Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

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Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition.  Once more, the holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world.  Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies, and I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office so another of you could give me a shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town. One of you approached me in an airport and went on to describe your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other troubled spots around the globe. Recently, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization.

Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another, a school principal. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and several of you are college professors. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, another a personal secretary to someone in Germany. A graphic artist and a web designer, a journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and fire fighters, automobile sales people and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and a welder I just “met” again this week. Receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and teachers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and physicians’ assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

But all of you, all day long, make the world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

Summertime, Summertime

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

So first, the professional:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any of these sound appealing?

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

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

Ithaka

Bricks
Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

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

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

Dear Graduates,

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

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

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

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

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

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Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition.  Once more, the holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world.  Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies, and I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office so another of you could give me a shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town. One of you approached me in an airport and went on to describe your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other troubled spots around the globe. Recently, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization.

Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another, a school principal. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and several of you are college professors. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A football player with the Packers. A videographer in Hollywood. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, another a personal secretary to someone in Germany. A graphic artist and a web designer, a journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and fire fighters, automobile sales people and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers. Receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and teachers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and physicians’ assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

But all of you, all day long, making the world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

Each One Unique

Uzbek and American students
American and Uzbekistani students with their teachers at McCutcheon: November 1, 2001.

Throwback Thursday, I guess. This post is about an event that occurred in 2001 when exchange students from Uzbekistan visited my high school. I recently found this story on an old CD of Word files, and the pictures, in a box full of those I’d removed from the bulletin board when I left the classroom. I’d forgotten this story about Jason (His name has been changed), but reading it again evoked the same response I had in 2001. 

The events of 9/11 were fresh in everyone’s mind. My senior English students, mostly boys, discussed the subject whenever they could turn instruction that way.

The trouble was, only a few had had a geography course. Some had taken world history, but they couldn’t keep the stan countries straight. Who was on whose side?  What did Israel and Palestine have to do with Osama bin Laden? Was this or wasn’t this a war about religion?  My students were confused, and sometimes so was I. What disturbed me most, however, was that they were beginning to think in stereotypes.  Everyone from the Middle East and Central Asia was a mystery to them, and they lumped everyone together.

I learned that a delegation of students from Uzbekistan, traveling with their principal and teacher of English, would be visiting the nearby city high school for three weeks. I thought that a face-to-face encounter with students from that part of the world would help  students at my high school understand the rapidly unfolding world events. I hoped, too, that meeting the students from Uzbekistan would help the American students I knew to see people from other countries as individuals. Eagerly, I arranged for the group to visit my school for one day.

There were seven Uzbek students, so a fellow teacher and I chose seven American students to guide them from class to class.  They’d tour the school in the morning, visit social studies and English classes all day, eat lunch in the cafeteria, and attend a reception in the library after school.

My seniors would meet the Uzbeks in their government classes. They were excited—but they definitely had preconceived ideas, and I was dismayed by some of them. Jason, a burly giant who rarely restrained his actions or his mouth, told me flat out: “They won’t speak English, you know.  And the girls will all wear burqas.”  I tried to explain that I had met these students already.  They all spoke English very well, and none of these particular girls even wore head scarves. But Jason wouldn’t listen. He knew everything there was to know.

A traditional hat from Uzbekistan
A traditional hat from Uzbekistan

I wondered if I was making a mistake.

The morning came—November 1—and our guests arrived, dropped off by their host families. Suddenly shy, the students didn’t want to split up. We rearranged the schedule right there in the lobby. Then Zafar was late. Could he be in a traffic snarl?  That seemed impossible here in central Indiana. Lost?  Everyone knows where our high school is located. Forty-five minutes went by. My principal called the other high school.  Zafar was in class.  He’d forgotten—which made him no different than any other teenage boy.  His American “sister” was excused from class to bring him across town to us.

