The Case for Service Learning

This quotation really resonates for me right now. Last night I submitted a section of my teaching memoir to my writing group about a class I created for my high school that involved service learning. Using the Problem-Based Learning approach developed in medical schools, my students learned to define a problem and the criteria for an effective solution. That guided their research and helped them to generate and evaluate solutions. They worked problems for the school and the larger community. One year my students even worked for a Chicago law firm on a problem in Toledo, Ohio! Each of these problems became a form of service to others as my students struggled to figure out how to provide the answers their “clients” sought.

For so many of my students, this service became transformational, changing their views about themselves and their place in the world. Some redesigned the gardens for a local historic site, some figured out strategies to promote the Post-Prom celebration to keep students safe after prom, and some helped redesign the eighth-grade orientation. One group not only redesigned a vandalized part of a local trail for the county, but they chose to do the hard physical work of rebuilding. And when vandals struck again, long after they’d received credit in class for their work, they repaired it on their own time. Time after time, I watched students discover the satisfaction of doing something helpful for others. For most of them, this was a new experience. This class showed them the enormous payback for their efforts.

I even saw that reaction among my creative writing students. When they wrote children’s books, we took field trips to local grade schools to read them to children. I’ll never forget my hulking football star sitting cross-legged on the floor of a second-grade classroom, reading his story to a rapt audience. Out of that grew a collaboration with classes from a grade school within walking distance. We visited them once, and they returned the favor. My students partnered with children to write children’s stories, which they sent home with the children. Having a real audience for their work fed their sense of satisfaction, but the gratitude of the children and their teachers, expressed in priceless, hand-drawn thank you notes delivered to the class, gave my students special satisfaction.

Dieter F. Uchtodorf wrote, “As we lose ourselves in the service of others, we discover our own lives and our own happiness.” And from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Live’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” I watched students embrace those concepts because they had experienced them firsthand.

If I ruled the world [a phrase I used to use with my students], I would mandate service learning for all high school students. Only through experience can they discover the satisfaction and happiness that derive from doing for others. And if our young people understood that, wouldn’t that change our society for the better? As generations of graduates entered the world with a desire to help others, wouldn’t we all benefit?

Best Buddies at Graduation

Last week we had the pleasure and privilege of attending our middle granddaughter’s graduation from a Chicago public magnet high school. The ceremony was held at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place in Chicago because the school auditorium was too small for the class of over 450 and all of their supporters. The event was lovely if long, and we especially enjoyed seeing a certain young woman prance across the stage with grace and confidence to receive her diploma. The class stats were mind-boggling: every student was headed to a four-year college, and they’d logged countless volunteer hours in the community, won numerous academic and athletic championships, and earned $56 million in scholarships! Memorable and impressive, to be sure. That’s part of the package of a top-notch magnet school.

The part we didn’t anticipate happened when the Special Education students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas and certificates. Part of the mission of Whitney M. Young Magnet School is “To give students with disabilities the same high school opportunities as their non-disabled peers.” In addition to a sizable faculty and staff, the school has a Best Buddies program that pairs regular and special ed students. Some of these students could not make it across the stage without physical support; a couple had trouble following the directions. But each and every one of them received the same response from the audience of parents, friends, and peers: loud cheering and applause with great gusto. This is a truly inclusive community where high-achieving students whose academic success is often a given appreciate and celebrate the success of those who have overcome obstacles to be able to march across that stage. Their genuinely joyful response was uplifting.

When I commented on it, I was assured that those who have attended multiple Whitney Young graduation ceremonies experience that every year. Being part of that kind of school culture, with genuine inclusion, prepares students to work and live with others regardless of their circumstances. It gives me hope for the future.

Learning to Sew: Lessons for the Classroom

As I scramble once again to finish garments for a jury deadline, I find myself reminiscing about my first experience sewing clothing for myself. As a woman of a certain age, I hark back to the binary days of applied arts in junior high: shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. All the girls in my seventh-grade home ec class had to make a skirt using the same pattern. Each skirt had the same pleats, set-in waistband, and side zipper. Our only personal touch was the choice of fabric. I loved the blue and green shadow plaid I picked, but the process and the product failed to inspire me. I wore the skirt a few times and put it away, along with any thoughts of making my own clothing.

Always passionate about fashion, however, I often thought of becoming a clothing designer [one of the dozens of careers I fancied in high school], conveniently ignoring my lack of sewing experience and skills. My parents’ housekeeper made my prom dress from a pattern and fabric I chose, and the summer before my wedding to a “starving” graduate student, I designed an entire trousseau, but she put it together. I would design; others would sew.

That summer my mother presented me with a sewing machine.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“You love clothes and you won’t have any money for them for a long time…” she replied.

“How do I use it?” I asked my mother, knowing full well that she didn’t even know how to sew on a button.

“I don’t know. Figure it out!” She smiled.

Figure it out I did. How hard could it be, I asked myself as I bought Impressionist print voiles and linings and made two wonderful shift dresses that I wore for years.

For a long time I remained self-taught, making all my clothing as well as our window coverings and bedspreads. I gave up sewing when I went back to teaching full-time, but one of the great joys of retirement was the freedom to sew without pressure. Sewing workshops and guidance from the wonderful mentors in my wearable art group elevated my skills. I had collections of garments made from vintage Obis in runway shows, and I even developed a collection called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” whose color palette and use of vines as a motif was one of my favorite efforts. And here I am working on another collection.

