Onward to Ithaca

Enclosed in a box as I was for most of the past 41+ years—that is to say, confined (by choice) to the four walls of my high school classroom—I missed the bloodroot, the very first spring wildflower, opening on the hillside.  And every vacation, eager to be out and unconfined, I traveled somewhere else. I was always somewhere else. I missed the emergence of the rest of spring: of pink and white hepatica, of toothwort and Mayapple, of wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal. Wild ginger and early meadow rue. I missed myself. The woodland wanderer. The outdoor girl..

But in March of 2020, the lid on that schoolroom box came open. Abruptly. Horrifyingly. The contents spilled out, everyone hastening to the safety of their homes. Ironically, the Covid quarantine happened the week before my grandchildren were all coming to visit, the little boys eager to explore the wild ravine that is my backyard, the same ravine their mothers had adventured in years ago.

The children did not come, though, and confined as I was then to a different box, I decided it was time to become reacquainted—perhaps acquainted for the first time—with my own backyard. I went into the ravine in the spirit of adventure. Of exploration. Of discovery.

I went unprepared. I was only going to go as far as I could see from our deck. But curiosity and beauty pulled me along, and I went all the way to the end, to where the stream joins a larger flowage in a lovely city park. And then I traced my steps back again. I slipped on the rocks more than once, and at the end of the expedition, my hiking shoes were soaked.  On future trips, seasoned, I wore tall rubber boots and carried a stout stick so I could walk in the streambed with less danger to my shoes and myself.

That first time down in the spring of 2020 I found chunks of railroad ties, crumbling concrete slabs clothed in green moss, and bricks so old they’re distinguishable only by their shape: all of it refuse from man’s industry, thrown down here over the years.

Plastic water bottles. Cardboard, limp and stained. Broken glass. A lost football. A bottomless flower container, the dried and pot-bound plant still intact. Aluminum Coke cans, their labels barely discernible. Plastic bags of all sizes and colors, some still whole, some in tatters, some held fast by sand or rock or logs and leaves. The debris of modern life.  Some of it pitched over the side, I am sure.

“Matter doesn’t go away, people,” I muttered, “even though it’s out of sight. Find a garbage can! Recycle!”

Too harsh. Some of this must have been blown here by the wind. That grimy barbecue tray: no doubt some backyard chef was left scratching his head. Or the pair of white Crocs, resting six feet apart from each other.  They’d probably been left on someone’s deck to dry.

The next several trips into the ravine, I carried a garbage bag.

Then I carried a camera. I meant to document the wildflowers, but I captured more than those. One day it started to sprinkle, so I took refuge under an enormous cottonwood that had fallen across the creek long ago. Looking up, I saw a 6-inch circular white fungus—like an iced cookie, turned upside down. Artist’s fungus, it’s called, because the surface can be etched. I took a picture and let the fungus be.

Another day I picnicked among trout lily, ate a peanut butter sandwich while a hawk circled above, sending the wildlife—all but me—into hiding. I discovered a single Celandine poppy growing on the streambank, marveled at the shine of the bristly buttercup. I found a stand of wild ginger, watched a cardinal bathing in the creek, a thrush doing the same, and frequently, robins drying their ruffled feathers in the sun.

I saw garlic mustard encroaching even here, in this untraveled place. On an annual basis, environmental organizations enlist their supporters to pull garlic mustard, to open the land back up to indigenous species. My own backyard is threatened, it seems, and there’s only one remedy: pull.

Mayapples, which do belong, are everywhere in the ravine, colonies clustering on the hillsides. From my deck, I can see only their smooth, green, peltate tops. but on one walk in the ravine, I discovered a point of land where I could sit and look up into their undersides. Mayapple emerges in April, looking at first quite phallic, but the shoots quickly unfold to resemble the little paper parasols you see tucked into the shaved ice of exotic mixed drinks. The plant pushes higher, and the leaves open out to become wide, foot-high umbrellas over the land. In May, a flower grows in the axil of the two-leaved ones. At first, it’s a tight green globe the size of a marble, but the marble gives way to a creamy white rosette, 6-9 petals. In August, the flower will be replaced by the small green “apple” that contains the seeds.

 My introduction to Mayapple came by way of Conrad Richter’s Light in the Forest, a book I read with 8th graders many years ago. In that story, True Son, a white boy, has been raised by the Lenni Lenapi, taken as a 4-year-old from his white parents in a revenge raid. As a young teenager, True Son is a pawn in a peace settlement. He is being returned to his biological parents. But he’s Native American now and does not want to leave his father, his friends, the people that he loves. He notices the Mayapple growing along the path.  True Son knows that the Mayapple’s every part is toxic and considers eating of it, remembering another young brave who committed suicide in this way.

But the Mayapple was also used by Native Americans for curative purposes. Its medicinal property, podophyllotoxin, is used today in drugs for certain cancers and skin conditions, though the source is primarily a different species grown in the Himalayas.

And I’ve read, a careful cook can make jelly from the apple once it is yellowed and ripe.

 For nought so vile upon the earth doth live

 But to the earth some special good doth give.

