A Special Teacher Teaches Special Kids Online

I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers lately as I try to imagine what it’s been like to become an online teacher practically overnight, which is the case for most teachers in the United States since late March. I am retired and so grateful I haven’t had to cope with this sudden switch in the mode of delivery of instruction but I am curious about those who are still in the trenches every day.  A young teacher I happen to know from his friendship with my daughter during their teenage years has become a teacher… par excellence …to a class of 10th and 11th grade autistic students in a public school in Queens.  Since March he has been teaching his students online and loves doing so…and they love him! My daughter suggested I sit in on his class one day; she was going to be his guest speaker. 

I sat in front of my computer screen at the appointed time, and quite punctually one after another of Mr. G’s students popped up in the Zoom gallery, most of them were visible; only a few were “off camera.” Then Mr. G. appeared: a large friendly face with a beard, twinkling eyes and a super big smile. I could already imagine how happy his students must be to see his face every day on their screens.

Mr. G welcomed each and every student by name…there were ten of them and they acknowledged his greeting. It was immediately apparent that some of the students were very expressive and articulate while others could barely say his name. In the case of one student  only the top of his head was visible for most of the class until Mr. G. asked him to show us his face which he did. Mr. G told us that almost all his students show up for his class almost 100% of the time!  This is definitely not the case with many of the teachers I’ve spoken to who are missing students or have students who appear only occasionally on screen.  I can only deduce that Mr. G is very popular with his students and their helpers/parents who are making an effort to get these kids online every day.

The topic the class was studying was “Careers and Skills.” This is not a class that is academically in sync with a typical high school curriculum. The purpose of this class is to maximize the potential of the students and to help them regulate themselves in order to have meaningful and successful social interactions.  

My daughter introduced herself as someone who plays the violin and who works in a violin shop. After each student introduced him/herself the teacher led them into asking my daughter questions about her job. It was clear that Mr. G had spent a lot of time preparing these kids to ask relevant and syntactically and grammatically correct questions. He would interject, for example, if a student used the word “Where” instead of “When,” or if the statement was not worded as a question he would help the student reframe the statement to become a question.

There was a lively back and forth exchange between the students and my daughter.  The teacher used  a spinning wheel (borrowed from an app) each time he chose a student to ask a question.  The wheel would spin, the arrow would point to a student’s name (pre-selected by Mr. G) and confetti would suddenly appear along with cheering sound effects to encourage the student to respond.  A simple device, yes.  Effective?  Very.  

Mr. G very carefully took the time to help each student achieve the goal of asking a meaningful question, praising each one who completed the task. “Tasks” was one of the words the students were learning in this unit on careers, so the also made frequent reference  to the tasks that would be required for such a career or job. 

As a former English as a New Language teacher, I couldn’t help but think there are many similarities to teaching students with autism and those who are learning English. Simplicity is required before moving to more complex ideas.  Repetition is necessary. Mr. G attempted to present the tasks in as many ways as possible to reinforce the learning that was taking place.  Not all students spoke clearly and articulately so Mr. G made sure to model the correct pronunciation and enunciation of each word or phrase. Patience is absolutely essential for teaching such students.  Mr. G exuded lots of it. 

The class time came to a close.  Mr. G asked each student to say something they learned or liked about the day’s lesson. Then he summarized what had taken place. with input from my daughter.  All the students thanked my daughter and one by one clicked off their computers. 

I learned that online teaching might, in fact, be an ideal way to teach many students with special needs. It can help them be very focused because they are so concentrated on the screen and not distracted by other things which can be the case so often in a school setting. The instruction can be very personalized as I saw Mr. G adapt his remarks to to each of his student’s attempts.  They also have a “free time and snacks” break between three daily lessons of about an hour each making the pace of the day very comfortable for both the teachers and students.

Would I have been able to make this transition to online teaching had I still been teaching during the pandemic? Would I be as good at it as Mr. G?  How long did it take him to gain control over this mode of teaching?  I know he really enjoys it because he has told my daughter so.  Could this be sustained for an entire year? Probably not. Eventually everyone might become bored or alienated without some contact.  But I suspect that for some students, and also teachers, this mode of teaching and learning might be ideal.  I would certainly give Mr. G and his students and A+ for their efforts.  


Bring Back Bildung: Thoughts About the Future of Education

*Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. Wikipedia

On Valentine’s Day 2020, a New York Times writer and a forward-thinking bright student at Starbucks gave me new hope for the future of education.  I share their gifts with all of you!

