Learning to Fly

I recently had lunch with a delightful young friend who has had a successful career teaching people how to use industrial chemistry equipment. He’s tired of the travel and loves the teaching, and he lives in a state with such a severe shortage of STEM teachers that some science courses are taught by teachers certified in entirely unrelated areas. Although he could easily walk in the door and get a job based on his knowledge and experience, he’s choosing to go through an alternative certification program to be better prepared. He has his content knowledge down and he has volunteered in a program with young adults, but he wants to learn more about being effective in a school classroom.

This took me back to my own husband’s journey through alternative certification. After a successful career in physics that included teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Yale University, he decided teaching high school students to love physics would be the ideal post-retirement career. After completing an alternative certification program, he replaced the science department chair at an affluent suburban high school who, as Illinois teacher of the year, had a one-year leave. When I expressed qualms about the two hours of daily driving piled on top of the demands on a new teacher, he assured me that he loved to drive and would use the time to decompress. Besides, he knew that I worked such long hours because I was a workaholic who taught writing. Surely he could be more efficient.

He wasn’t. Five classes and three preps threatened to overwhelm him. He, too, knew his content, but he didn’t always know how to reach students. The substitute department chair had no supervisory training or experience. When Don struggled with classroom management issues, she required him to observe another teacher every day during his plan period. Such observations can be very helpful if they’re accompanied by debriefing and projecting techniques into the observer’s classroom. But that didn’t happen, and the loss of his daily plan period added to his being entirely overloaded. Don learned to embrace retirement and, like so many new teachers, left teaching.

His experience was tough but not unexpected. Being in his late 50s, never having had to deal with not being successful, having been in management – none of these prepared him. My friend’s experience should be different. He’s younger, with boundless energy, and he’s worked with young people the age of his students.

But Don’s experience still provided a revelation for me. My first paid teaching was in 1970. The first special education mandates didn’t happen until 1975 with the passage and initial enforcement of Public Law 94-142. Over time we received training in issues like substance abuse and mandated reporting. We didn’t deal with 504 hearings, which allow students to obtain special accommodations without a special education designation and IEP, until the 1990s. New teachers don’t have the luxury of layering these learnings over time. From the moment they walk in the classroom, they have to manage all of these responsibilities, even as they tend to have the most preps, often the most demanding classes, and often some additional extra-curricular responsibilities. Thrusting inexperienced teachers into those conditions makes their success far less likely. If and when they leave the profession, we are all poorer for it. Although teacher attrition has dropped from the earliest years of this century, when 40-50% of new teachers left the profession within their first five years, the current rate of 17% still seems far too high. Teacher training is expensive, and this waste of human resources might be reduced if we provided more realistic assignments and proper support to our newest educators.

I feel optimistic for my young friend and grateful for the students and school that get him. But I worry about the future of public education when we fail to support new teachers and help them reach their potential. We need to do better.

 

Supporting Change

Last Saturday we had breakfast with an educator who has a powerful position in a major foundation. Part of his work includes developing teams to change curriculum. We talked about how hard change is and how important a supportive cohort therefore becomes.

He’s only known me in the latter part of my career and insisted I must always have been a change agent and constructivist teacher. “No,” I assured him. “In fact, many years ago one of my students told me that I could talk bell-to-bell on fewer breaths than any other teacher!”

She may have meant it as a compliment, but I recognized the downfall of that approach when a colleague working on her administrative certificate used my class and me for a case study.

Recording detailed observations allowed her to quantify the teacher talk. Even in the early 80s, despite my teacher training that focused on students as “buckets to be filled,” I talked too much.

“Ellen, you’ve got to get the kids talking… it can’t be all you.”

“But how do I do that?” I really didn’t know.

I don’t remember what suggestions she may have offered then, but when my visionary department chair introduced our department to problem-based learning, I finally understood. PBL gives students more ownership of their learning, creating situations in which they usst construct and evaluate their understandings. Constructivism made learning more compelling and teaching more exciting – if also more challenging. PBL provided a meaningful structure for that shift from teacher talk to student ownership. I began to seek ways to make even traditional literature study more student-centered.

