Learning from Dr. Seuss

I have been following the controversy over the removal of some books from the catalog of Dr. Seuss by his estate. Some tried to make this a political issue, blaming one party for “cancel culture” efforts. But the decision was made by the caretakers of Seuss’s legacy who determined that his outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, and gender differences did not serve readers. Their choice is part of a larger movement to avoid harmful stereotypes and caricatures. “’These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,’ Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in the statement. The business said the decision came after working with a panel of experts, including educators, and reviewing its catalog of titles” [NYTimes].

This is not a new issue, and Dr. Seuss’s work is not alone in facing criticism.  “Children’s publishers and literary estates are trying to walk a delicate line by preserving an author’s legacy, while recognizing and rejecting aspects of a writer’s work that are out of step with current social and cultural values” [NYTimes]. Roald Dahl was criticized for racist and anti-Semitic portrayals. Richard Scarry’s illustrated books often promoted archaic gender roles and racial stereotypes [Ibid.], and many have since been revised. The Tintin and Babar serieshave been removed from many children’s sections in libraries for their colonialist and imperialist viewpoints. Such re-evaluations may become more common as we grow our own understanding of their potential negative impact of these portrayals and of the need for readers to see themselves reflected positively in what they read.

For me this controversy raises two key issues for Language Arts teachers in public schools. The first is whether we should ban books containing offensive material or choose to teach them in context, helping readers recognize their bias and its potential impact. While I think the latter approach is valuable for older high school students, its success depends on the ability and sensitivity of teachers to manage that, a tough call. When I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my students and I spent time exploring the accusations of racism against Mark Twain, the use of the N-word and how to navigate that in reading aloud and in writing, and the relative depiction of white and black characters in the novel. I’d like to think I did a good job of facilitating that exploration, but I occasionally had one or two students of color in my class, and I feared they were made uncomfortable. For younger students, however, I am convinced that the potential negative impact of unhelpful portrayals makes them unacceptable. For younger readers I would limit those books that promote stereotypes.

For me a second question comes up about the literary canon, the literature widely considered to be the best and most worth teaching and handing down from generation to generation. What books should be included? I confess I taught mostly dead white male authors far too much of the time. That’s what our textbooks contained, and the curriculum focused on these “classics.” I supplemented where I could, when I could, but it wasn’t until later in my career that I was able to include more female authors, more authors of color, and more contemporary authors.

Dead white male authors dominate the literary canon, even today. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why not keep some of their works that offer an opportunity to explore the big questions: What does it mean to be a human being? To live a good life? What are our obligations to each other? And so on … But then why not give some of those books up and instead add works by women and BIPOC authors? Their perspectives can widen and enrich our world views and address those questions as well, and more of our readers may then see themselves in the works they read. That approach is long overdue.

First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.

Books as a Window and a Mirror

On November 30, the New York Times published yet another article about the realities of teaching during the pandemic, claiming “This is not sustainable” and warning that “burnout could erode instructional quality, stymie working parents and hinder the reopening of the economy” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/30/us/teachers-remote-learning-burnout.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20201201&instance_id=24598&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=45745&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2]. Sadly, this is no longer news, nor do there seem to be good answers. As an educator, I feel stymied. I can’t fix this for anyone…

What I can do, though, is find another way to make a difference. This year, thanks to Young, Black, & Lit [youngblackandlit.org], I can do something useful. I was already contributing to this “nonprofit organization committed to increasing access to children’s books that center, reflect, and affirm Black children,” so I received their email about running book drives for schools with minority populations.

I believe in their mission. Children need to see themselves represented in the books they read. In his blog, Athol Williams points out that when children see themselves represented in a positive context, it encourages positive perceptions about their place in the world and tells them “what’s important, and what matters. Seeing themselves in that world establishes them as people who matter and establishes their sense of place in society.” It may also inspire them to read more, which is key to literacy. [https://www.nalibali.org/it-is-important-for-children-to-see-themselves-in-books] If books are both a mirror and a window to the world, readers need to feel included in that world.

