The Think, not the Ink

Some people said James Thurber’s cartoons in the New Yorker looked like they had been scribbled on the back of a napkin. Others said their kids could draw better than Thurber.

And when parents sent their children’s drawings to prove this, Thurber would write back, “Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn’t been through as much.”

Thurber, Dog and BugThoughtful reflection on tough experience, this is what was behind Thurber’s simple lines. It wasn’t how well Thurber drew a dog, for example, it was the way the bloodhound decides not to bother a bug. Wisdom, Thurber shows with this rough-drawn dog, is knowing when it doesn’t matter, when it’s best to let someone go their own way.

Veteran New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says of Thurber’s cartoons: It’s the think, not the ink.

As a teacher, I’ve found it easy to be preoccupied with the “ink” of my profession—with the strategies I use. I pay more attention to how well I draw than to why I am drawing it, or even if I should draw it. Educational theorist Dylan William suggests that educators are like magpies, amassing so many shiny ideas from the latest workshops and books that teaching turns into a complicated tangle.

Good teachers know that all these “deliverables” need to serve the end goal—that students learn. The “ink—the stuff you bring to the classroom—without the “think” is ineffectual. Students are not machines, and following scripts is not teaching.

Good teachers think. They decide when to toss the latest strategy, the best-laid lesson plan. They choose when to ignore the next discipline level and give a hug instead. They know when to ask a question and when to give an answer. And then they reflect on what just happened. Why did that work? Why didn’t it work? And what have I learned?

These reflections guide their future practices, making their teaching strong, spare, and clear.

And like James Thurber, good teachers can make it all look deceptively simple.

The Class that Cried


The tears kept coming—all through the quarter. Some students blinked them away, glancing sideways to see who had noticed. Some just let them roll.

These students were dads, practically all of them. And they had almost no access to their kids. Still they were sitting through a class on child development in a state prison school. Often it didn’t take much for another set of eyes to water.

One day, for example, we were focusing on autonomy versus shame—the second stage in Erikson’s model of psychosocial development.

“Two-year olds,” I told students, have a job—to develop independence. “And they bring lots of energy to the task. This is why it’s so easy to fight with a toddler. Your telling them what to do knocks right into their need to assert their will.”

“So what do you do?” an inmate asked. “They gotta get dressed and eat and go to bed and stuff.”

So we talked about giving them choices—all day long. Do you want to wear this red shirt or this green one? Eat Cheerios or Chex? Go to bed now or in five minutes?

“Do that with a toddler,” I told the students. “And you’ll likely see fewer tantrums and more cooperation.

In the back corner of the room, a burly man with tattoos marching up his arm stood and slammed a fist on his table.

“What didn’t nobody ever tell me this?” he asked. “I thought she was just being rotten!”

He swallowed hard and sat down abruptly. For the rest of class, he sat with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.

After class, he stopped by my desk.

“Just wish I had known,” he said, his eyes suspiciously red. “We gonna talk about teenagers? That’s what she’ll be when I’m up for parole.”

And now I felt a burning in my eyes.

“We’ll talk about teenagers,” I said.


Garbage in the Brain

Alex’s shoulders had been slumping, his eyes rolling, and his head jerking. And now his hand was up. So I stopped by his desk.

“I gotta stand in the back of the room,” he said. “Can’t keep my eyes open.”

This was a daily battle. And not just for Alex. They all had their reasons: parents fighting late into the night, video games that just wouldn’t let loose, texting friends for hours in bed, late sports events and then homework to do, worrying—about world hunger or a coming war or that a boyfriend was about to breakup.

“You need to find a way to sleep,” I told Alex that day before I sent him to stand at the back of the room.

I wish I had known then what a recent study has shown about the importance of sleep. Perhaps the results of this study would have impacted Alex more than I did.

Sleep, the study found, is when the brain takes out the trash.

All day while the brain is awake, garbage builds up. As brain cells work, they excrete what they don’t need—carbon dioxide, ammonia, and protein waste. This garbage collects in the spaces between the cells.

But during sleep, brain cells shrink in size—as much as 60 percent. This opens up the “streets” of the brain. And that’s when cerebral spinal fluid flows through the brain flushing out the toxins.

