I Came to Hear You Read One More Time

“You want to know the main reason I came?” a former student asked me at a book signing for Yoder School. “To hear you read to me one more time.”

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Now a grown-up professional, he said this with emotion in his voice and a suspicious moistness in his eyes.

And I heard some form of these words several times that evening.

“While you were reading,” another student said, “I just closed my eyes, and it took me back to you reading in class long ago.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have, after all, long believed in reading aloud to students of all ages. Still, these reactions were striking to me. And I thought back to when I read to elementary students and middle school and even to college classes.

Reading aloud, I found, made practical pedagogical sense. Reading levels usually lag behind listening levels. And so reading aloud provides a scaffold for independent reading. My intonation and emphasis as I read to them enriched students’ vocabulary, demonstrated decoding, and uncovered concepts they may have missed reading alone. Read-alouds pulled students into new genres, introduce them to new authors, and stimulate their curiosity about new ideas.

But what I liked the most about reading to my students was the bonding. Together we peeked into other lives and times and places. Story synced our brain patterns into a common beat. I could see oxytocin, the empathy hormone, at work. Their shoulders relaxed or their eyes shimmered or their eyebrows rose. In the books we saw ourselves and understood each other more. Reading aloud transformed text into a social activity, drew us into community.

“Thanks for reading again,” they told me, these grown-up students of mine. And I, too, was grateful for a chance to read one more time.

Adult Eyes on a Childhood Book

“I found an old book at my house,” my aunt said. “One you mentioned in your memoir. Do you want it?”

I hadn’t read The Hundred Dresses since second grade at Yoder School. But when I opened the book again almost sixty years later, I was instantly drawn in like I had been as a child.

Why? What is the book’s power?

Partly it’s the mere suggestions of scenes created by the illustrator. Louis Slobodkin uses watery images and negative space to invite readers in to finish the paintings in their minds. And his art matches the writing style of Eleanor Estes—strong, spare, and deceptively simple. Estes, too, ignites the reader’s imagination.

But mostly the power is in the theme. The story is based on Estes’s childhood memory of how her classmates mocked a Polish girl who wore the same hand-me-down dress every day. Estes never ridiculed the girl, but she stood by as others did. And her writing shows her penitence.

Rereading this childhood book gave me a chance to ponder the scope of my life. My second-grade resolve to defend justice, for example, has followed me. But as I read about Maggie (the bystander in the story), I recalled, too easily for my comfort, times when I remained silent because speaking out could have shifted mocking to me.

As I reread The Hundred Dresses, I also thought of my students—those who were bullies and their targets and the many, many who had been bystanders. I wish I had used this book with my students.

They would have found Estes’s characters to be real people, like themselves. And they would have seen each other in these characters. To all of them—the bullies, the targets, and the bystanders—Estes offers hope. She shows, after all, that for Peggy (the bully) tenderness is possible, that Maggie (the bystander} grows strong enough to act, and that Wanda Petronski has extraordinary gifts to share.

The story that inspired this book is over a hundred years old. As you read, you’ll find the signs of those times—words like jolly, games like marbles, practices like ironing, and gender-specific assignments like boys designing motor boats while girls design dresses—but the issues are current. And a look at bullying through the lens of another time can help students reflect on their own times.

The Hundred Dresses is a book for young children with a message for all ages. It’s too late for me to offer it to my middle school students. But I plan to use it as an opening exercise in a teacher-education class I’m teaching soon.

Write 500 Times: I will not punish students with writing.

One day in sixth grade I left my books at home. So, Mrs. Watts assigned me to write 500 times I will not forget my books. I fought the tedium by writing all the I’s, then all the will’s, then ten complete sentences. And on and on.

The next day, I took these 500 sentences to Mrs. Watts who tore them into shreds in front of me. And, pointing to the boots I had left at school the afternoon before, gave me another assignment: I will not forget my boots, written 500 times. As I wrote, all I could think was that the two sets of sentences were different by only one letter. And that I’d never use this punishment when I was a teacher.

Actually, the punishment worked. For the rest of the year, I remembered my books and my boots. Students weren’t wearing boots by the time I became a teacher. But they were still carrying books. And plenty of times in my thirty years of teaching, books were in the wrong place—back home on the kitchen table or in a locker or at the other parent’s house. Still, I held to my resolve. Here’s why:

  • Good things are associated with rewards, bad things with punishment. We don’t punish students with movies and basketball games. But when writing is a punishment, we make it distasteful.
  • Repetitive sentences suck the creativity out of writing. Students learn to associate writing with boredom.
  • Writing lines wastes time. I could have used some coaching in how to remember my boots and my books. Some of my students needed help to develop empathy for others, respect for school property, or alternate ways to express anger. Punishment sentences don’t move kids toward wholeness.

