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.

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.

“Who’s on First?” Meets 2020

A personal narrative about surviving the world of eLearning from a teacher-parent perspective. My guest blogger, Jeremy Bloyd, is the Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana. His elementary school counterpart, Joni Bratcher, teaches 5th grade at Battle Ground Elementary School. Read what Jeremy and Joni experienced when he volunteered to be the parent reader–and what he took away from the experience that applies to all of us teaching virtual classes.

Our school corporation, comprised of 19 buildings, covers a large and diverse area of the county I live in, and there is undoubtedly demographic uniqueness to each building that creates its own sense of community.  Having taught in 5 of these different buildings over the course of my 21 years of teaching, it has been interesting to experience the individuality of these communities and the relationships with colleagues and families that have been created.  Currently, a colleague, as well as a friend, is my son’s 5th-grade teacher this year and she and her grade-level colleagues meet with the students through various Google Meets to cover all subject matter and their curricula over the course of the week.  I had the opportunity to volunteer for one of those sessions today.

Soon after I finished this morning’s Google Meet for 5th grade literature, my son’s teacher texted:

“Omg!! Welcome back to the elementary world.” 

As anyone knows, the best-laid plans can just as easily go awry as those that are completed “off the cuff,” and that is certainly what happened today.  The link to this morning’s Meet was not working for me.  After a few emails, some texting, and a live conference call with my son – who had me on speaker so the teacher could hear me through her Google Meet – success was achieved!  We were now 5 minutes off the schedule, but as any elementary teacher knows, the show must and will go on.  

My volunteer task today was to read aloud as the narrator in the novel selected for literature.  This meant the students were not only working on reading and comprehending the text and storyline but also scanning ahead enough to know which character was speaking, and when.  Students had been pre-selected to read the dialogue of specific characters, and less than a page into it, our character, David, was MIA!  Step back into that scene with me:

The teacher asks, “Where is Xavier?”  This is the student who was assigned as David.  She laughs with some exasperation and nervousness – because what else do you do?  We soon realize that Xavier has gone offline for one reason or another, but is soon back again… without a book!  “What page are we on?” he asks.  I giggle to myself.  Soon the dog walks by and Xavier is now petting the dog because you know, why not?  Once again, the teacher reminds the student to get his book and that we are reading chapter 10.  In an effort to move on, she tries to assign another student to read as the character David and several hands (in the tiny “Hollywood Square” screens on my monitor) are raised.  A student is selected and told to begin, and we wait.  Several seconds pass and the teacher shares for the student to continue where I left off.  But that was the issue.  Where did “he” leave off?  Another set-back is taken in stride by this veteran teacher.

We soon begin to delve deeper into the chapter and I am surprised at how well the students know when it is “their” speaking part.  Just then, a hiccup.  A new speaking part, and a different student who is also having some issues with her dog as she lies on the floor trying to … wait, what are we doing?  Oh yes, trying to read!  Is that why we are here today?  At the request of this young girl, the role has now been reassigned by the teacher to another student, but at this point, I’m trying to not bust out laughing.  We continue.

Having not read anything other than chapter 10, I’m still attempting to make sense of what is occurring, but the students are transitioning smoothly.  Even amid a parent working from home in the background, likely on a conference call, we work through the text and to the completion of the chapter.  The students will take a break from the virtual session and complete some literacy activities and then reconvene a little later this morning.  It’s clear the teachers in the group may need more of a break than the students!  I am thanked by the class and we end the Meet.

Moments later I get that text from the teacher I mentioned earlier.  The rest of her message said, “Aren’t you happy you are at the high school level (insert laughing emoji)?”  I chuckled and quickly responded with, “Seniors aren’t much better!  I sat for a good 1.5 minutes in silence this morning waiting for a student to answer my question.  I was like… ‘I’m here all day folks!’, until I received an answer.”  Her response was another laughing emoji.  

And now it occurs to me.  I’m not sure today’s lesson was really about literature.  As educators, our world has been turned upside down.  In our struggle to turn our curriculum into meaningful content that is disseminated virtually to our students via Google Classroom, Canvas, or some other learning management platform, the reality is that all of these same distractions occurred during face-to-face instruction.  But we, the teachers, had more physical control of the situation–like shutting the door to silence some of the chaos or “slyly” moving about the classroom to help those who need to refocus their attention.  While we could more easily see those students who may be struggling to understand based on visual cues, we now wait for tangible evidence that our students did grasp the concept of today’s lesson, albeit virtual cues rather than physical ones. 

