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?
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?
Last week we had the pleasure and privilege of attending our
middle granddaughter’s graduation from a Chicago public magnet high school. The
ceremony was held at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place in Chicago
because the school auditorium was too small for the class of over 450 and all
of their supporters. The event was lovely if long, and we especially enjoyed
seeing a certain young woman prance across the stage with grace and confidence
to receive her diploma. The class stats were mind-boggling: every student was
headed to a four-year college, and they’d logged countless volunteer hours in
the community, won numerous academic and athletic championships, and earned $56
million in scholarships! Memorable and impressive, to be sure. That’s part of
the package of a top-notch magnet school.
The part we didn’t anticipate happened when the Special Education students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas and certificates. Part of the mission of Whitney M. Young Magnet School is “To give students with disabilities the same high school opportunities as their non-disabled peers.” In addition to a sizable faculty and staff, the school has a Best Buddies program that pairs regular and special ed students. Some of these students could not make it across the stage without physical support; a couple had trouble following the directions. But each and every one of them received the same response from the audience of parents, friends, and peers: loud cheering and applause with great gusto. This is a truly inclusive community where high-achieving students whose academic success is often a given appreciate and celebrate the success of those who have overcome obstacles to be able to march across that stage. Their genuinely joyful response was uplifting.
When I commented on it, I was assured that those who have attended
multiple Whitney Young graduation ceremonies experience that every year. Being
part of that kind of school culture, with genuine inclusion, prepares students
to work and live with others regardless of their circumstances. It gives me
hope for the future.
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.
Another school shooting… Yesterday one student was killed
and eight injured by gunfire at a Denver-area charter school. We barely react
any more. We’re too accepting of this “new normal.”
Education Week reassures us: “With two large-scale school
shootings in 2018—17 killed in Parkland, Fla., and 10 killed in Santa Fe,
Texas—public fears about school safety and gun violence are high. But the data
show that, on the whole, schools are one of the
safest places for children.” Is
that supposed to be comforting? Schools should be safe places. We should be
doing more to keep all schools safe. But we don’t know how.
Just last week Florida’s House of Representatives passed a
controversial bill that would permit classroom teachers to carry guns in
schools, and the Governor is expected to sign it. How can this be the answer?
Even if I had been thoroughly trained to use a gun, my fear of guns and the
reality that many of my high school students could have overpowered me and
taken it away suggests that teachers toting guns might only add to the problem.
We are called to the profession for our love of learning and desire to empower students
to experience that. How many teachers are drawn to policing? What would be the
impact of gun access on their relationship with students?
Wouldn’t we be better served addressing key issues?
What drives shooters in the first place and what
we might do about that?
What can we do about access to guns by
individuals who show signs of being unstable?
How can we better identify those individuals?
Why would any civilian need bump stocks and semi-automatic
rifles? Can we outlaw those?
I had high hopes that the courageous students of Parkland
would drive a serious discussion that led to meaningful problem-solving here. I
was naïve. But we need to look at the root causes of school shootings and
address them directly, instead of settling for dangerous “band-aids” like
arming teachers, band-aids that themselves might just lead to more wounds. Our
students deserve that. So do our teachers. The time is now.
I don’t do heights. I don’t much like snakes, mosquitoes or heat and humidity either. How then, did I find myself 94 feet above the jungle, walking 940 feet between three strong metal towers on a swaying bridge? By climbing fourteen flights of steps in 98ﾟheat with 90+% humidity.
A better question might be why, or even how? The answer speaks to educators. Our trip facilitator knows me well and he knew the situation. He’s helped me overcome my limits before, though perhaps never so dramatically. We talked about the canopy walk before I even left the safety of my home. He knew how to help me choose to go.
He said, “You can do it, I know you can, and I’ll help. Just
take your time – we won’t rush you. And you won’t want to miss it.” He made me
believe in myself enough to overcome deep-seated fears because I believed him.
I could, he’d help, I could take my time, and I’d be sorry if I skipped it.
It’s worth noting that when we kayaked the Lake Country of
Italy with him two years earlier and I chose not to take a clumsy funicular up to
a frightening height, he didn’t push me. Instead we had a wonderful paddle. So
if he said this wasn’t to be missed, I wouldn’t miss it.
