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.

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CRAM: A Whole Lot More than Fixing Computers

IMG_6541Literacy across the curriculum. Why is it so important? What does it mean for instruction? And what does it look like in a course like Computer Repair And Maintenance (CRAM, for short) where, as far as most people know, students just make repairs to the laptops their peers carry around and use every day?

When my district made the decision in 2011 to issue laptops to every high school student in the district, it was clear there had to be a way to maintain those computers. Hence, the CRAM class was born. Today, the CRAM classes at our two high schools enroll about 35 students each semester.

Interested students sign up for a two-hour block: One hour every day is given over to instruction. Students learn to troubleshoot problems, make simple repairs, configure the devices, install programs, and a whole lot more. The students are staggered throughout the day for that second hour in CRAM. That’s when they man the helpdesk. When students bring their laptops for repair, the CRAM students get hands-on experience with technology and they also build the interpersonal skills that are so critical for customer satisfaction.

But it’s the whole lot more that makes this class an example of what literacy across the curriculum is all about. I had the opportunity to observe my colleague’s CRAM class at my high school a couple of weeks ago. The students were making their weekly presentations about information they glean from reading about hot topics in technology. My colleague supplies the students with a list of tech websites and the students select articles of interest to them. Their assignment is to distill the information and update their peers in a brief, but formal, presentation. All of the students speak from a podium and use the ENO board to highlight the main points in what is really a professional roundtable discussion. Often, on the day I observed, they stepped away from the podium, and they all used gestures and facial expressions that complemented their remarks. They were highly articulate and spoke from a position of comfort and authority. Naturally, they managed the technology with ease. A speech teacher would have been proud.

The topics—mostly mysteries to me—included 5G (the coming standard for wireless), the Linksys wrt199ac wireless router, even a history lesson from a young man named Eric: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know about the Ethernet.” He included a poem he’d found, a parody of Housman’s “I Think That I Shall Never See”:

I think that we shall never see

A graph more lovely than a tree,

A tree whose crucial property

Is loop-free connectivity.

Their peers asked questions, made connections to prior discussions, debated the pros and cons of a particular issue. The questions from the students were serious and largely technical. When a presenter concluded, my colleague opened the floor for discussion.

James, for example, updated the class on AT&T’s mobile router. She–their teacher–asked, “How would you use this router?” and a discussion of its pros and cons ensued. Responses were immediate; there was none of the delay or reluctance to speak that sometimes happens in a class. These students were comfortable with the content and eager to share their thoughts.

An explanation of the Heartbleed bug was another topic. “Will it really destroy the internet?” asked my colleague.

“No,” said Bailey. “In terms of physical destruction, no. But loss of trust is the consequence of malware and Heartbleed and other viruses.” That’s a thoughtful reply and indicates the upper level thinking skills that conversations in this class demand.

The discussion wasn’t deadpan, though. Though they were always respectful and professional, these kids have a sense of humor: Tongue-in-cheek, one boy asked Jonathan about a piece of hardware he was touting in his report, “What color does it come in?”

“Carbon fiber black,” was Jonathan’s quick reply.

During these presentations, other high school students approached the helpdesk with their malfunctioning laptops. Whenever that happened, a designated CRAM student quietly removed himself from the discussion to service the client. He spoke in low tones, and the student needing help followed suit. IMG_6554

A week later, I returned to the class to observe the students, seated in a circle, conducting a formal discussion of net neutrality, a hot topic from the week before that had struck everyone as deserving more attention than a tech report. Their teacher (using a problem/solution format that was formerly utilized in an event called Discussion in National Forensic League speech competition) directed the students to outline the problem and the aspects of it that are unalterable, present a variety of solutions, and then select the best one. The discussion lasted for a full class period—in fact, it went over to the next day.

I was amazed by the range of the students’ remarks, by how aware they are of the world beyond high school. I heard them say

  • ISPs could starve out a website.
  • ISPs are more likely to target big businesses.
  • Let’s be frank here: The Supreme Court is an older generation and the justices don’t understand the impact they’re making.
  • This is kind of like gas prices: People notice, but the increases are gradual and people get used to it.
  • ISPs can affect not just our economy, but the global economy.
  • We need to create a new FCC.

There was much talk about customer bases, profits, Fortune 500 companies, and VPN workarounds—a connection several made to the Arab Spring and the way that protesters got around their countries’ internet blocks.

Each person presented what he felt was the best solution; others responded. One boy, for example, said that we ought to direct the FCC to call internet providers “common carriers.”

“But remember,” said another boy, “We want to connect to other countries.”

Another solution: “We should Install a VPN on every computer—then the ISPs can’t block anyone.”

And the response to it: “Pirates will break it.”

Finally, Bailey pointed out that web neutrality is a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted solution—a recognition that bespeaks maturity and a thoughtful, in-depth consideration of the issue. How often do even adults view an issue as black and white when really, whatever the topic under consideration, it’s complex? IMG_6552

In the end, their “best” solution was indeed a multi-layered one: Forming a Technology Standards committee, which would be made up of highly qualified IT professionals, that would have the power to create regulations, much like the FCC. It would receive its power to implement those regulations from the federal government. The committee would submit its proposed regulations to a public vote to ensure checks and balances. The first two proposed regulations would be a) creating more local ISPs to eliminate current ISP monopolies and b) developing standard tiered Internet usage guidelines to ensure a continued free exchange of information while allowing the ISPs to earn a profit.

Well, I was impressed. Who wouldn’t be?

The students considered the issue from multiple perspectives and arrived at a solution that addresses multiple concerns. This entire project is a demonstration of the kind of learning the new standards encourage: informed debate, reasoned responses, credible evidence. IMG_6549

Students come to the CRAM class with different levels of knowledge and experience. They receive elective credit for the course, and at the end of the year, they can choose to take a test over the skills they have learned: the CompTIA A+ Certification exam (the computer industry standard). Passing that exam yields an industry standard certificate that can lead to employment. Students can retake the class another year if they choose—the only problem is fitting it into their already crowded schedules. Nevertheless, next year students will be able to take an advanced class—Network II—that will culminate in an opportunity to demonstrate advanced career skills on the Comp TIA Network + Certification exam. At one of the high schools, because of a partnership with Vincennes University, students can receive dual-credit for both years of study.

