Learning Never Ends: A Note for Teachers at the Beginning of the Year

On an early morning walk one day this summer when I was in Colorado, I came across a wildflower I’d never seen before—at least I thought I never had.  Actually, there were 3 or 4 of these bright, white flowers, all growing near one another, each about 10 inches tall with thick, alternating, jagged leaves running the length of the erect stems. Tiny 4-lobed flowers ended in what is called an inflorescence; that is, they opened like an umbrella at the end of the stem.

I had no had no idea what they were.

For a couple of reasons, though, I leapt to the conclusion that they were a kind of saxifrage.  But what kind?

I took a photo with my iPhone and even drew a sketch of the leaves and the umbrella and then, at home, spent some time looking at pictures of white flowers in several guidebooks. Discouraging. None of the possibilities was quite right. I was forced to face the truth all botanists know: Focusing on the flower is not enough.  I needed to pay attention to the leaves, the petals, the stamen, the ovary, etc. and tackle the wildflower identification key for the Western Slope.  And that meant relearning the language of botany. Identification keys use botanical terms, not common parlance. Just saying “the leaves are jagged” or “the flowers form a cap” is not precise enough. 

Working my way through the sorting system of the key, I quickly realized I was in the wrong family. What I was looking at was a mustard (Brassicaceae), not a saxifrage.

So it was a lengthy pursuit, but not without its rewards.

One morning while I was at this, sitting cross-legged on the roadside with my camera, the key, and a sketchbook, a doe came upon me in the course of her early morning saunter down the road. I was just below a little rise, so she didn’t see me until she was upon me. As soon as she did, she froze. When I reached for my phone, she moved to the side in an attempt to hide, then turned and bolted.

I love to come upon deer unexpectedly—and this one came upon me the same way. Her appearance on the hill above me sweetened the morning, just about the time I was thinking about quitting the search.

However, I continued to work on it bit by bit, but it was, in fact, several days later before I knew for certain what I had: a common wildflower called bittercress. Cardamine cordifolia is the botanical name.

My identification was confirmed by text in The Flora of Gunnison, Saguache, and Hinsdale Counties—a serious book that has no pictures whatsoever. The final identifying feature was this: According to the author of this definitive treatise on the wildflowers of these counties, the flower head is corymbose, meaning that the outer part of the umbrella matures first, giving the inflorescence a sort of flattened look. The leaves are heart-shaped (cordate), and I should add, sinuous-dentate or irregularly crenate.  That is, the leaves are wavy, but toothed, although those waves are sometimes rounded. 

Naturally, it wasn’t but a week later that I saw three huge stands of bittercress growing right where bittercress is supposed to grow: in wet places like under a culvert, near a trickle, or in a seep. The isolated patch I found that first morning had simply bloomed earlier than the rest, but now I know that bittercress is, as advertised, common.

Of course, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d just asked someone what this flower on my iPhone was—but that would have taken all the fun out of it.

And, I could have given up, thinking “Who cares? It’s just a flower and identifying it is taking so much time!”

And that, of course, is the connection to my life in an American classroom.

Learning is not always easy; it involves false starts, revisions, and consultations with teachers. It takes longer for some students than for others, depending upon prior knowledge, access to and availability of information, level of motivation, tolerance for frustration—and many other factors.

My wildflower identification quest reminded me that real learning occurs when the student is engaged with a task that is doable, yet involves a little struggle. Not so much struggle as to be impossible (I can read; I did know how to use the glossary to learn those botanical terms!), but challenging enough so the student is proud of her accomplishment.

And I remembered why it won’t do to just tell our kids the answer when they’re stuck. That not only robs them of the victory in the end, but deprives them of competence and real understanding. Instead, we have to plan and sequence our instruction so the students get the help they need—the identification key and the knowledge of how to use it—just at the time they need it.

And, of course, timing rewards that sweeten the whole experience but don’t extinguish the drive to finish.

