The Key to the Song

At three minutes before homeroom, I was already tense with the noise. I stood in the middle school hallway listening to the cacophony of slamming lockers, dropping books, thundering feet, and raucous voices.

Last night I had been reading Robert Frost, and I thought wistfully of that hour by the fire. And then I realized that this moment of clamor in the hall connected with that quiet one. Robert Frost had been writing for me.

                         A Minor Bird

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

What I was hearing there in the hallway was the key of the middle school song. I quit trying to silence the song. And as I listened, I began to see again what I loved about middle school kids.

Caught between childhood and maturity, some of them were twice as tall as some of the rest of them. They missed recess and wanted to drive. They were the center of the universe one minute and awash with sympathy the next. I never knew what they would do—cry in the restroom or strut in the hall. They were fist bumping, high-five slapping, secret-telling, curious, energetic people who told it like it was.

They kept me young and gave me grey hair. They honed my humor and sharpened my wit. They made sure I was never bored. And they kept me laughing—that, is as long as I appreciated the key of their song.

 

 

Uphill Learning

It was my struggle on a bike trip that helped me understand Makela. On that 350-mile bike trip in northeastern Ohio, I was always behind. The hilly terrain worked for my husband Steve. Weighing more than I did, the energy from his downhill stretch propelled him most of the way up the next hill. And he’d stand there at the top, waiting for me to pedal up, my momentum having run out far below.

Like me, Makela was always trying to catch up. I watched her in class one morning. Other students were already half way through an essay test. But Makela was still rummaging for a pencil without success. When I lent her one, she stared at the writing prompt, perplexed, probably because she had forgotten to read the chapter assigned for last night. I left Makela to answer another student’s question, and when I came back, Makela’s eyes were closed, her breathing already heavy. Just a few minutes into the school day, and she was already behind.

When Makela was awake, she tried hard. Still, she stumbled over the words in reading texts, smudged her papers with erasures, and couldn’t seem to find her books.

Her classmates had momentum behind them—good food, enough sleep, and strong parental supervision. But Makela’s single-parent home was chaotic, her mother depending on Makela more than parenting her.

Because of these uphill struggles, I came to see that Makela needed some boosts. And I remembered how, on flat stretches of our bike trip, I drafted behind Steve. With my front wheel just overlapping his rear wheel, I lowered my wind resistance. Tucked in close behind Steve, I could conserve my energy for the next hill. How could I block some wind for Makela? Help her conserve energy to fight her battles?

First, I acknowledged her challenges. Relieved, she began to talk. Her mom, she told me, worked second shift. And so Makela ran the house each evening—mediating the fights of her younger siblings, feeding them dinner, and putting them to bed. Then she worried about her mom. Would she come home after work at 11:00? Or would she show up at 1:00 wasted with booze and need help getting to bed?

“It’s hard to do homework when I’m worried,” Makela said.

So Makela came to my room for lunch sometimes. There she could do her homework without interruption.

In the back corner of my room, I made a drawer for Makela. In it she could find sharpened pencils and notebook paper, and extra textbook, and an occasional treat.

“You take care of lots of people,” I told her. “Let me take care of you a little.”

And I often teamed Makela with students who could encourage her, guide her, pull her along.

When I was sucked along in a pocket of air Steve created for me, I found new courage to conquer another hill. And this is what I wanted for Makela.

 

Ways to Make Moments Memorable

Although I wish I didn’t, I remember a moment from sixty years ago. Riding my tricycle, I came upon a cat killing a mouse. The cat’s claws had already raked open the belly of the mouse, but the mouse was still alive, writhing. I saw grey fur laid back and blood smear the sidewalk. And I heard the frenzied screams of the mouse. With my chin on the tricycle handlebars, I watched the mouse die.