Changing my ways did not come easily, though. I stumbled through my first training on coaching, at a loss, nearly ready to give up. Continued training experiences and a connected community kept me going. Too much of a “lone ranger” in my own building, I depended on conversations with my department chair and emails with colleagues from the frequent workshops I took.

After a couple of years, I had transitioned to such a student-centered classroom that I was now a trainer. Ironically that shift got me in trouble with some parents at a Back-to-School night. The day after I proudly described the kinds of work my students were doing, one of them stayed after class. “Mrs. Ljung,” he said, “My parents are upset about what you told them last night. They asked why you were getting paid a good salary when we were doing all the work. You need to explain it better.”

The next year for Back-to-School Night, I invited my students to describe their work in the classroom, leaving the room while they did so that parents could believe in the authenticity of their words. Students willingly gave up free time to help, so invested were they in this kind of classroom experience. Yet I know I would still be a breathless talker without the support of my peers in shifting my role.

That same visionary department chair started a brain research study group. Learning about new findings from neurologists and their potential impact on teaching and learning invited new approaches, and our conversations and sharing of both frustrations and successes made daring those approaches more accessible.

It is far easier for teachers to repeat lessons year after year, teaching in the same way, regardless of their student population, than to seek new ways to become more effective. Ongoing support makes such a huge difference. Why, then, so schools and districts too often fail to offer teachers opportunities like learning cohorts?

If we truly want to improve schools, we need to help teachers form learning cohorts where they take ownership of their learning and its impact on their teaching. That requires a systemic approach that’s long over

True Innovation in Education

What is true innovation in education? George Couros, educator, blogger, and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, asserts that “innovation is more about mindset than anything.” Educators shouldn’t employ something new just because it is new. We need to ask ourselves where there is value added. Does this tool or approach improve teaching and learning? How can we use it even more effectively?

Too often educators conflate technology with innovation. In the early years of computers in the classroom, my department chair and I attended a technology conference. A dedicated teacher demonstrated how her students had created a spreadsheet of information about inventors like Eli Whitney and their inventions. The information was thorough: name, place of birth, type of invention, year invented, etc.

We asked, “What did the students do with the spreadsheet once they developed it?”

The presenter stared at us blankly. “What do you mean? They created it…”

A spreadsheet like this could prompt all sorts of analysis: Is there a pattern to where and/or when were most prolific? Do different times and/or places generate different types of inventions? But for this teacher and her students, the spreadsheet was an end in itself. Without using its data-sorting capacity to look for patterns, it served as a glorified graphic organizer. True innovation transforms teaching and learning.

The use of computers to teach writing offered me and my students that kind of transformation. While my high school and college papers were handwritten on yellow legal pads filled with cross-outs, arrows, and insertions, my students could save one version of a paper, rename their file, and revise it with ease. Then they could compare the two versions and track their progress. The ease of revision encouraged their willingness to improve their text.

Text analysis went far beyond a mere spellcheck capacity when we became the beta site for Bell Labs’ text analysis program, Writer’s Workbench [WWB]. That empowered my students to assess attributes like their sentence variety and use of passive voice. I never reduced their work to an absolute quantitative judgment, but I did require them to justify departures from the benchmarks suggested by the analysis. Good writing generally varies the openings, types, and length of sentences. While neither Faulkner’s nor Hemingway’s writing would have passed muster, students rarely achieved either style. Conscious work on sentence variety improved the flow of their writing. Passive voice provides for weak constructions and often hides an unclear or unknown subject. WWB identified all passive voice constructions, and my writers rewrote those or explained why. In the computer lab with an administrator’s access, I could comment directly on their work in progress, giving them real time feedback long before they turned in a draft for evaluation. Each class could desktop publish an anthology, giving students a communal document of accomplishment that we celebrated with a signing party.

Computers transformed the teaching of writing. Math teachers will tell you that calculators transformed the teaching of math. But it’s important to recognize that technology only fosters true innovation in education when it changes the work for the better. Couros is right: if any new approach or tool doesn’t meet the needs of learners better, if we don’t use it to make the experience more productive, then we’re missing the point. And learners deserve better than that!

