Thanksgiving: For My Former Students


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 this 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 Cubs, 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. Receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists.

And these are the ones of you I know about.

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 football jerseys, 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 the universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

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Each One Unique

Uzbek and American students

American and Uzbekistani students with their teachers at McCutcheon: November 1, 2001.

Throwback Thursday, I guess. This post is about an event that occurred in 2001 when exchange students from Uzbekistan visited my high school. I recently found this story on an old CD of Word files, and the pictures, in a box full of those I’d removed from the bulletin board when I left the classroom. I’d forgotten this story about Jason (His name has been changed), but reading it again evoked the same response I had in 2001. 

The events of 9/11 were fresh in everyone’s mind. My senior English students, mostly boys, discussed the subject whenever they could turn instruction that way.

The trouble was, only a few had had a geography course. Some had taken world history, but they couldn’t keep the stan countries straight. Who was on whose side?  What did Israel and Palestine have to do with Osama bin Laden? Was this or wasn’t this a war about religion?  My students were confused, and sometimes so was I. What disturbed me most, however, was that they were beginning to think in stereotypes.  Everyone from the Middle East and Central Asia was a mystery to them, and they lumped everyone together.

I learned that a delegation of students from Uzbekistan, traveling with their principal and teacher of English, would be visiting the nearby city high school for three weeks. I thought that a face-to-face encounter with students from that part of the world would help  students at my high school understand the rapidly unfolding world events. I hoped, too, that meeting the students from Uzbekistan would help the American students I knew to see people from other countries as individuals. Eagerly, I arranged for the group to visit my school for one day.

There were seven Uzbek students, so a fellow teacher and I chose seven American students to guide them from class to class.  They’d tour the school in the morning, visit social studies and English classes all day, eat lunch in the cafeteria, and attend a reception in the library after school.

My seniors would meet the Uzbeks in their government classes. They were excited—but they definitely had preconceived ideas, and I was dismayed by some of them. Jason, a burly giant who rarely restrained his actions or his mouth, told me flat out: “They won’t speak English, you know.  And the girls will all wear burqas.”  I tried to explain that I had met these students already.  They all spoke English very well, and none of these particular girls even wore head scarves. But Jason wouldn’t listen. He knew everything there was to know.

A traditional hat from Uzbekistan

A traditional hat from Uzbekistan

I wondered if I was making a mistake.

The morning came—November 1—and our guests arrived, dropped off by their host families. Suddenly shy, the students didn’t want to split up. We rearranged the schedule right there in the lobby. Then Zafar was late. Could he be in a traffic snarl?  That seemed impossible here in central Indiana. Lost?  Everyone knows where our high school is located. Forty-five minutes went by. My principal called the other high school.  Zafar was in class.  He’d forgotten—which made him no different than any other teenage boy.  His American “sister” was excused from class to bring him across town to us.

The Uzbeks said little in the beginning, and our guide students were quiet, too.  We had enlisted our two Russian-speaking exchange students—from Bulgaria and Georgia—to accompany us on the tour and help us over any language barriers that did emerge.  My colleague led the way, pointing out the library, Internet labs, auditorium and stage, the gym facilities. Were the Uzbeks listening? They seemed to be hanging on what Veronika and Nodar were saying in Russian, and we weren’t sure it was just what the teacher was telling them in English.

Uzbek students in my classroom

Students from Uzbekistan attend my 9th grade class.

Two Uzbek girls and Dimitryi, a tennis player with Olympic aspirations, visited one of my 9th grade classes. The girls were shy, but we eventually drew them out. One was a model. One could speak five languages. Dimitryi practiced tennis for four hours after school. School in Uzbekistan is dismissed at 1:30, so they eat lunch at home.  They explained the symbolism of  the Uzbek flag. Uzbekistan, Dimitryi told us, had designed its flag just a decade before when it became one of the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union.

Seventh hour, Jason and the boys came into senior English bearing tales. Someone in one of his classes had been rude to a couple of the Uzbek girls, he said, questioning them pointedly about life “over there” and “in that place.”  I had a sinking feeling I knew who that someone was.

