Make 2019 Magical!

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JK Rowling says, “Something magical happens when you read a good book.”

Tisha Richmond’s book Make Learning Magical: Transform Your Teaching and Create Unforgettable Experiences in Your Classroom is a book that will inspire and ignite. I first met Tisha through the weekly #XPLAP Twitter chat and was always enamored with the pictures and ideas she shared on Twitter regarding gamifying her culinary classes. I was honored when she contributed a chapter in my book Gamify Literacy (ISTE, 2017) on the culinary missions her students embark on each semester. Her passion and commitment to education is contagious. Taking cues from Mary Poppins and Mr. Rogers, she shows us that play, laughter, and fun is necessary for learning.

Make Learning Magical is filled with amazing magical learning experiences. She sprinkles joy and love in all that she creates. The seven components she writes about in her book and ones that I will continue to adopt in my own teaching include:

Memorable Beginnings – Warm welcomes, entertaining hooks, passion and enthusiasm are important in creating a classroom community. I love that Tisha has a coffee bar in her classroom and rewards students with a trip to the coffee bar for winning special challenges.  Think about the vibe in your classroom and what kinds of activities you can do in your classroom to build a spirit of community and belonging.

Authenticity and Agency – Kindness, gratitude, and passion are important, even more so, giving students voice in the classroom. Teachers need to provide more hands-on activities and connect with students to personalize learning.

Gamified Experiences – Immersive learning happens in Tisha’s culinary class. She has gamified each of her classes from Masterchef and the Great American Food Truck Race. She uses Mystery Boxes and mini games to promote learning and critical thinking. She deconstructs basic games and shows you how to design them into content specific learning opportunities.

Innovation – “Thinking about things differently, shaking up the status quo, and devising new and better ways of teaching – is how we make learning magical.” It is about being open to using technology in innovative ways and adapting existing things (and even lessons) for new purposes.

Creativity, Collaboration, and Curiosity  – Creating missions for students to demonstrate their learning and go above and beyond the required curriculum is another gasified element in Tisha’s classroom. She allows students to create videos and other artifacts to showcase their learning and talents.

Authentic Audience – School today is about real and relevant. The assignments that students create should help them not only get a grade in the class but also give them skills and knowledge they need to succeed outside of the classroom. Meaningful learning experiences are key. Students aren’t only creating for the teacher but for a wider audience and build connections.

Legacy –  “Every day we have the power to transform students’ lives.” How do you celebrate student successes and how can you help your students realize they have worth?

The new year has just started and our resolutions are in place to be better in the new year. Transforming our classrooms into a magical space where students feel valued and heard is important in building community and making learning happen. Tisha’s book has give me some new ideas how I can adapt my current practices and games in my classroom to spark magic, play, and meaning everyday.

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The Teaching Factor’s 18 Highlights of 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, I want to reflect on the highlights of this past year. I was out and about presenting and learning from amazing people around the United States. Attending and presenting at conferences allows me to grow as a teacher and bring back to my students and colleagues best practices. As a teacher one should never stop learning. I look forward to another year of growth, professional development, connecting, and evolution as an educator.

Conferences:

Learning & the Brain Conference; Boston, MA

CECA CASL; Foxwoods, Connecticut

Scholastic Reading Summit; Greenwich, CT

ISTE Annual Conference; Chicago, IL

Summer Spark; Milwaukee, WI

Publications:

Mockingbird Should Be Part of a Larger LessonSchool Library Journal 10/2018

Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies & Tools to Support All Learners; ISTE, 06/2018

4 Ways to Personalized Reading for All Learners; ISTE Blog, 4/2018

4 Interactive Tools to Help Learners Build Reading Skills; ISTE Blog 3/2018

Teaching Highlights:

Nonfiction Journalism Quest

Literary Menu Summer Reading Assignment

Sonnet Project

WWII Multi genre Writing Project

More To Look Forward to in 2019:

New Realms for Writing to be published June 2019

More Virtual Reality and Maker Space

Innovative Literacy

Evolving and Expanding Gamification

Digital Citizenship as immersive curriculum

10 Professional Titles that Inspire & Change the Trajectory of Teaching

I am one of those people who has a stack of books overflowing on my nightstand next to my bed, another pile taking over my desk, and an Amazon wish list twelve books deep what to read next. Professional books are ones that I read closely with a pen to annotate and bring back to my classrooms. This past year I have read ten professional books that I have blogged about in detail and here are a few more worth mentioning.

