Conquering the Canopy Walk: a Metaphor

The canopy walk at Sacha Lodge, Ecuador

I don’t do heights. I don’t much like snakes, mosquitoes or heat and humidity either. How then, did I find myself 94 feet above the jungle, walking 940 feet between three strong metal towers on a swaying bridge? By climbing fourteen flights of steps in 98゚heat with 90+% humidity.

A better question might be why, or even how? The answer speaks to educators. Our trip facilitator knows me well and he knew the situation. He’s helped me overcome my limits before, though perhaps never so dramatically. We talked about the canopy walk before I even left the safety of my home. He knew how to help me choose to go.

He said, “You can do it, I know you can, and I’ll help. Just take your time – we won’t rush you. And you won’t want to miss it.” He made me believe in myself enough to overcome deep-seated fears because I believed him. I could, he’d help, I could take my time, and I’d be sorry if I skipped it.

It’s worth noting that when we kayaked the Lake Country of Italy with him two years earlier and I chose not to take a clumsy funicular up to a frightening height, he didn’t push me. Instead we had a wonderful paddle. So if he said this wasn’t to be missed, I wouldn’t miss it.

And I had additional support to see me through. Our kayaking buddy Ada, with whom we’d taken two other trips, had seen my bypass the funicular and knew I wanted to do this terrifying climb. She promised to walk with me. I would not face this scary challenge alone.

So I climbed. At halfway up I questioned my sanity, but I kept going. When we finally reached the top of the first tower, the view of the jungle’s canopy was breathtaking. The drop to the ground below looked gentler than it must have been, and I finally caught my breath. Dripping in sweat, cursing the heat and humidity, I did take the time to do a 360゚view. My husband had patiently climbed right behind me, but at the top I lost him to his camera. While he clicked away, taking pictures I knew we’d both be glad to have, I headed out on the walkway toward the middle tower, determined to complete the walk before I lost my nerve.

The first half felt fairly stable, and I found myself looking ahead and around rather than down. This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. I stopped briefly at the middle tower, winded and dripping with sweat. I need to finish this, I thought, and I can do it.

Sadly the second 450’ swayed far more. Whimpering, I practiced self-talk. I wanted to quit but knew that the closest path to the safety of the ground was straight ahead. Happily my friend Ada walked back to join me. I kept my eyes on the back of her neck and hung on to the coarse rope cable to gain an illusion of control. My legs were trembling when we reached the far tower, but I had done it – I had completed the dreaded canopy walk and was alive to tell about it!

Now I just had to make my way down 14 more flights of stairs. Since everyone else was captivated by the view, I worked my way down slowly. I wanted to kiss the ground when I reached it, as I had after my son talked me into riding Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, but the mud seemed unappealing. Finally the others  joined me and we hiked back to the lodge though the jungle. Dehydration and fatigue sapped my energy, yet I was triumphant! I had just done something I’d been sure I couldn’t do. I could have been faster, more graceful, less noisy in my whimpering, but I’d done it nonetheless. And now, when I face new challenges, I will be a bit more confident because of this triumph.

Next month I’m going to model a semi-transparent dress in a runway show. I’ve had garments I’ve designed on the runway before, but I’ve never had to model them myself, and this garment is particularly problematic.  But I will remind myself that I completed the canopy walk, and that will see me through.

Why write about this in a teaching blog? Because sometimes our students feel as apprehensive as I did. We may not understand why, but we need to recognize their fears and help them conquer those fears. Those who don’t share my acrophobia may never really understand how hard this walk was for me, but they can help me succeed by acknowledging my true feelings and showing me how to overcome them. We need to tell our students, “You can do this. I’ll help you. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did.”

And in collaborative, constructivist classrooms, we need to encourage their classmates to support them the way Ada supported me. I am reminded of a presentation in our American Lit class by a student who struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When he stood up to speak, he started biting his arm. Quietly the other members of his group stood up, surrounded him, and nodded encouragingly. He was able to present his part of their material. With their support, he triumphed. Far less dramatic situations happen in classrooms every day, and teachers and classmates can make a difference. Students who overcome their fears and do something they thought they couldn’t become empowered to tackle additional challenges. It’s up to us teachers to help that happen.

