Posted in Change, Class Discussion, Current Events, Education, Humanities, Learning, Perspective, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

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.

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Posted in Education, Learning, Perspective, Students, Teaching

When You’re in Need of a Wake Up Call, Just Stop and Reflect

Sometimes my ego is too big for my body.  While I feel as though I am an effective educator, I am far from perfect.  I do like to toot my own horn, a lot.  Just ask my wife.  She is forced to listen to my rants on teaching and schools on a daily basis.  “Our public school system is broken and until our society values teachers and treats them with the respect they deserve, nothing is going to change,” I often say.  I’m not sure how she puts up with my craziness.  I am truly blessed.  Before I get too far off track, let me get back to my focus.  So, while I do like to constantly grow and develop as a teacher, sometimes, I get a bit hung up on the little things and allow them to cloud my judgement.

Today played host to one of those negative moments.  While my students were in Art class this morning, I took the quiet time to read the current issue of AMLE Magazine.  I’m a huge fan of this publication, and not just because I once had an article published in it, but because it is filled with insightful articles about teaching and education.  So, I was pumped to crack open this brand new issue as I was excited by the headline on the front cover, “Feedback for Students, by Students.”  As I’m going to be presenting at the upcoming NELMS Conference in Providence, RI at the end of March on the topic of teacher and student feedback, I’m always looking for new perspectives on this subject.  Are there other ways to incorporate feedback into the classroom?  As I read through the article, I started growing enraged.  This article is talked about using student input to make class rules, having students peer edit each other’s work, and the power of group work.  This is old news, I thought to myself.  Actually, I think I said that part out loud in my empty classroom.  Why are they printing old news and ideas as something new?  These are basic Ed 101 concepts that all great teachers already know and apply in their classrooms.  Why did they waste the space on this article?  Effective teachers are already doing this.  I want something more.

As I started feeling the anger bubble up within me, I started to realize that not all teachers are or were trained in the same way as I was.  Perhaps some teachers were never informed of the concepts of building a community in the classroom by fostering a sense of communication and respect amongst the students.  Maybe some new teachers haven’t yet heard these ideas and will read this article, inspired to bring about changes in their classroom.  Or, maybe a few veteran teachers who forgot some of the brilliant ideas they once learned in college will happen upon this article and recall how important fostering a sense of family and community within the classroom is to creating strong, compassionate relationships amongst the students.  So, while I got so caught up in my own ego and was blind to all other perspectives regarding this wonderfully written article, I realized the importance of being humble and grateful for the skills I do have.  I shouldn’t look down upon articles or ideas discussing teaching practices of which I may already be aware.  Instead, I need to think of ways I can help others learn from these ideas, because, even though I may already be well-versed in utilizing student feedback in the classroom, other teachers may not be.  I can facilitate discussions with colleagues or present at teaching conferences on such topics.  I can be a catalyst of change by inspiring others to take risks in their classroom, like I once did.  I used to be so afraid of giving up control.  I thought a good classroom was one that was run by the teacher.  Students can’t handle directing their own learning or making decisions.  I needed to have the courage to try something new in order to realize how valuable creating a student-centered classroom is to the success of my students.  My students grow and develop throughout the year because they feel trusted, supported, and challenged.  They learn to solve problems by failing and finding new solutions.  It took me reading a very similar article many years ago on this same topic to realize that I needed to bring about change in my teaching.  Perhaps other educators around the country will read this article and feel the same way I once did.  I just needed to change my perspective a bit.

I am far from perfect and so thinking that I am all that and a cup of tea is only going to prevent me from continuing to grow and develop while helping other teachers grow and mature.  Today, I received a wake-up call from myself.  Thinking negatively about teaching and other teachers only breeds more negativity.  Although I don’t know everything about teaching, I do know quite a lot about effective teaching practices.  I could use what I do know to teach other educators to help them grow and develop.  The power of using a growth mindset in all avenues of life helps foster a sense of self-awareness and understanding.  I just needed to deflate my ego a little bit so that it could fit into this seat and allow me to ponder my teaching and open my perspective for today’s entry.  Sometimes, it just takes a little reflection and a lot of honesty to admit when mistakes are made.  The most effective learning comes through failure and mistakes.  Even though I used a fixed mindset filled with negativity this morning when reading an article on using student feedback in the classroom, because I take time every day to stop, reflect, and learn from my mistakes in this very blog, I was able to broaden my narrow perspective.  Yah for reflection and the AMLE Magazine!