Romeo and Juliet. Act II. Friar Laurence.

Every 9th grader in America knows this story, has been directed to these lines.   

I was never far from school, even when I was in the ravine.

Always, at the end, when I reached the city park, I had mixed feelings.  The expedition is over. The journey is finished. The thrill of going where no one else does, subsides.  It’s a letdown, arriving at the end, even though I have the sweet remembrance of my journey here. 

At the same time, there’s a sense of accomplishment. It isn’t easy navigating sinkholes and fallen trees and sticks that can poke you in the eye and, one day even, a coyote that was coming up the stream as I was going down. The place is a danger zone. I could twist an ankle on a slippery rock. I could fall on my face.

But boulders became landmarks. I wore a path.

I’ve spent my professional life in a danger zone as well.

Here are the most calamitous events of my career:

  • I broke my wrist one day when I fell from the ceiling (I was hanging a mobile and stepped into air)
  • A student driver tried to pass me on a county road when I was making a left turn (My car was totaled, but neither of us was hurt)
  • One day a girl rushed to the front of the class to ask to use the bathroom and threw up on me before she could get the words out (The dress washed)
  • Several winters ago, another student crunched my car (a different one) while it was parked in the school lot (Actually, he took out two cars when his truck spun on ice)

But until the day I was flattened, I hadn’t toted it all up. The whole experience of teaching.

Here’s what happened:

I darted out of my classroom at the same time a boy exited the room next door. His head was down; he was reading a note. We collided, and there I was, flat on my back like an overturned bug. The boy was stricken; I was certainly surprised.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “but you can help me up.”

I was restored to dignity and “over it” within a few minutes. It took a little longer for the boy. After all, he’d just leveled a teacher, and—um—an older one at that.

Teachers should get hazard pay, I thought.

But I’ve experienced other dangers in my long life in an American classroom, ones not so easy to “get over.”

Twain and Faulkner and E. B. White and Harper Lee and Charles Dickens and Homer and George Orwell and many, many more literary luminaries. I had the time to reread their work every single year—to admire anew a turn of phrase, to marvel once more at an apt comparison, to suck in my breath at the sheer beauty of their prose. It was nothing short of privilege to open To Kill a Mockingbird the last year I had my own classroom and read aloud for the 31st time, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” In November, I went to London with Pip, and in February, I followed Odysseus around the world and home again to Ithaca. Come spring, it was time to visit Manor Farm again and watch the pigs turn into Mr. Jones. I wondered, when I left the classroom to become a coach, if I ever again would read, “Sing in me, O Muse…”

The danger in loving stories like these and the people in them is this: I’m spoiled for bestseller fiction. I can’t stand TV. That makes me a poor conversationalist and puts me out of touch with popular culture. I miss the humor in a lot of repartee; don’t get contemporary allusions.

Here’s another danger I have faced: No one told me how to structure those fifty minutes between the bells. No one told me how to teach or how to manage my classroom. I decided from a range of choices what we would read and when we would read it. I decided how I would make the stories come alive and what I would to do to help the students improve their writing. I set the goals and I crafted the lessons. I made the connections from book to book, and I designed the projects, the writing assignments, the presentations. I made up the tests. My creativity as a teacher was limited only by my imagination and my stamina. Since I decided just about everything that happened in my room, though, what would happen if I failed? What if I became a bug on her back, flailing, limbs in the air?

To be truthful, I did fail in the beginning. The first years were harrowing. Every day was life lived on the edge. The students, mostly boys, wouldn’t sit still, talked when I talked, fidgeted with their papers and pens and books (if they’d brought them to class), dropped books on the floor, looked out the window—in short, did everything but sit tall in their seats and pay attention me. For my part, I wasn’t signaling that I ought to be paid attention to. My voice was high, and when I spoke, I tripped along at record speed. I moved without purpose all over the place, and my directions were vague and alarmist: “Don’t do that!”  Exactly what the students shouldn’t do wasn’t clear.

Worse than that, my lessons were dull. Predictable. Pedantic. Probably the reason for all the behavior problems and the more than occasional lip from those boys.

It was discouraging at the beginning of my career to have to learn what to do, one agonizing crisis at a time.  But every time I successfully handled a situation or taught a lesson that had kids truly engaged, my confidence increased. Eventually, I wasn’t afraid of my own shadow and wore my authority comfortably.

But it was a bumpy road to that confidence.

I was in constant danger, too, of my heart being broken. It’s love, of course, that does that, and love is the only way to describe my feelings for the students I was with each year, sometimes for longer than a year. These are kids I have seen when they are happy, seen when they are not, seen when they are taxed to their limit, and seen at play. We developed a relationship, each one of them and I, based on shared experience and my knowledge of what they often revealed when we read those books together. I was privy to their ideas when they raised their hands to speak. I read their thoughts in the essays they wrote for me.