More “Good News about Bad Behavior”

We recently had the opportunity to hear Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the author of The Good News about Bad Behavior, speak in person. I’d raved about her book in an earlier blog post, but I need to rave about her once again. She addressed the refrain from my friends still in the classroom that students just are different, and she proposed meaningful solutions.

Much of her presentation focused on parenting, but the principles she espoused speak to educators as well. Ms. Lewis asserts that kids are fundamentally different, so we need whole different sets of tools in our toolbox. Kids’ behavior is often problematic because we have a “crisis of self-regulation in kids today.” According to a National Institute for Mental Health longitudinal study, 1 in 2 will have a behavioral disorder or substance addiction by 18. Nearly a third have an anxiety diagnosis. 19% have behavioral disorders like ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. 14% have a mood disorder and 11 % substance abuse problem. Some of these issues overlap. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the last 10 years, the suicide rate for children 10-14 has doubled, and it has gone up 41% for kids 15-19. These stats are frightening and explain disruptive behaviors in the classroom.

Three big changes in society that have helped cause this shift:

  1. Disappearance of childhood play [which inevitably leads to self-regulation]
  2. Growth of social media and technology – turns our focus externally, which is strongly correlated with depression
  3. “Childhood has become about performance and achievement and not about contribution.” But contribution gives people a sense of where they belong and how they matter.

All that felt very depressing when she shared it at a Glenbard Parent Series talk in February. But it helps explain why a lot of the tools we’re used to may not work and may even be counterproductive. Neuroscience tells us that the carrot-and-stick approach does not work, for example. I was profoundly excited about her talk, though, because she offered research-based tools that do work.  

Her three keys to help kids learn to self-regulate are:

  1. Connection between the adult and child
  2. Communication with kids about their behavior to build their self-regulatory ability: problem-solving, critical thinking, social and emotional management
  3. Capability-building

If we build connections with kids, we can help them self-regulate. Our physical presence can help kids calm down and eliminate symptoms of anxiety. A calm physical touch also can help kids get back into self-regulation. In the classroom [where touching has its own risks], we might give young children something to hug, offer just a light touch on the shoulder to older students. When we empathize and kids feel understood, they can calm down and self-regulate. Our modeling good self-regulation in our behavior helps, too.

How we communicate also matters. Reynolds urges that we “shift from goal of getting them to do what we want to getting them to do what’s needed in the situation to build those skills that will help them thrive in that moment and in life generally.” For example, when a student is distraught, we need to send the message that strong emotions are okay instead of dismissing or ignoring them. Then the student is more able to be effective in addressing the issue. We can encourage students about what they’re doing and the effort they’re putting in. We can reframe language to state the same issue positively; for example, she suggests that instead of telling kids at a swimming pool not to run, ask them to walk. We might give information about what we see instead of telling our students what to do. She suggested that a parent might say, “I see a Lego model on the floor right where people need to walk” because the kid will then realize it needs to be moved. We can ask more questions and be less directive. We can help students learn to plan and think ahead: executive function skills that allow our kids to make plans and to organize big projects are a stronger predictor of success in life than IQ, so we should help them anticipate what they need to do. When things go wrong, we should ask them to come up with plan. Reynolds insists that it’s important to give kids chances to rise to responsibility, a hallmark of a student-centered constructivist classroom. We need to allow kids to fail and get back up again. We need to teach them to recognize their own progress on a continuum.

Lewis talked about Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work —brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”[1] When we praise our kids for outcome and focus on the results of their actions, they can develop a fixed mindset [on how smart they are, for instance]. But if we focus on their progress, they can see themselves as having potential and being more capable.

Reynolds agrees that kids still need to have consequences, but we want them to learn from those consequences. She suggests four tests to be sure that consequences are learning opportunities:

  • Related to the child’s actions
  • Reasonable in scope
  • Respectful of the child and us
  • Revealed in advance

She also offers meaningful steps for negotiating agreements:

  • Share concern neutrally, not in blaming way
  • Invite kids’ perspective
  • Invite some solutions
  • Agree on a solution both of you think is going to work and the consequences if it doesn’t
  • Let the agreement play out

So my apologies to my colleagues for not having been more sympathetic and agreeable when their descriptions of student behavior sounded like whining to me. The bad news is that kids really have changed in ways that make it harder for them and for their parents and teachers. As adults, we need to change how we help them address their behavior. But the good news is that Katherine Reynolds Lewis offers concrete suggestions about how to do that.