And I had additional support to see me through. Our kayaking
buddy Ada, with whom we’d taken two other trips, had seen my bypass the funicular
and knew I wanted to do this terrifying climb. She promised to walk with me. I
would not face this scary challenge alone.
So I climbed. At halfway up I questioned my sanity, but I
kept going. When we finally reached the top of the first tower, the view of the
jungle’s canopy was breathtaking. The drop to the ground below looked gentler
than it must have been, and I finally caught my breath. Dripping in sweat,
cursing the heat and humidity, I did take the time to do a 360ﾟview.
My husband had patiently climbed right behind me, but at the top I lost him to his
camera. While he clicked away, taking pictures I knew we’d both be glad to have,
I headed out on the walkway toward the middle tower, determined to complete the
walk before I lost my nerve.
The first half felt fairly stable, and I found myself
looking ahead and around rather than down. This
isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. I stopped briefly at the middle tower,
winded and dripping with sweat. I need to
finish this, I thought, and I can do
Sadly the second 450’ swayed far more. Whimpering, I practiced
self-talk. I wanted to quit but knew that the closest path to the safety of the
ground was straight ahead. Happily my friend Ada walked back to join me. I kept
my eyes on the back of her neck and hung on to the coarse rope cable to gain an
illusion of control. My legs were trembling when we reached the far tower, but
I had done it – I had completed the dreaded canopy walk and was alive to tell
Now I just had to make my way down 14 more flights of
stairs. Since everyone else was captivated by the view, I worked my way down
slowly. I wanted to kiss the ground when I reached it, as I had after my son
talked me into riding Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, but the mud seemed
unappealing. Finally the others joined
me and we hiked back to the lodge though the jungle. Dehydration and fatigue
sapped my energy, yet I was triumphant! I had just done something I’d been sure
I couldn’t do. I could have been faster, more graceful, less noisy in my whimpering,
but I’d done it nonetheless. And now, when I face new challenges, I will be a
bit more confident because of this triumph.
Next month I’m going to model a semi-transparent dress in a runway
show. I’ve had garments I’ve designed on the runway before, but I’ve never had
to model them myself, and this garment is particularly problematic. But I will remind myself that I completed the
canopy walk, and that will see me through.
Why write about this in a teaching blog? Because sometimes
our students feel as apprehensive as I did. We may not understand why, but we
need to recognize their fears and help them conquer those fears. Those who don’t
share my acrophobia may never really understand how hard this walk was for me,
but they can help me succeed by acknowledging my true feelings and showing me
how to overcome them. We need to tell our students, “You can do this. I’ll help
you. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did.”
And in collaborative, constructivist classrooms, we need to
encourage their classmates to support them the way Ada supported me. I am
reminded of a presentation in our American Lit class by a student who struggled
with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When he stood up to speak, he started
biting his arm. Quietly the other members of his group stood up, surrounded
him, and nodded encouragingly. He was able to present his part of their material.
With their support, he triumphed. Far less dramatic situations happen in
classrooms every day, and teachers and classmates can make a difference.
Students who overcome their fears and do something they thought they couldn’t become
empowered to tackle additional challenges. It’s up to us teachers to help that
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
We just returned from an amazing ten-day kayaking trip in Cuba, and I’ve been thinking about how much I learned and how I learned it. Though we love to kayak in foreign waters – a wonderful and different way to explore new places – a bigger draw for this trip was my long-time wish to return. In 1954 my family spent part of winter break in the first resort hotel in Varadero Beach, Cuba, during Batista’s regime. I knew nothing of the politics or corruption there, so for me the trip was wonderful, set apart from our other frequent family travels by two distinct epiphanies.
First, my beloved brother Peter, gazing at the wondrous
expanse of silver-white sand, challenged me to help him figure out just how
many grains of sand there were covering the shoreline. I would never have
thought about that without his prompting, and we spent endless time collecting
sand, estimating the number of grains each time, and trying to extrapolate
those findings into a likely total. Peter introduced me to a new way of
thinking about the world around me.