They were lopsided relationships, of course. More like parent-child than friend-to-friend. I nagged them, cajoled them, and told them what to do. Sometimes they made poor decisions, let me down, acted badly. Sometimes I wanted to throttle them. Sometimes terrible things happened in their lives, and then my heart would break. My attachment to the kids I taught sounds odd to people who haven’t taught. But years later, when I see my students all grown up, when I encounter them in a store or at a theater or meet them on the street, I discover that they feel attached to me, too. Sometimes, even years later, they come back to say thank you: for pushing them, for demanding they do their best, for putting up with their resistance, for caring about them, for teaching them something.

I loved my job.

But the time has come. I have reached the city park. My year in the ravine showed me there are more things to love, more ways to grow, other journeys to undertake. Reaching the end is a little disorienting, to be sure. I will miss my colleagues profoundly and the students, of course, and the life I know so well. But I am richer for the experiences and the friendships, and I am grateful for all this time, this long life in my American classroom.

I’m mapping out a new journey, edging forward.  

There are dangers, of course, existential reasons to be apprehensive about retiring: identity, purpose, self-confidence—all that could be lost.  

There will be loss.

But the Odyssey is nothing if it isn’t about the gains as well: Adventure. Discovery. Challenge and struggle. Risk and reward. And in the end, Ithaca.

“Sing in me, O Muse.”

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

 

Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition  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 for so many years?  The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

This year, I am especially grateful for all of you who are educators, front line workers, medical workers. For those of you who delivered for Instacart and other door-to-door delivery services. For restaurant owners and servers and cooks who found options for those of us lucky enough to stay at home during the pandemic. For those of you who made masks and distributed them. For those of you who work at Parks and Rec or in nature preserve facilities who kept these refuges going, offering  respite and relief  to human beings as well as wildlife.  For the police and firefighters who kept us safe. For the retail store owners and sales personnel who kept right on working through it all.  Any and all of you who, in any way, alleviated the strain of living through this extended time of isolation and separation. You kept people like me alive, conscious of our own good fortune, and grateful for the smallest of kindnesses.

And for those of you doing the important–the critical–social justice work in our communities, thank you. Special thanks to the MHS grads who spoke to  current students about your experiences with issues of diversity in high school and your hopes for our communities going forward. You inspired these students of today and made your former teachers proud.  You made me hopeful about the future, believing as I do that we will only be a better country when each of us cares about all of us.

So here’s my annual Thanksgiving post–with a few new additions as I have heard from more of you and learned how you are helping to keep this world spinning.

 

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  walked with one of you in the March for Babies and two years ago with more of you at the #RedforEd rally in Indianapolis. I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office and again at school, so you could give me a flu shot. This past year at the Dept. of Public Health for a Covid 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. I’ve seen you on my nature walks and had lunch with two of you at Arni’s.

One of you approached me years ago at the Indy airport and described your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours. Two years ago, I met two more of you, on separate occasions, in the same airport–students from my early years in TSC. One of you owns a grocery store that is helping to revive a part of our community; another of you is the piano man who has entertained the whole community for years and sustained our collective spirit with weekly Zoom concerts last spring.

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 trouble spots around the globe. A few years ago, 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. Some of you have read the book I wrote in 2019 and have written to tell me you liked it. Some of you look at my nature photographs and tell me they bring you peace.

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 several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors, one of you at least is a physician’s assistant. Several of you sell real estate, three that I know of are lawyers, and many of you are college professors, even Department Chairs at your universities. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you writers, restaurant owners, veterinarians, and musicians.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and another for the Marlins. A videographer. A welding instructor. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, two of you worked as field managers for candidates in our last presidential election. One of you is a personal secretary to someone in Germany.  Beauticians and therapists and specialists of all kinds. An artist and a computer design expert. The CEO of a community foundation. 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 firefighters, automobile salespeople and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and heating and cooling experts. You work in personnel and transportation, retail and manufacturing. You are receptionists and cashiers. Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and web page designers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and veterinary assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

Some of you came to this country as refugees and immigrants, only to meet new obstacles here. You worked hard and long to weave yourselves into the fabric of this nation, making me and your families proud of all you have accomplished. Many of you have had different struggles–you’ve faced challenges no one should have to. But you had determination and the will to succeed, and you have.

You still work hard, all of you, every single day, to make this 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.

A Matter of Style

The blog post I wrote about “A Christmas Memory” got so many “hits” this season that I thought people might be interested in the follow-up; that is, what we did after the kids realized that Harper Lee had modeled Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on her real-life friend, Truman Capote. I had written to a friend of mine about that day in class—the first time I taught this lesson—and printed out my email because I never wanted to forget it. So here is the rest of the story, all about a lesson in style, taken from a dispatch many years ago.

“Dill?”

There was a kind of silence and others began to say things like, “Yeah, that’s true.” Very quietly at first, as there wasn’t yet a lot of confidence for this idea.

I waited a minute for them all to make the connection and then said, “You’re right. Harper Lee and the author of this story grew up together. Dill is Buddy.” The

girl who had ventured her idea was stunned—and very quiet herself. The idea had to sink in with all of them—and my girl had to believe she could have been so intuitive. And then we began to talk about the real lives of authors.