My husband and I were having an afternoon of complete self-indulgence on his unexpected day off for Lincoln’s Birthday this past week. (Unlike many institutions, his college celebrates both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays on two separate days.) After doing some banking chores we wandered into our local Starbucks, a place we rarely frequent. As I waited for my husband to place our order, I sat at one of the window seats. Two seats away an attractive young man was reading a slim book by John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). As he read he took notes on his laptop while wearing the earplugs requisite for all students nowadays.

When he paused for a break, I struck up a conversation with him. “Is that book by John Dewey, the education philosopher?” I asked him. “Yes,” he eagerly replied. “Are you an art student?” I asked. “No, but this is part of the reading for a course I’m taking for my graduate studies at Columbia University.”

That got the conversation rolling and I soon learned that this bright student who exuded confidence was a former alpine skier who had attended boarding school during his high-school training years, then attended Boston College. He is now enrolled at Columbia in their newly revived Philosophy and Education Program to pursue a Master’s and eventually a PhD In order to become a professor/administrator at a small liberal arts college.

I can’t remember when I’ve had such a delightful and uplifting conversation about education. He explained to my husband and me that his undergrad years at Boston had led him to believe in the importance of the Liberal Arts as part of the curriculum. Nowadays, he explained, so many students are pursuing technical degrees, computer degrees, science degrees, but without a liberal arts component which he now believes is essential to becoming productive and well-rounded in any career. His current status as a student  in the Philosophy and Education Program at Columbia is helping him to focus on his personal reasons for wanting to teach as well as learning how to integrate the various worlds of teaching and learning that exist separately on college campuses. We soon parted but I spent hours thinking about him and our conversation. He kept repeating the phrase, “I want to become part of the conversation about….” This academic metaphor for saying he is anxious to get into his field of work made me smile because it is so hopeful.

Today (February 14), I came across an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times Op-Ed section entitled “This Is How Scandinavia Got Great.” Mr. Brooks spoke about how it is the “generous welfare states” that most people admire in the Scandinavian countries. But for him, it goes deeper than that. He firmly believes that “What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.”

As the Nordic countries began to experience the arrival of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Mr. Brook explains, they soon realized that if they were to going to continue to “prosper” as nations they needed to create “folk schools” for the least educated among them based on the concept of ‘bildung.’ A German word for a philosophy of education, Mr. Brook explains that “It means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person starting from a very young age.” A simpler definition is “self-cultivation.” He further explains that it was believed that “if people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives.” To go through the various stages of life that we all pass through with some degree of security and optimism, they would need to be taught how they fit into the larger picture. This would help people realize that making a contribution to the stability of their nation will result in a better chance at their own future wellbeing. In other words, they would learn to develop personal responsibility as well as responsibility toward others.

This makes total sense to me as I think about how divided our country has become. People can’t have “complex inner lives” when they are forced to struggle for their existence. Until we build a safety net for all people that will allow them to thrive and think about the “greater good,” we will continue to experience the deep divisions we are now experiencing that threaten the security of all our lives and our individual sense of wellbeing.

Bringing the concept of bildung “back into the conversation” seems like a good idea to me. Weaving it into the curriculum from an early age seems to offer the best chance we have at producing well rounded, responsible citizens who have learned to care about one another, not just how to create the latest, income generating “app.” We have so much to relearn.


A Poetry Immersion Weekend: The Joy of Connecting Through Words

(Jan Heller Levi, who sounds pretty important, said this about Marilyn Hacker (shown above) which is better than what I might say: “I think of her magnificent virtuosity in the face of all the strictures to be silent, to name her fears and her desires, and in the process, to name ours. Let’s face it, no one writes about lust and lunch like Marilyn Hacker. No one can jump around in two, sometimes even three, languages and come up with poems that speak for those of us who sometimes barely think we can even communicate in one.”)

I promised a post today about Madrid, the first stop on my recent three-city tour of Spain. However, since the photos are not yet accessible to me, I ask your patience and will instead write today about my poetry immersion weekend.

This weekend two events took place in my poetry world, unexpectedly back to back. The first event was part of a weekend celebration of the 198th birthday of Walt Whitman, held at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Huntington, Long Island. Since my retirement, I avail myself of the wonderful programs and events that are held there.

I had signed up to audit a Master Class on Saturday given by the newly designated poet-in-residence, Marilyn Hacker, a poet unknown to me. I have been a poetry groupie since grad school at SUNY Buffalo when I had the opportunity to attend the poetry readings of many of today’s widely recognized poets including Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Allen Ginsburg, Richard Brautigan, Robert Bly, Bob Hass and many, many others. (I now notice the absence of women on the list!) To me, a great poet is the equivalent of a rock star. Walt Whitman is my current rock star because he hails from my hood and is the source of most of my recent poetic inspiration.

