This quotation really resonates for me right now. Last night
I submitted a section of my teaching memoir to my writing group about a class I
created for my high school that involved service learning. Using the Problem-Based
Learning approach developed in medical schools, my students learned to define a
problem and the criteria for an effective solution. That guided their research
and helped them to generate and evaluate solutions. They worked problems for
the school and the larger community. One year my students even worked for a Chicago
law firm on a problem in Toledo, Ohio! Each of these problems became a form of
service to others as my students struggled to figure out how to provide the
answers their “clients” sought.
For so many of my students, this service became transformational,
changing their views about themselves and their place in the world. Some
redesigned the gardens for a local historic site, some figured out strategies
to promote the Post-Prom celebration to keep students safe after prom, and some
helped redesign the eighth-grade orientation. One group not only redesigned a
vandalized part of a local trail for the county, but they chose to do the hard
physical work of rebuilding. And when vandals struck again, long after they’d
received credit in class for their work, they repaired it on their own time. Time
after time, I watched students discover the satisfaction of doing something
helpful for others. For most of them, this was a new experience. This class
showed them the enormous payback for their efforts.
I even saw that reaction among my creative writing students.
When they wrote children’s books, we took field trips to local grade schools to
read them to children. I’ll never forget my hulking football star sitting
cross-legged on the floor of a second-grade classroom, reading his story to a
rapt audience. Out of that grew a collaboration with classes from a grade
school within walking distance. We visited them once, and they returned the
favor. My students partnered with children to write children’s stories, which
they sent home with the children. Having a real audience for their work fed their
sense of satisfaction, but the gratitude of the children and their teachers,
expressed in priceless, hand-drawn thank you notes delivered to the class, gave
my students special satisfaction.
Dieter F. Uchtodorf wrote, “As we lose ourselves in the
service of others, we discover our own lives and our own happiness.” And from
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Live’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What
are you doing for others?” I watched students embrace those concepts because
they had experienced them firsthand.
If I ruled the world [a phrase I used to use with my
students], I would mandate service learning for all high school students. Only
through experience can they discover the satisfaction and happiness that derive
from doing for others. And if our young people understood that, wouldn’t that
change our society for the better? As generations of graduates entered the
world with a desire to help others, wouldn’t we all benefit?
As I scramble once again to finish garments for a jury
deadline, I find myself reminiscing about my first experience sewing clothing for
myself. As a woman of a certain age, I hark back to the binary days of applied
arts in junior high: shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. All
the girls in my seventh-grade home ec class had to make a skirt using the same
pattern. Each skirt had the same pleats, set-in waistband, and side zipper. Our
only personal touch was the choice of fabric. I loved the blue and green shadow
plaid I picked, but the process and the product failed to inspire me. I wore
the skirt a few times and put it away, along with any thoughts of making my own
Always passionate about fashion, however, I often thought of
becoming a clothing designer [one of the dozens of careers I fancied in high
school], conveniently ignoring my lack of sewing experience and skills. My
parents’ housekeeper made my prom dress from a pattern and fabric I chose, and the
summer before my wedding to a “starving” graduate student, I designed an entire
trousseau, but she put it together. I would design; others would sew.
That summer my mother presented me with a sewing machine.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“You love clothes and you won’t have any money for them for
a long time…” she replied.
“How do I use it?” I asked my mother, knowing full well that
she didn’t even know how to sew on a button.
“I don’t know. Figure it out!” She smiled.
Figure it out I did. How
hard could it be, I asked myself as I bought Impressionist print voiles and
linings and made two wonderful shift dresses that I wore for years.
For a long time I remained self-taught, making all my
clothing as well as our window coverings and bedspreads. I gave up sewing when
I went back to teaching full-time, but one of the great joys of retirement was
the freedom to sew without pressure. Sewing workshops and guidance from the wonderful
mentors in my wearable art group elevated my skills. I had collections of
garments made from vintage Obis in runway shows, and I even developed a
collection called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” whose color
palette and use of vines as a motif was one of my favorite efforts. And here I
am working on another collection.
I find myself thinking about the factors that changed my
desire to learn:
A need to know, since sewing my own clothes was
the only way I’d be able to have anything new for a long, long time
Some early success to encourage me to keep going
The chance to personalize my efforts and to use
my own creativity
Following success and positive feedback, the
desire to take it further, to elevate my skills and understanding
Excellent teachers/mentors who challenged and
supported my efforts
I see these factors as impactful and available in the classroom
setting. Relevance exists in our curriculum, and good teachers help students
see that and give them a need to know. In my own field of literature, others
write about its importance to hand down culture through stories, expand
horizons, grow vocabulary, improve writing skills, and teach critical thinking.
