Small Gifts

In A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, Thomas Buergenthal tells a story about a loaf of bread thrown to him on the Auschwitz Death Transport. As the open train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia stopping at town after town, Buergenthal weakened from hunger. Then he saw people standing on a bridge, waving and shouting. As the train was about to pass under the bridge, they threw loaves of bread down into the train.

I can imagine people on the bridges thinking that, in the context of Holocaust horror, throwing loaves of bread wasn’t much. But the loaf that ten-year-old Buergenthal caught probably saved his life.

As I read this story, I thought of how often I walked into schools where I taught tempted to stop trying. I’d see students who were high on drugs, angry because of racism, and hungry because food stamps hadn’t lasted the month. I’d see signs of neglect and abuse. I’d see depression and anger and fear. In the face of this need, my efforts seemed undersized.

What helped me most, was to think of bilateral approaches. For the long term, I tried to battle the causes of pain. Why, for example, were a disproportionate number of black students in our detentions? What culture in our school was facilitating the bully of special needs students in the hallway? Why were students hungry in the middle of an agricultural county? What could we do, I asked other teachers and administrators, to change the systems that caused all this? And in the classroom with students, I tried to teach with a social justice lens. But I couldn’t tackle all these big issues every day.

So, in the short term, in the daily rush, I learned that scattering the small helps. I learned that, if I didn’t have time for a fifteen minute talk, I could squeeze a shoulder. Smiles, compliments, and thumbs up signs are small gifts to toss through the air. But even paltry offerings can help students hold to hope.

Remember Deanna

It was four-year old Deanna who made me gasp for fresh air when she clung to me and who gave me my teaching mantra. Deanna smelled of cat litter and mice and unwashed clothes and filled-up potty chairs. And she, more than all her siblings, bore the angst of her mother who was nineteen years old, single, struggling with alcohol, overwhelmed by four preschoolers, and already disillusioned with life.

I came to see Deanna’s mother each week as a home visitor for Head Start. My job was to help her get Deanna ready for school. Deanna, by all counts, was already at academic risk.

“Don’t leave me here, teacher,” Deanna would beg at the end of every visit. I’d pry her hands from around my neck and set her down. She’d stand there, tiny and cute behind the grime, with her hair in ringlets about her face and her eyes deep and knowing.

And I’d leave her there.

But one day, Deanna and her family disappeared. Children’s Services had been coming around too often, asking too many questions.

I sat in the car outside Deanna’s empty house that day wondering what would happen with Deanna. And hoping with a deep yearning that when Deanna was a teenager, perhaps unruly and disruptive, when she was an adult, perhaps flailing and perturbing people around her—that someone would intuit her backstory and appreciate her struggle.

I never saw Deanna again.

But later I found swaggering John in my middle school classroom. John sapped my energy and elevated my stress. And I said to myself, “Remember Deanna.”

I taught the bullies of a girl who committed suicide. And I said to myself, “Remember Deanna.”

“Remember Deanna,” I reminded myself when I stood before rapists in my prison classroom.

I kept looking for Deanna. And I kept finding her. Only not in in a four-year-old body with ringlets around her face.

Steering; Not Braking

Every fall I learned to know new students by layers. And the intense kids were first. I couldn’t miss them. They emoted passionately, moved incessantly, argued vehemently, reacted powerfully, and imagined vividly.

For too many years, I tried to put the brakes on these kids. But if I was pushing the brake, they were pressing the accelerator. And this combination overloads an engine.