Most moments from my third summer are lost. But I remember the dying mouse because emotion anchored the event into my long-term memory and still helps me access it all these decades later. People recall valleys and peaks, and teachers who remember this can increase retention in learning. So how can you infuse emotion into your classroom? Here are a few ways:

  • Mourning—During a Holocaust unit, my students learned about Miep Gies. Miep hid and fed Anne Frank and her family for two years, until the raid of their hiding place on August 4, 1944. I told students how Miep, who was still living at the time, commemorated August 4 each year. She withdrew from the world and reflected on the lost. Then I darkened the room, and we sat for five minutes, thinking about the silence Anne Frank was forced to hold during her months of hiding. For the rest of the Holocaust unit, students were strongly attentive. At a mid-August softball game, a group of students found me on the bleachers. On August 4, they told me, they had met at one of their homes for an hour of silence.
  • Personal Stories—To introduce an autobiography project, I wrote my own using themes from my life to engage students. I wrote about how in middle school I had to write 500 times— I will not forget my books and how, right in front of me, the teacher had shredded my work. I wrote how, one day later, I had to write 500 times—I will not forget my boots. I wrote about my fury over the waste of time and my frustration that the two sentences were different by only one letter. After my series of stories, students wrote with greater depth than usual. The sharing of my stories opened their empathy and helped them remember to keep their writing thematic.
  • Surprise—The brain seeks what is novel, so bring the unexpected into your classroom. Move desks, display mystery objects, and ask a costumed character from history to burst into your classroom. Try changing your voice—whisper, speed up, slow down, shout. I knew a teacher who occasionally taught pacing from the tops of students’ lab desks. Surprise makes absent students wonder what they missed.
  • The Senses—Senses create strong memories. This is why advertisers care about color and music and make images so real we can almost taste and touch. When you teach the Great Depression, play “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and take note of its minor key, the syncopation, and the stormy ending. A teacher who once taught in the room next to mine changed the colors of the bulb in her floor lamp to create the mood of the literature students were reading. The senses open a way deep into the brain.
  • Celebration—A math teacher I knew celebrated Pi Day each March 14 (3/14). He found that after this day, students were more apt to remember that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Working with the formula was more memorable while singing Pi songs, competing to remember the most Pi digits, reading Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, and, of course, eating pie.

From kindergarten to high school graduation, students spend around 20,280 hours in class. Try making these hours memorable by combining emotion and thinking.

Hard Press; Easy Press

One of the best tools I’ve found to help students understand their behavior and performance is the Environmental Press.

Smallest Environmental Press

Look at this chart, I’d tell students. If you’re stressed about school or something at home, you’re at the top, at hard press. On the top rung, it’s hard to think. Your brain tightens up. Your feelings hijack your thoughts. At the high press, it’s easy to mess up with your school work and with your behavior.

If you are bored, you’re at the easy press on the bottom. It’s hard to do well at the bottom, too. With nothing to do, you can get lazy or into trouble.

Then I’d tell students about my maximum comfort time—Friday evening on the couch with a week end between me and Monday morning. This rung feels good, I’d say, and you should be there sometimes. But it’s not where you do your best work.

You work best on the second rung from the top. On the second rung, you have just enough adrenaline to stimulate your brain. There you feel alert and enthused, like just before a basketball game you’re hoping to win.

Students usually placed themselves on the chart with amazing accuracy. The Environment Press gave them a way to talk about where they were, where they wanted to be, and how to get there.

Lunch with a Bully

“I wonder if you could help?” a special education teacher asked me one day after school.

Some of my students, she told me, were bullying one of hers, always away from teachers, though—in the hallways and the lunch room and at the bus stop. She gave me their names. And she described her student Jared. He wore a headphones at school because noise made him frantic. He flapped his hands when emotion overtook him, and walked with a shuffling gait. Out of the sight of teachers, students mimicked him, mocked him, and tried to snatch his headphones from his head.

I drove home that evening, searching for an approach. I needed something more powerful than a scolding, I thought. But I went to bed that evening with no ideas.

The next morning, though, an idea began to coalesce.

I asked one of the bullies—the one with the most brawn, the loudest mouth, and the biggest swagger—to stop by after class.

“I need help,” I told Matt, “and I thought of you. Could you find two others to team up with you? Bring them to my room for lunch tomorrow, and I’ll explain.”

