‘Tis the Season to be Stressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Preserving the Past: A Cemetery Restoration Project

IMG_8062Pierce Cemetery is, in the words of high school social studies teacher Ashley Greeley, “in embarrassing shape.”  It is a true pioneer cemetery—that is, original settlers in this area of Indiana are buried there—but the grounds of the cemetery have been neglected for decades.  Monuments have toppled, slabs have cracked, stones have sunk deep into the ground. But last week, members of Ms. Greeley’s AP US History class (APUSH, as it’s called) began putting the place to rights—and learning some local history along the way.

Students began with research about their own families, learning their way around online genealogical resources with a subject that was somewhat familiar.  Then, Ms. Greeley assigned teams of students the name of someone who is buried in Pierce Cemetery.

To ensure some success in the research, students were assigned individuals for whom at least some information is known. Ms. Greeley had help in selecting the names from Lou Ann Clough (“LA”), archivist at the Tippecanoe County Historical Society, and Shane Weist, another local historian who was recently honored—one of 73 people in the country—by the Daughters of the American Revolution for his work in historical preservation. Previously, LA received this same Historical Preservation Recognition Award from the DAR, so the students were in good hands with LA, Shane, and Ms. Greeley as their guides to local history.

Ashley Greeley met Shane Weist and LA Clough last fall on Veterans Day when she and a handful of students showed up to help with the clean-up of Greenbush Cemetery, one of Lafayette’s oldest burial grounds.  The students had enjoyed the restoration work and that got Ms. Greeley to thinking about the cemetery that is literally in Harrison High School’s own back yard.

Cleaning up Pierce Cemetery would be a way for her to highlight local history—this is, after all, Indiana’s bicentennial year—and at the same time underscore the APUSH goal of applying historical thinking skills.  Ms. Clough was a guest speaker in the class. She explained the resources available to students  online and at the Tippecanoe County Historical Society.  At her invitation, seven students made an after school trip downtown to the Historical Society to use the Alameda McCollough Research Library. There they looked at actual documents relating to their person or family.

Permission to proceed with the work in the cemetery itself was secured from the Tippecanoe Township trustee, and then, on several May afternoons, Mr. Weist met the students on the cemetery grounds. He explained cemetery etiquette and cleaning procedures and directed the students as they cleaned the markers belonging to “their” people and their people’s relatives.

The students cleaned the stones with water—gently sprayed with a hose connected to a hand-held, hand-pumped container—and Revive, a professional masonry cleaner.  “Never power wash a gravestone,” Weist told the students.  “You’ll degrade the stone.”  Similarly, he cautioned that bleach should never be used as a cleaning agent.  Softly sprayed water and a mild solution of Revive was miraculous itself: Names appeared, dates became readable, carved symbols emerged like magic. “This is so satisfying!’ remarked one student, as information about a woman she’d had trouble researching began to reveal itself.

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Weist, who is certified by the state of Indiana to do cemetery restoration, helped one team of students restore a monument that had fallen years ago.  After the boys had cleaned the fallen obelisk, they washed the two stones that it had once rested upon.  A “stack” compound (a mix of cement and lime) the consistency of peanut butter was spread on an area of the base of the first stone.  When the mortar had dried sufficiently, the boys placed the second stone on top of the first.  A joint compound—caulking—was worked around the seam to guard against moisture penetrating the joint—and then the process was repeated to ready the spot on the second stone where the obelisk would stand.  Of course, it would be impossible to know which side of the obelisk originally faced forward, towards the entrance to the cemetery, but since there was carving on three sides, the team’s guess was pretty good. The stone no longer lies neglected at an angle on the ground. The obelisk stands tall, the family name facing forward now. IMG_8081

The students took pride in cleaning and restoring the graves. They began to see connections among members of the families buried there—a woman in one location, buried with her spouse, belonged to a family on the other side of the cemetery.  A first wife was buried with her parents—she’d died young—but her husband had remarried and was buried with his second wife and their children just behind her. Children aged only a few days had been lovingly laid to rest, joined years later by their parents. In one case, a modest marker for a 4-year old was side-by-side with a replacement stone, a grander marker shared by the little boy and his older brother, who died years later at age 26.