Effective teaching, in other words, fosters a growth mindset. By engaging students, encouraging persistence, rewarding small victories, lightening the load at just right moment, supplying information in a timely manner—in short, by letting the student learn we teach them to value learning.

It sounds so easy.

It isn’t.

Because, as veterans know and new teachers soon discover, teaching involves learning, too.  Effective teaching isn’t something you master in a day, a month, a year, even in five years. In fact, if you’re open to it, the learning continues until the last day of your long career. Not because you’re weak, but because you’re strong. Because you aren’t defeated when something doesn’t go as planned. Because you’ve developed stamina and a can-do attitude. Because you’re engaged, you’re eager, and you’re open to the experience of others. Because you’ve got a growth mindset yourself.

Enjoy the quest!

The rewards are sweet.

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Summertime, Summertime

DSC00297A few of the new teachers I’ve coached this year approached me when school was ending to ask what they should do over the summer to prepare for next year. I started this list with suggestions for their professional task lists…and then I just couldn’t stop thinking about what else I’d recommend. Maybe I was dreaming about what I plan to do?

So first, the professional:

1. Assess your challenges and spend some time learning about these areas of instruction.  Is it an aspect of your curriculum—say, grammar—that you’re weak on?  Study up on that.  Is your repertoire of instructional strategies slim? Learn about some new ones.  Try Jennifer Gonzales’ The Cult of Pedagogy blog. Do you need to sharpen  your classroom procedures?  Read The First Days of School or THE Classroom Management Book by Harry and Rosemary Wong.  Polish the procedures you already have in place or think through some you haven’t nailed yet.

But a piece of advice: There’s no end to becoming a more effective teacher, so don’t overwhelm yourself with too many self-improvement tasks. Prioritize the aspects of teaching that you feel you need to improve upon, pick a couple, and concentrate on those.

2. Read the books that you’re going to teach.  Make margin notes.  Look for companion texts: poetry, essays, newspaper articles, non-fiction pieces that can accompany the book and broaden, deepen, intensify the students’ understanding. 

3. Read some professional literature.  Expand your understanding of the issues and developments in the education field.  

4. Join your discipline’s national organization.  That will give you access to current thinking in your subject area, to blogs by fellow teachers, to grant opportunities, to inspiration.

5. Speaking of inspiration: Dream—and look for the grant support to fund your project.  Here are a few sources:

Never written a grant?  You do have to plan ahead.  That takes time. Get your ideas together and call on someone experienced in grant writing to read over your proposal before you submit it.

6. Explore websites that you haven’t had time for.

7. Subscribe to a blog written by a teacher in your discipline.

8. Learn something totally new.  (As you learn, think about what it feels like to be a novice at something and let that inform the way you think about your students.)

And what else?  We’re more than what we teach.  (But if you’re like me, you always end up teaching what you’ve learned.  Or using the new in some way in the classroom.)

Any of these sound appealing?

