29 July 2007

Teaching Meme

So, wow.. totally forgot I was part of this blog, but I'm glad to find it still intact. I plan on posting more stuff.

So, I saw this meme, and thought it was interesting. so.. here I go.

1. I am a good teacher because...
I connect with my students, I listen to them and make them feel respected, I know my subject matter and I really have the drive to teach.

2. If I weren’t a teacher, I would be... an anthropologist or a translator.

3. My teaching style is... sort of laid back, although I hope to get more rigid as time goes on.

4. My classroom is... full of posters and books and full of my own style. I want it to be a place students find comfortable, a place they want to be (which, they have shown me is completely true).

5. My lesson plans are... done two weeks in advance, and neatly arranged in a binder and color coded with handouts present and a post-lesson reflection... Who am I kidding.. That's a goal, not reality! Done on the fly, usually and written down only if I remember.

6. One of my teaching goals is... to focus on writing as whole, and not just as it pertains to literature. To rally teach grammar and not assume the students get it (because they don't sometimes).

7. The toughest part of teaching is... finding collaboration between parents, students and administrators.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is... watching a student who has truly struggled with a concept or an assignment suddenly get it. I love the light in thier eyes when this happens. It brings me true joy.

9. A common misconception about teaching is... that because we work a "6 hour day" that is all the time that is put into to teaching (and even one of those hours is a preparatory period, during which we should get everything done, right?)

10. The most important thing I’ve learned since I started teaching is... all students are different, and I should never stereotype. They will not all learn at the same pace at the same time.

18 February 2007

Teaching using REACH - Mid Year Evaluation

Last summer, I went to a couple of trainings on REACH, a program that extensively uses Direct Instruction. Direct Instruction is a method of teaching in which teachers are given a script to read, students respond to the script (whole class) and the teacher does not move on until the whole class understands the material being taught.

The REACH system is specifically geared for those students who have been identified as struggling learners. At our school site, students were identified using three types of measures: 1.) an oral reading in which errors were recorded; 2.) the CAT-6 scores (state mandated assessment) from the previous two to three school years; 3.) on grade level preassessment literacy test. Using those three measures, students were then placed in three categories: benchmark, strategic and intensive. Benchmark students are at grade level and above. We no longer have GATE classes in our school district. Strategic students may need help in either Mathematics or Language Arts, but don't require the three hour intensive class. Some of these students have two hours of Language Arts or two hours of Mathematics.

Those students identified as intensive are in a three hour block of REACH. The criteria for remaining in the class was to be based on attendance and behavior. The District assured teachers that those students who were behavioral issues would be removed from the program. Furthermore, those students who have chronic attendance issues will fail and again, we were reassured that they would be removed.

My three hour block is set up in this manner: first hour is devoted to decoding; 2nd hour is reasoning/comprehension; 3rd hour is morphographs and writing. Decoding is the ability to read text fluently. As most teachers know (or should know), if a child cannot decode reading material fluently, they will not be able to comprehend the material they are reading. Overall, I've seen some of my students make great strides in decoding. Some have admitted to me that they now enjoy reading, where before they hated it.

At the beginning of the school year, the majority of my students were not able to read 100 words per minute. Some barely made it to 60 or 70 words in a minute with several errors in decoding. Now, I have students reading 150 to 160 words per minute with virtually no errors. They are excited about their progress and I'm excited for them. Two of my students have tested out of the program and have been placed into the strategic block. The hope for them is that next year, they will be able to move into a benchmark placement.

I think that this program works well for those students who are struggling learners, but have the desire to do better. I also think that when placement is correct, then students will be successful and will thus, try to improve. Finally, I believe that if a district promises its teachers that certain criteria would be in place that they need to follow through.

That being said, my criticism of the program has more to do with my district than the program itself. However, my main gripe with this program is the lack of creativity. For instance, right now I'm reading Bridge to Terabithia to my students. This is not in the program and if a district person were to come into my classroom, they would probably question me as this is "not in the script." However, my students love this book and next year, I'm going to seriously consider getting class sets of a few books to read with my REACH students.

I'm doing this for a couple of reasons. First, my students are 6th graders and I believe strongly that they should be exposed to literature that their peers have been exposed to. Second, my students are still expected to take the District assessments every quarter and the CAT-6, which tests them are on 6th grade standards, such as conflict, plot, theme, metaphors, and the like. The REACH program does not teach this and I have a problem that my students are being held accountable for something I've not taught them.

