The Students: What Keeps Them Going?

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t know for sure. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other students added these comments:

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

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

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

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

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

#Red4Ed

Third Quarter Doldrums

Around the Equator, there’s a 10-degree band where sailors take warning: the winds don’t blow and ships can’t sail, sometimes for weeks. Time passes slowly, cabin fever sets in, and at the same time, weather patterns can shift unpredictably.

The region called the Doldrums sounds remarkably like the third quarter, the hardest part of the year. Teachers often feel like they’re slogging their way to Spring Break.

  • There’s so much curriculum left to cover
  • We’re worried about kids who aren’t working hard enough
  • We worry about kids who have other challenges or scary life situations
  • We’re so tired, we need some sun, and stress reigns
  • There doesn’t seem to be light at the end of the tunnel

This year is so different. But in conversations I have had and meetings I have attended this past week, the mood felt like the 3rd Quarter Doldrums.

  • Concerns about curriculum. We’ve got a grip now on the technology, but we’re still juggling content: How much is too much? How deep should we go?  When is the advice to simplify, too simple?
  • Kids are behind. Will they be ready for the next level up? How do we determine “effort?” How can we document participation? How in the world can we figure out grades and be fair?
  • We still haven’t connected with some of our kids. Do they have connectivity? Are they still in town? Are they alone? Are they safe?
  • The pace is different, but it’s exhausting, still. Prepping online lessons takes twice as long as we’re used to. Many of us have small children and we’re suddenly teachers for them, too.
  • When we will reach the end? Have we done it right? What have we learned? What if this is a new reality?

The doldrums. A lot of us are there. Not everybody, but enough of us that I’ve noticed.

In my district, this was Week 5 (I’m counting Faux Spring Break and Spring Break as at least one week because most of us started working on eLearning then).  So we have three weeks to go. Hey! That means we’re in the 3rd quarter! That makes sense, then, why we’re in the psychological doldrums.

So how are we going to get through to the end? Not to be a Pollyanna about this, but here are some ideas for making it through to the end.

  1. Just as our students thrive on talking to us and to each other, we need community, too. I didn’t realize it as acutely as I do now until I saw a colleague on a walk at Celery Bog one afternoon. I nearly burst into tears. The best I could do was outstretched arms from a six-foot distance. So if you haven’t already, set up a Google Meet with your best buddy colleagues. I know that meeting with individual teachers, the Principals’ Meets, and the Literacy Team at my high school has helped me tremendously to feel connected
  2. It’s not too late to set goals for the few weeks ahead.
    • Books to read
    • Films to watch
    • Projects to complete
    • An exercise regime to follow
    • More closets and drawers to clean
  3. Try out a new technology. Your students—and you—know you’ve mastered what you’re doing already. Now try one new thing. No one will be impatient. They’ll be supportive and the kids will enjoy the variety.
  4. Go outside every day. Even if it’s raining. Just stand under a tree and breathe.
  5. And look for the humor in all this:
  • So many memes now about dogs exhausted from walking
  • Sanitation workers not being able to pick up all the discards from people cleaning up their homes and cleaning out their garages
  • The funny things your kids say
  • Your strange outfits for Google Meets (i.e., the pajamas on the bottom)
  • The fact that everyone in America needs a haircut

Three weeks to go! You’ve got this!  The wind will blow and you’ll be out of the doldrums before you know it!

#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

Teaching in the Time of Covid

Suddenly, we were dismissed a week early for what I have been calling “Faux Spring Break.” Two weeks to get ready for the last push: the 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year. But faster than a finger snap, we learned we weren’t coming back at all. And now, many of us are stuck.

We’ve gotten past the inundation of resources. We have figured out what technology we are comfortable with and what apps or platforms we’re going to try. We’ve connected with our students (most of them) and we’ve tried all this out.

And, probably, we’ve learned a bit along the way about what works and what doesn’t.

And we’re exhausted. For sure we’ve discovered that it’s hard to teach, parent, and home school all at the same time and, simultaneously, distance ourselves from our friends.

Could it be that we’re asking too much of ourselves and too much of our students? Educators are serious people. We feel responsible for our students’ well-being and for their learning. How they are doing worries us. Our lessons worry us. Our content is important and before next year our students will need to have learned it. But teaching from the living room gets harder and harder to do.