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180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle (Heinemann, 2018)

After sitting in a round table session with both Kittle and Gallagher at NCTE back in 2017 I was awaiting this book to see an inside look at how both these amazing high school teachers planned the year in their classroom teaching reading and writing. For any English teacher, this book is a must read because it gives an honest perspective to the demands of teaching reading, writing, and critical thinking.

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A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts (Heinemann, 2018)

I have been lucky enough to take a week long class with Kate at Teachers College Reading and Writing Institute more than ten years ago and have followed her because of her ideas and energy. What is great about this book is how she balances book choice and whole class novels in the reading and writing workshop. She seems to teach reading units in small 2-3 week bursts but that helped me to look closely at how long I may be drowning my students in a reading unit. I am more selective about what I choose to spend time teaching with each whole class novels so that my students can enjoy the books we read together.

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Workshopping the Canon by Mary Styslinger (NCTE, 2018)

Another recommended title for my ELA and Literacy colleagues. This book demonstrates how to partner classic texts with a variety of high-interest genres within a reading and writing workshop structure, Mary E. Styslinger aligns the teaching of literature with what we have come to recognize as best practices in the teaching of literacy.

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Shake it Up Learning by Kasey Bell (DBC, 2017)

When I ran into Kasey Bell at #ISTE18 we swapped books and I sat in the airport awaiting my flight home reading her book. Her ideas are straightforward in helping to create learning experiences for students that empower and ignite curiosity and critical thinking. Her book is accessible to all and she has practical ideas to shake up your teaching and student learning.

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Sparks in the Dark by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney (DBC, 2018)

Lead with Literacy by Mandy Ellis (DBC, 2018)

This summer I wrote a longer post about the key ideas that I took away from these two books. If the title states or suggests anything to do with literacy, I am going to read it. Both these books are filled with literacy activities that help support the reading and writers in our classrooms and Mandy’s book is all about building a culture of students who love literacy.

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Be Real by Tara Martin (DBC, 2018)

Tara has this infectious personality that is so authentic. After spending time with her at SPARK and ISTE this past year, I am a follower and fan. From #booksnaps and building relationships, Tara is all about “you be you and know that you are awesome.”

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Make Learning Magical by Tisha Richmond (DBC, 2018)

I consider Tisha a friend ever since we connected through Twitter four years ago. She is an amazing person and always inspired me with the wonderful things she did with her high school culinary students. I am so excited that she has published her first book. Laughter, fun, and gamified experiences can make school a place where students are inspired, empowered, and immersed in learning–and it doesn’t require illusions or smoke and mirrors. The actionable techniques Tisha shares will equip you to put your students center stage in their learning experiences. You want to be in her classroom after reading all the great things she does with her students.

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Hacking the Writing Workshop: Redesign with Making in Mind by Angela Stockman (Hack Series, 2018)

I am on a Makerspace quest and thinking how the writing process and design thinking process of the maker movement parallel each others. I have been doing research and a lot of reading how I can bring making and writing together to boost students writing and creative thinking. Angela Stockman’s book was the start with some key ideas to help me on this quest.

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The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection by Colby Sharp (Little Brown, 2018)

Speaking of creativity, Colby’s book is filled with creative writing prompts that published authors shared with him and answered other people’s creative prompts. These are great prompts to read and complete with your student to inspire creative thinking and growth mindset.

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New York Times Op Docs Incredible Teaching Tool

The New York Times website has great resources for teachers. There are gems throughout the website that can be used as teaching tools, texts, and learning opportunities all teachers need to know about. One of these gems is Op-Docs.

Op-Docs is a short documentary series begun by The New York Times Opinion section in 2011. Today it comprises more than 270 short, interactive and virtual reality documentaries. Each film is produced by both renowned and emerging independent filmmakers.

