Going for Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got to gold. One square at a time.

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

Two-hour Delays

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

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

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

And once school does start:

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

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

Hard Conversations: Tools for Talking

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

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

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

So what do we do? 

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

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

What are the skills?

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

Example:  

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

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

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

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

Example

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

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

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

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

Example

Reflect: You seem to really enjoy your volunteer work.

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

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

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

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

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

Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflect

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

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

Paraphrase

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

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

Open-Ended Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s on First?” Meets 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gatlin helps his dad and reads along with his class.

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!