A Christmas Memory

An exquisite teaching moment, one that still takes my breath away. Take the time this month to explore holiday classics and recall your own memorable classroom moments. Sweet, sweet gifts that last longer than the moment.

In an American Classroom

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill…

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Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

Once more, and still always with the same feeling.

In an American Classroom


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…

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Learning Never Ends

On an early morning walk one day this summer when I was in Colorado, I came across a wildflower I’d never seen before—at least I thought I never had.  Actually, there were 3 or 4 of these bright, white flowers, all growing near one another, each about 10 inches tall with thick, alternating, jagged leaves running the length of the erect stems. Tiny 4-lobed flowers ended in what is called an inflorescence; that is, they opened like an umbrella at the end of the stem.

I had no had no idea what they were.

For a couple of reasons, though, I leapt to the conclusion that they were a kind of saxifrage.  But what kind?

I took a photo with my iPhone and even drew a sketch of the leaves and the umbrella and then, at home, spent some time looking at pictures of white flowers in several guidebooks. Discouraging. None of the possibilities was quite right. I was forced to face the truth all botanists know: Focusing on the flower is not enough.  I needed to pay attention to the leaves, the petals, the stamen, the ovary, etc. and tackle the wildflower identification key for the Western Slope.  And that meant relearning the language of botany. Identification keys use botanical terms, not common parlance. Just saying “the leaves are jagged” or “the flowers form a cap” is not precise enough. 

Working my way through the sorting system of the key, I quickly realized I was in the wrong family. What I was looking at was a mustard (Brassicaceae), not a saxifrage.

So it was a lengthy pursuit, but not without its rewards.

One morning while I was at this, sitting cross-legged on the roadside with my camera, the key, and a sketchbook, a doe came upon me in the course of her early morning saunter down the road. I was just below a little rise, so she didn’t see me until she was upon me. As soon as she did, she froze. When I reached for my phone, she moved to the side in an attempt to hide, then turned and bolted.

I love to come upon deer unexpectedly—and this one came upon me the same way. Her appearance on the hill above me sweetened the morning, just about the time I was thinking about quitting the search.

However, I continued to work on it bit by bit, but it was, in fact, several days later before I knew for certain what I had: a common wildflower called bittercress. Cardamine cordifolia is the botanical name.

My identification was confirmed by text in The Flora of Gunnison, Saguache, and Hinsdale Counties—a serious book that has no pictures whatsoever. The final identifying feature was this: According to the author of this definitive treatise on the wildflowers of these counties, the flower head is corymbose, meaning that the outer part of the umbrella matures first, giving the inflorescence a sort of flattened look. The leaves are heart-shaped (cordate), and I should add, sinuous-dentate or irregularly crenate.  That is, the leaves are wavy, but toothed, although those waves are sometimes rounded. 

Naturally, it wasn’t but a week later that I saw three huge stands of bittercress growing right where bittercress is supposed to grow: in wet places like under a culvert, near a trickle, or in a seep. The isolated patch I found that first morning had simply bloomed earlier than the rest, but now I know that bittercress is, as advertised, common.

Of course, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d just asked someone what this flower on my iPhone was—but that would have taken all the fun out of it.

And, I could have given up, thinking “Who cares? It’s just a flower and identifying it is taking so much time!”

And that, of course, is the connection to my life in an American classroom.

Learning is not always easy; it involves false starts, revisions, and consultations with teachers. It takes longer for some students than for others, depending upon prior knowledge, access to and availability of information, level of motivation, tolerance for frustration—and many other factors.

My wildflower identification quest reminded me that real learning occurs when the student is engaged with a task that is doable, yet involves a little struggle. Not so much struggle as to be impossible (I can read; I did know how to use the glossary to learn those botanical terms!), but challenging enough so the student is proud of her accomplishment.

And I remembered why it won’t do to just tell our kids the answer when they’re stuck. That not only robs them of the victory in the end, but deprives them of competence and real understanding. Instead, we have to plan and sequence our instruction so the students get the help they need—the identification key and the knowledge of how to use it—just at the time they need it.

And, of course, timing rewards that sweeten the whole experience but don’t extinguish the drive to finish.

Effective teaching, in other words, fosters a growth mindset. By engaging students, encouraging persistence, rewarding small victories, lightening the load at just right moment, supplying information in a timely manner—in short, by letting the student learn we teach them to value learning.

It sounds so easy.

It isn’t.

