What Teachers Can Do for the Children at the Border

Reporters were let in—but only to a limited area of the Clint, TX facility. No pictures allowed. No interviews with the children being held there. No inspection beyond the prescribed tour route. No visible evidence of toys or books or art supplies or anything to distract children during the day—except one TV in one small area and a basketball hoop outdoors where no children were playing.

But supplies and food—and yes, toothbrushes—were on the shelves in the storerooms the reporters were allowed to see—suggesting, of course, that the children were being fed and cared for.

This facility was designed for 100 occupants for an 8-12 hour stay. Instead, as many as 700 were held at one time and for as long as 30 days. Then, lawyers went public with information about the inhumane conditions.  By the time reporters got in, “only” 300 children were being held there. Shortly after that, 249 children were removed—and then 100 were brought back in.

This morning, another report has surfaced. This one includes interviews the lawyers had with the children, the occupants of the facility. The children verify what the lawyers originally reported: ill-fed and ill-cared for children, filthy conditions, sickness, and neglect. In short, conditions that inflict trauma that will last a lifetime.

The current conditions are deplorable, dangerous, nightmarish. For these children, imprisonment follows the horror of separation from their parents. But even if current conditions are alleviated, these children have already suffered from trauma that will mark their entire lives.  We know from the ACES studies conducted years ago by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from our personal experience in the classroom with our own students—American-born as well as immigrants and refugees—that childhood trauma impacts learning. It interferes with cognitive processing, provokes inappropriate behavior, results in poor mental health, and leads to medical problems, social problems, economic problems in adulthood. In other words, a lifetime of strains on society. We know from the research on epigenetics that trauma is processed in our genes–and transmitted to future generations. So this nightmare does not end.

When these children are released to their families in America, they will soon or eventually be in our classrooms where we will do what teachers always do: help them, teach them, love them–fiercely. But we will not be able to erase their experience. If they are returned to their own countries, they will be further damaged by desperate conditions that will not have changed in their absence. At Clint, TX and other detention centers in this country, we are creating future miseries as well as current ones for these children.

Perhaps the monies appropriated by Congress yesterday will alleviate this situation and similar ones at other centers. But if our attention is diverted, new situations and new abuses will surface. One bill passed by Congress and one stroke of a pen will not permanently solve the problem, will not prevent recurrence. The money will run out and the outrage will settle down—unless we remain vigilant, committed to righting this wrong, and vocal.

We are teachers. We have experience with childhood trauma. Who better to speak for the children? We must educate ourselves about what is happening to immigrant and refugee children now; send money to organizations working for their well-being when we can; write and call our representatives in Congress with our concerns; reach out to our colleagues, our students, their parents, and our friends; and let our voices be heard—over and over again. We owe it to the children.

Further Reading:

Pitzer, Andrea. ‘Some Suburb of Hell’: America’s New Concentration Camp System. NYR Daily, New York Review of Books, 21 June 2019. 

Romero, Simon. “‘Don’t Talk to Her’: A Glimpse Inside a Troubled Border Station Housing Migrant Children.” New York Times, New York Times.com, 26 June 2019.  

Rose, Joel and Bobby Allyn. Scenes Of Tearful, Flu-Stricken And Underfed Migrant Kids Emerge In New Accounts.” npr, 27 June 2019. 

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Saving the Lake

Dear Readers and Followers,

You may have wondered what has happened to me. I haven’t been blogging much this past semester.  My writing energies have been directed toward completing a book I began 25 years ago: Saving the Lake.  I am excited to tell you that it is available now on Amazon. This book is definitely about education, but it’s a very personal education story.  And in this case, my American classroom was outside, in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Here’s what the back cover says:

  A string of freshwater lakes nestled on a 2200 acre woodland preserve in Langlade County, Wisconsin, had been the summer setting for my family for four generations. I wanted to write about this natural environment, weaving experiences from my childhood with knowledge of the natural world, but I was an English teacher and it had been years since college biology. I needed to educate myself.

Armed with identification keys, mosquito netting, a camera and a notebook, I stepped into the Wisconsin woods to learn first hand about the lakes and the forest and to observe the changes in this woodland environment as the summer progressed. But it was grief that powered my quest, and some matter of the heart as much as ecology that I was seeking to understand.

This book is a memoir of family and place, a story of loss and recovery and learning to let go. 

The summer of study and reflection chronicled in this story was funded by a 1993 Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship Award.

If you teach in Indiana, you know about the Lilly grants. Every year, the Lilly Endowment (the philanthropic arm of the Lilly pharmaceutical company) awards grants to teachers so they can pursue a passion that will renew and refresh their spirit. The spillover to the classroom is just that: renewal.  For most people, a Lilly grant is life-changing. It certainly was for me.

My Lilly grant took me both back in time and forward in time. This past September, I returned to the Northwoods with my brother, to revisit the places we had known and loved as children and as adults. Suddenly, there was an epilogue to this story, and I took the manuscript out of the family trunk.

My amazing colleague Amanda Cox, with whom I have collaborated for years on science topics and science writing, urged me to publish the book. She produced the beautiful drawings that accent each chapter and helped me with the technicalities of independently publishing on AmazonHave a look! 

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”

‘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.