Reading E-Texts Successfully: What It Takes

  • I’m not tech-savvy
  • I get headaches
  • My eyes hurt
  • Trouble navigating around the book
  • Can’t find the glossary or index
  • Lose my place
  • Forgot what I just read
  • Computer freezing or kicking me out of the program
  • Easily distracted
  • Don’t have Wi-Fi
  • Hit the wrong x and it closes me out
  • Words are too small
  • Flipping pages takes too much time

Sound familiar?  These are among the litany of complaints students have about e-textbooks. Teachers have the same complaints.

More importantly, current research is telling us that comprehension takes a hit with e-texts.  Some of that slippage has to do with navigational issues. For example, research tells us that when scrolling is required, comprehension suffers. When students have to switch screens—as opposed to flipping pages—comprehension takes another hit. Some of the hit is because of visual fatigue or issues with layout. It could be the screen is too bright or that the words are spread too wide across the page.  Fiction is less of a problem than non-fiction, but when an on-screen text exceeds 500 words, for all of us, comprehension generally decreases. Most of us print articles out when the text length reaches some personal threshold. Some people just miss the tactile pleasure of holding a book in their hands and may skim an e-text instead of really reading it.

So why don’t we just go “back to books?”

I’d sure like to—and most of the students I’ve talked to would like that, too. But e-textbooks are economical—ask any school district that has to expend thousands of dollars on textbooks every year. E-texts are cheaper and they don’t get worn, torn, or broken, either.

E-texts are portable and the content is accessible across devices. This is about the only thing most students do like about their e-texts. They don’t have to lug heavy books around all day and back and forth from home to school. In a pinch, they can even access the e-book on their phones.

E-texts are far more environmentally-friendly. Trees are our renewable resource, paper manufacturers like to say, but it takes an awful lot of trees to manufacture one textbook in the quantity needed by schools across the country. Here’s a shocking statistic.

E-texts can do things paper books can’t. E-texts offer interactive features such as pop-ups for vocabulary; pop-outs and mouse-overs for explanations of, say, features on a map; audio/video players; guided reading questions; additional problem sets; flashcards, highlighters, and other study tools.

In short, for all these reasons, e-texts have their merits—and their supporters—no matter how much students and teachers complain, no matter what the research says about comprehension.

So what’s a teacher to do?

One of the concepts I gleaned from a semester of reading original education research, magazine articles, academic websites offering advice to students, and books (in print) is this: When students read an e-text, each of them creates a unique reading pathway. The figures, tables, and charts they look at, the hyperlinks they click on, the order in which they click on those links, what searches they conduct, what options they choose from drop-down menus, whether they return to previous chapters and charts, consult the index or the table of contents, use the audio player or avail themselves of the study tools the text provides—all of those actions fall within their control. In a print text, the options are limited and students are accustomed to starting at the beginning and reading to the end. In an e-text, they’re in the driver’s seat.

It stands to reason that we should teach them the rules of the road.

My colleague, Mrs.Tasha Ploss, who teaches Honors Chemistry, and I set out this past semester to do just that.  We set out to learn what it takes to read an e-text successfully.

We classified what we learned about effective and efficient e-text reading into three categories:

  • Know Your Device
  • Know Your E-textbook
  • Know Your Mind

Know Your Device: We were shocked to discover how many of our students didn’t know some of the basic functionalities of their devices—in our district, those devices are Chromebooks.  

Many of the students’ initial complaints were about eyesight issues and headaches.  On a pre-instruction survey, 67.7% indicated they did not know how to invert the color on their screens—to make the print white-on-back (“night vision” as Mrs. Ploss calls it).  She showed them. There was an audible response from the students when the colors inverted right before their eyes. Fewer students—24.6%–didn’t know they could adjust the brightness levels on the Chromebook.

From conversations with the students, Mrs. Ploss also determined that many of the students simply could not remember quick keystrokes such as screen shot, using ctrl + “F” to find a word on the page, and select/highlight the full text.  A whopping 58.5% did not know how to split their screens—a move that would allow them to view two pages consecutively, two pages from separate sections of the text, or even the text plus Google docs for the purpose of notetaking. It isn’t that students haven’t been taught many of these skills somewhere before, but kids forget. I forget a keyboard stroke or shortcut I haven’t used in a while. It’s natural that kids would, too.

Mrs. Ploss taught or reminded students of all of these keyboard strokes and many more. That helped—and students reported that once they learned these “new” moves, they began using them in other classes, with other e-texts.

