Searching for Mr. Parker

I’m looking for Mr. Parker. I want to tell him thanks. Next to Alvina, star teacher of my book Yoder School, he was my favorite.

But it could be too late. After all, I haven’t seen him for almost fifty years. I’ve searched on Google and Facebook. And just last evening, I tried whitepages.com. In fact, I might have spoken to his voice mail. I found a Philip Parker who lives in Michigan, not far from Flint. He’s the right age—in his eighties. And maybe it was my Mr. Parker’s voice.

“You know what to do after the beep,” it said. “Thank you.”

More gravelly than I remember, but the voice was still full of courtesy and dignity and pep.

And it was the pep that drew me to Mr. Parker. He couldn’t wait for us to walk into geometry after lunch each day, or so it seemed. We’d find him already pacing, twirling a pointer stick and holding the place in his math puzzle book.

Before we were even seated, he’d launch into the day’s puzzle, “A milkman has two empty jugs: a three-gallon jug and a five-gallon jug. How can he measure exactly one gallon without wasting any milk?”

Barely noticing the beginning bell, we’d jot the specifics on scrap paper and work together on the milkman’s problem. Just like in Alvina’s class, clocks didn’t matter in Mr. Parker’s room. Because we did new things, time slipped away instead of stretching out.

During my decades of teaching, I thought often of Mr. Parker—especially on days I was plagued with exhaustion or cynicism or feelings of ineffectiveness. I’d pick up a puzzle book or a pointer stick, and I’d summon up some pep. And soon the energy would flow again.

And why, I ask myself now, did I never, in all his active years, try to visit him at school or send him a note or call him?

After the beep, I left a message. I told the man with the gravelly voice who I was and who I was hoped he was.

I’m listening for my phone to ring. And maybe it will be Mr. Parker.

How to Have a Big Presence

To tell the truth, I was often frightened to walk into a new classroom of middle school students or inmates. I often felt too small for the task—too short, too introverted, too soft-of-voice, too out-of-touch with the culture. My impulse was to constrict my presence, tamp it down, mute it. But in order for me to survive and my students to thrive, I needed to bring a robust presence into the classroom.

So how could I build this kind of a presence with a pit in my stomach? At the most basic level, I had to change my focus—to think less of myself and more of my students. What did they need? What were their experiences? How did they think? How could I help them learn?

But beyond shifting my thoughts away from myself toward others, I also found a series of small practices that helped me exude a bigger presence. Here are a few. Some of these may work for your next daunting class:

  • Stand tall—Good posture made a difference. It lifted my confidence, gave me energy, helped me catch a breath, and, most important, sent messages to my brain and to my students that maybe, just maybe, I could teach this class.
  • Inhabit the whole classroom—Getting out from behind the podium, leaving the security of my desk signaled to students that I wasn’t intimidated by them, that I wanted to be with them. Walking through the rows as I read aloud, perching on a stool by the side of the room to lead a discussion, talking from the back of the room about a diagram on the front Smart Board, sitting on a low stool beside a student desk—all these vantage points decreased distance between me and the students, making us more comfortable with each other.
  • Use sound—My voice isn’t big, but I could play loud music as students entered class. I could slam a door and then smile when they looked up. I could ring a bell. All these sounds helped me save my voice for teaching, not waste it on controlling.

These simple measures helped me to become more expansive in the classroom, more alive, exude a bigger presence. And they helped students settle in to learning.

A Man on a Ladder and the Dog of Pompeii

Time doesn’t stop at school. Not often. Caught in the remorseless march of clocks and calendars and bells and quarters, the academic pace can feel breakneck. Either that or endlessly lagging.

But now and again, school clocks pause. These are the magical moments when students are so absorbed they lose track of the minutes until lunch. They forget they’re even in school. And these moments are often unexpected.

Take, for example, the day my class read the short story “The Dog of Pompeii.”

“This story,” I told the students, “is in another time and another place.”

But as I said this, I worried about their ability to concentrate on an ancient Roman city. After all, their desks had been shoved together to make room for a twenty-foot step ladder. And at the top of the ladder a man was repairing the vaulted ceiling of my classroom.

