Come Meet Alvina

Note to Alvina

In just a few days, I plan to see Alvina. She was my first teacher, the one who made me want to teach, and the star of my recently-released book Yoder School. I’ll be bringing Alvina a signed copy.

Grantsville Book Signing

And you’re welcome to join us at the Goodwill Retirement Community where Alvina lives. I’ll be reading an excerpt from the book and signing books for anyone who wants to buy one. We’ll eat cinnamon rolls made in the Grantsville fashion and you’ll have a chance to meet Alvina, who is now 94 years old.

It’s been 58 years since I sat in first grade, wanting to be a teacher like Alvina. I’m sure I haven’t reached my goal. But I’m grateful Alvina taught me to teach.

 

When Yoder School Closed

When Yoder School closed down, I was sad. This is where I started school and where I became so taken with learning that I couldn’t tell if I was working or playing. At this three-room school in the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland, my teacher Alvina (yes, we called her by her first name) set in me the ideas that math was beautiful and precise and that reading and writing could be wild and wonderful.

These convictions stayed with me even when we moved and I often sat in classrooms where learning seemed so dull that my mind wandered through other times and places. All through the rest of my education I tried to find the wonder of Yoder School once again.

This is why I was sad when I heard that Yoder School was closing. And I wasn’t the only one. The school closed amid protest, one that caught the attention of The Washington Post. The Post ran an article entitled “Tiny School’s Fate a Big Issue.” You can read that article here.

And you can read about my search to find the spirit of Yoder School again in my recently published book found here.

Why Thinking Isn’t Enough

I was always tempted as a teacher to delve right into the logic of a lesson. This was the part of the lesson that seemed to matter most and the part I liked. So did my students—at least a few of them.

But many of my students couldn’t seem to learn without an emotional connection. Emotions seemed to capture and keep their attention and motivate them.  Students don’t, after all, leave their emotional beings at the classroom door. So I found I needed to integrate emotion with logic.

Associative and Linear LearningHere are three examples of how to do this:

  • Launch the lesson with a specific emotion. When you teach the Civil Rights Movement, for example, find ways to encourage anger at injustice. Think of how could you bring students to a pensive mood before reading poetry or to amazement before studying the constellations. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a good resource for identifying emotions.
  • Engage imagination. To introduce a book like Catherine, Called Birdy, have students close their eyes and imagine being in a different time and place—where they hear no traffic, no cell phones buzzing, no hum of air conditioners or furnaces. Then go on to describe the setting of the book in thirteenth-century England—what the characters heard and what they ate and wore. As students imagine all this, their interest in reading the book will pique.
  • Turn to the arts. If you are teaching a unit on the Great Depression, play “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Before a class on calculating area and perimeter, show students the beauty and precision of math by using Mondrian’s paintings. Play videos of poets reading and clips from Shakespeare’s plays. The arts give image to concepts, making them more tangible to students.

Thinking wasn’t enough, I found, because if I didn’t script emotions into my classroom, my students did. They felt detached, bored, and apathetic. And then they didn’t think. One way or the other, it seems, emotion is part of learning.

When Smart People Do Stupid Things

One of my delights as a retired teacher is meeting students by chance at the gas pump or the library or the grocery store. I was at Kroger one day, buying food for a birthday party for my grandson. Onto the checkout counter, I piled potato chips, fresh vegetables, hamburger, and ice cream. Last of all, I placed the decorated birthday cake I had ordered. Then I looked up and saw—let’s call him John. We were both pleasantly surprised.

He was working for college money, he told me. And hoping for scholarships. He’d probably get them, I thought. John’s score on the IQ test I had given him back in middle school was one of the highest I’d ever seen. I was quite certain he’d do well on his college entrance exams.

As John scanned my groceries, he told me about his classmates—which colleges they planned to attend and what majors they were considering. He rang up my total and started bagging groceries. And just as he was telling me he couldn’t decide between being a statistician or philosopher, he picked up my grandson’s birthday cake.

“What I’d really like, Mrs. Swartz,” he said, as he upended the cake into the cart, “is to combine the two. Statistics hasn’t received enough philosophical attention.”

The moment seemed too important, and I let the cake slide down on itself. I’d try to fix it later.