But the hour had epiphanies, too. Kyle said, “You know, Tashkent is a modern city. TV makes us think all those places are just deserts where everyone rides camels.”

And Rick, already enlisted in the Air Force, had seen the West Wing special that likened Muslim extremists to the KKK. We were talking about Israel and Palestine and connecting the conflict there to the apparent motives of the Al Queda. He had met several of the Uzbek students and realized that Uzbekistan was an ally of the United States. Suddenly he stood up and thrust a fist into the air. “I get it!” he burst out. “It’s all coming together!” Abruptly, he sat back down. “I learned something today,” he said with satisfaction.

Ludmila, the lead teacher, presents State Representative Sheila Klinker with a shawl from Uzbekistan.

Ludmila, the lead teacher, presents State Representative Sheila Klinker with a scarf from Uzbekistan.

I felt good, too, and the reception after school was a perfect ending. My 9th graders had assembled gift bags for our guests, decorated the library tables, and baked enough cookies to feed the whole town. Our Superintendent attended the event and so did our State Representative. Formal expressions of friendship and understanding were exchanged, and gifts were given. The icing on the cake was literally that. Our cook had prepared a sheet cake and iced it to look like the flag of Uzbekistan. Our guests were awed; they stood on chairs and photographed the cake from above before we served it to the crowd.

When the host families arrived to pick up their Uzbek teenagers, we found that several of them had left the party to attend play rehearsal in the auditorium. The next day I learned what other unscripted events had occurred. Apparently our visitors had been listening during the tour. Dimitryi had found the gymnasium. He had challenged one of the physical education teachers to a pickle ball match—and won. Several of the students had made a beeline for the Internet lab and sent messages to their friends in Uzbekistan. One had found the guidance office and gathered information on American colleges. None of them—Uzbeks or their American guides—had attended classes during the three 5th hour lunch periods.  They’d all stayed in the cafeteria to socialize. The lunch hour, one of the American students told me, was the Uzbeks’ favorite “class.”  Of course. They had never experienced the noon time social life of American students!  I had to laugh at their typical teenage behavior.  We hadn’t been able to “program” them because they were, after all, individuals.  They had their own impulses, interests, and charms—each one unique.

Obviously, the visit had been a success, but when Jason came to class the next day, I knew beyond a doubt that it had been not only a good thing, but the right thing.

“I wish I could apologize to those girls,” he said. “That was me that was rude to them.” He paused for a minute to reflect.  Then he said, without a trace of irony, “You know, they turned out to be just like us.”

That was a generalization we could live with.

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Hunger Fighters

Get out of your comfort zone and try to understand people’s lives that are different than yours.   –Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, recipient of the 2015 World Food Prize

4 of us.jpeg

Rachel researched water sanitation and access in the DRC; Marisa’s paper was about water sanitation in India.

The World Food Prize honors scientists and humanitarians around the world who have made a significant contribution to the fight against hunger. It was established by Norman Borlaug, who is sometimes called “The man who saved 1 billion lives” for his work in developing a drought-resistant variety of wheat that, over time, saved those estimated one billion lives. Scientists such as Purdue’s Dr. Gebisa Ejeta (2009) and Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) have been recognized for their work in fighting hunger as have humanitarian leaders of the caliber of this year’s winner, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the visionary from Bangladesh who founded BRAC, the world’s largest NGO.

In 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1986, he conceived the idea of the World Food Prize to honor individuals who had made significant contributions to ending world hunger.  Later still, in 1994, he established the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, a competition in which high school students study food security issues in countries around the world. After months of research and essay writing, students submit their essays and then present their work orally at regional competitions. The winners there attend the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, where they interact with some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, learning more about solutions to world hunger and exchanging ideas with these leaders in the field.

Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gabisa Ejeta.

Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gebisa Ejeta.

I’ve just returned from the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute proceedings in Des Moines. My colleague and I have three years of sponsoring students under our belts; we’ve sent students on to Iowa every year—and every year we’ve come away from this amazing conference recommitted to the cause. I’ve written about the World Food Prize essay contest before (See and, but I can’t help writing again about the incredible opportunities this program extends to students and the profound impact it has upon their lives.

