Category Archives: education

Lesson II- All men are created equal

In this post, I will provide the next day’s lesson after we discussed the concept “all men are created equal.”

“Yesterday, we discussed the proposition that all men are created,” I announced after my students finished the day’s activator, examining examples of irony.

“Where is this foundational principle, that makes you among the freest people in human history clearly stated?”  “The Bill of Rights!” “The Constitution!” was the resounding answer from my 8th grade class. There were a few, no less quiet voices,saying, “The Declaration of Independence.”

I sternly told them that most of them were wrong and what they did not know was a threat to their freedom. Yes, I meant to scare them a little. And, yes, most of them realized that I was being hyperbolic. They’re quite used to me being a little theatrical.

As I had explained early in the week, I reminded my class that we were going to study George Orwell’s Animal Farm and that we needed to understand both its allegorical significance and, more importantly, its relevancy to the world in which they would become young adults.

I proclaimed, channeling my inner Al Pacino (check out Colonel Slade’s speech at the Baird School in Scent of a Woman), “If you do not understand where your rights originate, if you do not know where to go to point out the truth to power, than you will have no ability or right to protest what you perceive to be an infringement on your rights.”

Then I handed them The Will of the People:Readings in American Democracy, from the Great Books Foundation and asked them to find where that statement, “all men are created equal” could be found. The few who knew where to find the sentence eventually got the word around the classroom that it could be found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Having given them some time to read and review what they studied earlier in the year in their social studies class, I then asked them how they knew that what I had handed them was true, was real. Was an accurate copy of the original.

The answers were interesting. “Because you’re the teacher.” “Because this looks similar to what we saw in social studies.” “Because, if you are lying, you’ll get fired.” “What? Are you telling us not to trust you?”

I went on to ask them where they could match the original with what they were holding in their hands. All of this thinking is getting them ready for the instance in Orwell’s Animal Farm  where the animals who did not participate in the creation of the principles of Animalism nor in the creation of the condensed version created by the pigs, the 7 Commandments, ask Benjamin the donkey who can read, to read the Commandments which have been posted on a barn wall. After listening, the animals seem to remember the Commandments saying something different, but they can’t remember. Why? They were not a part of the process, they did not learn to read, and they did not question the pigs who created Animalism, created the Commandments, and changed them when it suited them.  The result of this ignorance is their enslavement and their slaughter.

Not one student knew where to find the original Declaration of Independence. Not good considering how they live 15 miles from the United States National Archives where it and the Constitution can be found. I wish my school system didn’t make field trips so difficult. The ironies just compound themselves. 

Some kids asked, “How do we know if those copies are the originals? How do we know that someone hasn’t changed the versions on display?” With a smile and an acknowledgement that that thought might border on conspiracy theory, I told them that questioning everything was a good thing.

And, here is where I told them of the need for an independent and free press. That the press has the responsibility to report on what our government is doing. And it is our responsibility to read and demand the facts. Not alternative facts. Not tweets. Real journalism based on real reporting.

What I showed them next was an attempt to help them see how to wade through the “noise” and figure out a truth. I made a pen and paper version of what I sketched on the board:

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I explained how each of the black lines is a piece of reporting. A newspaper article, a magazine essay, a blog post, or an editorial. All of these pieces focus/report  on one event. Say a tweet written by someone accusing another person of wiretapping his home. Maybe a tweet about one president accusing another of breaking a federal law without a shred of evidence or an understanding of the concept of truth. That’s the other green line. The one way off on the fringe. The intersection of all of these black lines is where facts can be found. At the intersection of everyone’s opinions and reporting is the most likely place to find something that actually happened. After reading multiple pieces, what these voices all discuss is likely a version of a truth.

The green line running through all of the black lines is the informed reader and citizen of a democracy. The green line is the person who immerses themselves in learning the facts and in working to figure out a truth. Not the truth (I’ll explore this idea in a later blog) but a truth.  The informed citizen’s line, the green one, intersects and exists within the black lines. It cannot exist without a free press that is in turn, connected with the green line, the citizen willing to read and engage in the reporting. 

