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

Helping Students Think Critically About Global Issues

I remember being passionate about certain issues when I was in high school.  I used to read the local newspaper in my town, The Valley News, each morning before heading off to school.  While it wasn’t the world’s best publication by any means, it gave me fodder for thinking.  It allowed me to stay current with what was happening around the world, and it also helped me to think critically about important issues that matter to all people.  It was during this time that I took an interest in politics and the government.  I started forming opinions on certain issues that were being debated in Congress.  It felt good to stay informed and educated.  I felt like I knew what was going on.  Knowledge is power, after all.  It felt good to be in the know as well as to ponder meaningful ideas such as our two-party system and partisanship.  Sometimes I wondered how much more productive our country’s government would be if we eradicated our two-party system and went to a multi-party system that was more about the issues than a set of predetermined characteristics.  Being informed on current events and having the ability to think critically about the information is not only fun but vital to my role as an effective global citizen.

To help my students learn to live meaningful lives in a global society, we discuss current events on a weekly basis.  I challenge my students to stay abreast with what’s happening around the world during the week so that they can ace the New York Time’s weekly news quiz we compete in class each Saturday.  Some of the questions asked are quite challenging, but inevitably, each and every week, a few of the boys know the answers as they followed the news throughout the week.  That is always so exciting.  However, my favorite part of our current events activity is the class discussion.  I love allowing the students to debate and argue a guiding question based on a recent news event.  Last week, we discussed the legality and ethics of taking voting booth selfies.  The students were so engaged in the discussion that it was sad to have to end it when class came to a close.  They all had such insightful thoughts and opinions on the topic.

Another way I’ve been able to help my students think critically about issues that should matter to them as students and citizens, is through our current Humanities unit on the American Presidential Election Process.  Not only are we discussing the current state of affairs in our country regarding a pivotal moment in history, we are also engaging in a discussion of our world and how it works.  What matters to us as people?  What big ideas should we care about and why?  I want to empower my students to care about the world around them so that they want to bring about change and make a difference for the betterment of society.  I tell them time and time again my favorite Ani Difranco quote, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  I want them to have heated debates in class regarding important issues and topics.

Today in class, we began an activity in which they started learning about major election issues including gun control, the refugee crisis, and healthcare.  The boys chose a topic of interest to them and started reading articles regarding their self-chosen topic on the wonderful website Newsela.  As they read an article, they completed a Guiding Questions worksheet to help them identify the main idea of the article while also reflecting on how their perspective is changing regarding the issue.  The students seemed quite enthralled by this activity.  They were engaged in the articles and had some phenomenally insightful responses on their worksheets.  As I observed the students working today, I paused to ask them follow-up questions regarding what they were learning.  Why should people under the age of 18 not be allowed to handle or use guns?  Why are foster kids not allowed to keep their medicaid coverage if they move to a different state?  Why is the Afghanistan conflict bad for our country?  I was amazed by how my students responded.  They thought critically about the questions I asked them and responded carefully and thoughtfully.  It was so much fun to discuss big issues and ideas with my students.  I felt like a professor in a college course.  My boys seemed to really care about what they were learning about.  For some of them, they were learning this new information for the first time. They were beginning to form opinions and thoughts on global issues relevant to all people.  They were curious and critical thinkers.  It was so much fun to watch them learn, question, grow, and think about the world around them as they journey towards becoming effective global citizens.

Helping students to think critically about vital issues and topics concerning all people is crucial in our world today.  If we want our students to go onto live meaningful lives in our world as leaders, then they need to understand how the world works and how major issues impact people.  Teaching our students to care about global and national issues should be a high priority for all educators.  While we want our students to understand current happenings in the world, we also want them to be able to think critically about them to formulate opinions and plans on how to address the issues.  Having students learn about and reflect on major issues impacting our world is one easy way to foster a sense of global curiosity within them.