The next day over brown bag lunches, I told Matt and his friends that I was looking for help with Jared. They became watchful, uncertain where I was going with this. I talked about how I could tell they had influence with other students, and then I showed them a video clip about kids like Jared. While they watched the video, I watched their faces change.

“I wonder,” I said when the video ended, “if you three could help change Jared’s life here at school. Could you help other kids understand about him? Could you keep the lunchroom safe for Jared?”

They looked at each other. Then they looked at me.

“We’ve got it, Mrs. Swartz,” Matt told me. “You don’t need to worry about Jared anymore.”

Matt kept his promise. For the rest of the year, Jared was safe when Matt was around. And he was usually around.

I have no illusion that this outcome always works. I tried this for the first time in my last year of teaching.

But, given the chance, I would try it again.

 

A Place at the Table

At the art museum where I lead tours, I like to gather students in front of Supper, the larger-than-life oil painting by Joseph Hirsch.

“What’s unusual in this painting?” I ask.

Hirsch_Supper_pg

And the answer comes easily. The people seem poor, but the table seems rich.

“How can you tell the people are poor?” I ask. And they point out the tattered jackets, the scuffed shoes, and the desperate shoveling in of food. Some students mention bad manners, like elbows on the table.

About the rich table, they notice the wine in the goblets, the crisp table cloth, claw feet on the table, velvet on the chairs, and the chandelier overhead.

“What if I told you,” I ask students, “that Hirsch painted Supper at the same time President Johnson declared his War on Poverty? And during the Civil Rights Movement?

Most students can put it together. Everyone belongs at the table, they tell me.

Occasionally, I see a student counting and then the realization dawning. Twelve people are at the table, they say, like in The Last Supper painting.

We notice some techniques Hirsch uses—the dark, rough brushstrokes on the men and the lighter and finer brushing of the table and food, the way Hirsch pulls the eye from one pop of red to another—the velvet, a sauce, and the wine. Hirsch uses this rich color for emphasis.

And we end with a discussion on theme. How can you invite people to the table, I ask them. Most often, their minds go to literal tables—in their school cafeterias.

“We see kids sitting alone at school,” they say. “We could invite them to sit with us.”

If those moments in front of Supper make this one thing happen, our stop there is valuable. My hope, though, is that their understandings of table will broaden.

The Bad Kid Key

The bad kid is a key, I’ve found, to reach the rest of the class. Cinda was the bad kid in her class. She led the seventh grade in demerits, detentions, and suspensions. She daily stretched the patience of her classmates. And mine.

What distressed me most was that Cinda’s antics interfered with learning. For example, one day in the middle of a literature, circle, she slammed into class late. Waving a note from the office, she began her tirade about the dress code even before she reached her seat.

We all lost our focus on Jackson’s “The Lottery” as she groused about nothing being wrong with holey jeans and this country not being free like everyone said and why should some guy sitting in an office intrude on her territory by telling her what to wear.

Cinda, though, annoyed others by encroaching into their spaces—clicking her pen after Jared ask her to stop, helping herself to Kali’s paper, reading Jon’s journal entry over his shoulder, and belching to annoy everyone.

Cinda was hard for me to love. When I pulled up my stool beside her desk, her body odor made me gulp, as did her breath, which was fouled by cigarette smoke.

But what bothered us all the most was Cinda’s temper. It didn’t take much for it to erupt—a wrong look, a misspoken word, or someone in her way. And students, liked to ignite it.

One day Cinda was absent. And I took the risk of honesty with the class.

“I care about Cinda,” I told them. “And I need your help.”

And then I talked to the class about Cinda and how, though I couldn’t give specifics, she faced challenges. I told the class that because of those challenges, I wanted to give Cinda extra support. And I invited them to join me.

“If we would all be good to Cinda,” I said, she’d find it easier to be good.”

Not accustomed to talk like this from a teacher, the class grew unusually quiet. A few kids were nodding, so I went on.

“Think of Cinda’s temper as a fire,” I suggested. “If you throw sticks on a fire, it grows. But what if we starved the fire?”

I hadn’t planned to say more. But as we all sat there in silence—the class looking at me and me at them—I found I needed to say more.

