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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
[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
“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
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.
just posted an article about Amazon’s new portal, Amazon Ignite, where
teachers can buy and sell lesson plans and curriculum materials by topic.
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!”
this month, Education Week published an article on how to build a more LGBTQ-inclusive
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.