We’ve just returned from our 14th major kayaking trip, and I was struck by the harmony of our group. In fact, the three best groups we’ve enjoyed paddling with all were on trips with one outfitter – clearly he [and his partner for Italian trips] know something about group dynamics. Effective facilitation of classroom communities seems critical to learning, so I asked them their secrets.

Our American outfitter articulated specific strategies he used. “I’m always scanning the group, even as I’m listening to one person in particular, checking in on where they are and how they’re feeling,” he began. “When I’m talking with someone who’s sitting down, I sit down and mirror their body language… sometimes guides stand over people and intimidate them without realizing it.” When pushed, he acknowledged that they always had the details well-covered, which makes clients feel secure. They sought natural times for bonding over food and drink, avoiding contrived icebreakers. And they worked on being flexible to meet a variety of needs, like the time they provided a van for four of us who needed to avoid the extremely steep mountain hike to a church.

His Italian counterpart suggested that it just happened naturally, but another client and I agree: when he sees someone who seems aside from the group, he naturally draws them in. “Come, sit,” he’ll say with his welcoming smile and arm out. Gregarious by nature, he intuitively pulls people into the conversation. An excellent paddling coach, he identifies where people are in their skills and finds teachable moments to help them improve. And he acknowledges that improvement with genuine praise.

Both men make sure we have excellent equipment, delicious food and drink, and natural chances to bond. They plan for every contingency – not just a plan B but a C and a D and so on. When the weather turned hostile on our second-to-last day, they identified a group who wanted to go up the mountain in ski-type gondolas and a different group of hard-core paddlers – we all got our first choice. When the rains came the final day, they arranged a visit to a castle with a fascinating doll and toy museum and a spectacular view. We’re so impressed with the way they run their trips that we go to them for all of our international kayaking now.

What makes these guides so successful is the same set of skills that matter for classroom teachers. Highly effective teachers:

  • Create genuine opportunities for building classroom communities
  • Constantly scan learners for informal feedback and signals
  • Offer flexibility based on ongoing assessment of both individual and group progress
  • Look for ways to meet varying levels of skill and help different learners grow
  • Find teachable moments and capitalize on them
  • Create fun opportunities for people to share
  • Draw learners in and help everyone be part of the group
  • Have back-up plans for unexpected events
  • Celebrate learners’ successes

This last trip offered not only a great communal kayaking experience, but also an epiphany about the universal parallels of good coaching, regardless of the setting. If my student teachers and the young teachers I mentored could have observed these two men at work, they might have made giant

 

Coaching Confidence and Enabling Success

Great River Rumble! July ’17

I was an awkward child: born with a pseudo-club foot [my left leg was shorter than my right and my left foot turned outward], I lacked balance and agility. My pediatrician recommended years of modern dance as physical therapy, combined with special custom inserts in my shoes called Cookies [like today’s Orthotics] as a better alternative to the disfiguring and often unsuccessful surgery then used as treatment. So I was lucky. Fearful on land, I was fearless in water, and swimming became my refuge. But I never saw myself as athletic.

My parents loved me, but their efforts to support me were sometimes misguided. They nicknamed me “Cookie” after my inserts, reinforcing my sense of inadequacy. When others were learning to ride a bike, they borrowed one that was far too large, dooming my cautious efforts. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 27 years old, but 17 years later I rode 500 miles across Iowa on RAGBRAI [Register Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa] with my husband and 10,000 other riders. Later that year I did the bicycling part of a biathlon and a friend did the running, and we won our age group!

What made the difference? A teacher/coach who believed in me and created small incremental steps that paved the path to success… My husband grew up riding bikes and considered bicycling with our toddler boys on kids’ seats an obvious family activity. He refused to allow my conviction that I couldn’t ride a bike to interfere. He borrowed my friend Gloria’s bike, got her to watch the boys, and took me to a deserted parking lot. Cajoling and encouraging me, he persuaded me to try pedaling while he held on, only letting go when I wasn’t looking. He was, of course, right: I could ride a bike. We bought a bike for me and seats for our sons, pedaling all over the neighborhood.

