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, a school principal. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and several of you are college professors. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, another a personal secretary to someone in Germany. A graphic artist and a web designer, a journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and fire fighters, automobile sales people and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and a welder I just “met” again this week. Receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and teachers. 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.

But all of you, all day long, make the 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.

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A Change of Environment

dsc00686Olivia had some advice for 8th graders considering enrolling in the Maverick Launch program at my high school: “Don’t be worried,” she said. “This is a safe place. You’re always welcome here.”

Recently, I spent a day in McCutcheon High School’s freshman intervention program, called the Maverick Launch, which was initiated a few years ago to meet the needs of incoming at-risk students. Really, this is a school-within-a-school, an innovation in education that has brought success to targeted students in many districts across the country. Maverick Launch is the name of the program—the school mascot is an unbranded steerand it is also the name of the building where approximately 100 lucky students attend high school every day.

“The best thing about Maverick Launch,” a freshman girl, Brittney, told me in an interview a few days later, “is the help from teachers.”

Maverick Launch students follow the same rigorous curriculum as every other freshman student at McCutcheon High School (English students had just read the Odyssey and algebra students were graphing linear equations), but there are only 15-20 students in each class. Thus, learning is much more personalized than it can be in classes that regularly exceed thirty.

Another big difference is that Launch students have two math classes and two English classes every day. One English class focuses on literature; the other on writing and language skills. In math, the first hour is for the presentation of new materials; the second for homework and extra help. The students also take science and FACS every day with their cohort.

Because of the additional English and math learning opportunities, Maverick Launch students can earn two extra credits their freshman year. The extra support means an increased expectation that they will pass Indiana’s graduation qualifying exam sophomore year, and the extra credit hours provide room in the students’ schedules for elective classes in later years.

Students also take two classes each day in the main building, blending easily with the larger student body. “I expected to be treated differently by the kids in the main building, Ethan said, “but I am not.” Like other freshmen, Maverick Launch students choose from the full array of high school course offerings for those two hours, enrolling in such classes as World History, PE, 3D Art, a world language class, computer applications—wherever their interests lie.

Maverick Launch students participate as well in McCutcheon sports and extra-curricular clubs. This year, 47% of the Maverick Launch students are on an MHS sports team and 75% are involved in at least one extra-curricular activity.

Students report other benefits to enrollment in Maverick Launch, too. For starters, former Maverick Launch students are welcome to return anytime throughout high school for extra academic help. Some even choose to serve as teacher’s aides for their former instructors.

Another plus has been the friendships formed in this small-school environment. “We’re like one big family out here,” said Andrew, a graduate of the program.

During my day with the Launch students, I encountered a young man I’d seen in action the previous year in middle school. Robert. He’d been a difficult student—uncooperative, disengaged, often rude. I didn’t even recognize him when I saw him in the Launch. He was working with another student on a collaborative project and he looked happy. His teachers loved him. Something important had changed.

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In this small and supportive environment, it is clear that students are developing habits of learning that will increase their chances for success during the rest of their high school career. They raised their hands, came to class on time, kept their voices down, and apparently did their homework. Not a one balked at giving an oral presentation that was slated for 1st hour the day I was there. They didn’t pack up early and rush the door at the end of the class period. I could tell these were behaviors they’d been taught and ones their teachers expected them to observe. But the atmosphere wasn’t robotic; it wasn’t even regimented. Classes felt relaxed, low-key. 
I noticed as I traveled from class to class that the teachers are consistent in terms of their expectations and procedures–and that leads to a safe and welcoming setting. Kids know what to expect.
Once, during a math class I observed, students began drifting during the teacher’s presentation. He said, in an even tone and barely missing a beat, “I’m reviewing now from Friday. I need your attention. Those of you holding up your head with your hands: Exercise your neck muscles. Hands down. Sit up straight.” All this was delivered in the same voice Mike Etzkorn, the lead teacher in the Maverick Launch, uses for instruction. His redirect was not a chastisement, just a summons to the task at hand.

This is the same teacher who allows earbuds while students are working on the “homework” problems he’ll go over with them the second time they meet, later on in the day. He knows that some kids concentrate better when they’re oblivious to classroom distractions.

This is the same teacher who asked every student, as he made his way around the room, “Are you doing okay?” To one girl, who was randomly hitting the keys on her computer, he said, “Are you just playing?” When she replied that she didn’t understand, he bent down and re-explained.dsc00693

This is the same teacher who said to students, “I’m not ready for you to start the homework”—not, “You’re not ready.” The message came through as “You can do this, but I haven’t spent enough time helping you understand.”

It would be easy to say that the small class size or the double dose of math and English is responsible for the success these students meet, but it’s more than these two factors, critical as they are. These teachers have formed caring relationships with their students, all of whom have learning challenges of one kind or another. Sometimes that caring is communicated in very simple ways: reminding students of their choices when their classwork is complete, giving them a 2-minute warning that lunch is about to start (There are no bells in the Maverick Launch), nudging them about a quiz the next day. Sometimes it’s by asking about the weekend or letting students who need to listen to music as they work, or sitting down next to a student to help her through a problem.

The teachers are consistent in their approach, clear in their directions, and non-judgmental in their reactions. The students trust them because they’re predictable.

dsc00705Mr. Etzkorn explained that the goal is to ease the transition from middle school to high school by establishing a caring, familylike environment. The teachers work as a team. In fact, they meet together at the end of every day–while their students are taking one of those classes in the main building–to plan, confer, and strategize. That planning time together is another ingredient in the recipe for success. The teachers see their students from multiple perspectives and know how they’re doing in subjects other than their own. They know when any particular student is having a bad day, and they all learn about everyone’s challenges and successes.