As a former English teacher, of course I value the writing and thinking skills that such a challenging paper demands. Gathering information and evaluating it for its recency, credibility, and specificity; sorting and organizing it all into a coherent problem/solution format; and then writing the paper in tight but fluid prose is no mean feat.

To be in the presence of great scientists—at the regional competition and again at the Institute—is awe-inspiring. Most students have no idea what a professional conference looks like, let alone even know that professionals in any field gather regularly to present papers, engage in dialogue, participate in panel discussions about timely topics, and hammer out approaches to common problems. Watching leading scientists, small holder farmers, representatives from NGOs, and agribusiness growers present information about (for example) aquaculture, conservation agriculture, and the nutritional impact of sweet potatoes in Africa is mind-expanding. Who would think such topics would captivate high school students whose background is not necessarily agriculture? But the students were not just snagged; they were hooked by the passion of the speakers and the complexity of the world of agriculture. They recognized the importance of something they’d always taken for granted—food—and the urgency of the challenge to feed 9 billion by 2050.

The culminating event for the high school students is a presentation at the end of the Institute to a panel of scientists and agriculture experts (even the laureates themselves, including this year’s winner) who read the students’ papers and interact with them.

One of our students, Rachel, in introducing herself prior to presenting her paper on water sanitation and access in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared, her tone earnest and her demeanor sincere, “I didn’t think this experience would affect me the way it did. Food is the key to everything. I didn’t really realize that before I wrote my paper.”


Rachel and two other students discussing their presentations.

I had watched Rachel intently throughout the conference. Because she has always been a little bit shy, I wondered if she would feel overwhelmed by the experience in Iowa. But the reverse happened. It was like watching a flower unfold in Disney’s Fantasia. She sat at lunch and dinner with students, teachers, and professionals from all over the world, gaining confidence every time she initiated a conversation or answered a question. Her public speaking skills soared: Her own presentation was animated, thoughtful, and nuanced by very natural vocal and facial expressions. One of the experts evaluating her performance told he was “touched” by her comments about the impact of the experience on her thinking.

But the benefits don’t end there, with students developing an English teacher’s skill set.

The impact on career choices, college majors, even the choice of a particular college is significant.  Rachel said she had come into the program certain she wanted to pursue criminology but was now considering a career in public relations or international relations.  Another student, one I don’t know personally said, “This program made me consider college majors I’d never thought of. It made me aware of issues I’d never heard of.”

Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines—the top essayists—become eligible to apply for 2-month summer internships to do real science themselves. Last year, 23 students were awarded Borlaug-Ruan Internships to pursue science in locations around the world. They worked with top scientists in all areas of agriculture, agronomy, and food science. Each of the students returned to Iowa this past week to give a poster presentation of their research.

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Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines are also eligible to apply for Carver-Wallace internships here in the United States.  So far, 110 students have been Carver-Wallace Fellows; among them, one of our own students. Caroline, who competed two years ago, interned at the USDA facility on the Purdue campus the summer after high school; her experience there morphed into a job with the USDA while she attended college at Purdue.

The mission of the Global Youth Institute is to inspire students to answer the call to fight hunger in the world—as scientists, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, business leaders, growers, teachers, and manufacturers (among other occupations).

“Even if you become, say, a banker,” Sir Fazle Husan Abed elaborated in his luncheon address, “you’ll be a better banker for that. Doing for others leads to a satisfying life. If that is not your occupation, make it your preoccupation.”

In the next 40 years, according to a senior officer from DuPont who spoke in Des Moines, we will need to provide more food than we have produced in the last 10,000 years. The world needs young people to make fighting hunger their life’s work. Reaching out to them—when they’re on the brink of life decisions—is what the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute does well.

Some, of course, won’t go into agriculture or nutrition or science. But no matter their career path, they’ll never forget the message they’ve learned, the skills they’ve gained, or the opportunities afforded them because of their participation in the Global Youth Institute. They’ll never take food for granted again.