The other shortcomings have nothing to do with the REACH program, rather it has to do with my Districts reluctance to abide by the criteria set forth for maximum results. Students who have been behavioral issues have remained in the program because the District does not want any class to be too small. (In fact, one of my students who had tested out of the program was only removed after I fought very hard to have him removed.)

Class size number has also been a factor for those students who placed below the level that we had the most students place in. In REACH, students are placed according to their reading level. So, for instance, the majority of our students placed in B2, which is what we started teaching out of at the beginning of the school year. We had a handful of non-special education students place in A (lowest level) and B1, who were put into a B2 classroom. This has meant that these students have struggled all year. In a program that is built upon rewarding points for achievement based on whole class learning, this can cause great frustration for those students who are placed appropriately, but are being dinged for points due to misplacement of other students. Again, this all came down to class size numbers. The District was unwilling to create a classroom for a small number of students who did not place in the B2 level.

(Right now, a co-worker and I are considering making some changes to help those students who were misplaced by either going ahead and creating a new class or doing something after school to help these students.)

So, overall I've been impressed with the growth I've seen in most of my students. Like I said before, some of them used to hate to read and now, they enjoy it. They understand what they are reading and are able to apply it. Much of my criticism has nothing to do with the program itself; rather it has to do with my District's reluctance to do what they promised to do.

15 November 2006

Teaching meme

1. I am a good teacher because... I am passionate about what I do and I work my ass off.

2. If I weren’t a teacher, I would be... a guidance counselor. Wait, a position outside of the school system? A psychologist or sociologist.

3. My teaching style is... relaxed, fun. I enjoy teaching, and I try to make my classes as interesting and enjoyable as possible for both my students and I, while still doing a good job with teaching.

4. My classroom is... colorful, busy, interactive, creative, and waaay too small for everything I need to do with it.

5. My lesson plans are... ummm... non-existent?? I mean, I do plan, but not really formally--I more just put together an outline and work off of that.

6. One of my teaching goals is... to be a more effective and consistent writing teacher. I've been better in the past, but I'm just not putting as much time into it this year as I need to.

7. The toughest part of teaching is... dealing with teachers and administrators who are consistently negative toward and to the students they are supposed to encourage.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is... seeing students enthusiastic about learning and proud of what they've accomplished academically.

9. A common misconception about teaching is... we get a lot of vacation time. Oooohh, don't EVEN get me started on this one (this coming from someone who spent 13 hours at school today, and put in a 75-hour week *just in time spent at school!* last week.)

10. The most important thing I’ve learned since I started teaching is... patience and love. I thought I had those before, but nothing could ever have prepared me for the depth of my love for my students and my job.

28 October 2006

Bribe or no bribe?

LA Times's School Me today links to an article from the LA-area paper The Daily Breeze, which reports that San Pedro High School is being required by the LAUSD and state educational officials to give up 12 new laptops and projectors given to the social studies department as part of a textbook purchasing deal. The reasoning LAUSD officials and the state gave is that such a technology purpose constitutes a bribe.

Two years ago, we entered into a similar deal with the same textbook publisher, Glencoe, and because I was fortunate enough to have some say with regards to textbook purchasing, I was able to see the other options out there.

While we had the option to get projectors and laptops, we instead chose another option--for every certain number of textbooks we purchased, we were allowed to choose a certain number of hardcover novels from their catalog of novels.

This was an absolutely FANTASTIC option. I'm not much of a textbook person myself--I admit that my own class set of Glencoe textbooks gets opened for about six months out of every school year. But I LOVE novels, and use them frequently in my classes. With this "bribe" from Glencoe, we were able to replace many of our aging novel sets, many of which had been purchased as paperbacks and used continually for over ten years. Trust me when I say that paperbacks were never intended to be continuously subjected to a high schooler's backpack for ten years--we had many novels missing covers and entire chunks of pages, and each time I'd pass out books, I'd also pass around a roll of duct tape so students could do repairs on their books.

Not only were we able to replace many of these books with durably-bound newer versions, but the newer versions also came with many supplementary readings and activities, some of which I use, some of which I don't.

Finally, having this option enabled us to select new novels we hadn't previously used before, and gave us a chance to figure out what students would like and what didn't work with them.

