Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.

Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.

Expedition USA Project


The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!


The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.

While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

Fun in the Fifth Grade: Tidbits from my Week in the Classroom

Growing up and living in states adjacent to the Canadian border, I have had the amazing luxury and treat of visiting a Tim Hortons coffee shop on several occasions.  While the coffee is quite excellent and tastes, like coffee, the doughnuts were always the real draw for me.  They are warm, soft, fluffy, and taste like I imagine all food tastes in heaven, angelic.  No matter what time of day, the doughnuts are fresh and delicious.  I once happened upon a Tim Hortons at around 9 p.m.  While there were no Boston Cream doughnuts left on the shelf, the kind and caring doughnut and coffee customer service representative went in the back and made me a fresh one.  If that’s not fresh and love all rolled into one greasy ball of goodness, then I guess I don’t really understand those two concepts at all.  While it’s only been a few months since my last visit to a Timmy H’s, I find myself longing for the squishy dough treats that I have come to adore.  Most other doughnuts and coffee shops simply aren’t even on the same playing field as Tim Hortons.  Well, until fate sends me north once again, I at least have my fond memories of the red and white place of food magic to provide me with hope and respite.

Although this week’s blog entry will not be nearly as satisfying as a box of Timbits, I’m hopeful that it will shed some light on the magic that happens in my fifth grade classroom on a somewhat routine basis.

As my wonderful, little school was not in session this past Monday due to our mid-winter break, last Tuesday was the start of our shortened academic week.  While I love returning to school after even a day, things felt a bit off for me on Tuesday.  I wasn’t feeling completely in the teaching zone, perhaps because of the long weekend.  My internal energy level was at about 75% and I felt a bit hazy throughout the day.  Because we had an early release that day due to some winter weather, our schedule was off kilter.  The students seemed a bit thrown by this curve ball and so their energy level was very high, which appeared to cause their focus to dip a bit.  They didn’t seem fully invested in what we were doing in class that day.  Things just felt a bit “meh” to me at the end of our snowy Tuesday.  Rather than dwell on my negative thoughts, I decided to allow the falling snowflakes to inspire reflection.  As I stared out the window of my classroom after the academic day had ended, I allowed my mind to wander and process all that happened during that very short and funky day.  How could I make tomorrow better for me and my students?

And that’s when it hit me.  It was my mindset.  The day wasn’t by any means a difficult or bad day, I just perceived it that way.  Lots of wonderful and amazing things happened in the classroom throughout the day.  Students worked hard, took risks, and were kind and caring towards one another.  Work was accomplished and learning had happened.  Students made much progress on their pinball machines in Science class.  In retrospect, I should have been more blown away by how hard they worked during that activity period in Science.  They got a lot of work done on their physics machines.  So, it only felt like an off day, while in reality it was another awesome day in the fifth grade.

The next morning, I woke up with a smile on my face and happy, positive thoughts whirring about in my mind.  I was purposeful about the words I used when talking to the students during our Morning Meeting and made a point to focus on the many glorious things that took place in my classroom that day.  Several students who had been struggling to think critically in order to solve problems they encountered in Math class, switched gears and worked super hard to finish problems that had been plaguing them for several days.  More excellent work was accomplished in Science class, as the students continued working on their pinball machines.  We had a phenomenal discussion regarding poetry and the concept of poetic license in Language Arts.  It was a remarkable day, not too unlike Tuesday.  The only difference was my mindset.  I focused on the positive and found it in every nook and corner of my day.  Sometimes difficult days are just awesome days in disguise.

While developmentally, many fifth graders are constantly focused on what is right and wrong and often seem to choose being right over being kind, as a fifth grade teacher, I make it one of my many missions to combat this primal urge.  My mantra in our fifth grade class is, “We are a family, and families take care of each other.”  I follow that up with, “And like in all families, problems will arise, and when they do, we will work together to solve them.”  When issues of unkindness or disrespectful acts take place among the students, we push the PAUSE button on whatever is happening in class to address the issues.  I have the students explain how they are feeling using I Statements and we brainstorm different, kinder, and more effective ways to deal with similar situations when they arise in the future, because related issues will come up again.  We usually close our discussion with some sort of mindful or breathing exercise.  While it does take away from the “academic curriculum,” the social-emotional well being of my students is far more important than any lesson on physics or reading strategies.  If they are overcome with big emotions and feelings, they operate from the reptilian portion of their brain that offers them only two options– fight or flee.  Addressing social issues that happen in the class usually does not take more than a few minutes, but makes a huge difference.  It’s like pressing the reset button on our day.  It’s vital to the success of everyone in the classroom, including me, as the teacher.

In partnership with these social-emotional learning mini-lessons, I also began using another strategy to help foster self-awareness in the classroom this week.  As part of our Morning Meeting each day during this past week, I explained the daily focal point for how the class could earn marbles for the class Marble Jar.  On Wednesday, the focus was on Patience.  I explained ways the students could show patience throughout the day, and informed them that showing patience is a valuable life skill and the only way to earn marbles for the day.  Every time, the majority of the students exercised patience in the classroom, the Marble Meter moved up.  They earned two handfuls of marbles that day due to their great effort and patience.  They waited quietly between activities or while a student was thinking after being called upon during a discussion.  They took the extra time to spread out newspapers on the floor before painting part of their pinball machine in Science class.  They exercised great patience.  It was quite the sight to behold.  Because I had them focus on one social-emotional learning concept or skill, they were more able to demonstrate their ability to use that one skill throughout the day.  Without a focus, some students might be patient while others would not.  I observed far more examples of patience, kindness, and self-awareness this week than I had in the past because each day focused on just one of those skills.  Breaking the big idea of social-emotional learning into manageable chunks is far more successful than trying to tackle everything at once.

