It has taken me a while to post because I have needed time to wrap my mind around the topic of this post. A girlfriend and I spent Spring Break in Amish Country - a bucket list trip. We wanted to see the landscape, spend a week on a farm, and watch - as bystanders -the Amish way of life. We ended up being pulled into it, and the experience set my mind awhirl.
On our first day in PA…by sheer happenstance…we were invited to a one room schoolhouse by the 17 year old Amish teacher we ran into on our walk down a country road. We couldn’t have been more thrilled! ”We are both teachers,” we explained to her. Her response - in an accent that defined umlaut: ”This will be good for the children.”
It would be an understatement to say that we walked away giddy with excitement. We didn’t want to go and gawk…but neither of us could really articulate why we did want to go…maybe the intrigue of the one-room concept…maybe the feeling that we were stepping back in time. At any rate, we arrived - as we had been directed - to the tiny school with the bell on top at 10:00 am the next day. The children were playing softball with their teacher. Roseann and I stood on the sidelines and cheered…we were enamored with children….the clothes fastened with strait pins…the hair in buns on the tiny girls…the bowl cuts on middle school boys. They were “quaint.” Of course, we were spectacles ourselves as the children stared and shared secret thoughts about us, the English. When their teacher, Anna, rang the school bell to go in, we followed. Two chairs were placed for us at the back of the room that contained 24 desks, a wall of chalkboards, and a wood-burning stove. It was a colorful classroom adorned with student work and proverbial sayings: Seek peace if possible, Truth at any cost….
While there had been laughing and cajoling outside during recess, once the children were inside, the atmosphere changed….they got down to business. All desks faced the front, and all twenty-four students - grades one through eight sat down and got to work. Anna began immediately to ask questions, to give instructions, to kneel down beside desks and help her children. They worked quietly, diligently, patiently. An older girl moved from her desk to sit with a child from a younger grade after Anna told her that “she understands what she’s doing….she just needs a little support.” They raised their hands and moved from station to station learning Geography, German, Grammar….and the hidden curriculum of respect and responsibility. They took a break to sing us a song or two - hymns, of course - and promptly put their books back in place before moving on to the next part of the lesson. Grade one stood before the class and read from Dick and Jane, while grade eight diagrammed sentences, and grade four worked with the maps. Roseann and I were in awe…astounded by the carefully choreographed instruction going on before our eyes…. Forty-five years of classroom experience between us and we had never seen anything like it. It was everything that is right about teaching and learning…and all I could think was “How will I ever describe this to my teachers?”
Anna didn’t only differentiate….she accommodated, modified, challenged, assessed, revised her instruction, and began again. Her students never balked at her….challenged her…questioned her…or disrespected her. Before each group could sit back down after a song or a small-group lesson, she quizzed them: ”How many feet in a mile, inches in a yard, litres in a gallong, cups in a quart, gallons in a barrel???? (31.5 by the way). They stood before her and answered, and sat down only when she released them. They understood the expectation and they rose to it.
And that was the point…I left…after being mesmerized by her for an hour and a half, and struggled to process what I had just witnessed….and questioned when public education had veered off in a direction that left us fighting kids to teach them….complaining about the paper load….burning out after just a few years.
Her curriculum was perhaps not as rigorous as that set before my students….her standards weren’t posted….
I tried to imagine the conversations I would have with my teachers about Anna and her classroom…and I could hear them saying “well of course she was able to do all of those things…those kids all have parents who expect good behavior and support the teacher.” But to assume that would be fallacious wouldn’t it? I think the word to focus on is expect….All teachers have students who come from homes where the expectation to perform is high…as well as students who come from homes where parents have no idea what is going on in the academic lives of their students. It would be false to assume that the former will behave better and learn more than the latter…a year in the classroom would prove that assumption false…In fact, a colleague of mine -also an assistant principal - has gone at least three times this year to the elementary school of her son to discipline him when he was acting up. And her expectations for him are high…and she is involved. So it would be false to assume that even though those twenty-four children were dressed alike (down to the fabric) and came from homes with nearly identical values that the reason they behaved so well was because of their parents….it clearly was not.
