Each One Unique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A traditional hat from Uzbekistan
A traditional hat from Uzbekistan

I wondered if I was making a mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a generalization we could live with.

Hunger Fighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel and two other students discussing their presentations.

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

Taming the Beast: ELLS and the Five-Paragraph Theme

P1040079The question came from an English teacher at the conclusion of an after-school workshop I’d conducted at one of the high schools I serve: Why do my ELL students have trouble writing essays in English (besides having a limited vocabulary)?

One of our students from Mexico, who had just spoken to my colleagues about the ways in which teachers can help English Language Learners navigate the culture of an American high school, unlock the English language, and facilitate learning the content of their classes, attempted to describe the difference between writing an essay in school in Mexico and writing an essay in English class here in America. “Well,” she said, “we have more like summary.” Considering her current limitations in English, she did pretty well, but had she known the term “five-paragraph theme,” she might have been more precise.

The question rang a bell with me, though, and I remembered a session I’d attended in 2004 at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in San Francisco where the message from the speaker was this: The written discourse pattern in Mexican Spanish is different from English. We need to explicitly teach our ELLs the organizational pattern of written English.

A few days after my workshop was over, I went on an internet search to find the scholarly work behind that 2004 statement, and aided by our high school librarian, whose help was indispensable, uncovered the research that informed it. I’d tucked the information away 11 years ago because, unlike the states on the edges of our country, my district in rural Indiana had a tiny ELL population in 2004 and no program at all for these students. I myself had no ELL students at that time. I had attended the ELL  sessions at NCTE because I wanted to help my district establish such a program.

What I learned from reading the research was this: Patterns of language and the expectations for written discourse differ from country to country. That seems obvious, of course, and broadly speaking, we know it intuitively because of any cross-cultural experiences we may have had and academically because of the linguistics classes we took in college.

However, what I wanted to know were the practicalities: the precise differences between written discourse in English and written discourse as learned in school in Mexico—or, even deeper, in the pattern of social discourse generally in Mexico. The author of the article is explicit about those differences but cautions that the study is limited to Mexican Spanish and studies in secondary schools in Mexico. Puerto Rican Spanish, for example, shares some characteristics with Mexican Spanish language patterns but is not entirely the same. Furthermore, the characteristics of written Spanish demonstrated by Hispanic students born, raised, and schooled here in the States are not the same. The research article addresses the discourse patterns of secondary students in Mexico. But that’s entirely relevant to my colleagues: In my district, few of our ELL students are from anywhere else but Mexico, and many of them come to us as high-schoolers or middle schoolers. Thus, the findings reported by the researcher are pertinent to my district and my colleagues.

 So here’s what I learned. (If I spoke Spanish myself, perhaps I’d have known all this, but I don’t, so the specifics were revelatory.) In written Mexican Spanish, the vocabulary tends to be “fancy” and “flowery”; the tone, “formal.” Sentences are generally longer than English sentences, often characterized by what English teachers would mark as run-ons—that is, two sentences joined by a comma (i.e., comma splices). The long sentences these students produce in English may seem like a jumble of compound-complex constructions, the word order may seem unusual to an English teacher, and the ideas, repetitious. That’s because an acceptable sentence pattern in written Mexican Spanish is to state an idea, follow it with a comma, and then repeat the idea using synonyms. There may be frequent or lengthy deliberate digressions, following which, the writer brings the reader back to the main topic. English teachers would mark such a digression as “off-topic.” It doesn’t adhere to the organizational pattern we teach in most American schools—introduction, three supports, and a conclusion (in short, the five-paragraph theme), pictured here in my favorite, definitely irreverent, graphic by Boynton. I call it “The Beast.”

Boynton's Beast
Boynton’s Beast

Such an essay would be unusual in written Spanish in Mexico because the writer’s mission is more likely explanation than an evidence-based essay in which the writer enumerates his points. In essays in secondary schools in Mexico, according to the research, students rarely use enumeration (e.g., 1, 2, 3; first, second, third; at first, then, finally) as an organizational strategy. In short, what constitutes a logical essay is different in Mexican Spanish than it is in English.

On top of all that, English speakers tend to be blunt and to the point. We are linear in our presentation of information.  Spanish-speakers, not so much. In fact, following a straight-line way of organizing information can be interpreted by Spanish speakers as rude. So, a Spanish-speaking student writing in English could be struggling not to offend—especially difficult if you have a limited vocabulary and little understanding that the five-paragraph theme approach is the preferable style in English. Furthermore, the researcher pointed out, direct and unelaborated prose in Spanish can be dull; such a writer can even sound childish. Having internalized that, Spanish-speaking students from Mexico could be struggling not to be boring or sound juvenile. They might not realize that their English teachers would applaud brevity and welcome direct statements.

For English teachers, the message is straightforward: It is extremely important to explicitly teach the structure of English composition to our ELL students: i.e, the five-paragraph theme format–or, if they are younger, the five-sentence paragraph. Scaffolds for this format abound, and providing a simple worksheet for organizing information might be more powerful than one might think in terms of supporting ELL students.

Of course, English teachers have been offering graphic organizers and outlines for this kind of writing for as long as I’ve been in the classroom and probably for years before that. It’s nothing new. What we may not know, especially if we don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Mexico, or haven’t thought about it, is how important it is to be explicit. To compare and contrast the written discourse conventions of English and Mexican Spanish for our ELLs, to be clear about our expectations, and to analyze their written work, looking (if they are from Mexico) for these particular differences and pointing them out. Not because the five paragraph theme is better or that it is always the best way to express ideas, but because the ability of ELLs to communicate in the format that is widely taught and widely expected in this country is paramount for their success.

Our ELLs may not be from Mexico. We may not know the precise variations from English that their language conventions dictate. Nevertheless, just as we know that there are cultural differences from country to country, we need to recognize that differences exist in discourse patterns, too. We need to remember that it takes a long time to unlearn a pattern you’ve been taught from an early age. If a student doesn’t “get it,” even after several tries, the problem is not a deficiency. The problem is unlearning what’s been second nature. Writing reveals patterns of thought; those don’t change overnight.

So, no matter how you feel about the five-paragraph theme (and English teachers either love it or hate it–in both cases, for good reasons), it’s a scaffold for writing that will help non-native English speakers understand the way written discourse is structured in English. Like all scaffolds, it can gradually be removed, but for beginners and for ELLs with low English proficiency, it can be the support that enables success.

Help your students tame the “Beast.” Here are some links to useful graphics and outlines that you can use to scaffold the five-paragraph theme:

https://goo.gl/mNiYK3  (Many graphics)

https://goo.gl/2MQN47 (Many worksheets and outlines)

Read the original research:

Montano-Harmon, M. 1991. Discourse Features of Written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in Contrastive Rhetoric and Its Implications. Fullerton, CA: California State University.


Without Words

P1040079The first student I remember coming into my class with no knowledge of English arrived in the early 1980s. I’ll call her Laila. She had recently arrived in this country, the first of her siblings to follow their father to America. He had fled Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, coming to this country as a refugee. He was able to get protected status, a green card, and then later sign for visas for all the rest of his family. They came one-by-one or in twos, secretly, across the Khyber Pass to Pakistan and then to India where they waited until they could get passage to America.