Because, as veterans know and new teachers soon discover, teaching involves learning, too.  Effective teaching isn’t something you master in a day, a month, a year, even in five years. In fact, if you’re open to it, the learning continues until the last day of your long career. Not because you’re weak, but because you’re strong. Because you aren’t defeated when something doesn’t go as planned. Because you’ve developed stamina and a can-do attitude. Because you’re engaged, you’re eager, and you’re open to the experience of others. Because you’ve got a growth mindset yourself.

Enjoy the quest!

The rewards are sweet.

Night in Rwanda

Reading this post again today is chilling. If you are my former student–or even if you are not–what do you see? Do you remember? What can you do? Every voice matters.

In an American Classroom

2009.04.15 Honors 9 Pattern of Genocide 016I have taught Holocaust literature—Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Children of Willesden Lane—for many years. But I cannot teach these books in the way I usually teach literary works of art. Granted, these books are not fiction, so I am spared having to chart the plot line. I know there are motifs and images and definitely themes—but my point has never been, in teaching any of these accounts, to reveal the writer’s technique. Putting such a text under the microscope of literary analysis would distance the students from the story, and I want them to hold close the visceral response they all have when they read, say, Night. Discussing Wiesel’s imagery as if he had sat down deliberately to craft a work of art instead of to tell his horrifying story to an unconscious world would be—to my mind—a sacrilege. As story, his journey through…

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All in the Game

file_000“We need more letters!”

“We’ve got too many vowels!”

“Get consonants! Consonants!”

And with that, the 8th grader in the blue and gray PE uniform of her middle school jumped up, skipped to the center of the gym, picked up three more tiles and returned, skipping, to her group. The four students quickly employed the new letter tiles to complete their entry in this round of Bananagram Fitness.

My colleague at Wainwright Middle School, Mrs. Jessica Oertel, invented the game when she was a student teacher, assigned to a school where the gym was under construction. She needed hallway activities that could engage the students—and contain them—at the same time they practiced fitness skills.

The game works like this. Students are grouped randomly in fours. (Naturally, my colleague had a quick and easy strategy for that.) While the students sat on the floor in front of her whiteboard, Mrs. Oertel laid out the rules:

“You need twenty tiles, all underneath the cone in the center of the gym. When the music starts, skip to the center, do five curl-ups, and then take one tile. Skip back to your corner of the gym and put your tile in the cone at your place.  You have to do this five times. When you each have gotten five tiles, work together to create a bananagram that uses all twenty tiles.”


She had the students repeat the instructions—always a good idea. 

“How many tiles does each person get?” 

“Five!” the students roared.

How many trips does each person make?


“How many total does each group have?”


“No text words, no names of people, no abbreviations. If you start with a long word, you’ll have more success than if you begin with something like cat. Words that are side-by-side have to spell a legitimate word in both directions—across and down.

file_005Need more letters? You can get them anytime, but you have to take three letters and you have to go through the routine again: Skip, curl-ups, skip.”

(In Round 2, the locomotion challenges switched to galloping and push-ups.)

Initially, Mrs. Oertel’s game was the product of necessity, but today, well into her second year of teaching, her objectives go beyond that.

For one thing, the Indiana Academic Standards (and the Common Core) call for all teachers—even teachers of physical education—to incorporate literacy into their classroom instruction. While some of those literacy standards—like writing an argumentative essay—have been waived for physical education, some remain. These largely concern the use of vocabulary and discipline-appropriate explanatory or informative writing, including the use of non-linguistic tools such as graphs, flowcharts, and diagrams. By basing the game on vocabulary and the rules of spelling, my colleague was honoring the directive from the state.

But Mrs. Oertel had another reason, too, for playing a game based on vocabulary. She believes that learning should be interdisciplinary. “We’re all a team here,” she said. “I want to help out with academic goals.”  Indeed, she has a game based on math problems that involves fitness and stations where kids solve math problems on a whiteboard before moving on to the next challenge and another game designed to draw on knowledge learned in social studies.  

She’s not alone in believing that interdisciplinary lessons bolster what students have learned in other classes. The standards for National Board Certified Teachers of Physical Education include as one criterion for excellence, collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines to creatively apply knowledge and skills taught in each other’s classes. As one example, the NBCT document on Standards suggests that PE teachers could reinforce the concepts of angles in basketball.

The game continued. The students were getting a workout, but they were having fun doing it.  At the start of the period, Mrs. Oertel pointed out the objective for the day. Vocabulary development was written right into it, but my colleague didn’t rob the game of its fun by dwelling on the literacy standard and making overt references to English class and prior knowledge. Certainly their competitive spirit was tapped, but honestly, the groups were so far apart on the floor they didn’t really know how far along the other groups were. They were more focused on the intrinsic reward of accomplishing the task than they were on winning. Mrs. Oertel accomplished her fitness goals—developing cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength and endurance—and her literacy goal, and she did it all with a game.

