Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Question and Answer with Sandra Bornstein

In 2010, Sandra Bornstein’s teaching career took her to India and on a journey that few get to travel. In the fall of 2010, she began the transformative experience of living and teaching at a highly respected international K-12 boarding school in Bangalore, India. Sandra has chronicled her experiences in a memoir titled May This Be the Best Year of Your Life and shares the following insights with us about her experiences both as a teacher and a writer. 


What was the most notable difference about students in India from students in the United States?

For years, the students in my fifth grade Indian class had been taught to regurgitate facts. They had experienced few opportunities to analyze and synthesize information like American children. Almost everything followed a certain formula. Even English was taught using a long list of grammar rules. Daily writing prompts were not part of the Cambridge curriculum. I decided to add writing prompts to my lesson plans.

One day I told the class that they had a “free write.” The concept of a “free write” is a basic part of an American writing curriculum.  I was totally surprised when most of the class raised their hands after I gave the simple instructions. None had ever been given the opportunity to write without any specific directions. They were used to being told “what to do.” They struggled with the concept of coming up with their own ideas even though each had created a personal list of possible topics.

You noted in your book that your classroom in India contained only a few books.  How did you address this teaching challenge?

When I interviewed for teaching positions in January 2010, I was only provided a quick tour of the classrooms and general facilities. I did not notice the lack of books or materials.

During the teacher orientation in August, I observed the minimal number of resources. If I had encountered this situation in the US, I would have shared items from my private collection or purchased new items.

In India, I had almost no options to supplement my classroom. The school was located far away from a bookstore and there were no teachers’ stores. I did not have a car. I was frustrated by the limitations.

On the weekends, I occasionally visited bookstores to purchase books. I created a reading corner in the back of the classroom and encouraged students to borrow the books. I started a reading challenge that promoted the meager selection of library books and our growing classroom library.

Several times a week, I volunteered my time to teach an ESL class for emergent learners. One of my biggest challenges was locating multiple copies of easy readers that jived with the 5th grade curriculum. Oftentimes I had to arrange for Xerox copies to be made since there was only one book. I would have to plan well in advance. It took several days for the copy room to complete a larger order.

The Internet speed on my computer resembled an old fashion dial up system. It took too much time to download most materials from the Internet. Moreover, the primary school printer was frequently broken.

None of the primary classrooms were provided any overhead projectors. Since the classroom was long and narrow, it was difficult for the kids in the back of the room to see the white board. My numerous requests for an overhead projector were left unanswered.

Despite the lack of materials, I tried to engage my students by modeling a passion for learning and reading.

What aspect of teaching in a foreign country presented the greatest obstacle for you?  How did you handle this challenge?

Most of the Indian teachers were never exposed to some of these philosophies I learned in the US  and therefore did not see the relevance of things like setting the tone of the class during the first few days of class by creating a community of learners who understood the value of cooperation and respect. They seemed to want to start teaching as soon as possible as if they were in a hurry to complete the curriculum.

What advice would you offer someone who wanted to teach in India?

I would recommend that prospective international teachers be flexible since it is likely that they will encounter the unexpected. Living abroad is totally different than life in America. Becoming overly frazzled by unforeseen obstacles can inhibit one’s ability to enjoy a wonderful international teaching adventure. After all, some of the most engaging teaching experiences are a result of the unpredictable classroom moments you encounter along the way.


What do you hope readers will learn from reading your memoir?
There are multiple messages that I am sharing with my readers. The most prevalent lesson pertains to individual choices. People tend to be most comfortable living within their established comfort zone and rarely make daring decisions. Stepping outside a self-imposed boundary oftentimes creates unnecessary anxiety and irrational fear.

What did writing this book reveal to you about your writing process?

Writing is a process that requires unfettered dedication and a willingness to accept criticism. Without dedication it is not possible to handle the multiple rounds of revision and editing. Each time I read my manuscript, I fine-tuned my writing. Whenever any of my editors or prepublication readers read my story, I needed to decide whether I agreed with his/her editing comments and recommendations. Being able to look objectively at the constructive criticism was a challenge at times. I needed to take a step back and see if I could see my words from a different perspective. After going through multiple rounds of editing and revisions, I became committed to perfecting my voice and style.