English teachers work hard to excite students about writing. And they will thank you not to use their class as a punishment. I’ve known English teachers to threaten to punish students by assigning math worksheets.

Writing is good. It helps students process course material, hone communication skills, improve thinking, capture memories, clear minds, reach to others, and the list goes on. Let’s keep writing good.

A Sad Painting, A Towheaded Kid, and Me

I had reason to be sad the other day. But I was at the art museum. So I put on a happy face to lead a group I usually don’t lead—a preschool class. I enjoy touring with adults and high school groups. Even middle school kids often give me big, tantalizing concepts they find in a piece of art. But these were preschoolers, so I geared myself for a bouncy time. After all, maybe their energy would dispel my gloom.

In the galleries, we visited some happy sculptures:  Ries’s glass sunflower, one of Butterfield’s famous life-size horses, and Chihuly’s glorious floor to ceiling blown-glass End of Day. We talked about how the artists used color and shape to make us want to keep looking and to make us want to touch, even though we shouldn’t. These seemed like good preschool topics, and I felt my mood lighten with their enthusiasm.

Then we dropped to the floor to spend some time in front of Burkhart’s oil painting, Man is Man.

Man is Man

“He’s sad,” said a girl. And the others nodded their heads.

“How can you tell he’s sad?” I asked.

So they told me. He needed his hand to hold his head up. He had wrinkles on his forehead, and he was slouching. And old. They could tell by the way his veins popped out from his hands and arms. No wonder he was sad. Lots of bad things had happened while he was getting old.

“Look at his eyes,” said a towheaded boy. “And his eyes filled, too.

We sat in silence for a minute.

“Not only old people are sad,” I said.

And they nodded again.

“Even kids get sad,” said the towhead. And then he whispered, “Especially me.”

I don’t know what made him sad that day. But I know he and I shared a moment in front of the oil paint.

Back in 1946, Burkhart titled his painting Man is Man. Today he might have titled it Person is Person.

When we left the painting, the towhead walked beside me.

I remembered what the writer Willa Cather said: There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.

When I left the museum that day, I was still sad. But at least I knew I had company—the man in Burkhart’s painting and the towheaded kid.

I Learned to Confuse Students from Mr. Kreider

Mr. Kreider was the most confusing teacher I ever had, and one of the best.

“I don’t hold hands in trigonometry,” he said on the first day of class. Some teachers think it’s their job to keep students from making mistakes. Not me, I don’t give step-by-steps. My job is to let you make mistakes and watch you dig out. So if you aren’t tough, sign up for some other twiddle-your-thumbs math class.”

We didn’t go to Mr. Kreider’s class to hear answers. Mr. Kreider placed challenges front and center. He believed that stretches of confusion between moments of clarity were positive and necessary for learning.

Mr. Kreider asked us questions, many beginning with the words: What if . . .? And he helped us to think about our thinking.

We learned from Mr. Kreider to keep bearing down. Gradually, we became tough-minded. Problems began to intrigue, rather than frighten us. And we’d do anything to earn the smile that would creep across his face when our haze lifted.

Now and then, Mr. Kreider ended his class by reading a letter from a college kid.

“I’m sitting in college honors calculus, “students liked to write. “waiting for everyone else to catch up.”

And this gave us hope.

Mr. Kreider gambled with his teaching style. Confusion is powerful. It can move students quickly to frustration and then to giving up. But it can also lead to curiosity and motivation and deep engagement.

So how can you perplex students without damaging them?

  • Normalize confusion as a part of learning. Mr. Kreider would say to us: This is a tough problem. You’ll feel frustrated and want to give up. But hang in. Work together. See what you can do.
  • Limit confusion to content problems. Everything else—what you say, what you do, and what you expect—should be clear. We knew exactly when homework was due for Mr. Kreider and the schedule of his tests and what they would cover. Mr. Kreider’s words had no ambiguity.
  • Scaffold carefully. Not enough support shuts down learning. So does too much support. Mr. Kreider adjusted his scaffolding for an upper-level honors high school class. Know your students.
  • Offer social-emotional support. Like the spoonful of sugar with medicine, empathy makes high expectations palatable. Mr. Kreider was a crusty soul, but he created a community of learners. We were proud to be his students.

Through my thirty years of teaching, Mr. Kreider stayed in my head, reminding me to ask questions instead of give answers, to reach high, and to hold strong when students whined.