P.S. The book goes into far more detail – definitely worth reading!


[1] Dweck, 2015

Finding our Common Humanity

“Kids and Cuban friends on balcony of Hotel Leon Varadero Beach Dec ’54”

We just returned from an amazing ten-day kayaking trip in Cuba, and I’ve been thinking about how much I learned and how I learned it. Though we love to kayak in foreign waters – a wonderful and different way to explore new places – a bigger draw for this trip was my long-time wish to return. In 1954 my family spent part of winter break in the first resort hotel in Varadero Beach, Cuba, during Batista’s regime. I knew nothing of the politics or corruption there, so for me the trip was wonderful, set apart from our other frequent family travels by two distinct epiphanies.

First, my beloved brother Peter, gazing at the wondrous expanse of silver-white sand, challenged me to help him figure out just how many grains of sand there were covering the shoreline. I would never have thought about that without his prompting, and we spent endless time collecting sand, estimating the number of grains each time, and trying to extrapolate those findings into a likely total. Peter introduced me to a new way of thinking about the world around me.

The second involved the local children we befriended. I don’t remember the name of the boy, but I will never forget Marielle. I’ve always loved languages so, although I was only seven, I had brought a Spanish-English dictionary. I worked to learn phrases so I could talk with locals. A bit older, Marielle wanted to learn English and often glanced longingly at my book. She lived near the hotel, so my parents agreed to walk me to her home before we left so I could give her the dictionary to keep. This was not the first time I’d visited a place with a different living standard from my own affluent suburban upbringing – our parents were invested with our understanding that diversity. Other places had failed to make a lasting impression. This time, though, I visited the home of my new-found friend. Her family had so little, a dramatic contrast to the lifestyle I’d always taken for granted. That visit taught me not to take my comforts for granted, not to be so egocentric.

This long-awaited trip to Cuba reinforced that learning. We had the privilege of staying in casa particulares, private homes owned by Cubans who rent rooms to tourists. The Cuban economy uses a dual-currency system: Cuban pesos for locals who are paid by the government, and Cuban convertible pesos, worth 25 times as much, for use by tourists. This system creates what our wonderful guide Roberto calls an “upside-down pyramid.” Professionals like his doctor father and teacher mother must live on a miniscule salary in Cuban pesos, while those who manage to work in tourism improve their financial standing dramatically. Having lived through the 1990s economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba stranded, he himself changed his career path to tourism so he could help support his family. Putting any political judgments aside, I found the resourcefulness and friendliness of the Cubans we met inspiring.

The biggest lesson I bring back from this experience is our common humanity. Two of my favorite experiences emphasized this. Our hosts just outside the old town of Trinidad welcomed us warmly. When Marisol said, “Mi casa e su casa,” she really meant it. Hot and sweaty on arrival, we were treated to Canchanchara, the traditional drink. Once fluent in French and Italian, I’d made little progress in my study of Spanish before the trip, and Marisol and her husband and son spoke virtually no English. But we communicated with gestures and smiles and my occasionally looking up words in my second Spanish-English dictionary. The next afternoon, when we returned from a hike through the old town after a river paddle, again sweaty and tired, we sat on their back portal. Her son came to invite us back into the gardens where it was cooler, and they surprised us with refreshing limonada. The pictures I’d brought from our 1954 trip fascinated the family, and we felt a strong human connection.

The next day we visited the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, where we were treated to a stellar performance by a local choir. Music is a constant in Cuba, and we’d enjoyed singers and bands throughout our trip. This time, however, felt very personal. The choir began with a heart-felt rendition of the American song Shenandoah, moving me to tears. The other pieces were in Spanish, but their spokeswoman kindly explained the content of each before singing. I loved the piece about the person who though he could sing, who really sang like a duck as exemplified by their quack-quacks during the song!  During their last song they invited us to come up and dance with them – a wonderful experience! Afterwards they invited questions and comments. Overwhelmed, I barely managed to get my words out… but I told them that I could not sing and was the duck, making them all laugh, and that I had loved their performance because they made me realize that for all our differences, we shared a common humanity that too often gets forgotten. My tears weren’t the only ones.

