Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

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Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

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

 

Hunger Fighters

Get out of your comfort zone and try to understand people’s lives that are different than yours.   –Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, recipient of the 2015 World Food Prize

4 of us.jpeg
Rachel researched water sanitation and access in the DRC; Marisa’s paper was about water sanitation in India.

The World Food Prize honors scientists and humanitarians around the world who have made a significant contribution to the fight against hunger. It was established by Norman Borlaug, who is sometimes called “The man who saved 1 billion lives” for his work in developing a drought-resistant variety of wheat that, over time, saved those estimated one billion lives. Scientists such as Purdue’s Dr. Gebisa Ejeta (2009) and Dr. Philip Nelson (2007) have been recognized for their work in fighting hunger as have humanitarian leaders of the caliber of this year’s winner, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the visionary from Bangladesh who founded BRAC, the world’s largest NGO.

In 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1986, he conceived the idea of the World Food Prize to honor individuals who had made significant contributions to ending world hunger.  Later still, in 1994, he established the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, a competition in which high school students study food security issues in countries around the world. After months of research and essay writing, students submit their essays and then present their work orally at regional competitions. The winners there attend the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, where they interact with some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, learning more about solutions to world hunger and exchanging ideas with these leaders in the field.

Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gabisa Ejeta.
Indiana students talk with WFP Laureate Gebisa Ejeta.

I’ve just returned from the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute proceedings in Des Moines. My colleague and I have three years of sponsoring students under our belts; we’ve sent students on to Iowa every year—and every year we’ve come away from this amazing conference recommitted to the cause. I’ve written about the World Food Prize essay contest before (See https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/winners-all/ and https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/changed-lives-the-world-food-prize/), but I can’t help writing again about the incredible opportunities this program extends to students and the profound impact it has upon their lives.

As a former English teacher, of course I value the writing and thinking skills that such a challenging paper demands. Gathering information and evaluating it for its recency, credibility, and specificity; sorting and organizing it all into a coherent problem/solution format; and then writing the paper in tight but fluid prose is no mean feat.

To be in the presence of great scientists—at the regional competition and again at the Institute—is awe-inspiring. Most students have no idea what a professional conference looks like, let alone even know that professionals in any field gather regularly to present papers, engage in dialogue, participate in panel discussions about timely topics, and hammer out approaches to common problems. Watching leading scientists, small holder farmers, representatives from NGOs, and agribusiness growers present information about (for example) aquaculture, conservation agriculture, and the nutritional impact of sweet potatoes in Africa is mind-expanding. Who would think such topics would captivate high school students whose background is not necessarily agriculture? But the students were not just snagged; they were hooked by the passion of the speakers and the complexity of the world of agriculture. They recognized the importance of something they’d always taken for granted—food—and the urgency of the challenge to feed 9 billion by 2050.

The culminating event for the high school students is a presentation at the end of the Institute to a panel of scientists and agriculture experts (even the laureates themselves, including this year’s winner) who read the students’ papers and interact with them.

One of our students, Rachel, in introducing herself prior to presenting her paper on water sanitation and access in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared, her tone earnest and her demeanor sincere, “I didn’t think this experience would affect me the way it did. Food is the key to everything. I didn’t really realize that before I wrote my paper.”

rachel.jpeg
Rachel and two other students discussing their presentations.

I had watched Rachel intently throughout the conference. Because she has always been a little bit shy, I wondered if she would feel overwhelmed by the experience in Iowa. But the reverse happened. It was like watching a flower unfold in Disney’s Fantasia. She sat at lunch and dinner with students, teachers, and professionals from all over the world, gaining confidence every time she initiated a conversation or answered a question. Her public speaking skills soared: Her own presentation was animated, thoughtful, and nuanced by very natural vocal and facial expressions. One of the experts evaluating her performance told he was “touched” by her comments about the impact of the experience on her thinking.

But the benefits don’t end there, with students developing an English teacher’s skill set.

The impact on career choices, college majors, even the choice of a particular college is significant.  Rachel said she had come into the program certain she wanted to pursue criminology but was now considering a career in public relations or international relations.  Another student, one I don’t know personally said, “This program made me consider college majors I’d never thought of. It made me aware of issues I’d never heard of.”

Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines—the top essayists—become eligible to apply for 2-month summer internships to do real science themselves. Last year, 23 students were awarded Borlaug-Ruan Internships to pursue science in locations around the world. They worked with top scientists in all areas of agriculture, agronomy, and food science. Each of the students returned to Iowa this past week to give a poster presentation of their research.

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Students who attend the Institute in Des Moines are also eligible to apply for Carver-Wallace internships here in the United States.  So far, 110 students have been Carver-Wallace Fellows; among them, one of our own students. Caroline, who competed two years ago, interned at the USDA facility on the Purdue campus the summer after high school; her experience there morphed into a job with the USDA while she attended college at Purdue.

The mission of the Global Youth Institute is to inspire students to answer the call to fight hunger in the world—as scientists, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, business leaders, growers, teachers, and manufacturers (among other occupations).

“Even if you become, say, a banker,” Sir Fazle Husan Abed elaborated in his luncheon address, “you’ll be a better banker for that. Doing for others leads to a satisfying life. If that is not your occupation, make it your preoccupation.”

In the next 40 years, according to a senior officer from DuPont who spoke in Des Moines, we will need to provide more food than we have produced in the last 10,000 years. The world needs young people to make fighting hunger their life’s work. Reaching out to them—when they’re on the brink of life decisions—is what the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute does well.

Some, of course, won’t go into agriculture or nutrition or science. But no matter their career path, they’ll never forget the message they’ve learned, the skills they’ve gained, or the opportunities afforded them because of their participation in the Global Youth Institute. They’ll never take food for granted again.

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

Winners All

Norman Borlaug: not exactly a household name. But it should be. The father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug has “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.” That’s not hyperbole, that quote from the Atlantic Monthly.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work in developing disease-resistant varieties of wheat, a breakthrough development that he pioneered in Mexico, and replicated in India and Pakistan, expanding the technology to rice and saving millions of lives in the process.

In 1986, he established the World Food Prize to recognize individuals in the field of agriculture whose advancements in science have had a significant impact on the elimination of world hunger.

Later still, in 1994, Norman Borlaug established the World Food Prize Youth Institute, a competition in which high school students study food security issues in countries around the world. After months of research and essay writing, students submit their essays and then present their work orally at regional competitions. The winners there attend the World Food Prize Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, where they interact with some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, learning more about solutions to world hunger and exchanging ideas with these leaders in the field.

We—my high school and my coaching colleague and I—are sending students to Iowa in October: one who ranks among the top five participants in our region and an alternate! Actually, we have a third student who has “advanced,” but she’s a senior this year and therefore can’t compete next fall.

If you read my post “Second Skin,” you know there was one boy who needed help with his citations: He’s our alternate—and he probably will attend. How gratifying is that for the two hours we spent sitting across from each other at a table, whipping those citations into shape???

This past April 4th and 5th, students from the competing schools in Indiana gathered at Purdue (with their coaches) to present their work, exchange ideas, and learn about food science at Purdue. On Thursday evening, the students presented their research findings to panels of experts—Purdue professors from various departments whose own research endeavors concern issues of world hunger. The professors had read all of the students’ research papers—carefully, as we soon discovered—and then queried the students about their research. In small groups and in front of their peers, the students defended their research and their solutions by answering the questions posed by these experts.

This was nothing like the comfortable audience of peers students face in their English or speech classes. The professors were certainly respectful—even friendly—but there was a formality to the setting that high school students rarely experience. The professors posed tough questions and pulled no punches in their questioning. In one case, a professor told a student her statistics were faulty. No gentle suggestion that she “might want to check her facts” as high school teachers sometimes gingerly write in the margins of an ill-researched paper. Nope. “Your statistics are wrong.” Flat out.

You could almost hear the students gasp.

But this is the big leagues. Facts must be right, and when they aren’t, a student needs to know.