As the Times states these documentaries are, “films driven by the creative and journalistic interests of the filmmaker and that will also challenge the New York Times audience to see the world in new ways. Op-Docs spark conversations, tell memorable and astonishing stories, introduce powerful and unexpected individuals, make thought-provoking arguments and give viewers unforgettable cinematic experiences.”

Documentary film, done well, can engage and instruct through storytelling. But a film can’t stand alone as an instructional method. Watching the documentary should only be part of the process. Discussion questions and related readings need to be included in the mix to prompt reflection and to illustrate the topic more completely.

The Op Docs have so much potential in our classroom for teaching critical and close reading to writing different text types for different purposes.  So many of these short films showcase aspects of life that are hidden or unspoken.

I was moved by San Quentin’s Giants about the San Quentin prison baseball team. This Op Doc showcases how baseball is a vehicle for reform, reflection, and purpose for the incarcerated players. When the film begins the images show men playing baseball, one might think it is a local or community baseball team until the camera zooms out in the background the viewer sees the barbwires around the buildings and the people on the periphery wearing prison jumpsuits.

Again, these documentaries are used to inform viewers about the people, places, and things presented in the film. Some might describe these types of films as a “slice of life” that presents an angled representation of a subject.

If we asked students to create documentary films what might they present on film with research and narrative?   Whereas San Quentin uses storytelling and interviews, the Op Docs A Conversation with . . . about race are interviews and testimony with people about race, racism, and perspective. The testimony of the people interviewed are a catalyst for classroom  discussions. Think about what these same conversation might look like and sound like in school. From our students’ perspectives what will they say about race, class, or gender in their school and community.

 

After watching a number of these Op Docs with my students and discussing the research and filming elements involved, I asked students to research and investigate the issues that are hiding in our school. Who are people worth shining a light on their life? Wright’s Law really puts into perspective how much we might not know about someone.

When I posed this question to my students some students wanted to address bullying, a common theme in schooling today. Whereas, another group researched video game playing and addiction among young people because of the influence of Fortnite. In completing this project students had to gather relevant data from multiple sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information in documentary film writing.

First, research is conducted, then students have to decide how they wanted to string together the facts and testimony. The Op Docs blends a bit of narrative with information and argument writing.  We studied closely how to start the documentary by visually hooking the audience right from the moment the film starts. This might be a statistic about the topic presented in the film or a sound bite from an interview conducted with a member of the school community. Then, students introduced the topic and elaborated by including both visual and audio footage to offer perspective on the topic. This, in turn, is like support material in an essay or research paper. Students are still working on their projects and I should share some finished films soon. 

Any person can actually submit a op-doc to The New York Times and this can be an authentic assignment for students to create as a project based learning opportunity. The New York Times is looking for “films that are driven by the creative and journalistic interests of the filmmaker and that will also challenge the New York Times audience to see the world in new ways. Op-Docs spark conversations, tell memorable and astonishing stories, introduce powerful and unexpected individuals, make thought-provoking arguments and give viewers unforgettable cinematic experiences.”

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Haiku: Teaching Japanese Aesthetics Through Its Poetry

An old pond:

A frog jumps in —

The sound of water.

by Matsuo Basho (translated by Harold G. Henderson and Geoffrey Bownas

Many students have been introduced to the poetic form of haiku in elementary school. It is a deceptively simple form which constructs an entire poem with only 17 syllables organized in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. Typically, if you ask students of any grade or ability level what they know about haiku, they will tell you about the 5-7-5 structure. Perhaps they will have some idea that many haiku are about nature. I like to start a haiku lesson or unit of study from that point from the students’ perceptions that haiku are mostly about their form, to the reality that haiku are perfectly distilled representations of several aspects of Japanese aesthetics: an appreciation of simplicity, of impermanence, of suggestion, and of nature.

Criteria for Haiku:

17 Syllables

3 Lines

5-7-5 Form (traditional Japanese haiku poets count “sounds,” not syllables. 