Face it, teachers, the distractions that occur virtually are just like the distractions that occur in a school building.  There’s no doubt we have a student who doesn’t have their literature book out when we are seconds away from being ready to read.  And just because “Jessica” isn’t playing with her dog physically, doesn’t mean she isn’t rolling around on the floor with her pup in her memories.  Just because our glare doesn’t regain the attention of a wandering mind in the virtual setting doesn’t mean our lessons and time are not worthwhile.  They’re just different.  We will persevere just like my son’s teacher did today.  Just like we (the teachers) did last week during face-to-face instruction.  And, just like we will do next week in a virtual classroom the day before a holiday weekend!

As I take my teacher hat off and put on my parent hat, I can tell you that my son hates remote eLearning.  Is it because his homebound teachers are not able to be as nurturing and sympathetic?  The irony!  I know a lot of it has to do with the social interactions he misses too – and rightly so.  Regardless of which hat I wear – the parent, the former elementary teacher, or the current high school teacher of seniors in a work-based learning program – I was reminded today that the show always goes on.  It’s what we are called to do.  It was a reminder to laugh it off or to grin and bear it.  Teachers have grit, we persevere, and I believe that students interacting with us virtually versus in-person likely affects our students far less than we think it does.  Why?  Human nature.  We resist change, especially in education, and likely because there are so many things that constantly change and are completely out of our control (Yes, that’s for you, legislators).

For me, I’m actually seeing a more personal side to some of my students.  With seniors, you don’t get much more than what you ask for and seldom do we ask our high school students what is going on in their personal lives.  It’s not because we don’t care; rather, we lack time.  In addition to preparing lessons, posting objectives, setting up for classes or labs, we are now disinfecting seats between classes, monitoring the halls, attempting to find time to run copies, or trying to spare just a moment to use the restroom.  Currently, in my virtual classrooms, I can witness more, even if only for a moment as students switch from live video feed to their profile picture.  

Again, today was much more than a literacy lesson for me.  The take-away for me is that today, right here and now, might be the perfect opportunity to examine what I can do as a teacher, a father, a husband, a family member, and a friend.  Teaching amidst a pandemic has brought some of us closer together merely by happenstance.  But what if we look at it as an opportunity?  What if we view it as a challenge?  What if we apply it to the concept of “the ripple effect”?  In a world divided by politics, hate, misunderstanding, beliefs, culture, creed, just take the less and be ok, but make more of it.  

I’d like to think my ramblings and that “one more example” I share before the bell rings will actually cause a life-changing epiphany.  It shouldn’t have taken two degrees to figure out it does not!  So instead, perhaps we could engage more, which in return will allow for greater interaction of our audience.  Teachers, we are the stone cast into the waters.  How will the ripples we create affect those around us, and more specifically, our students?

Gatlin helps his dad and reads along with his class.

Proud to be a Teacher

A few teachers have told me stories this week about parents who’ve voiced some criticism about the way learning has gone during this time of COVID-19.  It’s part of what tells me we are nearing the end—even if I didn’t already feel it on my own. The end-of-the school year always brings stress and strain from worried parents and disgruntled kids. A single case of dissatisfaction is amplified this year because our circumstances have been so unexpectedly different than ever before and all of us have worked so hard.

The reality is, the general public has suddenly begun to appreciate teachers in a way they never have before. Posts on Facebook, letters to individual teachers, thank you’s from kids. They’re the rule and they tell me the public is seeing—in a way they didn’t before—just how important teachers are, how difficult the job is, and how much dedication we bring to our work. They’ve seen the stuff we’re made of because they’ve brought us right into their homes in this very trying time.

So instead of focusing on how tired we are or on the once-in-a-while criticisms from the public or on the stresses we’ve experienced in this eLearning experiment, let’s stop for a minute and think about the positive side of what we have accomplished.

Let’s celebrate this:

1. In a way, most of us have been 1st-year teachers again. Oh, some of us were already flipping our classrooms and some of us were more tech-savvy than others going into this period of confinement, but most of us were panicked, distraught, distressed, or at least uneasy in the beginning. We had had so little experience with remote learning. Some of us had never participated in a Google Meet (or a Zoom meeting or a Webex or whatever), and now we schedule such gatherings with aplomb. Some of us had never used Flipgrid, Padlet, or Screencastify before—but we quickly learned. Wherever our comfort level with technology was then, look where it is now!

