A Sad Painting, A Towheaded Kid, and Me

I had reason to be sad the other day. But I was at the art museum. So I put on a happy face to lead a group I usually don’t lead—a preschool class. I enjoy touring with adults and high school groups. Even middle school kids often give me big, tantalizing concepts they find in a piece of art. But these were preschoolers, so I geared myself for a bouncy time. After all, maybe their energy would dispel my gloom.

In the galleries, we visited some happy sculptures:  Ries’s glass sunflower, one of Butterfield’s famous life-size horses, and Chihuly’s glorious floor to ceiling blown-glass End of Day. We talked about how the artists used color and shape to make us want to keep looking and to make us want to touch, even though we shouldn’t. These seemed like good preschool topics, and I felt my mood lighten with their enthusiasm.

Then we dropped to the floor to spend some time in front of Burkhart’s oil painting, Man is Man.

Man is Man

“He’s sad,” said a girl. And the others nodded their heads.

“How can you tell he’s sad?” I asked.

So they told me. He needed his hand to hold his head up. He had wrinkles on his forehead, and he was slouching. And old. They could tell by the way his veins popped out from his hands and arms. No wonder he was sad. Lots of bad things had happened while he was getting old.

“Look at his eyes,” said a towheaded boy. “And his eyes filled, too.

We sat in silence for a minute.

“Not only old people are sad,” I said.

And they nodded again.

“Even kids get sad,” said the towhead. And then he whispered, “Especially me.”

I don’t know what made him sad that day. But I know he and I shared a moment in front of the oil paint.

Back in 1946, Burkhart titled his painting Man is Man. Today he might have titled it Person is Person.

When we left the painting, the towhead walked beside me.

I remembered what the writer Willa Cather said: There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.

When I left the museum that day, I was still sad. But at least I knew I had company—the man in Burkhart’s painting and the towheaded kid.

I Learned to Confuse Students from Mr. Kreider

Mr. Kreider was the most confusing teacher I ever had, and one of the best.

“I don’t hold hands in trigonometry,” he said on the first day of class. Some teachers think it’s their job to keep students from making mistakes. Not me, I don’t give step-by-steps. My job is to let you make mistakes and watch you dig out. So if you aren’t tough, sign up for some other twiddle-your-thumbs math class.”

We didn’t go to Mr. Kreider’s class to hear answers. Mr. Kreider placed challenges front and center. He believed that stretches of confusion between moments of clarity were positive and necessary for learning.

Mr. Kreider asked us questions, many beginning with the words: What if . . .? And he helped us to think about our thinking.

We learned from Mr. Kreider to keep bearing down. Gradually, we became tough-minded. Problems began to intrigue, rather than frighten us. And we’d do anything to earn the smile that would creep across his face when our haze lifted.

Now and then, Mr. Kreider ended his class by reading a letter from a college kid.

“I’m sitting in college honors calculus, “students liked to write. “waiting for everyone else to catch up.”

And this gave us hope.

Mr. Kreider gambled with his teaching style. Confusion is powerful. It can move students quickly to frustration and then to giving up. But it can also lead to curiosity and motivation and deep engagement.

So how can you perplex students without damaging them?

  • Normalize confusion as a part of learning. Mr. Kreider would say to us: This is a tough problem. You’ll feel frustrated and want to give up. But hang in. Work together. See what you can do.
  • Limit confusion to content problems. Everything else—what you say, what you do, and what you expect—should be clear. We knew exactly when homework was due for Mr. Kreider and the schedule of his tests and what they would cover. Mr. Kreider’s words had no ambiguity.
  • Scaffold carefully. Not enough support shuts down learning. So does too much support. Mr. Kreider adjusted his scaffolding for an upper-level honors high school class. Know your students.
  • Offer social-emotional support. Like the spoonful of sugar with medicine, empathy makes high expectations palatable. Mr. Kreider was a crusty soul, but he created a community of learners. We were proud to be his students.

Through my thirty years of teaching, Mr. Kreider stayed in my head, reminding me to ask questions instead of give answers, to reach high, and to hold strong when students whined.

 

I Went Home Again

It felt like a dream. I was in Grantsville last weekend at the book signing for Yoder School, my recently-released memoir. We gathered at the Goodwill Mennonite Retirement Center because that’s where Alvina, my first-grade teacher lives. Within a mile of Goodwill are my old haunts: my childhood home and church, my grandparents’ farm, and Yoder School.

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My grandchildren were there and my son and sister and brother. And so were my parents and uncles and aunts. Four generations in one room. Gertrude, my first friend from Yoder School shared the book signing with me. She also wrote a book this year.

Fifty-eight years ago Gertrude and I were first-graders, sitting side-by-side in Alvina’s room writing in our daily diary—about Glenda’s nose bleeding and taking polio pills and how we played school at recess. Alvina wrote what we said on the large easel paper with solid-blue and red-dotted lines. Then we wrote those words on our own lined paper. In this way we learned to read and write words that were important to us.

The now ninety-four-year-old Alvina sat there at the book signing smiling. She watched us, her former students, talk about our new books. But she did more than smile. She held court—calling former students by name, directing a few of them in singing the grade-school ditties, holding her own in animated discussions, and correcting me on a detail during my book talk.

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Alvina meets my husband Steve

And she signed books herself.

Thomas Wolfe is famous for writing You Can’t Go Home Again. And in many ways, he’s right. But last week end, I went home.

And I took my grandchildren with me.

 

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.