“If only this had been possible when I was in high school,” remarked my colleague. “Potentially, our students can graduate with 8 college credits, two industry standard certificates, and two years of work-related experience.” IMG_6547

My colleague at the other high school explained a different benefit of the CRAM class: Students gain hands-on experience with laptops. “Many individuals in the IT world do not know how to repair laptops,” he told me. “In fact, our students gain experience that can lead to expertise in small device repair—like cell phones—that other technicians lack.”

He went on to list what he sees as the other top benefits of the CRAM class: Obviously, the certificates; definitely, the interpersonal skills. “Our students learn to communicate,” he told me. “They have to support others, and that means they have to communicate effectively.” IMG_6556

The newly-released Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects mandate the integration of reading, writing, and speaking skills in technical disciplines. The CRAM class is already equipping these aspiring IT and Computer Science experts not only with the technical skills and experience they need, but with the literacy skills that are so critical to success in post-high school coursework and in the workforce. CRAM is a whole lot more than computer repair: It’s real-world learning at its best.

Jumpstarting a Career

MilesHarrisonMiles, who impressed me as being someone a great deal older than seventeen, someone far beyond high school, stood confident and poised before three of his bosses, his teacher, and me. He was explaining the computer inventory system at the USDA Soil Erosion Lab (housed on the Purdue University campus) that it is his responsibility to maintain. Miles is a senior in high school, earning six credit hours this year through on-the-job training combined with career preparation classes at school. Here is what he does during the on-the-job component of his Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program:

• Inventories the computers
• Installs and updates anti-virus software
• Installs the script that automatically updates the inventory of computer hardware
• Maintains an intranet website (which he developed) for use by all groups and individuals at the Soil Erosion lab
• Logs the usage of the fleet of vans the facility operates

He works from noon to about 4:00 PM every day as an I.T. intern, a job he found through the I.C.E. program at his high school. State guidelines mandate that I.C.E. students work a minimum of 15 hours a week; some work much more than that.

His friend works nearby at the USDA Livestock Behavioral Research Unit. Sometimes Nestor is handing piglets, and sometimes, seated in high back, cushioned, faux leather chair, he enters research data into a computer, analyzes that data, and confers with the senior researcher who is his supervisor about what the data reveals. Nestor is an I.C.E. student, too.

Recently I accompanied the I.C.E. teachers from the two high schools in my district on their rounds of local businesses and institutions where their students are employed. The students’ jobs could be in any one of sixteen career clusters that include finance, childcare, health systems, and manufacturing among others.

P1040427Besides the two facilities mentioned above, I visited a chiropractic office where Alyna works the front desk. She greets patients, answers the phone, prepares the day’s schedule, processes payments, and enters patient data into the computer system. At a Ford dealership, I watched Jordan and Andrew rotate tires on a truck. They also do oil changes and other routine procedures and even occasionally are assigned to do a brake job. At Dairy Queen, Ariana talked to me about her responsibilities as a crew leader, and at the end of our conversation, she served her teacher and me a chocolate dipped cone (my treat).

About ninety students in the two high schools combined take advantage of the I.C.E. program every year. They are kids who have a strong work ethic, have maintained good grades and a good attendance record at school, and have an interest in a specific career field—or think they do. Working half-days while they’re in high school gives these students a chance to explore a career field and find out if it’s really for them—before they’ve committed time and money to a post-graduate training program. They earn money while they work, and they interact with adults and develop the kinds of job skills—like responsibility, punctuality, and teamwork—that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future.

Some students already have a job when they enroll in I.C.E., and several told me they found it through networking. Others turn to the teacher, whose challenge is to match the students with their career interests. That was the case for Miles, the I.T. intern, and for Nestor, the student working at USDA. While talking to Nestor, his teacher discovered that he had a love for animals, so she contacted USDA, which had a position just right for his interests and talents.

Teachers supervise students employed at banks and daycares, in residence halls at Purdue, and for trucking companies. I.C.E. students work for veterinarians, in restaurants, for major manufacturers, in health care facilities, and for construction firms. In short, they’re everywhere.

I saw six of these kids on the job, and one commonality I observed is this: They all have uncommonly good communication skills. Each of these students was articulate, poised, and comfortable talking to me. The topic was one they knew well. They were all proud of their ability to do their job and eager to share their experience. They exhibited none of the awkwardness kids often display in speeches they give in English class. “I’m really shy,” Alyna told me, “but this job has taught me how to talk to people.” Indeed, she seemed quite at ease as she checked clients in and took payment from others in the clinic where she worked.

Being able to communicate with team members is even more important than being able to talk to someone like me about the program. Jordan stressed that when he talked about working with a crew in his bay. “You have to know when and how to ask for help. You don’t want to look stupid, but you’ve got to know when to ask for help so you don’t screw up.”

Miles explained that he has to communicate with people from a variety of cultures for whom English may or may not be the native language. English sometimes isn’t even the language of the software these scientists use, yet it is Miles’ job to facilitate the efficient use of the computers. Miles has to communicate effectively with all of the researchers and employees at his facility; his job is not just about installing software or fixing glitches.

Another commonality: These students are all developing the critical thinking skills that are essential to success in any endeavor. Whether it’s figuring out a software installation problem, working in tandem with a crew, or listening to a patient’s problem and scheduling appropriately, the students have to make judgment calls. That takes confidence, and it is confidence that these students are building through their on-the-job training.

Often the students take introductory courses early in their high school years and then, as seniors, pursue employment and the career exploration study that I.C.E. involves. Their experience often translates into a post-high school position. Jordan, for example, is out of high school now. He just happened to be on the job and a member of Andrew’s crew the day I visited the Ford dealership. Jordan explained that he had taken the automotive technology courses offered in high school, spent his senior year in the I.C.E. course, and now is employed half time while he attends advanced classes in Automotive Technology at our community college.

“I got hired at 17 because I was in the I.C.E. program,” he told me. “It made me more competitive than other people.”

P1040425The I.C.E. experience doesn’t always lead to a career in the same field. Andrew, for example, is planning to switch fields and become an electrician. But his employment in the automotive industry has clarified his career goals. “Not only that,” he said, talking to me while he worked on the truck’s tires, “the job has given me life skills.”

Ariana said the same thing. I asked her what the benefit of the I.C.E. program—in her case, working at Dairy Queen—has been. After all, she’s already enlisted in the Army and is on a trajectory to become a “multiple launch rocket systems specialist.” Dairy Queen seems some distance from that career pathway. She was quick to reply. “It’s taught me responsibility,” she said. “And discipline. Especially discipline.”