At the Beech Hill School, we pride ourselves on embracing the diversity and uniqueness of our student body.  Although we are a small school, we have all different types of students in attendance.  We frequently talk to our students about how fortunate we are to be attending a school where being different is celebrated.  Differences make the world so beautiful.  In the fifth grade, I take every teachable moment and opportunity to discuss this issue and how we should always be looking to break down walls and stereotypes that pigeonhole people into square holes.  A few weeks ago, we watched a video in Science class that included a subliminal message and gender stereotype about men and women.  When I pointed it out to the students, they were rightfully outraged.  I told them to always be on the lookout for how society tries to put incorrect or false ideas into our minds.  We can be any type of person that we want to be and we can do anything we want to when we put our minds to it.  “Don’t ever let people make you feel like you need to conform or change.  Being different makes you special.  Celebrate differences,” I told them.

Unfortunately, it seems that other other people in the world don’t seem to take the same approach to diversity that we do at our small micro school.  I read a news story about a nine year old boy from Australia who was born with a form of dwarfism.  Recently, when his mom picked him up from school, he was in tears telling her how he wished someone would kill him, as he is constantly faced with bullying because of his differences.  A nine year old boy wants his life to end because other people are making him feel like less of a person.  Why?  Why can’t people celebrate life instead of trying to destroy it?  While most educators understand the root of bullying, it doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend.  I was filled with anger after reading this story.  I felt helpless.  Then, I decided to do something about it.  I brought this story to the attention of my students on Friday morning and shared my thoughts on it.  I then opened the floor to discussion.  “Is there anything we can do to help?” I asked my class.  One student said, “We can write cards to the boy letting him know that he is cared for and loved.”  Another student suggested trying to put the family in touch with a place that pairs therapy dogs with students.  Perhaps that would help him feel cared for.  Another student suggested making a video sharing our stories and sending him positive thoughts and messages.  Kindness, compassion, and empathy are alive and well at the Beech Hill School.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  Again, they saw this as an act of injustice in our world and wanted to do something about it.  On Monday, I’m going to provide the students with time to create cards or a video that we can send to this boy and his family, letting them know that we are on their side.  While stories like the reality this boy lives on a daily basis cause us much anger and sadness, they can also be just the fuel we need to bring about change in our world.

While these are but three tiny tales from my amazing week in the fifth grade, I feel that they offer a glimpse into the magic and wonder of education and teaching in our stellar world.  Like tasty doughnuts from Tim Hortons, savor the wonder of each and every day.  Live like children searching for ways to make our world a better, happier, safer place for all living beings.  Namaste.

Is it Vital that we Teach our Students about American Politics?

As a younger fellow, I was not actively engaged in American civics.  Because my parents were not passionate about politics, we did not talk about on going elections or the state of the American government growing up.  I had better things to do when I was a teenager.  I had a job, school, and friends.  I didn’t have time for politics back then, I thought.  As I aged and matured like fine cheese or root beer, I started taking a hard look at the world around me, and cringed.  What is happening to our climate?  What is going on in the White House?  I started paying attention and then became enraged and a bit upset.  As the popular bumper sticker from the 1990s reads, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  As I magically transformed into a caring and empathetic adult, I began to understand what that quote really meant.  If you just look around, you will see the world for what it truly is, unfair and unjust.  As I gently ripped the rose-colored glasses from my eyes, I started to become more interested in politics.  I started paying attention to elections and who was running for political office.  I began to exercise my civic responsibility and became one of those people the founders of our country wrote about in the Constitution.  The people are the ones with the real power.  We need to voice our concerns and speak up.  We need to educate ourselves on the political process and vote.  We need to be the change makers in our country.  As I started paying attention to American politics, I became passionate about something.  I looked at my role as a citizen in this country as something important.  I’m a cog in this machine.  I need to be sure that my views, thoughts, and opinions are heard.  I will no longer stand in the darkness of ignorance and apathy, in what some Americans spend their entire lives.

As passion for our world and the way in which it works filled my soul, I started to realize that as a teacher, I need to use my power for good.  I don’t want my students living in the shadow of doubt and apathy, as I did for too long.  I want to spread the passion that I have to others.  I want my students to understand how our government works.  I want them to see that as citizens of this great country, we all have a civic duty to be sure that our country is operating the way in which we would like to see it operate.  I want my students to grow curious about politics and crave more knowledge.  I want them to pay attention to the world around them so that they can make a difference.  As the future leaders of our country, I want my students to begin to gain passion for making a difference and taking charge of how our government does business.  I want my students to begin to see the power in caring earlier than I did.

To help inspire my students to care and want to learn more about American politics, we discuss current events in our class every Friday afternoon.  We talk about what’s going on in the world around them.  I encourage them to talk to their families about these issues as well.  My goal is for my students to begin to form their own opinions on issues like the environment, education, and equality.  I share background knowledge with the students during these conversations so that they understand the why of what is going on.  The students also share their thoughts on the current happenings in our world.  I attempt to make these topics and this weekly block of time seem vital and necessary so that they begin to care about current events as well.  I want them to watch or read the news, talk to others about issues in the news, and research current events to gain multiple perspectives.  As we are more than halfway through the academic year at this point, students will come to school and share information about current events that they learned about on their own.  It’s so cool.