That means that our repertoire of instructional tools has expanded incredibly and when we get back to the face-to-face classroom we all yearn for, our new skills won’t leave us. Instead, our options will have expanded exponentially.

2. We’ve learned a lot about our students from informal conversations on screen. Some teachers even say they feel more connected now than they ever did. Because we care about our students’ well-being, we’ve begun our online lessons with wellness check-ins, casual conversation, direct inquiries, and kids have responded by really talking to us about what’s on their minds, how they’re doing, and by sharing their hobbies, their pets, even their siblings. (We’ve all got funny stories about little brothers and sisters popping up on the screen—as our own children sometimes do—about barking dogs, alarm clocks going off, water spilling, etc.) We’ve gotten to know our students in some cases better than when our conversations were confined (largely) to academics and school activities.  It’s hard not to become better acquainted when you’re a visitor in a student’s private space. Talking with kids online has been the modern-day equivalent of a home visit.

Instruction itself has become more individualized. Some teachers have found that kids who in class didn’t participate are now the ones they get the most interaction from. Some kids are getting more individualized attention now than they did in class because they’re the ones that show up to class meetings. And some kids respond more openly to teachers now because we ask how they are first. They think, rightly, “She cares about me.”

We do. We always have, but suddenly, they feel it.

3. We’ve been forced to focus on what’s really important in our content. When you don’t meet every day and don’t have the luxury of time to ramble or reiterate, you’re forced to reassess and find the simplest, easiest way to communicate what’s really important. Streamlining has become a habit now and it is one that will inform our instruction going forward.

4. And we’ve been forced to seek and find new resources to convey old ideas. At the beginning of this eLearning experience, we were deluged with resources. Every book publisher, non-profit organization, magazine, and museum in the country showered us with resources galore—and that may have added to some of the anxiety we initially felt. We didn’t have time to peruse the offerings, let alone view and evaluate the links. Though we were grateful for the help, there was underlying dread that the Best Resource Ever was right out there, and we didn’t have the time to look. But as time went along, we did. And some of us have discovered some wonderful sites and specific lessons that we’ll be utilizing from now on.

5. Teachers are problem solvers. And this spring, the problems have been huge—and here we are, problem-solvers par excellence. Story after story from teachers, parents, even the kids themselves inform this truth: When teachers are presented with a problem, they work hard to find a solution.

  • Special Ed teachers have made videos for the parents of their students, coaching them in how to help their children
  • Teachers of every subject and grade have reached out over and over again to connect with kids. When Canvas didn’t work, we tried individual emails—that was better. Then texts, phone calls, even delivering packets in person
  • When interactive learning proved to be awkward in a Google Meet, we’ve tried Flipgrid videos, Padlet posts, small group Meets and Canvas Discussions to complement whole class instruction
  • We’ve held Office Hours, but worked with students individually at all hours and on all days
  • We’ve created all-school videos to boost spirits and offer support
  • We’ve found ways to celebrate graduating seniors: yard signs, caravans, Twitter profiles, Facebook postings, special cards and letters, Instagram tributes
  • For incoming freshmen, 5th graders going on to middle school, whole schoolrooms of kids: caravans, videos from future teachers, letters from school counselors
  • Tech directors and Connected Learning Teams have fielded questions day and night and produced tutorial after tutorial to expand our digital toolkits

Creative problem-solving, flexible and innovative ideas for teaching and learning. You’ve adapted and come out on top.

You’ve been available. The kids have needed you and you were there.

You’ve modeled resiliency and offered optimism. Your positive mindset has done more than can be measured to keep students from checking out, slipping away. You’ve kept them engaged and on track.

When I was in the classroom, I always felt like Boxer, the workhorse in Animal Farm, at the end of the year: exhausted, but plodding on, one foot in front of the other, thinking “if I just worked a little harder…”

I know you always feel that way, too. I know because in the past we’ve commiserated in the hallways about papers to grade, exams to create and score, loose ends to tie up, recognitions to be given, rooms to dismantle, goodbyes to be said and the sheer number of extra hours all that means.

This year, it’s all that and more.