In this school-within-a-school, Mr. Etzkorn told me, “Students are given the time they need to mature and grow academically.”

In the end, it’s the atmosphere these teachers have established that makes all the difference.

Paul Tough, a journalist-turned-education-sage wrote a book a few years ago called How Children Succeed. In that book, he confirmed everything I’ve known for years—from experience and by instinct—about why some kids are successful and why some aren’t. It isn’t about IQ; it isn’t about money and family resources.

It’s about having the discipline to make yourself study when you’d rather be playing video games or texting or driving around town with your friends on a fine spring night. It’s about persistence—about seeing a teacher after school to get something explained, about giving up a lunch period to visit the math lab, or revising that paper when the assignment to do so is optional. It’s about memorizing the formulas and going over the study notes. It’s about setting a goal and moving toward it, step by step by step.

 

But Tough has good news: These “character” traits, as he calls them, can be taught.

dsc00709In his most recent book, Helping Students Succeed, Tough writes: “If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first is his environment.” Tough’s new book addresses the academic failure that 51% of America’s public school students experience because of poverty and its attendant problems. Poverty may be the root cause of the problems some Maverick Launch students experience, but not all of them. Similarly, they are not students who were identified because of poor discipline records, yet some are familiar enough with the principal’s office. What they do have in common is that all of them were identified in middle school, for one reason or another, as being at risk of not graduating from high school.

Robert, the boy I saw whose experience in the Launch environment has been transformative, is learning how to be a student. In this nurturing environment, he is experiencing success. He is developing the traits of character and the habits of learning that promise a better future.

He is not alone.

When these students move into the main building their sophomore year, their chances for continued success will have improved exponentially. Impressively, one-third of former Maverick Launch students are able to complete their high school coursework and graduate early.

Abby, a sophomore who was enrolled in the Maverick Launch program last year, is now a teacher’s aide during her study hall period. She told me this: “The teachers connect with everyone. They take their time to help you understand.” And then she added, “I’m grateful for all the program did for me.”

She is not alone.

Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird

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A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a book talk to a women’s group in my  town about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. My only credentials for that talk are these: I’ve read Mockingbird at least 35 times and I taught the novel to 9th graders for 31 years.  Several of those 35 reads occurred before I became a teacher. In fact, my mother gave Mockingbird to me for my birthday just before my senior year in high school—the year that the book was published.  I read it start to finish in one big gulp and then read it again, under the covers with a flashlight.  Lee’s story captured me right from the start.

For all those 31 years of teaching, I began each class’s study of Mockingbird by reading aloud just a bit about Atticus and the small town of Maycomb:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began to summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said that we were both right.

And with that, Atticus is established as the authority, the hero, and even a god.  “Our father.”

And then this, the description of the small town of Maycomb:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the street turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

I love this passage. In two short paragraphs reside lessons in dating the setting via allusion, the art of alliteration and metaphor, the inclusion of exquisite detail that brings a scene and the mood so indelibly into focus.  And the black dog: a tiny, tiny bit of foreshadowing.

Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama.  Her father was a successful and respected lawyer and for a time was one of the publishers of the local newspaper.  Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a strange woman—possibly she suffered from bipolar disorder—and she and Nelle did not have a close relationship. Truman Capote lived next door in the summertime (His parents were divorced and he spent summers in Monroeville with relatives), and Nelle and Truman were fast friends.  Legend has it that they spent hours writing stories together on an old Underwood typewriter.  Nelle went to college and even did a year of what we’d call today, pre-law.  But she wanted to be a writer, so at age 23 she went to New York City to live and work.  Working days, first in a bookstore and later for Eastern Airlines and later still for BOAC, and writing at night, she produced a draft of a book.  Her agent first made suggestions for revision—which Nelle dutifully made—and then an editor at HarperCollins, Tay Hahoff (who died in 1974) spotted the real story in what seemed like a string of short stories.  Hahoff saw promise in the prose, too, and encouraged Nelle to revise the manuscript. Friends gave Nelle a Christmas present of enough money to live on for a year so she could write full-time.  What resulted, two and a half years later, was To Kill a Mockingbird.

 Mockingbird was published on July 12, 1960—right in the middle of a decade that began in 1954 with the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court—ordering the desegregation of the public schools—and ended with the passage in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.  That’s important because the Civil Rights Movement, as it came to be called, dominated the news.  To Kill a Mockingbird was—and still is—a stab at the conscience of America.

The setting of Mockingbird is Maycomb (read, Monroeville) in the 1930s. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys is often cited as the inspiration for the Tom Robinson story, but it wasn’t. A local and far less sensational rape case was the true model.  A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father, was, however, the inspiration for Atticus Finch.

Mockingbird—sometimes lauded for being a charming coming-of-age story (which it is)–follows two main plot threads. One is the trial of Tom Robinson, a humble black man who has been accused by a white man, Bob Ewell (the “mad dog” of the book), of raping his daughter, Mayella. She is a lonely young woman who has been sexually abused by her shiftless, alcoholic father.  She accosts Tom, and her father sees it.  Tom runs, though he’s done nothing wrong, and Ewell accuses him simply because he can. He thinks the town will thank him for it. Atticus Finch takes the case on principle: He couldn’t look his children in the eye—couldn’t make them mind him, he said—if he himself doesn’t do what is right.  But he knows he is fighting a losing battle: There is no precedent for acquittal in such a case, even when the defendant is plainly not guilty.  Speaking to the jury, Atticus memorably characterizes the case as being “as simple as black and white.”