Know Your E-text:

The e-textbook Mrs. Ploss uses for Honors Chemistry has many bells and whistles. The study tools section includes, among other things, premade flashcards for academic vocabulary, keyed to each chapter. Skill builders and problem sets, answers and explanations for those sets, pop-ups in the text for vocabulary, figures and diagrams and charts hyperlinked internally, built-in highlighters—all were among the features she pointed out or demonstrated for the students.

To teach these to the students, she had to learn how to use them herself. And that’s a key point about e-texts. Just as teachers need to point out the location and function of the features of a print book—the table of contents, the glossary, the index—and what the text features—colors, font, size of text—mean, so in an e-text, the teacher needs to be familiar with the features and know what each of them does and how to find it or activate it. And then show the students how that particular e-text “works.”

Although her text has built-in notetaking and highlighter tools, Mrs. Ploss taught her students how to take notes using Google.docs with the split screen option.  She walked them through the process of accessing Add-ons like the highlighter tool so they’d know how to do that when faced with an e-text without so many tools.

Know Your Mind: This lesson was really all about metacognition. To be a successful e-reader, a student needs to consciously think about or monitor what’s happening in his head as he’s reading. So, Ms. Ploss told the students, “Remove the distractions: Put the phone away, close any irrelevant tabs, and pay attention as you read.” Metacognition is important in print reading, too, of course, but the distractions presented by a screen call for extra alertness to stay on task and process information.

Should you be skimming, scanning, or reading?  Many students didn’t remember the differences among these three strategies for accessing information: Skim to get the gist, scan to find a discrete piece of information, read to understand. Students are taught in elementary school, over and over again, to be conscious of their purpose in reading and then to choose to skim or scan or read accordingly. They need to be reminded of purpose and different reading strategies when they’re in high school, too.

We also taught the students to beware, when skimming, of using Z and F skimming patterns. These are natural skimming methods that web designers take advantage of to design web pages and social media. These patterns permit rapid assessment of content, but they’re poor substitutes for the kind of skimming called for in a textbook–puddle-jumping across the page and through each line of a paragraph. We taught the students about the Z and F patterns and asked them to consider whether they are using either of those patterns when they skim. Many discovered they were.

And finally, the hyperlinks. The Honors Chemistry book is a “closed” environment. All of the hyperlinks connect to locations within the book. Some students had never clicked on links that would have been helpful; others were distracted by clicking when they didn’t need to. On the Internet, an “open” environment, hyperlinks are a much more difficult problem. It’s easy to “rabbit hole” (as anyone who’s ever visited YouTube can tell you),  so Mrs. Ploss created a flowchart to help students stay on track: Have I read the whole article? Will the hyperlink expand my knowledge or sidetrack me? Is the link reputable?

Most importantly, part of what makes e-texts so difficult is that every reading and study skill students have ever learned carries over to reading on a screen. If you’re a poor reader to begin with, the problem is only exacerbated by the panoply of additional skills needed to read efficiently and effectively.  

Here’s a list of those skills—and we’ve probably missed some. It’s a miracle that anyone ever learns to read in the first place (just read Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid if you want to be awed); the list of things you need to know to read an e-text well is daunting.

Helping our students become successful is our mission. That’s exactly what Mrs. Ploss and I have tried to do by teaching students how to navigate their e-texts and reminding them of strategies they may not have been taught or may have forgotten that will help them be more successful e-text readers.

We have not created a magic bullet for reading e-texts. Reading comprehension is way too complicated for that. Our goal was to help the students be more successful than they were.

Mrs. Ploss surveyed her students at the end of the e-text reading lessons. She asked if they felt they could read their e-texts better after all the instruction.

91.6% said they could.

That’s a win.

 

For further reading:

Business Insider:A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens”

The New Yorker: “Being a Better Online Reader”

Tim Shanahan “Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?” (blog post)

Z and F patterns: “How to Use F and Z Patterns in Your Landing Page Design”

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‘Tis the Season to be Stressed

IMG_0546Almost the end of the semester. For high school students, the run-up to the holidays is likely to be stressful, thanks to those dreaded final exams. Guest blogger Mike Etzkorn, a math teacher who leads McCutcheon High School’s Maverick Launch program, explains why the short-term stress brought on by finals can actually benefit students–and offers some tips to help students through this and other stressful experiences. Welcome, Mike, to In an American Classroom. 