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Under Discussion: Literature Circles

P1010150Literature Circles are old hat now. English teachers everywhere–from the elementary grades through high school—use this strategy to group students by interest or by reading level. Harvey Daniels, who popularized the concept and brilliantly refined it, has published at least five books on the topic. How-to websites abound, and Pinterest is a rich resource for the props that go with establishing literature circles: the “role sheets,” question cards, sentence starters, anchor charts, choice boards, discussion guides, and rubrics.

I came to literature circles quite by accident sometime in the early 90s—before Harvey Daniels and before roles for participants in the circle had been devised. I am sure I was not alone in figuring out for myself what to do when faced with a wildly disparate group of students. All these years later, I’m still a believer in literature circles—and I encourage the use of Harvey Daniels’ role sheets (plus some of my own devising) although I’ve learned that some educators think the role sheets are limiting.

But that year, whichever year it was, I was still fairly new to teaching high school English. The course, called “Trails West,” featured books about the American West.  My class was hugely mixed in readiness and in student interests.  A few students, whom I’d had in Honors 9 English, consumed books like cookies and cake; others read poorly, infrequently, and under protest. The course was nine weeks long and the curriculum specified that the students would read three books within that time frame.

Essentially, I decided to teach thematically and, for the first unit, selected three books on aP1010623 single topic: The Western Hero (aka, the Epic Hero). The books I chose (from what was available in the bookroom) were The Virginian, the classic by Owen Wister that established the cowboy as an epic hero; True Grit, in which a young girl sets out with a grizzled old lawman to avenge her father’s murder; and Shane, a book about as close to the epic pattern as anyone could imagine. The second “unit” was about the pioneer experience; the third, the Native American experience.

Every three weeks, students chose the book they wanted to read (Miraculously, I thought, no one tried to “read down” and a few challenged themselves to “read up”). Initially, they met in groups of four or five to lay out a plan for the number of pages they’d read before the three meetings I had pre-established for them to convene and discuss the book. I supplied the questions for these meetings—the same ones for each group since the themes were the same—and in between meetings, the students read, kept a list of self-selected vocabulary words, did a mini-research project, and took direct instruction from me on topics related to the book or on other relevant English class topics.

I made bookmarks for everyone, with spaces for page numbers, so they could establish daily reading goals. They divided the number of pages in their book by the number of days to completion. Some kids didn’t need that—they could hardly put down a book they liked—but the reluctant readers enjoyed checking off the little boxes on their bookmarks that indicated they’d accomplished their 10 or 15 pages for the day. They might stop mid-chapter rather than read one more page, a mind-set I admit drove me crazy, but the bookmark served as a kind of time clock for them. When they’d completed their number of pages, they could congratulate themselves, check off a day on their bookmark, and close the book. The strategy worked. One boy, a junior, told me at the end of the year that Shane was the first book he’d read cover to cover in his entire schooling experience.

I’ve seen literature circles work when all the students are reading the same book and in Lucy, Henry, Taylorsituations like mine where students chose a text, based on their interests or their reading levels. I’ve seen literature circles work in subjects other than English and with articles rather than whole books. The online Encyclopedia Britannica presents leveled versions of its topics, and NEWSELA, a free online leveled reading site, ( sends daily articles relevant to science, sports, history, the arts, current events—all kinds of subject areas—each article written at as many as four to five grade levels. The site also offers complete text sets on topics of interest to teachers of every discipline.

However you choose to implement literature circles, at the heart of the strategy is the discussion: Kids talk about what they have read. The questions the students ask and answer  go way beyond study guides and recall and comprehension recitation. Nowadays, I’d have them take turns making up their own questions, trading around the responsibility for being the discussion leader. Another person’s role is usually to summarize the pages under consideration so that everyone in the group has the facts right, but eventually, questions about the author’s purpose, concerns  about the motivation and credibility of characters, and conversations about style emerge.