 

I Went Home Again

It felt like a dream. I was in Grantsville last weekend at the book signing for Yoder School, my recently-released memoir. We gathered at the Goodwill Mennonite Retirement Center because that’s where Alvina, my first-grade teacher lives. Within a mile of Goodwill are my old haunts: my childhood home and church, my grandparents’ farm, and Yoder School.

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My grandchildren were there and my son and sister and brother. And so were my parents and uncles and aunts. Four generations in one room. Gertrude, my first friend from Yoder School shared the book signing with me. She also wrote a book this year.

Fifty-eight years ago Gertrude and I were first-graders, sitting side-by-side in Alvina’s room writing in our daily diary—about Glenda’s nose bleeding and taking polio pills and how we played school at recess. Alvina wrote what we said on the large easel paper with solid-blue and red-dotted lines. Then we wrote those words on our own lined paper. In this way we learned to read and write words that were important to us.

The now ninety-four-year-old Alvina sat there at the book signing smiling. She watched us, her former students, talk about our new books. But she did more than smile. She held court—calling former students by name, directing a few of them in singing the grade-school ditties, holding her own in animated discussions, and correcting me on a detail during my book talk.

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Alvina meets my husband Steve

And she signed books herself.

Thomas Wolfe is famous for writing You Can’t Go Home Again. And in many ways, he’s right. But last week end, I went home.

And I took my grandchildren with me.

 

Come Meet Alvina

Note to Alvina

In just a few days, I plan to see Alvina. She was my first teacher, the one who made me want to teach, and the star of my recently-released book Yoder School. I’ll be bringing Alvina a signed copy.

Grantsville Book Signing

And you’re welcome to join us at the Goodwill Retirement Community where Alvina lives. I’ll be reading an excerpt from the book and signing books for anyone who wants to buy one. We’ll eat cinnamon rolls made in the Grantsville fashion and you’ll have a chance to meet Alvina, who is now 94 years old.

It’s been 58 years since I sat in first grade, wanting to be a teacher like Alvina. I’m sure I haven’t reached my goal. But I’m grateful Alvina taught me to teach.

 

When Yoder School Closed

When Yoder School closed down, I was sad. This is where I started school and where I became so taken with learning that I couldn’t tell if I was working or playing. At this three-room school in the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland, my teacher Alvina (yes, we called her by her first name) set in me the ideas that math was beautiful and precise and that reading and writing could be wild and wonderful.

These convictions stayed with me even when we moved and I often sat in classrooms where learning seemed so dull that my mind wandered through other times and places. All through the rest of my education I tried to find the wonder of Yoder School once again.

This is why I was sad when I heard that Yoder School was closing. And I wasn’t the only one. The school closed amid protest, one that caught the attention of The Washington Post. The Post ran an article entitled “Tiny School’s Fate a Big Issue.” You can read that article here.

And you can read about my search to find the spirit of Yoder School again in my recently published book found here.

Why Thinking Isn’t Enough

I was always tempted as a teacher to delve right into the logic of a lesson. This was the part of the lesson that seemed to matter most and the part I liked. So did my students—at least a few of them.

But many of my students couldn’t seem to learn without an emotional connection. Emotions seemed to capture and keep their attention and motivate them.  Students don’t, after all, leave their emotional beings at the classroom door. So I found I needed to integrate emotion with logic.

Associative and Linear LearningHere are three examples of how to do this:

  • Launch the lesson with a specific emotion. When you teach the Civil Rights Movement, for example, find ways to encourage anger at injustice. Think of how could you bring students to a pensive mood before reading poetry or to amazement before studying the constellations. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a good resource for identifying emotions.
  • Engage imagination. To introduce a book like Catherine, Called Birdy, have students close their eyes and imagine being in a different time and place—where they hear no traffic, no cell phones buzzing, no hum of air conditioners or furnaces. Then go on to describe the setting of the book in thirteenth-century England—what the characters heard and what they ate and wore. As students imagine all this, their interest in reading the book will pique.
  • Turn to the arts. If you are teaching a unit on the Great Depression, play “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Before a class on calculating area and perimeter, show students the beauty and precision of math by using Mondrian’s paintings. Play videos of poets reading and clips from Shakespeare’s plays. The arts give image to concepts, making them more tangible to students.

Thinking wasn’t enough, I found, because if I didn’t script emotions into my classroom, my students did. They felt detached, bored, and apathetic. And then they didn’t think. One way or the other, it seems, emotion is part of learning.