As the Primary Election process has already begun with the completion of the interesting Iowa Caucuses taking place this past Monday, I wanted to take the opportunity to help my students understand the election process, political parties, and the candidates running.  Although they can’t vote, I want them to wish they could.  I want to foster a sense of passion within my students regarding politics and government.  So, yesterday morning, I seized the opportunity to educate my students on the election process in our country.  I gave them a general overview of how presidential elections are conducted in America.  We then viewed and discussed a short video detailing the difference between conservative and liberal political ideologies.  We talked about the two major political parties in our country.  I made sure to leave my biases out of this discussion.  I didn’t share my political views with the students during these discussions.  I really wanted to be sure that they learned accurate and unbiased information regarding this big issue of American politics.  The students asked many questions regarding the big differences between Democrats and Republicans.  They were really trying to wrap their minds around big government vs little government.  I could see the wheels turning inside the brilliant minds of my students.  It was so awesome.  They were very curious.  We could have kept the discussion going all morning long.  They wanted more information, which was exactly the outcome I was hoping for.  I wanted them to be curious and desire to learn more about this huge topic.  I then shared brief biographies on each of the major republican and democratic candidates running for president in the Primary Election.  I used the NH PBS Website for information on the candidates.  It provided super background information on each of them.  At that point, my class participated in the NH PBS Mock Election.  I reminded the students to think carefully about their party affiliation.  Which ideals and thoughts do you most agree with?  What matters to you?  Do you want more governmental control or less?  My students chose their political party and then cast their vote.  They seemed so excited to participate in this wonderful Mock Election.  As I explained the gravity of this momentous event, they were so engaged.  “Our vote matters?” they wondered.  During snack, the students spent the entire period discussing their thoughts on the two major political parties and for whom they voted.  It was awesome to see them so interested and excited about American politics.


As pride and excitement filled my body and soul yesterday morning watching my students engage the process of American Democracy, I wondered how many other teachers are helping their students understand American politics and how the American government functions.  My hope is that all teachers are helping inspire their students to find their passion in politics.  I hope that all students leave school a bit curious for more information on this hot-button topic.  I hope that teachers don’t avoid teaching this subject because it is often considered controversial.  I hope that teachers are engaging their students in discussions on politics and government.  I hope that students are looking around their world wondering how they can bring about change and make tomorrow better than today.  I hope that future generations of Americans will see that as citizens of this wonderful country, we are in charge.  We have the power to elect officials to represent us and our ideals.  We have the power to foster change.  I hope that schools around the country are helping students see that we all have the awesome responsibility to make America the most caring, accepting, diverse, and environmentally conscious country for all people and living organisms.  I hope that students are attending schools in which they tackle big issues like politics head on so that future generations of citizens feel empowered and passionate about making our world a better place for all.  All schools need to teach civics and talk about current events in our world so that our students will be able to grow into the most effective global citizens possible.

Discussions that Are Good to the Last Drop

The dining hall at my school has really been ratcheting up the variety and taste of its coffee this year.  They began introducing various flavors of coffee at the start of the academic year.  They added vanilla cream, caramel nut, rainforest crunch, and many others.  It’s really been a plus this year to have some delicious coffee in the morning, as in years past, the coffee they’ve served has tasted more like motor oil than coffee.

Just like good coffee, teaching is enjoyable to the last drop.  As my academic year winds to a close, with only two class days left, I’m getting very nostalgic.  It’s been an amazing year in the sixth grade.  Our class is phenomenal in every way, and each student has made great progress since September.  They have grown together as a real family and support each other nicely.  It’s really been awesome to watch this transformation throughout the year and guide them through it.

While teachers get a bit sad at the end of every school year, students tend to get a bit kooky come the end of school.  Negative behaviors tend to pop up, as the students can’t wait for summer vacation.  It can be difficult to keep students focused during the final days of school.  With this in mind, I was a bit nervous about our last current events discussion of the year that took place in class on Saturday.  As the boys didn’t have any formal study hall time to read about current events, I wondered how fruitful the discussion would actually be.  Lo and behold, it was probably the best discussion we had all year.  The boys were focused, built on each other’s comments and thoughts appropriately, and raised some valid and unique points regarding school shootings.  It was quite a sight to observe.  I was impressed.

The students rocked it and stayed focused even at the very end of the school year.  I wonder what allowed that to happen.  Do they just love talking about current events that much?  While I do think this group enjoys discussing different topics, I’m not sure if that was the catalyst.  Perhaps.  Maybe because they knew they were being graded on the discussion objective they put forth great effort?  Who knows what allowed this amazing and final discussion to happen, but it did.  I will celebrate the little victories at this point in the year as I enjoy the final drop of this morning’s tasty cup of coffee.

How My Students Helped Put Things into Perspective for Me

The word perspective is very much like a Transformer.  Yes, I mean those really cool robots in disguise.  What does a word have to do with a toy, you’re probably asking yourself.  My simile is much more figurative in nature than literal, of course.  Although words can have alternative meanings when used in particular situations, their spelling or phonetic composition doesn’t change.  So, here’s where I’m going with this comparison…  While artists view the word perspective one way, teachers of the humanities look at it through a very different lens; however, the nucleus or core meaning stays the same, much like Transformers.  Optimus Prime was a compassionate and kind being in robot and vehicle form.