Laila was the first of the siblings to attend school in the USA, and when I reunited with her many years later, she described for me the embarrassments, trials, and anguish of attending middle school not speaking the language. Boys snickered when she said she wanted to be a doctor, others asked her how to say dirty words in Farsi. Math class was a refuge because she could do it, and so, she said, was my room. I didn’t—and still don’t—even remember doing most of what she told me I had done. It must all have come as common sense to me, gathering material for her and making special word books. But many of the things she said I had done had made her feel included.

As I said, it must have been common sense, for I certainly knew nothing at the time about how to help English Language Learner (ELL) students. She remembered that in the spring of that 8th grade year she had to make a speech in my class. I suggested the topic “My First Month in America,” and she did speak–and the other students were enthralled–and I gave her an A and that made her day/week/month. Such a little thing. It reminds me what an impact–for good or for bad—the little things we do can have.

Lately I have been thinking about the ELL students of today; in my district, they’re mostly Spanish-speaking kids.

Other teachers think about them, too. In fact, teachers at both of the high schools where I serve as an instructional coach have approached me this year, asking what they can do to help the ELL students in their classes—especially, but not only, the ones who have little or no English at their command.

Of course they know that learning a language takes time. They know that gaining academic proficiency can take years. Of course they know there’s no magic bullet. But because they are teachers, they want to help and are frustrated when they can’t. Teachers care about their students—all of them. Still, it’s hard to imagine how you can help when you’ve got five or six classes and anywhere between 120 and 160 students and you have to prep three separate lessons every day and parents are emailing and extra-curricular responsibilities are looming and papers are piling up faster than snow melts in summer.

Yes, the students have an ELL teacher—and she works wonders. But you can only process so much a day. I remember that when I—a non-Spanish speaker—visited Peru a few years ago, I spent most of my time on the bus that carried us from place to place looking at signs and billboards, trying to memorize words.  I was learning about the culture at the same time I was learning the language, and that’s sometimes even harder—and certainly more fraught with danger—than building a word bank. By the end of the trip, 10 days later, I was thrilled when I could negotiate the purchase of a toothbrush. And that only took a few words: toothbrush and how much. What followed was some fumbling with money and help, please.

I decided to shadow some beginning ELL students for a few days and, to attempt to simulate their experience, attend their Heritage Spanish class. By the way, it’s an error to think that because these kids speak Spanish easily, they also read and write it comfortably. That’s why they take Spanish in school and get world language credit for doing so. They may have grown up speaking Spanish, but their parents may not read and write Spanish themselves and they may have passed on speaking errors, just as English-speaking parents sometimes do. (Think of kids who say “I seen it.”)

One day in December, I was able to interview several of these students. I asked the questions, a Cuban-American substitute teacher (who just happened to be in the building that day) interpreted for all of us, and my colleague (the ELL teacher) took notes so I didn’t have to.

Here’s what I learned from our Spanish-speaking ELL students, and here are the suggestions I will be passing on to content-area teachers about what they can do to help ELL students learn English and learn their content.  (And by the way, these ideas will help everyone in the room. There’s nothing strictly ELL about them.)

Greet the students at the door: Say their names, and if you know “Hello” in Spanish, say it. Pronounce their names right, though. In fact, that might be your first conversation. I remember practicing once with a girl from China. She tried to excuse me—say it didn’t matter that I kept stumbling—but I knew it did. Eventually, my tongue ceased twisting around the syllables and saying her name became as easy as saying Jack’s and Emily’s. I realized from being in classrooms all day long that a student could go through a whole school day without anyone using his name or talking to him directly. Imagine how that would feel.

To a person, every ELL student I spoke with said that the teachers who “cared” about them were the teachers they would work the hardest for. Teachers who “cared” were the ones who took the time to treat them as individuals by doing things as simple as greeting them at the door or once in a while using a Spanish word. Really.

Seating arrangements: Put them in the front. Seating an ELL student at the back makes it harder for them to see and hear. Besides, consistently seating ELL students at the back communicates to everyone else that they’re not really part of the class. Yes, they may choose to sit there—but you can un-choose that spot for them.

Let them sit together if you have more than one ELL student—if they choose to. You can’t assume they’ll be friends any more than you can assume any two other students will get along. ELL students come from all over. They’ve got class and country biases, too. They told me so. But most of the time, they’re relieved to be together because they can help each other figure out what’s going on.

When you work in groups, spread the ELL students out among the groups as soon as you sense they’re comfortable with that. If you need to keep two together, you can do that with a group of four. You might consider “Study Buddies” for those times when you give over class time for homework. Pair the ELL student with a willing English speaker who can check that something is copied down right from the board, verify pronunciation, practice vocabulary.

Those objectives of the day: We are obliged to post these every day, so I suggest using them to advantage to teach vocabulary and focus the students’ thoughts.  Print the objective in big, black letters at the front of the room. Make it visible and legible from everywhere in the room. Write it in kid-friendly language. At the beginning of the class, point to the objective and say that this is the goal for the day. At the end of the hour, return to the objective and say it was the goal of the day. This will help ELL kids catch on to the purpose of the activities you do. And it will help every other student, too.

Why black? Because red and green and other colors don’t show up on the board as well. Why print? Because cursive is harder to read—and more kids than the ELL students don’t read cursive. Really.

Make it pop: Put key words on the board or create a word wall. This was a huge aha moment for me. When I attended the Spanish Heritage class, I listened to what the teacher was saying—but I didn’t have a clue. I don’t speak Spanish. When she wrote a key word on the board, I could see that often it was a lot like English—and I caught on. I still flunked the quiz at the end of the hour, but I got the main idea.

So, point out key words or put them on a word wall and then point to them, say them out loud, tap them, throw a ball at them—anything to reinforce them for the student.

Slow down:  Everything you say, everything they hear has to pass through the translator in their heads. It takes a very long time for anyone to get past this stage. The more complex the topic, the longer the sentence, the more time it takes.

  • Slow down for directions, assignments, explanations.
  • Break lectures into segments.
  • If you can, create a PowerPoint to play behind you.
  • Create fill-in-the-blank note-taking guides.
  • Write directions out as well as giving them orally.
  • Use graphic organizers, color coding, other visual aids.
  • Call on someone in the class to paraphrase what you just said: Your words will come out in simpler language and reinforce the message for everyone.

Use checks for understanding and use them frequently: Don’t wait till the end of the lesson to ask if everyone understood, if anyone has a question. Knowing precisely where in the lesson an ENL student stopped processing will help you tailor your instruction—and it will also give you clues about how much English the student has.  Here are some easy ones to implement:

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down
  • Exit passes
  • Stop light method
  • White boards (for individuals and/or for group answers)
  • Post-it notes on the desk

Use these checks for understanding with everyone in the class—it isn’t only the ENL students who get lost.

Let them speak Spanish: They’ll switch to English as soon as they can.

  • If you have two ELL students, let them talk the lesson over in Spanish if they like.
  • If you have one who is proficient and one who is not, ask the more fluent student to translate for both of you when you talk to the beginning ELL student one-on-one. That’s going to help all three of you.
  • Don’t worry that they’re talking about you. You can tell from their tone whether they’re on task, gossiping, or being disrespectful. If they’re not on task, shut them down.
  • Use Google Translator to put your assignments, directions, worksheets, etc. into Spanish. No, the translator isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that beginning students will get the idea. Plus, it’s another indication that you care. You might be aghast at how badly electronic translators can mangle a passage, but in the beginning, they can be a huge help. The kids told me so.