Finding the Success in a Flop

As teachers, we crave those teachable moments; the times in the classroom where students do or say something that allows for a big idea or social concept to be discussed in a meaningful manner.  Those moments are amazing.  Who doesn’t love when magic happens unexpectedly?  It’s like that time when the Titanic missed the iceberg by centimeters, saving everyone.  Yes, I know that didn’t really happen.  But wouldn’t it have been so cool if it had.  Then we wouldn’t have had to sit through three hours of Leonardo diCaprio sweating and trying to be king of no one’s world.  I would have really liked it had the Titanic not sank.  But, it did and since the time machine is still being kept secret in Area 51, the Titanic will have to stay sunk, for now.  While I veered a bit off course, which is what the Titanic should have done when they saw the iceberg, my point is that when serendipitous, unexpected moments occur in the classroom, teachers enjoy seizing those moments and making the most of the opportunities presented.  But, what if, as the teacher, you didn’t even know the unexpected had happened in class?  What if you thought that what was actually amazing and wonderful was a failure?  What if you couldn’t see the forest from the trees?  Did it really happen?  Is it possible?

I proved that sometimes even the teacher can be unaware of greatness happening right before his or her very eyes.  Today in Humanities class, the students discussed current events, as we do every Saturday.  We began the period with some pair-sharing.  The students shared, what they had learned about regarding the current event read for homework, with their table partner.  They asked each other questions and had some interesting conversations.  I was impressed by the varying articles the students read.  Only one or two of the boys had chosen the same current event to read about.  How cool.  Then it was my time to introduce the class current event that the students would then discuss in small groups based on a guiding question.  Usually, we read, as a class, a current event together, discussing the big Ws: Who, what, when, where, and why.  This process only leaves about 8-10 minutes for small group discussions.  While the chats are filled with unique questions and poignant thoughts, they are not lengthy enough for the students to really delve into the guiding question in a meaningful way.  So, today I decided to switch things up a bit.  After handing out the current event article, instead of reading through it together as a class, I explained the main idea to the students before allowing them to ask any clarifying questions.  The boys asked a few questions that I quickly addressed.  Then, I introduced the guiding question and sent the students into their groups to discuss.  They had over 15 minutes to really get into the conversation.  Although the groups had interesting and insightful discussions filled with brilliant ideas about how to prevent future water crises like the one in Flint, Michigan from happening, I felt as though my introduction had flopped.  It felt flat.  Rather than allowing the students to ask questions and figure out the current event, I filled in the holes.  I did all of the thinking for them.  I stole their ability to solve problems from them and they didn’t even realize it.  I felt awful.  I did not like how it all went down.

So, I of course, sought feedback from my co-teacher.  What did you think about my introduction to the current event?  I was completely surprised by her response.  “While I like the way we have done the current event introduction in the past by reading and discussing the article together as a class, it takes such a long time that the boys don’t have enough time to get into conversations in their small groups.  Plus, they usually have trouble synthesizing the information in the article in order to critically think about the guiding question.  Because you gave them the main idea and allowed them to clarify their knowledge of the topic, they were able to have much more involved and meaningful conversations.  I thought it was great.”  What?  Were we in the same classroom?  Was she observing what actually happened or had she fallen asleep during my chat with the class?  How is it that our perceptions of what happened were completely different?  I felt as though I took away from the students by explaining the main ideas to them, but she thought it helped them have deeper discussions.  I guess that makes sense, but it still felt stale to me.  I didn’t like how I had explained the event to the boys.  It felt rough and awkward.  I didn’t ask them any questions.  Were they really engaged?  They seemed to understand the topic and did ask insightful, clarifying questions, but that didn’t matter to me.

The question that still remains for me is, whose perception was the reality?  Was my current event introduction really a flop or was my co-teacher right and my lesson was actually effective?  And, how would I know if I was right or wrong?  Was my flop really a success?  Sometimes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so I’ve heard.  In this case, who was the true beholder?  Was my lesson a flop or a success?