Whether we’re using the word perspective to discuss the vantage point of a piece of art or how one views the world, it comes down to view point and how one is looking at something.  My view of the world most likely greatly differs with how you all see the world around us and happenings within it.  The same is true of artists, how one painter chooses to create an image for the viewer will be different than how another artist approaches the same task.  Perspective is open to interpretation.  It’s a personal word.  While it’s something we all posses regarding many different topics, it’s different for each person.  Our experiences, history, culture, and language all shape our perspective of the world in many different ways.  Despite these differences though, just like Bumblebee, we all jump into each new adventure life throws at us armed with our perspective, and charismatic wit.

In my Humanities class, Saturdays are devoted to discussing current events in our world.  As our students are the future of our world, it’s important that they are equipped with all of the necessary knowledge to move our world forward and live meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to make decisions in the future, our students need to understand their past and what led to the current state of affairs.  Learning about what’s going on in the world outside of the walls of our school not only broadens our students’ perspective, but it is vital to the success of our students and our world.  If the future leaders of our globe don’t understand how the leaders of North and South Korea came together for a common good, then they may not know how to approach a situation involving the countries or solve problems plaguing that region of the world.  Therefore, I make sure to educate and inform my students about major news events happening around the world.  Although I only give them the Twitter-ized summaries of news stories, I help to foster fruitful discourse amongst my students so that they learn how to view the world through a critical eye in order to solve problems creatively.  I provide my students with the facts and then let them analyze and infer.  What does all of this mean?  How is this story news and relevant to the world?  What can be done to address or solve this problem?  How does this story impact and affect me now and in the future?  To be sure that my students will indeed live meaningful and compassionate lives in our world, it’s important for them to see the world through many different lenses.  They need to see all sides of a story, fact, or current event in order to make informed decisions or draw appropriate conclusions.  I want my students to be like the word perspective itself, adaptable and flexible for every situation, much like a Transformer.

Yesterday during our current events discussion in my Humanities class, we talked a bit about the interesting and provocative quote recently uttered by the musician and artist Kayne West.  “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years?” he said. “That sounds like a choice.”  I tried to frame the crux of his statement in a way that would allow my students to draw their own conclusions.  I never want to paint my students into thinking one way or another.  I try to create an open dialogue, free of bias and my own opinions.  So, I didn’t tell my students what I thought about his words, but instead, tried to inspire them to think about them.  Was slavery a choice for black people in America?  Why might Mr. West think that?  As we dug into this story for a brief moment, an international student in my class from Europe asked, “What is slavery?”  So, I used ESL-friendly language to describe what the term means, for this student.  He got it, from my explanation.

This reminded me of what I’ve noticed over the years teaching students from numerous different countries around the globe: They don’t know about slavery because it didn’t happen where they are from.  While all countries have their own sordid stories and histories of how they came to be, most countries in Asia and Europe didn’t experience this same kind of racial slavery and degradation.  The first time I realized that this big, important chunk of American history is so foreign to outsiders, I was perplexed.  How can they not know about something as big as slavery?  Slowly, I started to see that it wasn’t that they didn’t know about it, they just couldn’t wrap their minds around it.  It didn’t make sense to them.  Why would one race of people enslave and mistreat, for so many years, another race of people?  This kind of horrible abuse didn’t necessarily happen in these other countries, or at least not in a racial manner.  They couldn’t fathom how America and its people could allow for such atrocities to take place.  The country was founded by people who fled their former homes in search of freedom, peace, and fairness.  So, why were those same people robbing other humans of their freedom, peace, and fairness because of the color of their skin?  It just doesn’t make sense to many people from other countries learning about American history.  This epiphany helped to open my eyes to a whole new perspective and view on the world.  Just because I understand and know something, doesn’t mean that everyone else has that same perspective.  My viewpoint on the world is very different from that of someone from a different country.  Knowing this, has allowed me to approach the teaching of big events in a more open, broad manner.  Rather than spewing out facts to the students, I pose questions and try to generate empathy for the people involved.  Teaching about slavery is not an easy undertaking for any teacher, but is one that can be interesting to teach to people not from America.

So, once again, my students helped me to broaden my perspective and see the world in a more open and real way.  Nothing should ever be taken for granted, especially facts or the rights afforded to all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, religious preference, or any other difference that makes someone special and unique.  My students reminded me of this once again in class yesterday.  I often wonder who the teacher in the classroom truly is, me or my students.

How Can We Motivate Our Students to Care About the World Around Them?

Driving home the other day, I had an epiphany.  In order to understand how my big realization came about, I need to provide you with a bit of a back story on my mental faculties.  So, I have a relatively ineffective memory regarding information that doesn’t directly apply to or impact me.  For example, even though I look at the daily schedule my school’s assistant headmaster sends out twice a week, I couldn’t tell you what time the Varsity Lacrosse practice is tomorrow because I’m not a lacrosse coach.  Now, storing information that I do want to know or care about is a bit easier, but still not perfect.  I do end up forgetting chunks of information about things which do apply to or directly impact me.  The one exception is music.  Rarely do I forget the name of the particular artist performing the song playing on the radio.  I’m great at the game Name that Tune.  I can name the band or artist playing almost immediately.  It’s quite a cool little gift that serves no real purpose in my day to day life.  It stems from me being a bit of a loner with no friends growing up, and so I spent hours in my room listening to cassette tapes and casingles of my favorite artists.  Let’s just say that hearing and knowing music is my jam.  Now, let’s fast forward to that epic car ride home.  The radio was blaring and the sun was shining.  Things were awesome.  Just as one song ended, another began.  Instantly, before the song even really started, I knew the band playing.  Just from hearing the opening guitar riff of the song, I knew that it was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Warrant off of the Cherry Pie album.  Now, I haven’t listened to that album, song, or artist in years, but I still knew, right away, who was responsible for crafting that fine piece of music.  Of course, recent neuroscience research tells us that putting information or knowledge to music makes it more memorable.  We remember and recall music easily.

