Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Butterscotch Candy

I’ve listened to the fabulous Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs speak many times, and frequently studied her work.  When she speaks to groups of educators, she always places an empty chair next to her as an honor and representation of the child we must always consider when we think about teaching and learning.   These words are from Dr. Jacobs herself, in the first part of her book, Getting Results with Curriculum Mapping: 

For many years now, whenever I work with a school or district, we begin the workshop or meeting by placing an empty chair in clear view of all participants. We envision that a student sits in that chair. We even use the first name of an actual child who attends the school—perhaps it's Johnny, Maria, Abdul, Megan, Tyler, or Janice. All our work that day must focus on Johnny, and all comments and questions are welcomed as long as they are in his best interest. We may disagree about what is in his best interest, but we do not lose the student as our perspective. Success really does come down to the critical point whereby we are working for specific learners in specific places to meet their specific needs. 

You can—should!— read more here.

Not long ago, I was setting up for a presentation of my own.  The conference hosts had placed little white bowls of candy on each table.  I dug through and came up with a butterscotch; without thinking, I unwrapped it and popped it in my mouth.  Except when I actually tasted the candy, I stopped—it brought me right back to being a student, which makes sense, because I don’t think I’ve actually had a butterscotch candy since I was, like, eighteen. 

Tastes, smells, sounds—they can trigger recall, and transport us right back to a different time; they can make us remember how we felt, what was important to us, what worried us, and why. 

In high school, I loved butterscotch candy.  I remember working my way through a bag of them as I studied for the ACT, using them to keep the anxiety and worry at bay as I prepared for this nebulous exam, and all it meant about what came next—telling myself I’d be okay but believing I wouldn’t.  I kept them in my backpack, treating myself to them between classes, hiding them from teachers who enforced the no-candy rule and sharing them with those who didn't.  It was a sweet memory, laced with the gift of retrospect.

And I thought:  This is my chair.


On the way home from the conference, I stopped and got a boatload of butterscotch candies.  I’m going to keep them in a bowl my office for the next month or so, as I plan and prepare for another school year, keeping with the spirit and insight and wisdom of Dr. Jacobs.  They will represent studenthood—a memory of what it’s like to be sit where they sit.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Reports, 1982

Remember book reports?  The old-fashioned kind teachers used to require students do?  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Morris, who was seasoned and weary, followed this formula:  

  • ·      Tell the students they will need to choose a book to give a report.  (45 seconds)
  • ·      Take them to the school library.  Stand and chit-chat with the librarian.  (34 minutes)
  • ·      Sit at your desk and read Ladies’ Home Journal while students read.  (5 days.  At least.)
  • ·      Give them the weekend to write the report.  Don’t actually explain how; just tell them to do it.  (12 seconds)
  • ·      Have the students give their book reports in front of the class, one after one after one...  (6 days)

I asked my older sister how to write a book report.  She was in seventh grade, so she knew everything.  “Oh my gaaaaaawwd,” she rolled her eyes and dipped her graham cracker into a glass of milk.  “Please don’t just stand up there and say what happened in the book.  Please.  It’s so boring.  All the other kids just want to put their head down and sleep.  So don’t. do. that.” 

Huh?  That’s exactly what I thought a book report would be.  “Well, then… what do I do?” 

“Outsmart them,” she said.  “Tell them who wrote the book, how long it is, that it was told in the first person or third person or whatever.  You can talk about the character’s point of view.  The theme and moral and main idea.”  Another graham cracker.  “You’ll sound really smart and you’ll get a good grade.”

“What will the other kids say?”

“They won’t say anything,” she snickered.  “They'll be asleep.” 

She was willing to help, so I emptied my change purse—after all, nothing came free with my sister.  She walked away two bucks richer, and I walked away with a solid book report.  I practiced with 3 X 5 index cards in front of the bathroom mirror. 

When it came my turn to present my report, though, the air in the room got thick.  Everyone—Mrs. Morris included—looked at me like I’d grown an extra head.  Theme?   Plot?  Point of view? No other book reports covered those things.  At the end, no one clapped, like they were supposed to.  I slunk back to my desk and waited for my face fire to cool. 

Before lunch, Mrs. Morris stopped by my desk. “I just wanted to know what happened in the book, honey,” she whispered.  She patted my shoulder. “I’m just… I’ll just not give you a grade, okay?”

I mumbled some sort of thanks, but felt deeply, deeply ungrateful.

That night, I yelled at my sister—told her she’d made me look stupid and uppity, and she’d done it on purpose.  Furious and embarrassed, I swore I’d never take her help again. 

She had this way of looking sympathetically supportive and, simultaneously, deeply amused.  I wanted to smack her, but didn’t, because I knew she’d get past the amused part and get to the sympathetic and supportive part.

“Sometimes you’ll get a teacher who doesn’t ask kids to do hard things, and just has everyone do the same thing and get the same grade,” said She Who Knew Everything.  “It’s just the way it is.  So you just have to deal with those things.  But you can still do your best.  You should be the most prepared kid in the room, even if no one appreciates it.”

Those were astoundingly wise words from “just” a teen, but I’ve never forgotten them.  Granted, I didn’t always heed her advice—in fact, sometimes I shunned it, fiercely—but I did think a lot about what she’d said.  I still do, today, especially when considering how teaching has evolved for students as they respond to books.  I think about how we outline expectations for students, how we assess what they do, how we reward independent thinking and risk-taking, how other students in the class respond to the learning of their peers, and if our teaching provides oxygen to the flame of learning. 


We all have early learning experiences we can’t forget.  Some caused angst; others brought triumph.  Some did both. I’m grateful to the Mrs. Morrises of my school years, and to my wise sister, and for the ways I’ve been able to reconcile unexpected opportunities for deeper learning—even old-time book reports.

Precisely None

In a recent  New Yorker  profile, Hollywood supertalent Sam Mendes discussed the challenge of being a director, particularly in the beginni...