This choral group is as good as any I’ve heard, yet they struggle to raise the money to record their work, and they must sell their CDs to pay for their trips to competitions despite how professional and accomplished they are. Once again I was reminded of how much I take for granted.

All of which made me think about why I became a literature teacher in the first place. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel widely, to meet people from other places who live very differently from ourselves and to realize how much we still have in common. We appreciate many of the same gifts: a laugh, a smile, a song, friends, sharing a good meal… But anyone who can read simply needs a library card and time. Through stories and books, we can discover so much about the rest of the world.

I was excited to see some progress in the 80s and 90s – albeit excruciatingly slow – to have children’s textbooks include a variety of people, so that all students might see themselves reflected on the page. As a teacher I helped include books in the curriculum that showed my students very different lives. If I were still in the classroom now, I would look for even more ways to do that. The canon is broader than it used to be, but educators can be more strategic in what they choose and how they use it. I used to tell my freshmen that Romeo & Juliet is a story they can recognize: two teenagers so “hot to trot” that they sneak around behind their parents’ backs, heedless of possible consequences. When my sophomores read the riveting memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, they had to imagine what it was like for Melba Beals and the other eight students to integrate Little Rock High School, to face down the hatred and opposition of segregationists. When my seniors read The Plague by Albert Camus, they faced a world where medical care could not save the victims. Well-written stories bring other worlds to life. We need to include them in our curricula. Our students can and should learn that while much divides us, more unites us. The human experience transcends local differences.

The Debate on the Canon Continues

Shayna Murphy recently posted an intriguing blog arguing that too many classics taught in today’s high schools may not “necessarily [be] the right fit for a modern-day classroom.”[1] This argument is hardly new, but she thoughtfully suggests more modern and accessible books that address some of the same issues. Murphy also suggests that we can always teach both – unlikely given today’s packed curriculum.

I enjoyed following her thought process and liked many of her choices. Why not replace Moby Dick with The Martian or The Scarlet Letter with Handmaid’s Tale? But I’m having second thoughts… based on why I believe in teaching literature in the first place.

Great books open up the world to readers, who:

  • can’t help but recognize that across time and place, people are basically still people
  • also can’t avoid the reality that the times shape the culture, and we can gain a better understanding of the human experience as it changes and evolves
  • can understand the issues they face in their lives by exploring them through the lens of a book
  • can begin to recognize the diversity of human experience instead of assuming that their own way of life is universal

“Literary study should … provide us with many complex models for understanding and responding to others and to ourselves,” said University of Connecticut professor Patrick Hogan.[2]

So I have no qualms about selecting books and asking my student readers to stretch themselves to understand. Through books they can expand their understanding of people and human nature. Some of the traditional canon excels at that. Limiting their reading to contemporary works may be easier, but it deprives them of a global view of human nature over time.

I’m a Margaret Atwood fan and read Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published. As a teacher, though, I can’t help but wonder if my students might read it on their own or at least watch the televised version. Is it valuable to ground the oppression of women in a book like The Scarlet Letter? And Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying may be a challenging read due to its rotating cast of narrators and his extremely long and complex sentences. But recognizing the impact of point of view, learning to appreciate a different approach to language and style, discovering the society of the Gothic South in the 1930s – how does the value of these compare to the relatively easy read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is far more sentimental and also available on video. And are we ready to ignore the role that As I Lay Dying and others on the list, like The Great Gatsby have on the novels that follow them?

I know Beowulf was tough to teach, but surely it’s another seminal, foundational work. J.R. Tolkien, whose work many of my students read avidly, called Beowulf  “’this greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,’… [and it] informed his thinking about myth and language.”[3] Don’t students benefit from learning more about how novels and other forms have evolved?

I’m all for opening up the canon. My last two years of teaching we rolled out a regular sophomore English class that included eight books, half of which were non-fiction [often neglected] and all of which were relatively contemporary. But we could do that because we had so many classic works embedded in the English classes of other years. We don’t need to make the canon a binary choice. Let’s be more inclusive as we keep some classics. Let’s help our students discover many worlds beyond their own.