Looking for more ideas?  Here are two sources with a multitude of ideas for PE teachers on making physical education cross-disciplinary:

  • Check out this wealth of activities at supportREALteachers.org.
  • Read a Teacher Blog:  This NBCT educator writes regularly about instruction in her PE classes—including her strategies for interdisciplinary learning.   Here’s a specific example: PE Monopoly. 

When we were in middle school, my best friend Anne and I spent long hours playing that timeless basketball challenge, H-O-R-S-E, under the hoop mounted above her family’s garage. When we took a break, it was to pass even more hours sitting on the floor of her breezeway, inventing board games that were, essentially, variations on Monopoly, Parcheesi, and Clue. Now I know why those pastimes were so engaging. Games present students with a mental challenge, an opportunity for creativity, and in the case of H-O-R-S-E, a chance to release energy.

file_003Coming up with literacy activities or interdisciplinary games for PE is a challenge—and a PE teacher wouldn’t want to be interdisciplinary every day or be artificial about doing so, either.  H-O-R-S-E was fun—but sometimes I wanted to play basketball.

So, as with all things, there needs to be a balance. Mrs. Oertel seems to have it with Bananagram Fitness and similar games which kids in her PE classes play with genuine enthusiasm once in a while during a semester.

Now: How about warm-ups before a geography test? Running in place at the start of English? Touching toes five times at the end of Homeroom?

Helping Children Succeed: A Book Review

dsc00681The day after I posted my blog piece on the Maverick Launchthe program at my high school for at-risk freshmen, Paul Tough’s newest book, Helping Students Succeed, arrived on my doorstep. I read it in a single sitting and finished with a whoop!

This slim volume packs a big punch. Tough tells us what works to transform the lives of kids who are our biggest challenges: the unmotivated ones who can’t sit still—or pay no attention, don’t do homework, don’t use class time productively, disrespect adults, get into trouble. Constantly.

Yes. Those kids. The ones we suspect come from dysfunctional homes, from situations of poverty. In this book, Tough concentrates on the 51% of public school students in this country who are officially “low income.” Being poor makes it more likely that children will lack the nutrition and medical care they need to be healthy. Being poor means that books and summer camp and trips to museums will be missing from their lives. Being poor also increases the likelihood that these children experience extreme stress on a daily basis.

Tough is not talking about the kind of stress I experience when I am overwhelmed with papers to grade and lessons to plan and still have sixteen trips in the car for soccer lessons, swim meets, and parent conferences to make and have to stop at the grocery store, too. That’s temporary stress and I know it will end.

The kind of stress Tough is talking about is the stress of unpredictability: constantly changing addresses, shortages of food, abuse or neglect, a backdrop of drug or alcohol problems. He’s talking about traumatic stress, such as the markers delineated in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACES) conducted by physicians at the CDC and Kaiser Permanente from 1995-1997 with follow-up that is ongoing to this day. What this study has found is that traumatic stress experienced as a child correlates strongly with health-related problems in adulthood (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/).

That kind of stress has implications for learning, too. In children under the kind and amount of chronic stress in the ACES study, the development of the part of the brain responsible for “executive function”—things like memory, self-discipline, organization, impulse control—is disrupted. A child experiencing the stress of neglect or chronic hunger or the ramifications of divorce grows up processing life and school differently than children of privilege. If you are worried about food, scared of your dad, subject to the ill effects of your mother’s drinking, it’s hard to care about school. Life is grim and the future looks bleak.

To teachers, these kids seem unmotivated. They aren’t engaged with learning and they can’t seem to concentrate. They don’t plan ahead, so they don’t do homework, and if they do it, they forget to turn it in. Tests, to them at least, are confirmations of what they don’t know rather than demonstrations of what they do. They don’t respond well to punishment systems, but they don’t respond to positive incentive programs, either. They just don’t seem to care. No amount of pleading, cajoling, punishing, or rewarding seems to change them.

What Tough argues in his book is this: We have to change the environment. In fact, as he goes on to explain through examples of intervention programs that do just that, changing the environment is the best hope there is for changing the child’s trajectory.

Of course, as educators, we can’t change a student’s home life. The only environment we can change is the classroom.