So is the state going to make us give them back to Glencoe? Well, they'll have to show up at my door and physically take them from me if they want them back, and then if they do actually show up, they may just find that all the novels have mysteriously disappeared. Because I'm sure not parting with a single book, at least not to some bureaucrat who tries to protect the children at the expense of the children.

My husband, El Maestro, teaches at a school where the history department just made the same deal as the one at San Pedro High (although, with a much smaller department, the deal at his school involved fewer computers and projectors.) I'm wondering now if that deal is in jeopardy as well.

What a loss.

15 October 2006

The price of a pound of cure

Tomorrow begins the 8th week of school, and I'm glad to say that in many respects, my year has settled down from where it was in my negative post of last month. I'm not really any less stressed, but I'm finally starting to feel the love for my students, and the fiasco that was class scheduling this year has fortunately abated.

However, one thing has been getting increasingly worse this year, worse than any other year I've been here at Small Town High--the violence. Every day in the teachers' lounge has become a sharing game of "who's suspended now?" as we compare notes on the students who disappear for the mandatory five-day suspension for "mutual combat", and we discuss the fights and their causes and what needs to be done to prevent them. Unfortunately, the problems this year seem to only be escalating as the weeks go on.

Much of the fighting this year has been gang-related. The town in which I live and teach is made up of two rival gangs--the Norteños and Sureños, with Surenos predominant. Sometime in the past week or so, there was a stabbing of a couple of students at the continuation high school (located mere yards off of the high school campus) and retaliation was threatened.

Thursday morning I pulled into the school parking lot at 7 AM, my usual time, and there were four police cars sitting at the curb. Since this is the bulk of our town's police force (in fact, it might have been the *entire* force) I was curious to find out what had happened. I soon found out from students about the stabbing and threatened retaliation... Unfortunately, I didn't find out from the administration until about six hours after the students had already filled me in.

At lunchtime on Thursday, there were at least a dozen cops, uniform and plainclothes, standing around campus watching the students. While we occasionally have one or two, it'd been a long time since I'd seen that many, and there was much chatter in the teachers' lounge about what was going on (the admin hadn't yet filled us in, so it was essentially speculation.)

After lunch, an administrator came classroom to classroom and handed each teacher a memo explaining the threat and what we should do if we heard anything or if something happened. It explained that the retaliation was supposed to take place either Thursday or Friday, which wouldn't have surprised me, as Friday was the 13th, and 13 is the number for the Sureños.

On Thursday night, I had several students call me at home and ask me if I thought it was safe to come to school on Friday. One student, an AP student, said that his parents didn't want him to come to school because they didn't feel it was safe, but that he didn't want the absence on his record because it would affect his grade in one of his classes. I was relieved to see him come into my classroom Friday morning before school, but I wondered how many other parents had done what his wanted to do. I was soon to find out.

My attendence in my Friday classes averaged around 50%, with my lowest being my last class, where only six students showed up. I kept my classroom door locked all day, and every time I sent a student to the restroom, I worried. The police presence around campus was even greater than the previous day--we had police from 5 cities and two counties, a weapons-detecting dog, and a mobile command center set up in the parking lot. At lunchtime, some kid thought it'd be a hilarious idea to pull the "blow up a lunchbag and pop it" trick, and the only two of us in the teachers' lounge that didn't jump were the two military veterans.

Towards the end of 7th period, the principal came on the PA system and said that he was dismissing school early due to the threat, and that all students and teachers had to be off campus within five minutes. Throughout everything since the beginning of school--the fights, students getting suspended, te cops on campus, the threats--I'd been more or less patient, but this is when I lost my temper completely.


Our school has to be one of the last ones in California without a fence around it, and I hate to say it, but I no longer feel safe here without one. There have been plans in the works for at least ten years now to fence in our campus, but there's always some excuse why there isn't one. It's not just because of violence that I want a fence. I've had students go off-campus to lunch and come back drunk or stoned. It's really easy for kids to ditch class, since there are over a dozen places where they can leave campus relatively undetected.

Outside of school hours, this place is not well-secured either. Since we're in California, land of mostly nice weather, all of our hallways are outside, and classroom doors open to the outside. People routinely drive onto our campus, tearing up lawns and cracking concrete. A couple of years ago, I came in early one morning and got chased by a pit bull, one of the many stray dogs that wanders onto campus to empty our trash cans on a fairly regular basis. I yelled at it and waved my arms and threw my keys at it, but it took a few minutes for my heart to stop racing. Taggers and vandalizers are free to wander in at will during the night time, and since the campus security lighting is shut off at 8 PM, the security cameras we have do little good to help to identify them.

