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?
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
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
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
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.
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:
Disappearance of childhood play [which inevitably
leads to self-regulation]
Growth of social media and technology – turns our
focus externally, which is strongly correlated with depression
“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
Her three keys to help kids learn to self-regulate are:
Connection between the adult and child
Communication with kids about their behavior to
build their self-regulatory ability: problem-solving, critical thinking, social
and emotional management
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
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.” 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
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
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.”
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.
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
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
students benefit from learning more about how novels and other forms have
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.
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. His story feels
compelling. The challenges he faces are all too familiar.
Two things really struck me, though:
The research data that reinforces the importance of students having role model who looks like them.
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.” 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.” 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?
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.
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!
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.
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, 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. 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.”
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, 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.”
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?
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.”
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.