‘Tis the season to be jolly; however, for so many of our students and children, ‘Tis the season to be stressed.  Finals week is almost upon us and with it comes stress for students. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey of high school students relating to stress and has demonstrated that high school students are more stressed out now than ever before.  As of late, a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy has been expended within our educational system toward helping students learn how to cope and de-stress. These efforts are necessary and beneficial, but we also need to look at the difference between acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress.

Acute stress can actually have many benefits.  Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says that “low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins, and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain.” Acute stress can temporarily improve memory and motivate productive behavior.  Dr. Shelton also says learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage, thus teaching resiliency and grit. It’s the idea behind Navy SEAL training, he reports as well.

I like to call this concept raising our stress threshold.  The analogy I use with my students is that stress is like a muscle.  Weightlifters will “max out” when lifting, which means they take their muscles to the top edge of their limit, causing their muscles to fail.  This is a very painful and uncomfortable experience. Their muscles burn, shake, and ultimately can’t handle any more weight. After a recovery period, the next time they lift, they are able to raise their maximum weight.  Acute stress is exactly like maxing out when weight lifting. When we experience acute stress, we are maxing out our stress threshold. This is an uncomfortable experience, but once we have pushed through the temporary stressor, we are able to tolerate more stress the next time.  

When I reflect on my own educational experiences, I can recall numerous all-nighters or tear-filled nights, experiencing my own personal stress threshold max.  My first experience with acute stress occurred during my freshman year history class with Mr. Crismer. Each quarter, we were assigned a nine-to-eleven-page research paper on a randomly assigned historical figure. We were required to have three sources, and in the days before the internet, we had to dive into the old-fashioned library catalog cards. If we were unlucky enough to get one of the more obscure historical figures, it sometimes took three different libraries to find those three sources.  We were given two weeks to complete the assignment, and all the work had to be completed outside of class time. Freshman year was the first time I pulled an all-nighter to complete an academic assignment, and it certainly was not the last. Through my first acute stress experience, I learned how to power through the stress to accomplish my goal.  This particular stressor (my paper) presented itself over a two-week period, with an end in sight, concluding with the completion of the project. 

Learning how to utilize acute stress to boost grit is a lesson every student needs to learn. Academic stressors, which are acute in nature but deployed in a safe, controlled environment, are beneficial and should not be removed or eliminated.  Instead, they should be utilized to teach our students the resiliency that is needed to succeed beyond the classroom.

Although the task of writing a history paper seemed insurmountable when I was a freshman, we all know that life has challenges that are far more overwhelming.  The lessons I learned in resiliency during my high school years helped me fight through a literal battle for my life: cancer. At age 24, I was diagnosed with chemoresistant metastatic cancer.  I spent nine months enduring surgery, traditional chemo, more surgeries, and high dose second line chemo. This nine-month experience not only took its toll on me physically but also mentally. Without my past stress experiences raising my stress threshold, I would not have been able to handle the challenges that presented themselves during that fight.  

As a parent of three adult children, I look back at whether or not I did enough to prepare my children for the stress of adult life.  I always had to ask myself: Did I push my children enough? Did I push them too hard? Did I help them navigate the stressors of adolescence so that their stress threshold was raised enough for them to have the grit necessary to succeed in life?  Were the tear-filled all-nighters worth it? Did the “No, you cannot quit the team, you will finish what you started. Suck it up buttercup!” speech teach them to fight through adversity? Even though the experiences were painful for them, and painful for me to watch, was it worth it?  As educators and parents, it is our responsibility not to remove the stressors from our students’ lives, but to help our students raise their stress threshold in a safe and controlled environment. So as we progress into finals week, let’s utilize this time to help prepare our students for what is to come after they leave the safety of education.  

Ways to help your student through the stress associated with Final Exams:

  • Remind them that their stress is temporary.  
  • Encourage them to put forth their best effort.  “If you do your best, you can walk away holding your head up high no matter the result.”
  • Help your student maintain a healthy balance between work and de-stress time.
  • Be supportive and encouraging, remind them that you are proud of how hard they are working.  
  • Remind your student that healthy eating and sleeping habits are just as important as studying.  
  • Urge your student to ask for help when they need it, share with them a time when you had to ask for help.

