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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Dead Ruins Come to Life

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

We Need to Support Our Schools

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


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


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


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


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


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













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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Neither Authoritarian Nor Permissive: a New Model


Several teachers who are still in the classroom [as I am not], whose judgment I respect, continue to complain about a lack of cooperation and attentiveness from their students. In her new book, The Good News about Bad Behavior, Katherine Reynolds Lewis suggests the problem is an inability to self-regulate. She lists several underlying causes for that, including where and how children play, their access to technology [especially social media], the limited expectations for their being contributing members of their families, schools, and communities, along with overuse of rewards that inherently end up making outcomes less intrinsically valuable.


Her book has import for educators as well as parents. Lewis warns us about the damaging nature of power struggles. In my teaching memoir, I write about learning to avoid power struggles. It took me too long…


A product of the B.F. Skinner approach, I was trained to offer consistent consequences. I tried to do that. Why didn’t it work sometimes for me? Why does it seem to work even less often now? According to Lewis, “Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children’s behavior problems, these standard disciplinary methods often exacerbate them. They sacrifice long-term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short-term gain—momentary peace in the classroom.”[1] Given that the frontal lobe of the brain, the section of the brain that controls judgment and behaviors,[2] isn’t fully developed until the mid 20s,[3] Lewis asks how we can expect kids to process punitive consequences and rewards.


Lewis suggests a different approach. She emphasizes the importance of connection and empathy. After observing classrooms in a particularly challenged Ohio school, she wrote, “Teachers who produce the most orderly, productive classrooms combine a nurturing approach with clear limits and predictable routines.”[4] She urges schools to move from traditional methods of discipline to a collaborative approach. “Any consequence should be revealed in advance, respectful, related to the decision the child made, and reasonable in scope.”[5]


I would love to visit schools that operationalize these ideas, to see their impact firsthand. But even just from reading, I’m convinced that we educators need to shift our interactions with students. Not all of this is new: many of us had our students set up classroom rules and expectations, for instance. But the idea that students and teachers might work collaboratively to address student behavioral issues appeals to me. When I think back to my time in the classroom, the occasional exchange like that that I managed to do intuitively worked better than any authoritarian approaches.


Lewis suggests changes that families might employ that would facilitate self-regulation. I hope many learn from her book. In the meantime, her wisdom and her careful research should speak to educators as well. Any revelations that make us more effective can only benefit our students.







Chickening Out

I wish that I hadn’t chickened out… We were at the amazing Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, ambling through the final exhibit. Holly Wilson’s exhibit, “Breaking Ground,” had already inspired a revision of one of our sculptures in process, and we’d both been moved by the “Without Boundaries: Visual Conversations” exhibit that features Indigenous leaders and contemporary artists whose work encourages social action.  The North Gallery offered “Art & Activism: Selections from the Harjo Family Collection.” Suzan Shown Harjo was an important American Indian activist, lobbyist, and policy maker whose family amassed a collection of significant contemporary Native American art in varied media.


We whispered respectfully as we toured the Harjo exhibit; reverent near-silence seemed fitting. It didn’t last. Three young women erupted into the room, loud and ebullient. Certainly they were in high spirits, but they may have been high on recreational substances. We smiled wistfully at each other but said nothing. Then one of them started handling the 2D hanging art, ignoring the “Do Not Touch” sign. I looked at her, but she ignored me. I contemplated saying something, but the racial and age gaps seemed substantial and I feared any comment from me might only escalate her behavior. What to do? In my classroom I would have spoken up immediately about behavior that crossed a line like that. I think I would have spoken up in the hallway with students I didn’t know. Here felt somehow different. I was spared the need to act when she and her friends settled down, leaving the works alone.


This encounter felt wrong to me. I’ve been reading the remarkable book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, by Katherine Reynolds Lewis [more about that in a future blog]. The author describes the inability of young people to self-regulate and the root causes of that inability. Not having reached her chapters that offer solutions, I felt inadequate and ineffective. Behavior that doesn’t respect common boundaries seems more and more common. As a civilian out in the world, rather than an educator in the classroom, what is my role? My responsibility? What might have worked? Should we have said something to the museum staff? I truly don’t know.


I do know that days later, when we were at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, I did choose to speak up. Someone had taken down the chain across the entrance to the mud baths that marked them closed and gone in anyway. Worse, they’d left the sign and chain stretched out across the entrance on the ground, inviting an accidental fall by someone else. We quietly told the staff, and they went out to rectify the situation. That move was easy. But my visceral reaction to someone’s touching art and my uncertainty about how to respond still make me squirm. What is our responsibility – as parents, educators, citizens – to counter behavior that violates rules and social norms? If we do nothing, are we not culpable, too?