[1] https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2016/09/01/books-we-should-stop-making-high-schoolers-read

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/educating-teenagers-emotions-through-literature/476790/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/books/jrr-tolkiens-translation-of-beowulf-is-published.html

Role Models Who Mirror Their Students

A week ago the Chicago Tribune Sunday paper ran a front-page story about the unusual journey of a man of color to his current position teaching sixth grade at a Chicago public school.[1] His story feels compelling. The challenges he faces are all too familiar.

Two things really struck me, though:

  1. The research data that reinforces the importance of students having role model who looks like them.
  2. The value of social engineering to make sure schools have role models that mirror their populations.

According to this article, “the number of black teachers in Chicago Public Schools declined to 21 percent, while the number of students of color grew to 84 percent, including 37 percent African-American and 47 percent Hispanic… [yet] black students who had just one black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college and those who had two were 32 percent more likely.” I grew up in a teaching profession dominated by hetero white females like myself. How do we meet the needs of a diverse student body and provide them with role models they can relate to if our teachers don’t mirror the student population?

This teacher found his way to the classroom through the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program. “The mission of the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program is to prepare aspiring teachers for successful and long-lasting careers in urban schools.”[2] They offer a two-year Master of Arts in Teaching followed by three years of mentorship. That mentorship has helped their students succeed: “Ninety-two percent of UChicago UTEP graduates are still teaching in urban schools after five years compared to the national average of 50 percent.”[3] Although their mission doesn’t specify seeking diverse representation, the pictures of their students and alumni suggest a very diverse group. This program is one way to develop a pipeline of diverse teachers who provide students with role models who look like them. There should be others.

Social policy can shape outcomes for good. When my children were little and we wanted a primary parent raising them, the tax code of the time cut us a break financially that helped make that choice possible. Now parents can get tax credits help them pay for childcare. In both cases the IRS rules provide a kind of social engineering. Let’s use that kind of social engineering to grow a more diverse teaching population. Students need to see themselves in at least some of their teachers. Why not encourage more programs like the University of Chicago UTEP? Why not offer tax credits or other enticements to minority candidates for teaching? Let’s get a teaching population that mirrors the student body and has the skills to support and grow those students.

We say we care about children in this country, but we ignore much of what we know they need because it’s expensive and/or difficult to work to meet those needs. Programs like this one, programs that not only encourage diverse individuals to become teachers but also give them the support to succeed and stay in the profession, mean students can have role models they can relate to. If that increases the chances for success for those students, why aren’t we doing more to make it happen?


[1] https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-male-black-teacher-first-year-chicago-20190103-story.html

[2] https://utep.uchicago.edu/

[3] Ibid.

Targeting Your Audience

I’d been struggling for weeks with the last section of my teaching memoir. Problem-based learning [PBL] transformed my teaching even for the more traditional curricula, and trying to capture that felt too huge. It kept eluding me. Finally I dug out some of my notebooks – now I wish I’d saved even more – and used them to organize and complete my prewriting. The research took time, and it surprised me with a discovery. Memories of my problem-solving class built on PBL had obliterated memories of the journey that preceded it.

I slipped back into professional writing mode, organizing a rough outline and fleshing it out with details. I drafted a piece that described that early journey thoroughly, too thoroughly… The  more I reread the draft, the less satisfied I was, but I couldn’t figure out quite why or what to do about it. So I polished the piece and sent it out to my writing group for feedback.

They knew immediately what was wrong: I’d written an article destined for a journal instead of telling the story that mattered. I’ve written such articles before and had them published, but I want my memoir to be quite different. It contains a series of stories about what I learned from my students and colleagues, and I’d forgotten to be a storyteller.

When I complained that I couldn’t remember specifics, they urged me to fill in and approximate, to create dialogue that represented what happened. When I talked about the disastrous micro-coaching experience, they wanted details I’d repressed so thoroughly that I couldn’t recapture them. They told me to at least acknowledge that directly. They reminded me that the story didn’t need every detail about the PBL process, just enough to make the story clear. They reminded me that my intended audience was looking for narratives, not professional development! I’d gone all Joe Friday, the protagonist on the 1950s television show Dragnet  famous for saying, “The facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Too many facts, and not enough storytelling.

