Project Runway

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  • Betsey Johnson
  • Calvin Klein
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Anna Sui

Just a few of the names that top the list of celebrity fashion designers.

Fashion is a consuming interest for many high school students, and these are names that brand-conscious teenagers recognize. They’re eager to know more about the industry itself, and for most, the first step is learning to sew.

But here’s a deplorable fact: In many parts of the country, sewing is no longer taught in school.

The rationale? People don’t sew any more. The implication being, who would want to?

Yet, every year at Harrison High School in Lafayette, Indiana, teacher Michelle Coors’ students pull off a runway show that has become an event in the community.  This year, the 28 students in her Fashion and Textile Careers classes took this complex project–the runway show–from an idea in their minds to a full-scale fashion production. On a mid-December evening, 137 different models paraded 159 designs on a 52-foot runway in front of parents, peers, and well-wishers. Stage lights illuminated the runway, and during the show, music and explanatory slides played in the background. This year, every seat in the house was taken and scores of attendees crowded into the little standing room that remained.

I was one of those people standing in the back. I had come to support my colleague, whose classroom I had visited many times and whose students I had photographed as they used a computer program to design wardrobes for “paper dolls”; as they cut cloth for the first time for pants, capes, and tote bags; and as they worked on their fashion merchandising research projects. Cutting fabric

Fortunately for our school district, most of our middle school teachers still have sewing machines and incorporate the fundamentals of construction into their curriculum (License to Sew). In addition, some students learn to sew through 4-H or learn at home from their parents. But about one-third of the students who enroll in Mrs. Coors’ classes do not have prior sewing experience, so she accommodates her instruction to reach students with a range of skills. Students who have never sewn before make tote bags and basic “fancy pants” in the Textiles and Fashion Foundation course first, and then they’re ready for the Fashion and Textile Careers class, the one that puts on the runway show.

HHS2014fashionshow_140Mrs. Coors offers her advanced class students the opportunity to create a magazine, a video, a movie—but they always choose the runway show. That means designing and constructing the fashions; finding the models; planning the lights, the music, and PowerPoint backdrop; constructing the runway; creating the programs; handling the publicity; arranging for a photographer; setting up for the program and taking everything down at the end.

Effective educators are skilled at organization, multi-tasking, differentiating, and sequencing instruction so that every student learns the skill he or she needs just as having that skill becomes a necessity. In Mrs. Coors’ classes, where the comfort level with needles and thread, bobbins and the presser foot varies from student to student, one-size-fits-all lessons will not work. Mrs. Coors plans her instruction so that students are always busy and on task, not all doing the same thing, but all engaged in a construction project appropriate to his or her skill level. Some of the students’ designs are simple; others are more complex. But the students are relaxed, self-confident, and engaged—after all, they are working on a project they have designed themselves, and they meet with success regularly.

And if they aren’t in the midst of a hands-on sewing project, the students are working on their Career Snapshot binder, a research project that more than meets the standards for Literacy in Technical Subjects, another layer of learning required in every subject area across the curriculum.

Students identify a specific fashion industry career that interests them and then explore that job and the  allied careers—the professionals whose job description and skills they’d need to know and rely upon to be successful at their own. I looked at some of these binders: pages of writing, including a reflective piece at the end.

IMG_1768 Croquis DrawingEach binder includes photographs and freehand drawings that illustrate the development of the students’ final design from inspiration to croquis drawing (those sketches of models with elongated—10 heads high—legs, the industry standard) to the sewn item on an actual model.

After the runway show ended, after the stage was disassembled, after the designers had collected their clothes from the models (Some let the models keep them!), the accolades poured in. And for 10 of the young designers, a contract: A local philanthropic organization commissioned them to recreate their “line” to be featured at another runway show, this one to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.WishGala.Poster2015

So, don’t tell Michelle Coors or her students that “no one sews anymore.” Indeed they do, and this Project-Based Learning class more than illustrates the career opportunities that are open to  people with skills in garment design and construction.  In fact, it’s only February, but already many of these students have been accepted into prestigious art and design schools across the country.