The Uzbeks said little in the beginning, and our guide students were quiet, too.  We had enlisted our two Russian-speaking exchange students—from Bulgaria and Georgia—to accompany us on the tour and help us over any language barriers that did emerge.  My colleague led the way, pointing out the library, Internet labs, auditorium and stage, the gym facilities. Were the Uzbeks listening? They seemed to be hanging on what Veronika and Nodar were saying in Russian, and we weren’t sure it was just what the teacher was telling them in English.

Uzbek students in my classroom
Students from Uzbekistan attend my 9th grade class.

Two Uzbek girls and Dimitryi, a tennis player with Olympic aspirations, visited one of my 9th grade classes. The girls were shy, but we eventually drew them out. One was a model. One could speak five languages. Dimitryi practiced tennis for four hours after school. School in Uzbekistan is dismissed at 1:30, so they eat lunch at home.  They explained the symbolism of  the Uzbek flag. Uzbekistan, Dimitryi told us, had designed its flag just a decade before when it became one of the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union.

Seventh hour, Jason and the boys came into senior English bearing tales. Someone in one of his classes had been rude to a couple of the Uzbek girls, he said, questioning them pointedly about life “over there” and “in that place.”  I had a sinking feeling I knew who that someone was.

But the hour had epiphanies, too. Kyle said, “You know, Tashkent is a modern city. TV makes us think all those places are just deserts where everyone rides camels.”

And Rick, already enlisted in the Air Force, had seen the West Wing special that likened Muslim extremists to the KKK. We were talking about Israel and Palestine and connecting the conflict there to the apparent motives of the Al Queda. He had met several of the Uzbek students and realized that Uzbekistan was an ally of the United States. Suddenly he stood up and thrust a fist into the air. “I get it!” he burst out. “It’s all coming together!” Abruptly, he sat back down. “I learned something today,” he said with satisfaction.

Ludmila, the lead teacher, presents State Representative Sheila Klinker with a shawl from Uzbekistan.
Ludmila, the lead teacher, presents State Representative Sheila Klinker with a scarf from Uzbekistan.

I felt good, too, and the reception after school was a perfect ending. My 9th graders had assembled gift bags for our guests, decorated the library tables, and baked enough cookies to feed the whole town. Our Superintendent attended the event and so did our State Representative. Formal expressions of friendship and understanding were exchanged, and gifts were given. The icing on the cake was literally that. Our cook had prepared a sheet cake and iced it to look like the flag of Uzbekistan. Our guests were awed; they stood on chairs and photographed the cake from above before we served it to the crowd.

When the host families arrived to pick up their Uzbek teenagers, we found that several of them had left the party to attend play rehearsal in the auditorium. The next day I learned what other unscripted events had occurred. Apparently our visitors had been listening during the tour. Dimitryi had found the gymnasium. He had challenged one of the physical education teachers to a pickle ball match—and won. Several of the students had made a beeline for the Internet lab and sent messages to their friends in Uzbekistan. One had found the guidance office and gathered information on American colleges. None of them—Uzbeks or their American guides—had attended classes during the three 5th hour lunch periods.  They’d all stayed in the cafeteria to socialize. The lunch hour, one of the American students told me, was the Uzbeks’ favorite “class.”  Of course. They had never experienced the noon time social life of American students!  I had to laugh at their typical teenage behavior.  We hadn’t been able to “program” them because they were, after all, individuals.  They had their own impulses, interests, and charms—each one unique.

Obviously, the visit had been a success, but when Jason came to class the next day, I knew beyond a doubt that it had been not only a good thing, but the right thing.

“I wish I could apologize to those girls,” he said. “That was me that was rude to them.” He paused for a minute to reflect.  Then he said, without a trace of irony, “You know, they turned out to be just like us.”

That was a generalization we could live with.

National Treasure

To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.

It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.

When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.

