What Rhymes with Covid—at Least a Little?

Most people would agree that the 2020-2021 school year has been like no other. And they’d be right. When schools opened this last fall, more than half of the students in the U.S. studied virtually, with only 25 percent attending in person every day. And all year, even those attending in-person have never known when they will, once again, go remote.

But the remote learning of this pandemic, though enormous in scope, isn’t new. So maybe Mark Twain got it right: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

You can read about long-ago distance learning—reaching students by postcard and through the first correspondence school in the United States and by sending lessons to homes during whooping cough outbreak in 1906.

But perhaps the closest history has rhymed with Covid-19-Zoom teaching is the Radio School of 1937. Polio, a contagious, rapidly spreading virus, with no known cure or vaccine, was leaving thousands crippled or paralyzed or dead. And parents were keeping their children safe at home—away from pools and parks and schools.

Alarmed about losing instructional time, Chicago schools turned to technology. Radio was still new enough to be held with some suspicion. Would radio make people stop reading? Stop talking with each other? How would kids who grew up with radio be different than earlier generations?

But radio also brought wonder. At the flick of a wrist a person could listen to a symphony, a baseball game, a sermon, a President’s speech, and now . . .  a lesson sent right to the ears of homebound kids.

Teachers stepped up, creating lessons that were informative and entertaining. They hosted, for example, guest stars like British globetrotter Carveth Wells, who told students about his trips to India and Africa.

But the Radio School led to disparity. Some kids lived in homes with no radios, while other homes had three or four, one for each kid. Schedules and assignments were printed in the daily newspaper, which some kids never saw. And for some, the one-size-fits-all lessons didn’t fit.

Still, the Radio School made a difference. Though it lasted only weeks, not months, it helped reshape both radio and learning—opening ways for radios to come to school and for educational programs to play on radio.

And if Mark Twain is right about the rhyming, I’m hoping that this pandemic year, which took so much from us, will leave a gift or two behind.

Beyond the House of Mirrors

In some ways, they can’t help it. Given the mismatch in their brains, it’s no wonder middle school kids often fail to see beyond themselves. At this age, the emotional brain has come into full swing well before the prefrontal cortex has matured.  And so they struggle to control their selfish impulses, even when they know better.

It’s as if they live in one of those houses of mirrors you find at a fair. Caught in reflecting mazes, they turn down passageway after passageway looking for a way out. But everywhere they turn, they run into their own image. At every exit, they are blocked by themselves.

But even with all this constant turning in, I love middle school brains. Being nowhere near fully baked, they’re still formable. What I do matters. I can actually help them connect their emotional and logical brains. And as these parts of the brain begin to work in greater tandem, students become better able to do more than peering into mirrors.

Here are some windows you can offer instead:

  • Vicarious living—Tangled in adolescent angst, middle school kids often have faint empathy for those around them. But I’ve seen tears run from the eyes of tough kids as they watched a movie or read a book. A step away from their own lives, they can muster up compassion. And these second-hand encounters offer kids a chance to form templates they can use back where they live.
  • Purpose—Kids are willing to look beyond themselves when their strengths are tapped. “I’d like your help,” I’d say to a kid. “I’ve been trying to find a way to give Kato some extra practice in English. I’ve noticed that you’re good at talking with people. Could you . . .?” Almost always middle school kids step up to shoulder tapping.
  • Travel—Every time I’ve traveled—to Ethiopia or Thailand or the Pacific Ocean or inner-city Flint, Michigan, or upstate New York—I learn, once again, that my small Midwest town isn’t the center of the universe. Not being able to take my students with me, I followed Emily Dickinson’s lead: There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. With literature, I took them both around the world and back in time.

Looking through windows can become a habit. But middle school kids need frequent and repeated invitations to turn from self-gazing to look out. And actually, so do I. Even at sixty-five, I find myself reverting back to my middle school brain, peering into a mirror instead of looking out windows, even when I know better.

Pandemics, Prisons, Political Tensions—and the Brain

As the pandemic surged and political tensions mounted, I thought of Jon.

“You’ve got to apply yourself,” I told him once.

And he just looked back at me through fogged-over eyes, like he could barely make me out.

He was a smart kid with a boatload of challenges. At lunch, he’d head to the corner window, the one that faced the state prison across the fields. And he’d stand there and stare. If yearning could unlock doors, his dad would have walked across the prison fields, through the school yard, and up the steps to my classroom. At home, Jon held it together for a falling-apart mom—stretching money, running herd on younger brothers and hiding his own angst to protect his family.