How long did it take you to write this book?  
Due to the process and time involved with revising and editing, it took almost two years to complete the book.  

How did you decide which details to include and which to leave out?

Initially I included almost everything. I was not paying attention to word count or page numbers. After the developmental edit, I had a better grasp of my main threads. I cut out parts that were not necessary and in some instances added information that made my story clearer. I included more dialogue, streamlined events, and revised the narrative so that it supported my key points and all of the lessons that I learned. 

What is your best advice for aspiring writers?

Do not procrastinate. Decide what you want to write about and don’t delay anymore. Establish a daily time to write and adhere to the schedule as much as possible.

Learn more about Sandra’s book, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life at

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Just the Right Words

I love Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.  Lilly is one of the richest picture book characters that I know and I am always excited by the depth of understanding that students arrive at when challenged to consider her as a character.  But getting them to this point always takes a bit of nudging because when they start to think about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, they want to use words like “nice” and “happy” to describe her.  I explain to children that “nice” and “happy” just don’t seem to really capture who Lilly is and I push them to think of more specific words that help them to unpeel the layers that compose Lilly’s character. 

When forced to reconsider their ideas at the beginning of the story, they think to call her “enthusiastic” and “excited.” Those are words that do capture Lilly’s essence when she stands on line for the buses even though she doesn’t ride one and the way that she asks for her own set of deluxe picture encyclopedias. As they move to the middle of the story and Lilly gets her movie star sun glasses and fancy purple purse and wants to share them with the class, they arrive at words like “hyperactive” and “impatient” and “diva-like.” They want to call her “anxious” and we get the opportunity to talk about the difference between “anxious” and “eager.” They decide that she is eager. 

When the students see Lilly stick the nasty picture of Mr. Slinger into his bookbag, their jaws drop and they call her “mean” and “disrespectful.” They begin to consider whether she really means this or if she is just being “impulsive.”  The discussion is animated and rich with ideas as well as precise vocabulary. 

In her article, “Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy” that appeared in American Educator in winter 2010-2011, Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, “Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” (p. 8)    As children gaze through the lens of behavior and feelings at Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, words act as this conduit to meaning-making that Adams hints at in her article,  making me understand the shift toward academic vocabulary in the Common Core. New words means new ideas.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thinking Intermissions

Every now and then you read a tidbit here or there that resonates.  Last spring, I read Brain Rules (amazon affiliate link) by John Medina and was particularly struck by the case that he makes for exercise.  He points out that “from an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed while working out, walking as many as twelve miles per day.  The brain still craves that experience…” (p.2) After reading the chapter in this book dedicated to exercise, I really began to think about the amount of time we ask children to sit and started to question the harm in quiet, seated children.  I wondered how learning could be different if we invited children to move more often?

Throughout the course of the school year, I have experimented with having students move about the classroom. While the transitions don’t always meet my expectations, the learning outcomes have been impressive. 

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog titled Not-So-Teachable Moments where I reflected on lengthy read alouds, noticing that in spite of my most animated efforts, some children can’t help but drift off when a books exceed their stamina level for sitting or paying attention.  That experience has stuck with me and I’ve since tried to keep my read alouds focused, always cognizant of the how long it takes to read a book. 

One of my favorite books to read is Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, but if you know this title, you know it’s a little on the long side especially if you want to stop to talk about any number of the teaching opportunities it presents.  This week, while working with a group of third graders thinking about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, I noticed that in spite of being very interested in the story, they were getting a little restless.  John Medina’s words echoed in my head and halfway through the story, I invited them to stand up and join me for a “thinking intermission.” 

I explained to the children that what we needed was a few moments to walk and contemplate our ideas about this story.  The rule was that they had to walk quietly (they had plenty of opportunity to talk and share ideas during the read aloud) about the room thinking about Lilly and their ideas about her character.  When they returned, I asked about their new thinking and was astonished at how many of them came up with poignant new words to describe her behavior and feelings.  The exercise boost their brain power, just like John Medina promised!

In reflecting on this experience, I am forced to think hard about the beliefs and traditions that prevail in education.  I am thinking that “sit still and think” is not the most efficient and effective way to foster new ideas and it makes me wonder, what else do we do that we should be doing differently? 

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear, 2008. Print.