Not to mention this: When the audience applauds and the photographer’s flash captures the models showing off the work of these young and aspiring designers, it’s a source of genuine pride for everyone involved.  For that night, Harrison High School students are the celebrity designers–and who knows what will happen in the afterglow?

 

 

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Without Words

P1040079The first student I remember coming into my class with no knowledge of English arrived in the early 1980s. I’ll call her Laila. She had recently arrived in this country, the first of her siblings to follow their father to America. He had fled Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, coming to this country as a refugee. He was able to get protected status, a green card, and then later sign for visas for all the rest of his family. They came one-by-one or in twos, secretly, across the Khyber Pass to Pakistan and then to India where they waited until they could get passage to America.

Laila was the first of the siblings to attend school in the USA, and when I reunited with her many years later, she described for me the embarrassments, trials, and anguish of attending middle school not speaking the language. Boys snickered when she said she wanted to be a doctor, others asked her how to say dirty words in Farsi. Math class was a refuge because she could do it, and so, she said, was my room. I didn’t—and still don’t—even remember doing most of what she told me I had done. It must all have come as common sense to me, gathering material for her and making special word books. But many of the things she said I had done had made her feel included.

As I said, it must have been common sense, for I certainly knew nothing at the time about how to help English Language Learner (ELL) students. She remembered that in the spring of that 8th grade year she had to make a speech in my class. I suggested the topic “My First Month in America,” and she did speak–and the other students were enthralled–and I gave her an A and that made her day/week/month. Such a little thing. It reminds me what an impact–for good or for bad—the little things we do can have.

Lately I have been thinking about the ELL students of today; in my district, they’re mostly Spanish-speaking kids.

Other teachers think about them, too. In fact, teachers at both of the high schools where I serve as an instructional coach have approached me this year, asking what they can do to help the ELL students in their classes—especially, but not only, the ones who have little or no English at their command.

Of course they know that learning a language takes time. They know that gaining academic proficiency can take years. Of course they know there’s no magic bullet. But because they are teachers, they want to help and are frustrated when they can’t. Teachers care about their students—all of them. Still, it’s hard to imagine how you can help when you’ve got five or six classes and anywhere between 120 and 160 students and you have to prep three separate lessons every day and parents are emailing and extra-curricular responsibilities are looming and papers are piling up faster than snow melts in summer.

Yes, the students have an ELL teacher—and she works wonders. But you can only process so much a day. I remember that when I—a non-Spanish speaker—visited Peru a few years ago, I spent most of my time on the bus that carried us from place to place looking at signs and billboards, trying to memorize words.  I was learning about the culture at the same time I was learning the language, and that’s sometimes even harder—and certainly more fraught with danger—than building a word bank. By the end of the trip, 10 days later, I was thrilled when I could negotiate the purchase of a toothbrush. And that only took a few words: toothbrush and how much. What followed was some fumbling with money and help, please.

I decided to shadow some beginning ELL students for a few days and, to attempt to simulate their experience, attend their Heritage Spanish class. By the way, it’s an error to think that because these kids speak Spanish easily, they also read and write it comfortably. That’s why they take Spanish in school and get world language credit for doing so. They may have grown up speaking Spanish, but their parents may not read and write Spanish themselves and they may have passed on speaking errors, just as English-speaking parents sometimes do. (Think of kids who say “I seen it.”)

One day in December, I was able to interview several of these students. I asked the questions, a Cuban-American substitute teacher (who just happened to be in the building that day) interpreted for all of us, and my colleague (the ELL teacher) took notes so I didn’t have to.

Here’s what I learned from our Spanish-speaking ELL students, and here are the suggestions I will be passing on to content-area teachers about what they can do to help ELL students learn English and learn their content.  (And by the way, these ideas will help everyone in the room. There’s nothing strictly ELL about them.)