When I told them about Capote’s In Cold Blood, several wanted to read it. I happened to have a copy in the classroom, so the boy who is at the top of the class jumped up and took it from me. He said he’d read it over Christmas Break and then exchange it with another boy in the class. I told them that Harper Lee had accompanied Capote on his trip to Oklahoma and had served as his secretary during the research phase of the book. The boy turned to the beginning of the book—sure enough, there was an inscription: “To Harper Lee.”

So, my assignment that night was to come to class the next day having identified two specific passages in “A Christmas Memory” that they particularly liked. My plan then was to launch a discussion of style—without telling the students that that was what we were talking about.

They were excited when they came into the room, eager to talk about “their” passages. We identified the cataloguing, or listing technique; appeals to the senses; metaphors and similes; artful creation of symbols; parenthetical remarks; “special effects,” like typography and non-words; abundant use of detail. One boy said, “My favorite sentence in the whole story is the one where he talks about (and he directed us to the page and column) “the buggy wheels wobbling like a drunkard’s legs.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when a 9th grade boy, a big, hulking athlete, says something about “his favorite sentence,” chills run through me.

Then another boy mentioned the parentheses. He said, “These parenthetical remarks seem like they are made to protect Miss Sook.” He went through them. Sure enough, in the list of things she’d done, for example, was “Take snuff,” but the parenthetical remark was “Secretly.” She had done a number of other things that would have made her seem strange—except that in parentheses, Capote would say “You just try it,” or “I did, too,” or “Just once”—something that mitigated the extreme and made her seem quaint, not weird.

The boy who had taken In Cold Blood piped up: “That’s the same thing he does here! He uses the parentheses the same way. And he lists things. Here, let me read.”  And the boy read us quite a long passage which, since the others didn’t have the text, didn’t impress them quite as much as it did the boy who was reading—except that they all were impressed by the dawning realization, the discovery they made for themselves, that writers have identifiable styles.

An education professor had been in my classroom observing me a few months before this. He had told me then that mine was a “constructivist classroom.”  He had seen me doing something similar to this discussion about style in a class called Novels that I was teaching with seniors and also in a discussion about the Odyssey with these same 9th graders. I like to lead kids to make discoveries on their own, but until then, I hadn’t had a name for this approach. Having a name is so legitimizing—I had thought, up until then, that I was doing something unidentifiable as no one had ever taught me any of this. I just like to discuss what we are reading and have the kids do the thinking—it always means more that way.

So, I found there’s a name for it. Well, well. That’s kind of like discovering authors have identifiable styles, isn’t it?

A Christmas Memory

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

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

That was, of course, when such knowledge was still a revelation. Today, because of the Internet mostly, kids already know. This upset me at first. A perfectly wonderful epiphany: smashed. But I got over it. (The real Buddy as the model for Dill isn’t the only literary surprise the Internet has ruined. These days the kids know before they read the Odyssey or their first Shakespearean play that Homer wasn’t one person and Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare.)

But back when Buddy/Dill was still a surprise, we’d read the story together—parts of it, at least, aloud. Knowing where the story goes, I’d have trouble when the kites begin their ascent to the sky, when Queenie buries her bone, when Buddy’s best friend, Sook, says, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” It was worse than that, actually. I’d get choked up at the very beginning—when Sook first says: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story is so rich:

  • In figurative language: “a pillow as wet as a widow’s handkerchief,” “the blaze of her heart,” and the stove “like a lighted pumpkin.”
  • In catalogues, or lists: the uses of the dilapidated baby carriage, the ways Sook and Buddy make money, the recipients of the fruitcakes, the contents of the trunk in the attic, the Christmas presents from the others, and most especially, the things Sook “has never done and the things she has done, does do.”
  • In sensory imagery: the ingredients in the fruitcakes, Haha Jones’ scar, the ornaments for the tree, Miss Sook dropping the kettle on the kitchen floor to awaken the sleeping relatives, Miss Sook herself in her gray sweater and Lincoln-like face.
  • The trip to cut the Christmas tree is a Christmas message all by itself, capped by Miss Sook’s response to the lazy mill-owner’s wife who tries to buy the tree, who tells the soulmates that they can always get another one. No, replies Miss Sook, “There’s never two of anything.”

It was easy after that to direct my students to their own best memories, to remembrances of grandparents, of favorite gifts, of pets who’d long since left them, to ritual and tradition, to ornaments they hang on the tree with delight year after year after year, to  Christmas confections, to sights and sounds and tastes that, unbeknownst to them, had been laid down already—at 13, 14—in layers of sweetness that will forever define Christmas in their hearts. They loved writing their own memoirs—evoking images, searching for similes, reaching for symbols like the kites that would carry their stories into light air. One year, a girl named Sarah wrote and wrote and wrote. Her lists were exquisite; her images, poignant beyond what was imaginable for her age. “She’s a writer,” her friends all said.  “You should have seen her in middle school.” Indeed.

But my favorite part of the lesson came after we had talked about style, after we had talked about Sook, after we had understood the message. I would ask the students to think about the boy, about Buddy. Until now, the focus had been on Sook—her superstitions, her quirkiness, her simplicity; on Haha Jones’ sudden philanthropy; on the relatives’ insensitivity; on the humor in Queenie’s sampling the leftover whiskey.