  1. Get outside and enjoy the weather.  Walk, run, bike, swim.  Exercise clears the mind, creates space for new ideas.
  2. Read a book that has nothing to do with education.  Read many books.
  3. Watch the movies you couldn’t stay up to see during the school year.
  4. Reconnect with an old friend.
  5. Take a trip—even if it’s just an hour away. To your state capitol? A tourist destination? Go someplace you’ve never been.
  6. Try out new recipes.
  7. Visit a museum or an art gallery.
  8. Go to a game.  Hit the golf course.  Try river-rafting or kayaking.  Bike across Iowa (http://ragbrai.com/registration/)—or only as far as the next small town: Just ride.
  9. Spend time with your significant other.  With your kids.  With your parents.
  10. Camp out in the backyard.
  11. Write a letter—the old-fashioned kind—and send it to a friend.
  12. Write a professional article yourself.  Or start a blog.
  13. Figure out Twitter.  Or Instagram.  Or Google+.  Would any of them work for you? If you don’t like them, don’t do them.  But maybe one has possibilities—for you or for your class.
  14. Reorganize your Google Drive.  (This is the equivalent of cleaning your room, but it’s oh-so-satisfying after you’ve done it!)
  15. Subscribe to Austin Kleon (http://austinkleon.com/) or Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/) or another source of eclectic inspiration.
  16. Take pictures with a camera, not your phone.  Learn how it works.  Have fun experimenting!
  17. Try taking a picture of the same thing/place/person every day all summer long.  If it’s a selfie you’re taking, watch the stress melt away as the summer days go by.
  18. Take an art class.
  19. Grow flowers you’ve never grown before, veggies you’ve never eaten.
  20. Try a new restaurant.
  21. Visit your local Farmer’s Market downtown on Saturday mornings.
  22. Take your kids to the airport to see the planes fly in and out.  If yours is a small town, hurray!! You’ll get much closer to the planes than you do in a big city.
  23. Go on your own Genealogy Roadshow.  Start at your computer or a cemetery or by interviewing your relatives.  No matter where you start, this is a trip like no other!
  24. Listen to a Ted Talk.  A new one every day.  https://www.ted.com/talks
  25. Buy a journal.  Write one page every day.  Dismiss the English teacher on your shoulder.  
  26. Sew a dress.
  27. Make a table or refinish a piece of furniture.
  28. Try learning a new language.  Even just a few words.  https://www.duolingo.com/  
  29. Volunteer somewhere.  
  30. Go to a concert (especially one outdoors!)
  31. Ride a train somewhere. Or even the city bus.
  32. Broaden your perspective on the news. Subscribe to an online newspaper in another part of the country.
  33. Go on a picnic.
  34. Find the closest U-Pick and pick your own strawberries–or whatever is in season.
  35. Organize your old photographs in an album for your coffee table. Or make a photo book online.
  36. Visit a national park this summer.  Fourth graders go free this year!
  37. Organize a neighborhood yard sale.
  38. Donate your old books to the library–and check out some new ones while you’re there.
  39. Imagine you’re a tourist in your own hometown. Make a list of places to go. And then go there.
  40. Visit with a neighbor.
  41. Make a dinner for a friend who’s NOT on summer vacation.
  42. Help your kids set up a lemonade stand–and then donate the proceeds to a charity.

And on and on and on. There’s really no end to the things we could do, the places we could go.  Just enjoy the summer!

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Wicked Cool: Science in English Class

file_000-2“It was wicked cool.”

That’s how one 10th grade student at McCutcheon High School summed up the collaborative learning experience orchestrated by English teacher Jennie Ruiz and science teacher Chris Pfledderer.

Ms. Ruiz’ students had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the non-fiction account by Rebecca Skloot of the journey of the cancer cells taken by researchers at Johns Hopkins in 1951 from a living patient, Henrietta Lacks. These cells produced a medical breakthrough: For the first time, human cells grew successfully under laboratory conditions. The cells continued to grow in the lab, and samples were shared throughout the world, enabling scientists to conduct experiments they’d not been able to before. The cells still grow today, though Mr. Pfledderer explained that they’re no longer pure because of all the work that has been done with them. In fact, he said, other cells are more often used today—bacteria and insect cells—to conduct research, but the HeLa cells, as they are called (for Henrietta Lacks), were the first.

file_004-1-copyThe lab took two days to complete. On the first day, Mr. Pfledderer demonstrated the procedure for staining the HeLa cells so that they could be viewed under the microscope. He supervised as students dropped a suspension of cells onto a slide from a height of several feet, hoping that the force of the fall would break open the cell membrane and nucleus so the chromosomes would be available to stain. Then the students waited for the slides to dry. file_005-3

This may have been the hardest part of the experiment. Waiting, blowing gently on the slide, and resisting the urge to hurry the process taxed their patience. “We need a hairdryer!” I heard one boy say. (Never mind that the force of air would have spoiled the slide; the printed directions clearly stated that heat should not be used to hurry the process.)