I find myself thinking about the factors that changed my desire to learn:

  • A need to know, since sewing my own clothes was the only way I’d be able to have anything new for a long, long time
  • Some early success to encourage me to keep going
  • The chance to personalize my efforts and to use my own creativity
  • Following success and positive feedback, the desire to take it further, to elevate my skills and understanding
  • Excellent teachers/mentors who challenged and supported my efforts

I see these factors as impactful and available in the classroom setting. Relevance exists in our curriculum, and good teachers help students see that and give them a need to know. In my own field of literature, others write about its importance to hand down culture through stories, expand horizons, grow vocabulary, improve writing skills, and teach critical thinking. All these offer value, but I believe the most compelling reason to teach literature is the way it serves as a vehicle for us to explore the human condition and address the “big questions” about life. What does it mean to be a good person? Is man inherently good or evil or both? What are our responsibilities to each other? And on and on… Through our exploration of literature, we can consider these questions and even the answers provided by some of the authors. In those settings, outside of our personal experience, we can develop our own very personal answers.

Other content area teachers can make powerful arguments for relevance in their fields as well. I came to understand grammar and structure in English through my study of French and Latin. I make constant use of math skills whether it’s calculating ingredients or pan sizes or planning yardage for a garment or roughly adding up purchases in my head as I shop to follow my budget. History offers huge lessons that we should be heeding today. If we look at the rise of populist dictators in the past, for example, we have ample warning for what is happening globally and domestically today.  I use my understanding from chemistry to rethink recipes, from botany as I grow orchids and succulents, and from physics as I seek to understand how things work and how to solve problems. The relevance is there – as teachers we need to make it explicit.

We need to provide classroom lessons that allow students to achieve some success before we escalate our expectations of them, scaffolding their lessons. Starting with more accessible demands allows for those early successes, and then teachers can build upon them. Just as I began with a simple shift and have progressed to lined jackets and drafting my own patterns, students need easier tasks to accomplish before they move on.

Well-designed lessons can also encourage creativity and develop opportunities for students to personalize their learning and tap their own creativity. We need to stop thinking about one-size-fits-all instruction and encourage more open-ended experiences. Thanks to my predecessor’s model, my Advanced Placement English students worked in small groups to develop a director’s notebook for King Lear, transposing the play to another time and place, creating costume sketches and scenery, and explaining their choices. What better way to think about the timeless themes in the play and what they mean to us today? Given the chance to be creative in their approach to the play, students developed and articulated a deeper understanding of it.

 As teachers we can and should build ever escalating demands into the curriculum, as long as we’re there to support students if they struggle. Mastery of a give skill should be followed with the next most demanding level of that skill, whether it’s moving from a simple paragraph to an extended essay or narrative, or moving from simple short story analysis to deep reading of longer, more complex literature. We should start with accessible tasks but continually elevate our expectations. We need to be there to help students when they find those tasks increasingly challenging.

This kind of teaching requires a more constructivist classroom, a far cry from the bell-to-bell talking at students that I was trained to do. Problem-based learning helped me make that shift, and the students and I both benefited. But those factors can be embedded even in a traditional classroom approach if we put students’ needs first.

So I’ll return to my sewing machine and my looming jury deadline, grateful that I was able to make that shift before I retired, hopeful that teachers and students today will continue to make shifts like it, too.

Keeping Students Safe

Another school shooting… Yesterday one student was killed and eight injured by gunfire at a Denver-area charter school. We barely react any more. We’re too accepting of this “new normal.”

Education Week reassures us: “With two large-scale school shootings in 2018—17 killed in Parkland, Fla., and 10 killed in Santa Fe, Texas—public fears about school safety and gun violence are high. But the data show that, on the whole, schools are one of the safest places for children.”[1] Is that supposed to be comforting? Schools should be safe places. We should be doing more to keep all schools safe. But we don’t know how.

Just last week Florida’s House of Representatives passed a controversial bill that would permit classroom teachers to carry guns in schools, and the Governor is expected to sign it. How can this be the answer? Even if I had been thoroughly trained to use a gun, my fear of guns and the reality that many of my high school students could have overpowered me and taken it away suggests that teachers toting guns might only add to the problem. We are called to the profession for our love of learning and desire to empower students to experience that. How many teachers are drawn to policing? What would be the impact of gun access on their relationship with students?

Wouldn’t we be better served addressing key issues?

  • What drives shooters in the first place and what we might do about that?
  • What can we do about access to guns by individuals who show signs of being unstable?
  • How can we better identify those individuals?
  • Why would any civilian need bump stocks and semi-automatic rifles? Can we outlaw those?

I had high hopes that the courageous students of Parkland would drive a serious discussion that led to meaningful problem-solving here. I was naïve. But we need to look at the root causes of school shootings and address them directly, instead of settling for dangerous “band-aids” like arming teachers, band-aids that themselves might just lead to more wounds. Our students deserve that. So do our teachers. The time is now.


[1] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/District_Dossier/2019/05/eight_students_injured_in_denver_school_shooting.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2-rm&M=58826339&U=1603651&UUID=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

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.