“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.

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

 

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

This year, this strange year of Covid-19, has brought  remote learning, quarantines, stay-at-home interludes, and hybrid set-ups, but teachers everywhere haven’t let the challenges stop them from connecting with their students. Like me, they are grateful for both the students they see on their screens and the ones who still can come to school in-person. You bring us joy, shape our perspective, and make our lives meaningful. 

So here’s the annual Thanksgiving post–with a few new additions as I have heard from more of you this past year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies–and last fall 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. 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. I’ve met two of you just this year 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 this year 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 is soon to be a physician’s assistant. Several of you sell real estate, three at least 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 in Hollywood. 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 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.

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.

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

Halfway There!

We’re halfway from the day we left for Faux Spring Break to the last school day of the year: May 15. The first thing I want to do in this post is to express my admiration for all the teachers I know.  This post is a shout-out to you in the form of a quick tour of some of the things I’ve seen during the past two weeks as I’ve visited your living rooms and kitchen tables or communicated by email, Facebook, phone, and Google Meet. And I know this isn’t the half of it. 

You’ve become technologically creative, utilizing aspects of Canvas many of us have never considered before—Discussions, for example.  Many of you have put up choice boards on Padlet, used Flipgrid for student presentations, even created Google Slideshows that capture your instruction all the way to the end—all the links are embedded; everything is in one place.

Kristin Lin, a Band teacher at MHS, for example, assigned YouTube videos to her students to teach them the language of orchestral conducting. I “sat in” on the lesson and learned that being a symphony director is a whole lot harder than it looks! Try this and see if you can do it! 

Kyle Harris, the 7th grade World History teacher at BGM, created a Padlet for his students to post art from Hudson School of Landscape Painting of the 19th Century. How beautiful is this spread?  Other teachers are using Padlet as a vehicle for organizing the students’ lessons throughout the week. Here’s MHS biology teacher Abi Bymaster’s Biology Padlet.

A teacher in the FACS national Facebook group created a choice board using  a different vehicle: Goggle Docs. MHS teachers Laura Cole and Laila Wilson added to it. Check out this impressive and comprehensive Google Doc choice board that blends practical ideas with creative opportunities. My personal favorite: Clean the Refrigerator!  

Most teachers are using Google Meet frequently and effectively, but sometimes an asynchronous meeting is better. As an alternative to Google Meet, Julie Riley uses Flipgrid with her 7th Grade English classes at WRM. Here’s a link to Honors English 7. If you have never used Flipgrid, this is a good chance to see it in action.

Some of you have created timely lessons out of this health crisis and period of confinement, engaging your students completely:

  • Dawn Grinnage, an English teacher at WMS, had her students, who are reading Anne Frank’s diary, keep journals of their own confinement. Read Sue Scott’s article about this thought-provoking project. 
  • Tasha Ploss’s Health Sciences classes at MHS are learning about pandemics and relating to an earlier read—Hot Zone
  • Jake McIntyre and Scott Royer, who teach social studies at MHS, are directing students to “current events” activities centered around Covid-19 because the subject is and will be a big part of American History. “They’ll be telling their grandchildren about this!”

There have been inspired ways of reaching out and keeping our kids connected

  • Suzi Ryan, A special ed teacher at MHS,  created a Google Meet for the kids that hang out in her room during her prep. She called it a “Virtual Coffee Break.”
  • Sarah Gustin’s entertaining Tik-Toks will be the stuff of legend when this is all over. Who knew principals knew about Tik-Tok?
  • This past weekend, the WMS team produced a YouTube video: Remote Learning, Too, that entertains and certainly lets students know their teachers are in this together with them
  • Encouraging emails from our principals have kept us motivated and made us feel appreciated.
  • Extra-curricular groups are still Meeting: Speech Team gatherings, World Food Prize, Academic Academic Super Bowl for starters.
  • At ETM, Band and Choir recruited current 5th graders using the school’s Facebook page. Here’s Andrea Bube’s YouTube for Choir. 
  • Camden Ritchie, music teacher at SMS, has been staging Ultimate Gimkit Smashdown competitions—open to the whole of SMS.
  • Sarah Gessel’s Mavericks Changing Minds (MCM) group is putting together a motivational video on 4 topics: creativity, self-care, learning, and connection. Interested in creating a 3-5 second video for the project? Contact Sarah at MHS.
  • And Mav TV is still broadcasting—if you haven’t seen last week’s episode, here it is. Watch all the way to the end and hear the inspirational message from Noah.

