You Mess with Matt; You Mess with Me

“Mrs. Swartz,” Matt said to me after school one day, “I’d like to talk to the class about Tourette Syndrome.”

Matt’s eyes blinked fast, and his head jerked.

“Tell me about this,” I said.

Matt told me he was in a group with other kids who had Tourette Syndrome. At the last meeting the group had been talking about kids at school who avoided them and mimicked their tics and asked rude questions like, ”That’s not catching, is it?” or “Did you take the wrong vaccine?”

“What can we do?” a kid asked the leader.

And that’s when she told them about peer presentations—a kid with Tourette Syndrome educating classmates about it.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” Matt said. “And I want to do it. This could help the next kid with Tourette Syndrome who comes along.”

The day before his presentation, Matt stopped after class.

“I made a slide show,” he said, handing me a flash drive, “and could I choose a friend to stand up there with me?”

Matt’s friend, I discovered the next day, was the captain of the football team. He stood three feet from Matt, feet planted shoulder-width, hands on hips, elbows akimbo. During Matt’s presentation, the football captain scanned the room like a Secret Service agent, daring the slightest disrespect.

Matt showed the class diagrams to explain how the brain controls movement.

“Most of you,” Matt told the class, “have brains that tell your body to stop moving. Your brains can tell your eyes to stop blinking fast and your head to stop jerking.”

At this moment, Matt’s head jerked twice, and the football captain stood an inch taller.

“But my brain,” Matt went on, “doesn’t have stop signs for head jerking.”

Students were listening, I could tell.

“Sometimes,” Matt said, “I can delay a head jerk, kind of like you can put off a sneeze.”

Matt smiled ruefully.

“But eventually,” he said, “the jerk wins.”

Then Matt asked students to stopping blinking, to hold off a blink as long as they could.

“Raise your hand,” he said, “when you have to blink.”

When all the students’ hands were in the air, Matt concluded.

“That’s how I feel a lot,” he said.

As the students clapped, Matt went to his seat. But the football captain stayed.

“Just to tell you,” he said. “You mess with Matt, you mess with me.”

And no one did, not then, and not the rest of the school year.

That’s Not Fair

My mother-in-law told me once that when her children were young, she discovered how to divide the last piece of cake fairly between two children—one cut the piece in half and the other chose the first piece.

“I’d never seen such preciseness,” she told me. “And neither child could complain that the division wasn’t fair.”

Toward the beginning of my teaching career, I taught two populations: inmates and middle school kids. And in both places I heard the word fair many times a day.

The mantra for staff members at the prison was firm, fair, and consistent. We heard these words at in-service trainings and in our performance reviews. And students in the prison school often used the word fair, many times with the word not in front of it.

Middle school kids also have an obsession with fairness. And when they protest unfairness, teachers have a quick response.

“Life’s not fair,” teachers say, as reflexively as they take their next breaths.

But what is fair?

For too long, I treated the words fair and equal as synonyms. To avoid favoritism, I parsed out equal amounts of attention, resources, and rewards. But the classroom soon taught me that treating everyone exactly the same is actually not fair—that equality works only if students begin at the same place and need the same help.

If equality is treating all students the same, equity is giving each student what she or he needs to be successful. And some students need more.

Students who are furthest behind, students with challenges at home, and students who are on the edges of the bell-curve—cognitively, emotionally, or physically—all need greater resources, more involved help.

And what happens when students notice that others get more?

I’ve found it doesn’t take much to help students see that fairness is more than equal treatment, that not everyone starts at the same place and not everyone has the same needs, that although equity may at first appear unfair, it really levels the playing field.

When I was a kid, I’d tell students, my parents didn’t have much money. A pair of shoes or a broken window was a big deal. And we watched how our parents spread their pennies around—who got what and who got the most.

One month my parents spent more money on me than on anyone else, way more. They bought a pair of glasses for me.

Then I asked my students, “Was this fair?”

And then we talked about the differences between equality and equity. They almost always got it.

They started seeing why one student used an audio book and another extended time on a test. And they accepted that, even though they would like to sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair, another student needed it more.