 

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and many of you are college professors, even Department Chairs at your universities. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A welding instructor. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, two of you worked as field managers for candidates in our last election. One of you is a personal secretary to someone in Germany.  Beauticians and therapists and specialists of all kinds. An artist and a computer design expert. 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 firefighters, automobile salespeople and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and heating and cooling experts. You work in personnel and transportation, retail and manufacturing. You are receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and web page designers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and physicians’ assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

Some of you came to this country as refugees and immigrants, only to meet new obstacles here. You worked hard and long to weave yourselves into the fabric of this nation, making me and your families proud of all you have accomplished. Many of you had different struggles–you faced challenges no one should have to–but you had determination and the will to succeed. You still work hard, all of you, every single day, to make this world spin round.

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

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

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

And give thanks.

Honor the Process

I’m not an artist myself, but I’ve always been drawn to the colors and textures and weave of fabrics from around the world. I like designs on cloth and clothing design. I used to quilt, and once upon a time, I sewed my own clothes. So, on a recent trip to Philadelphia, when I learned about The Fabric Workshop and Museum, I was eager to visit. What I stumbled upon there was a retrospective exhibition of 40 years of fabric art, all works completed on the premises by visiting artists.  Some of them—like Faith Ringgold and Louise Nevelson—I recognized; the others were new to me. The exhibition—which runs until March 25, 2018, if you happen to live in Philadelphia—is named: Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation.

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The first “piece” I encountered was a box of loosely arranged fabric, raw on the edges; pencil drawings; a map; two kinds of cord; a color wheel made of fabric bits, lengths of watercolor on silk; color swatches drawn as tiny skeins–all of it arranged pleasingly, invitingly, in a glass display case. The assemblage was striking, beautiful all by itself.

I came upon another box, and another, and then some finished pieces on the wall.  

And then I saw that the finished pieces were composed of the items in the box; that is, each box contained the working material of the art on the wall.  

Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach II

A colleague was with me, and together we spent quite a bit of time matching the items in the boxes to the creations on the wall. It was like working through a puzzle or deciphering clues to solve a mystery. We saw, in the notes and drawings and material, each artist’s mind at work—their ingenuity, the choices they made, the juxtapositions that, by chance or design, resulted in the finished piece.

In some cases, photographs and artifacts from the original installation, impossible to recreate, were mounted on the wall above the corresponding box.

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The pieces on the wall–or on the floor, or suspended from the ceiling–were stunning.

But so were the boxes.

And then, because we are teachers, my colleague and I began to imagine what could be done with this concept in the classroom, what kind of curation task we could set our students to.

Clothing design, interior design, art itself—these are obvious. But what about these:

A social studies box: Choose a period in history and assemble or recreate artifacts that helped you understand significant events or persons or issues during that time. Include, perhaps, excerpts from texts you read, photographs, maps, timetables, music, art pieces, the bits from your research that informed your impression of that time period.  The project could culminate in a poster or a Powerpoint.

A literature box: Choose an author and a characteristic work. Include for the box a picture of the author, of course, and the text itself. But also slip in pictures or reproductions or even real objects that inspired the writer. If they’re available—as they sometimes are online—earlier drafts of the story or poem you selected, the writing utensils likely used, the correspondence between the writer and his or her muse or spouse or editor. Into the box with whatever informs your understanding of the author and the text you selected. And then, how about a book (or story or poetry) talk for the class?

A science box: Choose a disease for which a cure needs to be found, or an environmental issue, or a specific engineering problem that needs to be solved. Find or create the elements that inform the search. Include drawings of cells or elements or photographs of physical locations, maybe a picture of the lab where the work is being done.  Add in printouts of data, tables, charts, diagrams, journal articles you consulted, Petri dishes, microscopes or other lab equipment—or photographs of same—relevant to the search and then create a poster or prepare a Ted Talk synthesizing what you learned.

I am not talking about random artifacts collected to symbolize a writer or a time period or a scientific inquiry. I am not talking about the sort of project students are often asked to do because they are hands-on learners–like, say, a diorama. I am not even talking about “finished” boxes in the way that the artist Joseph Cornell created art inside of a box.

I am talking about an assemblage of items that informs a conclusion, a final product, an enduring understanding (to use Grant Wiggins’ term), or a final takeaway.  

I’m talking about, well, a tangible bibliography.  

The box would represent the student’s choices along his journey to understanding:  “Here are the items I consulted when I did my research. I may not have ‘used’ all of them in my presentation, but all of them were a part of my research.” Indeed, it seemed to me, residing in some of the boxes at the Fabric Museum’s gallery were items that the artist did not incorporate into the final piece but that had, at some point and in some way, suggested themselves as possibilities. The artist made a conscious decision not to use that particular item, but the item was as important as a discard as other items were as selections.