When the slides were finally dry, Mr. Pfledderer explained, the students would dip the slides three times into Stain #1, wipe the bottom of the slide, and then dip it three times into Stain #2. Finally, the slide would be immersed in distilled water. Students would leave the slides on a counter in Mrs. Ruiz’ classroom to dry overnight.

file_007-2The next day, Mr. Pfledderer rolled a cart of microscopes into her classroom.  He reviewed the process of focusing the three lenses and reminded the students to move the slide—slowly—on the stage. “A tiny movement by you will be a giant move through the lens,” he explained.

Pairs of students grabbed microscopes and searched for outlets around the room. The English room rapidly became an informal lab as students placed their slides and searched for chromosomes.

“You won’t all get one,” Mr. Pfledderer had cautioned them the day before. “We hope some of you will.”

Hands waved, voices called out for the science teacher to look at the purple blobs the students discovered on their slides.

file_000-3“That’s a floating piece of cell membrane,” he told one pair.

“Just a blob,” he told another.

“Yep! That’s a chromosome!” he congratulated one duo. With that, other students flocked to see the chromosome on their slide. iPhones emerged from back pockets and purses as students took pictures by pressing the aperture of the phone to the eyepiece of the microscope. file_002-2

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman, and her cells were grown and distributed without her consent or her living family’s knowledge. That fact has spawned controversy, for not only are the cells famous, but biotech companies have profited from using them. Until Ms. Skloot wrote her book, the Lacks family had received none of the profit.

The case poses important ethical questions for science: What obligation do researchers have to obtain consent for tissue preservation and use? Who should benefit monetarily from discovery and invention? In other words, who should profit from scientific progress?

Laws, in fact, were different in the 1950s, so Johns Hopkins—which has since established a scholarship in Henrietta Lacks’ name—did nothing illegal. The cells from a living cancer biopsy had grown unexpectedly, miraculously even. The goal was scientific research, and the windfall cell reproduction eventuated in discoveries related first to the polio epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time and later benefitted research into leukemia, AIDS, chemotherapy and gene mapping, to name a few. In short, many modern advances in science and medicine are indebted to HeLa cells and thus, in the point of view of some, to Henrietta Lacks.

The question is a knotty one with no easy or practical solution. Rebecca Skloot, the author, has established a foundation to support education and other needs for Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

When the lab was over, Mrs. Ruiz asked the students to reflect on the experience. One student wrote, “To be honest, when I was looking at the cells, I didn’t think about the person behind them. I was just looking and feel like that is what the scientists were doing. They were just doing their jobs, like they did to all of the other cells in the lab.”

The student continued: “Yes, I believe that they [Henrietta Lacks’ family] should have gotten money because they were poor.” But, he asked rhetorically, “If they were rich, would you have the same feeling toward them not getting money?”

Another student wrote, “Doing this kind of made me feel bad because these cells once belonged to a woman who didn’t even know that people like 10th grade English students would be looking at her cells. Even though I felt bad about that, I still had a lot of fun and I think it was a very good learning experience. I also enjoyed how it connected English to science.”

And this entry: “I didn’t really understand what HeLa cells would look like until now. Would they look like normal cells? Would they look immortal? Monster like? Now that I have seen and witnessed HeLa cells, I know that they are just the same as yours and mine would be.”

Watching the lesson unfold, I could see that Mrs. Ruiz and Mr. Pfledderer had brought non-fiction reading to life and may even have sparked an interest in science that wasn’t there before. Students thought seriously and deeply about what they had read and experienced, and that is the goal of education. 

Wicked cool.

file_006-2

 

Night in Rwanda

Reading this post again today is chilling. If you are my former student–or even if you are not–what do you see? Do you remember? What can you do? Every voice matters.

In an American Classroom

2009.04.15 Honors 9 Pattern of Genocide 016I have taught Holocaust literature—Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Children of Willesden Lane—for many years. But I cannot teach these books in the way I usually teach literary works of art. Granted, these books are not fiction, so I am spared having to chart the plot line. I know there are motifs and images and definitely themes—but my point has never been, in teaching any of these accounts, to reveal the writer’s technique. Putting such a text under the microscope of literary analysis would distance the students from the story, and I want them to hold close the visceral response they all have when they read, say, Night. Discussing Wiesel’s imagery as if he had sat down deliberately to craft a work of art instead of to tell his horrifying story to an unconscious world would be—to my mind—a sacrilege. As story, his journey through…

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All in the Game

file_000“We need more letters!”