Greet the students at the door: Say their names, and if you know “Hello” in Spanish, say it. Pronounce their names right, though. In fact, that might be your first conversation. I remember practicing once with a girl from China. She tried to excuse me—say it didn’t matter that I kept stumbling—but I knew it did. Eventually, my tongue ceased twisting around the syllables and saying her name became as easy as saying Jack’s and Emily’s. I realized from being in classrooms all day long that a student could go through a whole school day without anyone using his name or talking to him directly. Imagine how that would feel.

To a person, every ELL student I spoke with said that the teachers who “cared” about them were the teachers they would work the hardest for. Teachers who “cared” were the ones who took the time to treat them as individuals by doing things as simple as greeting them at the door or once in a while using a Spanish word. Really.

Seating arrangements: Put them in the front. Seating an ELL student at the back makes it harder for them to see and hear. Besides, consistently seating ELL students at the back communicates to everyone else that they’re not really part of the class. Yes, they may choose to sit there—but you can un-choose that spot for them.

Let them sit together if you have more than one ELL student—if they choose to. You can’t assume they’ll be friends any more than you can assume any two other students will get along. ELL students come from all over. They’ve got class and country biases, too. They told me so. But most of the time, they’re relieved to be together because they can help each other figure out what’s going on.

When you work in groups, spread the ELL students out among the groups as soon as you sense they’re comfortable with that. If you need to keep two together, you can do that with a group of four. You might consider “Study Buddies” for those times when you give over class time for homework. Pair the ELL student with a willing English speaker who can check that something is copied down right from the board, verify pronunciation, practice vocabulary.

Those objectives of the day: We are obliged to post these every day, so I suggest using them to advantage to teach vocabulary and focus the students’ thoughts.  Print the objective in big, black letters at the front of the room. Make it visible and legible from everywhere in the room. Write it in kid-friendly language. At the beginning of the class, point to the objective and say that this is the goal for the day. At the end of the hour, return to the objective and say it was the goal of the day. This will help ELL kids catch on to the purpose of the activities you do. And it will help every other student, too.

Why black? Because red and green and other colors don’t show up on the board as well. Why print? Because cursive is harder to read—and more kids than the ELL students don’t read cursive. Really.

Make it pop: Put key words on the board or create a word wall. This was a huge aha moment for me. When I attended the Spanish Heritage class, I listened to what the teacher was saying—but I didn’t have a clue. I don’t speak Spanish. When she wrote a key word on the board, I could see that often it was a lot like English—and I caught on. I still flunked the quiz at the end of the hour, but I got the main idea.

So, point out key words or put them on a word wall and then point to them, say them out loud, tap them, throw a ball at them—anything to reinforce them for the student.

Slow down:  Everything you say, everything they hear has to pass through the translator in their heads. It takes a very long time for anyone to get past this stage. The more complex the topic, the longer the sentence, the more time it takes.

  • Slow down for directions, assignments, explanations.
  • Break lectures into segments.
  • If you can, create a PowerPoint to play behind you.
  • Create fill-in-the-blank note-taking guides.
  • Write directions out as well as giving them orally.
  • Use graphic organizers, color coding, other visual aids.
  • Call on someone in the class to paraphrase what you just said: Your words will come out in simpler language and reinforce the message for everyone.

Use checks for understanding and use them frequently: Don’t wait till the end of the lesson to ask if everyone understood, if anyone has a question. Knowing precisely where in the lesson an ENL student stopped processing will help you tailor your instruction—and it will also give you clues about how much English the student has.  Here are some easy ones to implement:

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down
  • Exit passes
  • Stop light method
  • White boards (for individuals and/or for group answers)
  • Post-it notes on the desk

Use these checks for understanding with everyone in the class—it isn’t only the ENL students who get lost.

Let them speak Spanish: They’ll switch to English as soon as they can.