With enough black lines working long and hard enough, our fundamental freedoms won’t be altered or lost.

Yes, minds are blown at this point. Most students are desperate for me to explain the difference between a truth and the truth. I’ll save that for another blog post. What I will say is that the truth requires a  basketball.

The point of my simple (and oversimplified) image is to get them to understand that 1.) they cannot shoot off their mouths and say unsubstantiated nonsense without being challenged. 2.) they must have an informed opinion to be taken seriously and to be allowed in the “circle” of other informed opinions. 3.) it is their responsibility as members of the United States of America to be informed and to be engaged within the appropriateness of their age and what their parents provide.

 

All men are created equal

This is the time of year when I teach George Orwell’s Animal Farm to my 8th graders. I lay a lot of ground work before they are ready to wrestle with the themes and controversies in this text. This is a book that examines, among other themes, the concept of the abuse of power as a result of the willful ignorance of the governed. A government that can get away with saying “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

This year, more than any previous year, I felt the need to define controversy in an academic setting; what it is and what it is not. I told them that it is not throwing out an outlandish, unsubstantiated claim on social media in order to upset and shock. It is not yelling the loudest and most obscenely in order to drown out other voices.

I told them that, unfortunately, our political leaders were not representing the most mature and respectful ways of speaking to others with differing viewpoints; so we, in our classroom, will model how to do so.

Here is what I said to my students. “Controversy is when many people have many opinions that may sharply differ from each other. It is when there is much to say about a topic that carries a great deal of importance for many people.” I go on to emphasize that these opinions can be expressed in dignified and respectful ways.

I went on to provide them ground rules for the day’s activity which would be a four corners discussion. Posted in the four corners of the room, one in each, are four statements, “strongly agree” “agree” “strongly disagree” and “disagree”. A thematic statement is posted or announced by the teacher and the student proceed to the statement that best matches their current thinking. This is best done before the text is discussed. Students come with existing thinking; the text can then be used to challenge their thinking. The point of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to express a opinion and to change it as a result of listening to others.  The teacher can set up when it is appropriate for kids to change corners, if they wish.

The day’s theme is “All men are created equal”.

Here are the expectations and rules I presented in order to create orderly, dignified, and respectful discourse (Mitch or Paul, feel free to use any or all of these rules as you seem to have a need for them). There were no warnings and persistence is rewarded, not punished.

  • Create your own opinion. 
  • Go to your corner in silence and remain there, in silence, in order to respect the thoughts of those around you. (I emphasize, repeatedly, the importance of allowing those around you the ability to think and reflect without interruption-it is a guiding principle in my classroom)
  • Do not follow your friends or, conversely, avoid those with whom you have disagreed in the past. Go where your thinking tells you to go.
  • Listen at all times. Do not interrupt. 
  • Remain silent if you would rather listen. An attentive silence is a sign of deep respect for other’s opinions.
  • Avoid being politically correct. (This one always gets me a few puzzled looks-I tell my students that they are 13 or 14 years old and will likely say something that might inadvertently hurt someone’s opinions. I go on to say that as long as they are speaking from a place of kindness, then we will not be offended. I also say that I’ll provide the language, if needed, to make the statement less potentially offensive. For example, students always struggle with how to describe those with cognitive or emotional disabilities.)
  • Today is not a discussion. Because these conversations about themes are new and challenging to many of my students, I don’t want them arguing with each other, yet. We can argue about a text but not about beliefs and ideas. Early adolescents are delicate creatures, despite the personas they may try to show. Feelings are easily hurt.
  • We don’t gossip in the hallways. This is a safe space. What is said here is not thrown in anybody’s face later.
  • Tell your parents/guardians what we talked about today. Get more ideas.
  • You may move to another corner after we have talked for a few minutes. (I don’t want kids milling around the room while a student is sharing an idea).

The last bullet was a fail. And, I am still excited about that as I write about it several days later.