IMG_8037A Revolutionary War soldier is buried at Pierce and several Civil War soldiers as well.  Veterans of other wars, too, have found their final resting place in Pierce, and the students marked the graves with fresh American flags.

A group of boys, thrilled with the results of their elbow grease—the obelisk they had worked on  restored to nearly its original white—smiled for the camera. Said one boy in their group, “We’re having so much fun we don’t need to be asked to smile.” IMG_8058

To fund the project, Ms. Greeley applied for and won our school district’s competitive Anne de Camp Award for Creative Teaching. She used the money for the cleaning supplies, for gravestone rubbing paper and special wax crayons, and for a Shutterfly book she and the students will create to document their project.

Work remains for the APUSH classes in years to come, but several students asked Shane Weist if they could help him with other cemetery restoration projects. The boy who didn’t need to smile for the camera is thinking about tying his Eagle Scout project to the restoration of Pierce.

Cemeteries like Pierce are “excepted” pieces of real estate.  That is, the grounds surrounding the cemetery are privately owned (in this case, by the school district), but the cemetery itself is not part of the school property. It belongs to the township.  Neglected for many decades and unused for burials in recent history, Pierce Cemetery had fallen, quite naturally, into disrepair.  “I’ve been waiting for you,” LA Clough said to Ms. Greeley when the teacher first called her.  Clough has been mapping cemeteries all over Tippecanoe County, but restoration work is laborious. It calls for a group effort.

Because of the students’ industry, Pierce Cemetery already looks remarkably better than it did last fall when Ms. Greeley first conceived of the project. Soon she and her students will be able to say, “Pierce Cemetery was in embarrassing shape—but now it’s not.”




Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

It’s only days now until graduation. The excitement in the halls of the two high schools I serve is palpable. Final exams feel like an afterthought because culminating projects, AP exams, and work/study evaluations are complete. Seniors are focused on the traditions that mark their status: Senior Breakfast, Senior Cookout, Senior Day. In the school where I taught, each senior paints a cinder block in a corridor somewhere in the building–an epitaph of sorts. Their final message to the rest of us.

My last class graduated a year ago. I miss them still. Their graduation was particularly poignant because it was the last time I knew the graduates crossing the stage, could feel I’d had a direct hand in their accomplishment. I wrote to them, just a day before the last day of school. A final message of my own, one I send out now, again to them if they are reading this, and to graduates everywhere.

Dear Graduates,

I know, I know…just one more day to go. The last few weeks went by quickly, didn’t they? That’s always the way. It seems like you’ll never reach the shore and then, suddenly, there it is in front of you, a surprise that came too fast.

That’s the way I feel, too, about your graduation. You are my very last class, and I am already bereft. I will miss you terribly–even if all we have done in glimpse each other in the halls these past few years as you have moved on from my 9th grade English class and I have stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of my colleagues. But I have always known you were there. Your presence grounded me. But soon now, you will have crossed the stage and left these halls we’ve walked together.

But it is time for that. Time for you to set out on your journey. Time for you to embrace your destiny.

To that end, I am sending you a poem, a love letter really about your future wherever you sail. You will, of course, recognize Ithaka and all the allusions the poem contains. We didn’t read the Odyssey together for nothing! The last lines may be puzzling to you now, but however you interpret them, the remarkable journey, rich in adventures along the way, is what I wish for you. I am impossibly proud of you, like the proverbial button-busting parent, and I hope you will stay in touch. (You can “friend” me now, BTW.)

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

Some of them wrote back to me, articulating the message of the poem:

-I view Ithaca not only as a place, but as a home or set of goals and opportunities…

-I have very big goals for myself…college, medical school, residency…Every day I think about them and hope that I will achieve them. This poem encourages me to believe that I can.

