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!



Searching for Mr. Parker

I’m looking for Mr. Parker. I want to tell him thanks. Next to Alvina, star teacher of my book Yoder School, he was my favorite.

But it could be too late. After all, I haven’t seen him for almost fifty years. I’ve searched on Google and Facebook. And just last evening, I tried whitepages.com. In fact, I might have spoken to his voice mail. I found a Philip Parker who lives in Michigan, not far from Flint. He’s the right age—in his eighties. And maybe it was my Mr. Parker’s voice.

“You know what to do after the beep,” it said. “Thank you.”

More gravelly than I remember, but the voice was still full of courtesy and dignity and pep.

And it was the pep that drew me to Mr. Parker. He couldn’t wait for us to walk into geometry after lunch each day, or so it seemed. We’d find him already pacing, twirling a pointer stick and holding the place in his math puzzle book.

Before we were even seated, he’d launch into the day’s puzzle, “A milkman has two empty jugs: a three-gallon jug and a five-gallon jug. How can he measure exactly one gallon without wasting any milk?”

Barely noticing the beginning bell, we’d jot the specifics on scrap paper and work together on the milkman’s problem. Just like in Alvina’s class, clocks didn’t matter in Mr. Parker’s room. Because we did new things, time slipped away instead of stretching out.

During my decades of teaching, I thought often of Mr. Parker—especially on days I was plagued with exhaustion or cynicism or feelings of ineffectiveness. I’d pick up a puzzle book or a pointer stick, and I’d summon up some pep. And soon the energy would flow again.

And why, I ask myself now, did I never, in all his active years, try to visit him at school or send him a note or call him?

After the beep, I left a message. I told the man with the gravelly voice who I was and who I was hoped he was.

I’m listening for my phone to ring. And maybe it will be Mr. Parker.

How to Have a Big Presence

To tell the truth, I was often frightened to walk into a new classroom of middle school students or inmates. I often felt too small for the task—too short, too introverted, too soft-of-voice, too out-of-touch with the culture. My impulse was to constrict my presence, tamp it down, mute it. But in order for me to survive and my students to thrive, I needed to bring a robust presence into the classroom.

So how could I build this kind of a presence with a pit in my stomach? At the most basic level, I had to change my focus—to think less of myself and more of my students. What did they need? What were their experiences? How did they think? How could I help them learn?

But beyond shifting my thoughts away from myself toward others, I also found a series of small practices that helped me exude a bigger presence. Here are a few. Some of these may work for your next daunting class:

  • Stand tall—Good posture made a difference. It lifted my confidence, gave me energy, helped me catch a breath, and, most important, sent messages to my brain and to my students that maybe, just maybe, I could teach this class.
  • Inhabit the whole classroom—Getting out from behind the podium, leaving the security of my desk signaled to students that I wasn’t intimidated by them, that I wanted to be with them. Walking through the rows as I read aloud, perching on a stool by the side of the room to lead a discussion, talking from the back of the room about a diagram on the front Smart Board, sitting on a low stool beside a student desk—all these vantage points decreased distance between me and the students, making us more comfortable with each other.
  • Use sound—My voice isn’t big, but I could play loud music as students entered class. I could slam a door and then smile when they looked up. I could ring a bell. All these sounds helped me save my voice for teaching, not waste it on controlling.

These simple measures helped me to become more expansive in the classroom, more alive, exude a bigger presence. And they helped students settle in to learning.

A Man on a Ladder and the Dog of Pompeii

Time doesn’t stop at school. Not often. Caught in the remorseless march of clocks and calendars and bells and quarters, the academic pace can feel breakneck. Either that or endlessly lagging.

But now and again, school clocks pause. These are the magical moments when students are so absorbed they lose track of the minutes until lunch. They forget they’re even in school. And these moments are often unexpected.

Take, for example, the day my class read the short story “The Dog of Pompeii.”

“This story,” I told the students, “is in another time and another place.”

But as I said this, I worried about their ability to concentrate on an ancient Roman city. After all, their desks had been shoved together to make room for a twenty-foot step ladder. And at the top of the ladder a man was repairing the vaulted ceiling of my classroom.

But I labored on, explaining about how Mount Vesuvius had erupted in A.D 79 and trapped Pompeii. I made my voice expressive to move their attention from the ceiling to me. And it worked . . . partly. But soon I noticed that the man had come down a step. And then another. I had his attention, for sure.

“Ma’am,” he said. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help listening in. I’ve been to Pompeii.”

Thirty sets of eyes swung upward.

“What did you see?” I asked.