The other thread in Mockingbird is that of Boo Radley, a strange and reclusive man who lives in a house down the street. Boo befriends the children—though they remain “spooked” by him–and ultimately saves their lives when Ewell attempts to kill them on a dark Halloween night. The two stories are thus brought together and Scout articulates the meaning of the title when she assures her father that prosecuting Boo Radley would be like shooting a mockingbird; that is, persecuting innocent and helpless individuals—like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley—who “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”  Thus, a string of short stories is woven together by the symbolism of mad dogs and mockingbirds.

Atticus is the quintessential epic hero.  A little aside here: I also taught The Odyssey and directed my students’ attention to the epic tradition.  The students drew the comparison easily—because it is there. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book was translated into 10 languages within a year of publication—ultimately, into 40—and has never been put of print.  In the 1962 film version, Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus. The book is still the most widely taught novel in schools across the country (a few attempts at banning it notwithstanding—in fact, those attempts only increased its readership!).  Atticus Finch was elevated to the status of a god—one who looks just like Gregory Peck.

Then came Watchman in 2015.  The publishers provided a trigger warning—and many people declined to read the book.  (Me included, even though I’d preordered from Amazon.) Atticus, we were told, turns into a racist.  It was a year before I read Watchman because each review was worse than the last.  Like a lot of other people, I didn’t want to be disillusioned.  Eventually, I gave in.  I’d written extensively about teaching Mockingbird on my blog. It seemed like chickening out not to read Watchman.  Now I’ve read it twice. That will probably be enough.

People usually mark the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. On the heels of that decision came two momentous events: the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and initiated when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the end of a long, hard day. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled again, ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery buses.

Emmett Till’s funeral was portrayed in a photographic spread in Life magazine. The bus boycott ended after a year with another Supreme Court ruling, this one ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery, AL buses.  Those two events are the backdrop for Go Set a Watchman.

The book opens with Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a visit. It appears at first to be a love story involving a boy who had lived across the street when Jean Louise was young, a boy whom Atticus has mentored and taken into his law firm.  In the book, Jem has died and Dill has gone missing. Two characters of major importance in Mockingbird aren’t in Watchman: the “ghost” Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose, the harridan who lives down the street and menaces the children but turns out to be a dying woman trying to get out from under a morphine addiction. Uncle Jack plays a much more important role in Watchman; Aunt Alexandra is still a foil for Atticus. Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Scout and Jem, makes an appearance, but it’s a cold one.  And Atticus—well, Atticus at 72 is the same man in many ways, but there’s this disturbing thing about his stance on civil rights.

Indeed, in Watchman, Atticus is portrayed as a man with deep reservations about the events of the 1950s. In the book, he has joined the White Citizen’s Council in Maycomb—organizations like this had sprung up all over the South in response to those Supreme Court rulings.  In conversations with Jean Louise, Atticus espouses the policy of gradualism.  His remarks reveal not only a paternalistic attitude toward African-Americans, but downright racist ones.

I was prepared for Atticus.  It was Scout who appalled me.  Her outrage over her father’s attendance at the White Citizen’s Council meeting culminates in a scene full of excess, a confrontation with so much invective and vitriol that I was shocked.  Yes, Jean Louise is shocked by what she has learned about her father, but she screams at him, calls him names, and carries on beyond my ability to believe.  She’s also brutal in her attacks on her aunt—rude, profane, and frankly, unforgivable.  She knows better.

I told him in detail about our trip to church with Calpurnia. Atticus seemed to enjoy it, but Aunt Alexandra, who was sitting in a corner quietly sewing, put down her embroidery and stared at us.

“You all were coming back from Calpurnia’s church that Sunday?”

Jem said, “Yessum, she took us.”

I remembered something. “Yessum, and she promised that I could come out to her house some afternoon. Atticus, I’ll go next Sunday if it’s all right, can I? Cal said she’d come get me if you were off in the car.”

“You may not.”

Aunt Alexandra said it. I wheeled around, startled, then turned back to Atticus in time to catch his swift glance at her, but it was too late. I said, “I didn’t ask you!”

For a big man, Atticus could get up and down from a chair faster than anyone I ever knew. He was on his feet. “Apologize to your aunt,” he said.

“I didn’t ask her, I asked you—“

Atticus turned his head and pinned me to the wall with his good eye. His voice was deadly. “First, apologize to your aunt.”

“I’m sorry, Aunty, I muttered.

“Now then, he said. “Let’s get this clear: you do as Calpurnia tells you, you do as I tell , and as long as your aunt’s in this house, you will do as she tells you. Understand?”

I understood, pondered a while, and concluded that the only way I could retire with a shred of dignity was to go to the bathroom, where I stayed long enough to make them think I had to go.

That scene, a lesson in courtesy that couldn’t have failed to stick, is from Chapter 14 of Mockingbird, shortly after Aunt Alexander, the children’s nemesis, arrives to supervise Jem and Scout during the long, hot summer of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Watchman, to my mind, is more autobiographical than Mockingbird—in this way: It is far more revealing of Harper Lee’s state of mind in the 1950s.  The years of Watchman are the years that she was living in New York. She’d come back to Monroeville on the train for a visit—and undoubtedly she’d hear the rhetoric of the white families in her hometown.  At one point, early in the story, Atticus even asks her what the New York papers make of what’s “going on down here.”  It seems likely to me that in Watchman, Harper Lee was working through her own emotional responses to the events of the day and her reactions to the reactions of her family and community to these same events.