The Master Class offered me the chance to meet a critically acclaimed poet and to attend her reading. I chose to “audit” the class because it was less expensive than full participation, and because I still think of myself as a fledgling poet. I hoped that by auditing the class I would learn from more experienced writers than myself.

Big mistake! Most of the group was comprised of closet poets, like me, who were looking for feedback on improving their own writing. Ms. Hacker began the Master Class with a prompt: a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks entitled “the rites for Cousin Vit” which she asked the participants to respond to in writing.

Although it was interesting to hear everyone’s “take” on the poem, I felt disappointed that the class was run more on a shared-participation model than as an opportunity to learn from the poet’s comments on each individual’s writing. When the class ended, three hours later, I felt I still knew nothing about the poet or her writing or why she was chosen poet-in-residence for 2017.

In the two-hour interval between the class and the reading that followed, I found myself outside in the lovely garden with a poet, Pramila Venkateswaran, I’d heard read at a previous event at this same venue. We had a leisurely, collaborative conversation about learning multiple languages, native tongues, losing fluency in a second language for lack of another native speaker to converse with (in her case, German; in my case, French). Many of her poems are focused on the role of women in society, with emphasis on some of the more mundane and tedious roles they are reduced to playing. She offers gentle, and even loving depictions of these women trapped in their daily lives.

The late-afternoon reading had a light turn-out which I actually appreciate because for me this makes the event more private and personal, as though the poet is engaging in conversation with close friends. Ms. Hacker’s poems have a far-flung reach, referring often to friends dispersed throughout many countries, including France and the Middle East. In her newest poems she intersperses English with bits of Arabic or French which immediately gives her poetry a cache not present in most American poetry. Having lived in different cultures she is able to throw a broad net and come up with a catch that forms the basis of a poem, rich in cultural details and exotic language.

I sat up late in bed last night, reading poems from her newest collection: in some she is reminiscing about a long bygone relationship; she writes of friends who’ve suffered incredible personal loss through the hardship of wartimes; she reflects on her own physical scars and psychological wounds. But above all, hers is a voice that notices, analyzes and then bursts forth in poetry that is life-affirming. Needless to say, the reading more than made up for what I felt was missing in her earlier class.

Sunday, I was invited to read a poem I had recently written and submitted to a local poetry contest. The awards were kept a secret. I was finally called to the podium to read my poem which was awarded Honorable Mention. I felt honored to be in the company of so many devoted and talented Long Island poets, young and old. The poet who organized the event, Gayl Teller, ended the evening by saying that “we are all richer for having shared each other’s poems tonight.” Her point is well taken; I certainly did feel the connection to others with whom I’d shared a weekend of poetry.

I’ll close this post with the poem I read. The inspiration for it was a talk I heard given recently by Neil Degrasse Tyson, our beloved astrophysicist. In it, I refer to something that changed my life about two and a half years ago.

If Only…

If only the grownups
had told the truth
all those dreary Sundays
rising early to go to church
to learn about the mysteries
of water changed to wine
feeding the multitudes with
a basket of fish and loaves of bread
and as if that were not enough
how He walked on water
and rolled away the stone from the tomb
invoking lightning and thunder
then rose from the dead

When, in truth, it really
comes down to a few molecules
or a rogue cell that has decided
to take your life away from you
no miracles, no lightning or thunder
nothing to do with sinners or saints
just the Big Bang, on a smaller scale,
cells put in motion,
chaos, then order,
life, then death

We know that
one cell can create a life
but did you know
that one cell can take your life?

Barbara Suter
Spring 2017

‘Tis the Season…

At our house we’re doing the usual things…getting a holiday tree, putting a lighted wreath outside, buying a few gifts for relatives, planning the menu for Christmas dinner. I thought I’d have plenty of time this month to prepare, but somehow I’ve dawdled away some of that precious time. And now…it’s just around the corner!

Honestly, I’ve been seesawing back and forth this winter between what’s happening in my life and what’s happening in all our lives. The world feels different this year to me…as though the turmoil is cumulative and is reaching a point of no return. I am acutely aware of the thousands of people who are migrating across continents because their lives have become untenable where they live. I think about ordinary people everywhere whose way of life is being challenged by the new customs and behaviors of the new arrivals in their towns and cities. I have been thinking about the Native Americans protesting in the freezing temperatures of North Dakota, trying to protect their water rights and maintain their human rights. Every day I read about homeless people scattered in cities throughout the country and children living in third world conditions.

