Saturday, March 31, 2012

Let me count the ways

On the bus to work everyday I watch men and women with newspapers spread across their laps and pens in hand pondering sudoku problems.

Suduko is a logic puzzle. In each row, each column, and each box the numbers 1-9 must appear exactly once. The challenge is finding – through trial, error and numerous erasings – the singular solution. For serious Sudoku players there are entire books of puzzles to solve.
But for those who want a real challenge I would argue that the greatest Sudoku grid is a classroom-seating chart.


Daniel cannot sit next to Maria, for when bored, he has a tendency to bully. Nor can Emily and Vanessa sit side-by-side for they are prone to dissolving into fits of giggles. Anna needs a desk at the front owing to her bad eyesight. Sara is self sufficient, easy to work with; she can successfully be placed anywhere. Michael is tricky. I have tried the edge: he zones off. I have tried the very front of the class, right up next to the board with mixed results: at times he is unnerving in his focus, and at times he slips into acting the class clown, front and center.

The list of seating-chart stipulations is unending.

When I read how the fifth grade teacher in Tracy Kidder’s book “Among School Children” agonized over seating charts – how she devoted much thought to which students when placed beside each other could draw out the best – I was incredulous. Clearly, she must be over-thinking the issue.

I was wrong.

I started off this year with a musical-chairs approach – new seats daily. I experimented with combinations. Could one of my best students focus one of my worst? What if I executed a 180 and put two trouble-makers together? Could they, like two negatives, result in a positive?
But with ever-changing rotations I found myself bombarded daily with my students’ seating desires. This semester each student has just one assigned seat. I hoped, after careful consideration and balancing, I had reached an equilibrium.

Daniel is in the back, slightly isolated to encourage focus. Andy is in the front, easy to watch and redirect. Joseph is also near the front so as to discourage excessive pencil tapping. I have deployed calmer and quieter students to occupy the center seats and arranged the most rambunctious around the periphery.

Yet despite all my careful calculations, in two months I see the lines fraying. Like a field general, I find myself having to re-arrange the troops, draw up treaties, form alliances. Students have begun negotiating with me. “If I’m really good this week can I sit in the back?” I extract promises, “If I let you sit together I have to see amazing focus.” Even my best students are starting to chafe from sitting to long next to the same peers. I catch them poking each other, purloining pens and pencils, and I know, I will have to go back to the drawing board soon.

There are twenty-five desks in my classroom and, if everyone is present, eighteen students. All told, I calculated that makes a bit more than 3x1021 possible seating charts. To try them all, at one a day, would take me about billion times the age of the Earth. Unfortunately there are only fifty days left in the school year to experiment.

Monday, March 19, 2012


“What’s that on your hands?”

My question was directed at one of my students who I noticed had a large inked “K” on the backside of each hand. As a teacher, I’m used to seeing sixth grade skin graffiti – phone numbers, assignment reminders, doodles drawn during class. My question was meant only as a quick check-in before class.

“It stands for ‘Kill Kony,’” she replied.

“Kill who?!”

“Kill Kony. Kony, he is a rapist in Africa who steals children.”

Recently the non-profit Invisible Children released a thirty-minute video indictment of the Ugandan warlord and rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. The filmmakers’ hope is that social media, including Facebook and Twitter, can successfully galvanize the public into demanding and ensuring Kony’s arrest by the end of 2012.

Within one week of its posting on YouTube, the video had gone viral with over 75 million views. Looking across the sea of sixth graders in the cafeteria I realized my students were part of that wave.

As my students explained, a Facebook call to write double Ks had gone out the night before, and by my students’ reckoning, almost three-quarters of the sixth grade now had ballpoint tattoos.

Perhaps the filmmaker was right. Social media had helped spark the anger of eleven-and twelve-year-olds about a cause halfway around the globe, in a country most of them had never heard of. Yet, as I questioned my students, I grew unsettled. “What country is Kony from?” I asked. “Africa.”

There is both great power and great danger in social media. I was thrilled that my students had suddenly united around a global cause far removed from their lives in Boston. But I was also disturbed by how their demands for the death penalty were supported by few facts and only one source.

We needed a lesson on critical thinking. The order of mathematical operations could wait a day.

“Write down everything you know about Joseph Kony,” I instructed the class. Creep, weirdo, bad, kidnapper, criminal, evil, kills people, devil, shoots girls, abuses kids, rapist. “Ms. Lander, are we allowed to write the word ‘rapist’?”

I began to probe how much they knew. Only one student knew Kony lead the rebel force, the LRA. Only two students knew that he came from Uganda. Another student believed Kony was hiding out in New Hampshire. It quickly became apparent that the majority of my class had taken all of their information from the single YouTube video put forth by Invisible Children. Some had not even watched that in its entirety.