Posted in Challenges, Conversation, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Perspective, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Should We Explore Mature Themes in the Classroom?

I remember, vividly, as if it were yesterday, when my parents received the letter home from my elementary school explaining how we would be learning about sex and puberty in our fifth grade health class.  I was mortified because then my parents started talking to me about it.  The last person one wants to talk to about sex is their parents.  It’s super awkward.  Then came the actual sex education class.  The boys were separated from the girls and put into different rooms.  The girls apparently talked about girl stuff and the boys learned all about boy stuff.  So, the boys watched this very old and incredibly boring filmstrip; yes, I said filmstrip.  I’m old, well not really.  I’m older than some people on Earth, but as my grandmother liked to remind me, age is just a number; it’s all about attitude.  So, I feel like a 23 year old.  Before I digress too far from my actual point, I should get back on track.  So, we watched this awful filmstrip that showed cartoonish diagrams of male genitalia.  While it was very awkward to watch this and talk about our changing bodies, it was also quite hilarious.  My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing and giggling.  For some reason, boys find talking about male genitalia the funniest thing since the invention of toilets.  Although we talked about a somewhat mature theme in school, it was much more of a laughing matter than something to take seriously.  Not until high school, did my teachers have us explore more mature themes in a serious manner as they knew we would not be able to handle talking about more “adult” issues in the earlier grades.

But, was that right?  I wonder if some mature themes should be discussed in the younger grades so as to expose our students to life in a global society.  Life is filled with both good and bad experiences.  Fortunately, not all people have experienced everything life has to offer and so learning about unfamiliar yet important life occurrences is crucial.  People need to learn more than one story or side of a topic in order to completely understand it in an open-minded manner.  Allowing students to explore mature topics in the middle grades is important if we want our students to have a broad perspective when they enter high school.  Being exposed to topics and ideas regarding all facets of life including the good and bad parts, helps students be open to new information and ideas and not encounter new topics with a fixed mindset filled with biases.

Today in Humanities class, we discussed the country of South Sudan and an issue plaguing that region of the entire continent of Africa: Children being taken or kidnapped and forced into being child soldiers.  I want the students to understand that not all topics we’ll be discussing in our unit on Africa impact only the adults.  Some issues affecting Africa impact people their age or younger.  My hope was to broaden their perspective on the world.  I was also very careful to mention that this is an issue for not just Africa, but all parts of the world.  Children are taken from their families and homes and forced to do things against their will.  While at first, a few of the students struggled to take this discussion and lesson seriously, after reminding them of the fact that this is a mature issue and we need to treat it as such, they were much more focused and mature about it.  After introducing the concept of what it means to be a child soldier and how it is allowed to happen in some parts of South Sudan, we viewed a short news clip about a boy who had been taken from his village and forced to be a soldier.  This video showed, first-hand, what these children have to endure.  It is difficult to watch as it conjures up all sorts of emotions.  Viewers are filled with disgust, anger, sadness, and shock.  Following this video, we debriefed the concept on a more tangible level as the students now had images to put to the facts I had provided them with.  This discussion then lead into a writing activity in which the students needed to imagine that they are a child forced into being a soldier.  What would that experience be and feel like?  While this is a difficult task as it requires students to be empathetic and address serious and real emotions, it is also a great way for the students to apply the skills we’ve been working on all year in Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.  Although the students definitely had strong emotions about this issue and topic, they seemed to understand the gravity of it as well.  My hope is that it will enable them to more easily learn other issues and topics impacting our world that may not be so easy to comprehend or understand.  A subgoal for this lesson is that learning about this difficult topic will empower my students to want to make a difference to change the world.  Seeing this adversity and indifference, I hope, will inspire them to want to do something about it as they see how awful it is for all people involved.  Helping the boys learn to be empathetic and compassionate at a young age will hopefully allow them to develop into thoughtful and active members of our global community.  We need more changemakers in this world.  Helping my students see the awfulness that exists everywhere, will hopefully motivate them to stand up for their beliefs and make the world a better place for all citizens.