I’m starting over. This time I’m focusing on the narrative, focusing on feelings instead of teaching my readers about PBL. The writing is coming more easily. It’s more fun to create the piece and I’m sure it will be more fun to read. I’m targeting the audience I want, and that’s not a group of teachers studying PBL. I want this story to be meaningful for non-teachers, for anyone interested in education and what teaching and learning are like. And I owe my writing group for that reminder.

Which of course made me think about my own teaching of writing. I started out the sole audience for my students, the know-it-all audience for my students. Early in my career I was lucky enough to study a different approach to writing through the Illinois Writing Project. Each session that I took moved me further away from the teacher-as-audience approach. After the second round I arranged my English I Honors class as a writing workshop, and students regularly did peer reading and response. By the third IWP session, peer reading permeated all my writing classes. Having a broader audience helped my students re-vision their writing. Getting feedback from more than one source raised possibilities I might never have raised. And just as reading the work from other writers in my group has given me new insights into possibilities for writing, they gained as readers, too.

I am reminded once again of the need to tailor writing to fit the intended audience. And that requires being clear on who the intended audience is in the first place! And an audience of peer readers can help confirm that. I’m lucky to have a group that reminds me of that.

Metamorphosis

I have been grappling with writing one of the most challenging sections of my teaching memoir. Problem-Based Learning changed me and my teaching. It transformed roles and relationships in ways I could not have foreseen. Its impact extended far beyond the PBL elective class I developed or the problems I ran in other classes. I was different because of it. I wanted my students to be different. I had moved from the teacher infamous for “talking bell-to-bell on fewer breaths than anyone else,” an “honor” bestowed on me by early students, to a coach who designed experiences where I could turn the work over to my learners and then assist them.

 

This transformation was so complete by the late 90s that I described my class to parents very differently, explaining how student-centered it had become. After one Parents’ Night, one of my students came to me the next morning with a gentle warning: “My parents want to know why you get paid the big bucks when we do all the work. I tried to explain that you still set up what we do and coach us, but they’re not convinced… you need to do a better job of describing things.”

 

Undaunted, I turned to the whole class and asked for solutions. They suggested that students be the ones to describe the class. As members of the National Honor Society, many of them already showed up for Parents Night to guide visitors to their destinations. Others, though, volunteered to help.

 

“If our work is so student-centered, shouldn’t we be the ones explaining it to parents?” one asked.

 

“Who could be better ambassadors for this than us?” queried another.

 

Sure enough, the next fall, several of them gave up their evening off to be my ambassadors. I introduced them to parents and then left the room for most of our allotted time, only slightly queasy at the possibility of their going rogue. The teacher I’d been twenty years earlier could never have let go.

 

I found it challenging to articulate this major shift. I found it even more challenging to break it down and describe the stages. Today I finally finished outlining the section of my memoir with these stories. I did the kind of serious and thorough prewriting I’d required of my students, and I could begin to see the bigger picture. I could imagine others seeing that bigger picture, too.

 

And this work reminded me of why I’d chosen my blog’s title. John Cotton Dana wrote, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.” Daring to learn was hard, but it made teaching so much more satisfying. The journey was worth it!

Dead Ruins Come to Life

I’ve never been one for ruins. I’ve been blessed to visit them in Italy and the Middle East, and we had an excellent tour of Pompei, but – with the exception of the Coliseum in Rome – they’ve always felt cold and dead to me. I wasn’t even excited to be visiting Athens on the way to our kayaking trip in Sicily, a city filled with important ruins that I expected to find boring. I was wrong.

 

I fell in love with the Acropolis. Although I’d been able to imagine, at least vaguely, gladiators in the Coliseum in Rome, each part of the Acropolis told me a story. I could see the Greeks there, I could envision their worship, I could visualize the ruins as intact buildings filled with people.

 

As a teacher I had to ask myself why. What was so different this time?

 

Two factors made this experience memorable: context and story. Because we were so jetlagged on our midday arrival in Athens, we spent it at the Acropolis Museum. The displays are remarkable: overlays and drawings of what once was help fill in the gaps of what’s there now, and several videos tell the story of the making of the Acropolis and its role in Greek life. The museum itself is built over ruins that it highlights. When I was a student, most of my history classes had left me cold because I was taught a series of discrete facts to memorize, yet I was a Political Science minor in college because my poli sci profs told the stories behind the issues. Dates mattered but could be looked up. The how and why became the focus.