What the box did was make thinking visible.

So, we might say to the student, expose your peers to your process as well as your product. Let them see what you investigated and how you learned and how your final product came into being.  

Because, recreating the process of thinking will help them understand how you came to your conclusions.  (In fact, this act of metacognition will help you understand your own thinking!)

Because, recreating the progress of your thought will also help me, the teacher,  understand how you got from here to there.

Because, jumbled and messy and fragmented as it is, the process of learning is as intriguing—and as beautiful—as the final product.

Because, process deserves as much space—and as much attention—as product.

As educators, we need to make sure we honor the process. That’s how our students learn.

Without process, there is no product. Without process, there is no art.

Without the journey, we can’t reach the destination.

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Go to the Parent Conference

This one is for parents: Why you should do this, even if all is well.
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Face it: When Parent Conference Night rolls around, we’re all tired. I’m tired from a long day in the classroom; you’re tired from your day of work, too. Frantically eating dinner, remaining dressed up, and driving to the school (perhaps for the second or third time that day) may seem like a lot of effort for a minimal return.

But parents should always attend conferences—even if the teacher says they don’t need to. Here’s why:

For the teacher, you are more than a visible presence that night, more than a momentary reminder that your child’s progress in school matters to you. When you show up at conference time, I have you in the back of my mind all the rest of the year. By meeting you, I get a rounded picture of your child and develop a clear sense of obligation to you as a family. It isn’t that I don’t pay attention to the kids whose parents don’t come to conference. I do. In fact, the most frequent lament about conferences that I voice—and the one I hear the most often from other teachers—is that the parents who most need to come, don’t.

It isn’t that I cater to your child, either—because I don’t.

Here’s the secret not a lot of parents realize: Attendance at a parent conference—or an open house—is not a perfunctory exercise. Parents and teachers form relationships because of these interactions, and the parents who do attend conferences become a sort of litmus test for the ideas we invent, for the questions we have, for the quandaries we’re in. What would Sally’s parents or Joe’s parents think of this idea? This method? This idea for a field trip? This expectation? Could they be a resource? Would they chaperone? Is what I am expecting, reasonable?

Knowing you broadens my perspective. Your responses factor into my decision-making.

And just as I develop a rounded picture of your child when I meet you, you have a better picture of me when you come to the conference: not just what I look like (though that helps when you’re reading an email from me or speaking to me on the phone), but my demeanor, the intensity in my voice, my facial expression when I talk about your child. All of those little clues inform your response to me—and that could be important at some point during our year together.

Bottom line: when you come to the conference, you open up that line of communication between us. There’s a problem I should know about? Something’s come up? It’s easier to call me or email when you know who I am—and it’s easier for me to approach you if we’ve already met.

When you come to the conference, you learn the details behind the grade on the report card. Not just the standardized test scores, though you’ll learn those, too, and you’ll have an opportunity to have them explained. But you’ll also find out what you may not know: that your child is a good listener or a respectful group leader or needs help with understanding figurative language or doesn’t take notes or doesn’t take advantage of extra help or checks out more books from the library than anyone else in the class or went out of his way to help someone else. When you come to the conference, you’ll find out I know a lot about your child and I care about him, too.

Go to the parent conference so your child has concrete evidence that you care, so he or she knows that you will always go to the parent conference, good or bad. If you only go when there is a problem, that will communicate the wrong message. After the conference, let your child know how proud of him you are and how much you appreciate his teacher and the chance to meet with her. Make him think parent conferences are cool because parents and teachers get to talk together about the one person who is at the center of the universe: him. Make your child proud that you attend the conferences. As he grows older, there will be plenty of kids whose parents don’t, and you will want your child to think your attendance is cool, not dumb.

By going to the parent conference, you’re reaching out across the generations. Children watch everything their parents do. Because you went to school to meet their teachers, they will show up at their children’s conferences. It’s all about modeling.

It’s also a chance—and here’s a shameless plug for all the hard-working teachers I know—for a parent to thank the teacher for all he or she does–teachers need pats on the back, too, so a thank you is a boost, and a positive conference is just as important as a problem one, even if it does take up a few minutes when we’re all tired and ready to go home.

And let me add this before I move away from the subject: For the most part, I really enjoy parent conferences. When I open my classroom door and parents drop in, I feel like I am inviting them into my home. In some ways, I am. I spend more awake hours per week at school than at my home, and I do “clean house” for my visitors: I wipe down the tables, clean the boards, tidy up for the occasion. I stop short of cookies and tea (although that might not have been a bad idea for sweetening a couple of the conferences I’ve had in my career).