So, while it is challenging to discuss mature themes and issues with students, it’s vital to their social-emotional growth and development.  We want to help our students grow into compassionate and empathetic adults.  Getting students to understand how to discuss and talk about mature and “adult” themes and topics is only better preparing them for the real world.  We can’t shade our students from the brightness of real life forever.  Life is full of both beauty and horror.  Preventing our students from learning the whole story about a topic, issue, or idea will only help them further develop biases and be unprepared for the global society in which they will be living as adults.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Perspective, Students, Teaching

Should We Still Be Teaching Cartography to our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost absolute.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In the sixth grade Humanities class, we teach a short unit on mapping and cartography under the guise of teaching students about the idea of perspective.  While we focus on how inaccurate flat maps are, we do cover map parts and atlas use.  We want the students to understand how GPS systems work and how they locate specific places on Earth.  To do this, we teach the students about lines of latitude and longitude and map projections.  However, our main focus is on helping students learn to interpret the world around them.  We want the students to understand the idea of perspective, how their perspective is greatly influenced by their prior knowledge, and how sometimes, what they learned about a topic may be inaccurate.  We want to help our students broaden their perspective about the world around them.  We want to squash stereotypical views our students have about various topics or parts of the world.  We want to challenge our students to utilize a growth mindset when learning new material or a different way of looking at something they already know.  Teaching students how inaccurate flat maps are, is one easy way to introduce the concept of perspective before we dig into our first culture and region study.  Although we know that students will most likely never use maps or atlases again in their lives, they will need to be aware of their perspective and how it can skew how they learn new material or view the world.  Mapping and cartography is the vehicle we use to teach our students about perspective.  So, while many students no longer learn about maps and cartography in school anymore, our sixth grade students learn all about maps as they pertain to perspective.  It puts the idea of how they view the world on a level they can understand, using maps as a tangible symbol.

Is there another way we could teach our students about the idea of perspective and how important it is to be aware of how their perspective forms and changes?  Do we still need to teach students about atlases and map parts or should we stick to just teaching students about how inaccurate flat maps are?  What really matters to our students?  What will help them live meaningful lives in a global society?  Mapping, being able to read a map, and understanding cartography will probably not help our students live more effective lives after school.  So, do we drop the mapping portion of our perspective unit or keep it for next year?  What makes the most sense?

David Walbert, author of many articles on helping teachers learn how to teach various historical concepts, tells us that being able to effectively read maps is a crucial step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  Students need to learn how to “read” and interpret pictures, diagrams, and images they are constantly bombarded with.  Much learning comes from pictures, and so, if students don’t know how to properly intake information visually, they will miss a lot of learning opportunities facing them daily.  Teaching students how to interpret, read, and analyze maps is the first step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  So, while it may no longer be necessary to teach a full, lengthy unit on mapping and cartography, teaching the basics of map reading is still needed to help our students learn and grow.

Posted in Class Discussion, Current Events, Education, Humanities, Perspective, Teaching

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.