I decided to see if I could rally their support for another cause.

“Imagine county R,” I encouraged my class. “There is a political party fighting against the elite for the rights of the poor working class. They say that the elite have kept the poor from going to college, from getting high paying jobs, from being respected. They say that the elite have worked with other countries to ensure that they will stay in power. “It’s time to remove the elite from power, raise your hand if you will support this party.” The entire class thrust hands into their air. “Tell me why you are supporting them.” My students responded with passionate defenses for why it was important to support these workers. Finally I cut them off with a question, “do any of you want more facts before you make a decision about supporting this group?” Two tentative hands went into the air.

Only then did I reveal that “Country R” was a real place. That it was a country called Rwanda (I had them locate the country, noting its adjacency to Uganda, on maps I passed out.) “The political party I just described to you,” I went on, “is actually a group called the Hutu Power Party that seventeen years ago convinced about half of the country’s people to rise up and kill the other half of the country’s population with knives.” I went on to describe how the Hutu Power party helped kill 800,000 people – more than the population of Boston, in just a hundred days.

My students were appalled, and I think began to see why it was necessary to do their research before supporting a cause. The evidence against Kony is indeed overwhelming, but one video is not enough to condemn anyone.

What stood out most from our discussion though was not my students’ ignorance, but their engagement. Usually by the end of the day, in the minutes before the buses arrive, my students have energy only for games. After eight hours of class, who can blame them? Yet at the end of this Monday, after lessons in math and lessons in main ideas, I was barraged with requests: “Please Ms. Lander, can we keep talking about Kony?”

And so we did. We continued to discuss Joseph Kony, we continued to discuss the Hutu Power party. We broadened our scope and began discussing other world atrocities, other causes my students were passionate about. It was the most engaged I have ever seen my students.

Social media has ensured that my students are inundated by world news, but it has not taught them how to evaluate what they watch, or read, or listen to.

In six years my eleven-and-twelve year olds will be old enough to vote. In the intervening years before 2018, the onus is on us teachers to ensure our students have the tools to be critical thinkers and discerning stewards of the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012


When I leave school each day I carry with me a backpack of folders – frayed at the crease – with partially completed math worksheets and inked-over lesson plans. I carry seating charts and student trackers and gridded grade sheets. Occasionally I carry my laptop, if during class I needed to show a Powerpoint on Main Ideas, or Tibetan Mandalas, or Macbeth. In the outer pocket I have stashed away Advil, and Advil Cold & Sinus, and Tums. In the winter, I carry cough drops. I have extra pencil nubs, dulled at the point and crumpled confiscated notes caught mid-pass between students.

On the bus ride home my fellow teachers and I fall inevitably, and despite our best efforts, into discussing our students. How so and so had a rough day. How one particular child said something that made us laugh, or groan.

At home I find myself drawn to the worksheets. There is always grading to be done, always notes to students to be scribbled in the margins. There are tomorrow’s lessons to be constructed or revised or reinvented altogether.

When I sleep I sometimes have nightmares. I dream about classes gone horribly wrong: students walking in and walking out, my most disruptive students all together in one room, lost lesson plans, malfunctioning projectors. I dream about school days and field trips. Once, in a truly bizarre nightmare, I found myself defending students against sword-wielding Thai pirates from the back of a motorbike.

Teaching is a 24-hour job.

Ironically I doubt that we teachers exist for our students outside the classroom. Thinking back to my own middle-school days, I can’t recall ever considering the possibility that my teachers had their own lives, their own friends and their own hobbies. Now, from the other side, I see a striking dichotomy. For my students, I exist only within the confines of the classroom. Yet for me, my students are omnipresent.

I refer to them as my kids, as if suddenly I am a mother of eighteen. I have grown, over the past months, to feel responsible for my students – for their behavior, for their actions and for their success. If my students are disrespectful to others I feel personally responsible. If they are praised, I walk a little taller.

On the bus ride to work I carry with me my backpack, my folders, my lesson plans, and my students’ stories. Through bi-monthly phone calls to parents, we teachers become entangled in the lives of our students. I carry with me the stories of weekend birthday parties and trips to visit grandparents. And I carry with me stories of neighborhood shootings, of parents losing their jobs, of parents taking third jobs. Of parents working so long that they see their children for barely an hour a day. I hear of students’ friends becoming pregnant at eleven, of siblings being taken by social services, of teenage mothers, of single mothers, of more single mothers. I hear of cancer and I hear of substance abuse. I carry with me the despair of parents who are at a loss of how to help their child and I carry with me the desire of parents determined to see their children becomes the first in their family to go to college.