  • If you have two ELL students, let them talk the lesson over in Spanish if they like.
  • If you have one who is proficient and one who is not, ask the more fluent student to translate for both of you when you talk to the beginning ELL student one-on-one. That’s going to help all three of you.
  • Don’t worry that they’re talking about you. You can tell from their tone whether they’re on task, gossiping, or being disrespectful. If they’re not on task, shut them down.
  • Use Google Translator to put your assignments, directions, worksheets, etc. into Spanish. No, the translator isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that beginning students will get the idea. Plus, it’s another indication that you care. You might be aghast at how badly electronic translators can mangle a passage, but in the beginning, they can be a huge help. The kids told me so.

Demo, demo, demo: Make your delivery lively. Gestures, charades, pantomime, movement—all of this reinforces language. Vocal variety matters: Not being loud, but being expressive. Intonation carries meaning.

Use any Spanish you know: How about posters with words in Spanish and in English? If you speak the language, don’t be afraid to use it to help. The ELL students will begin using English as soon as they can because, like all kids, they want to fit in.

Communicate with their parents: Same as anyone. Try this website to create permission slips, thank you notes, invitations to parent conferences, pats-on-the-back notes home, etc. They print in Spanish and in English!  http://casanotes.4teachers.org

Call for help:  Spanish-speaking faculty, the ELL teacher, the ELL support staff, district level coordinators and instructional coaches will help. You just have to them know you need it.

 Above all:  Don’t give up on these kids—and encourage them not to give up on themselves. It takes time to learn a new language—but they will. Case in point:  When I found Laila again, years after she had left my classroom, she had a Ph.D. under her belt. Give the kids time. They’ll get there.

Posted in Instructional Coaching, International Education, Reflection | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Beyond the Pages

A few days ago, a young teacher (once upon a time,  a student at my high school) approached me after a workshop I’d conducted. “Tell me,” he said, “that I really did meet Gwendolyn Brooks when I was in high school. Her poetry has made such an impact on me.  She’s the opposite of me: black/white; female/male. She was old; I was young. But, I really connected with her. ‘We real cool’…She gets it. She really gets it.”

He was about to introduce her poetry to his 7th graders, so I dug through my personal “archives”—fat 3-ring binders with memos, schedules, programs evaluations, contracts, and photographs that I’ve kept all these years—and found a poster, a program, and a newspaper article from 1994 to help him recall the events of that day. The search took me back, too—refreshed my own memory of what was, for seven years, an extraordinary interdisciplinary, literary arts program in my high school. We called it Beyond the Pages.

 Some snapshots from those days:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks carried books in her deep, omnipresent satchel. In the middle of an intense conversation with a teenage writer, this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reached into her bag, withdrew a volume of her poetry, and gave it to the student.
  • W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, carried a photograph of the real Moonlight Graham in his wallet. While he was talking with students in my class, he casually removed the wallet from his pocket and passed the picture around the room.
  • Retired Chicago Tribune editor, John T. McCutcheon, Jr., carried words and images from history-making news events in his memory. He described the atmosphere in the pressroom during the Watergate era to a hushed audience of high school journalists and their teachers.

Beyond the Pages brought students face-to-face with authors whose work they had studied. In the library, in classrooms, in the halls, and even in the cafeteria, writers with international reputations talked casually with McCutcheon, carrying them beyond the pages of their textbooks to interactions with the authors themselves.

The goal was simple: to spark students’ interest in reading.  National statistics showed then—20 years ago—that the percentage of students who read for pleasure every day dropped by half between elementary school and high school–from 45% in Grade 4 to 24% in Grade 12.  Beyond the Pages was a commitment to reversing this trend.

IMG_1755The program began with a dream.  The English curriculum already included W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe when I met the author at a writing workshop in (of course) Iowa.  After listening to Kinsella discuss his book, I approached him: “If we asked you, would you come?” He told me to contact his agent.

I did.

Dream became reality when the principal endorsed the idea and the English Department signed on to plan the visit.  The success of that first event spurred the decision to continue the program on an annual basis. Eventually, Beyond the Pages branched out beyond the English Department, becoming interdisciplinary and theme-related.  Not only did teachers in other departments incorporate the writer’s work into their lessons, but faculty from many different departments served on the steering committee.  Students were represented on the committee, too, and they helped with promotional activities, art work, and myriad details.