Posted in Class Discussion, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Perspective, Teaching

The Power of Studying a Culture Through its Artwork

One of my favorite classes in college was an art history elective I took.  It was a general elective course on the history of art through the years.  It was a purely lecture-based course with an essay and written assessment at the end.  I loved it because of the way the professor presented the information.  He didn’t just tell us about each piece, he explained and analyzed the piece and what it told us about the culture and history of the people living in that time period.  One of my favorite knowledge nuggets from that class was regarding the Venus of Willendorf, a clay statue of a robust and large women.  At first glance, the piece seemed primitive to me as a naive college student.  Then as the professor explained how it was, back when it was sculpted, considered to be beautiful and showcased the epitome of beauty for women, I was hooked.  How could that be?  Magazines today show us overly skinny women as being beautiful.  How could a large women be considered the picture of beauty?  It turns out that the larger a woman was, the more childbearing-able she was.  The more offspring a woman could produce for her mate or husband, the better wife and person she was.  Child bearing hips and large proportions were what humans considered beautiful back then.  Boy, things sure have changed.  I found that to be so interesting.  It wasn’t just a strange statue of a large women, it was a beautiful sculpture that revealed a bit about the history of a civilization.  I thought that was so cool.  I loved his class.  He made art come alive.  I learned more about history and the people who lived it in that art history class than I learned in all of my history courses in college and high school.  Art brought history to life for me.

Today, in my Humanities class, I taught a lesson on the art of the Middle East Region.  I began the discussion with a question: What purpose does art serve and what does it tell us about a civilization?  I wanted the students to understand the purpose of today’s lesson and discussion.  I also wanted to help them see art as more than just art, but history.  I then shared various pieces of Islamic art with the students.  We discussed features of art from that region of the world.  I pointed out the intricacies in the various pieces as well as the fact that Islamic art is forbidden to showcase the human form as it goes against religious beliefs.  The students asked great questions and made insightful noticings and observations.  I was very impressed.  They were analyzing the art on a high level.  We weren’t just talking about paintings and rugs, we were examining the history and culture of a region.  Middle Eastern art wasn’t made to be ornate or intricate just because, it served a religious purpose.  The artists from this region made art as a way to celebrate their religion and beliefs.  The artists poured their heart, soul, and time into every piece.  These pieces also served a dual purpose though.  These pieces weren’t just art to be noticed or viewed, they were everyday objects like a beaker or rug.  The art of the Middle East region reveals much about the culture of the people and their rich and diverse history.  I pointed that out through questions and discussions.  The students seemed intrigued and wanted to learn more as we examined each piece.  They were engaged in the conversation.  It was quite an awesome class.

At one point, I was so enthralled in the discussion and questions the students were asking that I forgot that I was teaching a class.  It felt like more than that.  It felt like discourse or a college course.  I was professor Friedman telling my students all about the history of the Middle East region through the artwork the citizens created.  I was bringing art to life for my students today.  It felt great.  I was totally in the zone.  The boys also seemed very engaged.  I felt bad that I had to cut off questions at one point so that we could begin the hands-on activity portion of the lesson.  To me, I was educating my students on the art of the Middle East region; I was providing my students with a lense into the past of a region that is generally negatively portrayed in the media.  I was bringing stories to the pieces of history that couldn’t speak for themselves.  I was helping my students to see that Arabic writing is beautiful and breathtaking and not something to be scared of, as we discussed calligraphy from the region.

To help our students broaden their perspective of the world, we need to introduce them to new things in new ways.  Art isn’t just art, it is history and life.  Every piece of art, no matter where in the world it is from shares a story about the time period in which it was created, it tells us about the people who lived during that time.  It tells us the pain and beauty that existed in the world at the time in which it was made.  Art reveals the story of life in all it’s complexities and beauty.  And today, I got to provide my students with a deep look into a region that can sometimes be misinterpreted or misrepresented.  Today, I helped broaden the perspective of my students through the artwork of a place.

Posted in Boys, Class Discussion, Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Humanities, Perspective, Sixth Grade, Teaching