Demo, demo, demo: Make your delivery lively. Gestures, charades, pantomime, movement—all of this reinforces language. Vocal variety matters: Not being loud, but being expressive. Intonation carries meaning.

Use any Spanish you know: How about posters with words in Spanish and in English? If you speak the language, don’t be afraid to use it to help. The ELL students will begin using English as soon as they can because, like all kids, they want to fit in.

Communicate with their parents: Same as anyone. Try this website to create permission slips, thank you notes, invitations to parent conferences, pats-on-the-back notes home, etc. They print in Spanish and in English!  http://casanotes.4teachers.org

Call for help:  Spanish-speaking faculty, the ELL teacher, the ELL support staff, district level coordinators and instructional coaches will help. You just have to them know you need it.

 Above all:  Don’t give up on these kids—and encourage them not to give up on themselves. It takes time to learn a new language—but they will. Case in point:  When I found Laila again, years after she had left my classroom, she had a Ph.D. under her belt. She had become a doctor.

Give the kids time.

They’ll get there.

Time for Reflection

P1040504If you’re traveling abroad with students—whether touring, volunteering, or participating in an exchange, you don’t have to worry that your charges will take plenty of pictures. Given the omnipresence of cell phones, not to mention that a carefully chosen camera is pretty much de rigeur for a trip abroad, you can be sure the kids will catch those Kodak moments. What could get lost, though, are verbal images—the pictures people paint with words. Journal entries recall different details about a trip than photographs do. Words capture mood and tone and nuance–subtleties that cameras often miss.

Furthermore, journal entries lend themselves to reflective thinking. You’re going abroad for a reason: to learn a language, to fulfill a mission, to discover another country and culture, to make friends with people from afar. You, as the teacher leader, want to facilitate the reflection that comes at the end of a trip because reflection spells the difference between mere observation—noticing a difference between cultures, say—and internalization—altering one’s viewpoint because of that observation.

For example, when I traveled with students to Russia, almost the first thing they noticed was that the Russians didn’t stick to a timetable. My students would be up, dressed, and ready to embark on the day’s adventure at the appointed time. We’d (most of us) gather at the school—and invariably have to wait—sometimes a half-hour, sometimes, forty-five minutes—for everyone to arrive. No one apologized, and the bus driver didn’t blink an eye. The fact that Russians were frequently “late” might have remained an observation but that we teachers specifically asked the students to reflect on the importance of schedules in the US. Then they would discover, though dialogue with their counterparts, that the Russians thought the Americans were obsessed with time. We all wore watches, and our magazines are full of ads for watches. A timepiece—the Rolex—is even a status symbol. In school, we Americans live by bells. And bells at odd hours: 10:02, 11:18, 1:44, for example. When the bells don’t ring, schools are paralyzed. It was all pretty funny and certainly instructive: Through reflection, we learned that understanding a cultural difference like that could help us avoid being irritated with each other and, ultimately, avert conflict.

Making time for reflection is critical for achieving the goals of any trip abroad. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Take turns taking notes: Purchase a journal that is reserved just for the purpose of taking lecture notes. When you’re in a museum or art gallery or at a presentation, have the students alternate taking those notes. Only one person needs to focus on writing down the facts, the dates, the statistics. Everyone else can use their personal journals to record impressions or draw pictures or make diagrams—whatever will help them to remember. Later, you can Xerox the official notes for everyone else—or, if the notes are taken on an iPad—you can instantly email them to everyone else.

2. Keep a group journal: In this case, you purchase a journal that is the official Log of the Day. The students circulate the book, taking turns writing about the events of a particular day. While you might think this would result in dry reading—a straight chronology—it doesn’t. The students will comment on what they are seeing and doing, and their reactions to the experiences of the day will dominate the discussion. Their voices will be strong, clear, and uninhibited. They know their audience—each other. An internal dialogue will quickly develop. Nicknames, group jokes, asides, graphic symbols, and friendly joshing back and forth will capture the students’ personalities and recall the trip later from a completely different perspective. As a writing teacher, I came to cherish these group journals. I would only occasionally see the book as it changed hands, but at the end of the trip, they’d give it back to me. I’d make copies for everyone. Once again, technology has improved since my day, so today the same thing could be accomplished with an iPad.  In that case, the entire piece could be forwarded to everyone at the end of the trip.

3. Make it a point to conference every day for at least half an hour. By carving out a little time just for your group to talk together, you can take the group pulse and get a feel for how individuals are reacting to the cultural differences they are experiencing. My students lived with Russian families—their Russian “bothers” and “sisters” had lived with them in the fall in Indiana. Questions of etiquette frequently arose. How do I refuse more food? How does the shower apparatus work? Why isn’t there any hot water? Is it okay to change money on the street? Sometimes the questions were more serious than that. Medical issues. Homesickness. A death in the family. Once, a tornado had destroyed the home of one of my students. Problems like these involve everyone when you are a group abroad. Cut off from family, the group becomes your family. It’s also a good time to pose questions of your own: What has been your biggest challenge so far? What has surprised you? What have you changed your mind about? What has been the most fun? Has that surprised you? What lessons have you learned so far?

4. Give students a list of journal topics that will inspire reflection:

• Three things I should have brought…
• Three things I didn’t need to bring…
• Three things I didn’t expect…
• Three things I’ll never forget…
• Something I’d like to forget…

• Things I love about Russia (or any country)…

• Things I miss about the USA…
• Things that made me sad…
• Things that made me glad…

• A surprise
• A disappointment
• A moment of gratification
• A moment of annoyance
• A wish
• A hope
• A dream

• Advice I’d give to someone else traveling here…
• Advice for people traveling to America…

5. At the very end of the trip, set aside an evening just for reflection. You can do this in a hotel gathering place—a lobby or a floor lounge or even in someone’s room if it’s large enough. You can sit in a circle on the floor in the airport while you’re waiting for a flight. But don’t let the students disband without discussion and final assessments.

Here are some of my favorite final questions and some  answers from some of my Russia Travelers:

What do you admire about Russia?
• People who hadn’t met me brought me food.
• Their knowledge of their history. So many of our kids don’t care or know our history.
• The boatload of information coming out of nowhere whenever we walked anywhere.
• Nothing is wasted. We had leftovers for breakfast.
• Art and monuments everywhere. Even the bus stops on the way to St. Petersburg were mosaics!
• Walking arm in arm is okay.
• They don’t label people. They don’t make assumptions.
• Russians are more easy-going.
• Hard-working people working in their dacha gardens.
• The whole dacha thing is so mellow.
• They live so simply [at the dacha]. They get water from a well. They’re self-sufficient.
• I admire the desire to communicate. Her mother tried to talk to me in English.
• Sasha’s mother used a dictionary to communicate with me.
• Articulate, poetic answers.
• They appreciate their history. They are proud to be Russian.

What do Russians seem to value?
• Sit down dinners: They take pleasure in eating meals together. They take time to sit down even when something is on the schedule.
• Close-knit families.
• Friendships are really close—people go out of their way to help friends.
• Pride in their country, their city—it’s somehow different than American patriotism.
• You can be late here.
• Conversation at dinner.
• Pushkin—Even the bus driver could recite Pushkin by heart. We have nothing like it.