-I gleaned that the journey itself may be better than the intended destination…

-It may be cliche, but for me, this whole poem screamed “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” and I’ll try to remember that as I move on in life.

-When I read the “love letter,” I replaced “Ithaca” with “happiness.” It all made sense after that.

-I think that the last lines of the poem mean that if we enjoyed our journey, our destination will not be a letdown. We’ll have gained so much experience that we understand our goal, our “Ithaka,” is really a point of reference to guide us through our journey. We eventually want to arrive home, but if we constantly think about home, we’ll miss out on the lessons we can learn during the trip there. I suppose graduation is a mini-Ithaka!

-One student wrote a poem of her own, thanking me for showing her that “the path to Ithaca has not ended, but has only just begun.” She was a student in my American classroom. Now she is a citizen of the world. As are they all. May their journeys be long, full of adventure and learning, and may they reach their Ithakas, enriched and grateful for the journey.

That is how I feel about them: enriched and grateful for their presence in my life.

n.b.: If you, the reader, run your cursor over the poem, you’ll see “hot spots.” Click on those circles and see how I might have guided students through the poem had I shared it with them in class.

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students


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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another, a school principal. Some of you are nurses; some doctors. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and several of you are college professors. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you a writer, a chef, a veterinarian, and a musician.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Padres and another for the Marlins. A football player with the Packers. A videographer in Hollywood. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, another a personal secretary to someone in Germany. A graphic artist and a web designer, 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 fire fighters, automobile sales people and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers. Receptionists and cashiers.  Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and teachers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and physicians’ assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

But all of you, all day long, making the 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.

Each One Unique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A traditional hat from Uzbekistan
A traditional hat from Uzbekistan

I wondered if I was making a mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a generalization we could live with.

Always the Kids

The final bell had rung, the halls had emptied, and a small 6th grade boy struggled with a Trapper Keeper, three heavy textbooks, and his trombone case. One or the other kept falling out of his arms.

“Can I help you with some of that?” I asked.

“Yes, please,” he answered.

“Are you trying to make the bus?”

“No, my mom is waiting for me. “

So we made our way together down the long hall, chatting about school, his homework, his family’s plans to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday that evening.

He was open and trusting because even though I was a stranger, I was obviously a teacher.

I delivered him with a smile to his mother.

It was a small encounter, but a significant one for me. When I turned away, I felt that I was part of the staff, a teacher of children again.

In another school, a teacher came to me and asked if I could help an 8th grade girl in her study hall find a library book. “She’s read all the Wimpy books, but she says she doesn’t like to read. I know it’s not in your job description, but could you help her? I’m not an English teacher.”

Of course I would try. The student and I went to the library. I had never seen a Wimpy book, but quickly learned that the series features engaging graphics and fairly large text in a font that replicates a child’s printing. The Wimpy books are humorous stories about a middle school boy whose struggles are the same as the ones the kids who read these books experience.

“What kind of stories do you like?” I asked. And she responded in the way I expected.

“About real kids. I don’t like made-up stuff.”

So no Harry Potter (She didn’t even like the Harry Potter movies), no vampires, no princesses, no science fiction. The school’s library had graphic novels—but only classics like Robin Hood and King Arthur.

“Can you tell me why you don’t like to read?”

She was unusually aware. “It’s the way the print is on the page,” she said. “It’s all blocky and together.”

Sure enough. Every book she rejected had conventional print. In every book she liked, the spacing between the lines was wide and the right margin was not justified.

We found several books that met her requirements. She picked one, and I took her back to study hall. On the way, she told me she is supposed to get glasses.

