Choose Kindness

Melanie McCabe’s story in the Washington Post  last week warmed my heart. Every year before Valentine’s Day she would tell her high school seniors about her own Valentine Day humiliation when she received a valentine from the boy she had a crush on. Excited to open it, she then read, “TO THE UGLIEST GIRL IN CLASS.” Embarrassed and tearful that day, she didn’t enjoy the holiday again for years.  

That experience prompted McCabe’s annual “party that celebrates kindness instead of cruelty.” She gives her seniors the materials to create mailboxes. She distributes hundreds of pre-cut pink squares of paper and challenges them to write one positive comment to each and every  classmate. McCabe plays music and watches her students compose their messages. Some have told her years later about the power of that experience.

Earlier that day I had read another Post article about the impact of President Trump’s behavior on bullying in schools. “Since Trump’s rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language — often condemned as racist and xenophobic — has seeped into schools across America. Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.”

For over twenty years I have worked on keeping students safe in school and preventing bullying, both in my own school and, through volunteer work, in other school districts, including the one in my hometown. The responsibility of schools and teachers to keep students safe so they can learn and thrive is an absolute value I hold. The current climate challenges that responsibility on a daily basis.

McCabe reminds us that we can teach kindness. She writes, “In recent years, the world that all of us inhabit has grown uglier — more divisive and unkind. Today there are bullies we contend with via social media who are far more powerful and corrosive than the childhood villain I remember so vividly.” Practices like her Valentine’s Day “party” can help reverse this tragic trend. I hope teachers currently in the classroom create their own opportunities to steer the culture to kindness.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/02/13/valentines-day-was-humiliating-me-child-i-tell-my-students-about-it-every-year/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/school-bullying-trump-words/

What Do Young Teachers Really Want

When I decided to become a teacher at an early age, I didn’t consider many factors. I just knew that teachers had made a difference in my life, and I wanted a chance to do that. New, young teachers seem far more savvy than I was, and they have more career options as well. Microsoft Education, in partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit, surveyed over a thousand student teachers and early career teachers around the world. Their findings surprise me only in their universality.

“The younger generation of teachers are digital, global, social, mobile, and visual,” said Mark Sparvell, an education leader at Microsoft. “They prioritize social-emotional learning, … they prioritize global issues. This is a very values-oriented generation—they seek to work with purpose and passion, and without that, they’ll leave.” We need young teachers to stay and thrive. Our students can’t afford the revolving door any more.

This survey offers insights into what these young teachers really want and need. More than half the teachers surveyed “chose the profession because they enjoy working with children, and 46 percent said they want to make an impact on future generations.” But 45 percent are worried about low salaries and about stress and burnout. They are clear on their top priorities: improving physical learning spaces, increasing the size of the workforce, and having more technology in the classroom. Yet the respondents, who really want to use technology for higher order thinking skills, feel inadequately trained to do that and find a lack of sufficient technology tools and support. They also anticipate increasing classroom diversity but feel insufficiently prepared to teach in a multi-cultural and/or multi-language setting. What will we do to address these concerns?

These concerns matter. Students whose teachers have adequate training and tools will benefit. And teachers who feel they have adequate training and tools may stay in the profession. As a group, teachers are getting younger: “According to research done by University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, the most common age of a public-school teacher now ranges from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. In 2007-08, the most common age was 55. In 2015-16, about 60 percent of newly hired teachers in public schools were younger than age 29.” The National Teacher Principal Survey tells us that 44% of teachers leave the profession within five years, a rate higher than the national average for career changes. For schools and students to succeed, we must commit to address the concerns of these younger teachers or risk having a less experienced, less stable teaching force.

As a country, we need well-educated students who are prepared for the future. We need teachers to stay in the profession and to continue to grow. Money could address the concerns they have expressed for better physical spaces, increased hiring, and more availability of technology. Meeting professional development [PD] needs, however, gets trickier. During my career, PD too often consisted of one-hit wonders as we looked at a different issue every semester or new school year. Only my training in Problem-Based Learning was ongoing with mentors and a peer group. That training really transformed my teaching. We must provide relevant and ongoing PD for all teachers, especially those younger teachers with limited experience, to thrive.