In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:

  • To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave for analysis by phrenologists. Indeed, pseudo-scientists found the “music bump” was significantly developed—but it was nearly another century before Haydn’s head was reunited with his body.
  • Out on the open seas with the commander of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, in mad pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white whale who had taken his leg.
  • To a 1940s wedding, where the bride wore a dress she had made of parachute silk: the tight-fitting sleeves  were pleated at the elbow so she could move her arms, and the neckline was high, as modest as the times.
  • To Versailles with Wilson, Clemenceau, Orlando, and David Lloyd George, hammering out the Treaty that ended WWI but set the stage for so many more 20th century conflicts.
  • To the Middle East—via computer and a stunning visual from the LondonTimes—to learn about the Arab Spring.

Here are some other things I have learned—or relearned, as the case may be:

  • How to figure percents (6th grade math)
  • How to make a coiled basket (7th grade art)
  • How airbags work (a high school chemistry lesson in stoiciometry and the gas laws)
  • The seven characteristics of a folk tale (6th grade English)
  • Why artists make still life drawings—and how to do it (8th grade art)
  • How to make ice cream in a plastic bag (8th grade science)
  • How the metric system works (7th grade science)

Over and over and over again, I am impressed by the good teaching I see—and the more I see, the more frustrated I become with the voices of people who haven’t been in a classroom in a very long time—or perhaps haven’t even taught a day in their lives. Some of the best teachers in the world are at the front of the classrooms I’ve visited.

Every good lesson has a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Some teachers pique their students’ interest with a question: When will the force of the water from a fire hose be stronger? When it’s on the up side of the parabola or the down?

Some do it with a demonstration: An art teacher I recently watched gathered her students around her to demonstrate still life drawing. She talked out loud throughout her demo, questioning her kids about why she was doing what she was, reminding them of what they already knew, and prepping them for what they soon would do that was new.  Then they set off to do a still life on their own.

Others tell a story (like the one about Haydn’s head), or read aloud (These aren’t always English teachers—reading aloud is how the airbag class started!). They hook their kids and then jump into the lesson.

Sometimes they use “props”—like several teachers I’ve seen who have individual whiteboards for writing down answers and holding them up so the teacher can gauge the class’s understanding—or popsicle sticks and clay to make prototype chairs and tables—or crazy assortments of objects all spray-painted white (in the case of the still life drawings).  Sometimes they send students to the Internet to find a specific answer or just to find out what they can about a particular topic.

In a Family and Consumer Science class (FACS), girls AND boys were dressing models in the fashions of the decades. They were using figures and clothing that reminded me of the paper dolls I played with as a child—except that these dolls were figures on one side of a computer screen and the students “dragged and dropped” clothing from the other side onto the models, making the equivalent of dressing room changes until they had the dolls attired as they liked.

Sometimes the interactive whiteboard facilitates instruction—like the American history teacher who used it to show the students the map of Europe pre- and post-WWI—or the world history teacher who showed the class a virtual timeline of the conflicts in the Middle East.  English teachers dissect essays right before the students’ eyes or use the screen to show a timely YouTube video.

But technology isn’t all. There are old-fashioned storytellers among us—like the teacher whose students were enthralled with the story of Wilson’s 14 Points and how the Big Four at Versailles—or the Big Three, once Orlando left—hammered out the agreement that brought an end to WWI. She captured the personalities of these four men and brought them together as if they were characters in a book—and brought the story of the Versailles Treaty to life.

A middle school world history teacher has his students capture the essence of a country’s culture in haiku; the students in a middle school English class create a collective self-portrait with “I Am From” poems.  Another English teacher directs graduating 8th graders to produce “The Soundtrack of my Life”: Each student writes about key events in his or her life and records it all on a CD. I’ve watched an extraordinary music teacher inspire her students to write essays about the reciprocal relationship between music and culture and listened as another music teacher led his students in a discussion of an NPR piece on tempo.