This got me thinking, Aside from music, how can I help engage my students in what we are learning in the classroom?  How can I make sure that when my students leave the sixth grade classroom, they are not just prepared for seventh grade, but ready to take on the world?  How can I make the really important life skills I’m trying to teach my students sticky?  As I continued driving, enjoying the lyrical musings of Jani Lane, I continued thinking.  What are those really important things I want my students to know and understand?  How to be a kind person?  How to help others?  How to solve problems?  How to think creatively?  Sure, those are all really important life skills.  But, with the state of our world in such disarray in recent years, I really want my students to care about the world around them.  I want my students to see the injustices that are being committed around the world and want to change things.  I want my students to make a difference.  I want my students to see a social problem in our world and work to fix it.  I want my students to be engaged in the world around them.  That’s what I really want.

So, how do I do this?  Well, the Humanities units I’ve created over the years do help my students to broaden their perspectives and see the truth in everything.  Is that enough?  Perhaps, but I don’t want to just whet their appetite, I want them to be thinking about our world regularly.  I want them to see what is happening around them and take notice.  I want to shock them.  I want my students to wonder about and question things that are happening.  Why is the world like this?  Why is that country having those problems?  What is going on?  One easy way to do this, is to engage them in weekly discussions on current events.  I can get my students excited about the news and world happenings.  Once they become curious in the world outside of themselves, they may be able to start noticing things and problems.

Such has been the case this year.  Each Saturday, we spend one block of our Humanities class discussing current events.  Sometimes the students research current events on their own the day before, and what they learn drives our discussions.  Then, at other times, I introduce a particular current event that I feel the students should know about and we discuss that.  At the start of the year, my goal was to get them interested in the world around them, and so I chose current events that I knew would engage my students.  Within two months, my students were reading about current events on their own time and then seeking me out to share what they learned.  Brilliant, I thought, my plan was working.  Once I could see that my students were hooked on our current events discussions, I turned the power over to them.  I began letting them choose the topics we discussed.  Our discussions grew more lively and engaging as the students started to notice and observe things.  They started to question things.  They were beginning to care about the world around them and what was happening in it.  Yes!

A prime example of this change in their attitude and behavior regarding the world around them occurred in class during Saturday’s current events discussion.  We talked about the March for Our Lives protests that took place last weekend around the country.  As our school was on vacation for most of March, we hadn’t had a chance to talk about this happening.  So, we read a short article regarding the current event before the students started a discussion.  The boys were really engaged in yesterday’s chat.  They talked about racial issues in our country and the world.  One student shared how in his country, race doesn’t seem to be an issue.  Another student talked about how black people in America are mistreated.  Another student shared how he thought people need to stop talking about doing something and actually do something.  Amazing, I thought.  My students seem to really care about things.  They are interested in the world and what is going on.  While I had to end the conversation so that my students could enjoy their Morning Break, we could have kept talking for at least another 30 minutes or so, as my students were so into the conversation.  Although the conversation that happened during class was quite great and insightful, what really made me realize that my students care about the world around them and want to bring about change is what happened after the discussion ended and the students went to Morning Break.  About five students stayed behind to talk with me about the thoughts that they didn’t have time to share with the group during class.  One student wondered that if by talking about race so much as a class and country, we are actually making more of an issue of it.  Interesting.  I never really thought about that before.  I like his unique perspective.  Another student wondered why race seems to be such a huge issue in America, as many other countries don’t seem to have similar problems happening.  What has led to this problem?  Nice.  He’s trying to understand a problem.  I love it.  Other students gave up part of their only break during the class day to share their thoughts on our current event topic because they care that much about it.  They see problems in the world and want to fix them or make a difference.  They are engaged in the world outside of themselves.  My students are ready to take on the world.  Mission, accomplished.

Is it really this simple?  In some cases, yes.  As teachers, we just need to get our students interested and engaged in events happening around the world.  Once they get excited talking about current events, they will then get curious and begin seeking out, on their own, problems and injustices occurring around the world.  They will ask questions and start to become invested in what is happening outside of their screens.  If we are interested and passionate about current events and what is happening around the world, our students will follow suit.  Sometimes it comes down to presentation and engagement.  Once our students are interested in something, they will begin to want to learn more about it.  This quest for knowledge will lead to them caring about what they are learning.  From there, the rest will happen naturally, as I saw first hand in my classroom yesterday.  Making things memorable and sticky for our students, allows them to begin caring about them.  Just like in the Warrant song, that will forever be ingrained within my memory, noticing a problem and doing something about it is a crucial life skill that we should want our students to begin developing in our classes.

