanda and the Hotel Mille Collines–a thousand hills.

A picture of coffee plants and a woman harvesting beans: “Yes,” I was able to tell them. “Coffee is cultivated in Rwanda—and tea—and their coffee is delicious. Starbucks sometimes features it. But look at those great big countries around Rwanda: Kenya, Tanzania, and farther north, Ethiopia. Coffee grows there, too.”

“Oh. Rwanda can’t compete at that level.”

IMG_1123They were beginning to make connections. I continued to build a portrait of the country one photograph at a time by answering the students’ questions about what they saw. A market scene. A child on the road toting water. A parade of people on either side of a paved road, all of them walking in one direction or the other, all of them headed somewhere—on foot. A man hauling an enormous bunch of bananas to market on a bicycle–a bunch so big it threatened to tip the bike at any moment. It took all the man’s energy to guide his bicycle and keep it upright.

Then a picture taken in the city from the front seat of a car. It looked like I was trying to capture the billboard–an advertisement for tomato sauce–but “No,” I told the students. “Look at what’s behind it: a cell phone tower.” Rwanda is a telecommunications leader in Africa.

“Smart leaders,” I said. “They looked around after the genocide and realized there’s no land left to expand into, and even encouraging commercial farming wouldn’t be enough to transform the country from a subsistence culture. Even if they could revolutionize farming methods, it wouldn’t be enough.” After the genocide, the leaders puzzled out the problem and realized “We can’t expand our territory, but we can develop our human capital and become leaders in telecommunications.”

And so recovery began.

Foreign aid made it possible. However, for a country to fully recover, it is going to take an educated populace. And that’s where Set B, the pictures taken inside Rwandan classrooms, and the $350 came in. The pictures revealed a stark environment: no textbooks, no bulletin boards, and no alphabet pictures arrayed on the walls. The students shared desks, numbered at least 40 in that room, and had written everything that was on the board in their copybooks. Those were their 06.2011 Rwanda 086texts. What my students rapidly discerned, though, from a picture of the problems on the blackboard, was that the kids in this 6th grade classroom were not so far behind 6th graders here in our district. Those were multi-step arithmetic problems on the board.

So what was the $350?

The cost of a year of secondary school.

Rwandan families–and children in Burundi and so many other countries in Africa and around the world–can’t afford $350. “Look at the fact sheet. The average income for an individual is about $560. Even if two people brought in that much money apiece, it wouldn’t stretch far enough to send a child to school.”

Rwanda is ahead of other developing countries by mandating that children attend school through 9th grade, but village schools only accommodate students that far. After that, students must attend boarding schools and pay that $350 for tuition, books, mattresses, and transportation.

Until Rwanda is financially stable enough to provide a free public education through high school, only a small number of students can continue every year. Only a few of them are lucky enough to be supported by organizations like Every Child is My Child. Until village schools are built for secondary students, few families will be able to do without the very real help their children provide. Secondary education for everyone is coming, but it’s going to take time and the continued support of the international community.

The high school students understood: Education is the path to recovery. Developing countries need people with the know-how to work not just in telecommunications, but in health care and commercial agriculture, and as entrepreneurs, developers, specialists in tourism, road builders, retail store owners, teachers…

Rwandans are looking to learn.

As for the lesson I was modeling, it worked well and the student teacher was able to replicate it on her own at the end of the day. The strategy of guest “lecturing” through looking at photographs and answering questions generated by the students themselves would work for any country whether the teacher had been there or not. Images abound on the Internet. For visual learners, seeing is understanding, and for the kinesthetic learners, actually handling the photos made a big difference. Projected images would have been bigger, but something about examining a photo up close makes the content personal.

Judging from the exit cards the students filled out, the objective was more than met. They were thoughtful in their comments about what they had learned, and I discovered that the lesson had worked in ways I had not anticipated.

I hadn’t said it, not once, but one girl wrote: “I learned that we should be grateful for what we have.”

I was gratified she’d learned that on her own.


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Becoming Hemingway–or at least Improving Your Prose

P1000007A new app for writers emerged last week: the Hemingway app.

Hemingway, of course, was famous for his spare writing style: straightforward language, short sentences, action verbs, and not so many adjectives. A simple style, some say.

I have to say, the app is fun, and running a few of my own paragraphs through the program verified that doing so is a quick way to detect overuse of adverbs, instances of passive voice, and any long, confusing sentences that would be better broken apart. These are writing problems that result in convoluted sentences.

