An excerpt from my memoir YODER SCHOOL:

Most teachers at T.N. Lamb Junior High hung a paddle just inside the classroom door, the exceptions being Mrs. Anderson, who taught home economics, and Mr. Moose, who taught science. They didn’t need paddles; most kids were good in their rooms. But the other teachers needed paddles. In fact, at the beginning of each school year, they usually introduced their paddles to us right along with the curriculum. Some even named their paddles. Names like Dr. Pepper or Mr. Whooper or the Board of Education. The paddles had their names lettered across them, big and bold.

When we walked into a classroom for the first time, we’d eye up the paddle. Most were about two feet long. Miss McNutt had the worst kind of paddle, thin and skinny with holes. These paddles whistled through the air. Mr. Moose had no trouble explaining air resistance to us when he used the holey paddles as an example. We could see exactly why more holes meant more pain. 

Mr. Pollard sometimes let a kid choose between a detention and a paddling. Frank Adkins, who had a high tolerance for pain, always went for the paddling. He couldn’t see wasting a whole Saturday morning in detention. Not Harold MacDonald, though, who groaned and danced around just from the sting of catching a fly ball. Once Mr. Pollard said to Harold MacDonald, “You want one in here? Or three in the hall?” Harold chose one in the room, even though it was humiliating to stick out his rear end in front of the whole class. Mr. Williams always paddled in the hall. We couldn’t see, but we could hear. The class would go silent listening for the swats. The crack of the paddle sounded right through the walls and so did the moans. Mr. Williams usually left his door open. I was sure he did so on purpose. 

Teachers had their paddle language down. They’d say—like it was one big word:  Bendovergrabyouranklesanddon’tmove. If you moved, you’d get an additional swat. Most kids didn’t move, especially the ones who got paddled a lot. Once, though, when Mr. Pollard paddled Judy Hadley, she jumped away and the paddle hit her wrist. “I told you not to be sticking your hands back there,” he said. That swat didn’t count, so Mr. Pollard landed her another one. 

The test of a paddling was how long it took a kid to sit down again. Some kids stood at the backs of classes for the rest of the day. Most kids sat down after a period or two, but until then it pretty much felt as if their bottoms were on fire. That’s what Frank Adkins told me.

Frank Adkins also told me to quit worrying so much about paddlings. “We come prepared,” he told me. “Heck, today, when Mr. Determan gave me five in the office, I had on two pairs of gym shorts under my jeans. It didn’t hurt at all.” I didn’t believe him. He hadn’t sat down until lunch.

After a paddling, kids had to sign their names, right there on the paddle. Teachers were attached to their paddles, but they had to change them when the space was used up by the signing. Some teachers made their own paddles, since school supply companies didn’t sell them. It was a peculiar thing, but kids in woodshop often made paddles for the teachers. Frank Adkins, who had been paddled almost every week by Mr. Pollard, made a new paddle for him as a gift. And Mr. Pollard was glad to have it.

The Wringer Washer and Zoom

I’m doing what I never dreamed I would. But like many grandparents, I’ve felt a call to step up during this pandemic year. And so I’ve been homeschooling three of my out-of-state, middle-school grandsons—teaching writing and literature twice a week on Zoom.

Until now, I’ve been a holiday, cousin-week, vacation-at-the-lake kind of grandma.

“I’m glad you don’t live right beside us,” a six-year-old grandson told me once.

On a couch under a blanket and in front of a fire, we had just shared popcorn, read a book, and played a game of Trouble. And he had seemed to be almost purring. So I was bewildered.

“Why, Jesse?” I asked.

“Because it wouldn’t be special like this,” he said. “It would just be everydayish.”

“I’m glad you like this,” I said, but I felt a pang.

I had lived by my grandma. And there was something about being able to sit on a stool and talk with her as she fed towels through a wringer washer or set eggs on the grading machine or beat icing in the bowl pushed into the hollow of her lap. She didn’t stop her life for me. But in small frequent bits, she came into my life and invited me into hers.

During this pandemic our scattered family hasn’t gathered as we usually do. But with my grandchildren, I’ve become a little more everydayish. One grandchild sends me an email: Grandma, can we work together on Zoom?