In my own high school, where just a few months ago I was the one at the front of the room, I had a chance to co-teach with a colleague. It was an AP history class, and we were working with the students on writing thesis statements, the first step in learning to write the elaborated but precisely constructed essays that will be required for students to earn a high score on the tests they’ll take in the spring. We had planned the lesson well, and my colleague is a star, so instruction unfolded like a ballet: perfectly choreographed, graceful and smooth in its delivery.

And yet, my very favorite moment came when a student who had grasped the concept of a thesis and the way each part of the statement previews a point that will be developed in the body of the essay, raised her hand and asked, “But what if you don’t know the information?”

My colleague and I chuckled.

“That is what all this means. You will have to do the job of learning.”

And we, the job of teaching.

In my new role as an instructional coach, I have met with teachers in secondary schools throughout my district. I’ve talked with them individually, in small groups, at whole faculty meetings. I have met outstanding educators and seen some spectacular teaching. I have been warmly welcomed, my calendar is full, and I feel valued and productive. I love supporting other teachers. I love my new job.

But there is something I have to get used to.

I wrote in August about my “phantom limb”—my impulse to plan lessons, develop units, create curriculum. Now that school has started, I’ve discovered another missing limb—and it’s the kids. Interacting with them makes me feel like a teacher. So I’ll grab every chance I get to co-teach, to find library books, to carry trombone cases.

I am a teacher.

I always will be.

Pomp and Circumstance

05-21-09-mccutcheon-end-of-year-and-graduation-033In an American high school like mine, which is not so different from most, students come in all shapes and sizes with backgrounds so varied you are surprised they were raised in the same country, let alone the same community. They range widely in their abilities, their interests, their experiences, and their aspirations. Some have parental support so intense we call their mothers and fathers “helicopter parents”; others have no support at all. Some are from robust, supportive, intact families; others have survived dysfunction that boggles the mind—alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, divorce, and abandonment. Some are rich; others, dirt poor. They may speak perfect English, bad English, or no English at all. They may have traveled the world or seen only the corners of Tippecanoe County. They are the sons and daughters of bankers, business owners, teachers, farmers, industrial workers, lawyers, tradesmen and women, city engineers and school janitors. They live in trailers, apartments, bungalows, farm houses, and mansions on the prairie. Some even live in cars.

Black and white, Hispanic and Asian, a few Native Americans. They are from here—from three different middle schools—and from everywhere, individuals (over the years) from as far away as Libya, Afghanistan, France, Russia, Bulgaria, China, Ukraine, Iraq, Peru, Brazil, Belgium, and many more countries around the globe. They are Christian, Muslim, and Jew; straight and gay; rich and poor, tall and short; fat and thin; handsome and plain.

For some, it has been a straight line from those first “lost in the halls” days as freshmen to academic distinction and class leadership.

For others, it has been a struggle to reach the stage.

Some have moved nearly anonymously from first year to last; others are personalities, standouts whom everyone knows.

But we weave them together as a class so that by the end of their time with us, when they graduate, they are whole cloth, dressed alike in their red and gold graduation robes, momentarily still on the stage in front of us. We are their admiring parents, extended family, friends of all ages, and their teachers, whose investment in their success is deeper than they’ll ever know.

Most will continue their education—here at Purdue or other at other Indiana colleges, some in vocational schools, a few at colleges out-of-state. Some will enter the military; some, the workforce. But for just this minute, there they all are, a tableau on the stage, a pleasing assembly whose accomplishments make us proud.

The Pledge of Allegiance. The introductions of the School Board of Trustees and the school administrators. A speech from the Teacher of the Year. This year it is an English Department colleague who speaks. His topic, an important one in this time of economic uncertainty and overemphasis on testing, is this: “What is an education for?” Not, he argues, to get jobs, but rather, to know what it is to be human.

The Faculty Scholarship, always a surprise announcement at graduation, is awarded each year to a student or students whose work ethic, demeanor, and personal integrity represent the values we as a faculty share. My colleague announces the recipients, and the two, blushing and excited, but even so, poised, come down from their seats in the bleachers to receive giant foam board replicas of checks—and the real ones, too—in front of everyone here in Elliott Hall, Purdue’s immense (and packed) auditorium.