“And this is how much I care about each of you,” I said. “I want to lift you up, to help bear your burdens.”

It was a sacred moment, there at London Middle School.

When Cinda came back to school, the moments didn’t seem so sacred. Still, the dynamics had altered, I could tell.

Students now saw meaning when I squeezed Cinda’s shoulder as I passed her desk and when I praised her for an insightful comment. They noticed each other doing good—lending Cinda the pencil she was always forgetting and ignoring a snarky comment she made. When I held Cinda to a standard, they knew I did it for love, not for my convenience. Sometimes they still threw sticks into the fire, but not as often. And Cinda was still bad, but softening.

But what changed most is that the class felt my care for them, not only for Cinda. They knew that how I treated Cinda revealed how I felt about each of them.

And this is the key Cinda showed me—that I could spread love to the whole class by caring for one.

My Double Identity

When a student in my classroom didn’t match my teaching style, I often thought back–way back–to my year in sixth grade. That year I had two identities, one for Miss Bordeaux and one for Mrs. Watts. In the morning with Miss Bordeaux I was a good kid. Miss Bordeaux wore starched white blouses and dark skirts and ordered her world and ours. She played soft classical music when she first woke up each morning, she told us. Then just before she left for school, she switched to marching music. She continued this beat at school, stepping us through her class. In Miss Bordeaux’s room, the air felt fresh, like someone had opened a window.

Most of my classmates didn’t like the way Miss Bordeaux went ballistic if you said ain’t, or if you came to school with dirty nails or if you didn’t sit up straight. They especially hated that Miss Bordeaux made us write papers, long ones with a thesis and supporting points. She filled our papers with lots of red edits and suggestions.

I loved to read her markings. Her red pen showed my wordiness and left my writing bare and beautiful. Sometimes I noticed her watching me as I read those red marks, nodding her head. Miss Bordeaux always seemed to find the good in me, even when I messed up.

But over lunch, I seemed to change. Most students were glad for the switch to Mrs. Watts in the afternoon, but with Mrs. Watts, I felt scatterbrained. I daydreamed, lost pencils, and forgot assignments. All this exasperated Mrs. Watts, and she watched for my flightiness. One day, for example, when I left my books at home once again, 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.

I fit, it seemed, with Miss Bordeaux, not with Mrs. Watts. And decades later when I taught sixth grade, I found in my classroom students who didn’t match my teaching style. With those students, especially, I took special care to find the good in them.

What To Do With a Smart Kid

I worked with lots of smart students in my decades of teaching. I found them in middle school classes, in prison classrooms, and in the gifted pull-out program where I taught.

Some of these students were school smart. They pulled A’s on every test, wrote essays in correct form, and produced blue-ribbon science fair projects. But sometimes I worried about these school-smart kids. They invested so much time writing correct answers and competing for class standings that they lacked time and energy and courage for creative work.

But other students didn’t do any of this. They focused on outside-the-box thinking. They felt no compulsion to please teachers or establish a stellar academic career. Jumping through scholastic hoops held no appeal for them.

High I.Q.s, I learned early in my career, do not always result in gifted behavior.

“What can we do?” parents often asked—sometimes because they could sense their children were stifled under academia, sometimes because their children were failing. Both sets of parents worried because they felt their children weren’t reaching full potential.

My best tool for talking with these parents was Renzulli’s Three-Ring Concept of Giftedness.Three-Ring ModelRenzulli interlocks three traits: above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment. Gifted students, of course, have above-average ability. But they often have developed only one of the other traits. To be highly productive people, according to Renzulli, these students need to learn to bring each of the three traits into play.

School-smart gifted students—the ones with all A’s—are found in the overlap between above-average ability and task commitment. But they haven’t developed their creativity. They need to be encouraged to take risks in thinking, to be curious and adventuresome and mentally playful.

The outside-the-box gifted students—the original thinkers—are located in the overlap between above-average ability and creativity. But they haven’t developed task-commitment. They need to be encouraged to persevere and endure, to work with determination and dedicated practice.

The goal of parents and teachers is to help gifted students move toward the center—to help them use their intelligent minds to think in creative and in disciplined ways.