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.

Write 500 Times: I will not punish students with writing.

One day in sixth grade I left my books at home. So, Mrs. Watts assigned me to write 500 times I will not forget my books. I fought the tedium by writing all the I’s, then all the will’s, then ten complete sentences. And on and on.

The next day, I took these 500 sentences to Mrs. Watts who tore them into shreds in front of me. And, pointing to the boots I had left at school the afternoon before, gave me another assignment: I will not forget my boots, written 500 times. As I wrote, all I could think was that the two sets of sentences were different by only one letter. And that I’d never use this punishment when I was a teacher.

Actually, the punishment worked. For the rest of the year, I remembered my books and my boots. Students weren’t wearing boots by the time I became a teacher. But they were still carrying books. And plenty of times in my thirty years of teaching, books were in the wrong place—back home on the kitchen table or in a locker or at the other parent’s house. Still, I held to my resolve. Here’s why:

  • Good things are associated with rewards, bad things with punishment. We don’t punish students with movies and basketball games. But when writing is a punishment, we make it distasteful.
  • Repetitive sentences suck the creativity out of writing. Students learn to associate writing with boredom.
  • Writing lines wastes time. I could have used some coaching in how to remember my boots and my books. Some of my students needed help to develop empathy for others, respect for school property, or alternate ways to express anger. Punishment sentences don’t move kids toward wholeness.

English teachers work hard to excite students about writing. And they will thank you not to use their class as a punishment. I’ve known English teachers to threaten to punish students by assigning math worksheets.

Writing is good. It helps students process course material, hone communication skills, improve thinking, capture memories, clear minds, reach to others, and the list goes on. Let’s keep writing good.

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.