Doesn’t rhyme

Usually about nature (not required)

Shows change or contrast

Can go from the general to the specific or vice versa

Very Condensed form: suggests rather than tells

Seems simple, but makes you think or evoke feeling

Emphasizes impermanence, the quality of things which do not last. 

Almost all haiku contain a seasonal word or phrase which indicates the season, like “spring rain.” In Japanese, this seasonal word is called a “kigo.” Additionally, the poet usually introduces an image in the first line which he then illustrates or contrasts in lines two and three, or he develops an image in lines one and two which he then summarizes or contrasts in the final line. Haiku cluster the image at the beginning [5-7]-5 or the end 5[-7-5] of a haiku. This technique of “cutting” – the Japanese term for switching from the general to the specific, or from one image to another related one. Haiku are written in present tense. A haiku freezes one moment in time the way a snapshot does. There is no firm rule regarding capitalization and punctuation in English haiku nor as to whether haiku comprises a complete sentence. These things are decided by the poems themselves, on a poem to poem basis.

Haiku began in Japan during the 17th century. A haiku should share a moment of awareness with the reader. Peace, sadness, mystery – these are only a few of the emotions that evoke haiku and which we can feel when we read haiku. The key to our feelings about the things around us and to the feelings we have when we read a good haiku, is the things themselves. The things produce emotion. The words of the haiku should create in the reader the emotion felt by the poet, not describe the emotion.

Before trying to write haiku, it is a good idea to look over some examples. Think about each one. What makes the moment it talks about special? What word or phrase tells you the season? How does that affect the meaning of the haiku? Notice how many haiku create emotions by connecting two or more images together in a strange, new way.

Because haiku have an alive now quality, most haiku do not have any metaphors or similes. For the same reason, haiku poets do not use rhyme unless it happens accidentally and is hardly noticeable. In making haiku, try to present something in the more direct words possible. Haiku are about common, everyday experiences and avoid complicated words or grammar. As one expert on the Japanese haiku called it “a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature.”

between the pages

of a favorite book I find

squashed fruit crumbles

— Annie Wright

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Get Happy with Hyperdocs

Authors of The HyperDocs Handbook, Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton, and Sarah Landis define HyperDocs as

a transformative, interactive Google Doc replacing the worksheet method of delivering instruction, is the ultimate change agent in the blended learning classroom. With strong educational philosophies built into each one, HyperDocs have the potential to shift the way you instruct with technology. They are created by teachers and given to students to engage, educate, and inspire learning. It’s not about teaching technology, it’s about using the technology to TEACH.”

I love that with hyper docs students are able to work at their own pace to learn and showcase their understanding. I think of hyperdocs as roadmaps or game boards for learning input and output. When creating hyperdocs for literary analysis in my middle school English classroom, I consider the important elements that I want students to take away from the text and what are different or differentiated ways that students can showcase their thinking about reading.

Since my students are reading different dystopian texts, I have created different hyperdocs specific to the books they are reading to help build background information about the texts, for students to keep track of their thinking while reading, and to showcase their thinking about the reading by writing a thematic literary analysis essay.

Animal Farm HyperDoc

To check out the HyperDocs with links and activities, click here.

Hyperdocs come in different formats and layouts. This teaching tools allows students to work at their own pace and gives me more time to conference and work with students in small groups or individually. They are multimodal and offer blend learning opportunities.

For more examples of hyperdocs that I have shared on this blog click here.

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The Mindset of Grit: Learning & the Brain Conference Fall 2018

Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston this weekend examined the science of human potential, passion, talents and grit. Bringing together researchers, authors, and experts in their fields, the conference states:

By studying child prodigies, savants, and great innovators like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, scientists are trying to answer the complex questions of human potential: What makes a person a “creative genius”? Is “greatness” the result of innate talent or practice? 

The conference kicked off on Friday with sessions on personalized learning, problem based learning, digital learning, mindfulness, the science of innovation, and personalized learning. Keynotes included Scott Kaufman, PhD addressing Personal Greatness and Gail Saltz, MD speaking about the power of difference, Robert Sternberg, PhD spoke about teaching for wisdom, intelligence, creativity, and success and Ransom Stephens, Phd addressed Your Pursuit of Greatness. Sunday’s keynote, Sir Ken Robinson, PhD was titled,  “You, Your Child, and School: Teaching to their Talents, Passions, and Potential.”