The Value in Gender-Balanced Co-Teaching

Each and every one of my teachers from kindergarten to grade five was female.  Was that a bad thing?  At times I thought it was as most of my teachers had also been teaching for a very long time and didn’t seem to understand boys and how they learn best.  My male friends and I always seemed to be getting in trouble or yelled at for doing things that most male-learners do: Fidgeting in our seat, talking to each other during class, touching objects or things in the classroom, writing about war or other violent activities, or  drawing pictures depicting blood or other “disgusting” images.  My teachers just didn’t seem to understand me as a boy, and looking back on the whole situation now, I do wonder if part of the reason had to do with the fact that they were females and didn’t fully understand how to help support and challenge boys; therefore, I lived several very frustrating and challenging years as a result.  Then, in the sixth grade, I had my first male teacher.  Mr. Carr.  He was awesome.  He understood boys and how they learn and see the world.  I was allowed to move around the room, fidget while working, touch objects being studied, and talk to my friends in class.  Sixth grade was the first year that I actually felt cared for and supported as a student and a boy.  It was also the year that I started taking school seriously.  I wanted to do well and succeed because I was in a positive learning environment.  Sixth grade was definitely my transformative year that lead me onto a path of academic success.  I do wonder where I might be now if I had not been placed with a male teacher that year.  Would I have continued to struggle?  Not that I’ll ever now, but it does make me a bit curious.

As a teacher at an all-boys school, I am very conscious of the gender balance in the classroom and curriculum.  When we moved to the co-teaching model for our sixth grade program, I knew that I needed to be paired with a female teacher so that the students would get both a male and female perspective.  Having a motherly and fatherly figure in the classroom for these young boys, many of whom are very far from home, helps to foster a family atmosphere within the classroom.  The students talk to my female co-teacher about things they don’t feel comfortable sharing with me and vice versa.  It’s so important for the boys to see how males and females interact together in all settings.  My co-teacher and I are equals in the classroom and the boys see it on a daily basis.  I don’t run the show by myself and nor does my co-teacher.  We are a team, and that sort of gender balance is vital to the program we have created in the sixth grade.

This gender equity within the classroom also allows us to be sure we are effectively and appropriately educating our boys on all types of issues and information.  Today in Humanities class, my co-teacher lead a very meaningful and relevant activity regarding the role of women in the Middle East Region.  She began the lesson asking the students to share ideas they have regarding the role of women in general.  What kind of jobs do they have?  What do women do in our world do?  How are women treated?  This lead into an eye-opening discussion regarding how skewed our students’ perspective truly is.  Many of the boys hold stereotypical and inaccurate beliefs that the role of women in society is to cook, clean, take care of men, and look pretty.  Wow, how interesting, I thought.  My co-teacher tried to help the boys see the flipside of their perspective and realize that times have changed and so too have the gender roles in our world.  More women than ever before are in the workforce and not staying at home to raise children.  Men and women are sharing caregiving and household responsibilities.  Things have changed dramatically and it’s important that our students begin to see this.

Following the discussion, the boys then viewed various black and white pictures of women from the Middle East Region.  Using guiding questions posted on the whiteboard, the students, working with a partner, discussed the pictures and role of the women pictured.  For almost every picture, the boys seemed to think that the women depicted were mistreated or controlled by men or someone else.  The students thought the women were forced to wear their hijab.  After each pair had looked at all of the pictures and engaged in lively discussion regarding their thoughts on the role of the women depicted, my co-teacher shared the true stories of each of the women in the pictures.  When the boys learned that many of the women held powerful and controlling jobs in various parts of the Middle East Region and chose to wear a head covering, they seemed surprised and shocked.  This new information lead to a meaningful discussion on perspective and the role of women in our society.  Many of the boys seemed to be changing their perspective on the role women play in the world, a bit, throughout today’s lesson.

This kind of activity and lesson needs to be a required part of every school’s curriculum, and especially in boys’ schools.  As many of our students come from various parts of the world with different traditions and cultures, it’s important to provide them with information about other ideas and perspectives.  We’re not trying to inflict our ideas or beliefs upon our students.  We understand that different families and cultures have very different belief systems, which is one of the reasons why our school is so special.  We are merely trying to help our students see the world through a wider, more open lense and perspective.  Having a female teach a lesson or activity like this is also important.  Sure, as a male, I could have easily taught this lesson, but would it have been as valuable?  My co-teacher was able to use herself as an example throughout the discussion, which helped some of the students more tangibly see the points she was trying to make.