All these offer value, but I believe the most compelling reason to teach
literature is the way it serves as a vehicle for us to explore the human condition
and address the “big questions” about life. What does it mean to be a good
person? Is man inherently good or evil or both? What are our responsibilities
to each other? And on and on… Through our exploration of literature, we can
consider these questions and even the answers provided by some of the authors. In
those settings, outside of our personal experience, we can develop our own very
Other content area teachers can make powerful arguments for relevance
in their fields as well. I came to understand grammar and structure in English
through my study of French and Latin. I make constant use of math skills
whether it’s calculating ingredients or pan sizes or planning yardage for a
garment or roughly adding up purchases in my head as I shop to follow my
budget. History offers huge lessons that we should be heeding today. If we look
at the rise of populist dictators in the past, for example, we have ample
warning for what is happening globally and domestically today. I use my understanding from chemistry to
rethink recipes, from botany as I grow orchids and succulents, and from physics
as I seek to understand how things work and how to solve problems. The
relevance is there – as teachers we need to make it explicit.
We need to provide classroom lessons that allow students to
achieve some success before we escalate our expectations of them, scaffolding
their lessons. Starting with more accessible demands allows for those early
successes, and then teachers can build upon them. Just as I began with a simple
shift and have progressed to lined jackets and drafting my own patterns,
students need easier tasks to accomplish before they move on.
Well-designed lessons can also encourage creativity and develop
opportunities for students to personalize their learning and tap their own
creativity. We need to stop thinking about one-size-fits-all instruction and encourage
more open-ended experiences. Thanks to my predecessor’s model, my Advanced
Placement English students worked in small groups to develop a director’s notebook
for King Lear, transposing the play to another time and place, creating
costume sketches and scenery, and explaining their choices. What better way to
think about the timeless themes in the play and what they mean to us today? Given
the chance to be creative in their approach to the play, students developed and
articulated a deeper understanding of it.
As teachers we can
and should build ever escalating demands into the curriculum, as long as we’re
there to support students if they struggle. Mastery of a give skill should be
followed with the next most demanding level of that skill, whether it’s moving
from a simple paragraph to an extended essay or narrative, or moving from
simple short story analysis to deep reading of longer, more complex literature.
We should start with accessible tasks but continually elevate our expectations.
We need to be there to help students when they find those tasks increasingly
This kind of teaching requires a more constructivist
classroom, a far cry from the bell-to-bell talking at students that I was
trained to do. Problem-based learning helped me make that shift, and the
students and I both benefited. But those factors can be embedded even in a
traditional classroom approach if we put students’ needs first.
So I’ll return to my sewing machine and my looming jury
deadline, grateful that I was able to make that shift before I retired, hopeful
that teachers and students today will continue to make shifts like it, too.
We recently had the opportunity to hear Katherine Reynolds
Lewis, the author of The Good News about
Bad Behavior, speak in person. I’d raved about her book in an earlier blog
post, but I need to rave about her once again. She addressed the refrain from my
friends still in the classroom that students just are different, and she
proposed meaningful solutions.
Much of her presentation focused on parenting, but the
principles she espoused speak to educators as well. Ms. Lewis asserts that kids
are fundamentally different, so we need whole different sets of tools in our
toolbox. Kids’ behavior is often problematic because we have a “crisis of
self-regulation in kids today.” According to a National Institute for Mental
Health longitudinal study, 1 in 2 will have a behavioral disorder or substance addiction
by 18. Nearly a third have an anxiety diagnosis. 19% have behavioral disorders
like ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. 14% have a mood disorder and 11 %
substance abuse problem. Some of these issues overlap. According to the Center
for Disease Control, in the last 10 years, the suicide rate for children 10-14
has doubled, and it has gone up 41% for kids 15-19. These stats are frightening
and explain disruptive behaviors in the classroom.
Three big changes in society that have helped cause this shift:
Disappearance of childhood play [which inevitably
leads to self-regulation]
Growth of social media and technology – turns our
focus externally, which is strongly correlated with depression
“Childhood has become about performance and
achievement and not about contribution.” But contribution gives people a sense
of where they belong and how they matter.
All that felt very depressing when she shared it at a Glenbard
Parent Series talk in February. But it helps explain why a lot of the tools we’re
used to may not work and may even be counterproductive. Neuroscience tells us
that the carrot-and-stick approach does not work, for example. I was profoundly
excited about her talk, though, because she offered research-based tools that
Her three keys to help kids learn to self-regulate are:
Connection between the adult and child
Communication with kids about their behavior to
build their self-regulatory ability: problem-solving, critical thinking, social
and emotional management
If we build connections with kids, we can help them
self-regulate. Our physical presence can help kids calm down and eliminate symptoms
of anxiety. A calm physical touch also can help kids get back into
self-regulation. In the classroom [where touching has its own risks], we might
give young children something to hug, offer just a light touch on the shoulder
to older students. When we empathize and kids feel understood, they can calm
down and self-regulate. Our modeling good self-regulation in our behavior
How we communicate also matters. Reynolds urges that we “shift
from goal of getting them to do what we want to getting them to do what’s
needed in the situation to build those skills that will help them thrive in
that moment and in life generally.” For example, when a student is distraught, we
need to send the message that strong emotions are okay instead of dismissing or
ignoring them. Then the student is more able to be effective in addressing the
issue. We can encourage students about what they’re doing and the effort they’re
putting in. We can reframe language to state the same issue positively; for
example, she suggests that instead of telling kids at a swimming pool not to
run, ask them to walk. We might give information about what we see instead of
telling our students what to do. She suggested that a parent might say, “I see
a Lego model on the floor right where people need to walk” because the kid will
then realize it needs to be moved. We can ask more questions and be less directive.