Using Current Events to Teach History

While many people are barely able to recall what they had for lunch yesterday, big memories or experiences stick with us, as they leave emotional scars or tags in our brains.  I remember watching the launch of the spaceship Challenger back in elementary school, filled with confusion and dismay as the shuttle burst into flames on live television.  Although I knew that what had happened wasn’t at all good as my teacher sat at her desk in tears, I was too young to understand the gravity of the situation.  Despite not fully understanding what unfolded on the screen, my brain tagged the experience as powerful and emotional.  Thus, this memory has stuck with me for over twenty years.  Then, of course, everybody who was alive back in 2001, remembers exactly what they were doing and where they were when they found out about the terrorist attack on American soil that occurred on September 11 of that year.  I was teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Maine.  As I had no specials or recess that morning, I was in my classroom with my students from 8:00 a.m. until lunch time that day.  After bringing my students to the cafeteria for lunch, I made my way to the teacher’s room.  Everyone was in tears and very quiet, listening to a radio.  Without asking, I knew that something was terribly wrong.  I then learned what had happened earlier that morning.  These horrible experiences leave their mark on us, ensuring that we will never forget them.  Sadly, positive experiences don’t always hold this same power.  While I do remember celebrating my son’s sixth birthday, I don’t remember specifics of the day.  I just remember that it was fun.  It’s weird how negative emotions seem to hold our memories captive more frequently than positive ones.

History is a culmination of millions of these once current events and happenings, both good and bad.  As teachers, it is our job to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to do this, we need to help our students understand how and why the world works the way in which it is does.  We do this through teaching our students about the history of civilizations around the globe.  Understanding why wars were fought and how leaders ruled their people helps us understand what led to the way the world is.  We can learn from history’s mistakes, no matter how horrific they may be.

As I am covering a unit on Africa in my Humanities class, when I’ve been perusing the news recently, I’ve made sure to keep my eyes peeled for current events having to do with the great continent of Africa.  Last week, I read a very sad story about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa.  They will be out of water by mid-April.  It’s a tragic story, but it’s history.  So, today, I used this current event as a vehicle for my mini-lesson regarding geographical problems facing Africa.  We discussed the issue as the students began to realize how important a role geography plays on locations.  Although I chose this depressing news story as a way to begin the mini-lesson in class today, it was merely an introduction to the heart of the lesson, which was all about solving problems.  We then watched a TED Talk given by William Kamkwamba from Malawi who created a windmill to help bring water and electricity to his rural village.  I told the boys to use this story as inspiration for how to think innovatively and creatively about solving problems facing other parts of Africa and the world.  These current event discussions were the springboard into a problem-solving activity I had the students begin in class today.  Working with a partner, they chose a problem regarding the geography of Africa and then brainstormed solutions to the problem.  Tomorrow in class, they will create a blueprint for their idea and then present it to the class later this week.  The boys were very engaged in our discussions and the activity.  They were excited to solve real problems facing our world.  What started out as a discussion on a negative current event transformed into a positive activity regarding solutions and creative problem solving.  By using a news story that invoked negative emotion at first, the boys may be able to better tag today’s entire lesson in a meaningful and memorable manner.

As we are living in history, I love to use current events to help my students understand what happened over time that led to these issues.  I try to put the present-day world into historical context for the students.  While I do try to focus on major happenings in the world, most of what we discuss tends to be stories that conjure up negative emotions.  While I don’t enjoy focusing on only the bad parts of history, as we know, negative memories and experience stick with people better than happy stuff.  So, perhaps my students will better remember the current events and history discuss throughout the year, as they are mostly stories that bring about negative feelings within them.

Make Every Day About Education, Inclusion, and Equality

While most schools have celebrations and ceremonies to mark special times of the year including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, and Women’s History Month, I often find myself wondering if teachers only talk about important issues around diversity, inclusion, and equality during those allotted times.  What about the rest of the year?  Do some schools or teachers take the one-and-done approach to covering important and serious issues?  Should we only talk about civil rights in early January to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday?  Should we only teach our students about great women who have had amazing impacts on history during the month of March?  Effective schools and teachers never stop educating their students on how to be kind, respectful, and knowledgeable global citizens.  Great teaching doesn’t take vacations or wait for holidays to cover certain topics.  Great teachers are always helping their students learn how to be open minded about various topics.  Great schools help their students see the world from many different perspectives, each and every day of the academic year.

On special days like today where schools do host special programs for their students, much like what my school did today, it’s very easy to see how some teachers could mistake them for excuses as to why they don’t need to delve into the heavy and serious topics in their own classrooms during other times of the year.  While days like today provide us with great opportunities to foster a sense of discourse within our schools around big issues of race, gender, and sexuality, they are also great reminders of how this important work can’t start or stop on these special days.  We need to challenge our students to think about these topics and issues each and every day.  We should be teaching novels that touch upon women’s issues and race in our English classes, while also helping students to see that men aren’t the only ones who can be great scientists in our science classes.  We can’t contain discussions of diversity, inclusion, and equality to one or two days a year.  If we want to help broaden the perspectives of our students, we need to get them talking about issues that matter to all people every day so that they can find ways to make our world better and more accepting and open to differences.

