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.

Why I’m Glad I Have ADHD

I’m glad I have ADHD . . . now. But I haven’t always felt this way. I’ve wished I could quit fidgeting, keep my mind fully on what someone was saying, and stay at a task long enough to finish it. Even at what should be the sedate age of sixty-five, I feel a tinge of panic when I have to go to a long meeting and act like I’m grown up.

But I’ve come to the place where, if I had a choice, I’d keep my racing brain and my urge to move, move, move. And this is because attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has given me gifts. Here are a few:

Multitasking: It’s not that my brain doesn’t pay attention. It pays attention to everything. As a teacher, this worked. Five or six tracks ran through my mind at the same time—the pucker on Jamar’s forehead as I explained the difference between the omniscient and limited points of view, the surreptitious exchange between Kali and Jeremy in the back row, an unusual ruckus in the hallway, Jennifer slipping into class late again, and the latest directive from the state department of education. With ADHD, I could do lots at once.

Creativity: Because so many ideas bounce around in my mind together, they bump into each other with interesting results. A thick wet snow fell one afternoon. And just as I was concluding a lesson on Greek and Latin roots, the intercom crackled. A warning about snowballs, I predicted before the principal said a word. And that announcement at that time birthed the annual Silent Snowball Fight—200 crumpled paper balls thrown into the air so students could scramble around matching 100 roots to their meanings.

Get-Up-And-Go: Staying at one task drains me. I struggle to fold a whole basket of laundry or write a whole page, and so I don’t. All day I alternate, one task giving me energy for another. Instead of fighting ADHD, I’ve given into it, and it serves me well.

Perhaps ADHD is not so much a disorder, as a different ordering.

Another Surprise of a Pandemic Year

I’ve been invited to sing in a choir. And this just doesn’t happen to me. Granted, it’s a family choir, and there’s only one necessary qualification—to be part of the family. But still! When you consider that I’m the least musical person in the family, that people in my family give recitals and take music lessons and hold graduate degrees in music and critique music with words I don’t understand—when you take all this into account, you can see why singing in this choir is a bit breathtaking for me.

This choir came about because of the pandemic. Our family isn’t gathering for Christmas this year, not in person. Instead, we’ll meet virtually—four generations of us. But Zoom’s no way to sing together. With audio lags and glitches and garbled tones, everyone else’s voices would sound as unmusical as mine usually does.

So since we can’t fathom meeting without music, my brother offered to put us together into a sixty-eight-member virtual choir, the kind you can see on Facebook, with people singing from boxes in a grid.

“I’ll make sure you don’t sound bad,” my brother assured me. “We want one hundred percent participation, and I’ve got the technology to blend your voice in with the group.”

He might have meant the mute button. I’m not sure.

Regardless, I’m glad to be included. My brother sent me something called a scratch track so I could practice. With it, I can hear in my ear the notes that should come from my mouth. And as I sing along, I’ve been feeling like a good singer for the first time ever.

I’m now a fan of scratch tracks. And I’m thinking about how I can offer people scratch tracks of other sorts—guides that can help them do well what doesn’t come easily.  

When Students Drag Their Messes Into Class

You can find plenty to disgust you in a middle school classroom. There are the good kids, of course, those who bring delight, who come to school fully-fed, well-groomed, and with generations of support behind them. And there are the survivors, who for some inexplicable reason have learned to live above the fray of their turbulent lives. But then, there are the kids who haven’t, who are still mucking around in the wreckages of their lives.

These kids drag their messes right into the classroom with them. They are grungy kids living in slovenly houses, hotheads who have been knocked around themselves, withdrawn kids whose inner demons call louder than any teacher’s voice, and poor little rich kids trying to erase the neglect of their parents by flaunting their deep pockets. 

These kids stink and fight and emit bodily sounds into the magic moments of a class and look down their noses at others and bully. And my first impulse toward them was usually disgust.

But I learned early on that disgust didn’t fit into a student-teacher relationship. And when I finally managed to move from disgust to pity, I felt Herculean.

Only pity didn’t work either. My pity sent them the message that they were powerless, that they were different, that their problems made them the “other.” Instead of giving them a way out, my pity seemed to humiliate them. And they felt like a lost cause.