“If you don’t get enough sleep,” I wish I had known to tell Alex, “you wake up with heaps of garbage still in your brain. No wonder you feel like trash.”

Would this have been enough to motivate Alex to turn off his phone at ten?

Maybe not.

Still, the imagery from this study might be striking enough to catch the attention of a middle school kid.

The Aunt of the Chifferobe

MiriamThis week I paid tribute. My aunt died—the aunt of a famous chocolate cake, the aunt who loved people just as they were, not waiting for them to change, and, for me, the aunt of the chifferobe. In my memoir 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, I tell the story of the chifferobe—a little dresser, just my size.

My family was moving from Grantsville, Maryland, from the nest of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, from a large church and a close community. And we were moving to the city—to Flint, Michigan, where we knew no one, no one, at all.

The morning of our moving sale, I wandered around the yard, through the grape arbor and along the creek. People strolled in the lawn looking at our furniture. Then I saw my chifferobe. It had a space for hanging clothes on one side and drawers on the other side. Above the drawers was a mirror, just the right height for me.

This is mine, I thought. Why are my parents selling my chifferobe? I didn’t like the way people inspected it, opening the drawers and tilting the mirror. And I didn’t want to see who bought it. So I ran to the back yard where someone was selling hot dogs out the kitchen window.

I thought I’d never see the chifferobe again. But years later, when my daughter was born, my aunt invited me to her house. In a back bedroom, she showed me the chifferobe. She had seen my yearning the morning of the sale. And she had bid for it. And saved it for me. The chifferobe was her gift to my daughter.

“I love this story about Miriam,” I said to those gathered at her funeral. “It shows her generosity and her thoughtfulness and her graciousness.”

In these ways, Miriam had always reminded me of how Jesus lived—and of how I want to live.

The Time I Was Handed a Mulligan

I was going to get fired. I discovered this at 3:00 on a Saturday morning when the phone beside my bed jolted me awake.

“Mrs. Swartz?” the voice said. “I’m calling from Madison Correctional. We have reason to believe that you have prison keys in your possession. Did you take home the prison school keys?”

When I checked my bag, I found I had. And this, I knew was a fireable offense.

“Your supervisor will see you on Monday,” the officer said when I delivered the keys to the prison twenty minutes later.

All weekend, I replayed what would happen on Monday morning when I walked into the prison school. And teaching, I was sure, wouldn’t be my main activity. I’d be signing termination papers.

Except that on Monday morning nothing happened. So I taught as usual, waiting all the while to be called from class. But my supervisor never sent for me. Neither did the captain of security. Or the warden.

Not until weeks later did I gather the courage to talk with my supervisor about the mislaid keys.

“We decided,” she said, “just to forget that happened.”

I had been handed, as golfers say, a mulligan—a second chance, a do-over.

That reprieve increased my attention to security and my loyalty to the prison school. Even more, it shaped my dealings with students. While policies and guidelines are needed, they are tools to be used, not chains that should bind.

When to stick to the rule book and when to grant a replay is not a formula. It’s an art, that requires nuanced thinking. But here are some times mulligans can bring growth:

  • When the playing field isn’t level—Students who are hungry and homeless, who are worried about deportation, who have parents who never knew how to do school, who assume parenting roles for younger siblings in one-parent households, who struggle with learning challenges, who are just learning English—these students are climbing steeper slopes and can use a second chance.
  • When there’s a forgivable motive behind an offense—Slugging another kid at school is never right. But there’s a difference between protecting a bullied student and being a bully.
  • When there’s a chance of learning from failure—If students have no chance to improve a grade, for example, they have little incentive to examine what went wrong. But allowing guided do-overs gives students tools that will help them recover from failure throughout their lives.
  • When it just seems right—I haven’t always known why I offered a mulligan. Sometimes it’s what I see in their eyes—remorse or fear or discouragement. But the longer I taught, the more replays I offered. Students are different, and some need more . . . more understanding, more time, more guidance, and more second chances.

Though my students have earned F’s, I’ve rarely seen an F motivate a student to work harder. Though I’ve issued demerits, I’ve rarely seen a demerit compel a student toward angelic behavior. But I’ve found that a merciful mulligan often restores hope.