I’ve gleaned some tips from you that may help other teachers: 

  • If kids aren’t responding to Canvas, email them separately. Some (believe it or not) still don’t “get” Canvas; others will delete emails that come from Canvas—but not one that comes directly from you.
  • Instead of answering their questions over and over again, Jeremy Bloyd, ICE teacher at MHS, prepared a FAQ sheet to send out when the questions for the umpteenth time. It’s been working!
  • If no one shows up for your “Office Hours,” it could be that they don’t want to bother you. After all, they’re new to this themselves and may think Office Hours are sort of like doctor’s appointments. Email the students you need to see directly. Chances are, they’ll show up by direct invitation. 
  • Short on whiteboard space? Use your shower wall! Just be sure your markers will clean off afterward! (Thanks, MHS chemistry teacher Tasha Ploss!)
  • Kids having trouble with their computers: Remind them that they can make an appointment at their school with one of the unsung heroes of all this e-Learning: the tech team! A friend of mine’s daughter made an appointment with MHS’s Christina Bennett the other day. The whole transaction took place through the front desk. The students waited in the lobby for 10 minutes while Christina swapped out the battery (and carefully wiped everything down, before and after the repair).

And if our students didn’t really know it before, they know it now: We are human!  We have bad hair days. Our children “Google bomb” our Meets, wave at the screen, show off their birthday presents, and ask Mom to come see the new kittens—RIGHT NOW!  Our pets nudge the screen, scratch at the door, bark at the onscreen conversation, even knock over great-grandma’s lamp. 

I kind of like it, this informality. It gives us all something to laugh about, something not to take too seriously in this time when everything is so very serious. 

So great work, TSC Teachers!  From what I hear from administrators and families, I’m not the only one who is wowed by the efficiency with which you have learned how to navigate these waters, the grace with which you have adapted to the circumstances, and the ingenuity with which you have problem-solved. 

Have a great week! 

#Red4Ed

Why We Teach, 2019

Only a few years ago, the “office humor” that circulated among educators on the Internet went something like this: “You know you’re a teacher if…” 

The ensuing list of indicators would have made anyone outside the profession wonder why on earth a person would become a teacher in the first place, never mind staying on year after year. The list highlighted job features like these:

  • no social life from August to June
  • high susceptibility to chicken pox, colds, sore throats, and flu 
  • a compulsion to put grades on grocery lists, telephone messages, and junk mail

But office humor these days is dark. It’s more than simple comic relief. Teacher salaries are lower than ever and the workload itself is greater: more students, more classes, more documentation, more standardized tests. Snowplow parents, the glare of the media, and public shaming on Facebook. Fewer substitutes, less funding for programs, and even less money for teachers. All of it is true. All of it is anguishing.

So why in the world would anyone become a teacher? Why would they stay on?

Because there’s another story.