Dabrowski, a Polish psychologist, helped me to appreciate these standout students, to concentrate on directing their energies instead of stifling them. The more I read Dabrowski, the more easily I could spot in my students the five intensities he describes:

  • Emotional—I never knew if Jennifer would bring storm or sun into my classroom. She could pour sympathy on her classmates or spew disgust. People who share this emotional intensity with Jennifer often show a strong sense of justice and associate robust feelings with their memories.
  • Psychomotor—You can spot a psychomotor intensity by the high levels of energy. People with this intensity speak fast, sleep little, and act impulsively. Cory’s parents wondered if he had ADHD. But Cory could focus—when he cared about a concept. It was when he needed stimulation that he twitched, tapped, and ticced.
  • Intellectual—Jessie couldn’t stop thinking. Desperate to know something new, she read herself to sleep, questioned teachers, and carried thinking puzzles everywhere, in case she got bored. People with an intellectual intensity can’t help but think—deeply, critically, and theoretically—even when they wish they could stop.
  • Sensory—A bad smell, a crooked sock seam, a hot or chilly classroom, or a fire alarm can all hijack the learning of a student with a sensory intensity. These students sometimes walk the school halls wearing earphones to muffle the jarring sounds. This super awareness of the senses grates, but it also heightens beauty when it is found.
  • Imaginational—People with vivid imaginations enrich others with their products—dramas and paintings and symphonies—but often at great cost to themselves. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, for example, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had such severe nightmares that he was often afraid to sleep.

Dabrowski helped me see that the best gift I could give intense students was to help them find outlets for their intensities, to spend more time steering and less time braking.

A Contract with Students

I skimmed right by Locke’s theory of social contract in college. I didn’t know it would follow me so doggedly through my career. Students have to agree to learn, Locke writes, before a teacher can teach. Most teachers feel the pressure.

“Five years into retirement,” my friend told me, “I still have the dream each fall, the dream where I’m standing in front of a class and no one hears a word I say.”

So what happens when the social contract fails? Nightmares, for sure. And if it continues to fail, teachers drop out or lose their jobs.

But when the contract is in place, students join the teacher to ensure learning.

In one of my first years of teaching, I saw social contract play out in my classroom, though not in a way I approved. Still uncertain about teaching in the prison, I was leading a discussion with thirty inmates when one of them disrespected me.

I can’t remember what he said, nor do I recall my response, only that I was relieved the bell was about to ring.

That night I tossed in my bed, sorting my options.

But the inmate wasn’t in my class the next day, or the next.

I discovered why. An inmate stopped by my desk after class on the third day.

“You won’t need to worry about Inmate Smith, Mrs. Swartz,” he told me. “We all took care of him for you. He’ll be laid up in the infirmary until the end of the term.”

I’m grateful I never again received such brutal support for a social contract with my students.

But I appreciate students who cast their lots toward learning, who led out in class discussions and frowned at misbehavior and swayed the attitudes of students on the margins.


The Making of Names

For three decades, I started the school year by skimming class rosters. Oh, good, I’d think, another Anderson, and I’d try not to sigh when I saw another Turner. And toward the end of my career, I’d wonder if I had it in me to learn another hundred names. But I did, because students’ names matter to them.

What they are doing, almost every minute of the school day, is making a name for themselves. What does it mean to be Kaitlin? To be Aja? These are the questions students explore as they jostle each other down the hall and decide where to sit in the cafeteria and how to interact with teachers.

So what can you do to help students build the meanings of their names?

Pronounce names correctly. Practice reading your rosters aloud. If you find yourself stumbling over names, research them–ask last year’s teachers, go to online pronunciation sites like NameShouts or ask students themselves. I gave myself a chance to do this by assigning seats for the first day of class. Using a different color card for each class period, I taped name cards to their desks. While students wrote a letter to me introducing themselves, I visited their desks.

“Pronounce your name for me,” I’d say as I pulled a stool up to the desk with a challenging name. “I want to get it right from the start.” Then I’d write the name phonetically on my seating chart. Working hard so your tongue can handle names from languages and cultures new to you shows respect to your students.

Use names students choose for themselves. Some students use middle names. “Please don’t ever say my first name in class,” a student wrote to me. “No one knows my first name is Iris. That was my grandma’s name. Having the name of a flower is not cool anymore.”

Some students go only by their initials. “I’m K. J.,” a sixth grader told me. “Please call me only by my initials.”

