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.

High Dividends

Just before school started this last fall Teresa Danks, a third grade teacher from Oklahoma, panhandled for classroom supplies. At an intersection in Tulsa, she waved a sign: Teacher needs school supplies. Anything helps. Thank you.

During the time it took the light to change twice, Danks collected $55, well-wishes, and encouragement.

One woman told Danks, “I’m alive today because of a teacher like you.”

Since then, social media, the national news, and a GoFundMe page, have all helped Danks raise more than $28,000 for classroom supplies. The funds will be channeled through a new foundation.

Like Danks, I joined many teachers in my district in turning hundreds of our own dollars back into our classrooms each year.

We bought pencils and folders and even classroom sets of books. We paid field trip fees for students who couldn’t and bought food for hungry kids. And during budget cuts, we hauled in our own copy paper.

But what I enjoyed more was buying what didn’t disappear. Here are some of my favorite classroom investments:

  • Crazy clocks to invite students to wonder. They’d look at my Salvador Dali time warp clock and I’d ask them, “Which is longer, a morning with a root canal or a day at Kings’ Island?” They’d look at my counter-clockwise clock and we’d talk about how sundials catch the sun clockwise in the north and counter clockwise in the south. And they’d wonder why the north won with the clocks.
  • A folding stool to pull up next to students. Conversations with students changed, I found, when our eyes were level. When I stood above their desks, I could talk to students. When I sat beside their desks, I could talk with students. And sometimes, we didn’t talk. Sometimes, all students needed was for me to be near them.
  • The No Yell Bell to save my voice and reduce the nag factor, a high priority for middle schoolers. Each sound—a space alert, applause, a bugle call, an alarm, chimes, and clanging—has a different meaning. The bell made signaling pleasant, not intrusive.
  • Art prints to absorb emotion. I especially liked hanging Kandinsky in the back corner of my classroom, a spot I often used for students who needed emotional space. Kandinsky, the pioneer of abstract art, used only color and form to show emotion. I often saw agitated students captivated and then calmed by Kandinsky.

I didn’t panhandle like Teresa Danks. And I sometimes groused inside about buying paper and pencils. But I didn’t begrudge buying clocks and bells and stools and art prints, the dividends being so high.

Five Ways to Reach Reluctant Learners

They are easy to ignore, the reluctant learners who drift along the edges of the class and out of the fray. Between the bad kids, who divert your attention, and the brainy kids, who monopolize the ideas, there’s not much left for the sideliners. They can go through a school day unnoticed, unheard, and unseen.

After all, they’ve learned to curtain their eyes, wait you out when you call on them, and follow the rules to avoid trouble. They cause no commotion, but they shut you out.

So, how can you enter when they’ve bolted the door?

I’ve found going around back works better than pounding on the front door.

Here are some backdoor techniques:

  1. Ask for them for help.

Give them jobs—passing papers, taking an envelope to the office, updating the make-up work folder. Better still, ask their advice.

“Which book should I read aloud to the class next?” I’ve sometimes asked reluctant learners. And for the next month, as they sit there listening to their choices, they know they’ve influenced the class. When students feel necessary, they more likely engage.

  1. Move into their territory.

Start easy and earn your way. Catch their eyes. Pat their shoulders. When the class is working, pull up a chair and ask to use the corner of their desk to work.  My best technique was to pound staccato rhythms on students’ backs as I passed behind them.

  1. Call home.

Search until you find something good—a thoughtful answer on an essay, a delightful sketch on the margin of a math paper, excellent attendance . . . anything.

“I told a joke in class,” I once told Kyle’s mom, “and he was the only one to catch it. Kyle is good at nuances.”

Kyle hadn’t laughed. That was true. But his right lip corner shot up and his eyes sparked a few seconds before he shut it all down.

  1. Connect them with the movers and shakers.

I often blatantly set up this up.