After the oral presentations, which we discovered later weighed heavily in the selection of finalists, the students reflected on the process of writing, researching, and presenting their work and conversed with the experts who had questioned them. They gained insight into the way that scientists think, advice on how they could help people in the developing world—even what courses to take in college to combine their specific academic interests and the urge to help globally. One of our students—who wants to go into an engineering field—was told to “look for opportunities to collaborate” with other departments. The opportunities abound, a professor told her, to make a global impact through engineering—for example, in developing relatively simple agricultural tools. He explained that shovels, for example, are designed with adult males in mind–but in some countries, it is women and children who are the chief agriculturalists.

Because of my responsibilities in other schools, I could not attend the day on campus that followed on Friday, but my colleague was there with our five students. She told me that they were welcomed at breakfast by Dr. Jay Akridge, Dean of the College of Agriculture.  He applauded the research efforts of all of the participants and, more importantly, validated their selflessness in, at such a young age, wanting to make a difference in the world.  During the rest of the morning, the students were introduced to classes and majors at Purdue that would allow them to pursue their area of interest further.

At lunch in the Purdue Memorial Union, the students listened to two Purdue World Food Prize winners, Phil Nelson (2007) and Gabeisa Eijeta (2009).  Both men spoke of their research and explained that by first identifying a need, they had been able to discover or invent a solution that had made a difference for people in many poverty-stricken nations.

In the afternoon, the high school students attended sessions in agronomy, biochemistry, agriculture and biological engineering and food science.  Each of these sessions involved a hands-on experience.  For example, in a visit to the Biochemistry Department, the students loaded and ran an electrophoretic gel to identify a fictitious bacteria found in “homemade” yogurt.  In the Agronomy Department, a researcher led the students through a demonstration of some basics of soil chemistry and explained how different soil types affect product growth.

On Friday afternoon, students received written feedback on their research papers and had an opportunity to reflect again on the World Food Prize experience from start to finish. I was there for the wrap-up and was able to listen to the students articulate their take-aways from the World Food Prize experience. In general, students remarked that they had not only benefitted personally from the experience, but that they had been inspired because they had participated in a project “bigger than themselves.” Many said their eyes had been opened, their lives changed.

A week later, the results were announced. That is when we learned that several of our five students would advance. But the fact is, we have five winners. For all of these students, the prize is not the public recognition of their accomplishment, not the resume item or the activity they can list on their college applications, but the insight they have gained, the perseverance they have practiced, the skills they have mastered. Their hearts have been touched by the depth of their exposure to issues of poverty and hunger and their minds have been expanded beyond what they could have imagined when they first began their research.

Norman Borlaug intended to enter the field of forestry. In fact, he had a job lined up with the US Forest Service after graduation from college. However, tight money during the Depression delayed his start by six months. While he waited, Borlaug decided to stay on at the University of Minnesota and take some more classes. One day, quite by chance, he attended a lecture on plant pathology that changed the direction of his life. He decided not to take that job with the Forest Service and, instead, entered the Ph.D. program in plant pathology. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our students took a chance on a competition that was time-consuming and intellectually demanding, on a writing project that wasn’t easy, on an endeavor for which every reward has been intrinsic—not an easy sell for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.  But look what has happened. Is it possible, just possible, that in signing on for the World Food Prize competition, by studying the topic and factor that they did, they have found direction for their life work?

Every night, one in seven people in the world goes to bed hungry. It is possible that one of these amazing students will someday make a discovery that changes those odds?  Imagine. It could happen.

Second Skin

I slipped into the task like putting on a second skin.

Since the beginning of this semester, I’ve been working with a high school science teacher on a project tailor-made for co-teaching. She had gotten wind of an essay contest—the World Food Prize Essay Contest for high school students, sponsored by Purdue University, home to two World Food Prize winners. The contest is an opportunity for high school students to learn about and address issues of food insecurity around the world. What this teacher proposed was a melding of our areas of expertise—science and English—with the added fillip for both of us of the international focus.

In December, I perused the contest particulars.

The format was fundamentally a problem-solution paper. Background on the country came first. In the sample paper provided by Purdue, the winner from last year had painted a picture of Afghanistan in condensed, tightly written prose that led directly to the paper’s thesis: The central issues surrounding food insecurity in Afghanistan and some solutions that would alleviate them. Then, a lengthy and thoroughly researched discussion of those problems and solutions, and finally, a summation and restatement of the thesis. All of this, of course, documented with in-text citations and a works cited page in MLA format.