While their teacher grades their classroom work, which involves formal standards-based study of topics such as financial literacy, legal issues, and ethical behavior—all of which are tied to SCANS foundational skills—it is the employer who assesses the students on a quarterly basis and issues a performance grade. That grade is reality-based. After all, these jobs are for real, and the employers have customers and clients whose satisfaction is paramount.

I don’t think people in general know much about programs like I.C.E. High school students—at least those not involved in the I.C.E. program—typically think I.C.E. is just a way to get out of school in the afternoon. Admittedly, some of the students I talked to were not wild about the traditional high school setting—sitting in desks, listening to teachers, learning from books—and vastly prefer the “hands-on” experience they enjoy with I.C.E. But not one of the students I interviewed said that getting out of school early was a motivating factor in joining the program. Their responses were much more mature than that.

In Miles’ case, one benefit was the glimpse he’s had of the level of education needed in and beyond college for the various positions that exist in Information Technology. He’s developed a practical understanding of the distinction between training in Computer Information Technology and schooling in Computer Science. “Enrolling in I.C.E is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he told me.

In fact, that’s what they all said.

These days we hear a lot about preparing our students to be “College and Career Ready.” The Common Core and other standards systems are heavy on the college part, but we don’t hear much about the career side of the equation. I.C.E. is an exception. These students are indeed ready to launch their careers—and that means both post-high school training (the college side) and post-high school employment (the career side).

I.C.E. isn’t for everyone, but neither is the traditional 4-year program for everyone. Students like Miles, Andrew, Alyna, and the others are ready for the responsibilities of employment in their chosen fields, and they’re jumpstarting their careers by enrolling in I.C.E.

I have to wonder if a lot of other kids are missing the boat by not taking advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

FFA: Not What You Might Think

It was a familiar scene for a former speech coach: Yellow school buses and white vans stacked up in the school parking lot and a bevy of adults clutching clipboards and coffee cups gathered in the Media Center awaiting final instructions from the teacher in charge. In the halls, students clustered in tight little groups or stood nervously to the side, rehearsing one last time the speech they would deliver as soon as the judges received their scoring packets and were released to classrooms. In those rooms, chairs had been pushed back, masking tape had been laid on the floor to delineate the “stage,” and the doors all had signs that were not there the day before: the event to take place in that room, the time of the event, the contestants.

Very familiar. Except that this was not a National Forensic League speech competition. It was the Future Farmers of America (FFA) District Contest yesterday at my high school.

I was assigned to judge “Freshman Prepared Public Speaking”—an event for the youngest FFA members, an initiation into the more difficult “Prepared Public Speaking” competition for older chapter members. These 9th graders—14-year-olds—each chose a topic in agriculture and prepared a 3-5 minute speech on the subject. They had to submit their papers, accompanied by a complete and correct bibliography, ahead of time. We judges had read the speeches before the contestants even entered the room—and, in fact, one of the scoring categories addressed the students’ written language: organization, coherence, logic, language, sentence structure, and whether the writer accomplished the purpose.

For the most part, they had memorized their speeches, although note cards are allowed. The topics were serious ones: The loss of farm land to developers and the implications of that for feeding our rapidly expanding global population; water conservation and the various ways we can effect that; the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels. No fluff here. Students were scored on the accuracy of their information, the evidence they provided and its suitability for the occasion. And that bibliography? Forty points!

The students had been coached in presentation skills. Every one of them strode confidently into the room, shook hands with each of the five judges, and made eye contact, smiling big. Someone who hadn’t learned this first rule of commanding the stage would have been a sore thumb, but every one of these kids was genuine in their friendliness. Their demeanor was refreshing, not staged, and they exuded wholesomeness.

I wanted to claim each of them as my own.

At the end, each student stood to answer questions from the judges. Naturally, they had to maintain their poise throughout the ordeal—and I imagine, to them, it was that. They had no idea what we might ask, but for the most part they had done their homework and could elaborate on their topic—or had the good sense to admit they didn’t know when the question was something that came (I’m sure they thought) from left field. One of the contestants, remarking on the importance of agriculture, observed that kids in general don’t know where their food comes from.

Another judge, an elementary school teacher, concurred with her. “Yes,” he said, “Ask elementary students where hamburger comes from and most will say, ‘The store.’”

P1040331That won’t happen when the student whom I can claim as my own is in charge of her classroom. In an exquisite turn-around, one of the judges I was with was once a student of mine, and now she helped me understand the procedures of my judging assignment. Three years ago, I coached Layne, who was in my American Lit class, in “Prepared Public Speaking” for this same FFA contest.

Layne not only won the district, but she went on to win the state competition and capture bronze at Nationals. Her speech was a heavily researched, intensely rehearsed argument defending the livestock industry against agencies and organizations who brand their practices inhumane. Her compelling explanations and well-chosen evidence convinced not just me, but audience after audience. Layne spoke not just in competition, but also, to rehearse her speech in advance of nationals, to many audiences of adults in business or in organizations connected to agriculture. She met people from all over the state—including a senator who offered to help her with resources—and the networking she did is still bearing fruit.

This past summer Layne was crowned Miss Tippecanoe County at the county fair—another big deal in our state and another competition that is not at all what it sounds like. Asked at that competition what her proudest accomplishment was, Layne replied that it was her experience with the Prepared Public Speaking event in FFA.

Layne is in college now, studying to be an elementary school teacher. Naturally, I wanted to know how FFA had prepared her for college. “Well,” Layne answered, “I’m the one people bring their papers to.”

The answer didn’t surprise me because the contest today was all about literacy skills—not just in the event I judged and the one I had coached Layne for, but in all the others, too: Agricultural Sales Demonstration, Essay, Exhibit, Extemporaneous Speaking, Job Interview, Natural Resources Demonstration—to name just a few.

She knows how to gather evidence for an argument, how to organize a presentation, how to write clearly and convincingly, and how to do that beastly Works Cited page—whether in MLA or APA format. “I did just fine on my first college paper,” she continued.” I already had those skills.”

Of course, the English Department gets credit here, too, but FFA gave Layne the opportunity to apply the skills she learned in English and speech in a real-world setting with authentic audiences. I wonder if everyone realizes the extent to which FFA supports the literacy skills that are taught in English and articulated in the College and Career Ready standards that every state (Common Core states and otherwise) must adhere to? We’re working the same ground, we English teachers and FFA.