  • It’s the young woman whose resume landed her a full-time job–the resume you gave up your lunch period to help her compose.
  • It’s the math students you’ve driven to Saturday competitions and the art students you’ve entered in contests so they can test their strengths and hone their skills.
  • It’s the “struggler” who didn’t like to read, the one you worried about and stayed after school to help, who finally confessed when he finished a novel you suggested, “This is the first book I’ve ever read cover to cover.  I really liked it, too.”
  • It’s the girl who said, “I didn’t have any friends until I joined your club!
  • It’s the student whose lines you listened to over and over and over again until you could recite them yourself–but the play was a success and the student was a star.
  • It’s the ones you’ve stayed up all night for at the after-prom and the lock-in. 
  • It’s the ones you’ve monitored early in the morning on “study table”–it kept them eligible for sports and it kept them in school.
  • It’s the ones you’ve written college recommendations for and hugged  when they told you the good news: “I’ve been accepted!”
  • It’s the ones you’ve helped in the library when they “couldn’t find anything.”
  • It’s the boy who said, “You made me work.  You taught me how to study–and now I’m going to college!”  This is the boy you agonized about on the weekends and lost sleep over at night because no one at home seemed to be helping.
  • It’s the ones who’ve come back from Middle School to say, “You really did know what skills I’d need in sixth grade!”
  • It’s the children for whom you’ve been a stand-in parent on Family Nights.
  • It’s the ones you’ve taught how to run computer programs–students who weren’t even in your classes.
  • It’s the ones for whom you’ve paid the field trip charge.
  • It’s the ones to whom you’ve given lunch money.
  • It’s the ones you’ve bought winter coats.
  • It’s the children upon whose doorsteps you’ve left holiday gifts–and then driven quickly away.
  • And it’s the light in their eyes and the lift in their voices when they learn how to read, or convert fractions, or understand covalence, or give a speech, or shoot a basket, or play the clarinet, or fix a car’s transmission…  

 Ask any educator: stories like these are the sustaining force in our professional lives, the compensation for those skipped lunches, sleepless nights, constant criticism, and endless piles of paperwork that consume the evenings and weekends. 

It’s the kids.  They’re the reason why we teach and the reason why we stay.

What Teachers Can Do for the Children at the Border

Reporters were let in—but only to a limited area of the Clint, TX facility. No pictures allowed. No interviews with the children being held there. No inspection beyond the prescribed tour route. No visible evidence of toys or books or art supplies or anything to distract children during the day—except one TV in one small area and a basketball hoop outdoors where no children were playing.

But supplies and food—and yes, toothbrushes—were on the shelves in the storerooms the reporters were allowed to see—suggesting, of course, that the children were being fed and cared for.

This facility was designed for 100 occupants for an 8-12 hour stay. Instead, as many as 700 were held at one time and for as long as 30 days. Then, lawyers went public with information about the inhumane conditions.  By the time reporters got in, “only” 300 children were being held there. Shortly after that, 249 children were removed—and then 100 were brought back in.

This morning, another report has surfaced. This one includes interviews the lawyers had with the children, the occupants of the facility. The children verify what the lawyers originally reported: ill-fed and ill-cared for children, filthy conditions, sickness, and neglect. In short, conditions that inflict trauma that will last a lifetime.

The current conditions are deplorable, dangerous, nightmarish. For these children, imprisonment follows the horror of separation from their parents. But even if current conditions are alleviated, these children have already suffered from trauma that will mark their entire lives.  We know from the ACES studies conducted years ago by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from our personal experience in the classroom with our own students—American-born as well as immigrants and refugees—that childhood trauma impacts learning. It interferes with cognitive processing, provokes inappropriate behavior, results in poor mental health, and leads to medical problems, social problems, economic problems in adulthood. In other words, a lifetime of strains on society. We know from the research on epigenetics that trauma is processed in our genes–and transmitted to future generations. So this nightmare does not end.

When these children are released to their families in America, they will soon or eventually be in our classrooms where we will do what teachers always do: help them, teach them, love them–fiercely. But we will not be able to erase their experience. If they are returned to their own countries, they will be further damaged by desperate conditions that will not have changed in their absence. At Clint, TX and other detention centers in this country, we are creating future miseries as well as current ones for these children.

Perhaps the monies appropriated by Congress yesterday will alleviate this situation and similar ones at other centers. But if our attention is diverted, new situations and new abuses will surface. One bill passed by Congress and one stroke of a pen will not permanently solve the problem, will not prevent recurrence. The money will run out and the outrage will settle down—unless we remain vigilant, committed to righting this wrong, and vocal.