“Don’t ruin your future,” I’d tell Jon, “by messing up in school.”

And he’d try. But he couldn’t concentrate. Even what he already knew seemed to mysteriously vanish, as if someone had reached into his head and plucked it out.

This thief, I was to discover later in graduate classes was stress. Under pressure, the brain has trouble processing incoming information and retrieving what’s already known. Stress hijacks the brain, putting it into survival mode.

Jon’s incarcerated dad and falling-apart mom, I can see now, were right there in the school room with him. And he was already applying himself—trying to find a way through troubles more compelling than solving a quadratic equation. No wonder he blanked out on the Zero Product Rule.

In the last weeks, as the pandemic has closed in on more people I love and political tensions pulled people apart, my focus derailed. I stared at blank screens that should have been filled with words and sat in meetings with no fresh ideas.

And I thought of Jon—wishing that I hadn’t parroted all those pat answers, that I had walked over to that corner window and just stood there with him in silence, mourning and exuding mercy.

A Tribute to Alvina

Alvina, my first teacher and the star of my book Yoder School, has died. She turned ninety-five on her last birthday, so I’ve known this was coming. Still, in the days since her death, a rippling sadness has stayed with me.

It’s been sixty years since I sat in first grade wanting to be a teacher like Alvina and nearly forty years since I stood in front of my first class of students. As I took class after class on the way to a teaching degree, I measured my other teachers and professors and eventually myself by Alvina. She was my yardstick.

When I heard she was dying, I sent her a note, one that probably arrived too late. Alvina had already known from our conversations and my book that she had been my polestar. What she didn’t know, I wrote in that note, is that young teachers have been writing me.

“What would Alvina do?” they ask about a student who learns faster or struggles more than the rest. How would Alvina teach under the pressure of high-stake tests?

And like them, I’ve often wished I could transplant Alvina. What would have happened if she had come into my middle school classes or into the gifted program or into the state prison school? I often asked myself the same question young teachers are asking—What would Alvina do?

I often didn’t know.

But all along the way, I tried to bring to my students that wide-eyed feeling that kept washing over me in Alvina’s room.

To Alvina, I wrote in the Yoder School book I signed for her, who brought wonder to me.

Alvina is the teacher. I am in the front row with the blue dress.

I Like Spoilers

I like spoilers. Knowing the end from the beginning—this is how I like to enjoy a book or a movie. And a study by Leavitt and Christenfeld, in which they deliberately spoiled stories for people, shows I’m not alone. Others, too, like finding their way to a resolution they already know.

This may be true especially for those of us who are whole-to-part learners. Once we know how the story turns out, its’s easier to get a handle on the details and focus instead on the deeper meaning. The story becomes like a maze, where you put your pencil at the start and your eye on the end and enjoy the twists and turns along the way.

This, in fact, is how I learned to enjoy Shakespeare.

“I’d like to propose a project to you,” my professor in a graduate course on leadership said to me. “Read King Henry IV and analyze the dynamics of leadership you find in the play.”

I came close to rolling my eyes, and he noticed my hesitation.

“I’ve got a way you can like Shakespeare,” he said.

And he outlined a sequence that I’ve used with Shakespeare ever since: watch an animation, read a children’s version, watch a full-play video, and then read the actual script.

This works, I found, because, instead of feeling stupid like I always had when I plunged straight into the Bard, I kept feeling smarter and smarter. Shakespeare’s phrasing was still a puzzle to solve. But with this unfolding sequence, I was able to make more connections, notice more patterns. It was like I had the picture on the puzzle box propped in front of me helping me fit the fragments together to create a bigger picture.

“The smarter you feel, the more you like it,” my professor said.

And he was right.

It can still feel a little like cheating, though, like taking a sneak peek at the back of a math textbook and working from the answer key to figure the strategy.

But I’ve discovered that knowing the answer helps me enjoy the problem.

Four-Generation Virtual Choir

My family couldn’t sing together this pandemic Christmas. So we each sang at home, and my brother put us together into a virtual choir. Being unmusical in a musical family, I appreciated being invited into the choir, knowing my blunders would be hidden by better voices.

Watching our choir during our Zoom-call Christmas gathering, I recalled an old, old proverb: Love covers a multitude of sins. And I wondered what would happen if we all extended this kind of grace to each other in this next year.

If you’d like to listen, you can hear us sing Away in a Manger and Joy to the World.