It was certainly a longer paper and a more complicated research project than any of our students would ever have undertaken—but not impossible at all. Especially when we broke the paper down for the kids and laid it out in steps for them. You notice, I am already saying “our kids.” It didn’t take me long to feel like a teacher of kids again.

Writing a research paper is one of the most difficult tasks high school students undertake. It’s a long process, and that’s hard in itself for kids with attention spans that last no longer than a Facebook post. Then, reading is involved—and with that, the pesky but fundamental comprehension skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. Then, the organizing of all that information: in the day, with index cards, each labeled with the author, title, page number, topic and subtopic, and perhaps—if I had been your teacher—marked as a paraphrase, a summary, a quote, or a basic fact.

We don’t do that anymore. Today, kids keep binders that contain printouts of the articles they’ve found, all tabbed alphabetically and highlighted for easy access to information the student intends to use in the paper. Increasingly, as they and we become more eco-conscious, the students don’t even keep binders. They create folders on their desktops. For the organized among them, this works just fine. For the others, it’s the beginning of a nightmare.

Some teachers still require outlines, a skill to be taught all by itself. I used to demand sentence outlines because the students would be forced to think their  papers through. Some of the first problems arise at this point: Just knowing the difference between a topic and its support befuddles some kids. They’ll use a quote for a main idea and a fact as a topic. But if their outlines are complete, I can read them and tell the students where the holes are. A few students will realize that with a sentence outline and well-organized index cards or binders, the paper will write itself.

For some students, actually writing the paper is the stumbling block. It means sitting in a chair for a long period of time and composing one sentence after another until the end.

But it’s not the end: Now come the in-text citations and the bibliography or works cited page. For some students, this is the trickiest part because it requires having kept track of all their resources (those index cards or the tabbed binders again) and having developed a system for keying all the quotes, statistics, examples, stories, facts, and details that they used for support to the ideas in the outline. For kids who can’t keep their lockers or their bedrooms tidy, this is a sorting and classifying task like no other!

And it’s still not the end: editing and proofreading and cross-checking the citations remain. And nowadays, even one more step: submission of the document to a plagiarism detection program like Turn It In, the advent of which was a boon to exhausted teachers, who used to have to google suspect lines or search through the students’ binders and cards to prove the student had copied. (You dare not even hint at plagiarism without the proof in hand!) Used as it’s intended, though, and done soon enough before the paper is due, the program serves as a plagiarism prevention program. I know many kids who have been saved from academic disaster by Turn It In, and I’d far rather coach a kid through the process of paraphrasing than nab him or her for plagiarism.

Are you tired just reading all this?

And you don’t have to read the papers! Or send them back for revisions and read them a second time!

Are you impressed with the sheer complexity of the task?  Me, too. I am always proud of my students when they reach the end of this task—even if their papers aren’t stellar, they’ve accomplished a complex task.  Perfection will come with maturity, experience, and the incentive of researching a topic they really care about (which they’ll do increasingly as they narrow down their academic pursuits to their life’s work).

So I knew very well what the World Peace Prize essay contestants would face as they researched a topic they knew nothing about—a country and its problems with food insecurity—and wrote the longest and most thoroughly documented paper they’d ever attempted. But I also knew that any student who elected to enter this contest would be self-motivated (no grades involved, no extra credit), willing to read, and immensely capable.

So yes, we had to help some of them select a country from a list of over 100 and choose a factor (the contest organizers presented them with a list of 19 factors that impact food security), help others select resources and evaluate those resources for credibility and authority, and talk all of them through their research—help them make sense of what they had read. But this was kind of fun for us as teachers. My colleague and I got wrapped up in the topic ourselves.

We both read the students’ early drafts and made suggestions for revisions (We were excited that we noticed and commented on the very same things) and then, at the end, I helped them with the documentation and works cited page by cross-checking their citations.