Surprisingly, these survey respondents don’t see a need for professional development to address the concerns they’ve expressed, perhaps because they’ve experienced the kind of fragmented, often irrelevant or abstract PD that turns teachers off. We can and must do better. According to Roxanna Elden, a former teacher and a writer who provides resources for beginning teachers, “new teachers want advice, but they are often intimidated to admit that they are struggling or don’t know everything. Online communities can give them concrete, nonjudgmental advice.” Young teachers need release time to work with non-supervisory mentors in a low-risk situation, to observe, to be observed, and to discuss all those observations. That, too, takes commitment and money. Too often glib statements emerge about how much Americans care about education. For those statements to stand, we must back them up with resources. The alternative is far more expensive in the long run.

[http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2020/01/heres_what_gen_z_teachers_around_the_world_want.html]

Too Much Teacher Talk

This morning I was reminded of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” A few weeks ago Education Week published an article entitled “How Much Should Teachers Talk in the Classroom? Much Less, Some Say” [https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/12/11/how-much-should-teachers-talk-in-the.html]. It asserts that teachers continue to dominate the talk in classrooms even though “researchers have found that students’ comprehension, engagement, and test scores improve when they get to discuss what they’re learning.” John Hattie’s synthesis of studies on the topic of teacher talk, “detailed in his 2012 book, Visible Learning for Teachers, found that teachers talk for 70 percent to 80 percent of class time on average.”

I learned that lesson thirty-five years ago when a colleague working on her type 75 certificate observed me and tracked my talk in my classroom. I can still feel the dismay that filled me then when she told me I talked too much. I had no idea how to change that. My teacher training had focused on lecturing students. My students often joked that I could talk bell to bell on fewer breaths than any other teachers. I’d posted Yeats’ quote that “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” for years, mistakenly believing that I could ignite my students’ fires with my own passion. 

I started reading about student-centered classrooms, but the real turning point for my own teaching came in the 1990s as I began to use problem-based learning in my own classroom and then to teach other teachers to use it themselves. PBL requires the teacher to shift into coaching mode and to design open-ended lessons that don’t culminate in one right answer. As I became a more proficient PBL coach, I found myself redesigning non-PBL lessons to empower students. Training in cooperative learning also helped me. I came to prefer this kind of constructivist classroom, where students “construct” their knowledge and understandings.

Back then I was more or less on my own. Learning to change was up to me, and other than my PBL training, there were few resources available to me. Now, however, teachers have access to an app called TeachFX that helps them discover how much they talk. Rosie Reid, California’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, said TeachFX helped her realize that she was doing most of the talking at the beginning of class, when students are at their freshest, so she learned to shift to engaging warm-up activities. 

That’s not all that’s changed. Professional development is now more widely available to help teachers shift to a coaching role and to design more open-ended lessons. Some schools have instructional coaches. And many books offer guidance, like Tojani and Moje’s book No More Teaching as Telling. Books like this and many websites offer specific strategies. Lucas Richardson asks, “Are you responding to every student comment (ping-pong), or are students responding to and interacting with their peers’ contributions to the conversation (volleyball)?” [https://blog.commonlit.org/6-simple-ways-to-get-your-students-talking-78ef0d58d51a]. I wish I’d heard that a long time ago. Rearranging the classroom into collaborative groups, asking more questions, providing wait time, and asking open-ended questions all help this shift. I hope more teachers make it.

Must We Squash Creativity?

We have a brand new grandson who lives far from us, so we’ve been burning up FaceTime with calls. We know his field of vision is very small still, yet his eyes open more each day, and he seems to be tracking people nearby. His curiosity thrills me.

