Reopening Schools

Students at a primary school in Bangkok returned on July 1, a delayed start to their academic year. Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

I have been struggling to write this blog entry for weeks. Each time I think I have a handle on what I believe makes sense, more news and differing advisories and opinion columns give me mental whiplash. I am now convinced that I don’t know the answer. I am convinced that there is no one right answer or one-size-fits-all. And I am convinced that local school districts absolutely need to figure out their best answers both for the children, parents, and communities they serve, and for the nation.

Schools remain critical for the well-being of all of those stakeholders and for the nation as a whole.  Advancing academic learning remains a primary goal, but schools serve many functions: development of social and emotional learning, mental health services, providing food as needed, development of compensatory skills for special needs, and learning about citizenship. And the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the role of schools in enabling parents to work outside the home. Students already have lost ground academically and are dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Spring’s unexpected shutdown and an atmosphere of fear. The pandemic has revealed gross inequities about access to remote learning that remain unresolved, and we have yet to educate teachers on effective remote learning strategies.

The arguments to reopen schools as quickly as is safely possible continue to be compelling.

But it is that qualifier, “as is safely possible,” that stumps educational leaders. Although children under 10 seem to spread the virus less, according to a new study from South Korea, children 10-19 are as contagious as adults[1]. The National Center for Education Statistics identifies almost 30% of teachers as high risk[2], and schools tend to be enclosed spaces where people spend hours in close proximity, increasing the likelihood of spreading the disease. Children may also take it home to older adults who remain vulnerable. Transporting students to and from school and feeding them lunch prove problematical.

The University of Washington’s study about school reopenings around the world lists several key factors to help reduce risks:

  • Reductions of class size
  • Increasing physical distance between students
  • Keeping students in defined groups with limited interaction between groups
  • Some degree of staggering the start, stop, and break times within the school
  • Alternate shifts (morning, afternoon) or alternate days
  • Opening schools only for younger or older students in order to accommodate the increase in resources (classroom space, teachers, etc.) required for smaller class sizes.
  • Requiring face masks for students and/or staff in schools
  • Systematic school-based testing for SARS-CoV-2 virus or antibodies [3]

School systems, already facing a loss of income from reduced tax receipts, will be hard pressed to bear the expense of such safety measures. The need for such protections also varies among communities based on their rate of Covid infections. Given the local control of schools, the variety of responses seems inevitable and appropriate. New York plans on a hybrid approach of in-person learning, while Los Angeles and San Diego plan online instruction only. The local school districts where we live, an hour west of Chicago, offer a variety of options. Every family must make a decision based on the options available, weighing a myriad of factors and accepting how much is unknown.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said last week: “The pandemic has reminded so many … that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits. For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools in safely returning students to the classroom and reopening schools.”[4]  We need to reopen our schools. Can we do it safely?

I have missed classroom engagement since I retired. Now, for the first time, I am relieved to be retired. My heart aches for those who must make tough decisions when no clear answers emerge, at least for me.


[1]  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/health/coronavirus-children-schools.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200719&instance_id=20443&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=33788&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[2] https://www.childtrends.org/nearly-one-third-of-u-s-teachers-are-at-higher-risk-of-severe-illness-from-covid-19-due-to-age

[3] https://globalhealth.washington.edu/sites/default/files/COVID-19%20Schools%20Summary%20%282%29.pdf?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTkRreE5XWXlORFF3TXpNeCIsInQiOiJIbVNQTTVySEo0Vzk1cHVBZVVqWnFGVmR1UEJxRGdpd01mTXg4OGw3Mk5nTnpmaUoyMGt2UXIwWVZBOE5GVjIybHA5aStrbzJ3MUxsanoxamZibmlocmpSbXZyVFVoV0VHYU1aTGx0RnpsMXlmOEtXSVJqaDJsZ0RJU1BQcVZjZSJ9

[4] https://services.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/aap/2020/pediatricians-educators-and-superintendents-urge-a-safe-return-to-school-this-fall/

Obstacles into Opportunities

Articles about education, its current challenges, and its possible if uncertain future abound. In educational webinars I see committed if often exhausted educators problem-solving, keeping the focus on what’s best for their students in these unusual times. Too often our education system seems hopeless.  