“We’ve got too many vowels!”

“Get consonants! Consonants!”

And with that, the 8th grader in the blue and gray PE uniform of her middle school jumped up, skipped to the center of the gym, picked up three more tiles and returned, skipping, to her group. The four students quickly employed the new letter tiles to complete their entry in this round of Bananagram Fitness.

My colleague at Wainwright Middle School, Mrs. Jessica Oertel, invented the game when she was a student teacher, assigned to a school where the gym was under construction. She needed hallway activities that could engage the students—and contain them—at the same time they practiced fitness skills.

The game works like this. Students are grouped randomly in fours. (Naturally, my colleague had a quick and easy strategy for that.) While the students sat on the floor in front of her whiteboard, Mrs. Oertel laid out the rules:

“You need twenty tiles, all underneath the cone in the center of the gym. When the music starts, skip to the center, do five curl-ups, and then take one tile. Skip back to your corner of the gym and put your tile in the cone at your place.  You have to do this five times. When you each have gotten five tiles, work together to create a bananagram that uses all twenty tiles.”

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She had the students repeat the instructions—always a good idea. 

“How many tiles does each person get?” 

“Five!” the students roared.

How many trips does each person make?

“Five!”

“How many total does each group have?”

“Twenty!”

“No text words, no names of people, no abbreviations. If you start with a long word, you’ll have more success than if you begin with something like cat. Words that are side-by-side have to spell a legitimate word in both directions—across and down.

file_005Need more letters? You can get them anytime, but you have to take three letters and you have to go through the routine again: Skip, curl-ups, skip.”

(In Round 2, the locomotion challenges switched to galloping and push-ups.)

Initially, Mrs. Oertel’s game was the product of necessity, but today, well into her second year of teaching, her objectives go beyond that.

For one thing, the Indiana Academic Standards (and the Common Core) call for all teachers—even teachers of physical education—to incorporate literacy into their classroom instruction. While some of those literacy standards—like writing an argumentative essay—have been waived for physical education, some remain. These largely concern the use of vocabulary and discipline-appropriate explanatory or informative writing, including the use of non-linguistic tools such as graphs, flowcharts, and diagrams. By basing the game on vocabulary and the rules of spelling, my colleague was honoring the directive from the state.

But Mrs. Oertel had another reason, too, for playing a game based on vocabulary. She believes that learning should be interdisciplinary. “We’re all a team here,” she said. “I want to help out with academic goals.”  Indeed, she has a game based on math problems that involves fitness and stations where kids solve math problems on a whiteboard before moving on to the next challenge and another game designed to draw on knowledge learned in social studies.  

She’s not alone in believing that interdisciplinary lessons bolster what students have learned in other classes. The standards for National Board Certified Teachers of Physical Education include as one criterion for excellence, collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines to creatively apply knowledge and skills taught in each other’s classes. As one example, the NBCT document on Standards suggests that PE teachers could reinforce the concepts of angles in basketball.

The game continued. The students were getting a workout, but they were having fun doing it.  At the start of the period, Mrs. Oertel pointed out the objective for the day. Vocabulary development was written right into it, but my colleague didn’t rob the game of its fun by dwelling on the literacy standard and making overt references to English class and prior knowledge. Certainly their competitive spirit was tapped, but honestly, the groups were so far apart on the floor they didn’t really know how far along the other groups were. They were more focused on the intrinsic reward of accomplishing the task than they were on winning. Mrs. Oertel accomplished her fitness goals—developing cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength and endurance—and her literacy goal, and she did it all with a game.