His confidence in me led to be more adventurous, to have more faith in myself. We took our sons to a dude ranch in Colorado in 1981, 19 years after I’d given up riding because of a bad accident. I rode again and regained my comfort on a horse. I got my family into whitewater rafting on that trip, and four years later we paddled a raft through big rapids, including Crystal and Lava, in the Grand Canyon. I was the only member of my family to tube a big rapid in the Canyon, too. And I joined a women’s soccer league in the early 80s. Always afraid of heights, I nevertheless parasailed in Nice in 1986. We raced a canoe for ten years, and I paddled an inflatable kayak through big rapids on the Salmon River in 1991. We’ve been kayaking since 1995 and now travel internationally to kayak. I’ve ziplined in Mexico and kayak-sailed in Belize.

Why share all this information here? None of those endeavors would have occurred without the support and coaching of my intrepid husband. He taught me to believe in myself and my ability to tackle athletic endeavors. And the adventures continue. We just returned from the Great River Rumble, a 95-mile kayaking trip on the Root and Mississippi Rivers with over 200 other paddlers. This was the first long trip I’d done in a single. Although I’d been the one to suggest this trip, nerves stole my sleep for weeks before left. I feared its rigor and challenges. We did meet challenges: very technical paddling the first day, two days of searing heat, a monsoon, and a tail wind with gusts up to 24 miles per hour that flipped some boats. But I did it. And I enjoyed it. And I felt proud of myself for this accomplishment.

My husband/coach/biggest supporter made that possible. He encouraged me every time I chose to take a risk, supported me when I needed help, and celebrated every success.

Isn’t that what a good teacher does? Teachers help students succeed by breaking seemingly insurmountable tasks down into baby steps. They support students so they can succeed and move to the next step. And when students encounter a temporary setback or failure, they remind them of their past successes to enable future success. I often told students, “There’s nothing here that you can’t do,” so often that they sometimes finished the sentence for me. But I always meant it, because I was confident that I wasn’t asking more of them than they could manage. I would ask more and more, but only in incremental steps.

I had teachers like that in my own schooling. They taught me that the limits I felt were usually self-imposed. They helped me break those “limits” by breaking down the challenges I was facing into doable segments. Every learner deserves that kind of challenge and that kind of support. I am so grateful to have had such challenges and support in both my academic and my personal lives!

 

 

What’s Behind the Mask?

Last week as I was leaving the gym, a disembodied voice called out “Mrs. Ljung!” I turned to see a student whom I’d taught decades ago. We’d had a pleasant chat several years ago, so I knew she lived nearby. I leaned over her car window to catch up. After several predictable pleasantries, she announced, “I’ve been sober for 22 years now.”

Taken aback, clueless about her drinking in the past, I congratulated her for such a significant accomplishment. She accepted my praise graciously, but that didn’t feel like enough.

“I don’t think I knew,” I admitted.

“I’m sure you didn’t,” she replied.

“I should have, though. I’m so sorry I let you down…”

This lovely young woman assured me that she’d been very good at masking, that others far closer to her than a some-time English teacher hadn’t known either. I found little comfort in that. I’d become a teacher to make a difference in the lives of my students. I knew my district had provided training in spotting alcohol and substance abuse, and I’d suspected other students. Why not her?

We continued to talk for a while longer before we parted ways. For days, though, I continued to think about her and my lack of awareness, my failure to intervene. Then she messaged me telling me it had been a good encounter and writing:

“I also want you to know how much it meant to me for you to apologize for not knowing I was struggling & using in high school. Although I do not feel that you let me down in any way, nor that you should have known, I appreciate that you care. There were many many adults closer to the situation who should have picked up on the signs. However, you are the only one, outside of my parents, who has ever said anything like that. It really touched my heart, and I appreciate it.”