But I labored on, explaining about how Mount Vesuvius had erupted in A.D 79 and trapped Pompeii. I made my voice expressive to move their attention from the ceiling to me. And it worked . . . partly. But soon I noticed that the man had come down a step. And then another. I had his attention, for sure.

“Ma’am,” he said. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help listening in. I’ve been to Pompeii.”

Thirty sets of eyes swung upward.

“What did you see?” I asked.

And he took us to Pompeii. He told of how the twisted bodies of people showed their horrible final moments. He made us see an ancient fast-food bar where poor people who didn’t have ovens in their homes could order food from a menu: salty fish, coarse bread, baked cheese, and lentils.

“I heard you’re reading about a dog in Pompeii,” he said. “I saw a dog in Pompeii.”

And, still perched on his ladder, he told about that dog. It had been wearing a bronze-studded collar and chained up during the eruption.

“It struggled to get free,” he said. “It’s legs were all twisted up. Its mouth was open. Even saw some teeth.”

He kept telling stories, hanging onto the ladder with one hand and gesturing with the other. I noticed a student or two absently rubbing at a kink in their necks, but faces stayed pointed up.

It was the bell that jerked us all from Pompeii back to the school room.

We hadn’t read the story, and I was now behind in my lesson plans. But it didn’t matter. For those moments, time had stopped.

And the next day, students gave rapt attention as they read “The Dog of Pompeii.”

Cause a Commotion

I taught next to Mr. Woodruff once when I was still new to the classroom. And he gave me wise words.

“If I don’t cause a commotion,” he told me, “the kids will.”

And I knew he was right. I remembered all too well the commotion students had caused in my high school chemistry class. Mr. Mitchell had lectured in a monotone and assigned the same homework every night—read the chapter and answer the questions. He brought no excitement to class. So students set off stick bombs during science labs and dropped calcium metal into pens to make them explode like firecrackers. They talked while he talked and threw spit wads when he turned his back. Even school-smart people didn’t like learning in Mr. Mitchell’s class.

Mr. Woodruff was the opposite of Mr. Mitchell. Students could tell he was in the room. His voice boomed. He’d lecture from the top of a lab desk, gesturing wildly and smashing a fist into his other hand when he made a point. He’d bang books on the table and twirl yard sticks. And students listened to Mr. Woodruff. In his room, they wanted to learn.

The trouble was that my voice didn’t boom like Mr. Woodruff’s. Still I gradually learned some strategies to show students I was in the room. Here are some ways you can get and hold attention:

  • Vary your voice. Even if it doesn’t carry, your voice still has a range of volume and a variety of tone. Each change in your voice invites attention.
  • Use sound beyond your own voice. Ringing a bell, slamming a door, playing chimes all alert students without a nagging voice.
  • Stand tall and in a grounded way as if to say, “I am here.” But don’t stay in one place, move around the room and enter student space—sit next to them, lean on their desks, pat a shoulder.
  • Look at students, moving your eyes from person to person, engaging every student directly.

I never walked on table tops like Mr. Woodruff. But students seemed to know I was in the room, and they didn’t often throw spit wads. Not often, at least.

Hands-Out Teaching

I found that when I gestured, students listened. Gestures are, after all, visual cues. And 90 percent of information entering the brain is visual. (For more on this read Eric Jensen’s Brain-Based Learning).

No wonder you often need more than words to cut through the fog. When students see meaning in hand movements, more of their brain and memory systems are activated. Some students need to see it before they can learn it. So teach with your hands out, where students can see.

Psycholinguists have identified three types of co-speech gestures that can help you make ideas visible to students:

  • Iconic gestures create images in the air to show concepts. I remember Mr. Parker, my geometry teacher, using his arms to show parallel lines and types of angles—right, acute, and obtuse. With my students, I often used gestures to show that deductive thinking starts with the big idea (my hands apart at shoulder-height) and then works down toward the specific (my hands together at waist-height). Then I’d demonstrate inductive thinking with opposite gestures. I’d bump my fists together to show conflict and interlace my fingers to show collusion.
  • Beat gestures follow the rhythms of speech. They add emotion and emphasis to words. My eighth-grade government teacher, Mr. Wooten, was the master of beat gestures. He held our attention by drawing unjust gerrymandering lines into the air and smashing his fist into his hand because of his frustration at the slow, slow change after the Brown v the Board of Education. When he couldn’t get a point across to us, he’d clap his hands to the side of his head and look at us beseechingly. So we tried harder. Mr. Wooten’s brain and hands worked together to pull us in.
  • Deictic gestures direct attention, making words clear. At London Middle School, I loved watching Corliss Schwaller in action. Her hands moved with her mouth. Her fingers would number the points . . . first, second, third . . . To move students for group work, she’d point as she told them where to go. And while reading to students, her hands would interrupt the words, almost like sign language. Watching her, students almost didn’t need her words.