Looking for more ideas?  Here are two sources with a multitude of ideas for PE teachers on making physical education cross-disciplinary:

  • Check out this wealth of activities at supportREALteachers.org.
  • Read a Teacher Blog:  This NBCT educator writes regularly about instruction in her PE classes—including her strategies for interdisciplinary learning.   Here’s a specific example: PE Monopoly. 

When we were in middle school, my best friend Anne and I spent long hours playing that timeless basketball challenge, H-O-R-S-E, under the hoop mounted above her family’s garage. When we took a break, it was to pass even more hours sitting on the floor of her breezeway, inventing board games that were, essentially, variations on Monopoly, Parcheesi, and Clue. Now I know why those pastimes were so engaging. Games present students with a mental challenge, an opportunity for creativity, and in the case of H-O-R-S-E, a chance to release energy.

file_003Coming up with literacy activities or interdisciplinary games for PE is a challenge—and a PE teacher wouldn’t want to be interdisciplinary every day or be artificial about doing so, either.  H-O-R-S-E was fun—but sometimes I wanted to play basketball.

So, as with all things, there needs to be a balance. Mrs. Oertel seems to have it with Bananagram Fitness and similar games which kids in her PE classes play with genuine enthusiasm once in a while during a semester.

Now: How about warm-ups before a geography test? Running in place at the start of English? Touching toes five times at the end of Homeroom?

Helping Children Succeed: A Book Review

dsc00681The day after I posted my blog piece on the Maverick Launchthe program at my high school for at-risk freshmen, Paul Tough’s newest book, Helping Students Succeed, arrived on my doorstep. I read it in a single sitting and finished with a whoop!

This slim volume packs a big punch. Tough tells us what works to transform the lives of kids who are our biggest challenges: the unmotivated ones who can’t sit still—or pay no attention, don’t do homework, don’t use class time productively, disrespect adults, get into trouble. Constantly.

Yes. Those kids. The ones we suspect come from dysfunctional homes, from situations of poverty. In this book, Tough concentrates on the 51% of public school students in this country who are officially “low income.” Being poor makes it more likely that children will lack the nutrition and medical care they need to be healthy. Being poor means that books and summer camp and trips to museums will be missing from their lives. Being poor also increases the likelihood that these children experience extreme stress on a daily basis.

Tough is not talking about the kind of stress I experience when I am overwhelmed with papers to grade and lessons to plan and still have sixteen trips in the car for soccer lessons, swim meets, and parent conferences to make and have to stop at the grocery store, too. That’s temporary stress and I know it will end.

The kind of stress Tough is talking about is the stress of unpredictability: constantly changing addresses, shortages of food, abuse or neglect, a backdrop of drug or alcohol problems. He’s talking about traumatic stress, such as the markers delineated in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACES) conducted by physicians at the CDC and Kaiser Permanente from 1995-1997 with follow-up that is ongoing to this day. What this study has found is that traumatic stress experienced as a child correlates strongly with health-related problems in adulthood (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/).

That kind of stress has implications for learning, too. In children under the kind and amount of chronic stress in the ACES study, the development of the part of the brain responsible for “executive function”—things like memory, self-discipline, organization, impulse control—is disrupted. A child experiencing the stress of neglect or chronic hunger or the ramifications of divorce grows up processing life and school differently than children of privilege. If you are worried about food, scared of your dad, subject to the ill effects of your mother’s drinking, it’s hard to care about school. Life is grim and the future looks bleak.

To teachers, these kids seem unmotivated. They aren’t engaged with learning and they can’t seem to concentrate. They don’t plan ahead, so they don’t do homework, and if they do it, they forget to turn it in. Tests, to them at least, are confirmations of what they don’t know rather than demonstrations of what they do. They don’t respond well to punishment systems, but they don’t respond to positive incentive programs, either. They just don’t seem to care. No amount of pleading, cajoling, punishing, or rewarding seems to change them.

What Tough argues in his book is this: We have to change the environment. In fact, as he goes on to explain through examples of intervention programs that do just that, changing the environment is the best hope there is for changing the child’s trajectory.

