National Treasure

To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.

It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.

When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.

In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:

  • To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave for analysis by phrenologists. Indeed, pseudo-scientists found the “music bump” was significantly developed—but it was nearly another century before Haydn’s head was reunited with his body.
  • Out on the open seas with the commander of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, in mad pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white whale who had taken his leg.
  • To a 1940s wedding, where the bride wore a dress she had made of parachute silk: the tight-fitting sleeves  were pleated at the elbow so she could move her arms, and the neckline was high, as modest as the times.
  • To Versailles with Wilson, Clemenceau, Orlando, and David Lloyd George, hammering out the Treaty that ended WWI but set the stage for so many more 20th century conflicts.
  • To the Middle East—via computer and a stunning visual from the LondonTimes—to learn about the Arab Spring.

Here are some other things I have learned—or relearned, as the case may be:

  • How to figure percents (6th grade math)
  • How to make a coiled basket (7th grade art)
  • How airbags work (a high school chemistry lesson in stoiciometry and the gas laws)
  • The seven characteristics of a folk tale (6th grade English)
  • Why artists make still life drawings—and how to do it (8th grade art)
  • How to make ice cream in a plastic bag (8th grade science)
  • How the metric system works (7th grade science)

Over and over and over again, I am impressed by the good teaching I see—and the more I see, the more frustrated I become with the voices of people who haven’t been in a classroom in a very long time—or perhaps haven’t even taught a day in their lives. Some of the best teachers in the world are at the front of the classrooms I’ve visited.

Every good lesson has a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Some teachers pique their students’ interest with a question: When will the force of the water from a fire hose be stronger? When it’s on the up side of the parabola or the down?

Some do it with a demonstration: An art teacher I recently watched gathered her students around her to demonstrate still life drawing. She talked out loud throughout her demo, questioning her kids about why she was doing what she was, reminding them of what they already knew, and prepping them for what they soon would do that was new.  Then they set off to do a still life on their own.

Others tell a story (like the one about Haydn’s head), or read aloud (These aren’t always English teachers—reading aloud is how the airbag class started!). They hook their kids and then jump into the lesson.

Sometimes they use “props”—like several teachers I’ve seen who have individual whiteboards for writing down answers and holding them up so the teacher can gauge the class’s understanding—or popsicle sticks and clay to make prototype chairs and tables—or crazy assortments of objects all spray-painted white (in the case of the still life drawings).  Sometimes they send students to the Internet to find a specific answer or just to find out what they can about a particular topic.

In a Family and Consumer Science class (FACS), girls AND boys were dressing models in the fashions of the decades. They were using figures and clothing that reminded me of the paper dolls I played with as a child—except that these dolls were figures on one side of a computer screen and the students “dragged and dropped” clothing from the other side onto the models, making the equivalent of dressing room changes until they had the dolls attired as they liked.

Sometimes the interactive whiteboard facilitates instruction—like the American history teacher who used it to show the students the map of Europe pre- and post-WWI—or the world history teacher who showed the class a virtual timeline of the conflicts in the Middle East.  English teachers dissect essays right before the students’ eyes or use the screen to show a timely YouTube video.

But technology isn’t all. There are old-fashioned storytellers among us—like the teacher whose students were enthralled with the story of Wilson’s 14 Points and how the Big Four at Versailles—or the Big Three, once Orlando left—hammered out the agreement that brought an end to WWI. She captured the personalities of these four men and brought them together as if they were characters in a book—and brought the story of the Versailles Treaty to life.

A middle school world history teacher has his students capture the essence of a country’s culture in haiku; the students in a middle school English class create a collective self-portrait with “I Am From” poems.  Another English teacher directs graduating 8th graders to produce “The Soundtrack of my Life”: Each student writes about key events in his or her life and records it all on a CD. I’ve watched an extraordinary music teacher inspire her students to write essays about the reciprocal relationship between music and culture and listened as another music teacher led his students in a discussion of an NPR piece on tempo.