When I finally approached the book, I was already braced for Atticus. I expected to read amateurish writing—I did—but I also hoped I’d see a text that would make the power of revision clear to young writers, to my students.  With Mockingbird, I’d taught them more than how to read a novel, more than how to discover theme.  I’d opened their eyes to the elements of style.  So I hoped for early indications of that style in Watchman.  I found them.  Words, expressions, a proclivity for allusion, humor—though not much irony.  But the story seems thin to me—and disjointed.  There are some treats: a flashback to Scout, Jem, and Dill playing—not Boo Radley, but “Evangelist.” A long chapter featuring the loquacious Uncle Jack, as usual, circumventing a topic and making allusions to British history. A nice picture or two of various neighbors from Scout’s childhood days. It’s just that the richness, the fullness of Mockingbird isn’t there. Too much talk and not enough weaving of story line.  It’s as if the book had been stripped of its best parts—and it probably was. For Mockingbird.

Few critics like Watchman.

Some make a mistake that’s easy to make: It’s the same mistake I made by thinking Scout should know better than to be so rude to her father and her aunt.  The chronology of the two stories can be confused with the order in which they were written.  Watchman came first.  Atticus is 72 years old and the backdrop is 1956.  Mockingbird was written second—presumably as a revision of Watchman—and the backdrop is the 1930s.  In their responses to the publication, some people called Watchman the sequel—as if the two were intended one to follow the other.  Looked at that way, Atticus is indeed a disappointment.

Others knew something of the revision work Harper Lee had done and took the statement from the publisher at face value: Watchman was a draft and Mockingbird was the fruit of revision.  These reviewers looked at the “new” text for the seeds of Mockingbird and noticed that the story of Atticus and the rape trial is presented in just a paragraph and as a flashback. They noticed the shortcomings of a novice writer and expressed the opinion that Watchman should never have been published. The second publication tarnishes the first.

Many questioned the motives of Lee’s lawyer in providing the book to HarperCollins and HarperCollins for publishing it. They speculated that Lee, hard of hearing and poor of eyesight, ill and in a nursing home, had been manipulated into publishing the book.  There’s been so much confusion that we still don’t know the provenance of the book for sure.

Some said, and I agree, that in terms of producing literature, Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hahoff, was brilliant: Here’s your story—the rape case—now run with it—and somehow, make all these short stories into a coherent piece.  Which Harper Lee did, producing, to the benefit of readers everywhere and especially to the benefit of English teachers who know the book is a cornucopia of lessons in narrative arc, character development, symbolism, irony, and style, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Long, languid sentences and hilarious scenes of children at play evoke the best of a time and place gone by.  Short, direct, blunt utterances, a scene when Atticus shoots a rabid dog, and carefully crafted court scenes carry the message that prejudice is a disease and reveal the hard truth that the justice system is imperfect. The climax—when Scout meets Boo Radley at last and discovers his humanity is a touching depiction of the moral imperative to treat everyone with dignity and compassion.

For a while after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee herself spoke of trying to write a second book.  It was going to be about race. Presumably, the setting would be Maycomb, or at least Alabama.  Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, ventured this idea: Did Lee return to the original Watchman years after Mockingbird was published?  Did she revisit her first draft when she was older and struggling under the pressure of success to write a second book?  Is Watchman actually a post-1960 revision of the original first draft?  Gopnik points out that Watchman is confusing without a prequel, without Mockingbird. He points out that the shock of Watchman is only felt if the reader already knows Mockingbird.  If not, he posits, who would care about Atticus’s “fall from grace?”

But we are not going to know the whole story. It remains a literary mystery.  Or at least it will until another manuscript is “discovered.”  The best we can do now is enjoy Watchman, if we did, for what it is: the incomplete work of a novice writer.  Or, if we hold with Gopnik, the unfinished work of an extraordinary writer faced with an impossible task: producing another book that could hold a candle to her first.

And, this of course: We can continue to relish Lee’s enduring masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Unsung Heroes Project

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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.

How to Use an Instructional Coach

For teachers–new, mid-career, and veteran–at the beginning of the school year.

In an American Classroom

Athletes—including the very best—use coaches regularly to improve their performance. Surgeons bring coaches into the operating room to observe them as they work and make suggestions for perfecting their technique. Social service agencies employ coaches to help caseworkers develop communication skills, especially with difficult clientele. In  schools, coaches serve a variety of purposes.

Sometimes we are called literacy coaches. In that case, we work with teachers to develop instructional strategies vis-a-vis reading and writing in all the disciplines. Sometimes we are called curriculum coaches, and then the focus is on the district’s learning goals and standardized assessments of those goals.  We might be called technology coaches—where the emphasis is on the obvious. Or, we are called instructional coaches—and then it’s all about what happens in the classroom. The truth is, most of us do some of all of this. The name doesn’t matter. We know what we do, and what…

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Summertime, Summertime

DSC00297A few of the new teachers I’ve coached this year approached me when school was ending to ask what they should do over the summer to prepare for next year. I started this list with suggestions for their professional task lists…and then I just couldn’t stop thinking about what else I’d recommend. Maybe I was dreaming about what I plan to do?

So first, the professional:

1. Assess your challenges and spend some time learning about these areas of instruction.  Is it an aspect of your curriculum—say, grammar—that you’re weak on?  Study up on that.  Is your repertoire of instructional strategies slim? Learn about some new ones.  Try Jennifer Gonzales’ The Cult of Pedagogy blog. Do you need to sharpen  your classroom procedures?  Read The First Days of School or THE Classroom Management Book by Harry and Rosemary Wong.  Polish the procedures you already have in place or think through some you haven’t nailed yet.