Of course, as educators, we can’t change a student’s home life. The only environment we can change is the classroom.

Specifically, citing the studies of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, psychology professors at the University of Rochester, and the work of former teacher, Camille Farrington, an urban education policy expert, Tough discusses the elements that, when present, can turn these kids around, elements that—sustained long enough—can help these kids develop the character traits and positive mindset that the other 49% of the population developed by experiencing the stability of a safe home and a nurturing parent. In a way, the teacher has to become that nurturing parent—and provide a classroom environment that allows the student some degree of autonomy, a sense of belonging, a feeling of competency.

That means helping the child discover his own agency—that he is in fact in charge of his learning—and his life. That means providing a calm and predictable way of relating to the child and making him feel that he belongs in the classroom community. That means treating the child with respect—even when he’s out of line. That means fine-tuning instruction so that students are not defeated before they even start but at the same time are challenged—so that mastering a skill or learning a concept means something.

In other words, structuring learning for success but making sure it isn’t a hollow success. And then building on that success to achieve the next one. And the next one. Step-by-step, carefully and caringly taught, in the right environment these kids can thrive.

Of course, good teachers try to do these things every day, but, by the time kids growing up in adverse circumstances reach high school, attitudes have solidified. Learning problems may become behavior problems—if they haven’t already. That means dropping out is on the horizon and from there life only gets harder. Interventions like Maverick Launch (and the Raider Success Center at Harrison High School, our sister school) are literally life-savers. They’re worth every penny in terms of the individual students’ lives and they’re worth every penny in terms of averting probable future costs to the community, too.

This book is compelling reading. It’s a short book, but it’s packed with research-based ideas, illustrative examples, and general food for thought. It’s beautifully written, logically argued and deeply felt. It’s an excellent candidate for a book study by a faculty and I’d argue mandatory reading for all educators. Paul Tough is so devoted to this topic—so deep into trying to understand how best to help these students succeed—that his book is free and downloadable from his website. Go there today: www.paultough.com .

Museum Visits–Making Them Sticky

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in museums lately.  A few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The praise for this newest addition to the Smithsonian has been sky high, and it isn’t hyperbole to say the museum is spectacular.  By now, people know when they visit that their tour will start on the underground floors and progress in a spiral through 500 years of history—starting with the slave trade, traveling through all of American history, and ending on the top floors with a celebration of African-American accomplishments and triumph.  As a friend of mine who was with me that day said, “You are sick to your stomach, then tearful, and then you feel like dancing.”

The Museum is huge, vast in its scope, deep in its detail. I started by taking notes of things I didn’t know, not realizing I could take pictures on my phone (of most exhibits). But by the time I reached Jefferson, I couldn’t take notes anymore. There was simply too much information. I took a few pictures, but even that mode of recording information was inadequate to the task. I kept going, through the Civil War, through Reconstruction, through early 20th century. And then I reached the Civil Rights movement–the time period I remember, know something about personally.  And still, the explosion of information overwhelmed me. There was so much I didn’t know.

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Aware that I wouldn’t be back for a long time, I wanted to take everything in, skip nothing, but museum fatigue set in. I’d already spent five hours and only had a little time left. I’d been admonished not to miss the top floors, so in my remaining hour, that’s where I headed. Thank goodness, for even though I skimmed the exhibits there, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the jubilation at the top.

When teachers take their students to museums, they usually don’t have six hours–even if the field trip is to Washington D.C. and they’re staying several days.  Maybe brevity is a good thing because museum fatigue (a real phenomenon–not just a term I made up) would set in well before the six hours I stayed.

Coming away from a museum like this one with an overall impression (as in my friend’s summation about revulsion, empathy, and joy) is important in itself, of course. Context matters. But to make the memory “sticky,” it’s important to personalize the experience in some way.  If you’ve ever been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., you remember how visitors receive an identity card when they enter. At the end of their visit, they find out what happened to the person they’ve become as they’ve experienced the Holocaust.