The authors were guests at the school for one to three days.  While they were with us, they participated in a variety of small group interactions and addressed the students in all-school convocations.  The format changed from year to year; activities were tailored to the writer and to the connection between his or her work and the curriculum. Delightful spontaneous events also transpired.

  • Before Kinsella visited, my students studied his work and developed a list of interview questions. When he arrived, the television production class filmed an hour long interview in the school’s TV studio. I still have the tape.
  • In 1996, seven local writers—in a warm-up to Esmeralda Santiago’s visit—discussed their careers in small seminars.
  • In 1997, actress Annie Corley (a graduate of the high school) conducted mock-auditions in the school’s sound studio using real television scripts from episodes of Friends.
  • Scott Russell Sanders’ visit occurred when one English class was writing term papers on Indiana authors. He graciously made time for the young woman writing about him to conduct an impromptu interview.
  • P. Kinsella took a break from filming his interview to meet the special needs students whose classroom was next to the TV studio. The students were studying careers at the time, so Kinsella talked to them about the writing life.
  • And Gwendolyn Brooks gave her home address to several earnest young writers and encouraged them to send her their poems.

Jerry ScottThe program served 1100 high school students and 70 staff members, and each year the literary celebration expanded to include students and teachers from elementary schools within the district.  In 1993, for example, cartoonist Jerry Scott taught an auditorium full of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders how to draw the cartoon character NANCY.

Fundamental to the program’s success:

Teachers and students were given the opportunity to lead and the responsibility for the success of the program.

Teachers contracted with the artists, conducted the fund-raising efforts, organized the events, handled the publicity, planned the dinners, wrote the grants for funding, arranged transportation and accommodations for the authors, and conducted evaluations.  The Advanced Home Economics students prepared a luncheon for the guest author.  Students served on the steering committee, designed and printed the posters and programs, produced artistic displays, ushered, ran errands, and more.  The preparation for Gwendolyn Brooks’ visit took seven months of planning, 350 combined teacher hours of preparation, and the active involvement of scores of students—but it was done in a spirit of community. It felt like love, not labor.Brooks signing autographs

Beyond the Pages was grounded in the curriculum.

  • Every English class studied Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry in preparation for her appearance, and students clamored for more. When she read aloud at an all-school convocation, students listened spellbound.  For the first time ever, some students told us, they felt the power of poetry.
  • When Jerry Scott brought his cartoon characters to life on an overhead projector and told students he was the “shortest short story writer in the world,” creative writing students had already written their own short stories and tried their hand at cartooning.
  • Before Scott Sanders visited McCutcheon in 1995, students in geography classes had created murals to illustrate his book Wilderness Plots. The murals were hung in the auditorium and became a focal point during Sanders’ special session with these students. In their biology and agriculture classes, students had begun creating a prairie on school property and identifying botanical species on an adjacent woodlot.  When the author arrived, the students took him on a tour of their “outdoor lab” and discussed the projects planned for the future.Sanders
  • In 1995, two other authors whose writing focuses on the geography and history of early Indiana appeared at the school in the spring to climax a year-long interdisciplinary study of “The Wilderness Experience.” Author James Alexander Thom, who had written about the Shawnee chief Tecumseh in Panther in the Sky, shared Native American stories with American history students.  Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee clan mother, assembled her collection of Native American artifacts in the school library and provided a narrated tour of her exhibit.

The program caught the imagination of the community.

The boldness of the project–inviting best-selling authors to a public school–captured the attention of the local media.  Newspaper, television, and radio coverage helped to spread the word beyond the school.  The program was even in the sports pages.  In 1992, Kinsella opened the baseball season at McCutcheon by pitching the first ball on the school’s own “field of dreams.”

Most years, members of the public were invited to attend an evening reading or a performance at the high school.  Attendance grew from 200 in 1992 to over 750 in 1994, the year that Gwendolyn Brooks spoke.  Beyond the Pages became a community event.  