We don’t even know if schools will reopen later this summer or this fall. But despite President Trump’s prediction that “I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up,” all but a few states have suspended in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, and some are preparing for the possibility of shutdowns or part-time schedules in the fall. Illinois officials have gone even further, warning that remote learning could continue indefinitely. “This may be the new normal even in the fall,” said Janice Jackson, the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools.[1] Yesterday “California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, said on Tuesday that classes at its 23 campuses would be canceled for the fall semester, with instruction taking place almost exclusively online.”[2]

Glaring inequity in access has never been more apparent. “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones.”[3]

Parents are burning out as they try to help their students with at-home learning, and there is “widespread concern that even with remote learning in place, many students will return to school behind where they would have been if they’d been in the classroom.”[4]

Concerns for special education students have become particularly acute. “It is not only because their students’ challenges often make it more difficult for them to learn remotely, but also because districts are required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide specific services and meet particular goals within a certain time frame to any child deemed to be eligible for special education services. That can include not just academics, but related services such as occupational, physical and speech therapy.”[5]

Nor can we hope to resume a functioning economy until schools reopen. “Now, with schools and child care centers closed, it’s obvious how much child care is a societal, not just an individual, need. Essential workers can’t show up without child care, and remote working parents struggle to work anything close to full time.”[6]

Although these obstacles may seem insurmountable, we have the power to use them as steppingstones to reshape education. It is up to us to turn these obstacles into opportunities. Educational reform, long overdue, can no longer wait. We need to demand change:

  • Learners need universal internet access.
  • Effective schools must build stronger partnerships between parents and teachers.
  • More research into what online learning can do well, and where face-to-face instruction is superior is now essential.
  • Students need more ownership for their learning, and teachers need to coach and facilitate and create learning opportunities.
  • We must recognize that schools are an essential part of our functioning society, not only because they prepare students for the future, but because they empower parents to function now. All of us benefit when schools serve students well.

We cannot afford to feel hopeless. Our schools have not always met the needs of their students or of society. If our educational system has been further broken by Covid-19, we must seize the opportunity to change as we rebuild. As we seek to reopen, we must reinvent.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/us/coronavirus-schools-reopen.html?campaign_id=168&emc=edit_NN_p_20200429&instance_id=18058&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=71948775&section=topNews&segment_id=26195&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/us/cal-state-online-classes.html

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/03/jeb-bush-its-time-embrace-distance-learning-not-just-because-coronavirus/?utm_campaign=wp_opinions&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_opinions

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/nyregion/coronavirus-homeschooling-parents.html?campaign_id=168&emc=edit_NN_p_20200428&instance_id=17997&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=71948775&section=topNews&segment_id=26118&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/education/learning/coronavirus-teachers-special-needs-students.html?campaign_id=168&emc=edit_NN_p_20200428&instance_id=17997&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=71948775&section=topNews&segment_id=26118&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/upshot/coronavirus-exposes-workplace-truths.html?campaign_id=43&emc=edit_li_20200428&instance_id=18040&nl=wait-…&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=26146&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

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/

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

The Case for Service Learning

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Sew: Lessons for the Classroom

As I scramble once again to finish garments for a jury deadline, I find myself reminiscing about my first experience sewing clothing for myself. As a woman of a certain age, I hark back to the binary days of applied arts in junior high: shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. All the girls in my seventh-grade home ec class had to make a skirt using the same pattern. Each skirt had the same pleats, set-in waistband, and side zipper. Our only personal touch was the choice of fabric. I loved the blue and green shadow plaid I picked, but the process and the product failed to inspire me. I wore the skirt a few times and put it away, along with any thoughts of making my own clothing.

Always passionate about fashion, however, I often thought of becoming a clothing designer [one of the dozens of careers I fancied in high school], conveniently ignoring my lack of sewing experience and skills. My parents’ housekeeper made my prom dress from a pattern and fabric I chose, and the summer before my wedding to a “starving” graduate student, I designed an entire trousseau, but she put it together. I would design; others would sew.

