North Isn’t Up

One of my favorite classroom wall hangings was a south-side up map. I liked it because it made a scientific point—that space does not have an up/down orientation. I liked it because the map gave me a chance to explain that for most of human history, north seldom appeared at the top of the map. Often east—where the sun appeared every morning—was on top. Europeans, I’d tell students, were doing most of the exploring when modern maps were drawn, so they put themselves at the top.

But mostly, I liked the south-side up map because it was a visual in perspective-taking. I wanted my students to learn to see through others’ eyes.

“Yeah! How would you like to be always at the bottom like Australia?” I heard one student ask another as they stood in front of the map together.

That sentiment, I hoped, would transfer to how they interacted in class, with the kids who wore uncool shoes, who struggled with learning, who couldn’t coordinate their bodies.  Students who were other-oriented, I found, had fewer conflicts and healthier and more varied relationships. They could look beyond their own interests to the interests of others.

But beyond empathy, perspective-taking increases critical thinking. Students who can back up from a geometry proof, an analysis of a short story, or a social studies essay and take another look, see things a new way—these students think deeper and construct concepts more skillfully.

My students loved to correct a teacher or principal who walked into the room and said something about the map being upside down.

“It’s not upside down,” they’d say. “It’s south side up.”

For me, the map was a daily reminder to pause and consider whether I was self- or other-oriented.

And for all of us in the school room the map was an invitation to think. After all, when you put the up side down and the down side up, you see in ways different than you have always visualized.

Decoding Strident Talk

Some messages, I’d tell my students when I taught them to interpret a text, are clearly stated. The author is explicit, comes right out with the meaning. But other ideas are indirect, hidden in the text, implied, and meant to be discovered, teased out. And sometimes what seems explicit has implicit meaning.

Like texts, I found that that the signals my students sent me also needed to be interpreted. Some of their messages at first seemed straightforward enough. But the longer I taught the more I was able to recognize the unspoken meanings under their words.

I discovered, for example, that strident talk, especially, often covers unstated needs. Here are a few typical cover-ups that are often calls for help:

What the Student Says What the Student Could Mean Possible Intervention
I’m bored. This project is too hard, but I don’t want to admit I’m confused. Pair the confused student with a student who is experiencing success with the project.
I can’t understand anything you are saying. All I can think about is my parents shouting at each other last night. I think they’re going to get a divorce. When I was talking to the class I could tell you had something on your mind. Could you write a note to me about what you are thinking? Then I’ll help you later with the project.
I hate school. I want to be cared about and noticed in this room. You know, I’ve been looking for someone to help me set up for the next lesson. Could you come help me at lunch?
I can’t stand anyone at this school. I’ve just lost my best friend, and I don’t know where to sit at lunch today. Ask a group of students to step up by inviting this student to their lunch table.

Successfully decoding student statements can make a marked difference in the emotional climate of the classroom and in the futures of students.

Thinking About Thinking

Metacognition—this is a word I liked to teach students. And we had fun with its definition: thinking about thinking before, during, and after the act of thinking.

“Faster,” I’d tell students, “say it faster.”

After a little practice, they’d rattle it off in under five seconds. And for the rest of the year, I’d call out the word at random times—to open class, or in the middle of a discussion, to wake up a dull afternoon—and they’d recite the definition back to me in unison.

Playing with a word—I liked to do this with students. But more important the idea of metacognition gave students a framework, a tool to manage their thinking:

Before: When you develop a plan, ask

  • What do I already know that will help?
  • What should I do first?
  • In what direction do I want to go?

During: When you are maintaining a plan, ask

  • Am I on the right track?
  • What do I do if I’m stuck?
  • What information is crucial?

After: When you evaluate a plan, ask

  • Did my thinking produce?
  • What could I have done differently?

I posted these questions in my classroom. I’d refer to them before we stared a class project or when I conferenced with a student who was stuck. The last set of questions was good for students as they wrapped up an assignment.

My students, I hoped, would continue to think about their thinking well beyond the classroom. And so, when I run into my grown-up students, in the grocery store, for example, I’m delighted when one of them says, “Hi, Mrs. Swartz! Metacognition!”

Moving In Close

Teachers, it seems, could take a lesson from photographers. Robert Capa, a well-known Hungarian photojournalist, once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  Teachers, like photographers, are sometimes tempted to use a wide-angle lens—to get everything in the picture, to be comprehensive. But a closer, more intimate look draws students in, helps them relate, and then makes them curious about the larger subject. Here are a few examples:

  • Students might listen when a teacher talks about racial discrimination. But it’s a photo of a kid their age in a coffin that gets their full attention. After they see Emmitt Till’s face with its bashed-in bones and a gouged-out eye, they want to hear his story. The specifics grip them—how his friends waited outside while he went into a store to buy bubble gum; how while he was in the store something happened, maybe he whistled at a white woman or flirted with her; how later that night he was pulled from a bed at his grandpa’s house by the store owner and his brother; and how he wasn’t seen until three days later when his decomposing body was pulled from the river with a 200-pound iron cotton-gin fan attached to it. After these specifics, they have urgent questions about a big topic.
  • The teacher in the movie Stand and Deliver gives his students a close-up look at the concept of zero. It’s like digging a hole in the sand, he says, and then filling it again. And then he invites his students even closer.