 

The Acropolis Museum provided enough how and why for me to appreciate the stories when we did get to tour the ruins. I could visualize the erection of the giant statue of Athena in the Parthenon even though it’s long gone. I could envision the laborers erecting the perfectly angled columns, manipulating heavy stones. Looking into the Theater of Dionysus, I could imagine ancient Greeks filling the rows to watch performances. I could see their world.

 

At night the illuminated buildings high on the hilltop filled our view, their harmony and symmetry commanding appreciation. Their aesthetic appeal called to me, but I would have appreciated the stories they told regardless.

 

This experience made me wonder: Did I do enough to provide context and story for my students? I just worked with a high school sophomore struggling with early American Literature. He found William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation daunting. How could he recognize bias when he didn’t have a sufficient background, when his understanding of the relationship between the Pilgrims and native Americans was the stuff of movies and TV shows? We all need context and story.

 

I can think of at least two times I provided the kind of preparatory experience that the Acropolis Museum gave me. When my junior Honors students struggled with Beowulf, unable to relate to the relationship between thanes and their kings, my teaching partner and I wrote a guided imagery script. Students came into a classroom with the shades pulled down, lit only by candlelight, and they left out paper and pen as they closed their eyes. I took them to the land of Beowulf, reminding them that they owed allegiance to their king, that they must die for their king if needed. I told them they were enjoying a brief respite before returning to the battlefield, ready to die with honor. After they journaled about the experience, the discussions brought them to a new state of readiness for the literature they were going to read. And after my Advanced Placement students began reading Bread and Wine, the anti-fascist novel written by Ignazio Silone when he was exiled from Italy under Mussolini, a stellar history teacher came to tell them about Fascism and its history in World War II. Both of those experiences helped. I should have offered more of them.

 

Neuroscientists tell us we can only learn when we can connect what we’re learning with pre-existing knowledge. Teachers need to build those bridges when the material is so unfamiliar to their students. The Acropolis Museum built that bridge for me.

We Need to Support Our Schools

Recently I found myself enmeshed in a lengthy Facebook conversation with other citizens of our home town on its “What’s Happening” page. Our teacher’s union has authorized a strike after working since August without a contract and negotiating since February. This is a hot topic in Illinois, a state that is so poorly managed that we have the worst credit rating in the country[1], and a state that does not do its share to fund public education, putting an overwhelming burden on property owners. We rank last in the percentage of funding that comes from the state, according to a 2016 U.S. Census report.[2] So I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of support for teachers from those who were posting.

 

“From the very beginning of these negotiations our association has maintained a commitment to reach an agreement that puts the district’s 5,800 students first; promotes a high-quality education; is fair for the teachers; and is fiscally responsible to the community of Geneva,” said Kevin Gannon, president of the GEA. “We have been working to find common ground with the school board. We know the district has the financial ability to pay our teachers wages that are competitive with other districts of our caliber.”[3]

 

I don’t know enough about the district’s ability to pay because both sides are maintaining confidentiality right now. The best information I could find was that there was a small surplus in 2017. I do see that our teachers make less than the teachers in neighboring communities, even though our town has always been known for its desirability and the quality of its schools. How can we continue to attract excellent teachers when our pay is not competitive? Teachers who work just 20-30 minutes away make significantly higher salaries – I know. I was one of them. Geneva has always prided itself on attracting good teachers because it’s such a desirable system to be in. But if the gap continues to grow, will teachers still seek out Geneva? All teachers already make almost 20 percent less than similar professionals,[4] and good teachers put in a full year’s work in a compressed time frame. From one of my FB posts: “When I was teaching in Connecticut, the Yale School of Business and Management did a serious time study of my high school English Department and determined that we worked a full year [2000 hours plus] during the school year. We, like so many, are challenged by our property taxes, but that’s not the fault of teachers — you can thank a state that’s among the very worse in support of public education. I don’t know the details of the contract proposal yet, but I’d urge residents to keep an open mind.”