The second involved the local children we befriended. I
don’t remember the name of the boy, but I will never forget Marielle. I’ve
always loved languages so, although I was only seven, I had brought a
Spanish-English dictionary. I worked to learn phrases so I could talk with
locals. A bit older, Marielle wanted to learn English and often glanced
longingly at my book. She lived near the hotel, so my parents agreed to walk me
to her home before we left so I could give her the dictionary to keep. This was
not the first time I’d visited a place with a different living standard from my
own affluent suburban upbringing – our parents were invested with our
understanding that diversity. Other places had failed to make a lasting
impression. This time, though, I visited the home of my new-found friend. Her
family had so little, a dramatic contrast to the lifestyle I’d always taken for
granted. That visit taught me not to take my comforts for granted, not to be so
This long-awaited trip to Cuba reinforced that learning. We
had the privilege of staying in casa
particulares, private homes owned by Cubans who rent rooms to tourists. The
Cuban economy uses a dual-currency system: Cuban pesos for locals who are paid
by the government, and Cuban convertible pesos, worth 25 times as much, for use
by tourists. This system creates what our wonderful guide Roberto calls an
“upside-down pyramid.” Professionals like his doctor father and teacher mother
must live on a miniscule salary in Cuban pesos, while those who manage to work
in tourism improve their financial standing dramatically. Having lived through
the 1990s economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba
stranded, he himself changed his career path to tourism so he could help
support his family. Putting any political judgments aside, I found the
resourcefulness and friendliness of the Cubans we met inspiring.
lesson I bring back from this experience is our common humanity. Two of my
favorite experiences emphasized this. Our hosts just outside the old town of
Trinidad welcomed us warmly. When Marisol said, “Mi casa e su casa,” she really
meant it. Hot and sweaty on arrival, we were treated to Canchanchara, the traditional drink. Once fluent in French and
Italian, I’d made little progress in my study of Spanish before the trip, and
Marisol and her husband and son spoke virtually no English. But we communicated
with gestures and smiles and my occasionally looking up words in my second
Spanish-English dictionary. The next afternoon, when we returned from a hike
through the old town after a river paddle, again sweaty and tired, we sat on
their back portal. Her son came to invite us back into the gardens where it was
cooler, and they surprised us with refreshing limonada. The pictures I’d brought from our 1954 trip fascinated
the family, and we felt a strong human connection.
The next day we
visited the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, where we were treated to a stellar
performance by a local choir. Music is a constant in Cuba, and we’d enjoyed
singers and bands throughout our trip. This time, however, felt very personal.
The choir began with a heart-felt rendition of the American song Shenandoah, moving me to tears. The
other pieces were in Spanish, but their spokeswoman kindly explained the
content of each before singing. I loved the piece about the person who though
he could sing, who really sang like a duck as exemplified by their quack-quacks
during the song! During their last song
they invited us to come up and dance with them – a wonderful experience!
Afterwards they invited questions and comments. Overwhelmed, I barely managed
to get my words out… but I told them that I could not sing and was the duck, making
them all laugh, and that I had loved their performance because they made me
realize that for all our differences, we shared a common humanity that too
often gets forgotten. My tears weren’t the only ones.
group is as good as any I’ve heard, yet they struggle to raise the money to
record their work, and they must sell their CDs to pay for their trips to
competitions despite how professional and accomplished they are. Once again I
was reminded of how much I take for granted.
All of which
made me think about why I became a literature teacher in the first place. Not
everyone has the opportunity to travel widely, to meet people from other places
who live very differently from ourselves and to realize how much we still have
in common. We appreciate many of the same gifts: a laugh, a smile, a song,
friends, sharing a good meal… But anyone who can read simply needs a library
card and time. Through stories and books, we can discover so much about the
rest of the world.
I was excited to see some progress in the 80s and 90s –
albeit excruciatingly slow – to have children’s textbooks include a variety of
people, so that all students might see themselves reflected on the page. As a
teacher I helped include books in the curriculum that showed my students very
different lives. If I were still in the classroom now, I would look for even
more ways to do that. The canon is broader than it used to be, but educators
can be more strategic in what they choose and how they use it. I used to tell
my freshmen that Romeo & Juliet is a story they can recognize: two
teenagers so “hot to trot” that they sneak around behind their parents’ backs,
heedless of possible consequences. When my sophomores read the riveting memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, they had to imagine
what it was like for Melba Beals and the other eight students to integrate
Little Rock High School, to face down the hatred and opposition of
segregationists. When my seniors read The
Plague by Albert Camus, they faced a world where medical care could not
save the victims. Well-written stories bring other worlds to life. We need to
include them in our curricula. Our students can and should learn that while
much divides us, more unites us. The human experience transcends local
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?