That summer my mother presented me with a sewing machine.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“You love clothes and you won’t have any money for them for a long time…” she replied.

“How do I use it?” I asked my mother, knowing full well that she didn’t even know how to sew on a button.

“I don’t know. Figure it out!” She smiled.

Figure it out I did. How hard could it be, I asked myself as I bought Impressionist print voiles and linings and made two wonderful shift dresses that I wore for years.

For a long time I remained self-taught, making all my clothing as well as our window coverings and bedspreads. I gave up sewing when I went back to teaching full-time, but one of the great joys of retirement was the freedom to sew without pressure. Sewing workshops and guidance from the wonderful mentors in my wearable art group elevated my skills. I had collections of garments made from vintage Obis in runway shows, and I even developed a collection called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” whose color palette and use of vines as a motif was one of my favorite efforts. And here I am working on another collection.

I find myself thinking about the factors that changed my desire to learn:

  • A need to know, since sewing my own clothes was the only way I’d be able to have anything new for a long, long time
  • Some early success to encourage me to keep going
  • The chance to personalize my efforts and to use my own creativity
  • Following success and positive feedback, the desire to take it further, to elevate my skills and understanding
  • Excellent teachers/mentors who challenged and supported my efforts

I see these factors as impactful and available in the classroom setting. Relevance exists in our curriculum, and good teachers help students see that and give them a need to know. In my own field of literature, others write about its importance to hand down culture through stories, expand horizons, grow vocabulary, improve writing skills, and teach critical thinking. All these offer value, but I believe the most compelling reason to teach literature is the way it serves as a vehicle for us to explore the human condition and address the “big questions” about life. What does it mean to be a good person? Is man inherently good or evil or both? What are our responsibilities to each other? And on and on… Through our exploration of literature, we can consider these questions and even the answers provided by some of the authors. In those settings, outside of our personal experience, we can develop our own very personal answers.

Other content area teachers can make powerful arguments for relevance in their fields as well. I came to understand grammar and structure in English through my study of French and Latin. I make constant use of math skills whether it’s calculating ingredients or pan sizes or planning yardage for a garment or roughly adding up purchases in my head as I shop to follow my budget. History offers huge lessons that we should be heeding today. If we look at the rise of populist dictators in the past, for example, we have ample warning for what is happening globally and domestically today.  I use my understanding from chemistry to rethink recipes, from botany as I grow orchids and succulents, and from physics as I seek to understand how things work and how to solve problems. The relevance is there – as teachers we need to make it explicit.

We need to provide classroom lessons that allow students to achieve some success before we escalate our expectations of them, scaffolding their lessons. Starting with more accessible demands allows for those early successes, and then teachers can build upon them. Just as I began with a simple shift and have progressed to lined jackets and drafting my own patterns, students need easier tasks to accomplish before they move on.

Well-designed lessons can also encourage creativity and develop opportunities for students to personalize their learning and tap their own creativity. We need to stop thinking about one-size-fits-all instruction and encourage more open-ended experiences. Thanks to my predecessor’s model, my Advanced Placement English students worked in small groups to develop a director’s notebook for King Lear, transposing the play to another time and place, creating costume sketches and scenery, and explaining their choices. What better way to think about the timeless themes in the play and what they mean to us today? Given the chance to be creative in their approach to the play, students developed and articulated a deeper understanding of it.

 As teachers we can and should build ever escalating demands into the curriculum, as long as we’re there to support students if they struggle. Mastery of a give skill should be followed with the next most demanding level of that skill, whether it’s moving from a simple paragraph to an extended essay or narrative, or moving from simple short story analysis to deep reading of longer, more complex literature. We should start with accessible tasks but continually elevate our expectations. We need to be there to help students when they find those tasks increasingly challenging.

This kind of teaching requires a more constructivist classroom, a far cry from the bell-to-bell talking at students that I was trained to do. Problem-based learning helped me make that shift, and the students and I both benefited. But those factors can be embedded even in a traditional classroom approach if we put students’ needs first.

So I’ll return to my sewing machine and my looming jury deadline, grateful that I was able to make that shift before I retired, hopeful that teachers and students today will continue to make shifts like it, too.