The reason that Anna was able to conduct lessons with as many twists and turns and as carefully choreographed as Swan Lake….and the reason she had the attention and respect of all twenty-four students was because that is what SHE EXPECTED from them….she was the standard….Student behaved because in Miss Anna’s classroom you behave….there was not time to act out because there was work to be done…meaningful work that was reviewed and assessed immediately….there was accountability and support. It is what they do there….
There is no doubt in my mind that Anna Lapp was born to teach…it is her gift, and it breaks my heart that in a few years when she is married she will have to give that up. She is a natural….and what she is able to do with what seems like little effort is very difficult to teach someone to do. She has set the expectation for what will happen in her classroom, and her students rise to it.
We asked her if they ever gave her problems…did the kids ever misbehave. Her reply: “Well….no…but at times there are things we need to work out.” Indeed.
It’s sort of an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Anna has built it - and it is a sight to behold - this one room in a remote Pennsylvania town, where all of educations’ gurus would set up camp to study the magic that is happening simply because Anna expects it to.
Springtime means a lot of things to high school teachers: tennis and baseball seasons are well underway, the sap is rising along with the skirt lengths, and the light at the end of the tunnel has come into view - May is on the way.
For me, Springtime was for teaching Romeo and Juliet. What better time is there for restless and irresponsible adolescents to read a play about restless and irresponsible adolescents? There is a line from that play that always resonates with me (there are many that toss and turn through my head at any given time of day). It is from the scene where Romeo has been told to forget to think about Rosaline ( the girl he was willing to die for before he met the girl he actually died for). Romeo responds -in what I imagine as an indignant tone of voice - “O, teach me how I should forget to think.”
In my new position I get to spend a lot of time working with students in all sorts of classrooms from all grade levels ( a perk, I guess, since I don’t have kiddos of my own to teach anymore). And the one thing I notice is the remarkable curiosity of the common kindergartener. They are awe-struck by what they are learning, and - if we are honest - it is both beautiful and annoying. Remember, if you have children of your own, the constant “why does that?” or “how come they?” I gave birth to a true student of metaphysics who wanted to know - at the tender age of four - why we exist. Hmmm? While it was tempting to tell her “to make our mommies happy,” the truth was that I was unprepared for the level of curiosity that seemed innate in her.
I watch for it now in every classroom I visit - that annoying curiosity - and I am curious…when do our kids forget to think? My high school teachers have noticed that students don’t ask why. We do see it, of course, in our most gifted and talented students who wonder what that Mr. Pythagoras was thinking when he created his nifty theorem. But students for whom school has not always been a place where success was common place, are more cautious - because being curious is risky - and risks can lead to failure.
I wonder if - as teachers - we sometimes feel uncomfortable with the questions. Do we believe we are supposed to know all of the answers? Of course, we don’t know them all - and it’s ok to admit that to kids. I always told my students that they needed to “love the questions” and that every day in my classroom they should feel “gently frustrated.” I wanted to foster - and I encourage my teachers to foster - annoyingly curious high schoolers who are thinking.
We know how the story ends for Romeo: he does forget about Rosaline and moves on to Juliet and the mell-of-a-hess that becomes their week-long “romance.” But what about our students? Are we cultivating a group of young men and women for whom the “why” is more important than the “what”? Or are we teaching them to forget?
I planted bulbs last winter…one of the most organized things I did all winter long. I was so excited to buy them, bring them home and prepare the spot where I wanted 50 budding plants to tilt their yellow heads this spring. Daffodils are my favorite flower - and I hope I never have to go a Spring without holding one up to my nose and breathing in so deeply I get lost in the smell.
So…it is almost Spring…my long Winter of waiting for the blooms is over, and went into my yard last week to review and collect my bounty. There.was.just.one.bloom! Plenty of green sprigs came up…but only one flower….only one flower. I was at first so disappointed - my preparation…my planning the perfectly arranged bed….all of that work digging 50 small holes to hold the tiny bulbs all winter long….and only.one.bloom.
I thought what a waste of my time for only one bloom, and then I did what I always do…I compared it to teaching. Some times I would plan those lessons….prepare my “soil” and get ready for the perfect learning environment. I planted seeds - hoping for a curious bunch of tilting heads to look my way and want to know more…and some times you know what I got? Only.One.Bloom. All that work….all that preparation…my planning the perfectly arranged lesson…all of that work digging into texts to hold the those minds in wonder all period long….and only.one.bloom.