Five valedictory addresses this year: One makes me and the teachers around me tear up. Juan was born in Mexico. From the very beginning of his education in America, he has been one of those “straight line” kids. In his speech, he thanks his parents, in English and in Spanish, for bringing him to this country and giving him the opportunity they hadn’t had. He has worked hard, he says, to make his parents proud.

Who wouldn’t cry?

Then, the Awarding of the Diplomas. One by one, the students’ names are called and each makes the walk, stopping halfway to shake the principal’s hand and receive his or her diploma—a blank, actually. After the ceremony, teachers will perform one last service: We’ll congregate with the students in a room under the auditorium and give them the actual document. Withholding the diplomas this way prevents hijinks on stage and guarantees that all outstanding fees are paid before the diploma itself is handed over. What we see is stagecraft, and for the most part, the students play their part as instructed. But, like a slip peeking out below the hem of a dress, a student’s individuality is glimpsed in the pace of his walk, the manner of extending her hand, a furtive or full-on smile at the audience, the reaction when air horns and whistles and shouts of “Woot! Woot!” erupt in the audience. A couple of cut-ups dance their way across the stage. Roaring applause affirms the accomplishments of the young man in the wheelchair and the special students who are accompanied in their walk.

When the last Z has crossed the stage, we look at the whole again, not just at the individual making the journey, and see that the group has reassembled without our realizing it. They are a tableau again—but just for a few more minutes while the principal speaks to the audience directly, acknowledging the personality of this class as a whole—go-getters, step-up-to-the-plate kids. Then, the magic words, directed to the students themselves: “You may move your tassels to the left.”

The tableau breaks. The spell is broken. A hat sails through the air, though tossing hats has been forbidden.

Graduation this year is a spectacular finish—for the graduates, of course, who leave the stage smiling broadly and then gather outside with their families and friends for photographs, handshakes, hugs, and happy tears—but for me, too. For all of us who have invested ourselves, day after day, week after week, month after month, in these kids. They are our legacy and they make all of us proud.

Danger Zone



Here are the most calamitous events of my career:

• I broke my wrist one day when I fell from the ceiling (I was hanging a mobile and stepped into air).
• A student driver tried to pass me on a county road when I was making a left turn (My car was totaled, but neither of us was hurt).
• A student who rushed to the front of the class to ask to use the bathroom threw up on me before she could get the words out (The dress washed).
• Two winters ago, a student crunched my car (a different one) while it was parked in the school lot (Actually, he took out two cars when his truck spun on ice).

But until the other day, I’d never been flattened.

I have a tendency to dart, and I darted out of my classroom at the same time a boy exited the room next door. His head was down; he was reading a note. We collided, and there I was, flat on my back like an overturned bug. The boy was stricken; I was certainly surprised.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “but you can help me up.”

I was restored to dignity and “over it” within a few minutes. It took a little longer for the boy. After all, he’d just leveled a teacher, and an—uh—older one at that.

Maybe teachers should get hazard pay.

Here are some other dangers I’ve exposed myself to in my long life in an American classroom.

Twain and Faulkner and E. B. White and Harper Lee and Charles Dickens and Homer and George Orwell and many, many more literary luminaries: I have the time to reread their work every single year—to admire anew a turn of phrase, to marvel once more at an apt comparison, to suck in my breath at the sheer beauty of their prose. It was nothing short of privilege to open To Kill a Mockingbird this year (for the thirty-first time) and read aloud to my class, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” In November, I went to London with Pip, and in February, I followed Odysseus around the world. Come spring, it was time to visit Manor Farm again and watch the pigs turn into Mr. Jones. I wonder, now that I will be out of the classroom, if I ever again will read, “Sing in me, O muse…” I hope I will make time to do this, for these stories and the people in them are a huge part of me. I know whole chapters nearly by heart. I’ve kept company with my favorite writers all day long for many years, and now I’m spoiled for bestseller fiction. I can’t stand TV. That makes me a poor conversationalist and puts me out of touch with popular culture.