 

Gannon goes on to say, “A strike is the last thing we want and we are continuing to do everything in our power to avoid that possibility. The GEA is simply trying to attract and retain quality teachers to serve our students and maintain the standard of excellence we now provide to the students in Geneva. Under the school board’s proposals, Geneva teachers will continue to lag behind nearby districts in salaries and the gap will continue to grow. We do not want to keep losing our newer colleagues to neighboring districts.”[5]

 

I find myself revisiting my school district’s strike in 1998. None of us wanted it, either. We wanted a fair package and chose a strike as an absolute last resort. I believe that’s true of Geneva teachers, too. No one really wins a strike.

 

And I find myself worrying about our nation. We say kids matter, but we don’t walk our talk. Teachers are overworked and underpaid. When our country is so deeply divided, when we face such extreme challenges in an unstable world, a robust citizenry capable of critical thinking becomes even more essential to our future. When will we invest in education, in professionalizing teachers and their pay, in improving ongoing professional development for those teachers, in removing obstacles like overreliance on standardized tests? How can we fully develop the potential of our students, who are our future, if we don’t?

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/wall-street-credit-rating-gives-illinois-relief-not-much/

[2] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edit-0505-sizing-up-illinois-htmlstory.html

[3] https://patch.com/illinois/geneva/district-304-teachers-union-oks-strike

[4] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2018/09/teachers_wage_penalty.html

[5] https://patch.com/illinois/geneva/district-304-teachers-union-oks-strike

 

Why Can’t He Remember What He Reads?!!!

I’m working with a delightful bright and well-mannered young man who writes well. He has come to me because he doesn’t like to read and doesn’t hang on to what he’s read, especially with novels. This is neither the first nor, undoubtedly, the last encounter I’ll have with this problem, and my familiarity with it drove my efforts to become a resource teacher, showing classes that weren’t my own how to use their textbooks more effectively. But working with this young man has caused some renewed soul-searching for me.

 

Why doesn’t he have better reading comprehension when his apparent cognitive abilities suggest he should? I can think of many factors supported by research:

  • Our one-size fits all approach to teaching reading, both in terms of when we teach it and how we teach it, doesn’t always match the developmental stages and modalities of learners.
  • We sometimes fail to offer engaging books that build the habit and pleasure of reading for meaning.
  • Too many students see reading for school as a completely separate task from reading for themselves and fail to apply the same habits of mind on assigned work.
  • In our digital and multi-media age, attention spans for reading, which requires more effort than watching, may be lessened.
  • The increased power of illustrations of children’s books has limited the ability of readers to create images and movies in their own minds.

 

I am reminded of my own experience as a freshman in high school. My father, convinced I was bright enough to get straight A’s and frustrated that I wasn’t getting them, called me into his tiny study after supper one night.

 

“Sit in my easy chair, El, and read the next chapter of your Social Studies text. When you’re done, I want you to tell me about it.” He sat at his desk, distractedly pushing papers around, waiting for me to look up.

 

A compliant child, I sat there and read the whole chapter. My eyes passed over all the words, but when it came time to tell him what I’d read, I had almost nothing.

 

Why? I’m not stupid. I knew that. He knew that. But I had no purpose for reading other than to tell him about it. I didn’t care about what I was I reading, and I didn’t know how to look for connections that would give the text meaning. Neuroscientists have taught us much about how the brain works, including its need to see patterns and to fit new knowledge onto existing understandings. “The mind imposes structure on the information available from experience.”[1]

 

But I don’t work with early readers and I won’t impact their instruction. So for me the question now is how to help this reluctant reader to develop deeper reading skills. After a review of the literature and remembering some successes from my own classroom, I found myself building a handout to give structure to his efforts. We’ve already begun, but it’s too soon to know how successful this approach might be.

 

I expect that he’ll at least learn to “play the game,” to retain enough to do better in school. My sales pitch with him has been for him to “get more bang for the buck” and more payoff for his efforts. My heart of hearts longs to find books that capture his imagination and provoke a desire to read and understand. Sadly, his academic and athletic commitments leave little room. As someone who virtually never goes to bed without reading, who travels with a Kindle filled with books, who raised children who read the cereal box at breakfast if they weren’t allowed their books – as that person, I struggle to understand a life unenriched by the joy of reading. For now, though, I’ll settle for helping him cope with his assignments. Perhaps once he finds some success, we can enlist a cool librarian to find books aligned with his passions, books that might make him passionate about reading.

[1] https://www.nap.edu/read/9853/chapter/8#126