In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books, finding only three percent featuring African-Americans,  two percent Asian and Pacific Americans, less than two percent Latinos, and less than one percent  American Indians [https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/08/characters-in-childrens-books-are-almost-always-white-and-its-a-big-problem/]. From The Atlantic: “Half of all five-year-olds in the country belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet white kids continue to hold center stage in most children’s books and young-adult fiction. As a result, large numbers of kids don’t see themselves reflected in the books they read, and non-white, or non-heterosexual, or even non-male children end up learning that they are marginal, or secondary, in their society.”[https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/childrens-literature-needs-more-diversityeven-if-that-means-more-mediocrity/371639/]

The validation children get from seeing themselves on the page is only one reason to make books with varied characters available. Marianne Grasso offers four values to a multicultural library in schools:

  • Promotes empathy and unity
  • Promotes cross-cultural friendship
  • Helps students look critically at the world
  • Encourages identity formation

All students benefit from this exposure, which “helps to build a school community that is supportive, empathetic and accepting of others” [https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-96/the-importance-of-multicultural-literature/].

B. J .Epstein writes, “As someone who researches children’s literature, I think we’d have fewer conflicts in the world if we all read more diverse literature and lived more diverse lives” [https://www.newsweek.com/childrens-books-diversity-ethnicity-world-view-553654]. Our world is becoming more diverse, and the books children read need to reflect that diversity. Seeing diverse people get along can teach us all about getting along.

So I may not have a magic wand for the tribulations of remote learning and subsequent burnout for teachers, as well as students and parents/guardians… but I can organize a book drive. I identified a nearby school with a 92% BIPOC population, reached out to their administration, and bought the first several books myself. Now I’m posting on Facebook and working PR channels to find other supporters for this very good cause.

Will it fix education, even at a very local level? Of course not. Might it make a difference? I hope so. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Words to live by.

Teaching Now: Time for Change

My blog has been MIA for far too long while I dealt with some medical challenges, but I am back. Throughout this absence I’ve been pondering the future of education, convinced that teaching during the pandemic has created an opportunity for meaningful change yet concerned that we aren’t seeing that change come to fruition.  

In my optimistic naivete, I had envisioned a more student-centered approach with more time for collaboration and independent work. Zoom fatigue is real for both learners and teachers –surely we would see a shift like this.

Sadly, I don’t think we have seen that shift. Teachers are overwhelmed with hybrid learning, with the challenge of keeping students engaged in virtual platforms that don’t foster relationships, with student absenteeism and distraction… and the list goes on. Students and their families also seem overwhelmed by the challenges of hybrid and virtual learning.

Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academy, confirms this: “These traditional lessons are also too long and not interactive enough to hold a student’s attention over a video conference. The traditional paper-based homework that’s being assigned does not provide students with enough feedback or teachers with enough information to understand what students are learning” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/opinion/coronavirus-school-digital.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200819&instance_id=21408&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&section_index=3&section_name=idea_of_the_day_how_to_improve_remote_learning&segment_id=36497&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2].

Torrey Trust offers a clear vision for a better of way of doing things. A University of Massachusetts – Amherst professor of Educational Technology, she shares graphics that demonstrate alternative approaches to serve educators and their learners. The one I chose to include above offers concrete options to improve teaching and learning. Each link provides specific approaches and activities. For example, her “Connected Learning” link suggests multiple team-based activities, including team challenges, virtual board designs, and community quilts. Each strategy provides another way for students to actively learn together if the teacher provides a framework related to content. The National Writing Project supports this kind of connected Learning: “Young people learn best when actively engaged, creating, and solving problems they care about, and supported by peers who appreciate and recognize their accomplishments” [https://lead.nwp.org/knowledgebase/what-is-connected-learning/]. Her link to Universal Design for Learning strategies offers ways optimize individual choice and autonomy, customize the display of information, and vary methods for response [https://goalbookapp.com/toolkit/v/strategies].

Classrooms that use strategies like these employ active learning. The Harvard Gazette reminds us, “Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think” [https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/]. The authors describe classes in which they “start each topic by asking students to gather in small groups to solve some problems. While they work, we walk around the room to observe them and answer questions. Then we come together and give a short lecture targeted specifically at the misconceptions and struggles we saw during the problem-solving activity. So far we’ve transformed over a dozen classes to use this kind of active-learning approach. It’s extremely efficient — we can cover just as much material as we would using lectures” [Ibid.] Compared with a control group that experienced only lectures, the active learners scored far higher on tests on the material.

During my own teacher training, one of my supervisors told me I was too focused on content, that I should consider teaching college because of that focus. By the time I was teaching my Problem-Based Learning class in the late 1990s, my focus had shifted to process so dramatically that even my traditional curriculum classes grew more student-centered. Over time, my students clearly showed more engagement and satisfaction.

My naïve hope that this kind of shift would be forced by our emphasis on online and hybrid learning may have been foolish, but it’s not too late to move toward this kind of teaching. We need a better way. Our teachers would be more fulfilled, and our students deserve it.

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