Lit circles are more like adult book club conversations than teacher-directed Q and A. They’re effective at drawing students in because the conversations are genuine and everyone gets a chance to say what they think. They work as a vehicle, too, for developing fluency in academic conversation and for inculcating the manners that are necessary for civil discourse (Hence, the sentence starters and conversation rules you see on Pinterest).

I had good luck with lit circles with Honors students and struggling readers alike. In fact, my favorite memory from those Trails West days is of Pencilhead (see my blog post:, at that  time a reluctant reader and would-be class comedian, pulling his chair up to another group deep into discussion of the same book his group had already discussed: He wanted to hear more.

Literature Circles get kids to read more. Literature circles get them to talking more. What could be better?


This post presumes you know all about Literature Circles. Perhaps you are just getting started or even still thinking about the idea. If so, here are some starter websites: A straightforward explanation of Literature Circles—what they are, how they work, why they work. Teaching suggestions including variations on the basic model of roles, role sheets, information on working with multi-leveled books. This site provides an overview of Literature Circles—structure, benefits, outcomes over time—in chart form.

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Under Discussion: Fishbowl

Keelsing 1In my last post, I wrote about getting the students to contribute to teacher-led discussions. But sometimes, the best way to get them talking is to structure the conversation. A structured conversation, in fact, can engage students in a lesson in ways that a teacher-led discussion cannot.

The other day, I watched a master 7th grade science teacher, Miss Kimberly Keesling, lead her class through a Fishbowl debate. Her objective was a universal lesson in critical thinking: Beware of loaded words and emotional responses. Ask questions. Do your own thinking.

She drew upon a well-known hoax from the 1990s in which scientific “evidence” was deliberately used to mislead the public.

Miss Keesling distributed facts sheets to the students—papers she’d prepared listing the pros and cons of banning a mysterious substance, dihydrogen monoxide—DMHO for short. The strikes against DMHO in the realm of health alone are pretty severe. It’s

  • Colorless, odorless, tasteless
  • Accidental inhalation can be deadly
  • May cause severe burns
  • Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage
  • For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death
  • Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, but is not believed to be carcinogenic

Environmental issues are also serious:

  • Is also known as hydroxic acid, and is the major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”
  • Is found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America
  • Has caused millions of dollars of property damage in the Midwest recently
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes

On the other hand, DMHO is used

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant
  • To generate power
  • In the production of Styrofoam
  • As a fire retardant
  • In the distribution of pesticides
  • As an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products

Miss Keesling gave the students five minutes to ask questions, study the fact sheets, and write out talking points on one side or the other. Then she took the pulse of the class. Those in favor of banning DMHO went to one side of the room; those against banning it, to the other. The Undecideds sat in the middle. She explained to the students that they were going to have a debate about DMHO, so they had to use facts.Keesling 2

It took only a few minutes then to explain the rules of Fishbowl:

  1. Three people—volunteers, one from each group—would be at the front of the room, seated on a comfortable couch. (Usually, Fishbowl is done with two concentric circles—an inner circle and an outer circle—but the rules are malleable.) Using their notes and the fact sheets, the students would take turns presenting their point of view about DMHO.
  2. When a speaker finished, if another student wanted to support that point of view, he’d tap the speaker on the shoulder and the first speaker would sit down. In that way, only three people at a time were seated on the couch.
  3. The speakers stood up to present their arguments.

Middle schoolers love to talk, love to debate, and these students did so brilliantly. Their arguments for and against banning the mysterious substance were cogent and fact-filled. Some students were direct and succinct; others became quite animated. Within 15 minutes, just about everyone in the room had spoken. I heard impassioned and powerful statements and effective transitions such as these:

  • Although it is used to generate power…
  • It’s a risk: But life is about risk.
  • Bottom line: It kills people.

Sophisticated stuff for 7th graders. At the end, my colleague asked how many of the students had switched sides because of the arguments they heard. Some had.

Then she made the Big Reveal: DHMO is water. She broke the scientific words down into their roots and prefixes: di (2); hydrogen; mono (1); oxide. A few students caught on, clapped their hands to their foreheads: H20.

