Monday, July 16, 2012


This spring I became obsessed with the BCC’s Masterpiece Classic series about the famous literary detective, Sherlock. Within a week I had watched the series twice over. I then devoured all 2,000 pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. I talked about Sherlock, I dreamed about Sherlock. Yet I wanted more. And then I hit upon it: I would teach Sherlock.

With a week-and-a-half left in the school year and the June heat transforming classrooms into saunas, forging on with lessons about decimal conversions and sentence structure seemed not only pointless, but deleterious.

Instead, my fellow teachers and I turned our attention to teaching lessons whose content went beyond the standardized statewide MCAS test. Some conducted classes on the art of henna, the legends of Big Foot and American’s obsession with space aliens. Others crafted lessons on constructing catapults and sewing stuffed animals.

I taught Sherlock.

We opened the day with a little history about secret messages – a brief discussion of the American Code-Talkers and the German Enigma – before diving into the art and intricacies of codes.  Symbol codes, cypher wheels, code creation and code cracking strategies. My boys created codes with money signs and elaborate squiggles standing in for letters.  One girl created a code devised of twenty-six smiley face derivatives. Next, we launched into a four-way student riddle and logic-puzzle race.

I even managed to show a small excerpt from the BBC show, of Sherlock using his powers of deduction.

It’s an ancient maxim, but still valid: teach what you love.

Yes, our students are just middle schoolers. There are so many facts and concepts that they must absorb: times-tables, construction of grammatical sentences, how to compose a thesis-driven argument.  While I am not a fan of standardized tests, I grudgingly concede that they can help ensure that a student has acquired foundational knowledge and skills on which they can build.

Yet, I hope there continue to remain moments, even within a public school curriculum focused on end-of-year tests, when teachers can share their passions with their students.

Allowing us teachers that flexibility and freedom is not simply about letting us indulge our obsessions.

If I have ever been inspiring in the classroom (and I hope I have), it has most often been when I have drawn on my passions  -- delving into the art of Shakespearean insults and the character development of Macbeth, and sharing with my students the intricacies of the Thai political system.

I see the energy in my own teaching. I bounce on the balls of my feet, I stride up and down the rows of desks and, when a student makes a connection or an intellectual leap, I am known to exclaim with loud and enthusiastic validation. 

“So if the Prince is not respected then…then the monarchy will have less power…then, maybe there wont be a monarchy”


“Ms. Lander, when Macbeth says ‘out out brief candle,’ is that like the earlier scene where Lady Macbeth goes crazy and says ‘out, out damn spot?’”


“Because of the code-letters we already know, that other symbol there must be an N and that one must be a D!”


At such moments I often take my students by surprise. I see it in their manner. They sit up a little straighter, they look hesitantly at their peers: Is Ms. Lander really bouncing up and down because of the answer I just gave?  They are also intrigued: passion and excitement is infectious.

I think back and wonder how much of my love of Asia comes from my own 6th grade teacher sharing her passion for China.  I know that my drive to write creative non-fiction can be credited to a high-school English teacher who sent us to the cafeteria with notebooks, pencils and instructions to sit, listen and record.

I will continue to teach decimal-to-fraction conversions, basic geography lessons and the elements of writing a story.  I will continue to correct my students’ spelling and press them to give full synopses in their reading responses.  These are all essential building blocks they will need for the future.

But, in between such lessons, I will continue to slip in Shakespearean sonnets, and perhaps a code or two. Who knows: One of my 6th graders might just grow up to serve in the FBI or the CIA. And, if not, I will at least have succeeded in cultivating a few more fans for Sherlock

Monday, July 2, 2012

Army of One?

The classroom can be a lonely place.

My students surround me.  They vie for attention, they want advice, they want answers, they want me to listen to a story about their weekend.  In the cafeteria it is a chorus of “Ms. Ms. Ms. Ms. Lander!” 

Simultaneously, I am alone.  For help on a math problem, my students turn to me.  I turn to myself. On hot muggy days when all my students want to do is poke each other or practice step routines, it is solely my responsibility to refocus the class.  I discipline the class clown, or break up an argument.  My students grumble, “You’re forcing it Ms. Lander.”

Out of the classroom, teaching is lonely too.  I worry about my students on the drive home – about how two students didn’t get along, or how another student is having difficulty grasping a math concept.  I dream about my students and wake up from nightmares set in classrooms.

These are solitary concerns.  I share classroom stories with friends and family.  I share with them stories about how one particular student wrote a particularly moving poem or made an insightful comment during a discussion.  My students infiltrate most of my conversations.  But to friends and family, they are just stories.

Yet, I know that, compared with most teachers, I am incredibly lucky.  As a teacher with Citizen Schools, I am surrounded by an incredible support system. It is this support system, a cadre of colleagues who are there for me each day that has let me grow so much as a teacher this year.
As a group of teachers, we meet before class, we meet after class. We discuss lesson plans and we practice lessons.  We strategize about certain students, we share success stories, we talk through disappointing classes.  We devise extra worksheets and pass them around in a flurry of paper.

The situation could not be more dissimilar to my teaching experience last year.   

Less than twenty-four hours after landing in Thailand, I was handed a pile of textbooks and a list of room numbers, and I was sent off to teach students at Chiang Mai University.  A semester later, my students sat their final exams.   In the intervening months, my teaching was never once observed.  Not that I expected that to happen, the university has 40,000 students.  The independence was daunting but also exhilarating: I had to find my own confidence in the classroom.

This year, colleagues not only sat in the back of the classroom to observe my class, they have once or twice pulled out a camera to film. Later, after students have gone home, we sat and discussed the films, as a coach does with their players: Could I have laid out this concept more clearly? What if I broke down those instructions to even more basic steps?

Yet, this kind of support system is not the norm for most teachers across America.

School days begin early and extend until early evening, leaving little room for additional meetings to discuss best practices.  Tight school budgets make it difficult to support a teacher who can observe other classes and provide feedback. And, observation systems that have recently been created in a number of districts for the purpose of setting merit pay have become more judgmental than instructive for teachers’ personal development.

In most professions, collaboration is an integral part of the job. Scientists, Lawyers, Doctors all work together, relying on support, feedback and discussion with peers and mentors.  

It is difficult to teach teaching.

You can’t simulate the experience of teaching a classroom full of 6th graders, short of having an actual class of them in front of you.  For the sake of practicality, most classes about teaching are therefore taught in the abstract.

Before shipping off to Thailand, I attended days of sessions intended to train me to be an effective teacher.  But, I learned just as much in my first 45-minute class in Chiang Mai.

We know that great teachers make an enormous difference to students (Harvard and Colombia economists even quantified the impact, calculating that a great elementary school teacher increased the average lifetime earnings of a student by $25,000 compared to a subpar teacher.)

But, how can we fill our classrooms with great teachers?

There is no shortage of proposed solutions – from hiring teachers with better credentials, to providing merit pay for high performers, to developing stronger accreditation programs, to firing ineffective teachers.

Whatever the merits of these approaches, I wonder if we might be wise to help teachers, already in the school system, improve their game in the way that other professionals do – meeting in teams to discuss strategizing, taking time to visit classes taught by other teachers, having other teachers regularly visit one’s own classes, having master teachers serving as coaches and mentors to budding teachers. These measures might increase schools personnel budgets by 10% or even 20%. But the payoff for students could be enormous.

And, with teachers learning from each other, the classroom might just become a bit less of a lonely place.