Sometimes, of course, the ending is a homework assignment, but in the best classrooms, that assignment is tied directly to the main idea of the day or to a point in the lesson—if it’s a two-day or three-day lesson—that will help the students  transition to the next day’s focus. Sometimes homework comes in the form of a paper, a project, or a short reflection. Sometimes it’s problems to work or issues to resolve, an article to read or pieces to practice. Sometimes it’s reading on in a book, and sometimes there is no homework at all. There isn’t a formula for the ending: The teacher needs to know whether the students understood the lesson of the day and where she should pick up the next day, and there’s more than one way to find that out and move instruction forward. Sometimes closure is accomplished with those individual whiteboards or with exit passes or with questions the students submit. But there’s always a “wrap.” A good teacher doesn’t let the kids just drift out the door without a finish.

They’re ingenious, these teachers I’ve seen. They’re thoughtful, funny, clever, compassionate, kind. They challenge their students, to whom they are devoted, and they’re earnest about learning new skills and expanding their expertise. They’re dedicated to their task.  I know math teachers who are concerned about reading comprehension and differentiating instruction and collaborative learning.  I know special education teachers who attend high school workshops about strategies they’ll probably never use and courses their students will probably never take—but the teachers want to stay current with mainstream teaching.  Even veteran teachers continue to learn. The English teacher who swept me up in the story of Moby-Dick has been teaching for over 40 years—but she still comes to my after-school workshops on reading comprehension just in case I have something new to teach her

Of course there are teachers who don’t yet have all the skills they need—I wouldn’t have a job if everyone knew everything and no one needed anything.  Sure we all can learn more—none of us teaches a perfect lesson every single day.  It’s true that every field is changing and that, as a group and as individuals, we need to make changes.  The knowledge base in every field is rapidly increasing, too, and the range of skills our kids need is expanding. The technology we are privileged to use is constantly evolving.  But so many amazing educators are committed to making the necessary changes because they are committed to serving their students well.

I wish our critics would pay attention for a change to the extraordinary teaching happening in our schools. I wish they would not lump us all together, call us collectively the equivalent of a bad apple. I wish they would recognize that educators are, quite to the contrary, our national treasure.

Two-hour Delays

For as long as big yellow school buses have transported children to school, snow days have been the students’ not-so-secret joy, their guiltless revenge on a system they can’t control: Nature is more powerful than the principal; snow keeps the teacher at bay. What kids don’t realize—at least when they’re little—is that snow days delight their teachers, too—even when it means extending classes an extra day in May.

But here in Indiana, snow days have been rare in recent years, so now we experience a not-so-secret tingle when weather that warrants at least a two-hour delay is in the forecast. A two-hour delay brings

  • An extra hour of sleep
  • An extra cup of coffee
  • Another load of laundry done
  • Bonus time for grading
  • Snuggling with our children
  • Juggling daycare
  • Remaining hopeful, even after the delay is called, that it could turn into a snow day
  • Driving to school in daylight instead of piloting through the dark
  • Dithering about whether to leave for school or stay at home
  • Treacherous driving either way
  • A parking place close to the door (if you’ve made the former choice)
  • Working in the quiet of the classroom until the students start to arrive—you could find yourself humming along with the air ducts as they fill with warm air
  • And sometimes, arriving at school at the usual hour just to discover you missed the call on the  two-hour delay

And once school does start:

  • Driving stories from excited kids who were behind the wheel on snow and ice  for the very first time
  • Adjustments to everything—the bell schedule, the cancelled Homeroom period or special appointments you might have had during your prep hour
  • Disorientation—because the bells are different
  • Speed teaching—only half an hour with each class
  • A growling stomach because lunch is at a different time
  • Feeling, at the end of the day, like you’ve run a gauntlet—because the number of human contacts, decisions to be made, problems to be solved, details to attend to don’t decrease—they just come at you faster.

But still, a two-hour delay is a break in routine, a small triumph over time. And  BONUS: no having to make it up!