I asked my students to think about Buddy. “Is there anyone you’ve met this semester that Buddy reminds you of?” I’d ask them. A few literal ones would scan the list of kids they’d met that semester, their first in the high school. A few caught on to the fact that I was talking  about literary characters, who, to me and to them, too, were as real as any flesh and bone teenagers in the building.

The room is quiet. The students scan their memories, open their notebooks, reflect, try to remember the characters we’ve met.

I wait.

A hand at last. A voice, so quiet. Becca ventures an answer: “Dill?”

The room stays quiet. They take it in. Then, an almost audible, collective gasp.

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.

This Spin of the World

Revolving Book Rack: Yours, Mine, Ours

Earlier today, a cherished colleague posted a picture of a revolving book rack, a longtime piece of classroom furniture which she was now, having reassigned a cabinet area for her classroom library, offering up to another needy soul. I recognized the item in the picture. That rack had once been my revolving bookshelf, the one I’d left behind when I exited the classroom at the end of 2012 to become an instructional coach. When I left the classroom, I invited my students to take the paperbacks on my rack for themselves. They did. One boy brought a grocery sack.  And just like that, a world vanished.

Or at least for that year in that room it did. The rack in the picture certainly looked like the one that had been in my classroom, the one I myself had scavenged from the school library when it had undergone a remodel. Perhaps my colleague’s rack was a second one, also scavenged from the library.

In any event, the picture of that revolving book rack standing empty stirred memories of school years past. Kids would come to my classroom in the fall, nervous and excited and awkward and shy—even the seniors—and we would take up topic after topic, book after book, rolling through the curriculum and the months until at last, on a day that seemed as if it would never come, the end of the year was suddenly and abruptly there. And those same students, now excited in a different way and no longer nervous and shy, were like the books on the rack: gone.

I was always bereft, entered into a kind of mourning that lasted through the first two weeks of June. This phenomenon surprised me at the beginning of my career; eventually, I came to recognize what was the matter with me and then anticipate the grief and understand that it was natural to mourn: the end of the year brings an end to whatever magic has been created in any teacher’s room.  I knew the magic would be recreated the next year, but of course it would not be exactly the same. I took solace in knowing that in August the students would enter, nervous and excited and awkward and shy, and we would begin together to construct anther magical world, one endeavor, one lesson, one understanding, one misunderstanding, one joke, one joy, realization, sorrow, conclusion at a time.

Now we are at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The shelves will soon be empty. It has been a year memorable for the things I am sure most if not all of you wish you hadn’t experienced. And yet, overcoming the challenges, confronting the fears, dealing with the reality of all that Covid-19 has brought to this year—the mask battles, the quarantine disasters, the disappearance of the neediest students, the perseverance of many and the courage of all—especially your courage, colleagues—has created a world that you might not mourn but at least will reflect upon often this summer.

This post is more than a piece of nostalgia. It’s a shout-out to you, to all of you, you who braved the year, delivered your knowledge and skill and wisdom just as expected, embraced your students, and created a world of safety in the danger zone of the larger world. The revolving rack has nearly stilled. You’re just a few days away from celebratory outings, sleeping in, focusing on your own children and creating a wondrous summer for them, from new grad classes of your own, new opportunities, camping trips and visits to family you’ve been separated from, to explorations and pleasures of all kinds.

But as you reflect, in those quiet moments of summer relief, rest, and recreation, remember this: You are the heroes of the Covid story your students will never forget. You are the heroes in the books they take from the rack.  You spun that rack and made this 180-day revolution one to remember.

Have a well-deserved vacation, my friends. .

I will see you in the fall when, together, we take another spin around the world.

A Harvest of Lessons

This is a post I wrote only a year and a half ago, but it’s FFA Week at my high school and I want to say again how much I appreciate the FFA program and the students who learn so much from and give so much to FFA. I want to reiterate how much, in my long life in my American classroom, I have learned from them and their families about the importance of community. Recognizing the contributions and the needs of all the students and all the groups in a school matters. This week it’s the FFA kids’ place in the sun.

It’s harvest time now in the Midwest. Driving across central Indiana and Illinois last weekend, I noticed all the harvesters in the fields, the golden pyramids of corn in the grain carts, the dust that swirled around the car from combines close to the highway. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had some time to gaze into those fields and reflect on some valuable lessons taught to me by my students—specifically, by my FFA students.

I live in a farming community and have taught in the same (at one time, mostly) rural district since the early 1980s. I grew up in the town where John Deere’s headquarters are still located and where J. I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline, and Allis-Chalmers all had manufacturing plants. Moline, Illinois: The Plow City, it was called.

But I was not a farm kid myself. I was pretty ignorant, when I first started teaching in Indiana, not of the importance of farming, but of the realities of farm life.

I learned some important lessons early on.