While my school did indeed commemorate Dr. King’s birthday today with special programming, I know that it isn’t the only time we, as a school, are educating our students on these issues that matter.  I know that these timely and vital topics get discussed in our classes throughout the year.  Our students learn about cultural differences, equality, and inclusion in many of their course throughout the year.  In the sixth grade, we begin the year in my Humanities class discussing the concept of perspective.  Everything we do in this class, I tell my students, is to help you broaden your perspective of the world.  I want my boys to see the world through multiple lenses and a growth mindset.  To do this, we talk about issues that matter on an almost daily basis.  Each Saturday, we discuss current events in our world so that the students understand and know what is going on in the world around them.  We look at each topic covered from varying perspectives.  Prior to the holiday break, we completed a unit on mapping and perspective so that the students would begin to see the inaccuracies that surround them on a daily basis.  Flat maps do not tell the whole story of our world, just as most news stories or history books don’t either.  I challenge my students to question everything and look for much information on a topic before forming opinions or thoughts.  Last week, we began a new unit on the continent of Africa, and I helped my students see how easy it is to get sucked into employing stereotypes when learning about countries or regions of the world for which we know very little.  It’s much easier to use blanket, untruth statements then to find out the truth.  I challenge my students to do the hard work to be sure that they will grow into knowledgeable global citizens.  This is just one class at my school, and I know that many other teachers also dig into these big ideas in their classrooms as well.

We can’t allow days like today be the only time we are talking about inclusion, diversity, and equality.  We need to empower our students to think about difficult and serious issues on a daily basis.  The world is far from perfect, and until it is, we need to help our students see the challenges that face us each and every day.  Although special programs like the one my school held today are great opportunities, to as a whole school, discuss these topics, they should never be the only chance our students have to really understand the problems that have existed in our world since the dawn of time.  Every day should be a celebration and opportunity for our students to learn about equality, inclusion, and diversity.

Getting Students to Think like Members of a Jury

Several years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At first I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to miss time in the classroom with my students, but then I realized that I could use my experience on the jury in our mini-unit on 12 Angry Men.  I could share a real-life experience with my students to help them understand what goes on in a jury room while also getting them to understand the motivation of the eighth juror in the play.  So, I did it.  I was selected to hear a criminal case regarding domestic abuse charges involving adopted children.  Being the father of an adopted son, this case hit home for me.  While I did not allow my prior knowledge, emotions, and biases to cloud my judgment, I did use my background to better understand the case, the facts, and the law that was supposedly broken.  I listened carefully to the facts presented by both sides.  When the jury deliberated, we all agreed that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to show that any abuse had taken place.  Although the mother of the children emotionally explained her side of the story, there was very little evidence to support it.  Without proof, we could not rule in favor of the plaintiff in this case.  We, as the jury, came back with a “not guilty” verdict based solely on the facts.  While it was hard to listen to the various pieces of testimony in this case, the facts drove our decision.  As a member of the jury, I had to keep an open mind and make my final vote because of what the facts and the laws told me.  It was not an easy case in which to be a part of, but I did my civic duty to the best of my ability based on what was right and just as well as the facts presented.

Freeing one’s mind of bias and possibly inaccurate prior knowledge can be quite difficult, but it is the only way to approach jury duty.  It’s also a great way to broaden one’s perspective when learning new things.  However, it’s also important not to forget what’s right and just as well.  While the facts are the facts and the law is the law, not all laws are right and just.  Helping my students see this fact as they develop a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial.  I try, each and every day, to remind my students of this very fact.  I want them to understand how important it is to look at the facts but to not forget about analyzing the equity of the facts and laws involved when learning new information and developing as a student, person, and thinker.  I want them to question everything.  It’s been especially important as we’ve been digging into the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  I want the students to be able to understand the motivation of the eighth juror.  Why did he do what he did?  Why did he choose to stand alone in a room filled with 11 other men who all seemed to disagree with him?  Why did he take the time to explain his point of view and perspective to a generally close-minded group of individuals?  I want my students to see why Reginald Rose crafted this character the way he did.  The eighth juror calmly reviewed the facts of the case presented by both sides and helped the other jurors see the truth through the veil of their biases.  It is not an easy job for any of the men in the room, especially the eighth juror who has to deal with jurors yelling at him and accusing him of various things.  However, change comes about because of the facts of the case and the courage involved in helping others to see what is right and just.

To help my students practice this same skill employed by members of a jury, I found a current event involving a court case to discuss in class.  The case I used involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Native American groups trying to prevent it from going through their land.  As we had already introduced this topic to the boys back in December, they had prior knowledge of the case.  To begin our discussion, I had the students review what the issue was all about.  I then had the students state their opinion and thoughts on the issue.  Which side is “right?”  We then discussed the court case that is still awaiting a final verdict from the judge.  I had the students ask clarifying questions and share their thoughts on the case.  Following this short discussion, I then explained to the students that in order to discuss this current event and the case like members of a jury, they need to free themselves of their judgements and preconceived notions.  They need to look solely at the facts of the case.  So, I handed the students a written explanation of the Trust Responsibility principle used by the Supreme Court to handle issues involving Native American groups and their dealings with the United States of America.  We looked at the part that explained how most tribal land is still controlled by the American government despite the fact that the native groups have sovereignty within the boundaries of the reservations.  I explained to the students how the judge in the case might be using this portion of the principle to make his final decision in the case, which is due this coming week.  While the students seemed to understand the law and what it stated, they were outraged by it.  “The Native Americans were here first.  They are the only true Americans.  We are all immigrants and Europeans.  Why are we controlling their land?  How is that fair?” one student asked.  Another student responded, “This law is unjust and not right.  Why does it seem that nobody cares about this issue?”  My students were angry, like the men in our play.  They were upset with the facts of the case.  We had an amazing discussion.  The students were using examples from history to support their claims as they discussed this case and the issue at hand.  I was so impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students were being.  Even though they understood the law and know that the judge has to rule with the law in mind, they were discussing the facts of the case and how unjust this whole case seems.  I closed this discussion by praising the students for their phenomenal critical thinking.  I told them, “One of the main reasons we discuss current events like this is to make you angry while also empowering you to want to make a difference.  We want you to see how unjust some things in this world can be so that you will want to bring about change within the world.  Perhaps one of you will go onto become a lawyer and fight for the people like these Native American groups who can’t always fight for themselves.”  The students seemed enthralled and motivated.  I can’t wait to see how they change the world in the coming years.