But a piece of advice: There’s no end to becoming a more effective teacher, so don’t overwhelm yourself with too many self-improvement tasks. Prioritize the aspects of teaching that you feel you need to improve upon, pick a couple, and concentrate on those.

2. Read the books that you’re going to teach.  Make margin notes.  Look for companion texts: poetry, essays, newspaper articles, non-fiction pieces that can accompany the book and broaden, deepen, intensify the students’ understanding. 

3. Read some professional literature.  Expand your understanding of the issues and developments in the education field.  

4. Join your discipline’s national organization.  That will give you access to current thinking in your subject area, to blogs by fellow teachers, to grant opportunities, to inspiration.

5. Speaking of inspiration: Dream—and look for the grant support to fund your project.  Here are a few sources:

Never written a grant?  You do have to plan ahead.  That takes time. Get your ideas together and call on someone experienced in grant writing to read over your proposal before you submit it.

6. Explore websites that you haven’t had time for.

7. Subscribe to a blog written by a teacher in your discipline.

8. Learn something totally new.  (As you learn, think about what it feels like to be a novice at something and let that inform the way you think about your students.)

And what else?  We’re more than what we teach.  (But if you’re like me, you always end up teaching what you’ve learned.  Or using the new in some way in the classroom.)

Any of these sound appealing?

  1. Get outside and enjoy the weather.  Walk, run, bike, swim.  Exercise clears the mind, creates space for new ideas.
  2. Read a book that has nothing to do with education.  Read many books.
  3. Watch the movies you couldn’t stay up to see during the school year.
  4. Reconnect with an old friend.
  5. Take a trip—even if it’s just an hour away. To your state capitol? A tourist destination? Go someplace you’ve never been.
  6. Try out new recipes.
  7. Visit a museum or an art gallery.
  8. Go to a game.  Hit the golf course.  Try river-rafting or kayaking.  Bike across Iowa (http://ragbrai.com/registration/)—or only as far as the next small town: Just ride.
  9. Spend time with your significant other.  With your kids.  With your parents.
  10. Camp out in the backyard.
  11. Write a letter—the old-fashioned kind—and send it to a friend.
  12. Write a professional article yourself.  Or start a blog.
  13. Figure out Twitter.  Or Instagram.  Or Google+.  Would any of them work for you? If you don’t like them, don’t do them.  But maybe one has possibilities—for you or for your class.
  14. Reorganize your Google Drive.  (This is the equivalent of cleaning your room, but it’s oh-so-satisfying after you’ve done it!)
  15. Subscribe to Austin Kleon (http://austinkleon.com/) or Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/) or another source of eclectic inspiration.
  16. Take pictures with a camera, not your phone.  Learn how it works.  Have fun experimenting!
  17. Try taking a picture of the same thing/place/person every day all summer long.  If it’s a selfie you’re taking, watch the stress melt away as the summer days go by.
  18. Take an art class.
  19. Grow flowers you’ve never grown before, veggies you’ve never eaten.
  20. Try a new restaurant.
  21. Visit your local Farmer’s Market downtown on Saturday mornings.
  22. Take your kids to the airport to see the planes fly in and out.  If yours is a small town, hurray!! You’ll get much closer to the planes than you do in a big city.
  23. Go on your own Genealogy Roadshow.  Start at your computer or a cemetery or by interviewing your relatives.  No matter where you start, this is a trip like no other!
  24. Listen to a Ted Talk.  A new one every day.  https://www.ted.com/talks
  25. Buy a journal.  Write one page every day.  Dismiss the English teacher on your shoulder.  
  26. Sew a dress.
  27. Make a table or refinish a piece of furniture.
  28. Try learning a new language.  Even just a few words.  https://www.duolingo.com/  
  29. Volunteer somewhere.  
  30. Go to a concert (especially one outdoors!)
  31. Ride a train somewhere. Or even the city bus.
  32. Broaden your perspective on the news. Subscribe to an online newspaper in another part of the country.
  33. Go on a picnic.
  34. Find the closest U-Pick and pick your own strawberries–or whatever is in season.
  35. Organize your old photographs in an album for your coffee table. Or make a photo book online.
  36. Visit a national park this summer.  Fourth graders go free this year!
  37. Organize a neighborhood yard sale.
  38. Donate your old books to the library–and check out some new ones while you’re there.
  39. Imagine you’re a tourist in your own hometown. Make a list of places to go. And then go there.
  40. Visit with a neighbor.
  41. Make a dinner for a friend who’s NOT on summer vacation.
  42. Help your kids set up a lemonade stand–and then donate the proceeds to a charity.

And on and on and on. There’s really no end to the things we could do, the places we could go.  Just enjoy the summer!

Preserving the Past: A Cemetery Restoration Project

IMG_8062Pierce Cemetery is, in the words of high school social studies teacher Ashley Greeley, “in embarrassing shape.”  It is a true pioneer cemetery—that is, original settlers in this area of Indiana are buried there—but the grounds of the cemetery have been neglected for decades.  Monuments have toppled, slabs have cracked, stones have sunk deep into the ground. But last week, members of Ms. Greeley’s AP US History class (APUSH, as it’s called) began putting the place to rights—and learning some local history along the way.

Students began with research about their own families, learning their way around online genealogical resources with a subject that was somewhat familiar.  Then, Ms. Greeley assigned teams of students the name of someone who is buried in Pierce Cemetery.