And, I might add, FFA is an example of the kind of interdisciplinary learning that our students need. FFA members apply basic math skills all the time, in practical situations they deal with every day and in theoretical ones they’re handed in classes in ag business and ag econ. FFA topics are wedded to science (look no farther than the girl who spoke about water—she cited research at Purdue into drought-resistant plants and mentioned the aquifers in the West) and to history (She tied her speech to the water shortage during the Depression, too).  If we’re going to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, technology will play a vital role as well. In fact, it is the interdisciplinary thinking and the committed work ethic of kids like those I saw yesterday at the FFA district contest that will make it happen.

The saying is clichéd now—a staple of promotional t-shirts and commemorative swag—but it was new to me yesterday: “FFA: Not just Cows, Plows, and Sows.”

Indeed.

Changed Lives: The World Food Prize

It isn’t often that you come away from an event knowing with certainty that lives have been changed. 

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But in October, that’s exactly how I felt. One hundred and forty-six students from 27 states and 7 foreign countries assembled in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, for the Global Youth Institute, held in conjunction with the presentation of this year’s World Food Prize.

If you have followed my blog for long, you may remember that I wrote about the World Food Prize last spring. (See “Second Skin” and “Winners All.”) A colleague at my high school, a biology teacher whom I admire, had learned about the World Food Prize essay competition, a contest on the subject of world hunger. Students would choose a country somewhere in the world,  do research, and then write about issues of food insecurity in that country. My colleague asked me to help her coach the students who signed on to the challenge. The final  papers—as many as 10 pages long, single-spaced, thoroughly documented in MLA format—were written with no promise of any extrinsic reward and turned out to be far more complex than any the students had written before—even in AP classes.

At the end of  March, the five students we coached presented their papers before a panel of Purdue University professors, all of them connected in some way to agriculture and food science. One of our students—Caroline—had written about India and the issue of land law reform. If women owned land, she argued, agricultural improvements and increased food supplies would not only decrease hunger and malnutrition but would contribute to the elevation of women’s status and thus to a decrease in gender-based violence.

All of our students wrote papers like this—one was about hydroponic produce in the Gaza Strip, another was about water sanitation in Cambodia—but Caroline’s essay and  her subsequent oral defense of her work qualified her to attend the national conference—the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue—in Des Moines. Over the summer, she revised her paper, resubmitted it, and then waited for the event in October—the event that changed lives.

This was a full scale conference—called the Borlaug Dialogue in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1970, food scientist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug, “the man who saved more lives than anyone else on earth.” Working as a young scientist in Mexico in the 1940s, Borlaug developed a disease-resistant strain of wheat that made Mexico less dependent upon imported grain. His work was the beginning of the Green Revolution in India and Pakistan in the 1950s. His contribution to peace in the world—by increasing the world’s food supply and saving millions, perhaps a billion, from starvation—is unparalleled.

The conference, held in Des Moines, Iowa, was attended by food scientists, statesmen, NGO leaders, academicians, and agribusiness men and women. Attendees listened to thought-provoking speakers and panel presentations, ate delicious, eco-friendly, catered meals that concluded with keynote addresses or round table discussions, and viewed posters explaining work being done to fight hunger around the world by various NGOs.

The students took in most of this, but the Global Youth Institute, their conference, ran in tandem with the Borlaug Dialogue, and students followed its schedule, too: a farm tour, an opportunity to package food for Outreach International, a Hunger Dinner organized on Friday night by Oxfam. The climax was on Saturday morning when the students again presented their papers, this time to distinguished scientists who were attending the conference—scientists like previous World Food Prize honorees Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) and Dr. Gabisa Ejeta (2009) from Purdue University.

  • So what changed lives? Was it Howard Buffett, an international philanthropist (and son of Warren Buffett) whose interest is in agriculture? Buffet told the audience that we all have about 40 chances in our lives to do something for the world. We don’t get unlimited opportunities—40 years is about the span of our working lives. We have that many chances to “get it right,” whatever our goal. His is feeding the world.
  • Was it the President of Iceland, a learned and engaging speaker who told the students that the melting of polar ice will have a greater effect on their lives than anything else?  In a talk entitled “Ice, Energy, and Food,” he explained the geothermal aspects of the polar melt and outlined the subsequent effects on countries around the world.
  • Was it Tony Blair, explaining we need to pay attention to the priorities of the people in developing countries and to listen to them: They just might know more than we do.

P1040108Or perhaps it was at the Hunger Banquet.  Teachers and students drew cards as they entered the room and were sent, depending upon the color of their cards, to one side or the other or to a spot on the floor. On the right, tables had been set for an elegant multi-course meal—15% of the participants landed there. Another 25% were sent to chairs along the wall. That group, those who are barely “making it” in the world, got a dinner of rice and lentils, served on paper plates. The rest of the participants ended up on the floor. They represented the 60% of the world that is food insecure. Their dinner was rice only, served directly into their hands from great bowls placed on the floor.

People reacted in myriad ways. Some on the floor accepted their fate, some begged and even stole food, others bartered. Some of the 15% shared willingly or even tried to give their food away. Some people served as intermediaries between the rich and the poor.

The students voiced their reactions and their takeaways after the dinner. One student, an articulate young woman who had been a Borlaug Intern in India the previous summer (an opportunity yet ahead for this year’s crop of students) said to the group at the end of the dinner, “If we are going to help in the world, I believe it has to start with empathy.”

Maybe it was the World Food Prize winners themselves who changed the lives of the young people in the room. All of the laureates this year are microbiologists who have relentlessly conducted basic scientific research that has, after years of study, yielded advances in the genetically modified seeds. They spoke at lunch about their lives in science: about the curiosity that sparked their quest, about the discipline and persistence that science requires, about the mostly friendly competition among their labs, about the electricity—and the satisfaction—they felt when their experiments worked and new knowledge was born.  Any budding scientist in the audience had to have been inspired.

Or perhaps it was the same three scientists giving the students some advice at the end of the conference—passing on some life lessons:

  • Dr. Robert T. Fraley: Pretend that 37 years from now you are 56 years old and toward the end of you career. What will you be thinking about? It believe it will be your friends and colleagues and the few lasting contributions you will have made in the world—those moments that will come from deep inside you. Nothing else will matter.
  • Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton: Do what you want to do. Follow your love. That is the place where you will succeed.
  • Dr. Marc Von Montagu: Whatever discipline you go into, question the knowledge. Take a scientific approach.

