Anxiety and College Students

Our two oldest grandkids left for college last week. They both attend a top-tier Ivy on the East Coast. They meet to work out most mornings before heading off to class, and both seem well settled. They remind me of the pleasures and challenges of my own college experience so many decades ago.

So it saddens me to read Frank Bruni’s New York Times review of the new book The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us  by Paul Tough. The author catalogs “student after student whose route to college and experience there are rocky in the extreme.” [1] He describes how disadvantaged students of lesser means are, both in terms of access and preparation. We have changed the way we think about college in a world that seems to offer less promise to future college graduates. And he asks an important question. “To spur innovation, compete globally and nurture prosperity in a country where factory jobs have ceased to be the answer, we need more, better college graduates. So why aren’t we doing more to create them?”[2] Though Tough describes a few programs to do just that, they are few and far between.

Psychology Today tackles this issue as well.[3] It identifies three factors:

  1. A focus on material success
  2. The rising cost of college
  3. “Delayed adulthood and external locus of control”[4]

Students today face mounting debt for an increasingly unsure financial future, a reasonable source of anxiety. And the advent of helicopter parenting and less independent play for children, allowing them to learn to self-regulate and get along with others [beautifully explained in The Good News About Bad Behavior, discussed in an earlier post], has led to delayed adulthood and fewer coping mechanisms. Dr. Diane Dreher writes, “Unfortunately, today materialistic values, college costs, and controlling parents are impairing this vital developmental period—and may be undermining our students’ ability to flourish.”[5]

I am not so blinded by rose-colored glasses as to remember my college days as anxiety-free. Though I was less worried about my future prospects than many students today, I did struggle with test anxiety and dorm relationship issues. And attending the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s certainly prompted a host of strong emotions about the Vietnam War, civil rights, and feminism. Perhaps one of the biggest differences stemmed from our naïveté… We really believed we could change the world, and that belief feels harder to sustain for now, even for a perennial optimist like me. I don’t think college students today find the same comfort in optimism.

For me college was a chance to meet diverse people and explore different points of view and areas of study. Our granddaughter had a healthy discussion with a male friend whose position on abortion is the opposite of hers – that’s how we find mutual understanding if not agreement. I’m not sure that kind of open discussion about controversial issues is common. It should be. College is a time for exploration and being exposed to diverse ideas. Somehow we need to explore ways to ensure that college provides those opportunities at less emotional cost. That means we need to explore how students and their families pay for college without impossible burdens. We certainly need to help children build emotional coping skills earlier in life by giving them more freedom to learn them. And we need to educate parents about the impact of their helicoptering and to convince parents that their conviction that a certain college or colleges will determine their child’s future is not only unfounded but harmful. We need a paradigm shift if we hope to develop the educated graduates our nation needs.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/opinion/college-graduates.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-personal-renaissance/201903/why-do-so-many-college-students-have-anxiety-disorders

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

A Head Start for All Grade Levels

One of the education blogs I follow is The Principal of Change by George Couros. A Canadian educator and consultant, a former principal, and author of The Innovator’s  Mindset, he writes with passion and compassion. Like me, he believes in the central role of good relationships between learner and teacher. This graphic is his, and it accompanied a blog about how to start the school year with questions like these. He suggests that we each find the questions that would be most meaningful to our group of learners, because asking them and paying attention to the answers will be powerful in building the relationships requisite to learning.

I love this idea, and for several years I did start the school year with a set of questions like these. I asked students for written, signed responses, but I took it a step further. I actually invited them to ask a set of questions of me. I then printed a set of my responses to their questions comm, and I added personal notes responding to their comments individually. They knew they were seen and heard. They knew I was willing to invest time in them. They knew more about me than just the rumors that I was really tough!

I really liked this process, probably more than the students did — or at least more than they would admit! I’m not sure why I gave it up: probably time, since there’s never enough, and the need to experiment with other approaches, since I tried to find a way to begin each course with community-building.

But revisiting this concept reminds me of several points:

  • Teachers need time for community-building, regardless of the strategy they choose, and that time usually pays off in the long run.
  • The inch-deep mile-long lockstep curriculum, if it is unavoidable [sigh], would be well advised to build in time for this.
  • When teachers get to plan together, they are more likely to be able to generate powerful community-building strategies than when they work as lone rangers.

You wouldn’t build a house with a proper foundation; you wouldn’t pave a road without preparing the underpinning. Why do we blunder directly into instruction without laying this footing?

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?

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.

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

The Debate on the Canon Continues

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

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

Great books open up the world to readers, who:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Role Models Who Mirror Their Students

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

Two things really struck me, though:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid.

Targeting Your Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metamorphosis

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dead Ruins Come to Life

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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