Specifically, citing the studies of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, psychology professors at the University of Rochester, and the work of former teacher, Camille Farrington, an urban education policy expert, Tough discusses the elements that, when present, can turn these kids around, elements that—sustained long enough—can help these kids develop the character traits and positive mindset that the other 49% of the population developed by experiencing the stability of a safe home and a nurturing parent. In a way, the teacher has to become that nurturing parent—and provide a classroom environment that allows the student some degree of autonomy, a sense of belonging, a feeling of competency.

That means helping the child discover his own agency—that he is in fact in charge of his learning—and his life. That means providing a calm and predictable way of relating to the child and making him feel that he belongs in the classroom community. That means treating the child with respect—even when he’s out of line. That means fine-tuning instruction so that students are not defeated before they even start but at the same time are challenged—so that mastering a skill or learning a concept means something.

In other words, structuring learning for success but making sure it isn’t a hollow success. And then building on that success to achieve the next one. And the next one. Step-by-step, carefully and caringly taught, in the right environment these kids can thrive.

Of course, good teachers try to do these things every day, but, by the time kids growing up in adverse circumstances reach high school, attitudes have solidified. Learning problems may become behavior problems—if they haven’t already. That means dropping out is on the horizon and from there life only gets harder. Interventions like Maverick Launch (and the Raider Success Center at Harrison High School, our sister school) are literally life-savers. They’re worth every penny in terms of the individual students’ lives and they’re worth every penny in terms of averting probable future costs to the community, too.

This book is compelling reading. It’s a short book, but it’s packed with research-based ideas, illustrative examples, and general food for thought. It’s beautifully written, logically argued and deeply felt. It’s an excellent candidate for a book study by a faculty and I’d argue mandatory reading for all educators. Paul Tough is so devoted to this topic—so deep into trying to understand how best to help these students succeed—that his book is free and downloadable from his website. Go there today: www.paultough.com .

The Unsung Heroes Project


So many young people today are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals who have made a difference in the world usually extends only as far as celebrities and sports stars, perhaps to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and, even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.

The last three years that I was in the classroom, my 9th grade Honors English students and I undertook a project that expanded their understanding of what it means to be a hero.  This was the Unsung Hero Project, inspired and supported by the Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas. I’ve blogged about this project before (Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project and Unsung Heroes, Reprise), but I’ve never outlined exactly what my students did. Recently I was asked to do that, so I’m sharing my description here along with some pictures of students at work on the project.

This classroom undertaking is an example of project-based learning. Through their work on this project, students developed skills in research, collaboration, writing, and the use of technology.  And, as important (if not more so) than anything else they learned, they were inspired by real live heroes in our own community.

Semester One

Students received intensive writing instruction the first semester, especially regarding formal writing conventions and organization of ideas. I spent time on sentence combining techniques (compound, complex, compound-complex sentences, introductory modifiers, appositives) before as well as during the time the students wrote their essays (February and March), and I hit topics such as pronoun antecedents pretty hard. Other grammatical topics I covered on an “as needed” basis. I also “unpacked” the skills required for a research paper, teaching basic bibliography skills, outlining, and internet search techniques in the first semester in preparation for the more complex research the students conducted during the second.

Collaboration is a vital component of this project, so I employed a variety of strategies for developing collaborative skills from the very beginning of the year. My goal was for students to be comfortable working together so that when they began the Unsung Heroes project in the second semester, they could work together efficiently, productively, and equitably.

The first step in the project itself was to define, through class discussion, what exactly we meant by the word “hero.”  Here’s what the students came up with one year: A hero is a person who, with no expectation or recognition or reward, has made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.  Definition Lessons 035

We had a few models, too: Atticus Finch served as the fictional model for a community hero (we read To Kill a Mockingbird in the fall) and the non-fiction model was Irena Sendler. The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is available on DVD from Hallmark; the book Life in a Jar is available through Amazon. Other models were individuals profiled in the Christian Science Monitor’s series “People Making a Difference” (available online at the Monitor website). We read a number of these essays and practiced defining a hero by breaking down the stories and aligning them with the students’ definition.

Semester Two

Students formed groups of three, self-selecting their partners, and established an account on google.docs, an online tool for writing collaboratively, simultaneously, in real time (a new technology tool eight years ago when I first began this work!).

Then students selected a hero/heroine from a list I provided for them of people in our community who had been in some way heroic. Some of the individuals came to my/our attention because they had received a very small local award for their efforts. Some were suggested by friends in the community, the faculty at my school, and (by the second and third year) various individuals who had read the first volumes of the book. Once the students selected a cause/person, I contacted that individual, soliciting their involvement. No one ever turned us down, by the way, and I would have been surprised if they had.