I appreciate her perspective and accept her gratitude, but I’m still struggling with my failure to pick up on the clues. How can teachers know, especially with students who are always under the influence, whom they don’t know any other way? And what avenues are open for teachers who have suspicions but don’t want to wreak havoc in a student’s life if they’re wrong. I don’t have the answers yet.

A Google search failed to comfort me. Data suggest the problem is widespread. Tarlov and others wrote, “During a 30-day period in 1985, 65 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol, 30 percent used marijuana, 15 percent snorted cocaine” (1986). According to Towers, “Teachers exert a significant influence on students’ attitudes, knowledge, and opinions. They can complement a school’s drug abuse program by incorporating drug abuse prevention strategies into their subject at any grade level (1987).

Newer sources assert new approaches. The John Howard Society of Alberta blog suggests that teachers “can also help develop and nurture the idea of school as a community. This creates a sense of belonging, attachment and protection for students, which counteracts tendencies towards abuse of drugs and other substances.” They recommend these strategies:

  • Set clear classroom boundaries with clear rules and consequences
  • Encourage a constructive use of time
  • Foster an environment that encourages a commitment to learning
  • Encourage reading for pleasure
  • Praise student’s achievements and accomplishments
  • Acknowledge successes and abilities
  • Model a sense of optimism and a positive view of learning
  • Keep the channels of communication open
  • Be a good listener
  • Keep an open mind
  • Ask students for opinions
  • Encourage participation in extra curricular activities[1]

The “We Are Teachers” website urges educators to talk to students early and often, to teach them about “about brain science and development. Discuss ways that teens can get that dopamine release naturally—through exercise, spending time with friends, and doing things they love.” It identifies a set of warning signs:

  1. Decreased motivation
  2. Sudden shifts in mood
  3. Sleepiness in class or appearing tuned out
  4. Physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, unexplained weight loss or gain, deterioration of physical appearance or grooming
  5. Change in friend groups
  6. Paranoia or depression
  7. Uncharacteristic display of money or possessions (or the opposite—students looking to sell belongings, for example)
  8. Chronic absenteeism
  9. Abrupt drop-off in academic performance

The site urges teachers who suspect something to talk with students and/or their counselors, or to describe the behaviors that concern them to the student’s family “without speculation or accusation.”[2]

All good suggestions…  but you have to spot the issue in the first place. I didn’t. I wish I had. If I were still in the classroom, I hope I’d be more aware and more astute, more likely to recognize even those students best at masking. I hope today’s teachers do a better job than I did!

 

[1] http://www.johnhoward.ab.ca/how-teachers-can-help-prevent-substance-abuse/

[2] https://www.weareteachers.com/7-things-every-teacher-should-know-about-teens-and-drugs-and-alcohol-use/

The young lady’s response to this blog before publication:

“I am honored that you quoted me.

I hope that you are at peace with the fact that there was no way for you to know about my drinking/using in high school. There were layers and layers of things going on with me, and that was my way to medicate.

I hope your blog encourages other teachers. It has to be such a delicate balance for teachers to intervene. I have many thoughts on the suggestions and signs that are listed by the sources you quoted. They may not help all kids, but preventing/helping one is more than none.”

Bladder by the Bell

 

In the late 1980s my Illinois Writing Project training changed my approach to teaching writing forever. A writing workshop approach with portfolio grading displaced my traditional rote lessons, and I wrote and shared alongside my students.

Midway through the 1989-1990 school year, my frustration over a life led by bells produced the following poem.

 

 

Once again my writing revealed truth I had ignored. I hated the rigid structure of school and its command of my life. One semester my lunch period might start at 10:30 am, a plausible enough fit with a 5:30 am breakfast. Another semester, though, might make me sit until after 1 pm, forcing me to sneak a snack in during passing time. And come the end of school in late June, I often forgot to take bathroom breaks until urgency commanded them, so accustomed was I to my dependence on bells.

 

I see the humor in all this; I even saw it then. But one of the great joys of retirement is liberation from this tyranny. The first few years I refused even to wear a watch. Our system of scheduling learning in the public schools serves the masters of efficiency and uniformity, but it can be “cruel and unusual punishment” for those forced to partake in it.