My mind is spinning with the amount of greatness and learning buzzing at the conference. Here are a few key take aways to reflect and act on based on this experience in Boston.

“Outliers in the distribution of human achievement, they are not just a bit better than most at their chosen vocation, but dramatically so. . . We are not born knowing how to write a sonnet or flip an omelet. On the contrary, human expertise, at all points in the distribution—including the far-right tail—is acquired.” – Scott Barry Kaufman and Angela Duckworth

“Attaining a certain level of expertise in a given domain gets you in the door and starts your career. It puts you on the playing field among others who have put in the time, effort, and commitment to building up the necessary exper- tise base. Yet to rise to the very top of a creative domain — to achieve true greatness — seems to require even more (and average of 10 years more).  – Scott Barry Kaufman

The availability and use of technology has impacted student attention, working memory, and thinking.

“Personalized learning to me is student inquiry and investigation guided by teachers who carefully craft the learning process.” — Angela Townsend

“In personalized learning, a teacher defines and establishes clear learning objectives but provides students a variety of way in which to achieve these. It requires a teacher to relinquish control and expectations for linear, and uniform learning.” — David Ruiz

“The power of teachers isn’t in the information they share, but in the opportunities they create for students to learn how to learn, solve problems, and apply what they learn in meaningful ways.” – Katie Martin

The testing culture has soaked up billions of taxpayer dollars with no real
improvement in standards. Achievement levels in math, science, and languages
have hardly changed, and neither has the international ranking of the United States
in these disciplines.

By most criteria, Finland has one of the most successful education systems in the world.
Much of its success is due to the commitment and expertise of its teachers. Teaching is
a highly respected profession in Finland, and there is intense competition to join it. What
Finland shows is that rather than tempt those with the highest academic qualifications
into teaching, it’s better to design initial teacher education to attract people who have a
natural passion and aptitude to teach for life.

Sir Ken Robinson

Failure is where the new knowledge comes from, if you fail, you will keep going and ask different questions and get better. Keep pushing. Failure motivates people to be great. – Xiaodong Lin

“Our job as teachers is not to “prepare” kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.” – AJ Juliani

 

 

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Sentence Frames to Guide Student Writers

Helping students build their writing repertoire and vocabulary acquisition requires teachers to model what good writers do. When my students are working on a short response or extended response, I offer graphic organizers and sentence frames to help my students write and revise their writing to meet learning targets.

Particularly for my ENL students who might not have the words or academic language just yet, providing these scaffolded strategies can help to develop students’ writing muscles and vocabulary necessary for academic writing.

Depending on the writing task, the graphic organizers are adapted to help fit the prompt. For example, wrote a short response to meet CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.9 – 
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types.

The prompt stated: Choose a quote from Gandhi  that you feel best exemplifies the protagonist and his/her journey midway throughout the text.  Be sure to include two (2) or more textual details (direct quotes) to support your claim.

Students were given a bank with ten Gandhi quotes:

 “A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes.”

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”

“An ounce of patience is worth more than a ton of preaching.”

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

“Without action, you aren’t going anywhere.”

“Continue to grow and evolve.”

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”  
Providing students with a graphic organizer can help students tract their thinking, make connections, and outline their understanding. This graphic organizer helps direct students what to write about.

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For my ENL and ELL students who are developing academic language and vocabulary to  articulate their thinking about the text, offering sentence frames provides the necessary format and language needed to meet the learning target.

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What looks like Mad Libs can give students the confidence to show what they know and develop their written communication skills.

For more ideas for sentence frames and scaffolding student writing from other teachers, check out this blog post from Larry Ferlazzo.

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Teaching Digital Responsibility in the Age of Online Hate

Last week the New York Times published the article, On Instagram, 11,696 Examples of How Hate Thrives on Social Media (NYT 10.29.18) three days after the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. This article highlights social media companies attention to or lack there of “treatment of toxic language and hate speech” on their platforms. Interestingly, “Social media companies have said that identifying and removing hate speech and disinformation — or even defining what constitutes such content — is difficult.”