Sometimes, of course, the ending is a homework assignment, but in the best classrooms, that assignment is tied directly to the main idea of the day or to a point in the lesson—if it’s a two-day or three-day lesson—that will help the students  transition to the next day’s focus. Sometimes homework comes in the form of a paper, a project, or a short reflection. Sometimes it’s problems to work or issues to resolve, an article to read or pieces to practice. Sometimes it’s reading on in a book, and sometimes there is no homework at all. There isn’t a formula for the ending: The teacher needs to know whether the students understood the lesson of the day and where she should pick up the next day, and there’s more than one way to find that out and move instruction forward. Sometimes closure is accomplished with those individual whiteboards or with exit passes or with questions the students submit. But there’s always a “wrap.” A good teacher doesn’t let the kids just drift out the door without a finish.

They’re ingenious, these teachers I’ve seen. They’re thoughtful, funny, clever, compassionate, kind. They challenge their students, to whom they are devoted, and they’re earnest about learning new skills and expanding their expertise. They’re dedicated to their task.  I know math teachers who are concerned about reading comprehension and differentiating instruction and collaborative learning.  I know special education teachers who attend high school workshops about strategies they’ll probably never use and courses their students will probably never take—but the teachers want to stay current with mainstream teaching.  Even veteran teachers continue to learn. The English teacher who swept me up in the story of Moby-Dick has been teaching for over 40 years—but she still comes to my after-school workshops on reading comprehension just in case I have something new to teach her

Of course there are teachers who don’t yet have all the skills they need—I wouldn’t have a job if everyone knew everything and no one needed anything.  Sure we all can learn more—none of us teaches a perfect lesson every single day.  It’s true that every field is changing and that, as a group and as individuals, we need to make changes.  The knowledge base in every field is rapidly increasing, too, and the range of skills our kids need is expanding. The technology we are privileged to use is constantly evolving.  But so many amazing educators are committed to making the necessary changes because they are committed to serving their students well.

I wish our critics would pay attention for a change to the extraordinary teaching happening in our schools. I wish they would not lump us all together, call us collectively the equivalent of a bad apple. I wish they would recognize that educators are, quite to the contrary, our national treasure.

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Dining In at School

The busboy: “I can feel it in my back.”

The plater: “My feet hurt! Our teacher told us to wear comfortable shoes.”

The restaurant manager: “I’ve been under high stress all day…”

On-the-scene remarks from students in Mrs. Laura Cole’s Advanced Nutrition and Wellness class, spoken by students who had just finished serving full course meals to 70 people in the space of two hours in a restaurant they’d created from scratch. Another class would repeat the experience two days later—this group preparing meals for 65. Teachers, secretaries, principals, aides–all building staff and even district office personnel receive the menus in advance, make reservations, and on the days of the restaurant, enjoy a thirty-minute lunch period in a setting very different from the usual brown bag, microwave, and cafeteria tray ambience.


McCutcheon teachers enjoy lunch prepared and served by students.

These student-operated restaurant days have been a tradition at McCutcheon High School for at least thirty years. The program has spread to Harrison High School, too, and the staff  at both high schools have the chance each semester to enjoy a relaxing lunch with colleagues and observe proud, though nervous, students in a completely different setting. For the students, it’s an opportunity to discover the many challenging aspects of operating a restaurant and to apply the culinary skills they’ve learned in class.


Mrs. Jami Mosley and teachers at Harrison High School enjoy lunch served by students.

I’ve enjoyed these lunches for years and I’ve often wondered how my colleagues, Mrs. Laura Cole at McCutcheon and Mrs. Jami Mosley at Harrison High School, do it. How do they take students from objectives projected on the whiteboard to a full service restaurant?

To find out, I asked to be a fly on the wall during the instructional phase of Mrs. Cole’s class and then take pictures in the kitchen on the days the restaurant was in operation.


Students folded construction paper to make these floral centerpieces.

When Mrs. Cole introduced the project,  I learned along with the students that they would find recipes online, propose a menu, cost out the meals, and then make final choices based on selections that could be prepared economically and in volume in a short amount of time, meals whose artful arrangement on the plate and utter deliciousness would be irresistible. Mrs. Cole explained that the students would select a theme for the restaurant and transform a classroom area in the FACS department into a welcoming space with soft lighting and themed wall and table decorations. They’d learn to work as a team and see the absolute necessity for each person to responsibly carry out his or her role: managers, servers, expediters, platers, bussers, and dishwashers.