The next step was the research paper, probably the most complex instructional piece. The students worked collaboratively to research the cause their hero had championed. Thus, when they met the hero and interviewed him/her, they were already “experts” on the topic. The hero didn’t have to start from scratch to educate the students. The research paper included an outline, an annotated bibliography, internal documentation, and a Works Cited page in MLA format.

Most students established email contact with their hero right away and were able to ask him/her for advice and recommendations for resources as they researched the topic. The heroes were usually glad to steer the students to appropriate resources and helped them narrow their topic appropriately.

Unsung Heroes II 024Once the research paper was underway, the students set up an interview with their hero. We tried to conduct all the interviews on the same day in the school library, but of course, not everyone was available on the day we selected, and in some cases, it was inconvenient for the hero to come to school at all. I sometimes drove groups of students to on-site locations and arranged for their parents to pick them up. To be honest, when the hero was associated with a facility—such as the Boys and Girls Club and a second-hand store for impoverished families—it is helpful for the students to see the facility.

Students set up the interview by phone or by email. Although I coached them in the art of interviewing, I stayed out of the interviews myself (aside from taking photographs). Afterward, the students typed up their notes in narrative form or in Question/Answer format—and then they started in on the essay. Their essays went through several revisions. Early versions were read by their peers and by me, and these revisions dealt with structure, the balance between narration and  quoted material, and the weaving of information from their research with what they had learned from their hero. Line editing came last, and both the students and I did this at various times.

P1010472One of my concerns as a teacher of writing was that “voice” would be lost in a collaborative project, and to a certain extent, it was. However, what usually happened is that one of the students emerged as the primary writer, so meshing styles and voices wasn’t as severe a problem as I had originally anticipated. They also each wrote a reflection. I was light-handed with these—I didn’t want to extinguish their individual voices—and by this time, the students were expert at line editing. People who have read the book who are not from this community and don’t know the heroes have told me that the reflections are the most interesting part of each book. That doesn’t surprise me—there students wrote from their hearts.

Students submitted their work to me as a Word document, and I did take over as the master technician on setting up the pages. Eventually, the document turned into a pdf file. The students selected the font and the layout, and they designed the front and back covers as well.

The books could have been published using an online company, but the submission deadlines for these companies did not work with the school calendar very well, so I elected to work with a local printing service. Frankly, I am glad I did. We were able to receive a galley, make final corrections, and still meet our publication deadline. Besides, the printer I worked with had a lot of good advice for us and accommodated our schedule well. He even attended our celebration at the end because he had had a hand in this production, too.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was developed with the support of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (LMC) in Fort Scott, Kansas, whose mission is to “galvanize a movement to teach respect and understanding among all people regardless of race, religion or creed.” The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” The LMC accomplishes its mission of teaching respect and understanding by supporting education projects that feature Unsung Heroes—people who, like Irena Sendler, have acted to repair the world. The project was funded by grants from the Kiwanis Foundation and the Public Schools Foundation of Tippecanoe County.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was an extensive project, and one that made me—still makes me—very proud. At the end of each year, we held a celebration to which all the heroes were invited as well as the principal and the school district administrators, the students’ parents, the press, and our donors. DSC_0002

At the celebration, the students introduced their heroes, a few students spoke to the audience about the process and what they had learned, and often the heroes made little speeches themselves. All this was followed by a mass book signing. The heroes were even more enthusiastic than the students about collecting signatures! DSC_0113

The book is now in our local public libraries, our local historical society, and in the collection at the Indiana State Historical Society in Indianapolis. Last year, two students were cited in the newspaper by our local historian for information they discovered about the Underground Railroad in our town. Volume I of Unsung Heroes in Our Community was enthusiastically reviewed on the radio last summer  and the book was also featured on local television. Some of our heroes, in fact, later became subjects for a local TV program, “Heroes Among Us.” DSC_0140

This project is well worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to orchestrate. Project-based learning is meaningful to students because it is “real” (as one of the students told me). At the same time, a project like this directly addresses state academic standards and district curriculum expectations. For the teacher, bringing a project such as this to fruition necessitates a thorough understanding of the standards and curriculum, of course, but beyond that, it is a matter of organization and planning and, above all, faith in the students. Their gain in research and composition skills, in comfort with technology, and in the ability to work collaboratively is extraordinary.

DSC_0010The book made an impact on the students beyond the skills they gained and the recognition they garnered. Their definition of a hero expanded from the vision of a super-powered individual in a cape and Spandex to someone who serves others. My students were inspired by the person whose life and work they researched. Someday, when they themselves confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I am confident that they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of these local heroes to “repair the world.” I believe that from these individuals’ examples, my students will draw the strength to act heroically themselves.