This isn’t possible in the African-American History Museum–slave records are incomplete and depersonalized and the time span (500 years) is too long for this same strategy–but objects,  events, and even concepts can become personal.  Here are some ways that can be done–for this museum or any other.

  1. If you’re doing a study of African-American history in your classroom ahead of time, have each student choose a specific event, a particular individual, or an important topic to “specialize” in. Then, at the Museum, the student’s mission will be to find the exhibit where that event or that individual or that topic is depicted. The task will be to pause for a significant amount of time in front of it (or interact with it) and take notes, even pictures (if pictures are allowed).Upon returning to the classroom, students report out–orally or in writing–about “their” exhibit. What new information was learned? What displays or pictures or graphics brought the information to life? Was it covered more deeply–or less so–than the student had covered it? How did it relate to exhibits around it? Were there other events or people that were similar?                                                                                                                                      bombing-of-birmingham-church
  2. If you’re not studying African-American history ahead of time, go to the Museum website (https://nmaahc.si.edu/) before you visit the Museum itself.  Have students click on Museum Collections and choose an area of interest.  Objects in the collection are cataloged by topic, date, place, name and object type. By expanding the information on any one of the thousands of items in the collection, students can see if that item is on display and the location of the object in the Museum. To make this more than a scavenger hunt, have the student prepare an oral or written report on exactly what the item was, how it was used, to whom it belonged and how it was situated in the exhibit. In other words, ask them to explain the context of the item.

One of the most successful museum visits I ever made with students was to an exhibit in 2001 to the Indianapolis Museum to see “Gifts to the Czars,” a collection of dazzling items that had been brought to the Russian czars by ambassadors from around the world from 1500 to 1700. The items were treasures from the Armory Museum in Moscow. I brought students to this museum to prepare them for reading Animal Farm–to contrast the opulence and luxury of palace life with the squalor and deprivation peasants faced in pre-Revolutionary Russia. No amount of my say-so was as effective in conveying the richness of the Russian Empire as the bejeweled gold and silver pieces, the inlaid and encrusted objects that were taken as mere gifts to the czars.  

3. At the Museum, I asked students to find one object in the exhibit that intrigued them, pause in front of it for at least 5 minutes, and with words and sketches, capture the detail they saw.  In the collection: sabers and swords, shields, textiles, horse trappings, an empirical eagle with a tray for holding the czar’s crown, a Baroque basin, serving dishes and wall decorations. Something of interest for everyone.  The temptation today would be to take a cell phone picture, but it is the 5 minutes of close visual inspection that made the assignment work. Five minutes is an awfully long time for a 9th grader, but the longer they looked, the more they saw. The follow-up to this assignment was a creative writing piece, based on the known facts, and a map showing the route the ambassador would have taken from his home–say, Istanbul or Stockholm–to Moscow at that time. 

A similar activity could be done in any museum, but the temptation to take a cell phone shot and move on would have to be overcome. As I recall, I had to approach the 5-minute rule as a challenge to my students. Could they do it: Hold still for 5 minutes? (Click here for the original assignment.)

A side note: When a few of those same students went to Russia with me a year or so later, we visited the Armory Museum.  Some of the items they’d identified were back on display there. Students who found “their” object were genuinely excited!

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In any event, the point is this: To heighten the impact of a museum visit, find a way for the students to identify with the exhibit you are taking them to see.  Years later–and even on the spot–the time spent in any museum can be just a blur, but if the student–or the teacher–heads into it with a personalizing assignment in mind, that at least will stick–long after the overall impression has faded.

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

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Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition.  Once more, the holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world.  Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies, and I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office so another of you could give me a shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town. One of you approached me in an airport and went on to describe your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other troubled spots around the globe. Recently, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization.

Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another, a school principal. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and several of you are college professors. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, another a personal secretary to someone in Germany. A graphic artist and a web designer, a journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and fire fighters, automobile sales people and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and a welder I just “met” again this week. Receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and teachers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and physicians’ assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

But all of you, all day long, make the world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.