Why, she asked the students, had they come down on the side they had? All the claims and counterclaims are true—but they had been duped. Who had even asked what DMHO was before they began?  No one. What had swayed them? They had heard the facts, stacked on one side or the other as they were—all of them true, all of them convincing—and formed an opinion, often a very strong one. Why?

What followed were insightful responses that boiled down to this: The use of strong, emotional words such as kill, severe tissue damage, withdrawal, “greenhouse effect,” found in tumors… It was easy to be led to a conclusion.

And that was her point. Scientists have to investigate dispassionately. Scientists have to examine the facts. Scientists have to ask questions. They can’t be swayed by emotional language.

And it’s not just scientists. These students were quick to point out that television, politicians, advertising—they’re all guilty of using emotional language to influence their audiences. Everyone needs to be vigilant. Everyone needs to think before they jump to a conclusion about something they know nothing about.

The Fishbowl strategy proved to be superior to recitation and far better than teacher questioning for a lesson like this. Because it was experiential, because kids were out of their seats moving and talking, because they took ownership of the lesson, they were engaged in the activity and Miss Keesling was able to make her point.

Granted, this particular lesson was a set-up. But the kids were good-natured about it. They understood the message and understood the value of it being learned in this way. In fact, the lesson will stick far longer than a paragraph in a textbook or a lecture by the teacher. But the method—a Fishbowl debate—was the perfect vehicle in a powerful lesson orchestrated by this experienced science teacher. Point made.

Fishbowl works for straightforward discussions about all kinds of topics. It’s especially useful if students are invested in a topic and eager to contribute, but even shy students will express their opinion when they can choose when to tap someone on the shoulder, decide for themselves when to take an inner circle seat.

Want to know more? Here are three websites explaining Fishbowl, offering other ways of structuring a Fishbowl conversation.  (Facing History and Ourselves) A straightforward explanation of how to set up a fishbowl discussion. (Annenberg Learner) A lengthier description with alternative ways of structuring the discussion. (Multicultural Pavilion) Another good explanation of the set-up for Fishbowl.

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Under Discussion: Getting Them to Talk

FullSizeRender (1)A teacher asked me the other day, “How do you get them to talk?”

I had just seen the same kids who wouldn’t raise their hands and answer her questions about the bell work they had just completed come into the room talking like crazy at the start of the hour. I’d seen them turn in their seats and continue to talk to each other—until class started. They did have voices.

But of course, the questions about the bell work were posed by the teacher, the topic was academic, and too much was riding on raising their hands.

  • Some didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to look “dumb.”
  • Some had the answer but didn’t want to be branded as “smart.”
  • Some had an idea—but didn’t want to risk being wrong.
  • Some knew the answer but just weren’t saying. Lots of reasons why.
  • Some were shy and not yet comfortable in the class. It is still the start of the year.

I remember learning to break icy silences like this, so here is what I told the teacher. It’s what I learned over the years about getting the kids to talk.

To start with, some conditions promote participation and, eventually, real discussion, better than others.

The seating arrangements: When desks are in rows, the student answering the question speaks to one person only—the teacher.  If recitation—simple Q and A—is what you expect, rows are okay; but if the goal is dialogue among the students, sitting in rows discourages that.

Even setting up the room so that two banks of desks face each other or are at least on a diagonal—a herringbone design—can help. Now they’re not talking to the backs of heads.

Circles, of course, are wonderful, but a circle is difficult if there are many students, big desks, and a small room.  Plus, there’s all that space gone to waste in the middle.

For years, I arranged my room in a U—two of them, to be precise. One had 19 chairs and inside that U was another, with 11 chairs. (I taught the students how to quickly rearrange the desks in rows for tests. For that matter, I taught them, too, how to rearrange the desks into pods for group work.) The U shape allowed the students to see the faces of a good many of their peers, so when we moved beyond recitation to real discussion, they were more likely to address each other, not me. Which is what I wanted.

My dream-come-true happened in my last years in the classroom when my room had 6 tables that broke apart into single desks. The students had swivel chairs. (Yes, I had to stop a few “spinners” from distracting others—and making me dizzy just watching them!—but that was quickly and easily halted.) The tables were perfect for group work and because they broke apart, the students could easily set them up for tests—and put them back again when a test was over.