Here’s another danger I have faced: No one tells me how to structure those fifty minutes between the bells. No one tells me how to teach or how to manage my classroom. I decide from a range of choices what we will read and when we will read it. I decide how I will make the stories come alive or what I will to do to help the students improve their writing. I set the goals and I craft the lessons. I make the connections from book to book, and I design the projects, the writing assignments, the presentations. I make up the tests. My creativity as a teacher is limited only by my imagination and my stamina. Even when resources are in short supply, I usually can find ways to finance what I want to do. Granted, there are standards and a local curriculum that I am obliged to follow, but how can I quibble with those? The standards provide guidance, and I helped to write the curriculum. Such independence is exhilarating—but it also poses a risk. Since I decide just about everything that happens in my room, what happens if I fail? What if I become a bug on her back, flailing, limbs in the air?

I’m in constant danger, too, of my heart being broken. It’s love, of course, that does that, and love is the only way to describe my feelings for the students I am with each year, sometimes for longer than a year. These are kids I have seen when they are happy, seen when they are down, seen when they are taxed to their limit, and seen at play. We have developed a relationship, each one of them and I, based on shared experience and my knowledge of what they often reveal when we read those books together. I am privy to their ideas when they raise their hands to speak. I read their thoughts in the essays they write for me. It’s a lopsided relationship, of course. More like parent-child than friend-to-friend. I nag them, cajole them, and tell them what to do. Sometimes they make poor decisions, let me down, act badly. Sometimes I’d like to throttle them. Sometimes terrible things happen in their lives, and then my heart aches for them. My attachment to the kids I teach sounds odd to people who haven’t taught. But years later, when I see my students all grown up, when I encounter them in a store or at a theater or meet them on the street, I discover that they feel attached to me, too. Sometimes, even years later, they come back to say thank you: for pushing them, for demanding they do their best, for putting up with their resistance, for caring about them, for teaching them something.

Dangerous stuff, this other: Privilege. Independence. Joy. They are intoxicating. But they come with risk attached: Isolation. Failure. Hurt.

In the end, since I gave my heart to teaching, I have spent a good deal of my life in a box—inside the four walls of a classroom. But I have traveled far in a world I created myself, a world peopled by the most amazing characters—fictional and real—whose lives have enriched, beyond measure, my own.

There ought to be a police barrier—a yellow ribbon—around the perimeter of every school: Danger Zone.

I’ve never been sorry I crossed that line. Even when I’ve been flattened.

Pinterest, Sort of

Years ago, students began giving me pictures of themselves. They would slip them into their graduation announcements, leave them on my desk, or simply hand them to me. I tacked the first few on the bulletin board. The result? More pictures came my way. The board began to fill. Eventually, all the bulletin boards in my classroom were covered with pictures of kids—except for one section behind some bookcases.

• Eric, who read Shane in the 11th grade–the first book he’d ever read cover to cover.

• And Twila, the first person in her family to attend college…oh, how she loved to read.

• Kelly, who rarely spoke in class, but had enormous writing talent. One day when she was absent, I read her story aloud.
“Who wrote that?” asked Brandon. He always spoke his mind.
“She ought to speak up more,” he said.
I agreed. “Someday she will,” I said. She wanted to be a minister.

• Masooda, a refugee from Afghanistan: She spoke no English at all when she first came to my class. We started with pictures she would cut from magazines. By the end of the year, she knew enough English to give a speech to her incredulous classmates about Afghanistan and her escape to America.

I used to joke with my students that when the bulletin boards were full, I’d retire. Since I was much too young for that, I simply moved the bookcase. Then I myself moved—to a new classroom where even more capacious bulletin boards filled one entire wall. I kept adding pictures.