Students sometimes change names as a way to cope with trauma. When Jenny’s dad abused her and was court-ordered to leave their home, Jenny wrote in red on top of her essay: I will now answer only to the name of Jennifer.

Sometimes mess with their names. After you know students, you can help them build their images by emphasizing their strengths. The high scorer on the basketball team liked when I called him Hoop Man. I noticed Jason signing his name Jason Conley III, so I called him by his full name every time. He especially waited to hear “the Third.”

Infuse their names with strengths. “You know, that was a Kendra-like thing to do,” I said once to Kendra. She had noticed a new kid sitting alone at a table and then left her friends to join the new kid.

When I collected the first assignments in the first class I taught at the prison, I was dumbfounded to find no names on their papers, only their prison six-digit identification numbers.

“No numbers, please,” I told my students. “Only names.”

From a name we could start to rebuild.






Secret Student

Paul Parker taught algebra the first year I taught at the middle school. But, although he probably didn’t know it, he also taught me. I needed his help because the students seemed big to me and rowdy. The hordes in the hallways at class change intimidated me. So did each class of thirty students who seemed to dare me to teach them. I knew which teachers the students hated. They used explicit language to explain. And I knew they didn’t hate Paul Parker. In fact, they liked him, although they weren’t so forthcoming with their reasons.

I wanted students to like me, too. So I became a secret student of Paul Parker, and here is what I learned:

  • To keep students guessing—Paul’s students never knew what he might do next. One day they’d walk into a dark and silent room and find Paul with his finger over his lips in the shushing gesture. The next day, he’d be playing loud bouncy music and flicking the lights. He walked around the room with a yardstick and in the middle of class slam it in celebration across the desk of a student who just completed a hard algebra problem. He whispered and shouted all in the same period. Students just never knew about Mr. Parker.
  • To turn students into teachers—When someone successfully graphed an inequality, for example, Paul made it a big deal. “You’ve got it!” he’d say. “Now, I want you to teach Jon. He’s still having trouble.” Soon he’d have kids teaching kids all over the room. Paul knew that you remember what you teach.
  • To help students leave a legacy—I’m sure Paul didn’t consult the Board of Education about the way he used his classroom ceiling tiles. He used a new one every year for kids to sign when they passed a legendary algebra test. Students could read their older sisters’ and brothers’ names up there and the name of the quarterback of the high school football team. Tile-signing was a celebration, a chance to leave a mark.
  • To help kids stay cool—Middle schools are full of groups with different definitions of coolness. For some kids carrying an algebra book home for homework is not cool. Jack was such a kid. When Paul connected this to Jack’s nonexistent homework grades, Paul issued Jack a second book—one to keep at home. Jack’s algebra grades improved.

Paul retired before I did. The last year he taught, he moved painfully through the halls, every step dogged with arthritis. He worked harder to smile and left school exhausted with his efforts to be a good teacher for one more day.

“I’ve got to stop,” he told me. “They need a good teacher, and I can’t be one anymore.

That’s the moment I chose to tell Paul how I had once been his student, too.

My First Hard Student

In the first period of the day in my first year of teaching, I found my first hard student. Her name was Kami. Kami could well be a grandma by now, and I don’t know if her memories include a first-year teacher who didn’t know what she was doing. But if she does remember me, I doubt if it’s with much fondness. And I’m quite certain that I learned more being her teacher than she learned being my student. Here’s what I did wrong with Kami:

  • I let her set the emotional agenda. Kami’s good days became my good days, and too often her bad days became mine. When students trooped into my room at the starting bell, I read her face like I watched the weather forecaster each morning to know if there would be sun or storm. Like the wind comes from the west, the climate in my room came from Kami, not me.
  • I didn’t reach out to her parents. I should have called them, or, even better invited them in. And I should have said to them, “Tell me about Kami. What do you see as her strengths? How could I work with you to help Kami develop?” And when we did meet at parent-teacher conferences, I spent too much time talking and not enough time listening.
  • I thought too much about Kami. She stayed in my mind when I served dinner to my children. She showed up in my nightmares. Even Christmas morning, thoughts about her plagued me. The more I worried the more I villainized her and the more I exhausted myself.
  • I was stingy. I parsed out my smiles to her and rarely complimented her. I felt she had to earn my trust before I sent any approval her way. It’s hard to improve under a thumb, but I kept mine on her. I starved my relationship with her instead of feeding it.