We are teachers. We have experience with childhood trauma. Who better to speak for the children? We must educate ourselves about what is happening to immigrant and refugee children now; send money to organizations working for their well-being when we can; write and call our representatives in Congress with our concerns; reach out to our colleagues, our students, their parents, and our friends; and let our voices be heard—over and over again. We owe it to the children.

Further Reading:

Pitzer, Andrea. ‘Some Suburb of Hell’: America’s New Concentration Camp System. NYR Daily, New York Review of Books, 21 June 2019. 

Romero, Simon. “‘Don’t Talk to Her’: A Glimpse Inside a Troubled Border Station Housing Migrant Children.” New York Times, New York Times.com, 26 June 2019.  

Rose, Joel and Bobby Allyn. Scenes Of Tearful, Flu-Stricken And Underfed Migrant Kids Emerge In New Accounts.” npr, 27 June 2019. 

Saving the Lake

Dear Readers and Followers,

You may have wondered what has happened to me. I haven’t been blogging much this past semester.  My writing energies have been directed toward completing a book I began 25 years ago: Saving the Lake.  I am excited to tell you that it is available now on Amazon. This book is definitely about education, but it’s a very personal education story.  And in this case, my American classroom was outside, in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Here’s what the back cover says:

  A string of freshwater lakes nestled on a 2200 acre woodland preserve in Langlade County, Wisconsin, had been the summer setting for my family for four generations. I wanted to write about this natural environment, weaving experiences from my childhood with knowledge of the natural world, but I was an English teacher and it had been years since college biology. I needed to educate myself.

Armed with identification keys, mosquito netting, a camera and a notebook, I stepped into the Wisconsin woods to learn first hand about the lakes and the forest and to observe the changes in this woodland environment as the summer progressed. But it was grief that powered my quest, and some matter of the heart as much as ecology that I was seeking to understand.

This book is a memoir of family and place, a story of loss and recovery and learning to let go. 

The summer of study and reflection chronicled in this story was funded by a 1993 Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship Award.

If you teach in Indiana, you know about the Lilly grants. Every year, the Lilly Endowment (the philanthropic arm of the Lilly pharmaceutical company) awards grants to teachers so they can pursue a passion that will renew and refresh their spirit. The spillover to the classroom is just that: renewal.  For most people, a Lilly grant is life-changing. It certainly was for me.

My Lilly grant took me both back in time and forward in time. This past September, I returned to the Northwoods with my brother, to revisit the places we had known and loved as children and as adults. Suddenly, there was an epilogue to this story, and I took the manuscript out of the family trunk.

My amazing colleague Amanda Cox, with whom I have collaborated for years on science topics and science writing, urged me to publish the book. She produced the beautiful drawings that accent each chapter and helped me with the technicalities of independently publishing on AmazonHave a look! 

Reading E-Texts Successfully: What It Takes

  • I’m not tech-savvy
  • I get headaches
  • My eyes hurt
  • Trouble navigating around the book
  • Can’t find the glossary or index
  • Lose my place
  • Forgot what I just read
  • Computer freezing or kicking me out of the program
  • Easily distracted
  • Don’t have Wi-Fi
  • Hit the wrong x and it closes me out
  • Words are too small
  • Flipping pages takes too much time

Sound familiar?  These are among the litany of complaints students have about e-textbooks. Teachers have the same complaints.

More importantly, current research is telling us that comprehension takes a hit with e-texts.  Some of that slippage has to do with navigational issues. For example, research tells us that when scrolling is required, comprehension suffers. When students have to switch screens—as opposed to flipping pages—comprehension takes another hit. Some of the hit is because of visual fatigue or issues with layout. It could be the screen is too bright or that the words are spread too wide across the page.  Fiction is less of a problem than non-fiction, but when an on-screen text exceeds 500 words, for all of us, comprehension generally decreases. Most of us print articles out when the text length reaches some personal threshold. Some people just miss the tactile pleasure of holding a book in their hands and may skim an e-text instead of really reading it.

So why don’t we just go “back to books?”