Publishing: Disappointment and Redemption

In 1991 a publisher’s rep approached me about writing a book. Dreams of seeing my work in print danced before my eyes. I barely invested in negotiating a deal, so eager was I to write. Soon the process of writing consumed my Sundays. For the better part of a year I did all my grading and lesson planning at night and on Saturdays. Without fail I’d rise in time to be at my Macintosh Classic, a mug of coffee by my side. From 8 am to 8 pm, with time out for lunch and dinner, I labored over my draft. I had to snail mail sections to my editor and discuss revisions with her on labored, expensive long-distance phone calls. Already away at college, my sons didn’t suffer my regular Sunday abandonment. My sweet husband remained unfailingly patient.

My textbook for high school writing classes focused on the relatively new use of computers to teach writing, incorporating unfamiliar skills where they fit in the writing process. Using floppy disks, saving work, understanding simple features such as word wrap – skills we take for granted now [some of them outdated] challenged the computer novice then. Each chapter taught specific computer skills and then required their use for specific writing tasks. Cutting and pasting, for example, starts the chapter on revising. I included the components of a comprehensive writing program, including essays, journal entries, letters, creative writing, grammar, and sentence variety.

One day my editor said, “We really have our work cut out for us, don’t we?” Incensed, I missed her point – that we would struggle to meet the company’s deadline. I thought she was putting down my writing. She was, of course, correct about the pressure of the deadline, but I was too busy ranting about her attitude to register her point until much later in the call. I still managed to finish a piece that made me proud, and I kept my grumbling to myself when called upon to develop a floppy disk of accompanying exercises.

When the book came out, its cover a true work of art in my eyes, I floated for weeks.

And I didn’t learn. When Microsoft Works came out, the company tasked me with creating a second version tailored to that program. My euphoria began to evaporate when my meager royalty checks failed to cover my investment in software, paper, ink, and postage. Unfortunately publishers who targeted high school English departments failed to see the market opportunity, so I’d gone with a secondary school business publisher. Despite their best efforts, English departments remained unaware, and boxes of both books sat on the shelves of warehouses. They turned down my suggestion that they donate the books to schools in underprivileged communities, taking a tax write-off and sending me no royalty for donations. When a bigger publisher bought mine and a few more unfruitful years went by, the warehouse books were destroyed.

Heartbroken, I pondered why I’d sacrificed so much for so little return. Sure, I’d hoped for some royalties to help cover college costs. Mostly, though, I’d reveled in seeing my work in book form, a significant step up from all the professional writing I’d done in journals. Was it enough?

In time I realized that the process of writing these books forced me to clarify my own beliefs about the teaching of writing. Finally I had my own overview of what worked and what mattered. As computers offered more and more innovations, I embraced them and added what I was learning to that framework. I had gained more than vanity here.

And now I’m at it again. For years I’ve wanted to write my teaching memoir, to tell the stories I’ve told to trapped guests at dinner parties! My title would be My Mother Professor Never Told Me There’d Be Days Like This. I began again. Initially I tried a chronological approach. No detail was too small to entrap my readers. Fortunately my writing group pushed me to clarify my purpose and audience. Did I just want to leave a complete – too complete – record for family who would probably never plow through it? Or was there a point to these stories, a bigger reason to share them?

Indeed, I realized that my favorite stories had one factor in common: as the teacher I had often been the one to learn an important lesson from a student, or a group of students, or a colleague, or a parent. My lessons learned became my focus. That alone would make this endeavor worth the time and effort. To my surprise, however, I gained another bonus. Reaching out to former students and colleagues has renewed relationships.

I’m growing old, and I no longer have the patience to fight to get a publisher again. I’m not willing to risk the time wasted or that the chance of another poor fit. But I am blessed with this brave new world of self-publishing. When I finish my manuscript, that’s my path. I already have a title and a vision for the cover. At that point I hope that at least some of those former students and colleagues read some of it. I plan to give it to my children and grandchildren and to voice my wish that they read at least some of it.