After explaining these rules, we began. I had the theme hidden on the front board. I revealed it and, after students had a minute or so (they don’t typically need much time to deliberate) to decide and move to a corner, I called on students with their hands raised. I don’t decide on a corner, I just start calling on kids from all corners. I take notes, capturing key concepts and ideas. I remind my students to listen. Students shared their opinions and ideas and I recorded them. I don’t call on kids who don’t have their hands raised. Not yet. One other important thing-I stay out of the conversation. I am the facilitator and note taker. Here is a photo that captures some of the key ideas generated by one class:

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As you can see, some of the things they focused on whether they strong disagreed, disagreed, agreed, or strongly agreed as they discussed, “All men are created equal”.

  • what people are born with (natural talents)
  • what parents provide (nature versus nurture)
  • equality in the United States compared to the rest of the world
  • the impact of prejudice and stereotyping

The fifteen minute conversation was so rich, engaging, and thought provoking, that, within the first three to five minutes, I had kids literally sliding their feet toward other corners. When I asked what was going on, they responded with, “do we have to wait to move?” They were listening so attentively to each other and were so open to other ideas, that they were eager to move to support another opinion and to express a new idea. Of course, I told them to move as needed. It worked just fine. My classes average 28 students; 10-12 students in each class moved corners.

The hardest part of the lesson was concluding it. When I told them that I wanted them to have a few minutes before we left to write their ideas into their journals, I still had the class eager to share more ideas (to be honest, things were getting repetitive, so I was okay with putting those ideas on hold.) I left the notes on the board for them to use. I erased them before the next class arrived.

Provided with a safe and welcoming environment, a controversial topic could be discussed with dignity and maturity. I had many students ask “when can we do this again?” Good stuff.

Controversy

 

A School Fire

The middle school where I worked for over ten years burned the other day. The school had stood for fifty years on land donated by a local family whose name still made the paper for various philanthropic or charitable happenings. Some of my colleagues, retired for some years now, remembered its early years with nostalgia and fondness, when it was new and full of the colors and energy of the seventies, . The old building was a treasured part of the community. More than a few parents had attended, loving the place enough to want their own children to attend. Several colleagues also attended, returning as teachers to further contribute to the notion that the school was, after all, really a large family.

I have no sense of loss; I found the building to be old, tired, and cramped. We are now in a beautiful new building that provides the amenities a twenty-first century school needs. But I know that many disagree that the move is all good; many felt a sense of community that was built within the cramped spaces. And there is always a loss when we destroy the old to make way for the new. There is a happy ending to this story. With or without the fire, the school is to be demolished and land to become a park.

I offer this poem in tribute.

A School Fire

The school burned early on a Sunday.

For the first time in fifty years, it had stood lonely and empty-abandoned and slated for demolition.

Given no farewell ceremony, no parting words, no thank you from the generations that had walked its halls it stood alone.

For half a century, it had provided the shelter for countless students to create memories of middle school.Now it stood, scarred and damaged. The added indignity of the fire’s damage being at the front of the building-visible for all to gawk at and exclaim, “how sad!”

The lawn, where, on spring days, students had enjoyed a toss of the football, a few minutes of gossip under the portico, or the simple pleasure of taking in the sun was now broken brick and concrete, toppled from the walls above.

It was the gym that had burned, its gleaming, parquet wood floor was buckled and blackened where generations of students had played basketball, danced their first slow dance, seen their first Shakespeare play.

The curtains that had once opened countless shows, everything from Seussical, Jr. to The Sound of Music, Jr. to High School Musical, Jr. were blackened rags, hanging from the scaffolding.

Here, within the shelter of these curtains, children dressed as elephants, boys played at being fathers, and girls put on a nun’s habit. All tried on new roles and, for many, acted for the first time. Everyone was given the space and chance to be something different-provided a place to imagine.

Backstage, with its alluring and mysterious darkness full of memories of past shows, where countless members of the tech crew and cast had left a “I was here!”note in their giddy adolescent excitement was now shattered by the weight of the fallen roof.

All of this drama will soon rely only on the memories of those who were there.

Given no eulogy, only a hastened date for demolition, deemed dangerous now for the children who were once sheltered by its walls, it stands blackened, waiting for the final indignity.