That very first year I was teaching 8th grade English, and in early May, I assigned a research paper to my students. Our school library was pitifully small; the only non-fiction sources on the shelves were encyclopedias and magazines like Good Housekeeping and US News and World Report. Not likely we’d find information on the various topics I’d asked students to choose from. So I did the logical thing: I required kids to go to the public library. In some cases, that meant as much as 40 miles round trip on a week night.

A dad set me straight right away. His son delivered a handwritten note the very next day (This was pre-email, pre-telephones in the classroom, and certainly pre-cell phones): “Mrs. Powley, This is planting season. My son is needed in the fields. He will not be going to the library after school.”

In my city life experience, going to the library was routine. It had never occurred to me that a family wouldn’t just drop everything at any time and take their son or daughter to town. I can’t remember now if we changed the boy’s topic or if I found resources for him myself or whether I waived the library requirement—but I sure learned something about flexibility from this experience. More than that, I learned how important it was to know and understand my students and their lives outside my classroom. Had I known more about the community I was in, I would have done what I did the next year: I still required the students to go to the public library—but I moved the assignment to March.

Another year, my teacher was a student who didn’t seem to take my senior composition class very seriously. He was frequently late with assignments and often tardy to my first-hour class. One day, after I’d repeatedly tried to shame him into caring about what I had to offer, he came bursting into the classroom half an hour into the lesson. He slipped into his seat and tried to avoid creating a ruckus, but he was out of breath and his shoes were all muddy. I was on the verge of chastising him once again when he blurted out, “The cows got out!” Suddenly, pronoun antecedents didn’t seem so important, and I learned something about humility. This boy was carrying a man-sized load on his family’s farm. No wonder he was behind all the time. In this case, the office excused his tardy–and I approved.

In another class, another year, yet another student talked to me—talked to the class, really, in an oral report on the pioneers of the West—about the way the soil compacted wherever the wagon trains rolled. The traces of their travel remained, showed up decades later in fields where crop growth lagged in just those places the wheels had turned over and over again. The same is true today when heavy machinery packs the earth—in forests, in fields, and even in sand. In this case, the lesson for me was about variety. Not always doing the same thing I’d done the year before and the year before that. Plowing fresh ground and rotating crops means richer conditions and better yield. The same was true of my lessons, my units, the books we read, the papers we wrote. I stayed fresh and my classes were more engaging for it.

In any community, there are mores and considerations that teachers need to understand in order to serve their students. That doesn’t mean we surrender our authority or give over our instruction, but rather, that we work in harmony with the people we serve. That’s one reason why parent-teacher conferences are important. We learn more about the families in our communities—who they are, what they do, what they hope for and expect from their children and from us. And parents learn about us—who we are, what matters to us, what we have to offer and what we expect from our students. Successful teachers develop partnerships with their students’ parents.

It’s why coaching a sport or sponsoring a club matters. It’s why attending school events registers positively with students and parents. We show we care about our kids and care about community when we show up, give of our time, engage. We build rapport. When we understand the community, we know when to be flexible, when to show some humility, and when it’s time to try something new.

All of these lessons, a rich harvest, taken from the fields and learned over time in my American classroom.

The Right Fit

This post was written in 2013. Funny how truth outlives fads–in education and elsewhere. “Learning styles” are discredited now, so my jargon is out of date. But the truth isn’t: there’s more than one way to approach a topic–or answer a question–or learn a subject–and a good teacher makes knowledge accessible by opening more than one door.

One night this past week I awoke at 2 A.M. thinking about the Parts of Speech Notebook I produced when I was in the 7th grade. Sounds like a school kid’s nightmare. But it wasn’t—then or now. In fact, for me, it was quite the opposite.

The Parts of Speech Notebook was, naturally, eight pages long. Mine was bound in a green presentation folder with brass fasteners. Each page was labeled at the top—Noun, Pronoun, Verb, etc.—and illustrated with words and pictures cut from magazines and glued down with white library paste. Mine was messy and aesthetically unpleasing, I am sure (I was not a neat child), but no matter. The task served its purpose: Suddenly, unexpectedly, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, sticky with paste and covered with the colorful confetti that cut-up magazines generate, I got it. Parts of speech, I mean.

What I remember is that electrifying moment of revelation when all the bits of information (not the paper) coalesced and the whole thing made sense. And then came the worry that my grasp on the topic would slip. Did I really understand? Could I rely on this new knowledge? Would the clarity continue? I remember reciting the definitions over and over again in my head. Yes! The mystery had evaporated!

Next day, I sprinted up the stairs to the second floor of my junior high school, raced through the classroom door with my finished notebook, and nearly knocked over my teacher, Mrs. Moeller, a rather stern individual who was, I thought, as old as Methuselah’s wife, demanding that she affirm my brilliance—and more importantly—share the excitement of my epiphany. I remember that she did.

Once I had the building blocks, the rest of it came easy—sentence patterns, clauses, phrases, verbals. I caught on quickly to diagramming—we did that in my day—and eventually I became an English teacher.

But this is not a story about a 7th grade assignment sparking my career—heaven knows, I had been on the path to becoming a teacher since I’d learned to read. Nor is it a story about how a single teacher sparked my love of English—no, I already loved English when I entered Mrs. Moeller’s class. Rather, it’s a story about a galvanizing moment in my education and how it happened and what I hope for, for every child in every classroom: Revelations that last.

