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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tin Plates & Twine

Tin Plates & Twine

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            This summer has been more of a challenge for my wife, Wendy, and I, as we plant and tend to our garden.  The deer in our yard are more active, and we can no longer secure protection for our seedlings by using simply the same posts and chicken wire that kept rabbits at bay in the past.  After a few tomato-plant top-offs by our four-legged friends, we resorted to a combination of sprays and granules, and even a plastic-encased deer-repellant contraption that we heard was much the rage on golf courses.
            Didn’t work too well -- More nibbles, just about when the nurseries were starting to run a bit short. 
We needed something else.
            What we found was a YouTube video showing a gentleman who had constructed a tin plate hanging by a string, which banged against a stick that was stuck into the ground when the wind would blow.  With an old bamboo pole, some twine from the garage, and a three-pack of tin pie pans from the local shopping center, we had a better fix than all of those sprays, granules, and golf course solutions combined, for a total of only 88 cents. 
Works like a charm.

            Made me think of what we do nowadays in K-12 schools to protect our own seedlings as they grow and develop.  Might we be overcomplicating what we are demanding that teachers provide to our kids in order for them to blossom? 

            In many cases we’re expecting our teachers to use the most cutting-edge of sprays, granules, and contraptions-of-pedagogical-prowess to promote growth, all in a garden reminiscent of Robert Frost’s poem Lodged, where “The rain to the wind said, ‘You push and I’ll pelt.’”  
In some “best-practice” circles, even the “How” of education is being prescribed (and proscribed), along with the “What.” One example includes teachers being admonished by their principals not to teach from behind their desks – they are evaluated, in part, on how often they move around.  This is intended purportedly to maximize engagement, or at minimum, to increase motivation. 
I would ask, “In whom?”
Today, teachers need to unpack “this” and unbundle “that” . . . they must Professional-Learning-Community “this” and Response-to-Intervention “that,” in order to receive praise from their bosses.  There’s really nothing wrong with these expectations, by and large, yet something begins to derail a bit with universal edict. 
Mike Schmoker’s (2011) approach is more my style, encouraging folks as the title of his book says, to Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning.  In the spirit of focusing on what’s important, I’d like to put in a pitch for an icon once considered “the baby” of good teaching, hence seemingly discarded with “the bathwater” of those who have demonstrated not-so-good teaching.
            That baby – The traditionalist-master:  The teacher who comes to class every day and after greeting students individually at the door, sits down and asks them to open their textbooks to page “such and such.”
The teacher who holds court from behind a desk, with a confident persona that far surpasses the squeakiness of many who break a sweat in their Bobbleheading, running around here and there, while working twice as hard as the students. 
The teacher who offers some tried and true bells and whistles for students who will need skills at navigating textbooks.  I have a nephew who took a firefighters’ certification exam recently, who had to study over the holidays from a book that appeared three inches thick.
The teacher who sits and talks, looks and listens, checks for understanding [yes, from behind the desk], and commands a presence so that all know what is expected of them, and all rise to the occasion.

            It’s precisely this teacher, the traditionalist-master, whose room feels predictably comfortable for students – like a learners’ living room, a public-school/paver-stone patio, a curricular café, or even a scholastic support-group lounge – where the comforts of casual conversation and mutual dignity allow for a pressure release. The traditionalist-master’s classroom is a place where permission is given to be oneself, and to learn.  It is a place where as a student, everybody knows your name, especially the teacher, where cliques don’t exist (because the teacher won’t tolerate them), and where predictability of regimented routine is a welcome respite from the unpredictability of childhood or adolescence.
            Or from Bobbleheads who run around.
            It’s a place where tin plates and twine offer solutions to learning challenges, in a society that has become so technological and chemical in its problem solving, overloaded to such a degree with options that children’s efforts to learn, grow, and prepare for our futures are inhibited.
            Unfortunately, the traditionalist master’s classroom has been given a bad rap by others in our profession who sit while they teach, as well, yet command neither the presence of personality nor the content credentials of our best.  They sit while teaching (or not), yet in these circumstances, desks are not used as altars of learning; they are used instead as fortresses of distance, shields against the discovery of incompetence.
            It’s sort of like what we profess about lectures nowadays, versus what’s really the problem with them.  When lectures are a problem, it’s not the lecture as a teaching strategy that’s the problem; it’s the person delivering the lecture that’s the problem.
            I’d like to champion the use of tin plates and twine in our teaching, and in doing so, put in a vote for those who teach from behind their desks, and are really good at it. 
The traditionalist-master’s classroom may be a more effective way to make a lasting difference on behalf of the children whose needs require the care and feeding that “tradition” provides, where they can find success in K-12 academics, in education beyond, and in life.


When thinking of the traditionalist-master, Dr. Ryan Donlan oftentimes thinks fondly of those from his past who he has seen make such a positive difference in the lives of students who struggle in school.  Dr. Donlan offers admittedly that his perspectives here are more those of intuition and observation (at times, n=1), than from science or research.  If you would like to offer friendly points of debate, please feel free to contact him at 812-237-8624 or at


Pickerick1. (2013, March 19). How to keep deer out of your garden or tomato plants organically. [Video file]. Retrieved at

Schmoker, M. (2011). FOCUS: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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