These teachers taught me that it was good to pay attention to my hands. Gestures, I could tell, were valuable tools. And so I tried to let my brain and my hands work together to make my ideas visible. When I talked, they could watch my hands move alongside my words.

I Came to Hear You Read One More Time

“You want to know the main reason I came?” a former student asked me at a book signing for Yoder School. “To hear you read to me one more time.”

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Now a grown-up professional, he said this with emotion in his voice and a suspicious moistness in his eyes.

And I heard some form of these words several times that evening.

“While you were reading,” another student said, “I just closed my eyes, and it took me back to you reading in class long ago.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have, after all, long believed in reading aloud to students of all ages. Still, these reactions were striking to me. And I thought back to when I read to elementary students and middle school and even to college classes.

Reading aloud, I found, made practical pedagogical sense. Reading levels usually lag behind listening levels. And so reading aloud provides a scaffold for independent reading. My intonation and emphasis as I read to them enriched students’ vocabulary, demonstrated decoding, and uncovered concepts they may have missed reading alone. Read-alouds pulled students into new genres, introduce them to new authors, and stimulate their curiosity about new ideas.

But what I liked the most about reading to my students was the bonding. Together we peeked into other lives and times and places. Story synced our brain patterns into a common beat. I could see oxytocin, the empathy hormone, at work. Their shoulders relaxed or their eyes shimmered or their eyebrows rose. In the books we saw ourselves and understood each other more. Reading aloud transformed text into a social activity, drew us into community.

“Thanks for reading again,” they told me, these grown-up students of mine. And I, too, was grateful for a chance to read one more time.

Adult Eyes on a Childhood Book

“I found an old book at my house,” my aunt said. “One you mentioned in your memoir. Do you want it?”

I hadn’t read The Hundred Dresses since second grade at Yoder School. But when I opened the book again almost sixty years later, I was instantly drawn in like I had been as a child.

Why? What is the book’s power?

Partly it’s the mere suggestions of scenes created by the illustrator. Louis Slobodkin uses watery images and negative space to invite readers in to finish the paintings in their minds. And his art matches the writing style of Eleanor Estes—strong, spare, and deceptively simple. Estes, too, ignites the reader’s imagination.

But mostly the power is in the theme. The story is based on Estes’s childhood memory of how her classmates mocked a Polish girl who wore the same hand-me-down dress every day. Estes never ridiculed the girl, but she stood by as others did. And her writing shows her penitence.

Rereading this childhood book gave me a chance to ponder the scope of my life. My second-grade resolve to defend justice, for example, has followed me. But as I read about Maggie (the bystander in the story), I recalled, too easily for my comfort, times when I remained silent because speaking out could have shifted mocking to me.

As I reread The Hundred Dresses, I also thought of my students—those who were bullies and their targets and the many, many who had been bystanders. I wish I had used this book with my students.

They would have found Estes’s characters to be real people, like themselves. And they would have seen each other in these characters. To all of them—the bullies, the targets, and the bystanders—Estes offers hope. She shows, after all, that for Peggy (the bully) tenderness is possible, that Maggie (the bystander} grows strong enough to act, and that Wanda Petronski has extraordinary gifts to share.

The story that inspired this book is over a hundred years old. As you read, you’ll find the signs of those times—words like jolly, games like marbles, practices like ironing, and gender-specific assignments like boys designing motor boats while girls design dresses—but the issues are current. And a look at bullying through the lens of another time can help students reflect on their own times.

The Hundred Dresses is a book for young children with a message for all ages. It’s too late for me to offer it to my middle school students. But I plan to use it as an opening exercise in a teacher-education class I’m teaching soon.