Here are some ideas about how to downsize the load without lowering your standards, about forgiving yourself for the guilt you are feeling because you can’t be Superperson every single minute, about prioritizing your own children (if you have them).

I offer three simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum,  too few days, and too little face-to-face–and then two more steps that are designed to ease the guilt.

1. Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2. Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of those two columns.

● Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote? Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.” Capote isn’t an imperative.

But research skills? Those are imperative for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them. So don’t cut out the research project. Look instead for ways to streamline it.

But if content is king, the trick will be to cut it down to size. That is, communicate the big concepts, the essential vocabulary, the absolute must-reads. Put your time and effort into these imperatives.

● Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level. These are imperatives. What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework together on screen so you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other? You can create breakout groups in Canvas Conversations and in Google Meet.
Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much yourself?

● Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

Easy ones to rethink are extra readings and extra assignments. Do you have to require that? Eliminating enrichment material can save a lot of time and eliminate a lot of stress.

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content? For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying. What about conducting a Socratic Seminar online? Or a Harkness discussion? Or even have the kids work collaboratively using Google Docs? Something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

An independent research activity can be a huge time suck. What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team? They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well. By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. (Which they need about now anyway.)

● How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory. I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest. Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods. As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period. The students worked collaboratively, and in the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history. In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting. As I said, a twofer.

By the way, this is a perfect opportunity to create a Padlet for those presentations.

3. Create a game plan and then stick to it. Whether you go through my suggested process or arrive at your decisions about what to teach in a different way—say, you’ve found a ready-made online program or you’ve already figured all this out—the worst thing you can do for your peace of mind is second guess yourself. You’ve got this! You know your stuff, you know your kids, you know what they can do and have to do. Don’t be distracted from your plan by comparing yourself to other teachers or feeling inadequate when you read online about some miracle worker somewhere. You’re a miracle worker, too. Look what all you’ve achieved already: Just. Like. That.

4. Don’t feel guilty about what you’re leaving out. Yes, inevitably there will be gaps. But every kid in America is going to have some gaps this year. Your students won’t be the only ones. And guess what: Next year, Amazing Teachers, just like you, will find those holes and fill them in. Because that’s what we do. We are teachers. We fill holes and then pave the road to success. Every single day, for every single kid.

5. Finally, don’t forget your own kids. When this is all over, they are going to remember how they felt during this time. If you’re so stressed you can’t help them and can’t enjoy them, they won’t return to school in the fall remembering the good things about this period of confinement. And there are good things: Families are spending time together: they’re enjoying books, movies, games, puzzles, and even yard work together. You’re getting a look at your own child’s learning process and they’re seeing you in the role you play every weekday most of the time. They’re watching you cope. You’re modeling.

Good times. Shared experiences. Families growing closer. Positive values. Good things can and are coming out of this.

You’ve got this, Amazing Teachers!
#Red4Ed

Museum of Civilization

It’s nearing the end of the semester. Teachers are writing final exams; students are presenting culminating projects. I’m visiting classrooms to see some of the exemplary work my colleagues and their students have been doing.

Earlier this week, my colleague Sarah Gessel and her students mounted an exhibition in the Media Center called the “Museum of Civilization.” It was a curation assignment, inspired by Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that has become a staple of the English curriculum following an all-community read that our English teachers had a hand in designing.

A character in that novel establishes a “museum of civilization,” an exhibit at the deserted airport, of the world as it used to be. Mrs. Gessel wanted her students to understand how objects become symbols of individuals as well as of the collective. She wanted her students to understand that their individual dreams and ambitions, their likes and loves, their pastimes and pleasures, their actions and accomplishments encapsulate them as individuals and, collectively, characterize their generation. She wanted them to think critically about the objects in their lives that capture the essence of each of them. Here was Mrs. Gessel’s assignment:

Background: In Station Eleven, we learn that Clark is the keeper of the Museum of Civilization at the airport. There, he preserves items of the past that represent mankind before the flu. 

Question: What three things would you personally put in a Museum of Civilization a hundred years from now that would represent you as a whole? You may not use a phone.

Assignment:

  1. Choose three items that represent you as a person.
  2. Create a display “From the collection of ___________ (you)”. Your collection should contain a brief description of who you are (written in 3rd person!), including birth year.
  3. For your display, you must have the actual item.  If that is not possible, a picture will have to do.
  4. For each item, you will create an informational label (like you see in a museum under an artifact). It should contain:
    1. The time period it is from
    2. Its use or symbolism
    3. Why the object was important to him or her
    4. What it tells the future about the person  
  5. Here is a very basic, rough idea of what I am looking for…except yours should be real…not on a document.