To ensure some success in the research, students were assigned individuals for whom at least some information is known. Ms. Greeley had help in selecting the names from Lou Ann Clough (“LA”), archivist at the Tippecanoe County Historical Society, and Shane Weist, another local historian who was recently honored—one of 73 people in the country—by the Daughters of the American Revolution for his work in historical preservation. Previously, LA received this same Historical Preservation Recognition Award from the DAR, so the students were in good hands with LA, Shane, and Ms. Greeley as their guides to local history.

Ashley Greeley met Shane Weist and LA Clough last fall on Veterans Day when she and a handful of students showed up to help with the clean-up of Greenbush Cemetery, one of Lafayette’s oldest burial grounds.  The students had enjoyed the restoration work and that got Ms. Greeley to thinking about the cemetery that is literally in Harrison High School’s own back yard.

Cleaning up Pierce Cemetery would be a way for her to highlight local history—this is, after all, Indiana’s bicentennial year—and at the same time underscore the APUSH goal of applying historical thinking skills.  Ms. Clough was a guest speaker in the class. She explained the resources available to students  online and at the Tippecanoe County Historical Society.  At her invitation, seven students made an after school trip downtown to the Historical Society to use the Alameda McCollough Research Library. There they looked at actual documents relating to their person or family.

Permission to proceed with the work in the cemetery itself was secured from the Tippecanoe Township trustee, and then, on several May afternoons, Mr. Weist met the students on the cemetery grounds. He explained cemetery etiquette and cleaning procedures and directed the students as they cleaned the markers belonging to “their” people and their people’s relatives.

The students cleaned the stones with water—gently sprayed with a hose connected to a hand-held, hand-pumped container—and Revive, a professional masonry cleaner.  “Never power wash a gravestone,” Weist told the students.  “You’ll degrade the stone.”  Similarly, he cautioned that bleach should never be used as a cleaning agent.  Softly sprayed water and a mild solution of Revive was miraculous itself: Names appeared, dates became readable, carved symbols emerged like magic. “This is so satisfying!’ remarked one student, as information about a woman she’d had trouble researching began to reveal itself.

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Weist, who is certified by the state of Indiana to do cemetery restoration, helped one team of students restore a monument that had fallen years ago.  After the boys had cleaned the fallen obelisk, they washed the two stones that it had once rested upon.  A “stack” compound (a mix of cement and lime) the consistency of peanut butter was spread on an area of the base of the first stone.  When the mortar had dried sufficiently, the boys placed the second stone on top of the first.  A joint compound—caulking—was worked around the seam to guard against moisture penetrating the joint—and then the process was repeated to ready the spot on the second stone where the obelisk would stand.  Of course, it would be impossible to know which side of the obelisk originally faced forward, towards the entrance to the cemetery, but since there was carving on three sides, the team’s guess was pretty good. The stone no longer lies neglected at an angle on the ground. The obelisk stands tall, the family name facing forward now. IMG_8081

The students took pride in cleaning and restoring the graves. They began to see connections among members of the families buried there—a woman in one location, buried with her spouse, belonged to a family on the other side of the cemetery.  A first wife was buried with her parents—she’d died young—but her husband had remarried and was buried with his second wife and their children just behind her. Children aged only a few days had been lovingly laid to rest, joined years later by their parents. In one case, a modest marker for a 4-year old was side-by-side with a replacement stone, a grander marker shared by the little boy and his older brother, who died years later at age 26.

IMG_8037A Revolutionary War soldier is buried at Pierce and several Civil War soldiers as well.  Veterans of other wars, too, have found their final resting place in Pierce, and the students marked the graves with fresh American flags.

A group of boys, thrilled with the results of their elbow grease—the obelisk they had worked on  restored to nearly its original white—smiled for the camera. Said one boy in their group, “We’re having so much fun we don’t need to be asked to smile.” IMG_8058

To fund the project, Ms. Greeley applied for and won our school district’s competitive Anne de Camp Award for Creative Teaching. She used the money for the cleaning supplies, for gravestone rubbing paper and special wax crayons, and for a Shutterfly book she and the students will create to document their project.

Work remains for the APUSH classes in years to come, but several students asked Shane Weist if they could help him with other cemetery restoration projects. The boy who didn’t need to smile for the camera is thinking about tying his Eagle Scout project to the restoration of Pierce.

Cemeteries like Pierce are “excepted” pieces of real estate.  That is, the grounds surrounding the cemetery are privately owned (in this case, by the school district), but the cemetery itself is not part of the school property. It belongs to the township.  Neglected for many decades and unused for burials in recent history, Pierce Cemetery had fallen, quite naturally, into disrepair.  “I’ve been waiting for you,” LA Clough said to Ms. Greeley when the teacher first called her.  Clough has been mapping cemeteries all over Tippecanoe County, but restoration work is laborious. It calls for a group effort.

Because of the students’ industry, Pierce Cemetery already looks remarkably better than it did last fall when Ms. Greeley first conceived of the project. Soon she and her students will be able to say, “Pierce Cemetery was in embarrassing shape—but now it’s not.”

IMG_8017

 

Ithaka

Bricks
Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

It’s only days now until graduation. The excitement in the halls of the two high schools I serve is palpable. Final exams feel like an afterthought because culminating projects, AP exams, and work/study evaluations are complete. Seniors are focused on the traditions that mark their status: Senior Breakfast, Senior Cookout, Senior Day. In the school where I taught, each senior paints a cinder block in a corridor somewhere in the building–an epitaph of sorts. Their final message to the rest of us.