One boy did need major help with this part—and so I spent two hours yesterday teaching him how to do it, sitting beside him as he hunted out the source of each statistic and quote, each example and fact. I sat across from him while he reconstructed his works cited page and watched as he formatted the paper to meet the contest requirements. It’s not that he hadn’t been taught this process before, but I suspect such things had never mattered to him before.

But he was receptive yesterday—because suddenly, such things did matter. These papers were going out into the real world, would be read by a real audience, and since the boy cared immensely about his topic and had written a very strong paper, he really cared that he got the citations and the works cited page right.

My colleague submitted the papers yesterday after school. We think there are some among them that could be winners…but in truth, all of the students are winners. They completed this difficult task and have taken away a lifetime understanding of a serious global issue and a skill set for research that will make any paper they write from here on out, a breeze.

And I had the delicious experience of co-teaching with a colleague I admire, watching her coach the students in high-level analysis of substantial and substantive scientific information and using again myself the teaching skills I have learned over a lifetime spent in the classroom.

It was a win all around.

A New Frame

Recently, my husband and I took a piece of art to our favorite framer. The print had been hanging on the same wall for so long it was part of the background, something we didn’t even see anymore. A remodeling project had caused us to rethink the way we had displayed many of the objects in our house, and that is how we came to reconsider the way this particular print was framed.

When the framer took the piece apart, we realized that it had originally been framed when we were 22 years old, newly married, and not knowledgeable enough to know that a fine art print should be mounted on an acid free board and hinged at the top so it would appear to float. We hadn’t known enough to tell that framer of so many years ago not to tape the print on all four sides to a piece of ordinary cardboard.

“I haven’t seen something like this in a long, long time,” our framer remarked as he removed the old metal frame and lifted the mat.  We could clearly see the adhesive that pinned the print to the board.  On top of that, the mat itself was not acid free, and it had left a burn line all around the print itself.

Fortunately, the piece could be restored and appropriately reframed.

As I listened to the framer talk about methods for framing art and thought about our own need to reconsider the way we were displaying this particular piece, I was put in mind of the remodeling project going on in education.

Some of the things we do as teachers spring from habits and approaches we developed when we were novices. It’s a complex thing, teaching, and in the beginning, when something works, we are so pleased and relieved that we keep on with the practice until it becomes so much a part of what we do, we don’t even know we are doing it. In other cases, we continue a practice because it appears to do what it is supposed to do. It’s hard to make yourself change when you think what you are doing works.

But with the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, teachers will have to undo the habits of years.

For example, for years English teachers have relied on textbook companies to lay out a scope and sequence they can follow with confidence —solacing themselves for capitulating to a company by remembering that the textbook companies are advised by practitioners and scholars.  If we use the anthology conscientiously, many teachers reason, by the end of the year we will have exposed our students to the most important writers and their most accessible or well-known stories and poems.  And, if we progress at a brisk pace from August to May, we will have “covered the curriculum.”

However, a wide but thin acquaintance with great writers does not result in students who are enthralled with literature.  This approach doesn’t whet their appetites for more. It does not give them a deep understanding of any of the writers they’ve read, and it doesn’t particularly develop their critical reading skills.  What it does do is produce students who can play Jeopardy.

The Common Core State Standards present us with an opportunity to “reframe” our English courses.  They ask us to read deeply, rather than broadly, and connect texts and text types to each other and to other disciplines. They ask us to do close reading in our literature classes and approach informational text with a focus on the content, not on prior experiences that may not even be relevant to the topic. The Common Core standards ask us to have our students write more often and use evidence from the text to build an argument.

It isn’t really that we are teaching content and skills we’ve never taught before. The picture is still the same. But it’s framed differently.

Some content will be taught earlier than it used to be—various grammatical concepts, for example, are supposed to be introduced earlier than they often are now. By high school, teachers should be able to conduct conversations about style and discussions of writing technique that are predicated upon students knowing the vocabulary and structure of English grammar. As it is now, we repeat basic grammatical concepts year after year, and by 10th grade, some students still don’t know what we’re talking about. Is it just remotely possible that this is because we repeat ourselves so much (parts of speech in grade after grade, for example) that kids realize they really don’t have to dig in and learn the material?