Maybe it was the posters and presentations by Borlaug Interns—students from the previous year who had applied for and won the twenty coveted summer opportunities to conduct research on site in countries all over the world. That, by the way, is the prize for the students who attended the Global Youth Institute. P1040132Their work is distinguished enough that they’ve earned the right to apply for an overseas internship—while they’re still in high school. The students I heard presenting their papers and discussing the impact of their experiences abroad are all committed to the further pursuit of answers to the problem of hunger.

The last event of the Global Youth Institute brought students and distinguished scientists together in small groups. The students presented their papers orally (those summer revisions) and the scientists, including the new laureates and those from other years, like Phil Nelson and Gabisa Ejeta and M. S. Swaminathan (the first World Food Prize laureate of all), responded to them. The scientists asked questions, commented, praised the students and challenged them—much as the Purdue professors had done in the spring. Imagine the impact of a world class scientist listening to a high school student’s paper: This was the high point of the conference for our student, the piece that has motivated her to apply for an internship.

The event that changed lives. I don’t mean the Global Youth Institute/Borlaug Dialogue was a conversion experience—these kids already appreciate the seriousness and depth of world hunger. I don’t mean that they did an about-face on their career goals—most of them already know they want to go into agronomy or biology or engineering or such.

The change they underwent is more like a photographer putting a panoramic lens on the camera. Suddenly, the world is wider. “I saw there was poverty everywhere,” said one Borlaug Intern who saw it halfway around the world as well as here in America. “I see that technology can help,” said another, thinking perhaps of the cell phones that smallholder farmers in the developing world use to keep abreast of market value for their crops. Technology for this student is far more now than cool aps, the latest iPhone, or social networking.

At the same time, it’s as if each student has placed a close-up of herself in relief against that panorama–like a Facebook user uploads a profile photo against the banner on her page.  Each scholar stands in relief against that panoramic background, the student’s relationship to the wider world now more sharply defined. “My internship solidified what I want to do in college,” I heard one young woman say.  Because of their experiences at the Global Youth Institute, a biology major will narrow her options to plant pathology. An aspiring engineer will someday develop farm implements that can work the African soil. Someone interested in science generally will become a nutritionist.

It is in this way that lives have changed—and that the lives of those who live with hunger will change.

Norman Borlaug is still saving lives.

Visit the World Food Prize website: http://www.worldfoodprize.org/

Read the students’ papers: http://www.worldfoodprize.org/index.cfm?nodeID=69493&audienceID=1

Educating Every Child

I’m going to depart from my usual format and include some pictures in this post. I want you to see Amani. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

sm AmaniHer ambition is not unusual—at least it wouldn’t be for American girl. What is unusual is that Amani is enrolled in high school in the tiny African country of Rwanda—and she’s well on the way to achieving her dream.

In Rwanda, it’s unusual for children to be in high school at all. In this tiny country in west central Africa, elementary education (grades 1-6) is mandated; in fact, 98% of the boys and 96% of the girls attend village elementary schools. But that’s where education ends for most.

The reason is money: A year of secondary school costs at least $300.

In a country where, according to the World Bank figures for 2011, the per capita GDP averages $570 a year, sending your child to secondary school—and you may have three, four, five, six children—is impossible. Amani is lucky: She attended a elementary school that partners with Every Child is My Child, an American non-profit that provides scholarships for any child in the school who passes the national exam to qualify for secondary school.

Every Child is My Child has been partnering with Nyacyonga, Amani’s village school, for five years. Children at Nyacyonga have a reason now to stay in school and study hard: Secondary school has become a possibility.

In sheer economic terms, attending secondary is meaningful because, again according to the World Bank, every additional year of school means a 10% increase in earning power. Amani is a junior, so she’s already added 50% to her potential as a wage earner. In human terms, think what an education means for her: She will have choices about the path she follows in life.

Think what Amani can do for her country.

Rwanda is not only the smallest country in Africa; it is the most densely populated. Most people in the rural areas are subsistence farmers, growing bananas and sorghum and coffee. In fact, Rwanda’s chief export is coffee, but the country is so small it can’t compete globally with Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania—much larger countries with far larger harvests.

Rwanda has one major tourist attraction: the endangered mountain gorillas made famous in a film about Dian Fossey’s life and work, Gorillas in the Mist.  Expensive as it is to trek into the mountainous jungle region to see the gorillas—a permit costs the equivalent of an average Rwandan’s yearly income—a limited number of tourists per day are allowed to see the gorillas (the length of a visit is a strict one hour) so that the animals don’t completely habituate to humans.

On top of that, Rwanda is still recovering from the devastating genocide of 1994 when 800,000 people were slaughtered, mostly by machete, in a mere 90 days—a story told to the world in the film Hotel Rwanda. Education is the route to development and economic independence, and ultimately, the key to peace and progress.

So Amani—her name means “Peace” in Swahili—and her fellow classmates will be the ones to lift Rwanda from poverty and bring stability to the lives of their countrymen. She and her classmates will make, in fact, a global impact because an education is a sustainable resource.

In Rwanda, secondary schools are boarding schools. Students are assigned to schools all over the country according to their interests, their test scores, and the space available, so a class of graduating 6th graders may not stay together. Amani’s is a specialized high school. The curriculum is science-based—what  we might call in this country a “magnet school.”  She travels by bus—sometimes the ride can be 10 hours—and comes home infrequently. Transportation is expensive, and it is the parents’ responsibility to pay for or make the travel arrangements, their demonstration of commitment to their children’s education. Not one parent at Nyacyonga whose child has passed the qualifying exam has turned down this opportunity for their child. The $300 a year scholarship from Every Child is for tuition, books, school supplies, a uniform, and a roll-up mattress.