But none of that matters as much as I used to believe. For the real reason for me to write this book is to know myself, to understand the decades I spent in the classroom and how they changed me, and to celebrate those decades with a kind of closure that’s meaningful to me. So now that’s why I’m writing this book. I can’t wait to finish, to see it in print, to get some feedback from those readers listed above. But the more I write, the more I think of that I want to include, so publication keeps moving further and further forward! That’s okay with me – right now it’s the process that counts most.

The Bogeyman of Boredom

 

Boredom baffles me. My mind churns full throttle with ideas and plans, avoiding the idle stage even at bedtime, when it would serve me well. When I’m stuck at a train crossing because the railroad once again is violating the time limit for freights, I start designing the next garment or glass sculpture in my head. When time creeps too slowly as I sit in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room, I find myself people-watching, developing verbal sketches of those around me. On line at the grocery store, I work through my next piece of writing in my head. I can’t imagine being bored.

 

One prominent banner in my classroom announced, “Boring is in the eye of the beholder.” My students loved to challenge that premise, and whenever I passed a classroom filled with teacher talk, compassion filled me. I remember all too well my high school American History teacher’s stultifying speech as he recounted endless lists of seemingly disconnected dates without apparent purpose. His soporific Southern drawl provided an effective cure for my insomnia, though sleeping through class did not endear me to the teacher or help my grade. Even in the most boring classes, though, I managed to occupy my mind with doodles and notes to friends. Sketched flowers wallpapered my notebooks, and I kept my mind engaged.

 

Of course, I preferred that my students busy their minds with the task at hand. When they complained that Shakespeare was irrelevant, I urged them to see Romeo and Juliet as two kids so “hot to trot” that they’d sneak around behind their parents’ backs. When Dickens felt too dated, I challenged them to remember times when they felt powerless and manipulated like poor young Pip in Great Expectations. And when I had the opportunity to bring in more current literature, like Fahreheit 451, my co-teacher and I got their library books “banned” so they’d connect to the experience.

 

I wanted to believe that the inherent stimulation of my classroom banished boredom, but my students, too often truth-tellers, demolished that fantasy. In the Spring of 1991 I ran a poetry writing workshop in my sophomore remedial English class. We drew literal interpretations of figures of speech – imagine the visual for you’re “driving me up a wall.” We all wrote our own poems using a series of prompts. Surely this was more fun than reading the classics?

 

Foolishly, I said as much. One of the girls looked at me in disdain. “Mrs. Ljung, you know you ain’t fooling no one.”

 

Wisely I chose not to correct her grammar and syntax. Instead I challenged her to write a poem about boredom. Her classmates clamored to help, and our first collaborative poem was born. Their ownership did more to banish boredom than I’d ever accomplished. They worked and reworked the piece until they finally agreed on a final product.

 

 

I urged them to submit it to our Fine Arts magazine, where it was published, and to “Page to Stage,” our annual performance of student writing.

 

“Oh, no, no way I’m gonna get up there in front of all those people,” exclaimed my original complainant.

 

“She’s right – that’s crazy,” another chimed in.

 

“What are ya’ thinking anyway, Mrs. Ljung?” queried a third.

 

I’d learn a bit about reverse psychology from my own mother, who’d used it to get me to take over cooking for our household when she’d questioned my ability to do so.

 

I smiled. “Okay, if you want someone else to read your work, you know we can arrange that. If you don’t think you can do it justice, I’ll just assign it to some theater students. Of course, they won’t feel it the way you do, but if you aren’t ready…”

 

Their subsequent huddle proved successful when a spokesperson told me they weren’t giving it away to “just anybody.”

 

Once the poem juried in to the performance, we allocated pieces of it to solo voices and made other lines choral. We practiced every day. On the day of the performance, their journey to the stage resembled a death march. As they read, though, they stood taller and spoke louder, all of us discovering just how much more potential they had than they or I had known.

 

The next day disappeared to a debriefing full of justifiable pride. Boredom didn’t disappear in that class, but their sense of ownership and ability to articulate their boredom did steal its power.