The past three weeks I have been dealing with my own ordeal of hate speech and false representation on Twitter. After five years and 40 twitter book chats with my students, three weeks ago I moderated a Twitter book chat and an ambiguous avatar joined the chat sending funny pictures and memes. When they did not identify themselves I blocked the account. That did not stop my students participating in the chat from seeing the stream of continuous  tweets from this person. If fact, the images and tweets escalated to spread hate speech, anti Semitic photographs and sexist and anti gay memes. The person’s tweets were directed at myself and a student of mine. I reported the tweets to Twitter and within a day the racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and sexist tweets were removed and the account was suspended. But that did not stop this person.

The next day a new account was created by this same person and they used my image as their Avatar. The name of the Twitter handle referenced a Nazi program, Nacht und Nebel (German for “Night and Fog”). This directive issued by Hitler targeted political activists and resistance “helpers” in World War II to be imprisoned or killed. The person sent tweets to me telling me to die and making derogatory statements. When I reported the tweets to Twitter my reports were denied telling me that this was not a threat. The tweets escalated over ten days and the person tweeted in binary code, hex64, and other code threats to me and students of mine. All the tweets were reported to Twitter but Twitter did not consider it a threat or hate speech written in code!

I contacted the FBI, I filed police reports, the DA was involved.

It took legal action to get the IP address which was connected to a residence in the town where I teach. This residence has a young person who is a student in my school, he is not a student in my class. The family is cooperating with the police and the school;  additionally, the family has agreed to get counseling for their son. Since the police approached the family my image has been removed and all the tweets have been taken down.

My principal sent the following message out to our community:

Dear Parents,

We at XXXXX Middle School pride ourselves as educators who not only attend to the academic needs of our students but who also focus on their social and emotional needs.  We share your challenge in teaching these young adolescents how to judiciously and ethically use contemporary technology as moral citizens of the school community and ultimately the world.

Dr. Haiken, Team 8R ELA teacher, has been using Twitter for the past six years. With the consent of parents, she and her students tweet about the books they read, creating a sort of twenty-first century book club.  Unfortunately, someone has used this account to insert horrible, racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks, some directed at one of our students.  We are investigating this and are making every possible effort to discover who the troll is.  The police and Twitter administrators have been notified.  A full investigation is being conducted and appropriate consequences will be implemented.

We are having discussions with our students about the deeper issues involved, and we need your help. As we partner to help our young people grow into empathetic, responsible adults, we need you to have follow-up conversations at home not only about social media but also about how we treat those who might be a little different from the mainstream. 

Bullies hide behind the anonymity of social media.  All children regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs deserve a safe and healthy environment in which to thrive and learn. Please help us deliver this message at home.

These events impacted by teaching and the educational environment. It saddens me that this person who has digital smarts chose to use them for evil and spread hate.  In the meanwhile, I think about what are the best ways to promote positive digital citizenship and responsibility so that my students make smart choices online and not become a victim or perpetrator of hate online.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published a video:

Two educators talk about teaching students to think critically and keeping personal politics out of the classroom.

I concur with the two teachers in the video when they talk about teaching empathy and modeling positive (digital) behavior.

Digital Citizenship is an ongoing lesson that needs to be addressed every year with every student. Social media is not going away, and blocking websites in schools or telling students they cannot use phones is not a realistic solution. These events have helped me to look more closely at the role that social media plays in our lives and how I can promote positive digital behavior in my classroom so all of my students use their digital powers for good.

Below are five resources to teach digital responsibility and citizenship:

Wicked EdTech – Here you can find a video playlist on Digital Literacy

Google Applied Digital Skills  – Ready-to-use video lessons teach digital
skills that have immediate, real-life application.

Be Internet Awesome – Google’s Digital Safety Resources for the
classroom and home.

Common Sense Media Digital Citizenship – Empower your students to
make safe, smart, and ethical decisions online.

ISTE Digital Citizenship – Here you can find articles and resources connected to digital
citizenship in schools.