I’d sure like to—and most of the students I’ve talked to would like that, too. But e-textbooks are economical—ask any school district that has to expend thousands of dollars on textbooks every year. E-texts are cheaper and they don’t get worn, torn, or broken, either.

E-texts are portable and the content is accessible across devices. This is about the only thing most students do like about their e-texts. They don’t have to lug heavy books around all day and back and forth from home to school. In a pinch, they can even access the e-book on their phones.

E-texts are far more environmentally-friendly. Trees are our renewable resource, paper manufacturers like to say, but it takes an awful lot of trees to manufacture one textbook in the quantity needed by schools across the country. Here’s a shocking statistic.

E-texts can do things paper books can’t. E-texts offer interactive features such as pop-ups for vocabulary; pop-outs and mouse-overs for explanations of, say, features on a map; audio/video players; guided reading questions; additional problem sets; flashcards, highlighters, and other study tools.

In short, for all these reasons, e-texts have their merits—and their supporters—no matter how much students and teachers complain, no matter what the research says about comprehension.

So what’s a teacher to do?

One of the concepts I gleaned from a semester of reading original education research, magazine articles, academic websites offering advice to students, and books (in print) is this: When students read an e-text, each of them creates a unique reading pathway. The figures, tables, and charts they look at, the hyperlinks they click on, the order in which they click on those links, what searches they conduct, what options they choose from drop-down menus, whether they return to previous chapters and charts, consult the index or the table of contents, use the audio player or avail themselves of the study tools the text provides—all of those actions fall within their control. In a print text, the options are limited and students are accustomed to starting at the beginning and reading to the end. In an e-text, they’re in the driver’s seat.

It stands to reason that we should teach them the rules of the road.

My colleague, Mrs.Tasha Ploss, who teaches Honors Chemistry, and I set out this past semester to do just that.  We set out to learn what it takes to read an e-text successfully.

We classified what we learned about effective and efficient e-text reading into three categories:

  • Know Your Device
  • Know Your E-textbook
  • Know Your Mind

Know Your Device: We were shocked to discover how many of our students didn’t know some of the basic functionalities of their devices—in our district, those devices are Chromebooks.  

Many of the students’ initial complaints were about eyesight issues and headaches.  On a pre-instruction survey, 67.7% indicated they did not know how to invert the color on their screens—to make the print white-on-back (“night vision” as Mrs. Ploss calls it).  She showed them. There was an audible response from the students when the colors inverted right before their eyes. Fewer students—24.6%–didn’t know they could adjust the brightness levels on the Chromebook.

From conversations with the students, Mrs. Ploss also determined that many of the students simply could not remember quick keystrokes such as screen shot, using ctrl + “F” to find a word on the page, and select/highlight the full text.  A whopping 58.5% did not know how to split their screens—a move that would allow them to view two pages consecutively, two pages from separate sections of the text, or even the text plus Google docs for the purpose of notetaking. It isn’t that students haven’t been taught many of these skills somewhere before, but kids forget. I forget a keyboard stroke or shortcut I haven’t used in a while. It’s natural that kids would, too.

Mrs. Ploss taught or reminded students of all of these keyboard strokes and many more. That helped—and students reported that once they learned these “new” moves, they began using them in other classes, with other e-texts.

Know Your E-text:

The e-textbook Mrs. Ploss uses for Honors Chemistry has many bells and whistles. The study tools section includes, among other things, premade flashcards for academic vocabulary, keyed to each chapter. Skill builders and problem sets, answers and explanations for those sets, pop-ups in the text for vocabulary, figures and diagrams and charts hyperlinked internally, built-in highlighters—all were among the features she pointed out or demonstrated for the students.

To teach these to the students, she had to learn how to use them herself. And that’s a key point about e-texts. Just as teachers need to point out the location and function of the features of a print book—the table of contents, the glossary, the index—and what the text features—colors, font, size of text—mean, so in an e-text, the teacher needs to be familiar with the features and know what each of them does and how to find it or activate it. And then show the students how that particular e-text “works.”