We can help students learn to plan and think ahead: executive function skills
that allow our kids to make plans and to organize big projects are a stronger
predictor of success in life than IQ, so we should help them anticipate what
they need to do. When things go wrong, we should ask them to come up with plan.
Reynolds insists that it’s important to give kids chances to rise to responsibility,
a hallmark of a student-centered constructivist classroom. We need to allow
kids to fail and get back up again. We need to teach them to recognize their
own progress on a continuum.
Lewis talked about Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset:
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be
developed through dedication and hard work —brains and talent are just the
starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is
essential for great accomplishment.” When
we praise our kids for outcome and focus on the results of their actions, they
can develop a fixed mindset [on how smart they are, for instance]. But if we
focus on their progress, they can see themselves as having potential and being
agrees that kids still need to have consequences, but we want them to learn
from those consequences. She suggests four tests to be sure that consequences
are learning opportunities:
Related to the child’s actions
Reasonable in scope
Respectful of the child and us
Revealed in advance
She also offers meaningful steps for negotiating agreements:
Share concern neutrally, not in blaming way
Invite kids’ perspective
Invite some solutions
Agree on a solution both of you think is going
to work and the consequences if it doesn’t
Let the agreement play out
So my apologies to my colleagues for not having been more sympathetic and agreeable when their descriptions of student behavior sounded like whining to me. The bad news is that kids really have changed in ways that make it harder for them and for their parents and teachers. As adults, we need to change how we help them address their behavior. But the good news is that Katherine Reynolds Lewis offers concrete suggestions about how to do that.
P.S. The book goes into far more detail – definitely worth
A week ago the Chicago
Tribune Sunday paper ran a front-page story about the unusual journey of a
man of color to his current position teaching sixth grade at a Chicago public
school. His story feels
compelling. The challenges he faces are all too familiar.
Two things really struck me, though:
The research data that reinforces the importance of students having role model who looks like them.
The value of social engineering to make sure schools have role models that mirror their populations.
According to this article, “the number of black teachers
in Chicago Public Schools declined to 21 percent, while the number of students
of color grew to 84 percent, including 37 percent African-American and 47
percent Hispanic… [yet] black students who had just one black teacher by third
grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college and those who had two were
32 percent more likely.” I grew up in a teaching profession dominated by hetero
white females like myself. How do we meet the needs of a diverse student body
and provide them with role models they can relate to if our teachers don’t
mirror the student population?
This teacher found his way to the classroom through the University of
Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program. “The mission of the University of
Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program is to prepare aspiring teachers for
successful and long-lasting careers in urban schools.” They offer a two-year Master
of Arts in Teaching followed by three years of mentorship. That mentorship has
helped their students succeed: “Ninety-two percent of UChicago UTEP graduates
are still teaching in urban schools after five years compared to the national
average of 50 percent.” Although
their mission doesn’t specify seeking diverse representation, the pictures of
their students and alumni suggest a very diverse group. This program is one way
to develop a pipeline of diverse teachers who provide students with role models
who look like them. There should be others.
Social policy can shape outcomes for good. When my children were little
and we wanted a primary parent raising them, the tax code of the time cut us a
break financially that helped make that choice possible. Now parents can get
tax credits help them pay for childcare. In both cases the IRS rules provide a
kind of social engineering. Let’s use that kind of social engineering to grow a
more diverse teaching population. Students need to see themselves in at least
some of their teachers. Why not encourage more programs like the University of
Chicago UTEP? Why not offer tax credits or other enticements to minority
candidates for teaching? Let’s get a teaching population that mirrors the student
body and has the skills to support and grow those students.
We say we care about children in this country, but we ignore much of
what we know they need because it’s expensive and/or difficult to work to meet
those needs. Programs like this one, programs that not only encourage diverse
individuals to become teachers but also give them the support to succeed and
stay in the profession, mean students can have role models they can relate to. If
that increases the chances for success for those students, why aren’t we doing
more to make it happen?
I’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. “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.”
The numbers are worrisome. “Nationally, average teacher salaries are down nearly 5 percent after inflation is considered, and some states are down even further.” By 2015 school funding had not returned to a pre-recession levels in 29 states. 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.