And he took us to Pompeii. He told of how the twisted bodies of people showed their horrible final moments. He made us see an ancient fast-food bar where poor people who didn’t have ovens in their homes could order food from a menu: salty fish, coarse bread, baked cheese, and lentils.

“I heard you’re reading about a dog in Pompeii,” he said. “I saw a dog in Pompeii.”

And, still perched on his ladder, he told about that dog. It had been wearing a bronze-studded collar and chained up during the eruption.

“It struggled to get free,” he said. “It’s legs were all twisted up. Its mouth was open. Even saw some teeth.”

He kept telling stories, hanging onto the ladder with one hand and gesturing with the other. I noticed a student or two absently rubbing at a kink in their necks, but faces stayed pointed up.

It was the bell that jerked us all from Pompeii back to the school room.

We hadn’t read the story, and I was now behind in my lesson plans. But it didn’t matter. For those moments, time had stopped.

And the next day, students gave rapt attention as they read “The Dog of Pompeii.”

Cause a Commotion

I taught next to Mr. Woodruff once when I was still new to the classroom. And he gave me wise words.

“If I don’t cause a commotion,” he told me, “the kids will.”

And I knew he was right. I remembered all too well the commotion students had caused in my high school chemistry class. Mr. Mitchell had lectured in a monotone and assigned the same homework every night—read the chapter and answer the questions. He brought no excitement to class. So students set off stick bombs during science labs and dropped calcium metal into pens to make them explode like firecrackers. They talked while he talked and threw spit wads when he turned his back. Even school-smart people didn’t like learning in Mr. Mitchell’s class.

Mr. Woodruff was the opposite of Mr. Mitchell. Students could tell he was in the room. His voice boomed. He’d lecture from the top of a lab desk, gesturing wildly and smashing a fist into his other hand when he made a point. He’d bang books on the table and twirl yard sticks. And students listened to Mr. Woodruff. In his room, they wanted to learn.

The trouble was that my voice didn’t boom like Mr. Woodruff’s. Still I gradually learned some strategies to show students I was in the room. Here are some ways you can get and hold attention:

  • Vary your voice. Even if it doesn’t carry, your voice still has a range of volume and a variety of tone. Each change in your voice invites attention.
  • Use sound beyond your own voice. Ringing a bell, slamming a door, playing chimes all alert students without a nagging voice.
  • Stand tall and in a grounded way as if to say, “I am here.” But don’t stay in one place, move around the room and enter student space—sit next to them, lean on their desks, pat a shoulder.
  • Look at students, moving your eyes from person to person, engaging every student directly.

I never walked on table tops like Mr. Woodruff. But students seemed to know I was in the room, and they didn’t often throw spit wads. Not often, at least.

Hands-Out Teaching

I found that when I gestured, students listened. Gestures are, after all, visual cues. And 90 percent of information entering the brain is visual. (For more on this read Eric Jensen’s Brain-Based Learning).

No wonder you often need more than words to cut through the fog. When students see meaning in hand movements, more of their brain and memory systems are activated. Some students need to see it before they can learn it. So teach with your hands out, where students can see.

Psycholinguists have identified three types of co-speech gestures that can help you make ideas visible to students:

  • Iconic gestures create images in the air to show concepts. I remember Mr. Parker, my geometry teacher, using his arms to show parallel lines and types of angles—right, acute, and obtuse. With my students, I often used gestures to show that deductive thinking starts with the big idea (my hands apart at shoulder-height) and then works down toward the specific (my hands together at waist-height). Then I’d demonstrate inductive thinking with opposite gestures. I’d bump my fists together to show conflict and interlace my fingers to show collusion.
  • Beat gestures follow the rhythms of speech. They add emotion and emphasis to words. My eighth-grade government teacher, Mr. Wooten, was the master of beat gestures. He held our attention by drawing unjust gerrymandering lines into the air and smashing his fist into his hand because of his frustration at the slow, slow change after the Brown v the Board of Education. When he couldn’t get a point across to us, he’d clap his hands to the side of his head and look at us beseechingly. So we tried harder. Mr. Wooten’s brain and hands worked together to pull us in.
  • Deictic gestures direct attention, making words clear. At London Middle School, I loved watching Corliss Schwaller in action. Her hands moved with her mouth. Her fingers would number the points . . . first, second, third . . . To move students for group work, she’d point as she told them where to go. And while reading to students, her hands would interrupt the words, almost like sign language. Watching her, students almost didn’t need her words.

These teachers taught me that it was good to pay attention to my hands. Gestures, I could tell, were valuable tools. And so I tried to let my brain and my hands work together to make my ideas visible. When I talked, they could watch my hands move alongside my words.