Lesson: Would YOU Stand Up to Injustice?

As we all watch the events tearing apart Ferguson, Missouri, one thing becomes clear:  Our nation needs to find a more productive way to deal with issues of race and injustice. Protests that result in police in battle gear gassing residents and fringe elements tearing apart communities night after night are proof positive that we’ve forgotten — or abandoned — dialogue as a tool for making progress together.

To that end, I wanted to share a few instructional materials that I’ve used to structure classroom conversations with middle school students about justice and injustice. 

What you’ll find are two readings that give kids the chance to think carefully about what fairness is supposed to look like and two sets of “seed questions” that you can use to start conversations in your classroom.  Neither of the readings addresses the Michael Brown incident specifically and none of the seed questions is designed to provoke extreme emotions.  Instead, the materials are designed to be used to guide a Socratic Seminar where kids can wrestle with their own beliefs about the role that responsible citizens should play when our communities are struggling with fairness.

Hope you can use them:

Elizabeth Eckford Reading and Elizabeth Eckford Seed Questions – No story challenges my students more than the story of Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine — the first African American students to integrate an all-white high school.  This reading shares Elizabeth’s first-hand recollections of her first day at school.  The seed questions encourage kids to think about what they would have done had they been a white student at Central High School in Arkansas on the day that Elizabeth and her friends tried to attend school for the first time.

Mother to Son Reading and Mother to Son Seed Questions – Langston Hughes was one of America’s best African American poets.  He wrote regularly about the challenges faced by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.  One of his best poems was Mother to Son — told from the point of view of an African American mother encouraging her son to keep on climbing through life even if “it ain’t no crystal stair.”  The seed questions for this reading encourage kids to think about just how easy it is to keep climbing in the face of injustice.


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Learning about Collaborative Dialogue

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As a white man working in Southern schools, I’ve been called a racist more than once by fired up kids who thought that I’d given them unfair grades or unwarranted consequences for misbehavior in the classroom.  Early in my career, those moments left me angry and confused.

“How could they call me that?” I’d think.  “I would have given a white student the same consequence for the same action.”  Oftentimes, I’d even let those moments turn me against the student.  “See if I’ll help them the next time they need me,” I’d mutter indignantly.

But a boy named Derek* tempered me.

Derek carried a chip on his shoulder from the moment he walked into my classroom.  He was loud and difficult at times, seemingly convinced that pushing his way through life was the only way to get things done.  Over the course of the year, Derek began to let his guard down.  A thousand small interactions — with me, with his peers, with the other teachers on our team — convinced him that school didn’t have to be a fistfight.

Having failed a major test that he’d worked pretty darn hard to prepare for, though, Derek lost it one day in the back of my classroom.  Embarrassed both by his grades and his emotions, he turned over a table and vented his anger in an epic stream of profanity that ended with “I’m so sick of all y’all racist teachers.”

Looking past the detritus of an emotionally charged moment filled with four-letter words and flipped tables, I saw nothing but hurt etched across Derek’s face.  The trust that we’d built was instantly wiped away.  He doubted everything about our school and my class and the governing powers in his life and he was feeling bitter and vulnerable and afraid — wounded.  Calling me a racist wasn’t some cheap attempt to hurt me.  It was an expression of the hurt that he felt from constantly struggling against systems that favored the white and the wealthy.

Need proof that the Dereks in YOUR school have a legitimate beef with the world that they live in?

Then name the last time that an unarmed boy without a criminal record was gunned down by the police in the streets of YOUR neighborhood for anything.  Or the last time that you could shoot a picture of a cop standing over a dead body laying just outside YOUR front window.  Or the last time that police decked out in battle gear started raining tear gas down on YOUR neighbors when they grieved and mourned and protested publicly against another ridiculous death. Heck: Name the last time that you were even wronged enough to NEED to protest publicly against anything?

Think I’m being overly emotional?  Unfairly calling out a single isolated incident that cops and right wing radio hosts are likely to call “an unfortunate accident?”

Then check out incarceration rates.  Or poverty rates.  Or unemployment rates.  Or high school graduation rates.  Or CHILD poverty rates.  Or juvenile justice rates.  Or average annual income rates.

(Do I need to keep going?!)

As you go back to school, look for the Dereks walking down your hallways.