And so we get on Zoom. He does a page of math while I edit a chapter of a book I’m writing. Every once in a while, we look at each other and smile. Or we set a timer for ten minutes and report on our progress when it rings.

On Zoom, I’ve listened to violin practice and read a chapter book and practiced mental math and cheered for skateboard and scooter tricks. And I’ve watched a grandchild make crepes.

The other day, my ninety-two-year old mother called me right during a Zoom literature class.

“Hey, Mom,” I said. “Try to get on Zoom and join our class.”

And she managed! So there we were—my grandchildren and their great-grandma and me together in a work-a-day way.

Everydayish, like sitting by the wringer washer—sharing small bits of our lives.

Runaway Rigs

“You don’t need guardrails,” a friend told me, “when painted lines will do.”

His imagery caught my interest.

“I’m glad enough for guardrails,” he continued. “where if you sneeze it’s a long way down. But if I’m not on a mountain, they hem me in.”

As I drive, I’ve been playing with this metaphor. What features from the street connect to the classroom? Here are a few I found:

Runaway Truck Ramps: A few weeks ago we traveled to the mountains of Western Maryland, where I was born. As always, I looked for the emergency escape route along a steep downgrade on I-68. This ramp allows a truck that has lost braking power to avoid a violent crash by dissipating energy in a controlled and relatively harmless way.

I’ve taught plenty of students who lacked emotional braking power. As dangerous as runaway rigs, they need off-ramps to slow big feelings. A quiet classroom corner, a break in the hall, an errand to the furthest part of the school, a drink of water, a stress ball, a touch on the shoulder—all these are safe ways to steer students off the road, away from people they might hurt.

Text Stops: I was intrigued with a sign I saw in New York:  It Can Wait: Text Stop in Five Miles. Just down the road, we passed a small parking area, dedicated for texting. The state was sending a clear message to drivers—there’s no excuse to take your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road. But there was also the recognition of the need to communicate.

And this reminds me of the urgent need for students to talk. Instead of fighting this impulse, I learned to incorporate it.

“In just a couple minutes,” I’d say, “you’ll talk with a partner about a problem. So listen to the dilemma Robert Frost sets up in his poem about a snowy woods.”

When they knew they could talk in a few minutes, they were willing to listen for a few minutes.

The next time you take a road trip, have fun with this metaphor. Can you connect caution lights and speed bumps and road barriers to the classroom? What about information signs like the one I passed in Pennsylvania the other week: Entering Chesapeake Bay Watershed? Or the more ominous one: Falling Rocks? What about the stretches of wildflowers on freeway medians?

As you construct these metaphors, you’ll likely see the classroom in new and vivid ways.

When Students Egg On a Bully . . . And What to Do About It

Why, I often wondered, do bullies gain a following? I could see why kids might not have enough courage to defend a victim, why they would slip right by a bully event and disappear down the hall. Bullies, after all, are scary. But what made kids join in the taunts and applaud pushing and punching?

After decades of teaching them all—the victims and the bullies and their fans, here’s my take on what students think as they egg on a bully:

  • I’m not alone: Most would-be bullies have been victims themselves. And since misery is easier to bear when others are miserable in the same way, watching another victim suffer brings consolation. The Germans call it schadenfreude—this finding pleasure in the pain of others.
  • I’m mad: Fans of bullies borrow the anger and language of the bully. If they were brave enough, they’d do what the bullies do and say what the bullies say. So watching and applauding is cathartic, but it’s also safe. Only the bully will get in trouble.
  • I’m tough: Since triumph demands an audience, bullies seldom work without a crowd. And the students who cheer from the sidelines participate in vicarious victory. This, in their minds, elevates their status.

So with these attractions, how do you keep a bully from poisoning the well, from spreading violence across a school?

I found only one answer for this, an approach that seems counterintuitive: to love the bully.

Generally, I didn’t talk to a class about an individual student. But I broke this rule when bullies made high-profile moves. If something is already public, not talking about it contributes to its violence.

“You know,” I said, the morning after John shoved Kamhar up against the locker and spat in his face, “I care about all of you. That’s why I’m teaching you. I care about Kamhar, and what happened to him is wrong, not to be tolerated.”

Students expected this much, but I wasn’t finished. I told them I also cared about John. Suspended, he couldn’t hear my words, though he would later, from his buddies.