Being fair, they began to realize, was more complicated than they thought.


“Part of growing up,” I used to tell my middle school students, “is bossing yourself so well that no one else has to do it.”

And then I’d tell them about my struggle to keep it together when I was their age—how I’d daydream in study hall,  put off doing papers until it was too late to do a good job, and read a book I loved instead of a book I’d been assigned.

“I got tired of adults nagging me,” I’d tell them. “so I gradually figured out some ways to make myself do what I didn’t want to do.”

Middle school kids, I found, want to see themselves as independent and responsible, in other words, grown up. But some of them need a few tips for taking charge of their own lives.

Here are some strategies they seem to understand and that I still use for myself:

  • Starting—I’ll do it for ten minutes, I often tell myself. In fact, I often set a timer. It’s amazing what can happen with a sink full of dishes, an empty word document, or an e-mail inbox in just ten minutes.
  • Chunking—I always eat more of my apple when I slice it, and when students break a task into parts, the task seems more manageable. Do a little, I’d tell students, then get up—stand and stretch, sharpen a pencil, or throw paper into the trash. Then do another chunk.
  • Rewarding—In education jargon, this is called the Premack Principle, but I described it to students as the When/Then Strategy. And they recognize it because adults have often used it on them: when you eat your peas, then you get a cookie. The key is to teach students to use this principle on themselves. When you do your homework, I’d tell them, do a page of math, then ride your bike around the block. Use what you like to make yourself do what you don’t like.

The goal at middle school is to help students shift into self-government, to increasingly hand them strategies instead of orders. Every day, for the rest of their lives, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do. But they’ll find this more palatable if they learn to govern themselves. It’s no fun to have someone else always bossing you around.

How to Teach When Students Hate to Learn

The first time I walked into a classroom full of mandatory students at the prison, I was appalled. They sat there chins jutted, arms crossed, and eyes averted. These grown men had failed the reading test given to them during prison orientation, and so the state of Ohio had ordered them back to school. Once again, having not measured up, they were trapped in a classroom. And I could hardly miss the signals they were sending me.

I didn’t understand at the time how the brain works. Later I would learn about dopamine, the chemical the brain releases when something feels good. Dopamine gets learning going. Pay attention, dopamine tells the brain. This is good. Remember this. We want to make this happen again. Dopamine increases motivation and interest. The more engaged a student becomes, the more dopamine is released, and learning spirals upward. Without dopamine, learning is lost.

But I didn’t know any of this then. I only knew I couldn’t teach when students wouldn’t look at me. I had to find a way to bring some happiness to their brains—to change their attitudes from aversive (hating to learn) to appetitive (wanting to learn). I stumbled for a few quarters, but gradually I found ways to increase the flow of dopamine, to decrease the aversion, to invite students to uncross their arms and lean forward in their seats:

  • I became a student, learning from them. I know some of you don’t want to be here, I’d say the first day of class. But here’s how I see it. We’re all adults here, all with different experiences. I hope you’ll want to learn from me. I know I want to learn from you. And they taught me, for example, things about the Vietnam War that I never read in history books.
  • I acknowledged the sins of my profession. Why didn’t you like school? I’d ask my inmate students. “If you’re the wrong color from the wrong side of the tracks,” they said, “you get the blame even if you’ve done nothing wrong. After a while, it just ain’t worth trying.” I heard about teaching methods that didn’t work and about teachers who had given up on them. I heard about boring classes. I listened and did not defend.
  • I protected dignity. Every question was welcome. I explained with as much earnestness the third time as I did the first. My first term at the prison, an inmate stared in perplexity at the globe. “Now, where is our country?” he asked, and, just in time, I managed not to show surprise. As I honored each small step of learning, fear in the room decreased.

I came to enjoy these classes of mandatory students—at least after the first day of each term. As students discovered learning can bring pleasure, their brains processed better. They remembered more of what they had learned and smiled more. And this increased the dopamine in my brain, as well. It’s fun to watch a transformation.

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.