We believed that these encounters with professional writers would be motivational for Santiagostudents. Indeed, English teachers saw an uptick in students’ understanding of how a writer works and an increase in their appreciation for books.  We provided students with rare opportunities to see professional writers at work and to ask questions about craft as well as biography.  One student wrote afterwards about Kinsella, “He taught me that writing takes a lot of preparation and time.”  Another student remarked that “it helps students write better if they understand how a professional does it.”

And individual students—like the young teacher who started me on this journey through my archives—were inspired and even changed by their interactions with the authors.

I’d be interested to learn about programs today in other schools in other places. Are author visitations still happening?  Who has come to your school? How was your program organized? What was the impact? Please respond in the comment box if you have memories from Beyond the Pages or stories to share about your own school’s program. I’m hoping events like this still go on.

Posted in English Language Arts, Reflection | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Balancing Act

Earlier in the week, we had sleet and freezing rain; falling temperatures in the early hours of the day created patches of ice on the roads and walks.  Driving to school that morning, I saw a small figure straddling the sidewalk a block ahead of me: a very tiny woman, I thought, trying to walk on the ice.  Her arms were extended parallel to the sidewalk, and they jerked alternately up and down, in the way of someone trying to maintain balance.  She wasn’t making much progress.

But as I drew closer, I realized that the little old woman I was seeing from behind was actually a very young girl.  Her pink cotton scarf was tied babushka fashion, and her snow jacket was too big. She wore a skirt that peeked out from under the jacket and hardly covered her knees. Heavy black boots with thick rubber soles accentuated her thin legs. It was those rubber soles that were causing her to slip and slide.

She didn’t seem to be unnerved by the ice, although she was definitely scrambling—rapidly shifting her weight from leg to leg, stepping forward and sliding back and never gaining ground.  She couldn’t make headway—or maybe she wasn’t trying.  It seemed to me, the longer I watched from the car, that her repetitive motions were experimental, not frantic at all. Something in her attitude conveyed the impression that she was practicing at moments of unsteadiness, even finding pleasure in mastering the near-falls, the sudden shifts, and the involuntary responses of her body trying to right itself.  She was learning to walk on ice.

She looked up and ahead then, and my eyes followed an invisible line between the child and her parents—the mother with a bundled baby in her arms—who were waiting ahead at the corner.  They had turned around to watch their performer on the ice, so I could see that they were calling to her, but they were laughing and enjoying their child’s experiment with balance.  They didn’t seem to be in a hurry.  They weren’t nagging or impatient in their stance.  I slowed to a crawl so I could continue to watch the little girl. When I finally reached the corner, a four-way stop, I sought the mother’s eyes.  We both grinned.

It was the image of the child that arrested my own forward motion that morning, but it is the picture of the parents at the other end of the line that has stayed with me ever since. Often enough in life we encounter unexpected patches of ice, dangerous slicks that unbalance us—or threaten to—and send us sprawling to the ground.  A little practice with uncertainty and an occasional encounter with struggle serve children well. They need to have had some practice with adversity in order to keep their footing later in life should the ground below them turn treacherous.

It is a balancing act for parents, too, no matter how old or young their children are, a trick to know when to prevent experience, when to permit experiment, and when to intervene.  I remember my own children’s struggles as they grew in independence.  The first night away from home brought on a wave of homesickness for one of them.  She survived the night, however, and learned something of self-reliance. In junior high school, a skiing trip with a group of friends sounded exciting—but she had had no experience on the slopes.  She went on the trip, and she learned to ski: Her self-confidence soared.  A few years later, a camping expedition with her friends meant she’d climb Long’s Peak in Colorado.  I would not be there to hold her hand—or my breath.  But she went, and I cherish a photograph someone took of her: my daughter, standing victorious at the top.