When the Child Becomes the Teacher

I taught my son to write. And it wasn’t fun. Late on the night before a paper was due in world history, for example, he’d still be struggling with topic focus and long, gangly sentences and redundancy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t care about writing. It was more that he was trying to sound intelligent, that he wanted to be taken seriously. And long, multi-clause sentences with pretentious phrasing seemed the way to do it. Keep it simple, I’d tell him.

But how the tables have turned!

When I retired from teaching, I wanted to write. And David, who had since gone on to write books and publish articles in academic journals, became my coach. His critiques of my writing have become one of my biggest gifts.

Recently, he wrote an article that was published on the Anxious Bench blog and in his local newspaper. You can read David’s call for civility in a contentious time.

But for a taste, here are the opening paragraphs:

Some weeks before the 1888 election, 15 politicians from Nicholasville made a friendly wager. If Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate for president, won, the Republicans would foot the bill for a banquet of reconciliation. If Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate, won, the Democrats would pay.

On the Saturday evening after a very tense political contest, they all converged on Hotel Nicholas. As promised, the losing Democrats served up “everything good that you could think of.” The sumptuous feast included venison, grouse, quail, oysters, celery, ice creams, confections, and cakes. The Jessamine Journal reported that the champagne, enjoyed over toasts and fine conversation, was “somewhat exhilarating.” It was early Sunday morning by the time the dining room was empty.

Just the other day, David and I were discussing a section in a chapter I had written.

“You’re trying too hard here,” he said. “Keep it simple.”

And that sentence took me way back.

The Picture-Day Shirt

My mother didn’t know my brother wore the same shirt for school pictures every year. The blue-plaid shirt was a hand-me-down from an older brother, who also wore it for school pictures. And not until she caught up on scrapbooks a few years later, did my mom discover the “picture shirt.”

But my brother had nothing on Dale Irby. A physical education teacher, Irby started his yearbook picture protocol by mistake. He realized too late that he had worn the same shirt for picture day two years in a row.

 On his wife’s dare, he wore the same outfit the third year and then the fourth. And soon it was no longer a decision. What started as a mistake became his practice. It was just what he did.

This simplified picture day for Dale Irby. That’s what routines do. They let parts of your life run on autopilot so you can save brain energy for more important matters.

As a beginning teacher, I lacked routine. And soon I was drowning in work—papers to read, messages to answer, lessons to plan, discipline reports to file, tests to write, and grades to record. I’d look at my mounded-up desk after school each day and spend too much time figuring out where to start.

Why, I wondered, did some teachers—good teachers—leave school with cleaned-off desks in time to get home for dinner?

I watched these teachers and discovered their tightly-held routines. Barring bomb threats or pneumonia or snow days, they planned lessons on Monday, made copies on Tuesday, answered email right after school, packed a bag of papers to grade every single evening, and came back to school each morning caught up and ready to do it all again.

They wasted no energy bemoaning work, no thought about what to do next, and no time flailing around trying to get started. They rid themselves of routine work as quickly as possible. And with all these recurring, short-time tasks subdued, they had space to become creative in their teaching.

I don’t know Dale Irby. But I can imagine my brother on picture-day mornings—using up the energy he saved to solve an extra math equation or to sing with solfege.

What You See Is What You Learn

A geography lesson from almost fifty years ago has stuck with me. I write about it in my book Yoder School.

“Geography isn’t just about labeling a map with rivers and countries and mountain ranges,” my professor Mr. Klein said one afternoon. “It’s a way of thinking about the world. And what you see on a map influences what you think.”

Take Africa for an example, he told us. Thirteen nations, including the United States, would fit into Africa. But you can’t tell this by the Mercator map we see most of the time. To get the shape right on a flat surface, the size has to be distorted. So we all walk around with diminished Africas in our heads.

Much later in teacher training, I learned that more than 50 percent of the brain is devoted to visual processing. No wonder images reach out and grab us. What we see can compel us instantly to compassion or to anger. Visuals can chunk complicated information into bite-size pieces.

It takes much longer to read a paragraph than to find meaning in a picture or a graph or a map. So we tend to make broad judgments based on what our eyes can process in 100 milliseconds. With the eyes holding such power, we should think about what students see.

Do they see maps that show size as well as shape, that show that the United States doesn’t always have to be in the middle of the map? Do they sometimes see men as nurses and women as doctors? Do they see people of their skin colors as heroes of stories and makers of history and as inventors and mathematicians and musicians and artists?

Because their brains are wired to react to color and shape, students’ eyes are constantly scanning, picking up images at the rate of perhaps 36,000 per hour. And what they see can create lasting impressions.