I still don’t understand why, but on the last day of school that year, Kami plunked a gift on my desk. Then, without a word, she turned heel and walked away. Five steps later, she turned back and patted my shoulder, like a parent giving hope to an errant child. Still without a word, she left the classroom. I haven’t forgotten Kami, but in some ways I hope she’s forgotten me.


Tell Me a Story

I have nothing against nonfiction. Students should read Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech and an article about Greenland melting. Students who are taught with the Common Core curriculum get plenty of practice with informational texts like these. The Common Core requires that nonfiction texts be used in 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary school and then gradually increase to 70 percent by grade 12. To comply, teachers choose fewer and shorter novels.

I worry that this trend away from story will decrease empathy in students. I helped students dissect the Civil Rights Act of 1960, but it was when students read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry that they actually listened to each other as they discussed race in their hometown. When students read Choldenko’s Alcatraz series that features Natalie, a girl on the autism spectrum, they started a lunch club with some special education kids who usually ate alone.

Stories move and shape students. Stories actually transfer experiences of characters into the brains of readers. This is called neural coupling, and it explains why people cry at a movie. It explains those moments at the end of a read aloud, when the whole class sighs together, and then the room is silent, absolutely silent for a moment. Stories draw students into community, connect them in a common struggle. The pain of the protagonist is their pain, the victory is their victory.

It’s easy for students to close their ears to speeches and articles and editorials. It’s even harder for them to open their hearts to these texts. But I’ve seen stories move students from using racial slurs to silence, from stereotyping to asking questions, from indifference to occasional acts of kindness. Stories activate the brain, pulling the cortex into action, linking emotion with fact. Stories take students on journeys—to places and people they might otherwise never visit.


How to Live with an Over-the-Top Kid

The longer I taught, the more I liked parent-teacher conferences. And the conferences I enjoyed most were with parents who probably dreaded conferences most. Makaylyn Tiff’s dad, for example, slumped one October evening in the chair across from me, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. He folded his arms across his chest and fixed his eyes on the table, waiting for me to begin my tirade and already knowing the script.

Makaylyn, he had likely been told every year, used up lots of space in the room. She shifted from ecstatic to incensed in seconds, tapped her pencil incessantly on the desk but seethed if someone across the room chewed gum, and never yielded in an argument.

“I like Makaylyn,” I said, and he jerked his head to look at me.

He sighed.

“She tuckers me out,” he said. “I’ve got no idea how to deal with such a strong-willed child.”

“What if we looked at Makaylyn a different way?” I asked. And I told him about Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book, Raising Your Spirited Child.

“She’ll describe Makaylyn so well, you’ll think she’s met Makaylyn,” I said. “But instead giving kids negative labels like strong-willed or difficult, Kurcinka uses positive branding. She’d say Makaylyn was energetic, dramatic, perceptive, and assertive.”

What I like is that Kurcinka does more than switch labels, I told Mr. Tiff.  She also gives tools for how to take the tussle out of meals and bedtimes. She walks you through temper tantrums and homework. She gets practical about how to soothe intensities with water, imagination, solitude, and humor. She advises about which battles to surrender. And she coaches you on how to teach a kid like Makaylyn to notice her own emotional triggers and manage them.

“Kurcinka is no wizard with a wand,” I said, “She’s a guide for the hard work that comes with being a dad to a kid like Makaylyn.”

“I’ll read it,” Mr. Tiff said. “I’m not afraid to work hard. This makes Makaylyn seem cool, gives me some hope.”

I’ve helped Mary Sheedy Kurcinka sell plenty of her books, but I’m glad to do it. She’s eased the way for the parents of my students. And she’s made me a better teacher.