 

 

 

A tribute to Lloyd Dobler

Tempted

-I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.-  Lloyd Dobler-Just Say Anything

Lloyd Dobler can be seen as an affable loser. If any adult cared to see the movie back in 1989, a time of unfettered greed and excess-think Gordon Gecko, they might just see him as someone too lazy and pathetic to make it.

As Americans, we live in a culture obsessed with money. Jobs, careers, college being the ticket to a “middle-class” life. I get it. We need people to be obsessed about money. Without rampant consumerism our economy would grind to a halt. Something like 70% of the US GDP is based on consumption. We can’t consume if we don’t have money. We can’t consume more without more money.

But then there is Lloyd, our 80s anti-hero. What does he want to do? Support his girlfriend as she studies abroad. Nothing heroic there. He wants to kickbox and make her happy and just generally see where life goes. No struggle. No conquering of his inner flaw. No mentor to guide him and show him the error of his ways. Heck, he barely fills a duffel bag to travel overseas. Not exactly girding his loins for battle against opposing forces.

As a teacher, I wonder about those kids not tempted to get on that college track; those kids who are like Lloyd, knowing what he does not want and happy with what he has. I worry that we are pushing college down the throats of 12 year olds. My school system just bought a college search program for 7th graders, mandating guidance counselors to do this and that in order to prove that kids know what their college, major, and career will be before they pop their first pimple. Really?

I worry about those kids who just don’t know. Who haven’t bought in to the whole “system” that sells the idea that everything up to the age of 18 is for getting ready for college. Then, college, then a job, then…what? What’s the goal?

I have  John Lennon quote hanging in my classroom:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” 

Are we doing enough to allow kids to find out what makes them happy? I think about Lloyd when I teach. I used to have the above quote in my classroom, taped to my desk and out of sight of my principal. Not sure it counted as motivational, but it served as a reminder to me personally and to me as a teacher. Happiness doesn’t necessarily have to come from buying, selling, or processing.

As I reflect on my teaching,  I wonder if I am helping my 13 and 14 year olds become young adults that can think for themselves, make decisions, come to logical conclusions. Or I am just another brick in the wall? Are my assignments me not understanding life?

Thoreau exclaims, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of life…Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me.”-Walden.

Lets be sure that we allow them to design their own hypothesis, conduct their own trials, and draw their own conclusions. We have enough desperation.

Effective Unit Planning results in student mastery of challenging concepts.

Today, my 8th grade students brought in their rough drafts of their research based persuasive arguments. Today showcased the results of 4 weeks worth of work.

We began with students reading 5 or more sources to learn about their topic, showing their knowledge in written summaries. I had them do this with 3 topics and it paid off; they learned the value of conducting background research and learning about multiple topics. Many had to switch topics when we started getting into crafting thesis statements. They couldn’t find that 3rd subtopic or they realized that the topic was “fuzzy” and hard to prove. They had two weeks to conduct this background reading with the 3 topics they chose (parents had to  approve all topics). We used a school database that provided topics and guided students toward sources to prove various arguments.

We  then designed thesis statements and I held conferences with every student. Some had to meet with me 5 times; but for a few, we all created sound thesis statements and were ready to create an outline of 3 subtopics and 3 supporting details from at least 2 sources. The final paper had to have, at minimum, 5 sources.

Every student got an outline conference. Many had to return for a 2nd or a  3rd time. Except for a few (and we’re still working and changing deadlines), we all created sound arguments that demonstrated mastery of ethos, pathos, and logos.

We designed our introductory paragraphs. We peer reviewed our hook statements and our background sentences.

We crafted our rebuttal of the opposing viewpoint. Provided a support from the other side and explained why our point was better. Students met with me or with a classmate to check that they were doing it right.

And today, we showed up with our 5 paragraphs (the conclusion is easy so we’ll do it after break) and celebrated how we could put together 3 or 4 page persuasive arguments that were organized and provided 5 sources. Not bad for 8th grade. Not bad at all.