Here are some of the items students brought to school:

Some of their artifacts were poignant–a necklace made with a dear friend, now deceased; a stack of recipes from a grandmother; an old movie camera that launched what might well become a career:

Yes, there were earbuds and screens, but not many. In fact, what I noticed in addition to the wide variety of artifacts was the overwhelming lack of electronics. Admittedly, Ms. Gessel forbade phones, but earbuds and other electronic paraphernalia did not dominate the displays. Instead, there were the indicators of family, friendship and faith. Of interest in the arts, organized sports, and individual artistic pursuits. In children, in 4-H, in books, in cooking. Ms. Gessel’s students, like most teenagers if critics would just look beneath the surface, are not the zombie-like, plugged-in and tuned-out youth so often caricatured. These are kids I want to know better, unique and interesting individuals who are going to be in charge of a world I want to live in.

And here’s what happened afterward, after the spectators left, after the voting by gallery-goers was over, after the grades were assigned: The students looked at each other’s displays and something spontaneous occurred. Here’s what Ms. Gessel wrote to me:

My heart is full as I am sitting here thinking of the time we just spent last hour enjoying each other’s company as a class. All of their “stuff” is great, but what made so many of those items in there come to life were the kids. Watching them ask each other to play their instrument or sing or dance or compliment each other’s artwork or just comment on how nice it was just to chill with each other and listen…WOW. No museum can hold that amount of wonder or life. This is why I teach and am still teaching!

If you would like to know more about curation as an instructional tool, click here to read this article by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy.

A Christmas Memory

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

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

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

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

The story is so rich:

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

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

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

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

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

I wait.

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

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

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.

#RedforEd: Signs of the Time

From inside our car on the way to the #RedforEd rally in Indianapolis yesterday, to the gathering on the Statehouse lawn, to the hallways of the capitol building itself, the signs told our story–more eloquently, more imaginatively, more impactfully than anything except maybe the aerial shot of the sea of teachers dressed in red.

Image may contain: crowd, tree, sky and outdoor

Students, students! What do you see? I see my teachers, fighting for me!

It was cold in the morning, but the predicted rain held off until noon, and even then, the sprinkles didn’t dampen the fervor of the teachers and their supporters nor deter the steady stream of arrivals. As one sign said:

When this many teachers show up, you know you have homework!

  • We are here because we love your kids!
  • Time to use my teacher voice!
  • Don’t stand by! Stand up! Stand strong” Stand together! #RedforEd!

The signs clarified the issues:

  • Teach more, test less.
  • It’s not a shortage, its a crisis!
  • Teachers just wanna have funds!
  • Who can justify #100 million every year for standardized testing?
  • I’m certified in economics. Do you need my help?
  • You wouldn’t be a legislator without educators!
  • My students are more than a test score!
  • Teach more, test less!

And finally, this one carried by a boy about 9 or 10:

Too many of me, not enough of them!

#Red for Ed! Indianapolis, November 19, 2019 #RedforEd

Some of the teachers from McCutcheon High School

A Harvest of Lessons

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

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

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

I learned some important lessons early on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night in Rwanda

Reading this post again today, on the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, and on the start of the 38th Holocaust Remembrance Conference in my home town,  is chilling. If you are my former student–or even if you are not–what do you see? Do you remember? What can you do? Every voice matters.  https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/night-in-rwanda/

 

 

Balancing Act

In view of recent events, a comment on “snowplow parenting”:

In an American Classroom

Earlier in the week, we had sleet and freezing rain; falling temperatures in the early hours of the day created patches of ice on the roads and walks.  Driving to school that morning, I saw a small figure straddling the sidewalk a block ahead of me: a very tiny woman, I thought, trying to walk on the ice.  Her arms were extended parallel to the sidewalk, and they jerked alternately up and down, in the way of someone trying to maintain balance.  She wasn’t making much progress.

But as I drew closer, I realized that the little old woman I was seeing from behind was actually a very young girl.  Her pink cotton scarf was tied babushka fashion, and her snow jacket was too big. She wore a skirt that peeked out from under the jacket and hardly covered her knees. Heavy black boots with thick rubber soles accentuated her thin legs…

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