 

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“Mockingbird” Should Be Part of Larger Lesson

The following essay was written for School Library Journal. To read the post on the SLJ website, click here.

When PBS announced To Kill a Mockingbird was voted America’s “Best-Loved Novel” on The Great American Read, the selection was not met with universal celebration. Many believe Harper Lee’s classic novel to be problematic, if not outright racist. When teaching Mockingbird, we cannot and should not ignore those issues. Instead, we should use those elements as part of the lesson and build on it with connected historical sources and contemporary novels that explore the same themes from different perspectives.

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I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, and the more I read and reread it with my eighth grade students now, the closer I examine the story and craft that makes this book so memorable. In our current time, when race relations are so contentious, To Kill a Mockingbird brings to the forefront issues of race, gender, class, and speaking out when we see injustice. Throughout the novel, the perceptions of the young narrator Scout become keener as she examines these issues. Yet her observations also remain limited. She is a white, upper-middle class girl, and she can provide the audience with only that narrow insight into her small-town world.

In an article for the New York Times, author Roxane Gay recently wrote, “To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for which a great many people harbor reverence and nostalgia. I am not one of those people.…

“The black characters—Robinson and the family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia—are mostly there as figures onto which the white people around them can project various thoughts and feelings. They are narrative devices, not fully realized human beings,” she wrote.

This is true. Calpurnia and Tom are not developed characters, and we only see them from Scout’s perspective. Gay continued, “Perhaps I am ambivalent because I am black. I am not the target audience. I don’t need to read about a young white girl understanding the perniciousness of racism to actually understand the perniciousness of racism. I have ample firsthand experience.”

Gay’s essay is important. Teachers must offer multiple perspectives. Our reading and understanding of any text is shaped by our own knowledge and experiences. I teach in a school that is predominantly white and upper-middle class. Most of my students do not have experience with racism beyond what they read or see on film. Their lives are white-centric, and reading Mockingbird brings to the forefront a conversation about race, class, gender, and injustice.

Literature, as Grace Lin describes in her TED Talk Mirrors and Windows of Your Child’s Bookshelf (2016), “can show you the world and also show you a reflection of yourself.” We strive for our students to connect with books in a way they can see the potential and possibility for making the world a better place. Books not only are reflections of ourselves, as Lin points out, but they should also allow readers to see life from another perspective. Books should help readers build empathy and question injustice. They should create new opportunities that depict strength, adversity, and the responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing.

When reading Mockingbird, students can explore the issues with further reading, both historical and contemporary. From a historical point of view, supplemental readings about gender in the South during the 1930s can be paired with gender inequality today. Historians tell us that Lee based what happened to the novel’s Tom Robinson on The Scottsboro Trial and Emmett Till. To build background around Mockingbird, have students learn about Till as they study Reconstruction. The students can also read and discuss excerpts from Clarence Norris and Sybil D. Washington’s The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography. Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch’s Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird offers a collection of informational texts that support the novel, along with writing prompts and discussion questions.

In addition to primary documents and historical texts, there has been an explosion of contemporary young adult novels that address police brutality and the senseless shooting of young men and women of color, all of which parallel current news events and Mockingbird.

One of the first books I used as a parallel text was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kieley. Since then, there has been an insurmountable collection of well-written texts with diverse voices. Books such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, and The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater are excellent contemporary books that complement Lee’s masterpiece and immerse readers into issues of race, gender, and social justice. These books can be read aloud in class, used for independent reading during reading workshop, or used for comparative reading with selected passages.

Whether teaching literature or history, we cannot be limited by a single story. In her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that only showing one perspective impacts our understanding of others and ourselves. A single story is limiting and confining. Adichie states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Regardless of your personal experience with To Kill a Mockingbird, consider the novel a catalyst for conversation about the elements of a great read—books that impact our lives, change our thinking, tug at our emotions, challenge our perceptions, and shape our history and identity. Lee’s Mockingbird shouldn’t be the one and only story that defines America, but it can play a key role as part of the larger narrative and spark much-needed discussion and exploration of issues, history, and complementary fiction.

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