Because the world vibe feels so unsettled, I find it hard to focus on celebration, joy and gift giving when so much seems to be wrong for so many. Like, I suspect, many of you, I have written many checks recently for donations to causes I support, but I can’t help feeling it’s never enough. I try to support a balance of conservation efforts, protection of wildlife, meals and warm clothing for families barely making ends meet, and scholarships for young people who otherwise would have no chance at higher education. I volunteer wherever I feel I can make a difference. I know teachers everywhere are doing their best to keep their students focused on being sensitive to others and engaged in meaningful actions.

But truthfully, I feel overwhelmed. Although I am happy to contribute to help others, I can’t help feeling there’s something fundamentally wrong with a society that expects individuals to make up for what it refuses to provide for those who are needy, and for programs, like energy conservation, that we all need to save the planet. We all know there’s enough money in this country to take care of all of us. So why do we have to play these cat and mouse games with peoples’ lives?

I know we have to hunker down and do what we think is right, and hopefully “this too, shall pass.” I’ve enjoyed several TWT posts lately like “Keep your head up,” which is about keeping the big picture always foremost in mind. And I really am looking forward to time well spent with close friends and relatives during the holidays. But I am very, very disappointed in the direction in which we seem to be heading as a nation.

‘Tis the season…. Friends, I’d love to hear your thoughts in response to that sentence starter.

Why We Should Encourage Curiosity: The Case for Teaching Ignorance

A week ago, August 24th to be exact, I came upon this quote embedded in an editorial entitled The Case For Teaching Ignorance by Jamie Holmes in the NY Times:

“…in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.”

I couldn’t help but think of the recent Fox News TV debate by the odd assortment of Republican candidates for the Presidency. What I saw and heard, in addition to blustery Donald Trump, was a bunch of men making declarative, sweeping generalizations about their positions on various matters that were often ridiculous. It seemed they were trying to make their positions clear to the American people in the hope of becoming the favored candidate.

This kind of mano a mano debate leaves everyone dissatisfied. How can a few targeted, and sometimes loaded, questions responded to with truncated air-bites by the candidates give us the information we need for carefully choosing a new President? The process has almost become a parody of itself.

Many would agree that uncertainty is where we live at this point in time in the United States (and perhaps the world at large). We no longer have all the answers…that has become abundantly clear. Our Middle-East policies have failed, our financial institutions are failing working Americans, our education system is in turmoil, our medical system is in a state of constant flux. So how can a bunch of self-proclaimed experts on tv claim to have all the answers?

One of the few changes that I do support in the Common Core is the renewed emphasis on teaching students to ask meaningful questions in their quest for knowledge. Not only do I believe students need to be encouraged to ask more and better questions, I also believe that teachers need to become facilitators for seeking knowledge rather than experts.

“The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline–where knowledge meets ignorance extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Children are naturally curious and we ought to be focusing on deveoping their passionate minds. Before retirement, one of my favorite (albeit old-school) ways of beginning a new unit of study was to use a K/W/L chart. This consists of hanging up a large piece of chart paper on a wall or easel with three columns entitled What do you KNOW (about the subject); What do you WANT to know; and What have you LEARNED (as a result of the lesson). I am always very interested in the middle column, which becomes a list of the students’ questions, because it is that list that will drive our inquiry process.

Once we agree on what we collectively know as a class and record that information in the first column of the chart, I allow students to choose a question from the list of questions in the middle column that they can research alone or with a partner or small group. Becoming invested in seeking answers is what helps students dig deeper for information (another appealing Common Core principle ) and “own” what they discover. This process is so much more thought provoking and motivating than having me spoonfeed them everything I think they need to know.

It would have been so refreshing to see anyone on stage during the Republican debate not pretend to know all the answers but to pause and ask some questions of his own that might have helped reframe the debate into a more meaningful exercise for the American people. This would have taken courage, but isn’t that a quality we are seeking in a President?

“Our students will be more curious–and more intelligently so–if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.” Let’s help our students to realize that it’s ok to ask thoughtful questions; to not know all the answers; to understand that knowledge changes over time; to learn that seeking knowledge is most of the fun. If you get a chance to read the Times article, you may find yourself questioning, as I did, your own model for teaching and, perhaps, how we run our political campaigns.

Addendum: One of my heroes, Oliver Sacks, about whom I recently wrote on this blog, died this past weekend. In a feature written by Gregory Cowles in Monday’s NY Times, Dr. Sacks, reflecting on his youth, is quoted:

“The thousand and one questions I asked as a child…were seldom met by impatient or peremptory answers, but careful ones which enthralled me (though they were often above my head.) I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”

Thank you for sharing your deep curiosity about life. Rest in peace, Dr. Sacks.