Two summers ago, I visited a secondary school with Every Child is My sm EyeChild’s founder and director (who happens to be my daughter) and some of its donors. The school I saw is in a secluded spot in northeastern Rwanda at the end of a shaded red earth road that cuts through cultivated fields. The grounds are neat, trimmed, tidy. The classroom buildings are sparsely accoutered: blackboards, desks, and only occasionally, a wall poster. The most colorful—and unique—aspect of the school is outside the classroom: Murals depicting body systems and organs have been painted on the exterior of the buildings—the eye, the respiratory system, the ear, for example.

sm Respiratory SystemWe took Amani and four other Every Child scholars from this school or from boarding schools within a few hours bus ride to lunch at a restaurant on Lake Muhazi, located not far from the school. Charming teenagers, all of them: Amani with her megawatt smile; Mary Louise, who—as is common—is the first in her family to go to secondary school; Grace, who also wants to be a doctor; and two boys, Ananies and Jean-Paul.  John-Paul was the spokesperson for the group. On the bus that morning, he’d prepared a speech which he read to us before we ate. He thanked Every Child for the opportunity to go to school, of course, and said that the students’ motto was this: “Upward Ever; Downward, Never.”

Lunch was barbecued chicken and fresh fish and orange soda. The teenagers, accustomed to beans and maize for lunch and dinner day after day after day, picked the platter clean. The soda bottles emptied quickly. “They don’t serve Fanta in the school cafeteria?” we asked, knowing full well they didn’t.

“It would be a miracle!” Amani laughed.

We asked the students about their families, their ambitions, their favorite subjects, and among other things, what they like to do in their spare time. Amani’s not so different than American kids—she likes to relax with her friends. Someone mentioned the upcoming end-of-term exams, though, and she responded, with her characteristic grin, “I guess I’ll have to reduce my relax!”

Every Child is My Child takes a unique approach to educating children in Rwanda and in Burundi, its neighbor. First of all, the scholarships are for secondary school. That’s unusual in the developing world, but clearly, the gap between elementary enrollment and 7th grade clarifies that there is where the need is—and where the greatest impact could be. The incentive for the elementary students—that is, the possibility of continuing on to secondary school—has worked.

And even if a student doesn’t pass the national exam to go on, he or she has lasted through 6th grade at least. That’s going to increase that student’s earning power and insure a degree of literacy. Likely there will be long-term impacts on early marriages and child labor expectations, on earning power and family stability. Education has the potential to break the cycle of poverty—so every year in school helps, and every child is part of the solution.

Every Child is My Child’s model is unique, too, because every child in the partner schools is offered the same opportunity. Some scholarship programs serve individual students—say, the top scholar in a school—or provide support just for girls—or just boys. These programs are important. But Every Child, by educating whole classes of students, aspires to lift entire communities. What can happen when every child in a village is literate, when every child has a high school education? In how many ways will the village itself be transformed? The country? These are big questions. The answers reside in the  future these children create for themselves and their families.

Right now, Every Child sponsors about 300 students from two elementary schools in Rwanda (Nyacyonga and Ngenda) and one in Burundi (Mageyo), an even poorer country, where the school fees for secondary grades add up to only $100 a year. The first graduates—kids who have been supported for a full six years—will receive their diplomas in 2014. There are plans to expand the Every Child model, but in the meantime, more students begin 7th grade each year, so the need to expand the base of reliable funders is also growing. This is an organization that depends 100% on volunteers—there are no salaries for anyone—and right now, the organization relies largely on individual donations.

Some American schools have helped, though–and that’s the connection to my American classroom. In my next post, I’ll describe what the International Club at my high school has done to support Every Child is My Child and what another teacher in North Dakota is doing with her middle school students. You can help, too, if you’re a teacher looking for a service project. In the meantime, you can learn more about Every Child by visiting the organization on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EveryChildisMyChild) or by viewing this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeAW9IKHJok

And murakoze. That’s “thank you” in Kinyarwandan. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for caring about every child.

How Children Succeed

I saw her in the high school library on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of the day. She was bent over her books, head in hands, her long black hair a kind of curtain around the pages that were open on the table.

“How are you doing?” I asked, interrupting her study. “It’s so good to see you!”

She lifted her head, brushed back her hair. “Mrs. Powley!”  Then she smiled and answered the question. “I’m fine—but kind of stressed now, to be honest. My classes…” Her voice trailed off.

“What are you taking?”

“Pre-cal, College Comp. Chemistry, Government. You know.”

Yes, I do know.  Kids are sometimes surprised that senior year is stressful. So many of them confuse arriving at senior year with finishing senior year and have the mistaken notion that the last year of high school will be a slide. A lot of them give up when the pressure becomes intense.

But not her.

“I thought you were going to have early dismissal this year,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I do. But I only work three afternoons a week—40 hours, but only 3 afternoons.”

“Forty hours?”

“I work all day Saturday and Sunday.”  Her parents own one of the small Hispanic grocery stores in the area. I got the sense—last year when she was in my American lit class and from this conversation in October—that her family is working hard to make a go of it. “If I go home,” she continued, “I get distracted. If I stay here, I get my work done. I’ve got to.”

She wants to go to college. She’s not a A student.

I’ve just finished reading, for the second time, Paul Tough’s riveting new book, How Children Succeed. It confirms 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 character.

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.

Character counts.

A few years ago, Paul Tough wrote Whatever It Takes, a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC. It was while he was researching that book that he became interested in issues of success and failure. Research shows, he found, that character is a better predictor of success in college than GPA scores. In his book, Tough identifies a handful of character strengths that can be taught in school if they haven’t been cultivated at home.

Most of Tough’s book is focused on the children of poverty. He summarizes a number of studies conducted by psychologists, neuroscientists, and even an economist that point to character strengths such as determination, resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, and what Tough calls “grit” as being the reasons some kids, against all odds, succeed. But where does it comes from, this thing we call “character”?

To begin with, children who are nurtured when they are young are more likely to develop these character strengths than the children who are not. Why?

There is a physiological explanation. The conditions of poverty, under which twenty to twenty-five percent of our children live—conditions of family dysfunction like violence, anxiety, abandonment, alcoholism, abuse, frequent relocations—cause stress for kids. The stress of living in poverty causes changes in kids’ cognitive functioning—and that means these kids can’t sit still, can’t pay attention, can’t control their emotions. They do poorly in school. “When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings,” writes Tough, “it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”

The preventative—and the antidote—is a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult. Ideally, in childhood, with a mother—but not necessarily a birth mother. Tough makes the point that it is the rearing mother that has the impact, so a child raised by grandparents, by an adoptive family, by another relative who gives the child the love and guidance and support she or he needs can become a young person with these crucial character strengths. The role of the mother—whoever she or he is—is to soothe, guide, counsel, and support the child in learning to deal with adversity. She’s the teacher, if you will, of a home school course in stress management.