A week ago the Sunday Chicago Tribune provided a great glimpse into the work of Lynda Barry, a MacArthur genius winner this past fall [https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-lynda-barry-1128-20191127-i5abij6azrh47cuezbghssk3lm-story.html]. An “indie comics creator turned cutting-edge educator,” Barry plans to use the cash award of $625,000 to study brain creativity in young children. Barry believes that “preschoolers hold many secrets to creativity, before education and social expectations have trained their natural artistry out of them.”  She wants to find out why children who integrate writing and drawing end up having to split them in school. I almost wish I could move back to Madison to join her efforts!

But her world view saddens me even as I admire her exploration. Why does school tend to squash creativity and put everything in its own box? Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” And our friend and fellow artist, Kevin Lahvic, writes, ““Ask a class of first graders if there are any artists in the room and they will all raise their hands. My hand’s still up.” Clearly Kevin survived the bunkering of subjects in school. Our three older grandchildren survived public schools with their creativity still thriving because their parents made sure they had opportunities to foster it.

I find myself reminiscing about teaching Creative Writing. One of my favorite experiences involved a senior who signed up for the semester-long course primarily to avoid the dreaded research paper required in most senior electives. A couple of weeks in, however, he asked for a conference.

“I don’t belong in this class, Mrs. Ljung,” he insisted. I can still see us sitting there a few rows up in my classroom built into the balcony. “I’m a math and science guy. I plan on being an engineer, and this class just isn’t for me.”

“You’re exactly who it’s for,” I assured him. “This is your chance to do something different, to connect with other talents. You really should stay.”

Stay he did, and when we were working on double voice pieces, dialogue which shows both inner voice [what the speaker is thinking] and outer voice [what the speaker says aloud], he wrote about that conversation, about my pushing him to stay. He captured the gist of outer voices, but it was his depiction of what we really were thinking – and the dichotomy between the two – that captivated the rest of us. That piece juried into “Page to Stage,” our annual performance of student writing, and I watched him as theater students performed his piece. He sat up straighter and straighter, clearly moved by the performance of his creative, non-math, non-science work!

Being creative becomes natural in a creative writing setting. What about other school subjects, though? Do we plan lessons that foster creativity, or have we become so focused on testing and standards, on teaching subjects in isolation from each other, that we lose the opportunity to foster that kind of creativity? I fear that the latter is more likely. I count on my new grandson’s parents to foster his.

Commercializing the Work of Teachers

Education Week just posted an article about Amazon’s new portal, Amazon Ignite, where teachers can buy and sell lesson plans and curriculum materials by topic.[1] I’ve been out of the classroom too long, because I didn’t even know about a similar existing site called Teachers Pay Teachers, which offers more than 3 million free and paid resources.

I confess my first reaction was ambivalence. My best teaching grew out of collaboration in lesson planning. When my high school was the beta site for Writer’s Workbench, the cutting-edge text analysis program from AT&T back in the 90s, we had a group working on how to use its capacities effectively. It could check for far more than spelling, and I challenged my students to use its analysis to improve their use of sentence variety, to limit their use of passive voice, to improve diction and style. When just two of us taught the British Literature Junior Honors class, we met regularly to develop our plans together. Some of my favorite lessons, like the guided imagery to understand the role of thanes in Anglo-Saxon England, grew out of those meetings. When the chair of the Special Education department and I co-taught an inclusion class in American Literature that had 5-7 Special Ed students enrolled, we worked together every week to refine our plans. A semester-long problem-based-learning experience emerged from that collaboration that energized both us and our students. And during my last year of teaching, I served on a team with two colleagues that pioneered a social justice curriculum for sophomore English, including four nonfiction books. We met regularly, too, and great lessons grew from that. So why would we commercialize these lessons?

I’m all for teachers making a decent living, and sites like this offer income potential. On Ignite educators can earn a 70% royalty on all sales, with a $.30 transaction fee for products under $2.99. And the top seller on Teachers Pay Teachers earned over $2 million, while more than 150 other teachers earned over $500,00. I would have loved to bring in extra money for the nights and weekends I spent planning creative lessons.