Although her text has built-in notetaking and highlighter tools, Mrs. Ploss taught her students how to take notes using Google.docs with the split screen option.  She walked them through the process of accessing Add-ons like the highlighter tool so they’d know how to do that when faced with an e-text without so many tools.

Know Your Mind: This lesson was really all about metacognition. To be a successful e-reader, a student needs to consciously think about or monitor what’s happening in his head as he’s reading. So, Ms. Ploss told the students, “Remove the distractions: Put the phone away, close any irrelevant tabs, and pay attention as you read.” Metacognition is important in print reading, too, of course, but the distractions presented by a screen call for extra alertness to stay on task and process information.

Should you be skimming, scanning, or reading?  Many students didn’t remember the differences among these three strategies for accessing information: Skim to get the gist, scan to find a discrete piece of information, read to understand. Students are taught in elementary school, over and over again, to be conscious of their purpose in reading and then to choose to skim or scan or read accordingly. They need to be reminded of purpose and different reading strategies when they’re in high school, too.

We also taught the students to beware, when skimming, of using Z and F skimming patterns. These are natural skimming methods that web designers take advantage of to design web pages and social media. These patterns permit rapid assessment of content, but they’re poor substitutes for the kind of skimming called for in a textbook–puddle-jumping across the page and through each line of a paragraph. We taught the students about the Z and F patterns and asked them to consider whether they are using either of those patterns when they skim. Many discovered they were.

And finally, the hyperlinks. The Honors Chemistry book is a “closed” environment. All of the hyperlinks connect to locations within the book. Some students had never clicked on links that would have been helpful; others were distracted by clicking when they didn’t need to. On the Internet, an “open” environment, hyperlinks are a much more difficult problem. It’s easy to “rabbit hole” (as anyone who’s ever visited YouTube can tell you),  so Mrs. Ploss created a flowchart to help students stay on track: Have I read the whole article? Will the hyperlink expand my knowledge or sidetrack me? Is the link reputable?

Most importantly, part of what makes e-texts so difficult is that every reading and study skill students have ever learned carries over to reading on a screen. If you’re a poor reader to begin with, the problem is only exacerbated by the panoply of additional skills needed to read efficiently and effectively.  

Here’s a list of those skills—and we’ve probably missed some. It’s a miracle that anyone ever learns to read in the first place (just read Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid if you want to be awed); the list of things you need to know to read an e-text well is daunting.

Helping our students become successful is our mission. That’s exactly what Mrs. Ploss and I have tried to do by teaching students how to navigate their e-texts and reminding them of strategies they may not have been taught or may have forgotten that will help them be more successful e-text readers.

We have not created a magic bullet for reading e-texts. Reading comprehension is way too complicated for that. Our goal was to help the students be more successful than they were.

Mrs. Ploss surveyed her students at the end of the e-text reading lessons. She asked if they felt they could read their e-texts better after all the instruction.

91.6% said they could.

That’s a win.

 

For further reading:

Business Insider:A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens”

The New Yorker: “Being a Better Online Reader”

Tim Shanahan “Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?” (blog post)

Z and F patterns: “How to Use F and Z Patterns in Your Landing Page Design”

‘Tis the Season to be Stressed

IMG_0546Almost the end of the semester. For high school students, the run-up to the holidays is likely to be stressful, thanks to those dreaded final exams. Guest blogger Mike Etzkorn, a math teacher who leads McCutcheon High School’s Maverick Launch program, explains why the short-term stress brought on by finals can actually benefit students–and offers some tips to help students through this and other stressful experiences. Welcome, Mike, to In an American Classroom. 

‘Tis the season to be jolly; however, for so many of our students and children, ‘Tis the season to be stressed.  Finals week is almost upon us and with it comes stress for students. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey of high school students relating to stress and has demonstrated that high school students are more stressed out now than ever before.  As of late, a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy has been expended within our educational system toward helping students learn how to cope and de-stress. These efforts are necessary and beneficial, but we also need to look at the difference between acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress.