My colleague showed the students sample menus that went back thirty years—I remembered some of those earlier lunches—and opened her closets to reveal centerpieces, vases, and decorative objects that could be used again if students were interested.  She talked about some of the problems and successes of the past, warning students of the necessity to plan ahead and think large-scale–larger than they’re used to anyway.

On the day of the restaurant, she continued, everyone would be involved in food preparation from 7:30 until 10:30. Then they’d diversify, each student carrying out the responsibilities of the role to which they’d been assigned. The students told me, when I interviewed them on the day the restaurant was open, that they had had some choice in this: They indicated their top three preferences and then Mrs. Cole took it from there. One of the students, the busboy, confided, “I’m the only one who wanted to do this job, so I got it.”

In the meantime, they watched an episode of Top Chef, viewed a video called Restaurant Nightmares, looked up restaurants online to get ideas, and did the math for a number of different menus.

I was there the day of the Great Dessert Cook-off.  Working in teams, the students chose a dessert, prepared it, plated a sample, and shared the remainder with the rest of the class. Afterwards, students evaluated the desserts on cost, appearance on the plate, taste, and ease of preparation in high volume  in a small amount of time. One of the best desserts, Crème Brulee, didn’t make the cut—not a practical offering on a large-scale basis. In the end, two of the many chocolate desserts won out: Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle and Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball with Graham Crackers.

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I was struck, on the day of the restaurant, by the efficiency and calm in the kitchen. The atmosphere was harmonious and focused. No hanging out, no hanging back, and certainly not any hanging on. Everyone was concentrated on making the teachers’ dining experience perfect in every way, but no one seemed frantic, even the manager, who did confess to being stressed. He told me that he has a job in a carry-out pizza establishment. “They don’t have a dining room,” he explained. “I’m used to the back-of-the-house, but this front-of-the-house part is stressful!”

The entrée was chicken quesadillas. At one station, a team of cooks prepared them on anIMG_7372 array of electric griddles. The cooks even asked to try an innovation they’d seen in a cooking show: melting cheese on the griddle so it formed a tasty crust on the outside of the tortilla. Delicious!

IMG_7385Another girl— a tiny girl who wants to be a professional chef, the one whose feet hurt—wielded the chef’s knife, cutting each quesadilla into perfect triangles.

The others at her station added Spanish rice and chips and salsa to the plate, and then the expediter delivered the plates to a side table where the servers picked them up. The manager hovered over them all, taking his job very seriously:

“A little more lettuce there!”

“Don’t forget the chips on that plate!”

“Watch the sour cream!”  Someone appeared with a wet paper towel to wipe a smear on the side of a plate.IMG_7370

Servers rushed into the kitchen: “We need five more desserts!” Instantly, the platers went to work, the expediter picked up the desserts and passed them to the servers, and the waitresses were out the door.

The second day—with her second section of Advanced Nutrition and Wellness—Mrs. Cole repeated the process. This time the menu was loaded potato soup, garden salad, a cheddar bay biscuit, and for dessert, that Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle.

For teachers, restaurant day has always been an event to look forward to, especially during the gloomy days of winter. It’s a chance to see the students shine and a chance for them to impress us. But there’s always a cost: The food is  so delicious we leave nothing on the plate…and that means extra walks in the days ahead to burn the calories away. That’s okay. These lunches are worth every bite.

At the end of her meal, one of the teachers asked her waitress: “Is the manager coming out?”  In the “back of the house,” I witnessed just a moment of panic when the message was relayed. The manager stepped into the dining room to discover not a disgruntled customer, but one who wanted, of course, to compliment the chefs and all the other restaurant workers, too.


Mrs. Cole directs the student restaurant project at McCutcheon.

Mrs. Cole has been orchestrating this project-based learning experience for several years. The restaurant project means hours of grocery shopping for her and a great deal of planning, but it’s worth the extra time, she says. “While the restaurant project can be stressful, it is very rewarding.  Students work hard to plan their restaurant and menus.  Since students have so much freedom of creativity, they really take ownership of this project.  It is amazing how well they come together to be an effective team to carry out their vision.  While most are exhausted by the end of the day, they are also very proud.”