Going for Gold

• The bell rings before you reach the lesson’s close.
• A befuddled question from a student translates into a moment of clarity for you: The student doesn’t understand. You’ll have to back up and start over.
• Kids aren’t listening, so you interrupt the lesson to redirect them. But then other kids lose the thread because your intervention is far more interesting than the lesson.
• Your explanation is unclear. You’ve even confused yourself.
• Three boys are spending more time fooling around than completing the task at hand. You shouldn’t have put them in a group together. But too late now. The lesson is underway and there isn’t much you can do.
• The technology fails–the ENO board won’t work right, perhaps, or a bulb blows on the overhead–and your lesson depends on the technology. You spend 10 minutes trying to get it to work. It never does. Worse than that, you lose your cool.
• Eye rolling and snickering from teenage girls: it’s unnerving and makes your knees jump. You can’t shake them off, and you can’t concentrate on your lesson, either.
• The activity you planned is too complex–the kids are not moving into and through it smoothly.
• A parent calls to register a complaint that seems to come out of left field. How could you have anticipated that?

Plenty of things can go wrong every single period of every teaching day. A teacher is a human being interacting with thirty other human beings every period. That can mean 150 kids—sometimes even more—in the course of a day. There’s a text to be understood, a concept to be explained, or a skill to be taught—and an array of technological supports that can fail at any time. When any one of the infinite number of variables goes wrong, any teacher is troubled.

I have experienced every one of the scenarios sketched in the text above.

Imagine if all them (or even just several) happened on the same day. A novice teacher could easily be thrown: her confidence shaken; her resolve, dissolved. Even one such incident can haunt a beginner, and one hour that goes badly can color the whole week. You can feel like a failure within a very short time.

I remember spending one whole weekend, when I was a beginning teacher, obsessing over something that happened on a Friday afternoon and second-guessing my response to it. I had had a “horrible week,” I declared to my husband, but in reality, I’d had one bad incident on Friday. By Monday, whatever had happened had been completely forgotten by the students, and I felt silly for letting it ruin my weekend.

This fixation on failure happened to me more than once. I’d let one or two “disasters” during a week dominate my assessment of myself as a teacher. The optimism and confidence I’d started the year out with were soon gone, and I really was in danger of failure. What was I going to do? I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children—and not a negative difference, either. After a lot of fretting and frustration, I hit upon a strategy for dealing with disaster: I created a mental calendar to set the record straight.

It was like this: I taught six classes a day, five days a week, so (I told myself) there were thirty chances for success. Each week began with—in my mind—a blank white page gridded like a calendar: five squares across, six squares down, one for every period I taught. If a period went well–nothing spectacular, but nothing awful, either—the square remained white. If a class went badly, I colored the square black. But if the class went well, I made the square yellow, a cheerful color, one most people associate with happiness.

The object, of course, was to achieve a solid yellow page. In the beginning, I was gratified if there were no black spots on the grid. A page that was still white by the end of the week was a huge relief, and on the few intermittent yellows, I rode high. Gradually, my grids started looking like a case of measles—my yellow squares were sprinkled throughout the week. A whole day that was solid yellow was cause for rejoicing; a week of yellow–which took a long time to achieve—provoked a celebration equivalent to the Fourth of July. As time went along, the black days disappeared and the yellow ones dominated. Occasionally, one of those dreaded black marks did occur, but because of the grid, I could put that period into perspective. It was one period in a matrix of thirty opportunities. Not the whole picture, not a portrait of failure. My confidence increased, square by square, and with the confidence, guess what? More and more yellow squares began to appear.

Naturally, as the years passed by, I raised my standards, expected more of myself. Yellow became the new norm. I started going for gold. My explanations became clearer and were illustrated with examples kids could understand. I learned how to structure groups and keep students on task. Through trial and error and a lot of deliberate action, classroom management moved from nightmare to second nature. I learned about learning styles, adjusted my instruction for students at various levels, developed better questioning techniques and pacing strategies. And so on.

I got to gold. One square at a time.

I tell this story now to beginning teachers and others who are temporarily off their stride. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t let one bad day spoil the weekend. Don’t let one bad hour define you. You’ll get to yellow. One square at a time. And then you’ll go for gold.