Some modes of rhetoric will be emphasized—like argumentative writing—and others—such as narrative writing—will be called for less often.  But shouldn’t our students know how to set up and defend  an argument? Shouldn’t they know how to spot specious claims? Detect holes in arguments? Shouldn’t they know how to use quotes and statistics and examples—and how not to misuse them? And narrative still has a place, make no mistake. Narrative writing is still specified in the Common Core. It’s the emphasis that has shifted.

Students will be doing research with more frequency than usual. But that doesn’t mean a series of full-blown research papers four times each year—rather, the skills involved in research can be teased out, presented sequentially, and the ante upped gradually.  Teachers can challenge students to learn a variety of presentation modes—including those in the multi-faceted world of technological presentation. Students can develop their expertise with technology skills just as much as they can develop skill with  traditional print forms of reporting information.

The books we ask the students to read are supposed to reflect higher lexile levels—but really, it isn’t just the lexile level. There are other measures of complexity than that, so many of the texts we use now, we’ll still be using when we teach the Common Core. And if our texts are more difficult, no one is arguing to throw the kids a book and let them flounder. Instead, we’re asked to support the students with appropriate instruction—scaffolding, it’s called.

Novels we typically teach will no longer be stand-alone units of instruction. As teachers, we’ll look for and connect the books to poems that reflect the same themes, to essays that address a shared topic, to informational texts that elucidate ideas pertinent to the story. Assembling readings that are related by topic or theme and creating instructional tasks that ask kids to think deeply about a subject is actually fun and refreshing for the teacher. Why not start with a book we already teach—an age-appropriate and complexity-appropriate one—and collect other texts (poems, essays, magazine articles) that complement it and lead students on to an exploration of the common theme? What would be new? Maybe some of the readings, but not the anchor text. Not the need to build vocabulary,  develop comprehension, or teach writing and research skills to go along with the readings.

With the Common Core, we’ll make interdisciplinary connections, and even, in the best of circumstances, teach collaboratively with our colleagues. As it is now, the curriculum often overlaps from discipline to discipline and creates redundancies that dull our students’ appetite for learning. I am thinking of a unit I created once that began with the excerpt in our American lit text from William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation.” It was a unit that called for students to envision what they would do in a new world. (That was its name: Starting Out in a New World: What Would You Do?)  I presented  the students with information they didn’t already know about the Mayflower and a list of resources the intrepid souls on that boat had (and didn’t have). The activities of the unit took the students deep into Bradford’s text and other primary sources from the Puritan time period, texts which were available on the internet and in print in my room.

The enthusiasm that I expected for the task wasn’t there. Why not?

My students had studied the Pilgrims in elementary classrooms every year of their lives and then considered the Puritans again in 8th grade American history and then again in 11th grade American History—and here I came with yet another “unit” on this topic from the country’s far, far past.  What might have happened if the American history teacher and I had collaborated? Might we together have generated some excitement among our students instead of both of us hearing questions like “Hey! We’re doing this in history (or English)? Why do we have to study it here?”

The Common Core was introduced several years ago, yet I am still hearing resistance—and in some cases, foot-dragging–in the hope that it will all just go away.  I hope it doesn’t.

The Common Core Standards do not ask us, really, to throw out our old art. Instead, they ask us to reframe what we’ve always had hanging on our walls.

This could be fun. It’s all in one’s frame of mind.

By the way, you should see the print my husband and I had reframed. It seems like a whole new piece, but really, it isn’t. The frame is new, and so we look at the piece afresh—but suddenly, it has come to life again: strong, vibrant, exciting our imaginations.  I see no reason why reframing for the Common Core shouldn’t have the same impact.

Teach Me How

Once, in Rwanda, I was working with the English teachers in a secondary school in Kigali on the rules for punctuating compound sentences. I had handouts, visual aids, and even a graphic that illustrated a fairly clever way to remember the rules. But, I had run out of practice sentences. We were in the school library at the time—a room with very few books but many long tables and benches to accommodate the 50-60 students in a class. As I pondered how to produce more practice sentences quickly—without the aid of a blackboard—I glanced at the shelves and saw, to my surprise, a familiar text—Writer’s Choice—a book I had used in my own high school in Indiana some years before. In fact, a whole class set—two class sets—were neatly arranged on the shelves. I got up from my seat at the table and retrieved a copy for myself and one for each teacher.