Gender equality isn’t just about the students or teachers in the room, it’s also about the content and curriculum covered.  As schools are finally starting to move away from teaching books written by dead white men, it’s also important for teachers to help their students see the world with their eyes and mind wide open.  Teaching boys and girls about the various roles women and men play in society and have throughout history, is an important concept our curriculum needs to cover to help prepare our students for meaningful lives in a very global and hopefully, gender-balanced society.

Posted in Challenges, Class Discussion, Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Perspective, Teaching

Broadening the Perspectives of our Students Can Be Challenging

When I was a teenager, I thought I knew it all and was right about everything.  When I had an opinion, I took it as fact.  As I learned more about the world and was able to broaden my perspective, I started to realize that I actually knew very little, and a lot of what I knew was slightly inaccurate.  It took me years to come to this conclusion.  My brain wasn’t ready to accept that the information it was inputting could be wrong when I was in middle and high school.  It took time for me to broaden my perspective.

Sometimes, as a teacher, I forget what my experiences were like at their age and struggle to understand why my students have difficulty being open-minded and flexible in their thinking.  I need to be more empathetic towards them and realize that learning new information is difficult at their age.  It can be frustrating and a bit scary to think that what you previously learned might be incorrect.  Nobody likes being wrong.

In planning today’s Humanities lesson on religion and some of the major religions of the Middle East Region, my co-teacher and I did not take into account that many of our students could have very strong religious beliefs.  We didn’t think that some of our boys would have a closed mindset when learning about world religions they didn’t already know about.  Despite purposefully choosing to teach a lesson on religion within our Middle East Unit because it tends to be a very controversial subject within the region, we did not think that it would be a challenging topic for our students to dig into.  We assumed that our students would approach the activity with a growth mindset.  Following today’s lesson, I am recalling why one shouldn’t make assumptions.

The lesson hook involved having the students, with their table partner, discuss four guiding questions regarding religion and how the students view the concept of religion.  It was a five-minute Pair-Share activity to switch up the form of instruction a bit.  As my co-teacher and I observed the groups we noticed that several of the students had strong convictions regarding religion and their own religious beliefs.   A few of the students were very confused why religion even exists.  They didn’t understand why someone would believe that a “God” could have created Earth and everything on it.  This idea baffled them and caused their perspective to be skewed in that way.  Some other students focused so much on sharing about their own religion that they didn’t dig into the overarching concept of religion and how it impacts the world.  This very closed-mindset manner of discussing and thinking about religion seemed odd to my co-teacher and I.  Why were they unable to more openly discuss religion?  Why did it seem that many of the students were so stuck in their thinking?

Following our school’s Morning Break, we returned back to the religion discussion.  We had a few volunteers share out the big ideas they discussed with their partner.  The first student I called on said the following when asked what religion is, “It’s what a group of people do who believe something.  Sometimes they shoot or kill people.”  What?  This student seemed so swayed by his prior knowledge and bias of religion that he explained a very skewed perspective to the class.  I quickly clarified his statement with a dictionary-esque definition for religion.  Then, I explained the research project the students would be spending the remainder of our time together working on in class.  The students, working with an assigned partner, will research, using reputable online resources, an assigned major religion practiced in the Middle East Region.  The students needed to address six guiding questions and record their findings in an agreed upon format.  They then need to teach their researched religion to the class.  After describing the activity to the students, I answered questions the students had about the requirements.  One student asked, “So, my partner and I need to explain why terrorists are good?”  What is going on?  Where did we go wrong?  Despite having a discussion on how the media sways our perspective of the world and current events, the students are still utilizing a closed mindset when learning new information.  I quickly jumped on this question after several students started giggling.  Perhaps my response was a bit of an over reaction as I felt the need to remind the students why it is important to not accept everything we read or hear as fact until we do some verifying.  I explained the importance of having an open mind when learning about new ideas.