I picked my one daffodil because I had planted it and I never want to miss a Spring without smelling a daffodil. And I realized that one was enough. Just one bloom was enough to make all that work and waiting worth it. And I realized that the others are under there..waiting and growing…and needing me to nourish them through another season until they are ready to raise those beautiful heads and see the light.
I had dinner a few nights ago with a couple of my teacher friends who are nearing the age of retirement. Out of the blue one of them asked: Knowing what you know now, would you choose this career again?. My answer was a given….I didn’t even need to think about it (YES), but BOTH of my girlfriends said NO. Both wished they had chosen a life more exciting (underwater welding was mentioned) or less stressful, and it was at this point that the disagreement began. Now, they know me well, of course, so the disagreement was a friendly one, but I had to argue for the profession I chose. I did not become a teacher because I thought I couldn’t do anything else (a reason that, according to my friends, many do decide to teach). I didn’t become a teacher for June, July nor August (don’t really remember getting to spend THAT much time with my mind not thinking about school). I realize that the media reinforces the idea that this is the “worst time to be an educator,” but let’s liken what we do to a calling (it is) like medicine or even be daring in saying that is is a ministry (not to get theological on you) but just for the sake of argument….when would ge a good time to be a priest or a doctor? Should we want to enter those professions when no one is sinning or sick? When the stress level will be low because there isn’t much for us to do so there isn’t much for us to account that we’ve done? Would we respect those in positions to save lives or souls to have chosen that because they couldn’t do anything else? And, how would we feel if they did?
I chose to be a teacher because I believed that what I was doing could make a difference (both measurable and immeasurable). I chose to teach because I was called to do it…to save lives….to save souls…so that any student could say “when I grow up, I want to be…” And, I’ve never regretted it for one minute.
I had several student teachers over the years - I loved having them because I loved helping train people into a profession that I believe is akin to the ministry or medicine…it is life support for students. The student teachers come in with a list of interview questions, and there was one that always stumped me….”what is your secret for classroom management?”….My response: “…um…well…they just….ok - I have no idea.” My kids behaved…not that there weren’t episodes and blow up’s that I remember, but class time was very important to me, and we kept it moving. There simply wasn’t time to misbehave. The student teachers never liked that answer. They were wide-eyed and terrified and (I am certain) were convinced that my answer wasnothing short of arrogant. However, my kids didn’t misbehave - for a myriad of reasons - and it always began on the first day of school. We did an activity called “Good Teachers….Good Students” - I wish I knew who actually gave me this idea, as I would be glad to give them credit, but I have done it for so long that - like most lesson plans and ideas I have stolen - I have convinced myself that I thought of it (I didn’t). Anyway, it goes like this: I ask students to work in small groups to make two lists. The first list should be filled with as many characteristics as they can think of that describe good students. The second list should be populated with adjectives and behaviors that describe good teachers. I time this (oh the power of an egg timer in the classroom), and when we are done, I have students call out things they’ve brainstormed as I populate the lists on the board. Once we have filled the board, I give them a charge: As a whole group, determine 5 (random number) things from the list of characteristics of good students that you as a class can live with. They call them out, I circle them, and we sometimes collapse them to combine two or three into one (come to class on time prepared). The next step gets them every time. The second charge is for them to determine 5 characteristics/behaviors for me to live by. They always look at me like I am crazy….but I push on - “Come on guys…you know what makes a good teacher…what are MY rules?” So they warm up (it is the first day of school after all) and they determine my 5 rules. Every year they are always the same: Listen to us, teach us what we need to know, be fair. And some years there are unique ones: no homework on Wednesdays. This is sometimes a negotiation. I can’t, after all, serve popcorn and coke while I’m teaching, but I throw a question in their direction when someone suggests that one - “Will that make me a better teacher?” Without fail, we come up with a guide to live by that is reasonable, doable, and filled with many things I was planning to do for them anyway. I tell them, at the end, that this is how it works: they do all the things on their list which will make me able to do all the things on the list they made for me. If they can’t (or won’t) then they can’t hold me to mine. In this 30 minute activity we have created our creed (I did this for every block), we have gotten to know one another, we have learned that working in groups is like breathing air in my classroom, and we have forged the beginnings of a bond that will last us a semester…and longer. And as for classroom management…well….um….they just…..I have no idea.