What do you realize Americans value?
• Convenience
• Independence
• Sanitation—you can drink water out of taps.
• Good roads
• Hot water
• Space
• Privacy
• Structure and schedules
• Laws and government: Taxes do help us—I understand that now.
• Direct answers.

What have you learned from your experience?
• Patience
• Independence
• Appreciation. I take things for granted at home.
• I’m okay. I can handle myself. Now I am not too scared to travel.
• People are people no matter where you are.
• A week [in the country] and all the girls were sitting together finishing each other’s sentences—people are the same everywhere.
• We were on the other side of the world, but we were at home.
• It meant the world when his father spoke to me in English.
• I learned I could do this. Growing up, I couldn’t spend the night at a friend’s…but I wasn’t homesick…here I am halfway around the world and I wasn’t homesick at all.
• I learned I can step out of my worrying self.
• I’m not the only person in the world.
• Everyone doesn’t speak English. We’re all the same, but the common barrier is communication…yet we found a way around it.
• Russians think America is so wonderful. I want to say, “Do you see where you live?”
• They haven’t sold out their culture. A fortress is next to a block of apartments. In America, “old” becomes a park you have to go to or it’s a space for advertising—it isn’t just a part of what’s there. Russians embrace their culture.

How will this experience affect you in the future?
• I’m not so scared to try something.
• I don’t have walls anymore…I knew this exchange would open doors…
• I have more confidence in myself now.
• I always hated cities before we came, but I learned I can’t be so close-minded. You just have to try it.
• This experience has made me stronger. I felt isolated sometimes, but I could get through it…if I could do this, I can do anything.
• I found my Russian family, but I feel like we were all a family.

What was the hardest part?
• Walking away.


The Sacred Valley: Peru, 2009

Summer is fast approaching. Teachers who are traveling abroad with students next month are checking their lists and making last minute tweaks to their travel plans at the same time they are winding down the school year. In 2009, I traveled to Peru with a colleague who was doing just that. She and her husband had recently inaugurated a short-term travel abroad program called HOST–for Hands-on Spanish Travel. The program was a cultural and linguistic immersion experience–we stayed with host families in Lima–and it was a service learning-based program, too–we worked in an orphanage that year. Today, HOST partners with high schools and colleges in the US, offering study abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas and in Spain. I savored every moment of that trip to Peru, but this day in the Sacred Valley was especially memorable.

sm vendorAt every turnout where the bus stopped on the journey to Pisac and at the top of the mountain we’d descend to reach the market at Pisac, as if to warm us up, to whet our appetites for buying, to prepare us for the panoply of choices available there, full-skirted women wearing brown felt hats and red wool jackets, long black braids down their backs and dancing black-eyed children with adoring, pleading, coaxing voices sold us water and water bottle holders, beaded strings for our sunglasses, chullos and whistles and musical instruments. No end to the items they offered, no end to our need for novelty, no end to our need not to disappoint…

sm Pisac TrailCemetery holes in lacy, eroded hillsides, precursors of those we had seen in the hillside in Lima… delicate yellow wildflowers holding their own in dry, vast space…terraces and granaries where Incan farmers long ago worked out the exact altitude at which to grow each of the varieties of corn and potatoes…Incan walls, stones set to withstand earthquakes and the destruction of men…steep stone steps cut into the earth, staircases of them, one after the other, meant to ease the descent—or the climb—but not for us: legs the wrong length, bodies unused to the effort, the altitude, the sun. But exhilarating nonetheless, the walk to Pisac. Accomplishment. Activity. Away from crowds and buying and selling and tasting. Shared venture.

sm 10 child with orangeA rest, a respite: a pig roast, freshly baked bread, a mother teaching her child to take stitches, another black-eyed child sucking on an orange turned inside out. A stroll through the market and frenzied buying. This time the bigger items: blankets and shawls, t-shirts, carved animals, leather pouches and silver bangles. For me: bits of cloth glued on white cardboard, woven designs in black on rust, subtle patterns…

sm 10 girl in pinkOur guide, Nilo, prepares the students for their long walk up the steps to Ollantaytambo’s fortress. I photograph a winsome little girl in pigtails dressed in filthy pink pants and winter jacket. She speaks a little English, knows enough to ask for a sol in exchange for her picture. Who is exploiting whom here? We’re both complicit. But I want the picture and I don’t need the sol. Later, I spend the rest of my soles on straps for walking sticks. A strange request, it seems to the vendor…straps but no sticks. Coming home from Rwanda with sticks, I had to lay them on top of my suitcase and shrink wrap the whole thing…or else pay $300 in excess baggage fees. No thanks. Not again. Just the straps.

sm 10 walls as shopsAnd then a walk down a cobbled lane where even the walls had become shops, a peek into one family’s store where the grandson charmed us and we looked at the sweaters and shawls hung on the walls and laid in piles on a table. A shop bare but for that table, the mother and grandmother seated cross-legged on the floor, weaving. Two granddaughters, yet to learn the skill, the boy to learn what? To market it all? Another craft? A trade? Weaving was in the bloodline, “as old as the sun,” the grandmother told Lee Ann. She bought a loosely woven sweater; I took a photograph of them all.

Boys playing in sand, covering their toes and shaking their feet loose; lace curtains at a doorway, shoes on the threshold. A Mototaxi—more than one—coming up the street from the train station at the end. We’d see the station itself the next day on our way to Machu Picchu. A decoration on top of a house—a bird’s nest of symbolic animals and flags and twigs all laced together to bring happiness and good luck to the marriage. Men coming home from work, sacks slung over their backs, their wives or sweethearts beside them and sometimes their children scampering along, too, escorts back to the town. For us, a surprise in the other direction: an oasis in Ollantaytambo: Hotel Pakaritampu, an orange adobe inn—La Casa del Amanecer—luring us in…the gardens, artful and opulent mounds of bright flowers, paved sidewalks inviting us to follow to an airy, modern, uncluttered front desk…an agradable ambiente…we should keep it in our memories forever…a destination for a weekend, an escape for the mind…

sm 10 sunsetAnd then, the sunset, the final glory of the day. White-capped Chicon Mountain in the background, jagged brown peaks like teeth snapping the sky, the sun on the landscape, brilliant orange, the fields looking almost like sand. A woman and her dog, their backs to us, traverse the field, return for the night. Two men are crouched over cloths and bundles spread on the ground. We settle in for the long, dark bus ride back to Cusco. End of the sacred day.

What you have given me…

Thank you, Lee Ann










Looking to Learn

IMG_1120The students—sophomores in high school—had just finished a unit on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had seen Hotel Rwanda, completed activities that taught them about the stages of genocide, and visited the recently released United Nations Rwanda commemorative site.

Now it was my turn.

Since I have been to Rwanda several times, their teacher asked me to visit the class as a guest speaker and bring a new perspective: Rwanda after the genocide. The students wanted to know, and she wanted them to learn, how a country recovers from such devastation.

She had another motive, too: A veteran educator, she knew well that student teachers benefit from seeing more than one teacher in action and from developing a repertoire of instructional strategies before they’re released to fly on their own. Her student teacher would be present, would observe the lesson, and would present it herself at the end of the day when I could no longer be there.