As the students worked on this research activity, my co-teacher and I observed the students.  Some of the groups were really digging into their religion and seemed interested in what they were learning.  They were open to new ideas and shared what they learned with us.  That was so cool.  Two groups accomplished very little in class today because they were so focused on finding a shared digital application to record their research on that they didn’t even start researching their religion.  One student in the group was so married to his own personal religion that he struggled to research his assigned religion with an open mind.  This frustrated his partner.  My co-teacher tried to help this group coexist effectively, but it was a challenge.

At the close of class today, we had interested students share facts they had learned about their assigned religion.  The students seemed engaged and curious about the religions their classmates were researching.  One student even explained how his perspective on his assigned religion changed because he had learned about a new form of religion that he didn’t know existed before today.  That is so awesome.  While the activity began as a bit of a bust, it ended on a much more positive note.  The boys will have one more class period to work and present their findings to the class.  I’m hopeful that the students will approach this next work period with a more open mindset and be able to take in new information about religion to help broaden their perspective.  While this will be a challenging directive for all of my students, I do think it is doable.

Today’s lesson on religion reminded me the value in having a growth mindset when approaching the teaching of a new concept or possibly controversial topic.  I need to be empathetic and understand that some of the students will bring prior knowledge to the table, and regardless of its validity, I need to acknowledge and validate their thoughts and opinions.  Helping students broaden their perspectives is a real challenge, but so important in helping them grow and develop into effective global citizens.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Perspective, Teaching

Helping Students Broaden their Perspective

Growing up in a small town, I didn’t realize how big and diverse the world truly is.  I remember how shocked I was the first time I ventured into New York City as a teenager: Seeing homeless people on the streets begging for money, trash littering the sidewalks, and people everywhere.  I was overwhelmed.  As I’ve matured, I have definitely added diverse life experiences to my repertoire that have allowed my perspective to grow and broaden.  It’s these unique experiences that have made me realize how important knowledge truly is.  The way one looks at the world is vital to how he or she interacts with the world and others in it.  Global citizens are made through education.  Knowledge is power.  The more one knows, the more he or she can positively impact the world and be the change they wish to see in the world, as Ghandi instructed many years ago.

One of the goals I have for my students in Humanities class is that they will broaden their perspective and change the way they see the world by the end of the academic year.  I want them to be aware of the biases they all have due to their prior knowledge and be open to new ideas and knowledge as a way to shed light on the unknown or their version of a truth.  While this is challenging at times, my co-teacher and I try to encourage the students to approach each lesson, activity, and unit with an open and growth mindset.

Today in class, we introduced our next country of study within the African continent, Egypt.  We discussed Egypt’s geography and location in Europe so that the students have a foundation of knowledge upon which to build an understanding of the country.  The students then wrote and drew pictures depicting everything they know or think they know about Egypt.  This springboard activity led into a whole class discussion regarding how what they know about Egypt stems from a very narrow perspective on the country.  I asked the boys, “How did you learn what you know about Egypt?”  We then discussed how this skewed prior knowledge leads to ignorance regarding all aspects of the country.   The boys had drawn pictures of ancient Egypt, pyramids, pharaohs, and the Egypt of old.  None of the students seemed to realize how rich and diverse the country currently is or the turmoil it has undergone in recent years.  They knew what teachers had taught them and what textbooks had explained to them.  They knew what the world wanted them to know about Egypt.  What about everything else?  We spent time viewing various pictures of modern Egypt with the students.  The boys then shared what they noticed in each image.  They seemed surprised that the images of pyramids depicted very old and eroded objects.  They didn’t realize how modern parts of Egypt are.  They seemed shocked by what they were learning.  At the close of the lesson, we had the students share how their perspective regarding how Egypt had changed.  Almost every student expressed how much they learned about Egypt from today’s lesson.  They were so surprised by how different Egypt is compared to what they thought they knew about the country.

Mission accomplished.  We were able to help the students see more of the world for how it truly is today.  We have equipped our students with power that they will hopefully use to make the world a better place for all citizens.  It was so interesting and fun watching the students change their view of Egypt in class today.  Helping students think critically about the world around them is one easy way we can help students grow, develop, and more effectively engage with the world in a transformative manner.