“Someone who does what John did,” I said, “has something broken inside. So it’s up to the rest of us to help him.”

We’d talk together about how students see and hear what teachers don’t, how their voices in defending each other are stronger than teachers’ words, and how positive peer pressure wins over school discipline every time.

“Right now, you’re stronger than John,” I told them. “And so am I. So let’s use our strength to help him be good.”

To be honest, I was always surprised that this worked. But calling students to be change agents, seemed to pull them together to accomplish a tough task, even those who had cheered on a bully.

What To Do If You Aren’t Funny

I always wished I were a funny teacher. It seemed I was always teaching down the hall from side-splitting, knee-slapping jocular types. And with their antics, these teachers drew students into easy rapport. In their classes students wanted to pay attention—they never knew what was coming next. And they learned. Laugher, after all, produces endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters that open the brain for learning.

From down the hall, I’d listen to the laughter. I’d sit at my desk thinking about how seriously I took teaching and how I never could tell a joke. And I’d wonder how I could bring any kind of levity to my students. Well, I never did learn to tell a joke, but I found that, although I couldn’t be funny, I could be fun, and was that almost as good.

If you aren’t funny either, here are some tricks of the trade:

  • Borrow humor—If I didn’t have it in me, I could find it around me. So I added cartoons to my slides, read a witty story, or played a funny video clip.
  • Keep a sense of humor—Classrooms are full of craziness. But I learned that if I could change the frame—react to the absurdities in front of me with grace and lightness instead of with defensiveness, humor came into my classroom on its own, for free. Finding amusement in the tomfoolery of middle school students turned what could be conflict into a gift.
  • Laugh—Even if you can’t tell a joke, you can appreciate one. And what students care about more than a funny teacher is being funny themselves. Especially when the joke was on me, I learned not to take myself so seriously.
  • Be playful—Play is the brain’s favorite way to learn, and the best play is hard. This is why people labor over the daily crossword puzzle in The Washington Post and why my grandchildren try endlessly to achieve the perfect bar spin on their scooters. My students learned more Greek and Latin roots through games than they ever did with a study sheet.

One day as a student was leaving my class, she turned back toward me at the door.

“You’re funny, Mrs. Swartz,” she said.

She was wrong, of course.

But I did learn to have fun with my students. And sometimes while they were laughing, I’d open the classroom door, hoping the funny teacher down hall would hear.

How to Read a Book . . . Or a Student

My students were my books. In them I found rising conflict and points of view and themes. As I read I learned about the characters in their lives and understood their settings. And the tones they took stirred my moods. Sometimes I could turn the pages quickly. But I often got stuck on a passage, not understanding what I read.

Having used this metaphor of teaching, I was intrigued when my son introduced me to a new term this week—charitable reading. It’s what he teaches his college history students to do when they pick up a book.

“Don’t read with an eye to see how quickly you can refute or dismiss,” he tells them. “Try to understand, to put the best gloss on the writings of others.”

Instead of rushing through their readings, he wants his students to read with thoughtfulness and care.

Too often, I failed do this with students, making snap judgements instead.

I’d see a student staring out the window and assume apathy. A missing assignment would turn my mind toward sloth. I’d take clowning around and throwing things and sleeping in class as personal affronts.

I wasn’t reading deeply. Take style, for example. Style is how authors display themselves to readers, how readers get to know authors. Likewise, when I ignored students’ styles, I couldn’t become familiar with their thinking. And when I disregarded context, isolating what students did and said from the milieu of their lives, I lost meaning.

But when I did manage to read charitably, when I put the best gloss on the lives of my students, something magical happened—my students usually turned it around. They took the effort to read me, to treat me with thoughtfulness and care. And so I could teach, and they could learn.

Ich Hoffe!

“Hey, Grandma,” Benjamin said to me the other day. “Want to learn German with me?”

Actually, I wasn’t looking for another challenge. My days have felt full with writing and Zoom meetings and running errands for my pandemic-bound elderly parents and volunteering. Benjamin must have noticed my hesitancy because he pressed on.

“Just get on Duolingo,” he said. “You’ll be amazed at what you can learn in ten minutes a day.”

Benjamin, I found when I logged onto Duolingo’s website, had grasped their approach to learning—a little every day. And I recognized this as what, in education, we call spaced learning.