Many of the parents I see are like family. I’ve taught all of their children—or more than one of their children—and I’ve even taught some of them. Sometimes they’ll stick their heads in the door and wave at me even though I no longer have their children in my classes. If I’m not in conference with someone, they’ll come in to chat, bring me up to date on the kids who are now in college, or grad school, or having babies, or farming, or working in Indianapolis, or traveling somewhere in the world. That means a lot. I’ve invested time, energy, and yes, love in their children, and I really do want to know what is happening in their lives and how they’ve fared in the wider world.

So go to the conference–all the way through high school. Even if all you do is stick your head in the door and wave.

Primary Source

Why We March

If you live long enough, you become a primary source.

I was the guest speaker in an AP US History class some time ago, there to talk about my brief stint in Chicago the summer before I married—marching there with MLK, Jr., the types of jobs I did for VISTA, and the state of the Chicago Public Schools 49 years later. Neighborhoods are unchanged; schools are still segregated. Poverty is at the heart of it. If you follow school politics, you know the Chicago Public Schools are in an even more deplorable condition than they were a half-century ago.

The teacher had read my blog post about JFK and touching—or maybe not touching—him when his motorcade came through my town during the 1960 presidential campaign. When she asked me to talk to the class about what I remembered, the substance was scanty—all inspiration and no information. But our conversation drifted to the Civil Rights Movement and for that I had more content—or thought I did. I agreed to talk to her classes.

When I got down to thinking about what I would say, of course, my memories turned out to be pretty meager in this department, too. It would have taken me about one minute to relay the following: “I was in Chicago; King came; I marched. We met in Grant Park, went through the streets of Chicago, ended at City Hall. He was up on a platform and I was too far away to touch him. We all joined hands. We did sing “We Shall Overcome.” I felt good.

So I had to do some research. I started with a box of letters and memorabilia from my college days. My mother had saved every letter I wrote home for the four years I was in college. In that box was a red pocket folder with a few “artifacts” from my time in Chicago the summer after graduation. In the folder was a flyer: Why We March. No date, but a little printer’s mark, indicating that the item was printed, not xeroxed, and a few details of the back story.

Names: Ben Willis and Mayor Daley. Al Raby. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations.

I found a book–out of print—and ordered it: Northern Protest by James R. Ralph, Jr., Turns out, his account of King in Chicago had been a source for Isabel Wilkerson, whose astounding and fascinating story of the great migration of southern blacks, The Warmth of Other Suns, captured a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

In Ralph’s book, I found the date of the March: July 26, 1965. 15,000 people. The largest civil rights demonstration Chicago had ever seen—so said the Chicago Daily News.

I read further in the book and then online about 1966, the year King returned and lived in Lawndale (western suburb, black, the destination of many African-Americans migrating from the South) and the cat and mouse game Daley played with him, the marches that turned violent. All the online texts were about 1966; the Eyes on the Prize video, all about 1966; the accessible newspaper coverage, all about 1966.

How could I prove I had been there? Even the papers in the online Southern Christian Leadership Conference archives are about 1966.

Finally, I found two articles in the Chicago Defender, the leading African-American  newspaper of the day, about the 1965 march—written two days after it was over. The Tribune archives for that year: not online. The Sun-Times? I’d have to sign up for a 7-day free subscription and then I’d probably forget to cancel it.

Finally, finally, I happened upon an edu site (Students, listen: edu sites always yield the best stuff!)—the The University of Illinois at Chicago–that had a summary of 1965 and had reproduced on their site the very flyer I had in my hands. Oh, wow! I’d hit pay dirt and was excited beyond belief.

So funny. The kids would have believed me, but I wanted the proof that what I held was indeed a primary source. This was, after all, an AP history course.

That summer–1965–Al Raby, a black schoolteacher from the South Side, had become the head of an umbrella group of community organizations, all (until then) working independently for better schools, better housing, better employment opportunities. But the focus was on the schools, still (11 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education) 90% segregated. The CCCO marched every day that summer on City Hall. They wanted Daley to dismiss Ben Willis, the Superintendent, because his policies perpetuated segregation. Recently, the schools had gone to double shifts because they were so crowded–that is, the black schools had gone to double shifts. Some white schools had empty desks. But the CCCS was getting nowhere–Daley was a formidable and cagey foe–so they appealed to King, who had led a huge rally at Soldier Field the summer before in 1964 (estimated attendance: from 30,000 to as many as 60,000) and was at that moment looking to expand the movement into a northern city.