I told my students to be proud. They all indicated trepidation at the sight of the rubric when they got it right before Thanksgiving. Today, we checked off every bulleted item except for the conclusion and the works cited page. They all had expressed admiration and fear for the 3 “A” exemplars I handed them and told them to refer to throughout the process. Now, while their paper may not have  the exemplary analysis and synthesis, it is well organized with a sound thesis and three clear subtopics. That in itself is success and indicates a student ready for high school English.

I’ll collect the next draft right after break and give them a few nights to make any final revisions.

These papers will all get As for organization. Some will get Cs and Bs for the argument itself. All students will go to high school knowing the process and product of research and persuasion. They have plenty of time to develop their thinking.

Why are my students successful? They got the expectations up front. Rubric and exemplar first. Mini-lessons and constant checks for understanding. No student went 3 days without me knowing where they were in the process. No student started a thesis without giving me a summary proving they knew what the topic was and why it was controversial. No student started an outline before they defended how their subtopics would prove their viewpoint. No student started a rough draft before they explained how every direct quote on their outline proved the subtopic.

Expectations first. Create effective mini-lessons (talk as little as possible). Give them meaningful time to work (keep it quiet and give them clear end points to reach). Check for understanding constantly. Design effective peer review.

Result? Success.

Flow-grading papers

Yeah, flow and grading papers. Sounds like an oxymoron. Kinda like lets have fun going shopping

Hear me out. Nobody likes to grade papers. I’ve been teaching for twenty years and not once have I said, “Yeah! I’m so looking forward to spending my evening grading papers! I’m cancelling all of my plans and I’m gonna bust out the wide line red pen and tear apart some self-esteem!” Nothing destroys a writer’s self-esteem more than a thick, dripping red pen. Who doesn’t have a memory of that English teacher.

But, as I’ve said before, I’ve been thinking a great deal about flow. And I realized that as crazy as it sounds,  you can enter flow when grading papers. And no, I abstain from all forms of medication to do this. Though a glass of wine does help. But, hey, wine helps with most things.

Grading papers can be a form of torture, belonging somewhere in the lowest circles of hell. Those of us who love teaching went into the profession because we love the content or because we like working with kids. We did not go into teaching looking forward to hours of our lives being taken up by attempting to find order out of chaos, to which the reading and grading of adolescent writing can be compared.

I think that the act of making the crooked straight and the way smooth should happen much earlier than a student’s belief that they have turned in a “final” draft. The conclusion of a student’s written work should be an affirmation not a submission.

I start all writing tasks either by providing my students with the criteria for success (a rubric) or I start by creating this list with them. For example, we may create a list of the successful elements of a short argument. We generate items like a clear topic sentence that includes an argument and the subject of the argument. In this post, I’m talking about a persuasive argument that includes research so I provide the students a rubric that lists out all of the requirements. If I can figure out how to upload it to this site, I’ll do that.

By the time all the papers are submitted, I believe success means that I can already predict what each paper will earn because I have read them all, or portions thereof.

Each element on the rubric is a mini-lesson, a conversation, a peer-review session, a posting on an on-line platform where all members of the classroom can review (Padlet is great for this). No part of the research paper is completed without someone else’s eyes looking at it and providing some level of feedback. Please see my earlier post on peer review.

Of most critical importance to this idea of mastery is that for the research paper, I conference with every student twice. Yes, twice. Does this take well over three hours per class? Yes. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. How else do I best guarantee that the student can organize a sustained argument; trust me, the red pen of death doesn’t work.

Every student gets a three minute thesis conference, presenting their viewpoint and their three supporting arguments based on the reading of at least 5 sources.  At the end of the three  minutes, we have several possibilities. One, we both agree that the argument is sound and provable. Two, some of the argument works but more sources are needed or one of the supporting arguments needs more development. Three, back to the drawing board. Every student meets with me until they have a thesis that makes sense. Why?

There is zero point in assigning a significant assignment, especially a challenging task like a research driven persuasive argument without many frequent checks for understanding. There is no point in having a student move forward to the next step in constructing the paper without the first being solid and clear. The simplest analogy would be to build a home without first pouring the foundation and letting the concrete cure before attaching your framing. No home will stand long without a solid foundation.