Still More Lessons from Kayaking

In late May I had a serious kayaking accident. Medications that make me bruise and bleed more easily made it far worse, leaving me with technicolor blooms all over my body. We were paddling in a side creek that’s only navigable in very high water, working our way around the downed trees and debris, going deeper into the “jungle” than ever before. Don was ahead of me and reached a steep patch with a sudden curve and heaps of rocks.


“I think we should turn back, hon,” he called out to me from the safety of an eddy.


“But why?” I replied, eager to test our limits. “Let me come up to you so I can see for myself.”


That was a mistake. The fierce current hit the side of my boat, slamming me into a downed tree. I struggled to remain upright, but the current continued to batter my boat and I realized it was hopeless. I chose to exit upstream away from the tree, a good choice for safety but one that put me further from my expensive craft. Seeing it pushed away from me by the current, I dove after it, not realizing how much tree lay between us. I managed to save my boat, but the water continued to pound me into the tree. Don came to rescue me, but I insisted he go after my paddle, paddling cap, and waterproof camera. I knew my safest exit from the creek required a paddle to maneuver, and the cost of equipment was at the forefront of my mind.


During the 6-7 minutes he was gone, I pondered my options. Fortunately, he returned with my paddle and cap [alas, the $400 camera was gone], and he helped me drag my boat to the safer side of the creek and get back in. I pumped out enough water to paddle and we dragged ourselves back to put-in. I didn’t realize how badly I was hurt at first, and my recovery dragged.


Our local river remains closed, the high water too dangerous, so I haven’t even been back in my boat yet. My thoughts about this fiasco remained stuck in a loop far too long. Finally I chose to look back at the lessons I learned. As always, for me they relate to the classroom.


Lesson #1: Be prepared. Rehearse possibilities. Know what you’re going to need to do. Our kayak safety classes and required wet exit demonstrations on trips like our Belize adventure taught me how to leave my boat as safely as possible. In the classroom, my biggest mishaps happened when I was caught by surprise. The day a student said to me, “F*$# you, you b^@*#!” I was so taken aback that I replied, “What did you say?” When he repeated himself, I answered, “Okay, the second one is on me, but you need to go to the dean for the first.” No student had sworn at me in front of the class before, and I was unprepared to respond more effectively.


Lesson #2: Keep your head. Lesson #1 will help you do that. I could have panicked over the possibility of losing both thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and my safest passage out of the creek. Instead I went into problem-solving mode. My best work in the classroom happened when I chose to go into problem-saving mode, even for distressing situations.


Lesson #3: Mistakes will happen. What matters is what you do when they do happen. I used to have a banner up in my classroom with the saying, “If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” This lesson did not come easily to the risk-averse person I used to be. But I believe we all need to challenge ourselves. If we never leave our comfort zones, how do we grow? And if we do, some mistakes are inevitable. It is up to us to see them as learning opportunities rather than failures.


Lesson #4: Don’t live in fear. When things go wrong, have faith that you’ll do better next time. If you see mistakes as opportunities, you’ll have the strength to deal with outcomes.


Lesson #5: Support matters. Whether it’s your paddling partner saving your equipment and helping you out of a jam, or a colleague talking you through a mishap, helping you problem-solve, helping you develop better strategies for next time – you don’t need to go it alone and can become stronger because of support.


I’m anxious to paddle again, to normalize paddling again, so we’re driving up to Lake Geneva tomorrow. Paddling on the lake should give me closure. But these lessons I learned and their value elsewhere in life help relieve the sting of my mistake and make it a more positive experience.



Connectedness and Shared Purpose

I miss my writing group! Although it has always been a very high priority for me, through circumstances beyond my control, I missed the May meeting and will now have to skip June’s as well. Sadness pervades my efforts to write.


“Why?” I’ve been asking myself. I wrote both of my textbooks as a lone ranger, getting feedback from my editor only after I turned in semi-final drafts. Her comments polished the work and let me finalize it, but they came in near the end of the process of writing. My group, on the other hand, responds to my work earlier in the process, and their varied perspectives, while sometimes confusing, usually lead me to a better version. I miss the discussion, I miss their perspective, I miss being reminded that my audience includes non-teachers and I can’t assume background knowledge.


But it’s more than that. I miss the community. I miss being part of a group where individuals commit not only to their own writing but also to helping their peers. I miss the joint sense of purpose, the shared learning.


And I miss being able to offer my own comments and perspective. I miss the give-and-take that characterizes a good session.


The degree of my frustration over missing two months in a row surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. I am a better writer, a better reader, and a better communicator because of this community of writers. And with no firm deadlines for my memoir or my blog, I value the accountability of the deadline of each meeting.