There was adventure in all of these experiences—and the potential for danger.  To stand at a distance as one’s child—or one’s student—takes a run at the ice means holding the instinct for rescue in check in order to send a more important message. That invisible line between a watchful parent and an eager child vibrates with a message of faith, of belief in the child’s ability to succeed. The message these parents were sending to their daughter this morning as she walked along on the ice will prepare her to approach life with confidence, to engage in its struggles with spirit, to feel pride when she reaches solid ground, and to move forward always, embracing the world before her.

There’s a lesson in this balancing act—for the parents of our students and for us, the teachers at the front of the room. Instinct screams at us to protect our children and to make learning easy for our students. It is important to keep a watchful eye, but we can’t–and shouldn’t–prevent the learning that comes from an occasional fall. Our children will move with confidence when they know how to walk on ice.

Posted in Parents and Teachers, Reflection | Tagged | 4 Comments

Biomedical Innovations: Redesigning the ED

students in scrubsWe could see there’s a problem with too many visitors in the patients’ rooms sometimes.”

Heads nodded.

“We’ve devised a badge system that will eliminate that overcrowding problem.”

The administrators jotted down the details.

“You definitely need another door at the triage desk.”

More heads nodded.

“The nurses told us there’s a flow problem with the storage rooms. You have to go to two different ones. If you had a universal storage system—one central room with two entrances and supplies shelved identically on either end–then you’d improve efficiency.”

People took notes.

One afternoon this week, fifteen seniors from McCutcheon High School presented their plan for redesigning the Emergency Department at IU-Arnett hospital to an audience of seventeen IU-Arnett nurses, educators, technicians, and administrators. The students are members of Mrs. Abi Bymaster’s Biomedical Innovations class, the fourth and capstone course in Project Lead the Way’s Biomedical Science sequence. One purpose of Biomedical Innovations is to give students a hands-on, real world experience designing an efficient—and thus, effective—emergency room. Mrs. Bymaster challenged her students to take the assignment to the next level—to work not in the abstract, but with a real hospital with a real problem. The IU-Arnett facility is only a few years old, but already, Emergency Department demand has exceeded capacity. The hospital will soon be hiring a professional design firm to develop a blueprint, but in the meantime, these high schools students offered, in an engaging and highly polished presentation, a plan whose details clearly resonated with the experiences of their audience.

The students commanded the attention of the hospital personnel, including the Director of the Emergency Department and the Director of Facilities, for an hour. During their presentation, not one student stumbled and not one seemed even uncomfortable.

The students had been oriented to the hospital by a representative from the Human Relations Department, who had come to their class at the high school on two occasions. In advance of their actual visits to the ED, the students were required to have a flu shot, verify that they’d had a schedule of vaccinations, and sign liability and HIPAA papers. Over a period of three months, the students–recognizable in the eggplant-colored scrubs which they’d chosen to purchase—were allowed to float and watch events unfold. When they arrived, the students checked in with the charge nurse who would assign them to someone on the emergency department team—a nurse or a technician—whom they interviewed and shadowed. In the end, each student visited the Emergency Department four to five times, at different times throughout the day.

Back at the high school, the students reported their experiences to each other in class discussions, drew preliminary designs on the classroom whiteboards, and conducted online research into the operations of other hospitals in Indiana and distant cities. They worked in teams to identify innovations that could be made in four areas: structural design, storage, communication, and security.

“We think the nurses could communicate with each other and with others in the hospital if they had iPhones instead of the bulky calling devices they’re using now. Those devices are loud and intrusive.” As if on cue, a nurse’s portable phone rang—loudly. And more than once. Everyone laughed, but the point was accentuated.

The students assured hospital administrators that the iPhones could be equipped with “parental controls” so that their usage would be limited to internal communications, and they offered suggestions for a number of useful apps that would increase the functionality of the devices: Evernote—to replace the notes they had seen nurses making on random slips of paper; Epocrates—to identify medicines; Medical Spanish—a spoken medical dictionary that can ask patients questions in Spanish; and Telemed IQ—a text messaging system that is HIPAA-compliant.