Our students, conditioned as they are to their freedom, vehemently protest every time the idea of a fence is brought up. They don't want to go to school in a prison, they say, not realizing that a school where people constantly have to watch their backs isn't exactly Disneyland. Having a fence will limit the number of exit and entry points for people going on and off campus, making the campus easier to secure. I'm not even saying that students should be forbidden from going off-campus for lunch--I just want fewer options for exits. And while I believe that students should be allowed to leave campus for lunch, I think it needs to be a privilege, not a right. Let's base the privilege of leaving campus for lunch on grades, on attendence, on discipline record. These are all things that are tracked anyway, and I really think that we'd see a campuswide improvement in all three areas if we tie it to a privilege students hold as dear as they do their lunch privileges.

It'll be interesting to see if, after this most recent spate of violence and threats of violence, there is any community outcry about campus security and our lack of a fence, or if this will just fade into the collective memory until the next time there's a gang retaliation threatened. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or so the saying goes, and I worry that in this case, that pound of cure might end up costing more than just money.

26 September 2006

Yes, "average" students can do AP

In his column today, Jay Mathews discusses Patrick Welsh's assertion in his September 19th column that "average" students are being pushed into advanced classes (AP and IB) that are too difficult for them, and that they need to be in easier classes where they can succeed.

I agree with Mathews, and disagree with Welsh. What I see Welsh upset about is what I've spent four years trying to do with my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students, and in fact, is what the AVID program is geared toward. AVID's purpose is to challenge students academically by placing them in higher-level classes than they would have otherwise been in, and then--the important part--PROVIDING THEM WITH SUPPORT ONCE THEY'RE THERE.

Mathews, while he does an excellent job refuting Welsh's arguments, misses one key necessity--co-curricular support outside of the class itself. The process of moving "average" kids to higher-level classes won't work just by dumping them in AP classes and hoping they hang on. Virtually every student in higher-level classes is there at least in part because of a supportive parent, and this often-overlooked factor is often the determining factor between an "average" student and a "higher-level" one.

The purpose of the AVID program is to be the academic support (and de facto academic parent, when needs be) either for students whose parents are unable to help them at home, or in addition to the parents' support. As long as a student has the individual determination to succeed and a support structure on which to rely, the average student is just as capable of success as a higher-level one.

On a personal note, I'm proud to say that every single one of my AVID seniors this year has been moved up at least one level in English since their freshman year (from remedial to college-prep, college-prep to AP.) Two of them have even moved up two levels. Every single one of them has more than the UC-minimum of two years of lab science. Every single one of them has received credit for at least one AP or junior-college concurrent enrollment class (we have a very meager AP selection, so many students take JC classes to supplement their regular course load.) All but two of my AVID seniors have a UC GPA of a 3.0 or higher, and the two that don't are within spitting distance of it.

These are kids that started out below grade level. Many of them still tested at the basic level in English on the state test at the end of their junior year. They've worked extremely hard to be where they are, and I'm proud of all of them.

I've carried over my AVID philosophies into the pre-AP English classes I teach. Last year I took nine students that scored below grade-level ("basic") on the state tests. All of those kids also scored below grade level on an independently-administered reading exam we give them to determine class placement, so I know the exam results were more or less accurate. At the end of the year, six of those nine were recommended on for sophomore pre-AP. All six of those students scored on grade level this past year on the state tests, and one of them scored advanced (above grade level.)

Bringing so-called "average" students into AP classes is more important than just for looking good with regards to how many minorities are enrolled in higher-level classes. As Mathews stated, it takes an incredible amount of extra work on the part of the teacher and the parents. But this is what we, as professionals, are supposed to be doing anyway.

If we want these students to truly succeed in college, they need to be doing college-level work *now*. Students don't just magically show up to college and suddenly have the skills necessary to succeed--this is a process that must be learned through prior preparation. With programs like AVID, so-called "average" students can be prepared and supported to succeed in rigorous courses in both high school and college, as long as they have the individual determination to do the work.

Mathews, Welsh, and any other interested party can ask any of my honors students if I ever once slowed down my English class just to support students who were struggling. I already know what their answer will be. All of my support methods were either built into the class or conducted outside of school time, and virtually all of the students thrived--it came down essentially to the matter of whether or not they were willing to put in the extra work necessary to succeed.