Thinking about this led me to an epiphany: my best classes – as learner and as teacher – have been like my writing group, a community with a shared purpose,  mutual commitment, and genuine concern for each other. My teacher training [admittedly a lifetime ago] never addressed that. When I student taught, my supervisors didn’t evaluate how well I was building community.


But as I mourn missing these sessions and promise myself to protect July’s date, I realize that all educators should concern themselves with these issues. The very reason I never loved my online classes and workshops was the distant nature of any community they offered. Our classrooms should promote a sense of connectedness and shared purpose. Only then will our students and teachers eagerly attend and participate in the work together.

The Tyranny of AP Exams


My grandchildren are breathing a sigh of relief that AP exams are over. They join almost five million other students who took  AP exams. The pressure these students feel makes me wonder. The fact that they’re taking AP exams as freshmen and sophomores makes me wonder. Using the number of students who take AP tests to measure the effectiveness of a given school makes me wonder, too.


I loved teaching Advanced Placement English! I modeled my AP class on the Honors Seminar in Literature that I took at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Only 12 of us were placed in the Seminar out of over 5,000 freshmen. Being in this select group was an honor, a privilege, and a responsibility. I struggled to rise to the occasion, developing close reading skills and more effective and compelling writing. My professor, L. Randolph Wadsworth, was a visionary who had us engaging in Socratic dialogue, teaching each other, and reading and writing at a furious pace. We met off-campus and the level of discussion shaped my desire to teach English.


How can freshmen and sophomores do close readings and Socratic dialogues at that level? Should they? Isn’t that level of intellectual exchange a product of growth we foster in the early years of high school?


My grandchildren will graduate from high school with many AP credits and AP tests on their record. It looks like our grandson could graduate in three years if his university gives him full credit. Is that even a good thing? Economic savings, to be sure, but what would he be missing by cutting his college experience short?


My students might have groaned when I’d begin an opinionated statement with, “If I ruled the world…” but if I did, I would reinstate Advanced Placement courses as a culmination of high school studies to aspire to, a transition to college seminars, not a series of hoops to be jumped through all four years.  I’d take some of the pressure off these high school students, too many of whom are already struggling emotionally. And I’d continue to work to make all high school classes demanding and fun, to lead students to a fulfilling sense of accomplishment that doesn’t require a national test to prove its existence.

Statewide Teachers’ Strikes

I’ve been following the spate of teacher strikes with interest. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina – there’s a reason many are calling this “America’s Education Spring.” Too many think that this is just about pay. Pay matters, and I believe that teachers are generally underpaid, a problem that has grown in the last ten years.


According to the Brookings Institution, “[t]eachers in the U.S. are paid about 30 percent less than other comparably educated workers in the economy, and this gap is larger than most other industrialized countries. Combining these salary reductions with increases in health insurance premiums and contributions to retirement benefits—both of which have fallen more on teachers’ shoulders over the last decade—means that most teachers have significantly less in take-home pay than they used to. Though teachers have for a long time worked second jobs at a higher rate than other full-time workers in the economy, it appears that the pinch is inducing even more to moonlight—potentially to the detriment of their students.[1] “Nationally, teachers today are paid on average $60,483 annually—17 percent lower than America’s typical college graduates, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Education Association.”[2]



The numbers are worrisome. “Nationally, average teacher salaries are down nearly 5 percent after inflation is considered, and some states are down even further.”[3] By 2015 school funding had not returned to a pre-recession levels in 29 states.[4]  No wonder many striking teachers, like those in Arizona, demand not only a raise, but also increased school funding. And most of the states enduring state-wide strikes have teachers’ salaries set by the state, creating a laser focus.


But I suspect that there is more at work here than even these compelling numbers. The pressure on teachers has increased dramatically since my first teaching job in 1970. Accountability laws, helicopter parents, a wide range of student abilities and levels of achievement, and – too often – a lack of respect and support discourage some of the best teachers I know. People who still think teachers work a short day and a short year clearly have never been a teacher or had a teacher in their


When I was still teaching [and, admittedly, when schools were better funded in general], research suggested that teachers sought respect, decision-making about curriculum and policy, leadership opportunities, and recognition and appreciation of effective work. Changing school culture won’t replace decent pay, but it will enhance the best of what’s happening in schools.


As a nation we often give lip service to the importance of a public education. We need to fund our schools adequately, ensuring reasonable and competitive teacher pay as well as funding for materials and professional development to help teachers continue to grow and serve their students. We also need changes in school culture and the attitude of parents and the public toward teachers. Only then will teachers be empowered to be their best selves in the classroom, a key to helping students become their best selves.






[4] Ibid.