I jumped at the opportunity to talk about Rwanda, but I didn’t just want to talk about my experiences. I wanted to try out a strategy that the student teacher—any teacher—could use, not just that afternoon, but for another topic in another time and place.

I had gone to Rwanda in 2006 to study the genocide there, to see if I could discern a pattern in the genocides of the 20th century. Indeed, I did discover a pattern, and that informed my own instruction in the years after that (See my post Night in Rwanda). I have returned twice since then to support a non-profit organization, Every Child is My Child, in its mission to provide secondary school scholarships for students who pass the national exam at the end of 6th grade. (See Educating Every Child). The route to recovery is through education. Although Rwanda now sends 96% of its children to primary school, education that ends at 6th grade does little to lift a country from a culture of subsistence farming to a competitive position in the global community.

So my objective for the lesson was to point the students in that direction: to understanding that education brings opportunity—for the individual student and for their country.

The students were clustered around square tables, four to a group, perfect for the activity I’d devised. For each table I’d put together a folder that contained a fact sheet about Rwanda (facts and statistics culled from the Internet), a map of Africa, a map of Rwanda, and two sets of photographs. Set A contained 10 pictures I’d taken as a tourist, and Set B included 6 photos I’d taken in Rwandan classrooms. I’d carefully chosen them for their power to evoke questions, then copied each one ten times on my printer and laminated the lot so they could be used again. Indeed, three sections of sophomores would be handling those pictures. I wanted them to be intact by the end of the day and useable again another year.

My colleague introduced me, gave the kids a little background on my current role and my visits to Rwanda, then turned the lesson over to me.

Before class, I’d written these seemingly random words on the board: gorillas, subsistence farming, genocide, coffee, telecommunications, and $350. I asked if anyone in the class could explain the connections between and among the words. I knew the students could talk about the genocide, but I wasn’t surprised that no one ventured a guess about the other words and how they might be related to that ominous one.

“So,” I started, “let’s begin by locating Rwanda on the map. The smallest country in Africa (with the densest population) and a poor one, Rwanda is hard to see. “Find Lake Victoria and then slide your finger to the left just a little way.” Found!

The students noticed not only the diminutive size of the country, but that it was landlocked—surrounded, except for its sister country, Burundi—by much larger countries. Then we looked at the companion map, the one of Rwanda itself. Inverted V’s indicated mountains, and someone spotted the volcanic region in the northwest corner. “What’s that all about? Isn’t Africa all desert and savanna?”

I asked them to skim the information on the fact sheet, but as I knew, an array of statistics is not particularly engaging. Stats only make sense when you have something to hook them to. That’s where photographic Set A came in. The students passed the 10 photographs around the table, looking, as I’d directed them to do, for anything that seemed unusual or interesting. After they’d examined the pictures and remarked to each other about what they saw, we began examining the pictures one by one.

IMG_0151The first was of those volcanoes and another was of a gorilla I’d seen. The pictures gave me an opportunity to talk about the movie Gorillas in the Mist and Dian Fossey–some had seen that film or knew of her work–and explain that the gorillas are Rwanda’s major tourist attraction, but that access to them is limited. Only a few people a day can see the gorillas so they don’t become habituated to humans. The country is not going to grow rich through tourism alone.

Another photo was of the countryside–hill after hill, all of the land, every square inch, cultivated: subsistence farming. We talked about what that means, not just in terms of a country’s GDP, but for a family, for the kids, for education. While 90% of Rwandans are involved in agriculture, the country still must import food. In our county here in Indiana, farming is big business, but in the pictures from Rwanda, there were no silos, no tractors, and no cultivators. People use hoes and machetes and pull every weed by hand. Then the students remembered the machetes in Hotel Rwanda and the Hotel Mille Collines–a thousand hills.

A picture of coffee plants and a woman harvesting beans: “Yes,” I was able to tell them. “Coffee is cultivated in Rwanda—and tea—and their coffee is delicious. Starbucks sometimes features it. But look at those great big countries around Rwanda: Kenya, Tanzania, and farther north, Ethiopia. Coffee grows there, too.”

“Oh. Rwanda can’t compete at that level.”

IMG_1123They were beginning to make connections. I continued to build a portrait of the country one photograph at a time by answering the students’ questions about what they saw. A market scene. A child on the road toting water. A parade of people on either side of a paved road, all of them walking in one direction or the other, all of them headed somewhere—on foot. A man hauling an enormous bunch of bananas to market on a bicycle–a bunch so big it threatened to tip the bike at any moment. It took all the man’s energy to guide his bicycle and keep it upright.

Then a picture taken in the city from the front seat of a car. It looked like I was trying to capture the billboard–an advertisement for tomato sauce–but “No,” I told the students. “Look at what’s behind it: a cell phone tower.” Rwanda is a telecommunications leader in Africa.

“Smart leaders,” I said. “They looked around after the genocide and realized there’s no land left to expand into, and even encouraging commercial farming wouldn’t be enough to transform the country from a subsistence culture. Even if they could revolutionize farming methods, it wouldn’t be enough.” After the genocide, the leaders puzzled out the problem and realized “We can’t expand our territory, but we can develop our human capital and become leaders in telecommunications.”

And so recovery began.

Foreign aid made it possible. However, for a country to fully recover, it is going to take an educated populace. And that’s where Set B, the pictures taken inside Rwandan classrooms, and the $350 came in. The pictures revealed a stark environment: no textbooks, no bulletin boards, and no alphabet pictures arrayed on the walls. The students shared desks, numbered at least 40 in that room, and had written everything that was on the board in their copybooks. Those were their 06.2011 Rwanda 086texts. What my students rapidly discerned, though, from a picture of the problems on the blackboard, was that the kids in this 6th grade classroom were not so far behind 6th graders here in our district. Those were multi-step arithmetic problems on the board.

So what was the $350?

The cost of a year of secondary school.

Rwandan families–and children in Burundi and so many other countries in Africa and around the world–can’t afford $350. “Look at the fact sheet. The average income for an individual is about $560. Even if two people brought in that much money apiece, it wouldn’t stretch far enough to send a child to school.”

Rwanda is ahead of other developing countries by mandating that children attend school through 9th grade, but village schools only accommodate students that far. After that, students must attend boarding schools and pay that $350 for tuition, books, mattresses, and transportation.

Until Rwanda is financially stable enough to provide a free public education through high school, only a small number of students can continue every year. Only a few of them are lucky enough to be supported by organizations like Every Child is My Child. Until village schools are built for secondary students, few families will be able to do without the very real help their children provide. Secondary education for everyone is coming, but it’s going to take time and the continued support of the international community.

The high school students understood: Education is the path to recovery. Developing countries need people with the know-how to work not just in telecommunications, but in health care and commercial agriculture, and as entrepreneurs, developers, specialists in tourism, road builders, retail store owners, teachers…

Rwandans are looking to learn.

As for the lesson I was modeling, it worked well and the student teacher was able to replicate it on her own at the end of the day. The strategy of guest “lecturing” through looking at photographs and answering questions generated by the students themselves would work for any country whether the teacher had been there or not. Images abound on the Internet. For visual learners, seeing is understanding, and for the kinesthetic learners, actually handling the photos made a big difference. Projected images would have been bigger, but something about examining a photo up close makes the content personal.