Acute stress can actually have many benefits.  Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says that “low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins, and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain.” Acute stress can temporarily improve memory and motivate productive behavior.  Dr. Shelton also says learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage, thus teaching resiliency and grit. It’s the idea behind Navy SEAL training, he reports as well.

I like to call this concept raising our stress threshold.  The analogy I use with my students is that stress is like a muscle.  Weightlifters will “max out” when lifting, which means they take their muscles to the top edge of their limit, causing their muscles to fail.  This is a very painful and uncomfortable experience. Their muscles burn, shake, and ultimately can’t handle any more weight. After a recovery period, the next time they lift, they are able to raise their maximum weight.  Acute stress is exactly like maxing out when weight lifting. When we experience acute stress, we are maxing out our stress threshold. This is an uncomfortable experience, but once we have pushed through the temporary stressor, we are able to tolerate more stress the next time.  

When I reflect on my own educational experiences, I can recall numerous all-nighters or tear-filled nights, experiencing my own personal stress threshold max.  My first experience with acute stress occurred during my freshman year history class with Mr. Crismer. Each quarter, we were assigned a nine-to-eleven-page research paper on a randomly assigned historical figure. We were required to have three sources, and in the days before the internet, we had to dive into the old-fashioned library catalog cards. If we were unlucky enough to get one of the more obscure historical figures, it sometimes took three different libraries to find those three sources.  We were given two weeks to complete the assignment, and all the work had to be completed outside of class time. Freshman year was the first time I pulled an all-nighter to complete an academic assignment, and it certainly was not the last. Through my first acute stress experience, I learned how to power through the stress to accomplish my goal.  This particular stressor (my paper) presented itself over a two-week period, with an end in sight, concluding with the completion of the project. 

Learning how to utilize acute stress to boost grit is a lesson every student needs to learn. Academic stressors, which are acute in nature but deployed in a safe, controlled environment, are beneficial and should not be removed or eliminated.  Instead, they should be utilized to teach our students the resiliency that is needed to succeed beyond the classroom.

Although the task of writing a history paper seemed insurmountable when I was a freshman, we all know that life has challenges that are far more overwhelming.  The lessons I learned in resiliency during my high school years helped me fight through a literal battle for my life: cancer. At age 24, I was diagnosed with chemoresistant metastatic cancer.  I spent nine months enduring surgery, traditional chemo, more surgeries, and high dose second line chemo. This nine-month experience not only took its toll on me physically but also mentally. Without my past stress experiences raising my stress threshold, I would not have been able to handle the challenges that presented themselves during that fight.  

As a parent of three adult children, I look back at whether or not I did enough to prepare my children for the stress of adult life.  I always had to ask myself: Did I push my children enough? Did I push them too hard? Did I help them navigate the stressors of adolescence so that their stress threshold was raised enough for them to have the grit necessary to succeed in life?  Were the tear-filled all-nighters worth it? Did the “No, you cannot quit the team, you will finish what you started. Suck it up buttercup!” speech teach them to fight through adversity? Even though the experiences were painful for them, and painful for me to watch, was it worth it?  As educators and parents, it is our responsibility not to remove the stressors from our students’ lives, but to help our students raise their stress threshold in a safe and controlled environment. So as we progress into finals week, let’s utilize this time to help prepare our students for what is to come after they leave the safety of education.  

Ways to help your student through the stress associated with Final Exams:

  • Remind them that their stress is temporary.  
  • Encourage them to put forth their best effort.  “If you do your best, you can walk away holding your head up high no matter the result.”
  • Help your student maintain a healthy balance between work and de-stress time.
  • Be supportive and encouraging, remind them that you are proud of how hard they are working.  
  • Remind your student that healthy eating and sleeping habits are just as important as studying.  
  • Urge your student to ask for help when they need it, share with them a time when you had to ask for help.

 

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least 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 a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A 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 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. 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 physicians’ 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 had different struggles–you faced challenges no one should have to–but you had determination and the will to succeed. 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.