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

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