My last class graduated a year ago. I miss them still. Their graduation was particularly poignant because it was the last time I knew the graduates crossing the stage, could feel I’d had a direct hand in their accomplishment. I wrote to them, just a day before the last day of school. A final message of my own, one I send out now, again to them if they are reading this, and to graduates everywhere.

Dear Graduates,

I know, I know…just one more day to go. The last few weeks went by quickly, didn’t they? That’s always the way. It seems like you’ll never reach the shore and then, suddenly, there it is in front of you, a surprise that came too fast.

That’s the way I feel, too, about your graduation. You are my very last class, and I am already bereft. I will miss you terribly–even if all we have done in glimpse each other in the halls these past few years as you have moved on from my 9th grade English class and I have stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of my colleagues. But I have always known you were there. Your presence grounded me. But soon now, you will have crossed the stage and left these halls we’ve walked together.

But it is time for that. Time for you to set out on your journey. Time for you to embrace your destiny.

To that end, I am sending you a poem, a love letter really about your future wherever you sail. You will, of course, recognize Ithaka and all the allusions the poem contains. We didn’t read the Odyssey together for nothing! The last lines may be puzzling to you now, but however you interpret them, the remarkable journey, rich in adventures along the way, is what I wish for you. I am impossibly proud of you, like the proverbial button-busting parent, and I hope you will stay in touch. (You can “friend” me now, BTW.)

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

Some of them wrote back to me, articulating the message of the poem:

-I view Ithaca not only as a place, but as a home or set of goals and opportunities…

-I have very big goals for myself…college, medical school, residency…Every day I think about them and hope that I will achieve them. This poem encourages me to believe that I can.

-I gleaned that the journey itself may be better than the intended destination…

-It may be cliche, but for me, this whole poem screamed “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” and I’ll try to remember that as I move on in life.

-When I read the “love letter,” I replaced “Ithaca” with “happiness.” It all made sense after that.

-I think that the last lines of the poem mean that if we enjoyed our journey, our destination will not be a letdown. We’ll have gained so much experience that we understand our goal, our “Ithaka,” is really a point of reference to guide us through our journey. We eventually want to arrive home, but if we constantly think about home, we’ll miss out on the lessons we can learn during the trip there. I suppose graduation is a mini-Ithaka!

-One student wrote a poem of her own, thanking me for showing her that “the path to Ithaca has not ended, but has only just begun.” She was a student in my American classroom. Now she is a citizen of the world. As are they all. May their journeys be long, full of adventure and learning, and may they reach their Ithakas, enriched and grateful for the journey.

That is how I feel about them: enriched and grateful for their presence in my life.

n.b.: If you, the reader, run your cursor over the poem, you’ll see “hot spots.” Click on those circles and see how I might have guided students through the poem had I shared it with them in class.

Pictures Worth 1000 Words

Boss Tweed, a huge man in stature as well as impact, was the mayor of NYC and the engine that drove the Tammany Hall political machine.  He and his cohorts practiced graft on a giant scale, just like everything else he did.  Tweed didn’t worry much about his constituents squawking because most of them couldn’t read the newspapers.  He was brought low by one Thomas Nast, a cartoonist whose drawings appeared in Harper’s Magazine.  Nast exposed Tweed, and Tweed ended up in jail.  He escaped once to Spain, but was captured and returned to prison where he died in 1878. He famously said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles.  My constituents don’t know how to read.  But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures.”

Moral of the story: A picture is worth 1000 words.

So I am re-discovering.

Boss Tweed pixOne morning, not so many weeks ago, I was invited to attend an AP US History class where the topic was Boss Tweed.  I listened to the lecture and to the discussion that ensued and took notes the old-fashioned way: I wrote down words and numbers and dates and tried to capture the essence of the lecture in longhand.

That afternoon, not entirely by chance, I listened to a TedX Talk by Rachel Smith called “Drawing in Class.”  This blog is a shout-out to Rachel Smith.  She’s changed everything for me and, I hope, for a lot of people besides me.

I stumbled across her talk because I was looking for easy and/or effective note-taking strategies for a professional development presentation I was putting together for middle school teachers.  So far in my research, I’d  come across links to strategies I’d known about for years—like Cornell notes—and some clever ideas such as using highlighters to mark up texts in answer to a specific research question.  I’d learned that there’s no one right way to take notes (a big relief) and that some techniques—like trying to write down everything a speaker says—are largely ineffective.  Nothing new there.  And then I stumbled upon Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk.

When Rachel Smith was in school, she got in trouble for drawing in class.  She describes, in her talk, a scenario I remember from my own school days of teachers berating kids for doodling—when, in fact, they were creating graphic representations of what they were learning.  (A colleague—now an art teacher—told me she’d even been kicked out of Sunday school for drawing in class!)  Smith makes the point that drawing while she listened helped her focus—not to mention that her drawings captured the content in memorable images.

Now she makes a living drawing pictures of group discussions and collaborative proceedings.  I watched as she demonstrated how she draws words and images as people talk.  I wondered if 7th graders would be able to do this—listen and draw simultaneously—particularly if they aren’t “artistic” to begin with.

But maybe, I thought, even if they couldn’t draw fast enough to record a presentation as it was unfolding, maybe could they draw pictures after a presentation—as a way of summarizing the content.  I decided to try it myself.  I pulled out my lecture notes about Boss Tweed, and that’s what I drew.