The teacher’s position: Sometimes you want to be the “sage on the stage,” standing above the students and posing questions to a seated audience. In that case, rows are traditional and can work. But for discussion, a subtle change in your position makes a big change in audience response. Try sitting among the students in an empty student desk. Or, if the conversation you are looking for is to be strictly among the kids, sit off to the side. If you sit down—not at your desk, but in a student desk—you’ve changed the climate dramatically.

When my desks were in that U-shaped configuration, I sat in a student desk at the top of the U—in the gap between the two ends.  I could see everyone, direct traffic, keep track of who was participating and who wasn’t, and even write things down (which is much harder to do when you’re standing).

Wait time: This is an old piece of advice, but still so important. You have to give the students a few seconds to think before they speak. Not only will they provide better answers—more reflective, more detailed—but you’ve signaled that you value reflection first and open mouth second. Every prospective teacher learns about “wait time” in preparation for teaching, but that wait time is easier said than done. As a culture, we are uncomfortable with pauses, distressed by silence. That partly explains the vocalized pauses teachers of speech and debate struggle to eliminate—those ums and ahs that unconsciously creep into our speech.

In his book, Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov suggests what he calls “Narrated Wait Time.” That is, when the room is silent and you are waiting for an answer, throw out a comment that will help the students monitor the time (“I’m waiting for 10 more seconds before I call on someone”) or even guide them down the right path (“Think of a character in another book we’ve read who has had this same kind of problem”). Then wait a few more seconds.

Related to this is another strategy: Let them take a minute to write down an answer so they feel prepared. Sometimes when students don’t respond it’s because they’re tongue-tied. Having a prepared response builds confidence.

Your questions:

Avoid yes/no questions. What else is left to say after the answer is given?

Be explicit about what you are looking for.

Explain the similarities between these two characters. (If you just say “How are these two characters alike?” the answers will be short. Requiring students to explain provokes a more detailed response.)

Why do Russians think Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the turning point in WWII? Explain their point of view. (This is a complex question. It requires students not only to know what happened at Stalingrad as well as on D-Day, but to compare and contrast the two events and step outside the comfort zone of the conventional American point of view.)

What evidence do we have that climate change is happening? (Notice that asking for evidence avoids nebulous and unsupported answers that begin with “I feel that…” or “I think that…”, demanding, instead, that students present pertinent facts, not unsubstantiated opinions.

Here’s a source for great questions:

Your responses:

Just as you will expect the students to be courteous to each other, you need to be careful about your responses to them. “Can you tell me a little more about that” sounds better than “Is that all?”  “You’re on the right track. Can anyone else add to that?” is nicer, too.  You don’t want to accept wrong answers, but you have to be supportive of attempts—otherwise, students will shut down. Whoever volunteers to be humiliated?

Teach them how to respond: Consider posting sentence stems as reminders when you’re first getting started.

  • I agree with James, but I want to add this…
  • I don’t agree, James, because…
  • That’s an interesting (unusual/thoughtful/surprising/etc.) way to look at the situation, but here’s my take:
  • I’d like to add to what Sally said.
  • I didn’t understand it that way. What I got out of it was…

An excellent list of sentence stems—that teachers can use as well as students—appears on Te@chThought:

Collaboration helps:

Think/Pair/Share is another confidence-building strategy for discussion. You may have used this for reinforcing concepts, but it can also be used for developing ideas. Two people seated next to each other turn in their seats and for a brief amount of time, discuss the question and come up with an answer. Keep the time short—very short—or the talk will deteriorate into social conversation. And, be explicit about how they share—especially important if the students have never done this before. Model the exchange of ideas for them so they have the language of collaboration.

Group Share is essentially the same thing, but three or four people work together to come up with an answer. Usually the question is more complex, the time allotted is longer, and the discussion afterward is extended. Again, keep to a strict time limit, model the process, and instruct the students to choose a spokesperson who will deliver the consensus response. After each group has reported out, a fuller discussion starts spontaneously because the groups don’t always agree.