That might lead you to think that it is only the children of poverty who lose out on early character training, not the children of privilege. But Tough points out, in observations based upon the reflections of teachers and principals as well as research he cites, that parents who rush in to rescue their children whenever they are in a tight spot—those we call “helicopter parents”–are just as likely to be disabling their children as the neglectful parent living in poverty. Increasingly, even at the college level, teachers know the kind of parent I mean: those who contest every poor score their child receives or seek accommodations no other student will have. (Surely there is a retest? Surely the extenuating circumstances I am telling you about excuse the fact that he didn’t pay attention in class, didn’t come in for help, didn’t study? Surely he can do a make-up because his outside commitments—sports or 4H or whatever—had him just too busy for your test?)  Or, parents whose relationships with their children are “distant,” but whose expectations are nonetheless high—sometimes impossibly high.

By never allowing their children to learn how to manage a disappointment or a setback, these parents, too, are handicapping their children. If a child is never allowed to fail, he or she will lack resilience—the ability to bounce back after a defeat. My grandmother used to say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She had a point.

But it won’t work to throw up our hands in despair and write off such children. We can’t just chalk up their failures to “lack of parental support” or “helicopter” parenting and be done with the matter. Tough goes on to say that the character traits he enumerates and explains in his book can be taught in school. Using examples of whole-school programs, classroom initiatives, and extra-curricular clubs (such as a chess club in an impoverished school community that has led to amazing accomplishments for some middle school students), Tough shows how teachers and principals can make a difference, can instill those character traits even in students who have lost out at home. Furthermore, character can be shaped, the examples show—even as late as during the teenage years. It’s not ideal, it’s not easy, it’s not the same—but it can happen.

What it takes is a mentor, a teacher, who believes in that student, teaches that student well, expects the best—and gets the best. Remember that Tough specified a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult, a specification that has implications for turning these kids around even as late as high school. It could be a pastor, a 4H leader, a surrogate mother—but because kids go to school, it is often a teacher. Every good teacher I know has had at least one student like this, often many more: a student in whom the teacher invested an amazing amount of time and energy and effort, one they know they reached, one they know they turned around, one who will forever be changed.

 

Back to my girl in the library: I remembered how, last year in late May, when she came in after school to make up a quiz, she stayed after that and asked me for help with vocabulary. She wanted to learn more roots. I gave her one of my books and a huge list of Greek and Latin roots and their derivatives.

Who knows where her determination, her discipline comes from? I think she must have the kind of continuing parental support that breeds success. Consider the work ethic of her family. She herself works 40 hours. It seems too much for a 17-year old. But in this case, she’s the lucky one.

So in the library that day last October, I told her not to worry. “Keep on like this and you will be fine. Determination and self-discipline are what make for success in college. You’ve got what it takes.”

And she does.

B-I-G

She came to me in her junior year—rough and brash and scared. She wasn’t a reader; she wasn’t a writer. She wasn’t a student at all. But somewhere she’d gotten the idea that the only way out of the harsh life she had known was through education. Her family certainly didn’t think school mattered.

Once she had asked her mother how to spell “enormous.”

Her mother answered, “B-I-G. That’s good enough.”

9th and 10th grade General English had been unchallenging, and she didn’t think she was going to get the education she craved in the 11th grade class to which she had been assigned. It promised to be another slow-paced section where no one did the homework and the books were never opened. So she signed herself up for a tougher class in hopes that someone would teach her something. Her mother told her she’d fail, her guidance counselor thought the same, and she herself had no idea how demanding the next level up would be.

She did fail the first test. Tears welled up in her eyes. The reading had been difficult and the essays, impossible.

That test was a crucible. She nearly gave up. But I talked her into sticking it out, and I worked with her. I taught her how to use the footnotes and the sidebars in the text to improve her understanding. I showed her how to figure out the meanings of words from their context and worked with her on writing coherent sentences. She labored over the assignments, and, because of all the effort she was putting forth, I had to resist the temptation to give her higher marks than her performance merited. Her grades remained borderline for some time, but slowly, step-by-step, she gained ground. She learned to read Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau. Her scores improved. Gradually, she learned to write an essay.

At the end of the year, she asked if she could keep the textbook.

For her senior year, she chose another difficult English class and continued her steady growth with another teacher who responded to her drive to learn. She went to college on a combination of loans, work-study, and grants, and she became a teacher herself, giving to her students what she says we gave to her: challenge—and the coaching she needed to meet that challenge.

The credit for her accomplishments goes to her, not to me or my colleague. But I know that setting those high expectations—and then helping her to meet them—through after-school tutoring and after-class explanations, through attentive responses to her questions, through suggestions for further reading so she could catch up with her peers—were essential to her success. She had the motivation. She needed teachers who would not limit her rise, but would support her reach for what was possible.

When a track coach trains a high jumper, he lifts the bar in increments, raising it just enough each time to make the jump a challenge—but not so much that he defeats the jumper at the get-go. So it should be in the classroom. Styling ourselves as “impossibly hard” in an effort to challenge our students to grow—or the reverse, settling for “good enough”—are neither one going to help our students reach their potential. Instead, we need to operate like a track coach: Make our students comfortable so they are willing to take a run at the goal, teach the fundamentals, and then gradually increase the level of difficulty. And of course, celebrate when they clear the bar!

Pencilhead

Some years ago, the guidance counselor appeared at my classroom door with a senior boy in tow. We were already three weeks into the first quarter, and my Basic English class of eighteen kids was a cohesive and productive unit. I would have preferred it to remain that way.

She pulled me to the side. “There is no place for him,” she said. “His schedule’s been changed and he needs English. Will you take him?”

Everything I had heard about him was true. He wouldn’t do his homework. He tried to sidetrack discussions with impertinent remarks. His body language said, “You can’t make me!” and on Friday afternoons he jingled the coins in his pockets and spread the money he had collected for “partying” out on his desk for the class—and me—to see.

I started with the money.

“Put that away,” I said.

To his own surprise, I think, he cleared his desk. Slowly—it took all semester—he began to settle down, to speak pleasantly, to read his assignments. He started to take tests seriously, too, although he’d protest the unfairness of each one, just in case he failed.

His contribution to discussion was less and less often an outburst, but even in December, he still didn’t raise his hand.

At the semester, he needed a new class. The one I would teach next was a step up in difficulty, and there would be thirty students. He asked what it would be like.