Phantom Limb

In August every year, teachers—just like kids—get  excited about the opening of school. They go into their classrooms in the sweltering heat to arrange the furniture, decorate the walls, organize seating charts and other materials, and most of all, to plan their units of instruction. It’s not unlike preparing for the arrival of a newborn. You get the classroom ready and then start imagining all the wonderful  adventures in learning that you’re going to experience with your students, most of whom are still, at this point, abstract.

I am not immune to the exhilaration of August either.  Last year, when I accepted my new position as a full-time instructional coach for my district, I joked with colleagues that this was “voluntary amputation.”  I said that because I knew that I would miss being in the classroom, even though I was—and am—excited about this new opportunity.  I thought I was being funny, talking about dismemberment, but my quip was more on target than I realized.

I have a phantom limb.

During the Civil War–and probably before that–amputees began reporting that they could feel sensations in their missing arms or legs. Today the phenomenon is well known.  No one knows for sure what causes the phantom limb sensation—some neuroscientists think the feelings are evidence of the brain reorganizing itself—but the illusion of feeling in a severed body part is real and widely experienced.

A few days ago, a colleague recommended a link to a great site for art, history, and science visuals to me and all my colleagues in the English Department on our Facebook group site. My mind started spinning, and soon I had a long list in my head of ways to use these images.

Then, while we were driving home from vacation last week, I read an apt and amusing editorial in the New York Times out loud to my husband: Auto Crrect Ths. The article was about the author’s  frustration with “auto correct” and his ruminations on the trend toward loss of spelling skills. I thought it would make a good starting place for a discussion in my College Composition class about the importance—or unimportance—of competence in spelling.  I couldn’t resist the urge: I emailed the article to my colleagues.

Then I received a notification from an online educational products company hawking ready-to-purchase units organized around primary documents, the use of which is a huge component of the new Common Core State Standards that everyone is scrambling to understand and implement. The units looked pretty good—perusing them gave me ideas for organizing my own instructional units.

These and other starting places for new units of instruction (or enhancements for existing ones) get me pretty excited.  But each time I feel my heart racing and my cheeks turning pink from the thrill of anticipated academic adventure, the phantom limb phenomenon brings me up short. I remember that I won’t be in the classroom this year.

Still, just as the severed limbs seem more real to amputees than their intact ones, teaching my 9th graders, my American Lit classes, and my seniors in College Comp seems more real to me than what I’ll be doing next.  To be honest, I don’t know what to expect.  That’s why, as I begin in my new position, I’m going to resume this blog by describing some of my past experiences as a teacher and sharing some instructional strategies that have worked for me.  And, since my new job is all about passing along  experiences and strategies, this is fitting.

I know I will be adding to an already huge store of creative teaching strategies for To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m going to start with some lessons from this modern classic, a book taught almost everywhere in the country. However, while the lessons are in the context of TKM (as English teachers often abbreviate it), the strategies are widely applicable. I hope they are helpful to someone.

You see? The excitement about learning, and the urge to construct units and share resources, ideas, and lesson plans doesn’t go away even when someone leaves the classroom.

You don’t believe me?  The colleague who sent the link to the visuals?  She retired last year, too. Guess we both have a phantom limb.

Pomp and Circumstance

05-21-09-mccutcheon-end-of-year-and-graduation-033In an American high school like mine, which is not so different from most, students come in all shapes and sizes with backgrounds so varied you are surprised they were raised in the same country, let alone the same community. They range widely in their abilities, their interests, their experiences, and their aspirations. Some have parental support so intense we call their mothers and fathers “helicopter parents”; others have no support at all. Some are from robust, supportive, intact families; others have survived dysfunction that boggles the mind—alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, divorce, and abandonment. Some are rich; others, dirt poor. They may speak perfect English, bad English, or no English at all. They may have traveled the world or seen only the corners of Tippecanoe County. They are the sons and daughters of bankers, business owners, teachers, farmers, industrial workers, lawyers, tradesmen and women, city engineers and school janitors. They live in trailers, apartments, bungalows, farm houses, and mansions on the prairie. Some even live in cars.