On the way home, the cake now right-side-up in the back seat of my car, I thought about a theorist named Sternberg, who describes what had just happened at Kroger. Sternberg outlines three components of intelligences and proposes that successful living involves all three.

Analytical, Practical, Creative

As a fifth grader when John entered the gifted program, he was already strong in analyzing and creating. And his parents and teachers had been working hard to help him develop the practical part of intelligence—to remember his glasses, to keep his notebook organized, and to turn in his homework. No one doubted that John would excel in the abstract parts of intelligence, but, according to Sternberg, John also needed to thrive in the real world.

It’s good for John to be checking out groceries, I thought.  He’ll do more than earn some college money. The next time he upends a birthday cake, someone will be sure to give him an education.

 

Drone Over Grantsville

If you’d like to see why I like Grantsville, watch the drone footage using the link at the bottom of this post. You’ll see the historic Casselman Inn that my family owned for more than 50 years.

“Come home,” my grandma would say, “and stay at the Casselman.”

And we did.

The drone also flies over Spruce Forest Artisan Village. During my childhood, this village was developing as a place for artists to showcase and sell their work. You can wander through the village and browse in the shops.

Toward the end of the clip, if you look closely, you’ll see a succession of three bridges–each built in a different era and all crossing the Casselman River.

This video shows the scenic background of Yoder School. It’s the setting of the opening chapter and the place that represents home during much of the book.

Enjoy watching: Drone Over Grantsville

 

Writing: Steady, Slow Lessons in Humility

For me, writing has been a steady, slow lesson in humility. Rejection letters, blank pages that won’t fill with words. and pages that are full but with dead words—all these deflate me. Other times, I like my words. The message seems strong and the language clear and alive. And I send these words to other writers.

“What do you think?” I ask.

Often in the first minutes of their answers, I wish I hadn’t asked. Critiques sting. I should have seen that, I think. Or worse, I can’t understand what they mean . . . or how to fix it.

In just a few days, I’m heading for an intensive writing conference. At this conference, I won’t attend classes on how to write. This is a critiquing conference—a handful of writers with an editor who is known for giving the kind of ruthless feedback that might make you good if you can take it, or put you under if you can’t.

I’m taking a manuscript for critique. And I’m hoping I’ll remember some things I’ve learned about taking feedback while writing Yoder School. Here are my reminders for myself.

  • Swallow the word but. When I argue with a critiquer, I lose an opportunity to learn.
  • Wait out emotion. After the hurt subsides, my mind will begin to work again.
  • Forget about myself and concentrate on my work. This is humility—caring more about my readers than about my ego.
  • Keep a balance. Humility means seeing my work as it is—the strengths and the weaknesses. If I think too highly of my work, I won’t learn. But if I see only flaws, I give up.

And I hope I remember what Winston Churchill said:

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

I’m sounding brave now, but . . . we’ll see.

How What I Learned in First Grade Helped Me Teach

Yoder School, the memoir I wrote about my learning, is the backstory to my teaching. I didn’t go around talking with students about my teacher Alvina or how I felt when Mr. Pollard understood about me being so different in Flint. I didn’t tell my students that I listened, actually listened, to their excuses about homework because Mr. Cline at the community college hadn’t believed that I missed his quiz because my car was stolen from our driveway. So though I didn’t explain all this to students, these memories traveled with me into the classes I taught at the middle school and the prison and in parent education.

It was Alvina, my first teacher, who set in me the pattern to reflect, to take what I had seen and heard and to hold it up for examination. She’d take us to a chicken house or send us to the woods. And then she’d ask us, “What did you see? What did you hear? And we’d write our daily diaries.

IMG_7336A butterfly came out of our cocoon, I wrote on Wednesday, February 7, 1963. Its wings were crippled.

And the next day I wrote, Our butterfly was dead.

Life, I could see, wasn’t always right.

Later, though, I wrote about a different butterfly, one that unfurled its wings and flew away.

Life, I could then see, was sometimes beautiful.

Alvina taught me to collect stories and to carry them with me. And to use one story to inform another. How could my bad citizenship mark in first grade and my parent’s solution of a bird workbook help me when I felt restless in Mrs. Lott’s room in Flint? And later, what could I do when a student felt restless in my classroom?

All through grade school and high school and college, I did what Alvina taught me. I collected the stories that informed much of my three decades of teaching. And these stories became Yoder School.