Steven Ross, a professor in the school of education and the director of the Center for Research and Reform at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, acknowledges that the materials may not be evidence-based, but says, “Teachers are kind of in a vacuum in terms of what’s available. I don’t see anything wrong with teachers sharing information.” And Ignite will offer verified customer reviews and allow customers to preview materials.

So many teachers generate creative ways to approach learning, and others could benefit from their leading work. So what’s the downside? I guess I’m wistful for the days when teachers worked in pairs and teams, knowing their students and brainstorming creative ways to reach them. I have to admit that these sites won’t prevent that kind of teamwork, though, and they certainly will offer resources to those lone rangers who don’t have the chance to work with others. “The times they are a’changing!”


[1] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2019/11/amazon-sell-teachers-materials-resource.html

Towards More Inclusive Classrooms

Earlier this month, Education Week published an article on how to build a more LGBTQ-inclusive classroom.[1] In the latter 90’s when I became engaged in Safe Schools work, there were no articles like this in mainstream education publications. The world clearly remains unsafe for many LGBTQ youth, especially in the current political climate, but my heart soars to see important conversations taking place that may change teachers and the culture of schools. And the article’s ten tips are valuable and explained well.

The very first should not be news: “Know that your students are ready to discuss LGBTQ issues.” Students have been talking more frankly and openly for a long time, but too often the images and messaging they are exposed to are biased. Schools can make this a learning opportunity. The article also urges educators to “Recognize that sexual orientation and gender identity is multifaceted.” Just as our binary view of sexuality was too limited, we need to expand everyone’s understanding of the complexity of sexual orientation and gender identify instead of trying to fit everyone into neat little boxes. This is a learning opportunity for many teachers as well as students.

The article advises educators to intervene as they should/would with any identity-based attacks, but to do so without discouraging discussion about what terms mean. And number 4 is one of my favorites: “Don’t assume talking about LGBTQ issues has to involve talking about sex.” We don’t make all conversations about straight people about their sex lives; in fact, such conversations are no doubt rare in schools. “In Reading the Rainbow, researcher Caitlin L. Ryan and educator Jill M. Hermann-Wilmarth ask us to ‘shift our understanding of LGBTQ people away from sex and toward who people are, including how they live, whom the love, and with whom they build family and community.’” Age-appropriate discussions can and should provide a fuller perspective.           

I wish someone had shared the fifth point with me early in my personal journey. Learning to “Trust your own positive intentions” is daunting when you see kids at risk. But the article is right when it points out that even an “imperfect advocate is better than a silent bystander.” I know I was imperfect, but my LGBTQ students were patient with me and taught me. And I wish someone had told me then to “Integrate LGBTQ-inclusive books with other books and make them easy to check out anonymously.” I had some of those books on my shelf to signal that I was safe, but they were all grouped together. And I couldn’t “Treat LGBTQ characters in literature as whole people with many interests and identities” – the literature we read lacked those characters. I did make sure to include a fuller perspective with authors when I could, but now I would make sure our literature selections were more inclusive. And when we talked about LGBTQ characters in class, I would now know to “Speak in terms of relationships rather than labels.” The article suggests that when a class is exploring The Color Purple, for example, the teacher might ask students to explore the main character’s relationship with another character instead of just labeling her as a Lesbian.  

And the ninth point is important and far more inclusive in its own right. We must not “rely on LGBTQ students to explain LGBTQ characters to the class” any more than our students of color or students of particular religions should explain their experiences to the class. If we “Build in substantial free response and open discussion time,” students can grow their understanding of roles and experiences without placing that burden on their fellow students. I am thrilled by the specificity of these recommendations and the openness of the discussion in the article. Times have changed. But we must take the issue of inclusiveness even further. Every one of our students has an intersectionality of identities. We really need to become more aware of who our students really are as individuals and what situations they come from so that we can be sure that schools and classrooms are safe and inclusive for every student. Our stude


[1]  https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/10/11/10-tips-for-building-a-more-lgbtq-inclusive.html

Students Working Real-World Problems for a Real Audience

I’ve just finished the last section of the draft of my teaching memoir, which describes an incredible Problem-Based Learning experience my students had working for a Chicago law firm. It reminds me of how much I still miss my own problem-solving class, but I’m thrilled that I continue to encounter similar efforts occurring today. In Aurora, Illinois, the city partnered with the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy [IMSA] to offer the “Smart City Youth Design Challenge” for middle and high school students. More than 50 youth will be selected for a one-day challenge at IMSA to design Aurora as the smart city of the future.