Theoretically, if you eliminate those three problems in your writing, you’ll approach Hemingway’s plain, terse style. Although there’s more to being Hemingway than that, it would be instructive and possibly amusing for students studying The Old Man and the Sea or A Farewell or Arms or any of Papa’s short stories to put their own prose through the Hemingway app’s paces.

But if your students use Word—or if you do yourself—here’s a way to use Word’s grammar checker to challenge students to improve their prose—and address more issues than the three mentioned above.

When the grammar/spell check finishes, Word reports the writer’s “stats.” Many of these counts (e.g., number of words, number of words in a sentence, number of sentences in a paragraph, number of characters in a word) can be used instructionally. For instance, you can challenge students to write longer sentences—so that average sentence length increases–or to use words with more than one syllable so that the average number of characters in a word increases.

There’s also a way to use those stats to help a student lift the entire level of the paragraph or essay he has written. The next to the last score that Word reports is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability score, a measure of the reading level of the text. You do have to caution students about this score. The Flesch-Kincaid score is the reading level of their writing, so a Flesch-Kincaid score of 4.5 means that a fourth grader in the middle of the year could read and understand what has been written, not that the student is writing “like a 4th grader.” (You also have to caution them not to take the score too seriously.)

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is a variation on this theme. A slightly different score, the Reading Ease number indicates just how comfortably the text can be read. The higher the number, the easier the text supposedly is. Secondary students shouldn’t aim for 90, though, because then their writing would be suitable for small children. The easy reading range for 13-15-year-olds is 60-70, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

To begin, you’ll need to enable the readability statistics reporting function on Word’s grammar checker.
File > Options > Proofing
• Check the box that says “Show Readability Statistics.”
• Just below that box, a drop-down menu says ” Grammar.” Change that to “Grammar and Style.” (The grammar checker will be much more useful overall if “Grammar and Style” is the default.)
• Click “OK.”

If you have emphasized some specific writing strategies in your instruction—like sentence combining or the use of transition words—you can challenge your students to apply those strategies to their own writing. These instructional strategies are, in my experience, the most effective ones for elevating the reading level of a piece of writing using Word’s grammar checker:
• Combining sentences with coordinating conjunctions (i.e, creating compound sentences)
• Combining sentences using semi-colons
• Using colons correctly
• Combining sentences with subordinating conjunctions (i.e., creating complex sentences)
• Adding transition words and phrases
• Adding adjectives and otherwise elaborating
• Using words of more than one syllable

What follows is a series of paragraph revisions. The original paragraph was one I fabricated, but you could use a real student’s work to demonstrate this revision method for your students—or try this out with something you’ve written. The number at the end of each paragraph revision is the Flesch-Kincaid readability score for that rendition):

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football. I like to play basketball. I do not like baseball, though. It is too slow for me. I also like fast cars. I have three sisters. They can be real pains sometimes but sometimes they are a lot of fun. We have a good time during Christmas vacation. We live in a house on a big hill so we slide on the hill a lot. We also have a pond on our property. We go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 2.1

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football and basketball, but I do not like baseball. It is too slow. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. I have three sisters who can be real pains sometimes, but sometimes they are a lot of fun. For example, we have a good time during Christmas vacation. Since we live in a house on a big hill, we go sledding whenever there is enough snow. We also have a pond on our property, so we go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 3.2

Hello! I am Jose Carter, a 7th grader at Any Middle School where I am on the football and basketball teams. I do not play baseball, though, because it is a slow sport, and I like speed. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is snow, my three sisters (who can be real pains sometimes) and I enjoy this activity very much. We also like ice-skating, which we also do whenever the pond on our property is frozen. 4.3

Let me introduce myself: I am Jose Carter, also known as “Speedy.” I am a 7th grader at Any Middle School and a proud member of the football and basketball teams. I have considered playing on the baseball team, too, but I really do not enjoy that sport because it is so slow-moving. You can probably tell from reading this that I like speed, and thus, as you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is enough snow, my three sisters and I, through repetitive runs down that hill, are able to create a thrillingly slick track. We also enjoy ice-skating on the pond on our property; once again, we carefully groom the ice so that it remains slick and we can travel fast across the frozen surface. 5.2

Using the grammar checker to improve writing can go beyond just checking for spelling errors, comma usage, capital letters, and subject-verb agreement problems. Some students will rise to the challenge of using it to revise their sentences, and they’ll make multiple revisions. But even reluctant revisionists will see improvement in their writing with just one or two attempts.

The grammar checker won’t cure everything—no more than the Hemingway app will turn our students into Hemingway—but such programs have the appeal of games, and a lot of kids like that.

Give it a shot yourself.

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