Louisa May Alcott and Teaching

I took Louisa May Alcott into the classroom with me. But I didn’t realize this until during a class in graduate school when I was already well into my career. While studying the revolutionary teaching practices of Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, I became curious about how his pedagogy showed up in Louisa’s novels. So I reread Little Women and Little Men.

Best sellers when they were published soon after the Civil War, Alcott’s books have been criticized as overly sentimental and sermonizing. But the books have also been lauded. The New York Times, for example, ranked Little Women in the 100 best young adult books of all time.

When I first read Alcott as a kid, I hadn’t care about reviews or best seller lists. I read for the story, identifying especially with Jo, who is socially clumsy, hotly-opinionated, geeky, and always trying to make something happen. Like Jo, I wanted to paddle my own canoe and write a book. But as I read Alcott’s books again, I realized how much she had fed the practices of my teaching.

When I began teaching, for example, paddles still hung on the walls. And with my room just down the hall from the principal’s office, I could hear the whacks. This sometimes took me back to the scene in Little Women when Mr. Davis punishes Amy for bringing limes to school. Amy “set her teeth, threw back her head defiantly and bore without flinching several tingling blows on her little palm.” Alcott uses this scene as a contrast to more thoughtful interventions like the “conscience book,” which was used in a weekly conference with students about their progress in overcoming bad habits, improving manners, and growing in virtue. Alcott, I realized, had set in me a proclivity for peaceful teaching, to use love rather than fear as a motivator.

Alcott also shows scene after scene of adults being honest with kids. Professor Bhaer admits to Nat that he, too had a problem with lying. Marme tells Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life . . . and I still hope to learn . . . though it may take me another forty years to do so.” And I found that when I was honest with students about my temper, my forgetfulness, my worry, they took courage, knowing they had company on the journey.

Most of all, Alcott helped me to create an ambiance. “We have such good times here,” a student says of the school in Little Men. “It’s the nicest place in the world.” And so. Like Alcott, I tried to bring nature into my classroom and paintings and music and drama. I tried to create corners that were calm and counters full of mind-wrenching puzzles and activities to get bodies moving.

Rereading Alcott’s books gave me a chance to ponder my teaching. Were the ever-ringing bells and the constantly-changing school terms and the passing years wearing me down? Or was I holding to my ideals?

Brain Breaks

You can tell you’ve lost them. It’s the far-away look, the doodling pencil, the hand that never raises, or the head on the desk. The signals are clear. They’re begging for a break.

You’d be wise to listen. Breaks, especially those with physical movement, boost brain function. The change of pace increases blood flow, which in turn brings more oxygen to brain cells. And while brains may seem to idle during downtime, they are actually filing information into stored memory. This clears the brain for new learning. These brain breaks, I found, not only increase the academic performance of my students. They also decrease disruptive behavior.

So what are some simple ways to call back wandering minds? You’ll find lots of ideas for brain breaks on the internet, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • For college students:
    • Enrolling Questions—Ask a series of questions in which students stand for a yes answer and sit for a no. You can ask relational, non-content questions: Have you decided on a major? Do you and your parents and siblings agree on politics? Or you can ask content-based questions: Did you agree with the basic premise of last evening’s assigned reading?
    • Class Continuums—Say, for example: After reading the chapter comparing functionalism and conflict theory, what do you think? If you identify closely with functionalism, move to the left side of the room. If you identify closely with conflict theory, move to the right side of the room. Or if you are somewhere between, move to the place in the room that shows your thinking.
  • For high school students:
    • Timed Talk: Invite students to silently cluster in sections of the room with two or three friends. Signal with a bell for free talk time to begin. At the second bell, students should return immediately to their seats.
    • Music: Play loud dynamic music or soft soothing music while students stretch and relax.
  • For lower-grade students
    • Silent Ball: With students standing, toss a beach ball over their heads. The goal is for students to keep the ball aloft as long as possible—and all without talking. For increased challenge gradually toss in another ball or two.
  • Exercise Countdown: Ask students to stand silently by their desks and call out the exercise: 5 jumping jacks, 4 toe touches, 3 knee bends, 2 leg lifts, 1 sit up.
  • For active reviews:
    • Roving Review—Tape a numbered review question on each desk. Give students a paper numbered to 30. Students move from desk to desk to answer the different questions.
    • Racing Review—Have students jog in place by their desks. Ring a bell to stop students. Read a review question to student and have them sit to write their answer answers. Repeat.