The second largest city in Illinois, Aurora has much to offer already. The Fox River runs through a scenic downtown on its way back from recession, and the city is home to the famous and popular art deco Paramount Theater. From a news release from the city: “Poised to become a sandbox for innovation, Aurora is partnering with world-class companies and investing in smart city infrastructure to become a leading-edge urban development hub for the state of Illinois and beyond.”[1]

Working in small groups led by facilitators, participants will create ideas and design for what transportation, education, entertainment, community, energy and other parts of the city could be like in a city of the future. They will then get to pitch their ideas to a real audience at a special event with the city leaders.

“Our youth not only represent our future potential, but they also are a reflection of our present priorities,” said Mayor Richard C. Irvin. “What we do now to empower them can have a direct impact on our city, country and world.”[2]

I believe in learning opportunities like this. I have seen the ideas of students become reality when they are given a chance like this. I only wish these opportunities were commonplace instead of the exception. Every time we challenge our learners to work on a real-world problem for a real audience, we give them a chance to grow their skills and their self-esteem. For 17 semesters, my problem-based learning class did that. I miss it, and I hope that there are many more opportunities like it for students everywhere.


[1] https://kanecountyconnects.com/?s=aurora+challenges+students&submit=Search

[2] https://www.dailyherald.com/submitted/20190919/aurora-offers-programs-to-engage-youths-in-community

Anxiety and College Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

A Head Start for All Grade Levels

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

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

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

But revisiting this concept reminds me of several points:

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

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

The Case for Service Learning

This quotation really resonates for me right now. Last night I submitted a section of my teaching memoir to my writing group about a class I created for my high school that involved service learning. Using the Problem-Based Learning approach developed in medical schools, my students learned to define a problem and the criteria for an effective solution. That guided their research and helped them to generate and evaluate solutions. They worked problems for the school and the larger community. One year my students even worked for a Chicago law firm on a problem in Toledo, Ohio! Each of these problems became a form of service to others as my students struggled to figure out how to provide the answers their “clients” sought.

For so many of my students, this service became transformational, changing their views about themselves and their place in the world. Some redesigned the gardens for a local historic site, some figured out strategies to promote the Post-Prom celebration to keep students safe after prom, and some helped redesign the eighth-grade orientation. One group not only redesigned a vandalized part of a local trail for the county, but they chose to do the hard physical work of rebuilding. And when vandals struck again, long after they’d received credit in class for their work, they repaired it on their own time. Time after time, I watched students discover the satisfaction of doing something helpful for others. For most of them, this was a new experience. This class showed them the enormous payback for their efforts.

I even saw that reaction among my creative writing students. When they wrote children’s books, we took field trips to local grade schools to read them to children. I’ll never forget my hulking football star sitting cross-legged on the floor of a second-grade classroom, reading his story to a rapt audience. Out of that grew a collaboration with classes from a grade school within walking distance. We visited them once, and they returned the favor. My students partnered with children to write children’s stories, which they sent home with the children. Having a real audience for their work fed their sense of satisfaction, but the gratitude of the children and their teachers, expressed in priceless, hand-drawn thank you notes delivered to the class, gave my students special satisfaction.

Dieter F. Uchtodorf wrote, “As we lose ourselves in the service of others, we discover our own lives and our own happiness.” And from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Live’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” I watched students embrace those concepts because they had experienced them firsthand.

If I ruled the world [a phrase I used to use with my students], I would mandate service learning for all high school students. Only through experience can they discover the satisfaction and happiness that derive from doing for others. And if our young people understood that, wouldn’t that change our society for the better? As generations of graduates entered the world with a desire to help others, wouldn’t we all benefit?