Celebrating Growth and Progress in the Classroom

In the third grade, my teacher gave us weekly spelling tests.  Those students who received a perfect score of a 100% found a special sticker, usually a scratch-and-sniff one, at the top of their paper when it was returned the next week.  That was a huge highlight for me.  I put forth great effort on a weekly basis to receive one of those stickers.  It wasn’t about learning how to spell words, it was all about the celebration and sticker.  My teacher did very little else in the classroom to celebrate growth and progress.  Those stickers were one of the only ways I was able to feel as though I had accomplished something.  I felt good about myself as a student because of those stickers.  In retrospect, it seems quite silly that I found such happiness in those smelly pieces of sticker paper, but I did.

As a teacher, I want my students to feel celebrated and supported in their learning process throughout the year.  I don’t want them to long for stickers or silly rewards.  I want them to be able to see their growth as students and be pleased and proud of themselves.  I want them to continue to work and develop their habits of learning throughout the year because they want to grow as students and not because they earn special prizes or stickers.  I try to consistently provide my students with relevant and meaningful feedback and praise on their learning process and effort throughout the year.  I want the boys to see themselves as I do, growing and developing students.

Today in Humanities class, the boys participated in various small group discussions regarding current events.  The students shared the news worthy events they had read about for homework with their table partner.  They explained the big ideas regarding their self-chosen articles and events.  My co-teacher then shared one relevant current event topic with the class to provide them with fodder for the small group discussion they would be participating in towards the end of class.  The boys learned about how Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, wants the media and others to stop making a big deal of the fact that he is a black quarterback.  He wants to be referred to as just a quarterback as he feels race is not a factor in his ability to play at the quarterback position.  After the students understood the who, what, when, where, and why of the issue, the boys were placed into small groups with four other students to discuss the issue using a guiding question to focus the discussion: Does the race of an athlete impact his or her ability to play a sport or position on a team?  The boys did a tremendous job exploring how race is used to judge athletes and the negative outcomes of doing so.  I’m constantly amazed by the critical thinking our students put forth to discuss the issue of the day in an insightful and meaningful manner.  They build upon each other’s comments and questions, use support from the text studied or referenced, and include others in the conversation.  It’s quite an amazing sight to behold.

However, the big win for me today was in celebrating one particular student’s growth and progress.  Prior to today’s conversation, this one specific student struggled to effectively participate in group discussions of any kind.  He generally hogged the conversation, not allowing others to contribute or participate.  He sometimes had trouble compassionately arguing with his peers.  Rather than citing evidence or support to make his claim or argument, he sometimes used words that lacked forethought or respect.  He had not been able to meet this one objective all year, until today.  He was focused and deliberate in his actions and participation.  He made sure to only participate in the discussion when appropriate, allowing his peers to also be included in the discussion.  What he did add to the discussion moved it forward in interesting directions.  His body language sent positive messages to his group members and showed respect and compassion.  He was like a different student in class today.  I made sure to take him aside after the discussion and praise his effort and actions.  He nicely demonstrated his ability to meet the objective and did so with grace and glory.  He added fine insight to the discussion in meaningful ways.  He was an active and appropriate discussion participant today because of his effort and restraint.  I made sure to tell him how proud of him I was.  He smiled and seemed to really hear the words I was saying.  It was amazing.  It’s moments like these that make those other more difficult classroom experiences all worth it.

While we certainly don’t want to over praise students or celebrate them for just being students, it’s also important to remember the value in specific and meaningful praise.  Students who are able to grow and develop in order to overcome challenges in the classroom need to be recognized and celebrated.  Not with a sticker or big fan fare in front of the class, but with personal and private conversations and words of praise.  When these students reap the benefits of their hard work, they will see the value in utilizing feedback provided by their teachers and peers in order to mature and grow.  This is crucial to the learning process.  Students need to see that their effort has positive consequences so that they will want to keep trying and working hard.  Recognizing and celebrating the successes of our students breeds more success, happiness, and a sense of well-being within them.  The more we can take notice of their growth and progress in and out of the classroom, the more they will want to grow and progress as students and learners.