“Did you know,” he asks his Hispanic students, “that neither the Greeks nor the Romans were capable of using the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Maya, who first contemplated the zero, the absence of value. True story. You burros have math in your blood.”

These students, far below their grade level in academic skills, sit up straighter and eventually pass the AP Calculus exam.

  • I once tried to explain fractals to a class. I gave them the broad idea, the textbook definition—a geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as a whole. This didn’t impress them. But when they looked close up at a fractal fern to see how each stem with its leaves looked like a miniature version of the larger fern plant, they understood and appreciated the fractal pattern.

I found that Robert Capa was right. When lessons fall flat, it was often because I had relied on generalities and hadn’t moved in close enough.

Doctors and Art and School

Medical students have begun coming to the Columbus Museum of Art where I lead tours. And this has been happening across the country—medical schools partnering with art museums to help their students develop the human side of being a doctor. What exactly can happen when medical students do their rounds at an art museum?

  • From their first year in medical school, students are taught to observe. And art museums are all about visual literacy. On art tours, students are invited into a deeper seeing: to notice what at first is not apparent, to recognize patterns and anomalies, and then to make meaning of what they see. This training of the eye in the museum can find use by the bedside.
  • Art helps to develop empathy. Paintings and sculptures invite people out of themselves to consider what comes from the mind of an artist. Such interaction with art gives medical students practice in becoming more open and mindful of others. It helps them see their patients as more than bodies.
  • The arts can bring relief for medical students under chronic pressure. In a museum, these students often find company on the journey. Art, after all, shows the pressures, hopes, and fears common to human experience. Learning to reduce their own stress will help medical students see the benefits of easing the anxiety of their patients.

More than ever, I’m convinced that art should be included, not only in medical school, but in every curriculum. All students can benefit from seeing well, from showing empathy, and from finding relief from tension.


To Sit with a Struggle

“Need help?” I asked.

But April shook her head.

“No, Mrs. Swartz,” she said. “I want to struggle more on my own.”

This was an important sign of growth for April, an honor roll student who earned A’s with little effort. As April bent back over her advanced Venn perplexer diagram, her forehead furrowed again.

April was using language I had given her with the Struggle Continuum. Far too often, April had been on the easy side of the continuum, and she shied when she encountered anything left of comfort.

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“You need to get accustomed to the alert stage,” I had told her. “It’s okay not to know an answer immediately—to feel uneasy, to struggle. This activates your brain in new ways. You don’t need help until you get to the anxious stage.”

April understood. She ran track and often heard no-pain-no-gain talk. Her coach was always telling her to embrace the pain and then run past it.

Being able to place herself on the Struggle Continuum, helped April take charge of her learning. And she was competitive enough to ask for help only when she reached the anxious stage.

The longer I taught, the more strategies I found to help students tolerate struggle. Here are some tools:

  • Normalize struggle.

“This won’t be easy,” I’d tell students before handing them a problem. You’ll need to grapple with it. See what you can do.”

Rather than discourage students, this approach seemed to give them freedom to struggle.

  • Model struggle.

During the Venn perplexer unit, I worked on one, as well, at home in the evening or at lunch breaks. I was challenged, students knew, and they asked to see my progress. My bafflement made them more willing to struggle.

  • Encourage collaborative struggle.

Some students preferred company as they struggled. They worked best when they talked with each other, figured together, and faced the possibility of failure with a friend.

  • Practice struggling with low-stakes problems.

The hardest problems I gave students were not evaluated. Subtracting the worry of a grade point average increased student willingness to tackle yet another logic puzzle or mind bender or acrostic.

  • Give struggle strategies:
    • Try a new route. If one approach doesn’t work, come at the problem another way.
    • Translate the problem into another form—a list or chart or picture or conversation.
    • Do something else and then go back. A fresh look sometimes makes concepts clear.
    • When you feel anxious, get help.

A willingness to move beyond comfort, to grapple, to sit with a struggle is an important skill for life.

Slopes in Learning

I climbed a mountain this week. The path up wasn’t far, only about a tenth of a mile. But it was rocky and overgrown and steep, maybe a ten percent grade. A quarter of the way up, I found a walking stick. And from the half-way mark on, I had to stop to breathe, actually pant, far too often for my liking. I had thought my morning workout on the treadmill was keeping me in shape.

Climbing that mountain made me think of a couple of students, Penny and Jon.

School days were steep climbs for Penny. Her sleep was disrupted by fighting parents, the food at her house ran out before the end of the month, and her glasses were lost.

“My mind must be broken,” Penny whispered to me once.

She had just looked at Jon’s paper. At the desk next to hers, Jon, whose parents sent him to academic camps in the summer, was concluding his persuasive essay.  Penny, with a hole already erased into her paper, was on the second sentence.

What was an easy climb for Jon, was a steep learning curve for Penny. She needed support along the way: a walking stick and time to stop and breathe. The essay I assigned was good for most of the class. But I learned that afternoon that the assignment was not good for Penny and not good for Jon. Penny was too stressed to learn, and Jon was bored, doing again what he could already do.

Gradually, I learned to differentiate for students on the edges—to give, for example, graphic organizers to help Penny get started and to add a research component to Jon’s assignment.  In a classroom, after all, there should be some evenness in the learning curve.