These frequent, bit-sized pieces of learning bring great benefit to students, helping them—

  • To start—Doing something two hours is reason for procrastination; doing something for ten minutes is manageable.
  • To concentrate—By the end of the ten minutes when attention evaporates anyway, it’s over.
  • To remember—Daily practice builds up myelin around brain nerves like a superhighway, making it easier to retrieve information.
  • To enjoy—Time is up before initial enthusiasm dies, and the lesson seems almost like a game.

Even in classes that lasted over an hour, I tried to use spaced learning by changing the texture of the class every ten minutes or so—from individual to group work, from reflection to action, from verbal to spatial, and from heavy to light.

I found that spaced learning worked with my students.

And now Benjamin has given me the chance to try it on a sixty-five-year-old brain.

Ich hoffe!

From Behind a Mask

When you think about it, a smile is a funny thing. Why would turning up the corners of your mouth and showing your front teeth lift moods and relieve stress? But this flexing of mouth muscles works. Smiling, according to research cited by Ron Gutman in Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, brings more pleasure to the brain than even chocolate.

Smiling, I found on tough teaching days, made me and my students feel better. And since smiles prompt smiles, students smiled back at me, which made us all feel even better. I’ve got to admit that often I forced my smiles. But even fake smiles can trick your brain into thinking you are happy. We’ve long known that the brain controls the body. But we’re also learning how much the body controls the brain. And smiles, even fake ones, release feel-good neurotransmitters that help teachers teach and students learn.

And now mouths are masked.

“How can I start the school year,” a young teacher asked me, “when I can’t even smile?”

The good news is that she can. There’s a smile a mask can’t cover—well, at least not the whole smile. A Duchenne smile does more than lift the corners of the mouth. It rises higher on the face and above the borders of a mask, lifting the check bones and crinkling into crows’ feet around the eyes. And though this is the smile of true enjoyment, it too, scientists have found, can be faked until it is genuine.

Just down the road at the school where I taught before I retired, students are beginning school. And in front of them are masked teachers, my former colleagues. I know these teachers, worried as they are about this school year, don’t feel like smiling. But I know they will. It’s what teachers do—whatever it takes to get brain neurons firing. It will just take a bigger smile this year.

Beyond Peacekeeping

I can’t spin a ping pong ball, but I can defeat my son—sometimes. And he’s good. He controls the battle, smashing the ball over the net and slicing it through the air. When I play David, I spend the whole game trying to stay alive.

But I’m good, too. I concentrate on not missing, on keeping the ball on the table longer than David. I let him take the risks, responding to his wonder shots with well-controlled returns until he loses command of the ball.

Occasionally my patience wins out over his daring action.

And this defensive stance has always been my first instinct in classroom management. I wait for students to make false moves and then apply one of the strategies I’ve collected through the years—group a rabble-rouser with quiet students, perch on a stool by a fidgety kid during a read aloud, or separate hostile students across the far ends of the classroom. And in these ways I avoid conflict, keeping the peace.

But I’m not really building peace. My well-controlled returns to rowdy students smooth out dynamics in my classroom, but they aren’t equipping students to turn themselves toward peacemaking. So gradually I’ve built my repertoire of proactive strategies. Here are a few:

  • Facilitate conflict resolution: Teach skills like asking questions and using I language and not interrupting. Help dueling students to have honest and fair conversations and to see that disagreement doesn’t have to equal disrespect.
  • Tell and read stories: A large base for peace building is empathy. And stories give students a mirror, helping them see empathy in themselves. I’ve seen the eyes of bullies smart with unexpected tears in the moment of a story. And this sudden surge of compassion can be a bridge for reconciliation in real life.
  • Work toward shared goals. When students aren’t focused forward, they look sideways for trouble. Coat drives in the winter, food drives in the spring, group letters to a classmate whose dad died, competitions with another class—all these pull students into a classroom team.
  • Practice calming skills: Learning to regulate emotion under stress is hard. So when pressure escalates from a fight in the hallway or chaos in the lunchroom, or a bomb threat, model calming skills. Quit talking to have students write or draw in journals or listen to music or turn down the lights. Now and then, whisper to them, something reassuring and hopeful.

Keeping peace in a classroom is important, but peace building is vital.