Judging from the exit cards the students filled out, the objective was more than met. They were thoughtful in their comments about what they had learned, and I discovered that the lesson had worked in ways I had not anticipated.

I hadn’t said it, not once, but one girl wrote: “I learned that we should be grateful for what we have.”

I was gratified she’d learned that on her own.


What is Russia?

The Sochi Olympics have me thinking about the summers when I took students to Russia on an exchange program. The kids–in their twenties now–are thinking about those days, too. I know because they’ve been reconnecting on Facebook and emailing me. We are all acquainted with the unfinished public buildings, the difficulties of getting around, the stray dogs, and the other objects of humor so glibly reported on in the press. We know very well the dark side of Russian history. But more deeply than any of that, we know that what we took away from our experiences ten years ago would last all our lives. See what that was:

“What is Russia? Provide a brief definition.”

It sounded like an exam question. Alina, one of the Russian students, asked it at the end of our three-week exchange with students at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum. No one took it for a quiz at all; nevertheless, the American students reflected before they replied.  What came to my mind as I waited for their responses was Churchill’s remark: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

But the students weren’t hampered by such long-ago images as they articulated their impressions. Anna and Hillary responded first and simultaneously.

“History,” they said.

Indeed, we had experienced the history of Russia throughout P1000702our visit. The Pskov town fortress dates back to the 11th century; that year, in fact, Pskov was celebrating its 1100th birthday. Pskov was its own principality until 1510 when it surrendered its ancient veche, or assembly, and came under the control of Moscow. We visited Pechory, a monastery on the Estonian border where Ivan the Terrible decapitated the Father Superior, Cornelius, whom he supposed to be a traitor, and watched his head roll down the cobblestone walk. The Empress Elizabeth abandoned her carriage on a visit to Pechory—it’s still on display along that same steep walk. And in the caves of Pechory, Orthodox monks hid from the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. We hiked at Izborsk, a nearby fortress that dates back to 1232. Here we waded in a stream whose waters, according to local legend, promise health or wealth or beauty, your choice to wish for.

“Is it only me, or is Russia beautiful?” Kate wrote in our group journal in praise of Izborsk.

We spent an afternoon at Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. We strolled—and stopped to stare incredulously at Peter’s four magnificent water cascades, each more elaborate than the next, and at the palaces of Marly, Monplaisir, Hermitage, and the Grand Palace itself. We watched children play on the trick stones that Peter designed for children. Little ones, sometimes holding their parents’ hands, ran back and forth in the fountains, pretending to avoid the spots that triggered hidden sprays, hoping to be doused, shrieking excitedly when they were. Some of the students posed in the fountains—under umbrellas. We dipped our hands in the Gulf of Finland and heard from our guide about Peter’s war on the Swedes that culminated in victory in 1709. We could see St. Petersburg, the city Peter built to be his new capital, in the distance across the water.

Later, we toured St. Petersburg itself and had a look at the Russia I, II, III Posters 014famous statue of Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman. The custom in Russia is for brides and grooms to lay flowers at the bases of historical monuments. While we were there, two couples laid flowers at Peter’s feet. We saw the incredible Church of the Stained Blood, built by Tsar AlexanderIII to honor his father, AlexanderII, who had been assassinated in that very place in 1881.  We walked around St.Isaac’s Cathedral, where the city’s treasures were hidden from the Nazis—we could see the attackers’ bullet holes in the monolithic columns. We were glad to learn the Nazis had never penetrated the building.

Of course we stopped at the WinterPalace, now the famous HermitageMuseum. The grandeur and size of the Hermitage amazed us. Our guide said that it would take eight hours a day for eight years to see everything. We had two hours. At the Hermitage, we split into pairs, each couple making a beeline for the period or style of art that they found most appealing. Some visited the Impressionists; others took in the Flemish painting. Two pairs went to the Egyptian exhibit. Nikita, one of the Russian students, translated the exhibit signs for us when our skills in deciphering Cyrillic failed. We saw clay vessels, fragments of cloth, an actual mummy, and a sarcophagus opened to display the case within the case.

“Look!” exclaimed Ashley. “It’s just like a matryoshka doll, only vertical!”

Nikita smiled.

“Russia is ornate,” said Allie. “Even the railings have detail.”

She was referring to the railings our tour guide had pointed out along one of the bridges in St. Petersburg, but the imperial architecture, the interiors of the monasteries, the carvings in walls along the city streets, the gates between buildings, even the doors to business establishments are ornate. When we saw the Armory collection in Moscow, we understood “ornate” even better. Robes, wedding dresses, vessels of all kinds, chargers for serving food, plates, chalices, crosses and Bible covers, even the Tsars’ carriages have been preserved through the centuries.

“Preservation,” Ashley added. “It’s not just one person or small group; everyone values the past and is keeping it alive.”

In Pushkin Hills, we saw the ongoing excavation of a church that had burned to the ground after the Soviets took power, and we observed the restoration of a monastery, now a convent for Orthodox nuns, at Elizarovo. In fact, the students had helped with both projects. Under the direction of a well-known archeologist, they’d removed the first layer of turf in a small area at the church site. At Elizarovo, they’d painted window frames, hoed in the monastery’s garden, and washed some of the double-hung cloirestory windows that were caked with whitewash and dust from rebuilding efforts. St.Basil’s in Moscow was partially covered with scaffolding, as were churches in Pskov. In St. Petersburg, spruced up in celebration of its 300th anniversary, we saw, through a window into a less public side of the Hermitage, a stash of renovation materials and a faded green wall that had yet to be repainted to match the façade.

“Russia is culture.” Melissa turned in her seat to explain her impression. “It’s the national dress and the folk songs and dances.”

On the first full day in Russia the students had been invited to School #26, a magnet school for the arts, to attend a performance by a folk music ensemble, a group of select high school students. The students played traditional instruments— wooden spoons, the balalaika, the tambourine—and invited our young men to join the Russian girls who were singing on stage in traditional costumes. Back at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, the music and dance teachers taught the Americans some Russian folk songs and dances. Later still, the Americans and their Russian friends learned more folklore at the regional museum where they attended a Russian tea party, the table dominated by an enormous samovar, and participated in songs and dances that were led by a member of a local folk music troupe who was dressed in a colorful sarafan.

“Children,” was my answer. I’d noticed, of course, that most adults in Russian towns wore dark colors—a defense against dust and the expense of dry cleaning—but in contrast, all of a sudden I’d see a child who looked like a bright yellow chick or a big blue gumdrop holding onto her mother or grandmother’s hand. And the hats! All the small children wore wonderful hats—blue velour with yellow stripes, pink or beige straw hats with decorative satin rose petals, denim hats with daisies embroidered on the brims—and I longed for a telephoto lens to snap their pictures unaware.

Then Clinton offered this definition: “It’s hospitality,” he said. “Anything I needed or wanted was provided for me.” When we first arrived in Pskov, spilling giddily off the train and into the arms of the Russian families whom we’d so eagerly looked forward to seeing, some of the parents apologized because their apartment buildings were currently without hot water. Our students took the announcement of cold showers in stride, but their Russian mothers heated water for them daily, and two of the parents, who worked at a local hotel, made arrangements for the “unfortunate” ones to shower there occasionally!