• The Russia Travelers: 27 American kids and 27 Russian ones—all of them participants in the academic exchanges that opened our eyes and forever changed all of our lives.

• Allie, who was my student aide for three years and knew me so well she practically ran my classroom the year I had to take a short leave.

• Another Brandon, this one the boy who took up my challenge and spent one whole night bringing his Turn It In score down from 26% to zero. “Mrs. Powley! How’s it going?” he’d shout out exuberantly every day when he came into class.

• Maggie, sliding into home base in a picture clipped from the newspaper. She loved to hear me read out loud.

A year and a half ago, I switched classrooms for the last time. There is very little bulletin board space in my new room—just yards and yards of whiteboard. So the pictures—which it took two teachers and four kids several hours to untack and place in a gigantic box—are already packed to go home with me when I leave the classroom at the end of this year to become a full-time Instructional Coach.

I’ve nurtured these students. I’ve challenged them; I’ve believed in them and helped them grow. I’ll never forget them, but I’m glad to have the pictures.

Funny how something so little, given and taken so casually—a senior picture, a snapshot from a field trip, a photo that was in the newspaper—can be so weighted with meaning.

I haven’t had trouble culling my files. I’ve been happy to pass my books along to my colleagues. Maps, posters, decorations: I’m glad they have new homes. But the photographs? They’re coming with me.


She came to me in her junior year—rough and brash and scared. She wasn’t a reader; she wasn’t a writer. She wasn’t a student at all. But somewhere she’d gotten the idea that the only way out of the harsh life she had known was through education. Her family certainly didn’t think school mattered.

Once she had asked her mother how to spell “enormous.”

Her mother answered, “B-I-G. That’s good enough.”

9th and 10th grade General English had been unchallenging, and she didn’t think she was going to get the education she craved in the 11th grade class to which she had been assigned. It promised to be another slow-paced section where no one did the homework and the books were never opened. So she signed herself up for a tougher class in hopes that someone would teach her something. Her mother told her she’d fail, her guidance counselor thought the same, and she herself had no idea how demanding the next level up would be.

She did fail the first test. Tears welled up in her eyes. The reading had been difficult and the essays, impossible.

That test was a crucible. She nearly gave up. But I talked her into sticking it out, and I worked with her. I taught her how to use the footnotes and the sidebars in the text to improve her understanding. I showed her how to figure out the meanings of words from their context and worked with her on writing coherent sentences. She labored over the assignments, and, because of all the effort she was putting forth, I had to resist the temptation to give her higher marks than her performance merited. Her grades remained borderline for some time, but slowly, step-by-step, she gained ground. She learned to read Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau. Her scores improved. Gradually, she learned to write an essay.

At the end of the year, she asked if she could keep the textbook.

For her senior year, she chose another difficult English class and continued her steady growth with another teacher who responded to her drive to learn. She went to college on a combination of loans, work-study, and grants, and she became a teacher herself, giving to her students what she says we gave to her: challenge—and the coaching she needed to meet that challenge.

The credit for her accomplishments goes to her, not to me or my colleague. But I know that setting those high expectations—and then helping her to meet them—through after-school tutoring and after-class explanations, through attentive responses to her questions, through suggestions for further reading so she could catch up with her peers—were essential to her success. She had the motivation. She needed teachers who would not limit her rise, but would support her reach for what was possible.

When a track coach trains a high jumper, he lifts the bar in increments, raising it just enough each time to make the jump a challenge—but not so much that he defeats the jumper at the get-go. So it should be in the classroom. Styling ourselves as “impossibly hard” in an effort to challenge our students to grow—or the reverse, settling for “good enough”—are neither one going to help our students reach their potential. Instead, we need to operate like a track coach: Make our students comfortable so they are willing to take a run at the goal, teach the fundamentals, and then gradually increase the level of difficulty. And of course, celebrate when they clear the bar!