Fatigue seems to fade when students move, laugh, and mingle with their friends. After all, they’re now high on dopamine, the happiness hormone, ready once again to learn.

Bringing Lee Ufan to Class

Ufan 1If I were teaching social studies or literature, I’d bring Lee Ufan to class. I saw his work first at the Columbus Museum of Art, where I lead tours. I walked into the gallery and was instantly captivated by the broad, flat brushstrokes he drags across the otherwise undisturbed chalky white canvases.

A leading and innovative artist from South Korea, Ufan has painted a series called Dialogue. He invites his viewers to imagine a conversation within a painting.


Ufan 2

Take, for example, Dialogue 2018. What in this painting, I’d ask students, could show the relationship of two characters in the short story we just read? Or . . .  how could this painting show a conversation in recent world history?


Ufan 3I’d show students another painting, also entitled Dialogue 2018. How, I’d ask, does this painting—with its one continuous brushstroke—show a running conversation inside the head of a character? Or . . . how does the painting show a constantly repeated dialogue within a group of similar people? How does Ufan illustrate that, at the beginning, there is often more than one inner voice? And how does he show that, in the end, an accepted common narrative eventually pours out?

Ufan 4Ufan liked to hang multiple paintings in one gallery—as if the paintings were having conversations with each other. Above you see an installation from the Dialogue series at the Pace Gallery in New York City. Tell me, I’d say to students, about the conversation in this room. How does it relate to the literature you’ve read or to an event in history or to the current times?

To the eye, Ufan’s Dialogue paintings can seem deceptively simple. Actually, it takes Ufan an entire month to build up the thickness of a single brushstroke. Dialogue, after all, has many layers.



I Found Mr. Parker

I found Mr. Parker. He was my favorite high school teacher, and I’ve been searching for him. I wanted to say thanks. But I hadn’t seen him for over fifty years, and I was afraid it might be too late. Once I thought I found his telephone number. But the gravelly voice on the answering machine never called back. So I was losing hope.

Then Carla, my high school friend, gave me a tip.

“Did you know,” she asked, “that his wife was the co-creator of Barney?”

Mr. and Mrs. ParkerI hadn’t known, but this was the lead I needed. I discovered that Kathy O’Rourke Parker was a co-creator of Barney and Friends. And she had a husband named Philip Parker who was a math teacher and who had, besides, written more than 100 songs for the Barney television series. They lived in Texas.

I found this photo of the Parkers posing with Barney and Friends products. And I could see that this was, for sure, my high school geometry teacher.

I also found the photo below showing Kathy and Philip Parker at a Smithsonian ceremony. They were joined by “Jeopardy!” game show host Alex Trebek and “All My Children” actress Susan Lucci. They had all gathered to contribute artifacts from daytime television to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Parker on Stage

Fascinating! But I still hadn’t found Mr. Parker. So I typed into Google what I should have tried first: Phillip Parker math. And I found a website for a math consultant named Philip Parker, who lived in Texas. His resume said he had taught high school math in Flint, Michigan, for 24 years.  I clicked on the Contact tab, and found an email address.

“I think I was your student once,” I wrote, “back at Bendle High School in Flint, Michigan.”

Two days later, he wrote back.

“Phyllis!!!   Oh my goodness.  Yes, you have successfully reached me!! And I absolutely remember you.  Your email about knocked me off my feet!”

Mr. Parker gave me a 30-second version of his life. He had been married for 40 years and had two children. He had left teaching several times, once to write Barney songs, which, as he said, “kids loved and parents hated.” But each time he left teaching, he found himself drawn back to it.

“Teaching still excites me to this day,” he wrote, “even though I’m just tutoring.”

He thanked me for getting in touch. And then he gave me some wisdom:

“What you’ve said confirms to me what I always tell young teachers—that is, that after your students graduate, they will likely not remember much of the specific content you taught them—but they will remember whether or not you treated them with respect and dignity. And they’ll remember things about you that you never were even consciously aware of.”

And then, in typical Mr. Parker fashion, he ended with some encouragement.

“Congratulations on your 30-year teaching career. I know you’ve touched many lives—and don’t be surprised if 20 years from now you hear from one (or more) of them!”

Thank you, Mr. Parker!