I have enjoyed Welsh's writing before, but I really think he missed the mark on this one. His is a mindset I see all too often in my school, and it's one thing to beat my head against the same walls locally, but it truly frustrates me to see those same opinions espoused in a more national venue by a person who should really know better.

We need an "Extreme Makeover: School Edition"

Overheard yesterday while talking about trying to get work orders fulfilled at my school:

"Yeah, it's like the Make-A-Wish Foundation."

Maybe you had to be there, or maybe you just have to work in our district, but I laughed so hard tears were leaking out of my eyes.

Maybe I'm just bitter about the broken desk I still have (why oh why did the Williams Act people skip my classroom when they came last week?) or the projector that STILL isn't ceiling-mounted after 4 years, leaving students to trip over the cord, or the three work orders I've put in since April to get the tagging outside my classroom door painted over... Yeah, probably that.

Our school is painted white, and I'm convinced that only idiots paint a school white. It's like saying, "yeah, here's a nice fresh canvas for you guys to draw/paint/tag on!" I might as well start passing out Sharpies and reward them with extra credit for creativity.

17 September 2006

Confronting the Culture of Can't Do

This week's LA Times's School Me column by Bob Sipchen really struck a chord.

Sipchen discusses the trials of Danny Martinez, just another freshmen beginning his year at just another southern California high school, facing just another battle with the school to be placed in classes befitting his goals and abilities, rather than classes that the school has room in which to put him.

Sipchen finishes his column with his question of the week: "Have your first weeks of school been fun or frustrating?"

Sadly, my first weeks of school have resembled Daniel's, only from the teacher's end rather than the student's.

Although my school is roughly 1/3 the size of Eagle Rock, we have had the exact same scheduling problems--students shelved in classes where they are out of their ability range (either too easy or too difficult), an administration promising to straighten schedules out, an overworked guidance department who tells us daily not to send students to the office because they don't have the resources to deal with them.

Tomorrow begins the fourth week of school, and I'm still trying to get scheduling changes for four students in one of my classes, students who should have never been placed in that class to begin with and who requested the change before school began. On Friday, I was told that, with luck, they'll be out of the class by the end of the month, 5 weeks after the start of school.

Sadly, I have other students who just gave up and accepted their fate--students repeating classes at a lower level that they already passed on a higher one, students who gave up on getting the math or science or history class they need for college admission because they were told too many times the same thing that Daniel and his mother were told: "There's nothing I can do."

This year has been unusually replete with scheduling nightmares, and all of us teachers have become cranky and cynical on a level not normally seen until May, with the onset of state testing. I thought it was just me, and then in the lunchroom on Friday, we all came to the consensus that it feels like the end of the year, instead of just the beginning.

I can deal with my own convoluted schedule--five preps, class sizes of up to 39 students, a classroom that was supposed to undergo modernization beginning at the end of the month, but has now been pushed off three more months. I don't like it, but I don't have a choice, so I deal.

What I can't handle is seeing students, strong and struggling alike, stuck in a system designed to support them, but that instead seems to be failing them this year. I estimate this year that close to half of my students have a study hall or teacher's assistant period, simply because there is no class space in which to put them. We're short teachers. We're short classroom space. We lost one of our computer labs this year. Our library has been turned into the front/counseling office because the office building is undergoing modernization, and that is apparently also running late.

What started as an exasperating and stressful series of events for all of us has turned into an educational farce. While all of us (administrators, office/counseling staff, and teachers) are soldiering on as best as possible, none of us are happy, and it's an attitude that is rubbing off on the students.

There's nowhere to really point the blame for the disaster that this school year has been so far. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in this case, the situation we're in at the moment is so convoluted that I don't think that more prior planning could have even averted the problems we are having.

I'm exhausted, and it's only the beginning of the fourth week. I'm rapidly becoming bitter--bitter with the system, bitter with the students, bitter with public education as a whole.

I hate to lose faith so soon, but I honestly don't think I've ever had a worse start to a school year, either as a teacher or as a student.

Sorry Bob--I doubt that's what you were looking for. I'm generally optimistic and enthusiastic at the start of each new year, but that's just not happening for me right now.

Sage Advice Indeed

Around last March, I acquired a subscription to Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and that is free for teachers.

I picked up this month's issue and was thumbing through while I was making dinner, and my eyes settled upon the Sage Advice column, where the question of the month was "What's the most commonly asked question in the classroom?"