All of this I bring with me to school and leaving school. In between the two, in the few hours I actually spend with my students, I teach. I praise their poems and critique their writing assignments. I praise my students’ science grades, their vocab sentences. I compliment their new hairstyles or new jacket. I correct their behavior – remind them to sit up straight, to raise their hand, to not call out. Occasionally I pull them aside and speak sternly. I mediate conflicts between friends, between classmates. I compel my students to listen to each other, to not talk over each other, to work alone, to work in teams, to work together as a class. I hear their stories – at snack, on notes during math class, in quick conversations in the hall. I attempt to compensate in the classroom for all that I have heard from my students, from their parents, from the school, from the newspaper, in the hopes that if I can carry just a bit more, my students will be able to carry a little less.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Team Dalai Lama

How do you teach 6th graders tenacity?

In Room 309 my students learn about tenacity by reading how the 14th Dalai Lama has spent the last fifty years fighting non-violently for the freedom of his country, Tibet. They read and discuss the Five-Point Peace Plan the Dalai Lama presented to the US Congress. And then, after the discussion, I redirect their focus closer to home. I set my students in groups to devise their own peace plans – personal strategies to combat middle school bullying.

During the majority of the school day my students study a wide range of subjects. They study multiplication, they study the Roman Empire, they study the digestive system. Rarely in the state-mandated curriculum is there time to directly teach students values. Teamwork, respect, courage, pride, tenacity, leadership – values essential for success are often relegated to secondary and tertiary objectives.

But, in many ways, it is these values that my students need most to learn.

As a Citizen Schools teacher, one of my explicit obligations is to build my students’ character, not just their multiplication and division fluency. We do this by publicly recognizing and rewarding students who demonstrate our school's values. We do this by constructing lessons centered on understanding and recognizing these values in ourselves and our peers. And, we do this by choosing a famous man or woman – we call them a trailblazer – to act as a guide for what we ourselves can strive to become.

At our school there is Team Galileo, Team Bruce Lee, Team Juno Diaz, Team Eleanor Roosevelt, Team Sotomayor. In Room 309, we are known as Team Dalai Lama.

My students from East Boston might never travel halfway around the world and visit Tibet, or China, or Northern India (where the Tibetan Government in exile resides). But over the last six months I have watched how my students have come to embrace and in some cases emulate the Dalai Lama.

To teach teamwork we discussed how the Dalai Lama is himself a team player – how, he says, he has postponed reaching Nirvana himself so he can help others reach enlightenment as well. I challenge my students to do the same. “Maybe in math,” suggests one boy. “We can help each other with our flashcards even if we are already good at math.”

I divide my students into teams and set them to practicing a respectful formal debating style used by Tibetan monks. Facing each other in pairs, my students alternate arguments for and against a controversial topic (a school dress code or mandatory classes on Saturday); they listen, respond and punctuate each point with a dramatic ritual clap.

But perhaps most exciting is the initiative my students have shown in seeking out information about our trailblazer.

It can be hard for a 6th grade teacher to inspire students to pursue education outside the classroom. Apart from the general challenge of engaging eleven and twelve year olds, there are specific hurdles. Many of my students lack internet access at home. Many of my students wake up at six am to prepare for the day and with our extended learning time model of instruction; they don’t arrive home again until after 5:30 pm, at which point they still have their homework to complete.

Despite these obstacles, my students surprise me with the extent to which they have embraced our trailblazer. In our class we have constructed a 45-piece puzzle map of Tibet entitled “The Roof of the World.” For each fact a student shares with our team we get to fill in another puzzle piece. When the puzzle is complete I have promised to make Tibetan dumplings for the class.

Recently during class, one of my girls beckoned me over to her desk. “Ms. Lander, I wanted to tell you. I started following the Dalai Lama on Twitter!”

Do my students suddenly work wonderfully as a team? Or consistently respect each other? Not quite. They are only eleven and twelve.

But I like to think that the Dalai Lama has become a role model for some of my students. In the cafeteria one afternoon, a student called me over. Over the weekend she had written a poem and wanted to share it with me.

He’s thoughtful and kind with a peaceful mind.
He is My leader, a trailblazer.
He is the one, the only, Dalai Lama
He got invaded by China, but he still is a wonderful man.
Over 600 years old. I would love to meet him.
I hope I do.
Also, that he reaches Nirvana when it’s his time.
From a girl in Boston that is very kind.
I write this poem to an awesome guy.
I love his tenacity and respect;
How he chose to stay and help us reach enlightenment
And to become who we are.
Nobody else, because we are who we are