The mothers opened their cupboards and refrigerators to the American students, cooking special Russia dinners for them and searching out foods that would suit American palates. “Eat, eat,” they constantly urged, and while we could never satisfy their need to fill us full, we ate heartily and learned to love certain foods especially. Everyone loved blini, served with sour cream, jam, honey, or just plain butter.  Some students liked the borscht and most liked a Georgian specialty, cheburek, which the students ate regularly at a café on Oktvabrskii Street. Russian pizza and the incredibly beautiful pastries were “hits,” and everyone loved the chocolate, too. Almost everyone developed a fondness for tea and the rituals surrounding it, and it wasn’t unusual to find an American student ordering tea at lunch or in mid-afternoon. The most popular food item of all, however, was the incomparable Russian ice cream. Again and again we visited the booth by the bus stop where a “scoop ice cream” vendor presented an ever-changing selection of flavors.

The Russian families—the parents and the students—extended themselves in every way, in many cases giving up bedrooms so the American students could have a room of their own. The families helped us with telephone calls, with the Internet café, with changing money. They bought bus passes for us in advance of our visit and showed us how to ride like Russians (jump on quickly, show the pass later) lest we be left curbside, waiting in a non-existent line to board. They took us shopping in town and over and over again to “the market.”

Russia? “It’s my second home,” pronounced Karen, and she wasn’t thinking just of the hospitality that had been extended to all of us by our families or of occasions like a trip we’d taken to Sacha’s family’s dacha. As had happened for the Russian students in the United States, all of the Russian parents brought the American students “into the family,” and soon the adjective Russian disappeared when our students referred to them.

Karen meant, too, what we all had come to understand: that the relationships we’d formed and the friends we had made defined our Russian experience more significantly than anything material, anything historical, or anything cultural ever could. During our three weeks, there had been official welcomes from the school principal, from teachers who had prepared special lessons for us, from the Chairman of the city Duma and from the Vice-Mayor of Pskov. There had been formal interactions with the professors and students at the Pskov Pedagogical Institute. All of them were important, but none made as indelible an impression as did the commonplace, often spontaneous, social activities that transpired between the brothers and sisters, between the Americans and their host families.

Allie and Anna cooked a spaghetti dinner together for their host families, and Karen and Melissa made spiced chicken for theirs. Yulia and Karen, whose birthdays are at the end of May, had a birthday party and invited the others. Irina’s mother, who works at a hospital, took Jolene along one day—an impromptu “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” A large group, accompanied by the teachers and Sasha’s father, went to a disco one night. The students danced together and found no differences in style that they couldn’t absorb. Even the music, half in English and half in Russian, bridged the potential divide.

Our Farewell Party at Alina’s family dacha lasted from late afternoon until the teenagers’ curfew at 11:00. The back yard was a sea of purple lupine, gathered from an adjacent field and stashed in buckets everywhere. Plastic chairs and café tables with umbrellas, rented from town by the parents, were sprinkled about the yard. Volleyball, croquet, and even a karaoke machine provided entertainment, and the fare was the ever-popular shashlik.

When the games were over and the meal was done, when we’d finished with gifts and speeches, lead teacher “Mrs. Irina” introduced the culminating activity. She distributed a handful of colored embroidery thread to each student and teacher and invited the recipients to separate the strands and tie the strings around the wrists of the people to whom they’d like to say a specific “thank-you.” Of course, the tears started as each student and all of the teachers approached each other and the parents to privately convey their thanks.

In the end, each person’s wrist was encircled with a wide, colorful band made of the individual strands. “What is Russia?” Alina’s unintentional quiz question had helped us focus our thoughts about our visit to Russia. Ashley remarked at the end of the discussion that Russia is like the Hermitage. “You could never see it all,” she said.

We agreed with her, but still, we realized we would come home from our three-week visit with fresh, joyful, and positive impressions of the country. There is no mystery, puzzle, or enigma in this. Our idea of Russia, outlined by the history and culture we were shown, has been colored brightly and deeply by the friendships and love that our exchange created. And, like the thick bands upon our wrists, woven of single strands of gratitude, so the idea we have of Russia is all of these impressions together, impressions for which we are grateful still to our many Russian friends.

Learning about World Hunger: Five Big Benefits

This post began as a letter to parents explaining the benefits of  participation in the intense and demanding World Food Prize essay contest.  From my point of view as a teacher, there are five big benefits. In about a thousand words, here is what this competition teaches our kids. 

Dear Parents, P1040079

The World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute competition is underway! We thought you would like to more about the program and why we are so committed to it and so excited that your student has elected to participate.

To begin with, food insecurity—sometimes called, more simply, hunger—is a problem around the world—including right here in Indiana. Did you know that 1 in 6 Hoosiers don’t know where their next meal is coming from? That means that nearly 17% of the population of our state is food insecure.  Right here in our county, the statistic for children is even higher: 20.1%.

The problem is even worse than that in developing countries.

It isn’t that we don’t have enough food in the world—in fact, we do. But a host of factors contribute to the problem of hunger. For example, distribution is an issue in a country like Afghanistan. The US can send technical assistance to farmers in Afghanistan to help them become more efficient and increase their yield—but roads to take their produce to market are poor or non-existent. Food is wasted and people in the cities go hungry.

The problem could be war. In South Sudan and Syria, organizations like the United Nations World Food Programme and Oxfam International deliver food aid—but ongoing violence often prevents the food from reaching refugee camps.

The problem could be land ownership. In many parts of India, women can’t own land—and research shows that when women have a stake in ownership, problems with food insecurity decrease.

The problem could be disease or drought. Here in Indiana, at Purdue University, agronomists like Gebesa Ejeta, who was awarded the World Food Prize for developing a drought-resistant variety of sorghum that thrives in Ethiopia, work to increase yields from challenged soils in countries around the world. Agricultural research can solve some of the problems that cause food insecurity, but the solutions don’t happen overnight.

P1040127 Last year, when we attended the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, students had a chance to hear world-class scientists from Monsanto talk about their research. The students visited the headquarters of DuPont Pioneer and learned about the work Pioneer is doing here in the United States as well as around the world.

Participation in the World Food Prize competition is eye-opening for students. Bottom line: They learn a lot. In fact, they become incredibly well-informed about agriculture, the food crisis in a particular country, and specific solutions to the crisis.

They develop skills—especially in writing and speaking—that will serve them well in the years ahead. The WFP competition is the most rigorous writing project they will ever do in high school—and it positions these students well for the rigors of college writing. The same goes for speaking: Our kids have the opportunity to present their work orally to a panel of Purdue professors. Talk about developing confidence and poise and learning to think on your feet!  And all of this comes packaged in one-on-one coaching by the two of us: a science teacher and an English teacher.

They learn to think critically. The solutions to world hunger aren’t simple. The factors that contribute to food insecurity are complex and interrelated. Students learn to examine a problem through more than one lens and select solutions that are likely to have the most impact on the country they have chosen to study. Learning to discern a solution to a complex problem is a life skill.

They develop passion and compassion–for this topic, for world affairs, for helping people in need. They never look at the world the same way again. In fact, their passion may turn into a career, into a lifetime of work in agriculture, science, public service, international relations, engineering, governmental affairs, foods and nutrition, and a host of other related fields. Talk about opportunity!