A perfect meeting of purposes.

King was in Chicago in 1965 on a five-city tour called the People to People campaign to see which city would be best—Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, or DC—for his northern protest, his “Freedom Summer” in the north. That was to have been what 1966 would be.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. In 1966, King moved into an apartment in Lawndale, deliberately moving there to draw attention to housing inequities. He was still interested in employment and education, but the focus that summer was on open housing. I explained to the students about redlining—the sly and exclusionary tactic of delineating certain areas of the city and then refusing to sell property in those areas or provide financing to people of color who wanted to buy there. Online, I had found maps of Chicago with the neighborhoods clearly marked off. I brought these to class, and I reminded the students of Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play, written in 1957, A Raisin in the Sun—still in our 9th grade English anthologies—about a black family that prepares to move into a white suburb of Chicago (a play with connections to Hansberry’s own family story). Many of the students had read the drama, nodded in recognition. I recited some lines from Langston Hughes, lines the students knew (Thanks, English teachers!!!):

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

Or does it explode?

It exploded in 1966: rioting, marches that turned violent, Dr. King himself hit by a rock thrown at a march in Marquette Park on the South Side. And Daley repeatedly outmaneuvering King. Ultimately, fearing violence in Cicero (a white community that bordered Lawndale and the West Garfield area where I’d been stationed in 1965), King settled with Daley–a 10 point agreement that did make some inroads–and called off the Cicero march. Stokely Carmichael and others, though, went ahead with it on their own, and the march in Cicero did turn violent–bloody and awful.

But in 1965, the year I was there, Chicago was by and large peaceful. It gave King hope that the non-violent tactics of the South could work in the North.

Consider this: If King hadn’t come to Chicago–or any other place–the laws would not have changed; even less, the climate. If the Civil Rights Movement of my day had never happened, would there have been a Women’s Movement, a Native American Movement, Stonewall and the Gay Rights Movement, a Latino Movement? King’s compromise in 1966 was a setback, and the assassination was devastating…but ultimately, progress.

But so much, too much, left to do.

The kids asked me how I reacted to MLK’s assassination. I put my head down on the dining room table and cried, I told them. I remember that distinctly. It was the death of a hero.

The message to the students: Your voice matters. I was one insignificant person in 15,000 that day–but 15,000 insignificant people were not insignificant in their impact. 15,000 helped to convince King to come. He came, and even though he didn’t achieve exactly what he sought, progress was made.

You can change the world, I told the students. You can. But you must stand up, speak up for what is moral and right.

Apparently, the talk was inspiring. Kids clapped, thanked me, and some came back to hear the presentation twice. (I talked to four classes.) The teacher asked me to partner with her next year and do all this during the Civil Rights Unit instead of as a guest speaker. To which I readily agreed and suggested that next year the kids do the research, now that I know it is there and so much is available online.

In all these years, I have not spoken at length about marching with King, though it is something I look back on as significant in my life. Oh, I had mentioned it a few times to kids in school, but not as part of a long discussion with facts and details and questions and answers. I was never quite comfortable. In the first place, I had forgotten the facts. In the second, I was stopped by the feeling that throwing it into a conversation—even one about racism in this country or one about the pernicious effects of poverty—would have been gratuitous, even self-congratulatory. And what was there to congratulate myself about? Of course I marched.

So here I am, old enough to be a primary source and to have had the chance to tell this story.

 

I’ve reblogged this piece now because this story recounts a piece of the King legacy that not everyone knows about. I’ve also reblogged it because my message to students is more important now than it ever was: You can change the world. You can. But you must stand up, speak up for what is moral and right.

Starting Over in January

You made it!  New teacher or veteran, you survived the First Day, the First Week,  Open House, Parent Conferences, the First Grading Period, and Final Exams.

And soon, here we will be again, at the start of a new semester.

I know you spent a little time, in the midst of the celebration and the holidays, to reflect on the first semester. What went well, what you plan to dump, what you’re going to change up a bit.

Here are, the way I see it, the four specific areas of teaching that every educator strives to master:

  • Organization  (How you’ve set up your classroom)
  • Classroom Management (How you approach discipline)
  • Instruction (How you fill those 50 minutes)
  • The Soft Side (How you relate to the kids)

All four of these categories are crucial to success.  You may like the way you are doing things now, but the best teachers always ask “Is there a better way?”