If all else fails, try this:

I’m by and large not a believer in extra credit, but many teachers, for good reasons, are. Many people award participation points—or expect students to earn them. Also for good reasons.

One year I came up with this strategy for a class who wouldn’t talk. We were reading Field of Dreams (This was before it became a movie). I took a great big sheet of white construction paper, used a water glass as a template, and drew around the glass to make circles on the paper. Using my amazing artistic skills, I turned each circle into a baseball, wrote the students’ names on the baseballs, and laminated the sheets.

When they entered the room, I’d hand them their baseballs. (The leftover baseballs told me who was absent: Presto! Attendance taken!) Then, as I explained on the first day, my expectation was that everyone would speak at least once a period. They had to raise their hands, I called on them, and as they spoke, I collected their cards.

This strategy really worked for me. I did get them talking because that extra point (In the beginning, I did count their contributions as extra credit) was a huge motivator. After a while, I dropped the extra credit, moved to participation points, and eventually got rid of all points—but by then we were done with the book, too. But, the students had opened up. The ice was broken and they were no longer so hesitant to speak.

This strategy is similar to the one elementary teachers frequently use: calling on a student whose name is on a Popsicle stick or drawing a name from a fishbowl. The difference is, with the baseball, the student has the choice of when to speak—a powerful bit of control for someone in high school.

Of course it wasn’t a perfect strategy. A student could use his card right away and then sit back and relax. A student who wanted to contribute more than once still could, but only when the others had all had a chance. But the baseball card strategy wasn’t a permanent solution anyway. It was a device to, so to speak, get the ball rolling.

How to get them to talk: The question is under discussion, and I’d be interested to know how you do it.

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Attitude Shift

Spanish IV chart picture (2)For teachers, August means the excitement of new students, new classes, new lesson plans–and the end of long mornings, lazy afternoons, and late nights.  For teachers in many school districts, August also means developing goals for the coming year–and then working all year to achieve them. In many districts, such goal-setting is a part of the evaluation process. To be successful, teachers must show not just that they did what they said they’d do, but that their goals had a positive impact on student learning. They need to demonstrate with data that students learned or that what the teacher did had a positive impact on student learning.

Sometimes, the goal is to change students’ attitudes. Quantifying an attitude shift–in a simple and direct way–is harder than, say, reporting the average percentage increase on vocabulary tests. This post is an update on a strategy I developed for documenting such attitude shifts. The update comes at the end and describes a speaking goal that a Spanish IV teacher in my district set and achieved.

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

How do you measure an attitude shift?

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


How could I do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To measure the students’ growth, here is the 4-point continuum my colleague used:

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

She planned to have the students chart their progress three times during the year: in August, in January, and in May. That meant three colors of Post-it Notes. Except that a good idea just got better! Fearful that after a whole year the Post-its would lose their sticky and flutter to the floor, my colleague wrote the attitude points on pieces of construction paper, laminated the paper, and had the students use large Avery dots to mark their progress.

The first time she had the students place their Avery dots on the continuum, we both experienced a minor panic. So many were already on the right hand side! Room for growth was minimal. Perhaps the problem could have been avoided by having a 5-point continuum. Perhaps it was something in the wording that yielded so many “3s.”

A little nervous about what a mid-year reading might yield, my colleague decided not to take a reading again until the end of the year. By the time she did, the students had forgotten all about the tally in the fall. During class, she sent her students, one at a time, outside the classroom where, they posted their new blue Avery dots. At the end of the class, when she looked at the results, she saw that every one of the students’ attitudes had shifted farther to the right. The goal had been achieved; the students had developed the confidence they needed to be, not just comfortable, but enthusiastic about speaking Spanish with native speakers.

This year, my colleague is expanding her list of activities and recruiting Spanish-speaking adults in the community–many, the parents of students in our school–to be the language partners for her students.

So here is my question: What attitude shift would you like to effect that the Post-it Note strategy could help you document?

Spanish IV chart picture (2)

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