I have been thinking a lot lately about differentiation, the term we use in the education world to describe the purposeful design of instruction to meet the varied needs of our diverse clientele. That is, the need to provide instruction that will help all kids have “notebook moments.”

No doubt some of the kids in my class understood the parts of speech just by reading about them in the textbook and identifying them in sentences. Some had luck with the “drill and kill” workbook that accompanied the text. For some, diagramming—that elaborate and either cherished or despised graphic organizer—did it. And for others, like me, it was the notebook. Today we’d label all that cutting and pasting a “hands-on” learning experience, designed for kids who are kinesthetic learners—the ones who can’t sit still, the ones who need to touch things and move them about, the ones who like to learn by doing.

I can’t begin to know if Mrs. Moeller was ahead of her time in realizing that not all children learn the same way. Did she know instinctively that children have learning preferences, ways of comprehending information that are as complex and various as children themselves?  Maybe she required the notebooks because she was tired of grading papers or maybe just because she thought they’d be “fun.” I rather doubt it was the latter, remembering Mrs. Moeller, but whatever her motivation or pedagogical reason, the notebook was the right fit for me.

As teachers, we’ve been schooled for a long time in the need to structure tasks that appeal to visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners, but differentiating our instruction is so much more than that. These days we think about grouping strategies, about whether a child understands things that are laid out logically and sequentially or understands them in non-linear ways, about attention spans, about creativity and conformity, about reflective learners versus action-oriented kids. We think about multiple intelligences and ask ourselves if a student is analytical or verbal or musical or artistic. We even think about the learning environment we create in our classrooms and the impact our seating arrangement might have on our students. Round tables encourage collaboration, but not every child wants to work in groups. Rows represent order and calm—but they can stifle learning for very social students.

The task of the teacher is to know every child’s learning profile well—and then to capture each student at the point of readiness and offer content that challenges but is not too much of a stretch to be defeating. Of course, we have to interest students in the first place in the topic we are studying or the skill that we are teaching. An uninterested student won’t learn much and won’t carry the lesson beyond the classroom walls or past the perfunctory quiz on Friday.

Knowing the students, structuring the lesson and designing activities that appeal to all these variations is no mean feat. Sometimes we “mix it up” serially—something for the visual learner one day, something for the kinesthetic one the next. Other times we provide a number of activities simultaneously—through learning menus or learning stations—sometimes we group kids and sometimes we have them work alone. Computer programs offer variety—though they’re no silver bullet for learning—and so do games and art activities.

But it’s not just mixing it up for “fun,” and it’s not just mixing it up for variety. Differentiating instruction is about intentionally designing learning activities to offer all the kids in the class the chance to experience those “notebook moments.”

If Mrs. Moeller had only had us do workbook pages, I might never have learned the parts of speech. Oh, that’s not true. I would have learned them, but painfully, slowly, and without that wonderful moment of sudden clarity when everything fell into place. If she’d only done diagramming, three-quarters of the class would have been permanently lost in space and rolling their eyes to this day. But she didn’t. And even though the Parts of Speech Notebook sounds today like a pretty conventional assignment, it wasn’t conventional then and it wasn’t conventional for me. For me, it was the avenue to understanding.

Mrs. Moeller, you weren’t old at all. You were wise. More likely related to Solomon than Methuselah.

Going for Gold

This is a post I wrote in 2012 when I first began coaching. I’m reposting it because all of us probably need to give ourselves a little grace right now. We’ve come through a rough year only to find ourselves in the hardest quarter of the school calendar. Some might call this time the doldrums. Whether you’re a new teacher, an early career educator, or even a veteran temporarily experiencing some rockiness, this one’s for you:

• 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 whiteboard won’t work right, perhaps, or the internet is down–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.

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! 

Hard Conversations: Tools for Talking

My colleague Laura Whitcombe wrote for this blog last spring (The Students: What Keeps Them Going?). Laura is the AP and early college speech teacher at my high school. In this post, she and her students tackle an important speech skill that all of us can use: how to stop someone who makes an offensive remark but, at the same time, keep the conversation going.

Introduction: We have all been there. In a conversation, someone says something that is just plain wrong. We sputter. We choke. We blank out. We don’t know what to say or how to say it. Or we say blurt out something in anger. 

We know staying silent is equal to an agreement. Reacting too strongly shuts down the dialogue and puts up a barrier to any relationship in the future. 

So what do we do? 

We need to have tools to pull out and put to work when we are confronted with statements that are hurtful. Statements that are hurtful to others, our society, or to our own self-worth. 

Many of us have been taught active listening skills in a variety of situations. I learned these reactions as a means to have tough conversations when I volunteered on the suicide hotline at the Crisis Center. Police learn this as part of Verbal Judo and de-escalation techniques. Customer service centers use this on the phone lines. Business schools and leadership courses promote these skills. These are the basis of many conversations with therapists and counselors. Effective parents and lasting marriages can look to clear communication. These work because they build stronger relationships in a conflict.