“Bethany,” I said once to a class leader. “I wonder, would you help me with something? I like Tori a whole lot. But I worry about how she stays to herself. What do you think would happen with Tori if she could be with someone like you?”

And Bethany agreed to organize my classroom after school with Tori each Thursday.

  1. Write to them.

Write short personal comments on papers you hand back: I saw you at Bob Evans. Was that your grandma? She looked like she enjoyed being with you.

Tape a note to their desks: Could you stay after class for just a minute? I want to tell you something you’ll like.

With the normal ruckus of a classroom, it’s hard to think of calling more students to action. But students learn best when they are visible, when they have voice.

 

Finding a Royal

Perhaps the most ornate frame in the Columbus Museum of Art borders the portrait of a street kid. And this kid’s got the attitude of a king. He juts his chin, wears his t-shirt like a robe, grasps a scepter, and stands tall against a background of Victorian wallpaper colored like African textiles. The artist, Kehinde Wiley, found this kid walking a Columbus neighborhood. Wiley likes painting scamps from the streets in the poses of Old Master portraits. Wiley titled his painting Portrait of Andries Stilte II.

“And you can see the reason for the title,” I tell museum visitors. (I’ve been volunteering as a docent at the museum since I retired from teaching.)

“Look at this smaller painting,” I say. “This is Portrait of Andries Stilte. He was a standard bearer from an important Dutch family. And he commissioned Verspronck to paint him in all his pomp.”

Some of my tours are full of kids from Columbus City Schools, and they like the way Wiley bests Versponck in size and framing.  And the kid Andries is way more cool with steel-toed boots and big tread and saggy jeans.

I like to visit Andries II early in my tour with these kids. In front of his portrait, they breathe a little easier. Their faces open, their shoulders relax, and their chins go almost as high as Andries II’s chin.

The art museum often intimidates city kids. The museum is quiet and pristine and built like a palace. In the museum, they hear a different vocabulary. Cameras watch, and guards speak only to scold. So many kids freeze up and shut down.

But, in front of Portrait of Andries Stilte II, they find a place. They leave the painting walking taller, like maybe they have crowns on their heads. Wiley has recognized royalty in them. And Wiley loosens their tongues for the rest of the tour. After all, when a royal speaks, people listen.

 

 

Students on the Edges

I’ve taught students on both sides of the bell curve. In the mid–1990’s the first crack babies starting showing up in middle school classrooms. Hillary showed up in mine. Hillary stared for long minutes at nothing I could see. She was unable to follow the logic of a paragraph or understand even the simplest directions. She vacillated between peering from under heavy eyelids and shaking in wide-eyed agitation if someone walking by brushed her arm.

A decade later, Jed tested into the gifted class I was teaching. Even in that classroom of smart kids, Jed was on the edge. In math, he jumped three grade levels in a year. When students played the category game SET at lunch, it was Jed against the rest. And Jed could best them. He was an information addict and an artist. He could dissect a poem or a painting, and calculate algebra problems in his head, hard ones. At the end of the day, Jed would leave class along with the other students. But he often came back while I was there working. He’d curl into an ottoman I kept in the corner, his head tucked in and his limbs drawn tight. Sometimes from my desk, I could see him shaking.

It can be lonely on the edges, often harder to find a friend and to be understood. To the kids on the edges, the middle often looks like a happy club, a club to which they haven’t been invited.

Hillary and Jed were two of the most fragile students of my career. I don’t know what has happened with Hillary. Jed came back into town a year ago. I bought him lunch at Bob Evans. He’s living at the bottom of a mountain in Appalachia, along a stream. He paints. He talks to almost no one. And his main worry, he told me, is that he will kill himself.

I’m not sure exactly what, but I’m quite sure I could have done more for Hillary and Jed. I needed more specialized tools and didn’t know how to use all the tools I had.  But mostly, I had never lived so far out on the edges, so alone. I had more company than they did, and I didn’t fully understand the different dimensions of their worlds.