Black and white, Hispanic and Asian, a few Native Americans. They are from here—from three different middle schools—and from everywhere, individuals (over the years) from as far away as Libya, Afghanistan, France, Russia, Bulgaria, China, Ukraine, Iraq, Peru, Brazil, Belgium, and many more countries around the globe. They are Christian, Muslim, and Jew; straight and gay; rich and poor, tall and short; fat and thin; handsome and plain.

For some, it has been a straight line from those first “lost in the halls” days as freshmen to academic distinction and class leadership.

For others, it has been a struggle to reach the stage.

Some have moved nearly anonymously from first year to last; others are personalities, standouts whom everyone knows.

But we weave them together as a class so that by the end of their time with us, when they graduate, they are whole cloth, dressed alike in their red and gold graduation robes, momentarily still on the stage in front of us. We are their admiring parents, extended family, friends of all ages, and their teachers, whose investment in their success is deeper than they’ll ever know.

Most will continue their education—here at Purdue or other at other Indiana colleges, some in vocational schools, a few at colleges out-of-state. Some will enter the military; some, the workforce. But for just this minute, there they all are, a tableau on the stage, a pleasing assembly whose accomplishments make us proud.

The Pledge of Allegiance. The introductions of the School Board of Trustees and the school administrators. A speech from the Teacher of the Year. This year it is an English Department colleague who speaks. His topic, an important one in this time of economic uncertainty and overemphasis on testing, is this: “What is an education for?” Not, he argues, to get jobs, but rather, to know what it is to be human.

The Faculty Scholarship, always a surprise announcement at graduation, is awarded each year to a student or students whose work ethic, demeanor, and personal integrity represent the values we as a faculty share. My colleague announces the recipients, and the two, blushing and excited, but even so, poised, come down from their seats in the bleachers to receive giant foam board replicas of checks—and the real ones, too—in front of everyone here in Elliott Hall, Purdue’s immense (and packed) auditorium.

Five valedictory addresses this year: One makes me and the teachers around me tear up. Juan was born in Mexico. From the very beginning of his education in America, he has been one of those “straight line” kids. In his speech, he thanks his parents, in English and in Spanish, for bringing him to this country and giving him the opportunity they hadn’t had. He has worked hard, he says, to make his parents proud.

Who wouldn’t cry?

Then, the Awarding of the Diplomas. One by one, the students’ names are called and each makes the walk, stopping halfway to shake the principal’s hand and receive his or her diploma—a blank, actually. After the ceremony, teachers will perform one last service: We’ll congregate with the students in a room under the auditorium and give them the actual document. Withholding the diplomas this way prevents hijinks on stage and guarantees that all outstanding fees are paid before the diploma itself is handed over. What we see is stagecraft, and for the most part, the students play their part as instructed. But, like a slip peeking out below the hem of a dress, a student’s individuality is glimpsed in the pace of his walk, the manner of extending her hand, a furtive or full-on smile at the audience, the reaction when air horns and whistles and shouts of “Woot! Woot!” erupt in the audience. A couple of cut-ups dance their way across the stage. Roaring applause affirms the accomplishments of the young man in the wheelchair and the special students who are accompanied in their walk.

When the last Z has crossed the stage, we look at the whole again, not just at the individual making the journey, and see that the group has reassembled without our realizing it. They are a tableau again—but just for a few more minutes while the principal speaks to the audience directly, acknowledging the personality of this class as a whole—go-getters, step-up-to-the-plate kids. Then, the magic words, directed to the students themselves: “You may move your tassels to the left.”

The tableau breaks. The spell is broken. A hat sails through the air, though tossing hats has been forbidden.

Graduation this year is a spectacular finish—for the graduates, of course, who leave the stage smiling broadly and then gather outside with their families and friends for photographs, handshakes, hugs, and happy tears—but for me, too. For all of us who have invested ourselves, day after day, week after week, month after month, in these kids. They are our legacy and they make all of us proud.