Three of our 2013 participants spoke to the School Board last fall about their experience with the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute essay and their presentations at Purdue and in Des Moines. The students explained what their research was about and described the impact of the program upon them. Here are the points they made when school board members asked them what they’d learned:

  1. The enormity of the problem of food insecurity
  2. The complexity of the problems in the countries they studied
  3. The complexity of the solutions
  4. The compassion of the people working in the field to solve the problems
  5. The passion of the people involved in the solutions—scientists, aid workers, civil engineers
  6. The growth they experienced academically because of their participation (writing and speaking skills, specifically)
  7. A broadened awareness of the problems in food security
  8. An appreciation they hadn’t had before for agriculture
  9. And the understanding that their everyday concerns are miniscule compared to the survival needs of the people in the countries they studied.

They didn’t use all of those words—#9, for example, came out as “I’m worried about a paper and these people are starving!” They used words such as “amazed” and “humbled.”

Afterwards, one boy wrote a downright touching email, saying he would be “forever thankful” for this whole experience. He spoke in his note about the skills he had developed and his certainty that they would follow him into college and on into his professional life. This same boy spoke at the school board meeting of the broadened vision he had gained. He had been attracted to the WFP project by his political interests, which he still has, but his takeaway was that there aren’t black and white solutions—“You have to look at the people where they are and understand their situations.” In essence, you have to appreciate the on-the-ground realities.

If you have questions about the World Food Prize itself or about the Global Youth Institute, please visit the website at Purdue or the World Food Prize website itself:



Or ask us! We would be happy to talk to you and answer any specific questions you may have.

Once again, we are so excited—and thrilled that your son or daughter has signed on to participate in the World Food Prize/Global Youth Institute competition. They will be winners just for participating!

The Coaches

Forty Chances

If we’re lucky, writes Howard Buffett, we have about forty chances in our working lives to “get it right.”

Howard Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett—not as well known as his father, but a man who is also making his mark upon the world. For Buffett the son—and for his son, too—the “work” is primarily  agriculture and the arena is the world. Buffett’s foundation funds projects related to food and water security, conflict resolution in developing countries, and a few other projects of special interest such as cheetah and mountain gorilla conservation. For Howard, getting it right means using the 26.5 million dollars his father gave to him for philanthropic purposes wisely, strategically, and effectively.

Fundamentally, Howard G. Buffett is a farmer—he lives and farms in Decatur, Illinois. He’s an accomplished photographer, too, so 40 Chances is illustrated with photographs he’s taken all over the world. He’s also the author of Fragile: The Human Condition, a collection of photographs of and essays about vulnerable places he’s been in the world—130 countries—and the people he’s seen there. Published in 2009 by National Geographic, the book is immense, beautiful, and eye-opening. So Howard Buffett’s commitment to issues of food insecurity is long-standing and substantial: He’s not a celebrity flirting with a cause.

The title—and the concept—of 40 Chances originated from a spiel Buffett heard at the farm implement company in Decatur. The owner was showcasing a new line of John Deere equipment; the pitch was that the company realized their clients had about forty opportunities to perfect their business before their working time was up. The company wanted to supply the farmers with the best possible equipment and advise them on how to use it to advantage.  The idea of “forty chances” stuck with Buffett and brought not only his farming but his philanthropic efforts into sharp focus.

The stories in the book (forty of them) are about the problems he’s witnessed in specific countries, other problems that are more general, and the specific solutions that have worked in those countries—and some that haven’t and why. From these experiences, Buffett has evolved his ethic of funding.  He’s careful about the projects he funds and the people he invests in, and he’s learned to pay attention to these principles:

  1. What we think we know doesn’t automatically transfer to other parts of the world. You have to pay attention to the local geography, customs, and culture.
  2. Policy matters. You can’t get the right results if you don’t have the right policies.
  3. Dream big—but be realistic. Set reachable goals.
  4. Believe in people. Find amazing people and fund them to do the work they propose.

I took the wording of those principles straight from Buffett himself. I heard him speak at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2013.  The book provides amplification of these guiding principles and sets forth a few others.

Buffet writes in his book about ineffective practices—such as funding projects that aren’t sustainable—and he goes into detail about some that are just plain wrong-headed—like  monetization. That’s the practice, authorized by the 1985 Food Security Act, of NGOs or recipient countries reselling a percentage of direct food aid to generate cash for other development projects. Sending our food surpluses to food insecure countries for monetization drives the prices down for locally produced food and creates a marketing problem for farmers in the country that the food was supposed to help. Food that is monetized may even end up on the plates of tourists rather than in the stomachs of food insecure individuals.

In emergencies—such as natural disasters—or in situations where procuring food locally is cost-prohibitive—situations, for example, where transportation costs make local purchases uneconomical—direct food aid is critical. However, sending direct food aid often removes the incentive for local solutions to long-standing problems of food insecurity. In many cases, Buffett favors direct cash aid in the first place; he believes the US should at least reexamine its policies about the mix of cash and food we send to food insecure countries.

More of Buffett’s basic beliefs:  Good governance in developing countries is critical to success in solving issues of food insecurity.  Land ownership motivates good stewardship—so he’s in favor of land rights for farmers and reform of land laws in countries where women especially are marginalized. He stresses the importance of the value chain—everything from farm to market has to work or the project may fail. Farmers might harvest an improved crop due to technical assistance, but if the roads are so bad they can’t get their crop to market, what has been gained?

Howard Buffett will make some American farmers uneasy. He favors no-till methods and doesn’t believe in subsidies the way they currently work. He’s not opposed to genetically-modified seed. He practices what he calls “conservation farming,” but that doesn’t mean organic farming.  He doesn’t think organic farming can be practiced on a large enough scale to feed the world.

And that’s his mission: To feed the world.

Right now, according to the organization “Feeding America,” one-sixth of the people in the USA—50 million Americans—are “food insecure.”  That means they don’t  know for sure where the next meal is coming from.  According to the United Nations, that number worldwide is 870 million people.  It’s no surprise then that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projection for 2050 is grim:  Food production will have to increase worldwide by 70 percent to feed us all.

Whether you agree with all of Buffett’s views, you have to give the man credit. He is the recipient of many awards—for example, he’s been named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger; he was the recipient of the World Ecology Award and the Triumph of Agriculture Exposition Agri Award. ColumbiaUniversity honored him with the Global Leadership Award. And that’s just the beginning of the kudos and accolades. He’s doing about as much as anyone can in his crusade against hunger, in his effort to feed the world. Money well spent, a life well lived, forty chances not gone to waste.

I started out, as I sat down to write this, to apply the “forty chances” concept to us as teachers. It does apply, of course. Forty years is about the span of our working lives, too, and most of us are still perfecting our art, polishing our skills, trying “to get it right,” right up to the very last day.

But I couldn’t stop writing about the book. 40 Chances, now on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. It is an unusual book to have fallen into my hands. I am usually reading literary classics or recent fiction, even literary non-fiction, but not a book about agriculture.  However, my interest in international issues is deep—especially international education efforts.  I heard Buffett speak at the World Food Prize Conference I attended in October, the conference also known as the Borlaug Dialogue. And the obvious struck me: If children are food insecure, if they’re hungry literally, their hunger for learning can’t be fed.

So I’m impressed with what I’ve read and I am recommending 40 Chances to you.  Let us hope that Howard Buffett continues to use his remaining chances wisely and that he has many more. As for us, the same: We have forty chances. Let’s use them well.