The texts had been sent from a school in Florida to this school in Kigali as a charitable donation. A gracious one, indeed—but the books had never been used. They’d been on the shelves since they had arrived. The English Department Chair shrugged when I asked her why.

I didn’t belabor the point. I just turned to the index and searched for the page numbers that corresponded with compound sentences. We all turned to the appropriate page, and I resumed my lesson.

When I was finished, the teachers began asking questions. Did this book teach capital letters? Did it teach spelling? What about other comma rules? Could I show them how I found the sentences I had been looking for? It dawned on me, suddenly, why these books had not been used. These teachers weren’t accustomed to using textbooks in the first place, but more importantly, the books themselves were baffling. They didn’t understand how our thick and elaborate American textbooks are laid out: sequenced chapters with the rules and their exceptions, each rule followed by several dizzying sets of practice sentences and quiz sets; elaborate but confusing color-coding; distracting sidebars; and suggested links to related lessons located half an inch farther into the text. They didn’t know what an index was.

Once I showed them how to use the book, the teachers were absorbed, turning the pages avidly, asking each other questions, discovering with delight the explanations for rules they themselves weren’t sure of. It wasn’t long before the English Department Chair turned to me and said, “I see now that these books are very useful.”

An impromptu lesson in how to use a textbook was more critical—and probably more lasting—than the fancy lesson I’d prepared on compound sentences.

That experience with the Rwandan teachers sticks with me because it reinforced something I’ve known for a long time but sometimes lose sight of: Process is as important as product. Mastery of process yields confidence, an attitude that is, for a young learner, far more important than content knowledge. It is confidence that enables a student to shoot for the stars. Students reach high when they are comfortable with what they’re doing, comfortable with the process. Actually, don’t we all?

It’s intellectually interesting to identify content we want our students to learn; it’s fun to develop the blueprint for a culminating project. But it’s easy for us to overlook the importance of teaching processes. How to use a database. How to run the grammar checker. How to summarize. How to use Turn It In (an online plagiarism prevention site). How to give a speech. How to make a poster aesthetically pleasing. How to write a business letter. How to set up a Works Cited page.

Sometimes the process we need to teach is a basic one. For example, part of the Unsung Heroes project (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) is learning how to write a handwritten letter. My students write thank you notes to their heroes for the time spent interviewing them and invitations to the celebration we hold when the book is published. I insist they do this on stationery, in ink, by hand. Every year I have to teach my students how to address an envelope. I used to have to show them how to find an address in the phone book. Now it’s how to find an address online. But now they know—and they won’t shy away from handwritten notes in the future. In fact, they think they’re pretty cool.

Other times, though, the process is complex. For example, English teachers are charged with teaching research skills so students can produce what used to be called “the term paper.” What we are teaching our students is a very lengthy process: choosing a topic, finding resources, reading and understanding those resources, evaluating them, writing an annotated bibliography, formulating a thesis, combing the readings for evidence to support the thesis, and then writing the paper itself–clearly, coherently, correctly—even elegantly. And finally, that miserable Works Cited page—how to do that systematically so the bibliographical entries match the internal documentation. It’s an enormous process, and at my school, we lead the students through it at least once each year. Their papers often reveal that they don’t quite understand their topic. They may treat it superficially or focus on something trivial. But really, these fledgling scholars are to be congratulated at the end: they’ve gained experience with a difficult and lengthy process that will be second nature to them when they get to college—where the content will really matter.

Sometimes we forget how important it is to teach the “how-to” part. We have a way, in our eagerness to share our own excitement about a topic or an idea, to presume in our students skills they don’t have, just as the people who sent the textbooks to Rwanda presumed the teachers there would know how to use them. We sometimes assume familiarity, make assignments our kids don’t know how to approach, or confuse them with complexity. In our enthusiasm, we don’t break a process down—or we skip teaching it altogether—and leave our students puzzled rather than confident. I’ve done it myself too many times—but I’m learning. Teaching well is a process, too.