The picture I created brings the story back for me in an instant—much faster than reading my original notes.  Could we teach kids to draw pictures as a summary exercise?  I’ve since made several presentations to my colleagues about Visual Notetaking, which (I’ve learned), is more common than I realized.

Since then, I’ve been drawing pictures in other classes I’ve attended.  Here’s a chemistry lesson on the heating curve, a biology lesson on karyotypes, and a visual summary of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.

Ploss V-N

 

Cox V-N

 

Jordan Versailles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the case of the two science classes, I recorded my visual notes as the class unfolded.  The WWI summary is an after-the-fact graphic.  Either way, I had to listen as the lesson unfolded, process the information on the spot, and then create an image that matched the content. Talk about focus!  No mental drifting possible.  And that is just the point.  Kids who doodle are likely processing—and learning in a mode that is natural for them.

You might notice that my people all look the same—except that Boss Tweed has a belly, the biology teacher has hair, and the people shaking hands at the Treaty of Versailles are standing sideways.  Rachel Smith makes the excellent point that novice artists like me need to develop a “library of images” that they can draw in an instant—and she ends her TedX Talk by teaching her audience how to draw a stylized “star person.”  Lesson learned.

All you need is a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.  Over time, you’ll develop that library of images.  Give this notetaking or summarizing strategy a try and teach it to your students.  I’d like to hear if you, too, rediscover that old truth: A picture is worth 1000 words.

 

If you’re new to visual notetaking, as I was, here is the link to Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tJPeumHNLY

Here is a link to the Pinterest page I put together on various notetaking strategies. https://www.pinterest.com/powleys/note-taking-strategies/

Here is a link to a Scholastic article by Meghan Everette on visual notetaking with directions for teaching kids how to do it:  http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top-teaching/2016/03/visual-note-taking-keep-focus-and-improve-retention

On Track to the End

You could tell it was the end of the 3rd quarter just from the daily announcements:

Tickets for the spring musical, awards from the art show, final competitions for dance team and Super Bowl.  Athletic awards banquets, FFA Dinners, state championships for speech and robotics and then the biggest finale of all: the March Madness of Indiana basketball.

And then we were released for Spring Break.  A week to go somewhere far away from school or to sleep in, catch up, and get ready for the last push: 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year.

But more often than we like to admit, when we get back from Spring Break, a lot of us will come face-to-face with the equivalent in teaching of running out of money before you run out of month.

There’s way too much left to “cover” before the last bell rings in May.

If you find yourself in this predicament, here are five simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum and too few days.  And some advice for how to prevent this from happening next year.

1.  Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2.  Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Use the chart below for your list.  Then ask yourself the questions in Step 3. They  will help you sort the Imperatives from the Importants.

Start with a list of the topics.

Topic Imperative Important

3.  Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of the two columns to the right.

  • Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote?  Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re Important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.”  Capote isn’t an Imperative.

But research skills? Those are important for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them.  So don’t cut out the research project.  Look instead for ways to streamline it.

Think about the skills in your discipline that the students have to have, that the teacher next year is depending upon their having learned.  Put your time and effort into those topics.

  • Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level.  These are Imperatives.  What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework in class so that you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other?

Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much?

  • Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

 An easy one to rethink is a film.  Do you have to show it?  Eliminating a movie can save a couple of days at least.  Can’t cut it out entirely? What about showing excerpts only? What about an after-school showing with popcorn and soft drinks?

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content?  For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying.  Without some instruction in process, a full-on debate can deteriorate into a shouting match.  What about conducting a Socratic Seminar or a Pinwheel discussion—something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

95An independent research activity can be a huge time suck.  What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team?  They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well.  By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone—and you can likely save a day or so of time online and/or in the library.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. Set up your expectations so that they stay on task.  Consider using a rubric for daily effort to reinforce your expectation that the students stay focused.  They can fill it out themselves—most kids are honest—and you’ve got override privileges if they misjudge themselves.

  • How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory.  I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest.  Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods.  As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period.  The students worked collaboratively even though each one submitted his or her own paper.  In the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history.  In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting.  As I said, a twofer.

4. Open up a blank calendar (or dig out a 2016 calendar you stashed in a drawer somewhere) and literally block out the days. Don’t forget that Finals Week is lost for teaching new material, and be sure to save a couple of days for review.  Pare each topic or unit down to its essentials and fill in the days.  You may find you have only a few days to teach something that usually requires two weeks.  When that happens, you’ll whittle the content down to the necessities by necessity.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly what is really imperative will surface—and the rest, the important but not the imperative—will just fall away.

5. Stick to your game plan. Don’t allow yourself to deviate from it or you’ll have to go through this process again.  Day by day, one day at a time, you’ll get to the end of the year.  You’ll find actually that it’s a sprint—after Spring Break, everything goes fast—but if you follow your plan, you’ll stay on the track to the end.

This falling behind has happened to all of us, even veterans who’ve been at teaching for a long time.  In fact, it commonly happens to veterans because the longer we teach, the more in-depth we go about our favorite topics and pretty soon, we’re way off track.  For a new teacher, the problem more likely arises because it just takes longer to teach things than you had supposed it would.  Plus, there were more interruptions than you had expected or planned for.  Either way, for both the veteran and the novice, the problem is one of pacing.

So add this to your resolutions for next year: Map out the year (easier to do when you’ve been through it once) and stick to your objectives.

And take this tip seriously: When planning units for next year, add an extra day to each unit you map out.  Then you have a day for re-teaching or for interruptions or for something unexpected or just because you’ve fallen behind.  We never have enough days, so if you do end up with a day left over, you can just add it to the next unit!  You’ll be glad you can.