Asked about those cell phones in the Q-A session at the end of the presentation, the students explained that iPhones are being used now in some big city hospitals and that the apps are secure and HIPAA-compliant. The students had done their homework and anticipated the question.

No presentation, it seems, goes without a technology hitch, and although the one these students experienced was crushing, they didn’t miss a beat or even make a face. One of the students, who had a background in civil engineering classes, had created a CAD drawing of the architectural redesign, but a software licensing glitch prevented her from showing it to the assembled hospital personnel. However, she also had produced a blueprint, and at the conclusion of the presentation, explained the changes her team had envisioned to a group crowded around a table. P1040754

It was the students’ professionalism throughout the entire presentation that set the stage for serious consideration of their ideas. They were dressed professionally, first of all, and the presentation itself reflected every speech and language skill their teachers had ever stressed and which my colleague had clearly set as a fundamental expectation: not a stammer nor a hesitation in speaking, not a single distracting movement, only carefully chosen words–precise and concise. Even when the phone interrupted her speech, the student talking about the iPhones maintained her poise, merely smiling at the comic relief the noisy ring provided and then deftly using the opportunity to underscore her message: iPhones would be less intrusive.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the Director of Facilities remarked to the students: “I’ve seen college kids who were not so good. I was impressed with your logic—how you’d thought things out.”

The Emergency Department Director had just returned from a week-long training. She commented that that she hadn’t come away from that with so many ideas as the high school students gave her. “And your demonstration was perfect!” By pretending to be nurses picking up supplies, the students on the Storage Team demonstrated in real minutes the time that would be saved if the hospital implemented their design.
“I was impressed with your presentation and your ideas—you seem to have enjoyed the process,” the Emergency Department Manager said. “You have blown me away.”

Biomedical Innovations is an example of the project-based learning approach that characterizes Project Lead the Way courses: Students have the opportunity to design solutions to real engineering problems—in this case, in the health field industry. Project-based learning integrates learning, calls for teamwork in solving problems, and prepares students for the world of work.

“My boss isn’t going to give me a worksheet and tell me to get it done,” said the young woman who had created the CAD drawing. “He or she will give me a project instead.”

The students learned so much, they told me:

  • The inter-relationship of technology, storage, and room arrangement
  •  How necessary it is that the environment facilitates communication
  •  The discovery that so many little things go into the big picture
  • How much time and effort the nurses give to the patients
  • All the work that goes into creating an efficient system

Most of the students in this class were already were thinking about a career in the medical field when they registered for the Biomedical Innovations course, but as one student said, “This program finalized that!”

At the end of the presentation, another student, a spokesperson for the group, thanked the hospital personnel for giving them so much help with this assignment. “Many of us want to go into medicine or a field related to medicine. Thank you for providing a positive experience for us.”

I began observing the students in the early stages of this project. Early on, I had asked their teacher what benefit there would be for the hospital: “Why would a hospital let a crew of teenagers shadow their nurses and interview everyone who works in the Emergency Department? That’s unheard of.”

“Well, they’ll get some free advice,” she said. Mrs. Bymaster went on to explain that she had worked closely with the hospital’s Education Outreach Department to design the assignment and establish its parameters.

Judging by all the head-nodding and note taking that went on throughout the hour, the audience heard more than just some gratuitous advice: They listened to a polished and thoughtful presentation that professional hospital designers are going to be hard-pressed to match.

More than that, the students gave current practitioners a glimpse of the future. Patients will be in good hands, whether these students ultimately become nurses, lab technicians, doctors, biomedical engineers, researchers, physician assistants or train for one of myriad other medical P1040748occupations. These future medical professionals understand the complexity of health care systems and know already that, along with compassionate care, efficient systems are critical in the mission to save lives.

Here’s the blueprint: IU Arnett 2d wc backup nov 12

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Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

IMG_3253You 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, 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.

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.

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, 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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About the Dog

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

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

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

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

But back to the dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because he must.

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

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

Because he can.

Prejudice has completely consumed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So about the dog…

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