What worked was counterintuitive.

It was respect. When I held these damaged students in regard, they could learn from me. I tried to think of the courage it takes to walk into class with tatty sneakers and sit next to someone with Nike Kyrie shoes. I appreciated the valiant effort a kid took to stay awake in class—a kid who I later discovered had stayed up half the night hearing his dad beat up his mom. I looked for cracks of kindness in a bully. I noticed a kid from the lake who usually flaunted her wealth offering a pencil to a kid from the other side of the tracks.

And when I looked at these students in this way—remembering how hard they worked to survive, watching for the creative ways they found to exist in broken places, celebrating their grit, and acknowledging their sparks against dreary backdrops of their lives—something happened. Disgust seemed to fade away.

A Greying Grandma and the Beast Within

I’m reading a bleak book with my grandsons. During this pandemic school year, we’ve been coming together via Zoom from Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio for literature classes. And right now we’re reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

But what should be fun—a bunch of guys set free in the paradise of an uninhabited tropical island in the Pacific—turns tragic.

“What is this beast?” the boys kept asking as they read the early chapters.

I remember asking the same question in junior high when I first read the Lord of the Flies over fifty years ago. And I recall my growing horror as evil unfolded in character after character, chapter after chapter. The beast, I discovered toward the end of the book is about the evil in people.

“This isn’t only about the characters in this book,” my teacher had said all those years ago. “This is about what would happen if this class got stranded on that island.”

I recall looking sideways at my classmates. Who would be the one to throw rocks at the littluns? Who would punch a fist in Piggy’s stomach? Who would chant: Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Bash him in!? And who would push the boulder that killed Piggy?

I had no doubt that I was Piggy—me with my thick glasses, my quickness at books, and my awkwardness at a class party.

When I finished reading Lord of the Flies all those years ago, I felt I had gained a kind of grown-up sadness because I understood, really understood, that there was evil out there.

Golding’s characters have been my companions in the decades since. And they’ve taught me more about myself than I have wanted to know. Now that I’m a greying grandma, I’ve had the time to see over and over that I’m not only Piggy, I’m also Jack, who seizes power when I want things to go my way. And Roger, who enjoys hurting others, especially when they’ve hurt me first.

Too often I’ve found the beast, not by looking sideways, but by looking within.

With typical adolescent self-absorption, I glossed over this lesson in seventh grade. But I’m hoping my grandkids won’t miss it—that they will learn early on to see not only their own injuries but also the pain they inflict on others.

Even though, of course, they are perfect grandchildren!

Long Ago and Far Away

The other day, I read an ancient poem about teaching. Written nearly three millennia ago, this beautiful allegory from long ago and far away shows that people’s minds were as varied then as they are now.

The farmer knows just what to do,
    for God has given him understanding.

 A heavy sledge is never used to thresh black cumin;
    rather, it is beaten with a light stick.

A threshing wheel is never rolled on cumin;
    instead, it is beaten lightly with a flail.

Grain for bread is easily crushed,
    so he doesn’t keep on pounding it.

He threshes it under the wheels of a cart,
    but he doesn’t pulverize it.

The Lord Almighty is a wonderful teacher,
    and he gives the farmer great wisdom.


A Sandwich Artist Sets Me Straight

I like Subway sandwiches, but it took me forever to figure out how to order what I want.

“I’ll take a foot-long,” I kept trying to say. “But please cut it in two, making one side two-thirds and the other side one-third.”

This didn’t work. On road trips, I’d get blank looks—Subway after Subway.

Finally, a sandwich artist (which is what Subway calls their sandwich makers) clued me in.

“Now what exactly are you trying to do?” she asked.

I should have known better.

In education, we call this backward design—beginning with the end in mind. When people know where they’re going, they’re more likely to take the right steps. This is why I look at the pictures above recipes, why my grandchildren watch pro-scooter tricks on YouTube, and why the app I’m using to learn German gives me the pronunciation of a word before I try to say it.

Ever since the sandwich artist set me straight, I’ve been using backward design at Subway.

“My husband and I are sharing this sub,” I say. “And he wants the bigger part.”

“About right here?” they ask, their knives hovering in just the right place.

And all I need to do is nod.