Thank you, Teachers. Thank you for being there, for not giving up, for sharing and caring and being what you have always been.

I have never been prouder to be one of you.

 

#Teacher Appreciation Week

#Red4Ed

The Students: What Keeps Them Going?

This post is written by my colleague Laura Whitcombe. Laura has been a member of the English Department at McCutcheon High School since 1994. Her specialty is speech, and in addition to sponsoring the award-winning Speech Team, she teaches the required sophomore speech class, the Ivy Tech Dual Credit course for juniors and seniors, and the Vincennes Early College Advanced Speech for sophomores. Her students’ answers to a question she asked them this week should give us hope, reassurance, and confidence that they’re going to come out all right at the other end of this remote learning experience. 

What is going on inside their heads? The minds of teenagers remain a mystery, but even more so when we cannot be with them in person daily. 

I read the posts written by education journalists and those who want to hand out advice. Just give feedback. Drop grades completely. The kids are traumatized. They are not the same kids as before we sheltered in place. But I don’t know… We aren’t in the Upside Down world of Stranger Things. We are just at home on our laptops.

On Mondays, my speech classes have virtual class meetings. None of us has ever done this before, so it is an evolution. At first, there were faces. Now there are avatars. I have asked a few what they are. But some I just leave alone. There are die-hard kids who always attend. There are hit-and-miss kids who sometimes show up. And there are kids whom I said goodbye to in my classroom and who never showed up online.

Most of my students are with me. More than half. Is that good? My academic classes have about 90% participation in meetings and assignments. My regular mixed-ability classes have between 60 and 70% participation. Some come for the meetings but don’t do the work. Some do the work but randomly attend the virtual sessions. I think that means that they feel good about the resources I shared. My videos, slideshows, document templates, examples, and calendars are providing students with what they need to do the projects. 

But I don’t know for sure. 

I have been wondering what inspired my students to keep working, so Monday I started the class by asking a question. 

“What is keeping you going?  What is motivating you to keep going to school?” 

It was nice to call on each student individually by name. It was just like an attendance question in the classroom. It was nice to give attention to each student. In my classroom this is my habit and consistency is comforting.

I was surprised by the normality of their answers. Grades. Grades still matter. From academic seniors to special education sophomores, most agreed.

  • They still want to try to do what they can do.
  • They want to do their best.
  • They are still thinking of the future. 
  • Some mentioned college.
  • They see a need to learn and have these skills for college.
  • They still need to earn their scholarships.
  • They have goals and are worried about the same consequences as before the shelter-in-place.
  • They said that they have self-discipline, and this is what they do: they get organized, build a schedule, and get things done.
  • Some said that they finally developed or had to develop this discipline. 
  • They were proud that they have been able to make this remote learning work even if they did not like it.

I admire these students who stay motivated. I admire that they are still with us. Thinking back on my own teenage years, I feel like I would have flaked out and dropped out. My mom was a nurse and I would have been unsupervised and left to my own devices. Maybe. Maybe if my peers were like the students in my classes and kept focused, then I would not have wanted to be left out or left behind.

Other students added these comments:

  • “What else am I going to do?”
  • “This is easy on my own schedule.”
  • “I am more relaxed because I can go at my own pace.”
  • “There is lots of time for me to do my hobbies.” They listed painting, embroidery, hoops in the barn, raising animals, working out, and of course, video games and sleep.
  • They showed me new turkeys, chickens, cats, dogs, and a couple of little brothers. They said that having the comforts of home was comfortable and comforting. 
  • Those with parents also working from home described an easy routine where everyone in the house goes to their own spots in the house to work online, then come together in the evening. 

I am impressed by their natural ability to adapt. They have been in school for 10-11-12 years. They know what to do. Teachers have led them through their coursework before and are leading them from afar now. They are not suddenly alien-beings because they are not in seats in our rooms. We, students and teachers, have the same values we did before. We value sticking with challenges and overcoming obstacles. We always have and students are with us.

Of course, I worry about the students who disappeared, but right now I am here for those who want to learn. I will be there for the others when they come back when we are together again, however that happens.

I am so happy for my students. They seem fine. Fine. That is good. And being good might be good enough. For now.

Laura is a graduate of IU-Bloomington and received her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University.  She and I led an educational exchange program between McCutcheon students and students in Pskov, Russia, in 2004. 

#Red4Ed