“There will be more reading,” I said, “and you’ll have to raise your hand. You won’t be the center of attention.”

He considered this. “Okay,” he said, “but you’ll never make me a ‘pencilhead’.”

“Pencilhead,” of course, was a derogatory term for a smart kid.

And that’s when he gave himself away. That’s when he told me he wanted to learn.

“Pencilhead” didn’t become a scholar overnight, but he did earn a B in the class. His mother said in June that he’d read more books that year than in all of his years of school combined. I will never forget the day he pulled his chair into another group’s reading circle so he could hear a second discussion of the book his group had just talked about.

After he graduated, he joined the military. He served overseas, and once he wrote me that he was taking an English course—“Introduction to Writing.”

Eventually, he returned to the community, gained employment, and went on for post-secondary training. For a few years, he occasionally came to school to see me. Once he brought McDonald’s for lunch. He always gave me a hug. He had become a success, and he told me I’d taught him that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

In truth, his success had more to do with him than me. He’d decided to grow up that year in my classroom.

But we teachers remember students like “Pencilhead” long after they have left school, and their stories become our personal folklore. We recall such stories to nourish and reward ourselves for the work we have done, the risks we have taken, the tears we have shed.

Most of us go into education hoping to make a difference in someone’s life.

“Pencilhead” stories tell us we have.

Note: “Pencilhead” was first published by Red Sky Books in 2001 in Pass-Fail, a collection of stories about teaching edited by Kurt Kleidon and Rose A.O. Kleidon.

Hunger

Do not eliminate hunger in this world. Do not. Hunger motivates.

I am not talking, of course, about literal food. I am talking about that burning in the brain that propels a person forward in the relentless pursuit of whatever he or she wants to achieve. That kind of hunger—or drive, if you will—is indispensible in the quest for knowledge.

For several years some years ago, I took students from my high school, McCutcheon, to Russia. We spent time in a Russian secondary school, even though it was June, because national exams were given across the country at the end of that summer month. We entered the school by mounting crumbling cement steps. Inside, cracked and curling linoleum covered the floor of the lobby; classrooms were equipped with cheap laminate desks, pitted window-sized blackboards, and old rags that served as erasers. The Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, a top academic school in the region, was characteristic of Soviet-style school construction, and the accoutrements in the classrooms were common across the country. The Russian teenagers who hosted my students on those academic exchanges ten years ago were my students’ age but a year ahead of them in school. They spoke English, which they had been studying since they were seven, fluently; we struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet and elementary phrases like “Good morning” and “Good-bye.” They knew more about American history than we did, and the American students knew no Russian history at all. The Russian students were well acquainted with many American artists, musicians, and writers, but we had never even heard of Pushkin, their beloved, legendary poet.

What did these Russian students want? A better lifestyle than what they were living in Russia then. They had heard about the American standard of living, read about the material possessions that made us seem rich and that made our lives comfortable, and had seen it all for themselves when they finally came to America—and they hungered for it. They knew that education was what they needed to win a place at Russian universities, to complete a course of study and graduate, and to find the kind of work that would being them closer to our kind of comfort and prosperity.

I brought their teachers erasers for the blackboards, and for the students I brought pencils and pens with McCutcheon logos. I could not bring them new and shining schools. I did not need to.

Situated in Isiolo, Kenya, the last outpost before the long stretch of Sahara desert to the north, the Isiolo School for the Deaf is an aggregation of board shacks without windows, set in the middle of an open field: not on a foundation, not on a platform, but on bare ground that becomes mud in the rainy season. Cracks between the boards admit some light to the inside. When I was there, I saw children sitting tall in straight back chairs at wooden desks scarred from years of hard use, children from eight to fourteen, raising their hands excitedly, rapidly finger spelling answers in the air, signing the words they knew. At lunchtime, the students sat on the grass in a set-aside area under a roof to protect themselves, in rain or shine, from sudden downpours and the searing African sun. Their lunch, cooked in a vat, was rice and sometimes beans. There was no electricity at night, only a lucky few had mosquito nets, and the only clothes the children owned, they were wearing. No books, no paper, no pens, but exuberance and pride marked the children’s demeanor.

What were they without? Language. These children were born deaf or had lost their hearing at an early age. They were the lucky ones, deaf children whose parents had brought them from homes all over Kenya to attend this boarding school, to learn some language, to learn some method of communication. Language would bring them some measure of civility in the life of isolation that stretched ahead of them like the long, dry desert to the north.

I brought them alphabet banners for the classroom and a “Spill and Spell” game with hands etched into the sides of the dice to illustrate a, b, c in the manual alphabet. You would think I had brought the moon. Later, students at McCutcheon raised the money to electrify the school. Now the students could sign to each other in the night; they could continue to learn even after the sun went down.

In rural Rwanda, the scene of genocide not so many years ago, families in poor communities struggle to educate their children. For most children, secondary education is out of the question because the school fees are too steep. Secondary school students need to pay tuition to attend boarding schools. They must buy uniforms, purchase books, and sometimes carry mattresses with them to schools in remote locations. But in a few primary schools, an American organization, Every Child is My Child, has promised the elementary students a high school education if they study hard and pass the entrance exams—and they are driven to learn. Their classrooms are brick, not board, but there are no posters on the walls, no books, and few visual aids —just a teacher, a blackboard, copy books and pencils. The students write everything they hear from their teachers and everything they see on the board in their copy books—and they study what they have written. Against all odds, they are on grade level with students in the United States. And they are hungry to learn more. Hands wave in the air, answers fly in French and English and Kinyarwandan , and shy smiles cross the children’s faces when their responses are correct.

What do these students want? An education. I brought paper rulers and protractors—disposable learning aids gathered up after standardized tests—and National Geographic maps of Africa. I could not begin to equip their classrooms, and I could not feed their hunger. Only they could do that.

The hunger of all these children, the burning desire to learn that all of them have felt, has been essential to their achievement. Their desire comes from within—not from buildings equipped with the latest technology, not from the resources of their governments, not even from great teachers, but from within themselves.

We eat because we are hungry; we achieve success for the same reason. We have to do more than just want whatever we dream for ourselves. We have to burn to have it and then put our heads down and drill through the dark to attain it. “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way,” said Les Brown, an American businessman and motivational speaker. He may have been talking about material success—I have no idea—but his point applies. Drive—the motivating force that makes a person, or a team, or even a country “go the distance”—is a hunger that is fed from within.