Then, every student gets a conference to justify their outline. Three supporting arguments with three text supports to justify their thinking. Mind of a thirteen year old here. Remember flow, right?  Now you need to listen to the logic of a young adolescent-fascinating!

I’m no musician or artist, can’t carry a tune in a bucket and can  barely sketch a stick figure, but I equate this time, working individually with a student, as a collaboration in making something of meaning, of lasting beauty even. If you know any thirteen year olds, you know that logic is a thing of beauty, a rare gem.

Some come to me focused as an arrow to the bullseye. “Because the planet is heading for a mass extinction event, people must reduce their use of fossil fuels, eat less meat, and recycle more materials.” Pretty good for a thirteen year old, right? Then there are those trying to prove that we should allow cell phones in school because so many kids have them. You get the idea. Every conference takes you on a different ride. It’s just that some end up like Jason Bourne at the end of a chase scene, bruised, limping, desperate for a way out.

But every paper is eventually saved. Is given some kind of cure. These two conferences, thesis and outline, set up a logical, sequential paper. While we work on other projects and other material, every student has access to me during every class for all of the days leading up to the paper.

And, call me crazy, I feel like flourishing a conductor’s baton when a student can, after we’ve talked and worked so hard together, walk me through his or her viewpoint, providing me three supporting arguments and research driven evidence for those arguments. It’s poetry, it’s music, it’s a work of art. It just flows. It’s an English teacher high.

Yes, there are many other details to a research paper. The hook, the background in the introduction, the citations, the conclusion. Yes, these are all important and we examine all of these in class.

Now it is time to submit the final papers. Rubrics are stapled to the top of these 3 to 5 page offerings to the gods of pathos, logos, and ethos.  Works cited entries are carefully alphabetized with many a mumbled ABC song.

Ah, what about the flow?

And now I get to grade 120+ 8th grade research papers. Grade them, but not read them for the first time. The writer and I know what the paper will likely earn. We’ll be off by a few points; we may have a difference in opinion about what how many points should be deducted for the forgetful omission of a parenthetic citation or whether the hook is truly interesting and engaging.

Yes, some will be a heretical waste of time; some will have done everything they could to avoid conferences, delaying the inevitable.

Many will be artistic in their simplicity. Hook, background, thesis, three paragraphs supporting the thesis, conclusion. Each paper allowing me to flow through the argument.

I’ll pick  up that pen only occasionally and, by the way, I don’t use red.

Thank you for reading.

Flow in the writing classroom

I’ve been thinking about flow lately. Why? I keep trying meditation but I can’t sit still long enough and counting my breathing is boring.

Flow is another way to describe being in the zone. I’ve been reading a bunch of articles about it and how some people reach flow at work, in a sport, in a hobby. My favorite hobby, working in the local parks, has me in the zone for hours every weekend.

So, does flow happen for a teacher?

These past few weeks, I have had several students say things like, “Man, class went fast today!” Maybe they zoned out thinking about playing sports or a computer game after school, but I don’t think so. I was observing them, at least a little, before they made this comment. They were engaged and focused on meaningful, interesting work.

And so was I. I can stand up in front of the whole class and lecture all period. Haven’t done it in a decade or so, but I can do it. No flow there. No, I’ve been finding flow in one-on-one writing conferences. Sound ridiculous? What can be so interesting in talking to a bunch of 13 year-olds about their research papers? A great deal.

You enter the mind and thinking process of a young adolescent and you’re in for a mind bending ride through a maze of endless twists and turns with each one is different from the last. I try to set a timer for 3 minutes per student; that things goes off and I’m still listening , still thinking, still flowing. You haven’t experienced an exercise in pure concentration until you listen to a thirteen year old explain to you how what they have created is a logical, sequential argument. And that is just the beginning. Then I get to help; I get to ask questions; I get to send them off powerful in their knowledge that they created something, something all their own.

That’s like knowing how to hit a 90 mile an hour fastball. That’s like being able to return an Andy Murray serve.

Pure flow. Pure “in the zone.”