I laughed long and loud at one response:

Most frequently asked question: "Can I go to the bathroom?"
Most frequently heard response: "I don't know? Can you?"
Next most frequently asked question: "May I go to the bathroom?"
Next most frequently heard response: "Yes, you may."

This is a daily exchange in my classroom, and it seems as though every year, just as soon as I get one group of students trained, they move on and I start the new year, training a new group of students.

It was the final response on the page, however, that really made me think:

"What are we doing today?" A large number of middle school students ask this question every day, despite having the day's agenda written on the whiteboard and the weekly calendar printed and handed out on Mondays.

What they are really asking is, "Can I connect with you again today?" and "Please focus on me, because I want some one-on-one time with you." Never underestimate the power of a friendly teacher smile, a listening ear, and a word or two with these students!

While I work with freshmen, they are usually not far from middle-school students in terms of behavior and ability, and this is a question that I hear scores of times in a single day. Usually, I will tell the first student that asks (despite the fact that I too have an agenda on the board) and then, when each successive student asks, I'll point to that first student and say, "I don't know, ask _____."

It never really occured to me until I read the above piece of sage advice what students are really asking, and now I've resolved that, when they ask, I'll instead ask them how their day has been thus far.

I enjoy talking with my students--hearing about their lives and their thoughts and their general outlook on things. For the past four years, however, I always interpreted the "what are we doing today" question as nothing more than kids being too lazy to look on the board, an interpretation that now makes me cringe. I want my students to connect with me, I want to connect with them, and I'm glad that the sage advice opened my eyes.

So, how was your day?

16 September 2006

Critical Thinking, Not Standardized Tests

Well said...

Public Schools Should Teach Kids How to Think, Not How to Master Multiple Choice

By Jeff Lantos

(JEFF LANTOS teaches at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles.)

I'M BEGINNING my 20th year of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and if I've learned anything, it is that good teaching cannot be measured quantitatively.

Every year, we hear administrators crowing or politicians moaning over student test scores as if these numbers were indisputable indicators of teaching excellence, mediocrity or failure.

In fact, test scores (on the annual standardized state test) are like the closing prices on the stock exchange. They fluctuate for any number of reasons. A bad breakfast, a case of the jitters or skipping a line and filling in the wrong bubbles can wreak as much havoc as not knowing the difference between "abjure" and "adjure."

Likewise, teaching to the test can inflate scores but, given no context, all this random information is seldom retained. As a result, evaluating a teacher based solely on student test scores is like evaluating a corporation based solely on just one day's stock price.

If you really want to evaluate a teacher, you have to walk into a classroom, sit down and listen. I'm convinced that when you're listening to good teaching, you hear a familiar refrain. It goes like this: What is the connection between … and … ? So much of good teaching is about taking strands of information and looking for connections and broadening the context.

Endless test preparation has the opposite effect. It shrinks the context. It reduces inquiry. It mitigates against Socratic dialogue and can drain much of the passion from teaching and learning.

If we can get beyond the notion of schools as testing factories, then teachers will have the freedom to strive for a higher standard of excellence. Part of that higher standard would include the teaching of critical thinking. How does a teacher do that? By creating an academic environment in which students can sift through the mass of facts being hurled at them and begin to perceive pathways of interconnectedness.

The irony is that young students begin by making connections. They're taught to check their subtraction by adding. They can see that a rectangle can be divided into two triangles. They know there's some link between the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag hanging from the wall. They connect classroom behavior with a specific code of conduct.

The challenge for teachers is to build on that foundation, to encourage students to seek connections between, say, fractions and percentages, or between lobbying and legislation, or between Copernicus and Darwin, or between the main characters in two different novels.

I like to ask my students why the food in India, Africa and Mexico is so much spicier than the food in Ireland, Iceland and Finland. Typically, lots of theories are advanced and eventually (and perhaps with some guidance) students use their knowledge of geography, chemistry, botany and economics to make the connections that will lead to an explanation. We teachers call this "thinking across the curriculum."

Once students start seeing how and why seemingly disparate topics are related, and more important, once they start looking for and making those connections, then the teacher will have performed that special kind of classroom alchemy — turning passive receivers of knowledge into active participants in the learning process.

The answer to the spice question: First, spices grow in equatorial regions; and, second, in hotter climes, food rots more quickly, so spices were needed to preserve the food and, later, to mask the rancid smell.