What are the skills?

  1. Reflect what feelings you hear. 
  2. Paraphrase in your own words. 
  3. Ask open-ended questions.

Example:  

Reflect: You are probably nervous about writing up a lesson to share with all of your peers.

Paraphrase: Sharing your thoughts and writing can make us feel very vulnerable.

Open-ended Question: What do you think the reaction will be from your fellow teachers?

In the past, I have taught these listening skills in speech classes. We used them in skits such as a coach and player, parent and child, or teacher and student. Students write scenes where at first they are not being listened to, and conflicts escalate. Then they flip it and use these skills to show an improved relationship. 

Example

Reflect: You sound upset about not making the varsity team.

Paraphrase: After sweating through tryouts and going to camps this summer you thought you would be chosen.

Open-ended Question: What would happen if you went and talked to the coach?

Recently, we used these skills for job interviews. We want to work for employers who care about us and we can show that interest by listening to employees. Employers want an employee who can listen carefully and care about their peers and customers.

Example

Reflect: You seem to really enjoy your volunteer work.

Paraphrase: Sounds like you had to build lots of organizational skills when you helped out at the Boys and Girls Club.

Open-ended Question: What skills did you use there that you could use here at our store?

After reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Olua, I was inspired to look at what I can do to help students not want to run away from hard conversations. I asked myself, “How can we all dive in with care instead of reacting in anger and name-calling?” Speech class seems like a place where students would be primed to developing these communication skills. We already have a stage and are promoting student voices. Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist that “Critiquing racism is not activism. Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” To me, that means that we must do something, not just think about it. 

So this leads to using active listening skills to confront “microaggressions.” I found a list of microaggressions heard in the classroom, but next time I hope to be brave enough to ask for examples from students. If students can submit comments that they wish that they had confronted, this would be even more of a real world activity. This could be done anonymously to promote students really opening up. 

We used the “I do. We do. They do” classroom format. First a demonstration from me. The document “Microaggressions in the Classroom” by Joel Portman and Javier Ogaz includes a list of recognizable statements. I chose one that really triggers me: “We have to be careful not to invite less qualified women just to have enough female speakers. That’s not fair to the men”

Example

Reflect: “You sound worried about upsetting the men.”

Paraphrase: “So you think most women do not have the qualifications required.”

Open-Ended Question: “What would be the worst that could happen if more women were selected to present?”

Here is a good place to include “Call-In Conversations” from Seed The Way: Education for Justice and Equity’s lesson “Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In” lesson. Several of these “Call-In” sentences smoothly fit into active listening. 

  • I don’t find that funny. Tell me why that’s funny to you.
  • I wonder if you’ve considered the impact of your words. 
  • It sounded like you just said _______. Is that really what you meant? 
  • It sounds like you’re making some assumptions that we need to unpack a bit. 

Another statement we used to incite our responses assumed that all African-Americans come from poverty and know the “Ghetto.” “Mr. Summers! We just read about poverty among Blacks in America. Does this fit your experience and can you tell us about it?”

Students, working in groups, came up with the following reactions.

Reflect

Group 1That sounds a little bit racist.  Sounds like you are stereotyping.

Group 2 That use of “ghetto” sounds like an offensive term. That word has a stigma.

Paraphrase

Group 1What I hear you saying is that you may not be up to date. What I hear you saying is that you do not have reliable sources of information. 

Group 2What I’m hearing is that, just because of my race, you assume that I fit those stereotypes because of what you’ve seen and heard in the media. It sounds like you think I know about poverty because I am black. 

Open-Ended Question

Group 1What sources of information are you using? What do you already know about poverty among Blacks in America? Where did you get your information?

Group 2 –  What information leads you to think that way? What makes you think I have experience with the ghetto? 

Because it is fall of 2020, we are virtual and made use of Google Meet breakout rooms for groups. During the discussion, groups took the sentence starters given and made the sentences their own. The conversations as they worked from their initial reactions were rough.

At first, they wanted to call out the person, “You are racist!” “Stereotyping!” But pushing students to see themselves in a position of leadership helped them to see the importance of not shutting down the conversation. 

I kept asking, “What would happen if you said that?” A fight. An argument. Walking out. Relationship over. No chance to explain. No chance to help change the world. And they do want to change the world. They want to change their world and the bigger world, too. 

We plan to implement these skills in a Panel Discussion project as students discuss controversial issues like taking down monuments, gender discrimination, and how to tackle poverty. The last step is to have students create bookmarks or wallet cards that they can refer to as they make these tools part of their own instinctual communication language. Because these skills have to be practiced. We all need to refresh these skills to make sure that they are in the front of our minds. 

Before the class was even over, a senior student sent me this email thanking me for this lesson: “I am a minority so I experience microaggressions, and usually I am at a loss for words. But now I know how to respond to them!”

Hopefully, this lesson plants a seed. Hopefully, these students can remember these tools and make them part of their everyday lives to help fight for what they believe, but in a more civil and engaging way that will build stronger relationships instead of putting up walls.