Getting my students to think like members of a jury while also getting them riled up helped them to understand the web Reginald Rose created in his play.  I wanted them to see how difficult it can be to “see” the facts through the haze of issues, biases, and fairness.  What is right isn’t always the law and what is the law isn’t always just.  I want my students to see and understand this concept as we work through this amazing piece of literature created during a turbulent time in American history, just as we seem to be living during another tumultuous time in our country’s history.  Being able to think like a juror while not forgetting everything else is the key to developing a true growth mindset and becoming a changemaker in our world.

The Benefits of a Silent Discussion

In early November, I attended the New Hampshire Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Manchester.  It was a wonderful day filled with useful workshops and great discussions with colleagues.  I learned a lot that day; however, one of the most valuable nuggets of knowledge I learned was the silent discussion.  What is a silent, discussion you ask?  How can a discussion be silent, you’re probably thinking to yourself?  A silent discussion is much like a round-robin writing activity.  The students respond, in writing, to a guiding question regarding a discussion topic.  They discuss the topic in writing for a given amount of time.  Then, the students pass their papers onto another student, read what the previous student read on this new paper, and then add to the current discussion started by the previous student.  It allows those quiet and shy students a better chance to get involved in the discussion and showcase their learning.  This idea seemed cool to me at the time.  I thought I might try it in my classroom.  Perhaps, I thought, it might allow some of my ESL students more processing time and thus, better allow them to demonstrate their ability to meet the class discussion objective.

So, this past Saturday, during our final Humanities class prior to Thanksgiving Break, I had my students participate in a silent discussion as a way to discuss a current event I introduced to the boys.  Usually, on Saturdays in class, we discuss a current event topic in small groups.  While this has been effective for most students, some of the boys haven’t been as involved as I feel their potential shows.  Perhaps they are nervous or shy or maybe they need time to think before sharing their ideas.  Why not try something new, I thought to myself?  Our topic was President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for education.  We read an article from Newsela together as a class.  I clarified a few points that I thought might be confusing for our ESL students, but did not allow for questions during this time as I wanted them to save their thoughts and ideas for the silent discussion.  Our guiding question was, Should President-Elect Donald Trump focus on School Choice and Vouchers or the Public School System in America when he takes office in January?  After handing out paper to each student, the boys got right to work.  Many of the students vigorously etched onto their paper for about two minutes while one or two students struggled to write more than a few words.  Perhaps they were taken by surprise with the short time limit and those students who wrote very little would write more following the first switch, I thought.  Then they passed their papers onto the next student, read what was there, and had two more minutes to add to the discussion.  Almost every student seemed more focused during this second chunk of writing time.  I was impressed.  Then, they switched one final time to add to one more discussion.  When time ended on the last writing period, the boys started switching their papers again as they wanted to keep going.  They seemed to like this silent discussion method, I thought.  Yah!

I wrapped up class by reading a few of the discussions aloud.  They were pretty darn good.  I was impressed.  The students used examples from the article and their own ideas to take a stance on the issue of education in our country.  Wow!  I shared these thoughts with the boys before I asked for their feedback on this method of discussing a topic.  What did you think of this way of discussing current events compared to a whole group or small group oral discussion?  Most of the boys seemed to like all three methods equally, but one or two students did like this method of a silent discussion better because they felt as though they had the opportunity to genuinely share their thoughts with others.  They did wish we had more time to switch with every student so that the discussions could have grown into something greater though.  No one seemed to think that the oral method of discussing a topic was better than the silent discussion strategy.  Nice!  I might use this again later in the year when there is more time to really dig into our discussion topic.

I found this silent discussion method beneficial for almost every student.  Most of the ESL students in my class seemed to like this method better because they felt like they had time to collect their thoughts and write.  My weakest ESL student still struggled to convey any sort of coherent ideas or thoughts on this topic, much as he has done during previous small group oral discussions.  He doesn’t seem to be understanding the conversation or ideas on a level that makes sense to him or his peers.  The ideas he jotted down on paper were basic and just reiterating what was already discussed by the previous student.  I was hoping that this method of discussion would help him as he felt that he wasn’t able to jump into the small group discussions in the past weeks because he felt like everyone was hogging the conversation.  Despite having two solid minutes to add to the discussion in writing, he failed to showcase any sort of learning or understanding.  This student’s issues are much greater than just not being able to add his insight to a class discussion.  Overall though, this silent method of discussing a current event topic proved beneficial to my class.  I send a shout-out to the professor from Plymouth State University who shared this idea with me and others. Thanks for the idea and support.  #yahforteachersharing