Indeed, the whole production is a recipe for success for her students: an impressive blend of content knowledge and culinary skill mixed together with math, literacy and problem-solving, flavored with creativity, and topped off with teamwork. Five stars!

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Auto Shop: Way More than Grease Monkeys

“We do our homework in the garage.” That’s the tag line on my colleague’s business card.

He’s an Automotive Service Instructor, of course, and an ASE Master Technician.

The course Rob Jakes teaches—Automotive Service Technology–is the second in a two-year program that can culminate for high school seniors in acceptance into a vocational college or an immediate job in the local work force.  “I have students in the automotive repair departments of dealerships all over town,” Mr. Jakes told me, “and some students are already at Subaru-Isuzu.”  Many of his students attend Lincoln Tech, the University of Northwestern Ohio, and Ivy Tech, to name a few post-secondary schools near our community.

The day I visited his class, Mr. Jakes’ students were working on the wheel assembly on a faculty member’s car.  I watched and took pictures, tried to follow the language when I couldn’t get close enough to the action: ball joint, brake pad, piston, fuel injector, torque wrench, axle. The students handled the language and the machinery with ease.

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“They learn the language in the first year course,” my colleague explained. “No room for not knowing it here.” In that first year course, there’s so much vocabulary that the teacher uses Quizlet to help the students learn. They take an engine apart in much the same way they’d dissect a frog in biology to learn anatomy and physiology.  The Automotive Service Technician program is a sequenced learning program with an academic as well as mechanical focus.

IMG_7237In their second year, the students work on actual vehicles. One of our local industries, Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA), donates “dead cars” to Mr. Jakes’ program. The students bring them back to life.  Once a week, the students work on faculty vehicles, and on Fridays, they can bring in their own cars and work on problems that can be resolved in a two-hour class period.

While 70% of the time students are engaged in hands-on work with vehicles, this class is nothing like the “auto shop” stereotype of twenty-five years ago when Mr. Jakes first began teaching.  In the first place, the students use an online textbook. “In the day,” Mr. Jakes told me, “there were no textbooks.  A student would once in a while look in a service manual to figure out what was wrong with a vehicle and how to fix it.”

Because cars today operate on computers, service technicians must have sharp reading skills and advanced technology skills to diagnose and repair the vehicles that come into a shop. Repairing cars is no longer a trial and error business, and a laptop computer is a standard part of a service technician’s toolbox.

When a car comes into the auto shop at McCutcheon High School with a problem, the first thing the students will do is check their own laptops for a TSB—Technical Service Bulletin—on the vehicle. If there’s no TSB, they might visit a technical chat room to learn whether the problem has occurred somewhere else in the country and how another technician has dealt with it.

For example, one day recently, the outside mirror on our principal’s car was loose. It is a new car, but when he was driving down the highway, he noticed the mirror vibrating. He brought the vehicle into the shop and one of the students, Cody, went right to an online chat to find a solution for the problem. He found the fix: Toggle the button inside the car three times to tighten the mirror. Think what might have happened in a shop if the service technician hadn’t had the initiative, and the critical thinking skills, to look online for a solution. The customer might have been told he needed a new mirror. $300.

Cody, who is enrolled in Mr. Jakes’ class for an optional 3rd year, plans to save money for college next year and then enroll in a technical-vocational program after that. Right now he works after school at a tire store where he uses a computer to diagnose problems with pressure and balance.

I asked him how long he’s known he wanted to be an automotive service technician. “Since middle school,” he said. “My initials spell CAR,” he added with a smile.

Before he finishes high school, Cody will have logged three years in the Automotive Service Technician program and received at least six hours of dual credit with our local community college. He will also have the opportunity, at the end of his senior year, to earn student certification in four areas: brakes; electrical; steering, suspension and alignment; and engines.  He’ll need at least two years of work in the industry to be eligible for just one of the eight advanced exams needed to be a Master.

IMG_1852Thanks to his mentor, Mr. Jakes, and this challenging Career and Technical Education  program, Cody is well positioned to pursue his goal of becoming an ASE Master Technician himself.

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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!

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 , | 3 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 students, 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