Organization

Seating arrangements. If you want more discussion, change the seats so the students face each other. Talking to the backs of heads doesn’t promote dialogue.  On the other hand, if things have gotten too social, maybe you need rows.  Here’s a great (free) web tool for redoing the room arrangements:  http://classroom.4teachers.org/  Click on “Classroom Architect.”

Absent Work. When kids are absent, do they drive you crazy asking what they missed?  Do you forget where you’ve put the handouts from the day they were gone?  Consider establishing a place in the room especially dedicated to helping absent students find what they’re responsible for.  Here is one example of a “While You Were Away” spot in a classroom I’ve visited.  

Posting Objectives, Agendas, and Homework.  How many times do kids say, “What are we doing today?”  “What’s the homework?”  “Why are we doing this?”  These questions, too, can drive you crazy.  Another dedicated wall space can solve the problem.  Here’s another sample board from a high school classroom. 

Classroom Management

Procedures. When we greet students the first day with a long list of rules and punishments, some kids just naturally seem to want to buck the system.  If you have been having “discipline problems” and want fewer challenges, try developing procedures instead of rules.

Best book about procedures: Harry and Rosemary Wong: The First Days of School. In this, their first book, they explain in depth their strategy for teaching procedures: Teach/Rehearse/Practice.

Teach your students procedures. As the Wongs explain, procedures are positive. They’re easy to follow.  They help us all know what to do in a given situation: How to install an app on our phones. How to buy a gift from Amazon. How to report an absence.  Everything is a procedure, really.  In the classroom, too, it’s all procedure: How to pass in papers. How to exit for a fire alarm. How to get out your computer.  Same with these things:  What to do when you’re late to class.  What to do when you’re finished with your work.  What to do when your pencil breaks.  Decide on the procedures you want to make routine in your classroom and then teach them to your students.

Rehearse the procedures. On the first day of the new semester, explain to students what you expect and show them how to do whatever it is.  It’s worth spending a few minutes rehearsing what to do in any of these situations because, after that, when someone doesn’t follow the procedure, you just remind them: “This is the procedure I expect you to follow.”  

Practice the procedures again if you have to…or periodically throughout the semester.  And be patient.  You can last longer than they can.  Eventually, they’ll get the message.  Well, 99% will.  And then there are steps you can follow for that pesky 1%.

Instruction

Write objectives: Robert Marzano published this great book: Classroom Instruction That Works. In it, he described the 9 instructional strategies that bring the most bang for the buck in terms of student learning. One of those 9 is setting objectives.

John Hattie published Visible Learning for Teachers. It’s a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of a ton of teaching strategies and conditions.  Guess what? Setting objectives is one of the most effective moves you can make.  Hattie calls it “Teacher Clarity.”

Post your objectives.  It’s not enough to have objectives. You have to communicate them to your students, too.  Make them visible. Refer to them at the beginning of instruction, during instruction, and at the end of the lesson.  

Objectives vs. Agenda.  Your objective is not the same thing as your agenda. You do a lot of things in the course of 50 minutes, but the objective relates to the instructional piece:  What you want the students to know or do.  Take a look at this board from a classroom. The teacher has separated the agenda for the day from the objective of the day. This one isn’t fancy, but what students need to know couldn’t be clearer. 

Instruction includes strategies and activities–what you will do, what you will have the students do, to deliver on the objectives.  This is such a huge topic that I am going to leave it at this for now. But, search my blog and sites online for specific strategies you’d like to try or ones you’d like to refine. 

The Soft Side

They have to know you care.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t take much for the student to realize you do.  Here’s what they say:

  • My teacher greets me at the door.
  • My teacher remembers what activities (sports, drama, speech, etc.) I’m in—or where I work—and asks me about it.
  • If I’m absent, my teacher asks me if I feel better.
  • My teacher sends positive notes home.
  • My teacher attends school events.
  • My teacher keeps the grade book up to date so I know where I stand.
  • My teacher walks around the room and helps us.
  • My teacher smiles at me.

“Caring” to a student is recognizing that he or she is an individual.

So, because this is the gift-giving season, take some time over the holidays–while there still is a little time–to reflect on the gifts you can give as a teacher.  Deliver them in January:

  • A well-organized classroom
  • A management plan that emphasizes the positive
  • A learning plan that kids can understand
  • An approach that says “I care”

And Welcome Back!!