 

Dorothy Parker wrote, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Effective teachers need to nurture curiosity, allowing students to replace boredom with meaningful exploration. The focus of schools on finding the right answers curtails that sense of possibility and turns classroom work into acts of duty. Creating opportunities for students to own their learning helps to banish boredom. Finding that poem from twenty-six years ago reminds me of that lesson.

Shakespearean Hip-hop

The night before last we saw the Chicago production of the musical Hamilton. At the appointed hour, when the first round of tickets went on sale, my husband and I sat side by side, furiously working our keyboards. I felt triumphant when I scored a pair of tickets – decent seats – only to have them disappear while I was trying to pay.

Furious, I swore off Hamilton forever. My resolve faltered, however, when another block of tickets opened up months later. This time Ticketmaster eagerly took my money, and we spent the six-month interval between purchase and event doing our homework. I’d struggled to follow Miranda’s previous show, In the Heights, and vowed to do better this time. We listened to the CDs on all of our longer car trips, sometimes following along with Miranda’s book, Hamilton: the Revolution, which clarified which characters were singing. Not only does Miranda provide the complete libretto, but the side notes and articles enlighten the reader further. And I read some of the Chernow biography, though I have yet to finish it. So I thought I was ready…

Nothing could have prepared me for this particular performance, especially at this particular time in our nation. The sweeping nature of this show, the evocative use of staging, the sense of both timelessness and immediate relevance, the energy and caliber of the cast, the interaction between the cast and audience – all this made for a memorable evening.

That night we talked all through the hour-drive home, gratefully grappling with the concept that resistance and the fight against injustice are part of the American DNA. I found myself returning again and again to the great Shakespearean plays. Not only does Miranda directly reference Macbeth [without actually naming the play!], but his telling a historical tale of great import in verse mirrors Shakespeare’s histories. So does the staging, which suggests, leaving the audience to create the details. Like Shakespeare, he uses this tale to wrestle with many important issues for humanity: the struggle between right and wrong; battles for freedom from oppression; concerns about honor and loyalty; and the attributes of a good man, a good leader, and a good citizen.  And his pacing is Shakespearean, complete with well-placed episodes of comic relief in the wonderfully pompous personage of King George.

This connection is neither new nor original.

The American Shakespeare Center blog offers this:

It’s not just that Manuel is a linguistic genius. It’s that he’s a linguistic genius in many of the same ways that Shakespeare was, and the one I’m going to focus on in this post is the use of rhetoric to create character.

One of the reasons Shakespeare stands above his contemporaries is that he had such a great ear. His characters have individual voices. They don’t all speak in the same patterns, but rather, he defines each speaker by particular quirks and habits — just as we speak in everyday life. Miranda does the same thing.[i]

Oskar Eustis, The Artistic Director at New York City’s Public Theater where Hamilton was workshopped, says that Miranda, like Shakespeare, elevated the language of the people.

“In Shakespeare’s case he elevated it to iambic pentameter. In Lin-Manuels’ case he elevated it to hip-hop and rap, and he ennobled it by turning it into verse and putting it at the center of the stage. That’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing.”[ii]

And Ross Williams of the New York Shakespeare Exchange says of Shakespeare’s history plays like Henry V, “Their histories became pop culture – after all, Shakespeare was the king of pop culture of the period – just like Alexander Hamilton’s story has for us.” [iii]

For most of my childhood we saw three Shakespeare plays each summer in Stratford, CT. I’ll never forget Katherine Hepburn as Portia, or the mischief of Puck, or the pain of King Lear. Hamilton takes me back to the power of theater for me then, and it reminds me of why I loved teaching literature. We can only begin to understand ourselves as we tell and hear our stories. Great story-tellers like Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda offer entertainment and enlightenment. I am so very grateful.

 

[i] https://asc-blogs.com/2016/02/16/yayhamlet-what-shakespeare-and-broadways-biggest-hit-have-to-do-with-each-other/

[ii] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/lin-manuel-miranda-bard-era/5437/

[iii] Ibid.