Wearing defiance as a shield, they are going to be hard to reach and even harder to teach.  Rather than writing them up, reach out and lend a hand.  Start a conversation.  Prove moment-by-moment that someone cares — and that a system which is still largely run by white faces CAN be compassionate and safe and relatively free of injustice.

The sad truth is that life still ain’t no crystal stair for many of the kids of color in your classrooms – but if we start taking small steps together, the climb seems a lot less dark.



*Not his real name.

Daniel Learned that He Had Power Yesterday.

Try this:  Go to Google.  Type in “natural sugar versus added sugar.”  

Really.  Do it.

Here’s what you will find.

See the fifth post down?  The one with #sugarkills in the title?  The one just behind the post from Harvard and the post from The Food Network?

It was written by Daniel — an eighth grader at my school and a leader of a pretty motivated group of middle schoolers who are out to change the world. They have been working to raise awareness about the sugar in the foods that we eat on a regular basis for the last two years.  There are 113 posts on their blog — all ungraded work generated during lunch time.  In less than two years, they’ve gotten over 20,000 page views from 117 different countries and all 50 states.

Not bad for kids, right?

Daniel was in my room yesterday during a school-wide enrichment period.  While poking around our site stats, he noticed that “natural versus added sugar” was a search term that often brings people to our blog.  He wanted to know how high his post would be listed in Google’s search results.

When he saw that it was fifth — FIFTH out of 21 MILLION results — he was completely blown away.  Knowing that HIS content — his approachable description of the difference between natural and added sugars — is ranked just two slots lower than a bit from HARVARD opened his eyes, I think, to just how influential he could be.

Ask him, though, and you’ll find out that blogging doesn’t motivate Daniel.  In fact, he MIGHT not even realize that he’s a blogger.  I’m not sure I’ve ever used that term with the kids in our club.  They just think we’ve got a great website with a funny web address.

(Seriously.  It’s funny.  Read it as if it were three separate words:  http://sugarkills.us)

Knowing that others are learning from HIM motivates Daniel.  Knowing that HIS voice can help others to live a healthier life motivates Daniel.  Knowing that HE really does have power and that he really CAN drive change motivates Daniel.


THAT’s what I love about cause-driven learning experiences, y’all — and THAT’s why I want to find ways to get MORE kids involved in opportunities to drive REAL change in the world beyond our classroom.

No offense to the entire universe, but I’m not trying to prepare kids for colleges and careers.  I’m preparing kids for colleges, careers and COMMUNITIES.  I want my students to take an action orientation towards the world that they live in.  I want them to see problems and know that THEY can be the solvers even if they aren’t old enough to drive.

Gimmie a keyboard and an internet connection and I’ll show kids how they can change the world.  You can too.



Related Radical Reads:

Interview with the #SUGARKILLS Gang

My Kids, a Cause and Our Classroom Blog

Technology Gives Kids Power

Would YOU Consider Supporting My Donors Choose Project?

Let me start with a simple truth:  The learning experiences that resonate the most are those that tap into the inherent desire within my students to make a difference in the world around them.  Causes matter, y’all — especially when working with middle schoolers who are naturally tuned in to issues connected to fairness and justice and who are still convinced that anything is possible as long as we work together.

Whether they are fighting poverty, helping other teens and tweens to understand the amount of sugar in the foods they eat on a daily basis, standing up to bullying, or raising awareness about controversial political issues, my kids are STRAIGHT JAZZED when they realize that THEY have the power to make a difference.

The challenge for me has always been that I work in a tech-limited classroom.

We make do with two desktop computers, my teacher laptop, and an occasional trip to the computer lab.  That often destroys momentum, as students give up on our change efforts because they sometimes have to wait for weeks in order to take their turn to publish content that they’ve created for our powerful projects.

That’s why I’ve decided to create my first Donors Choose project.  My goal is to raise enough money to buy three Chromebooks for my classroom:


With those three Chromebooks, I’ll be able to give more kids access to the web during our weekly “Change the World” meetings.  Whether they are choosing a person in the developing world to support, writing a new entry for our #SUGARKILLS blog, or wrestling with potential solutions to a global challenge as a part of our upcoming 20/20 project, access matters — and three Chromebooks would literally double the access that I can provide in my classroom.

Would you consider supporting me?  Heck — any donations made between now and August 15th will be matched dollar-for-dollar (up to $100) by Donors Choose as long as you use code INSPIRE on the payment page.  That’s a double-your-donation-dollar moment that might just be worth seizing.

I’m more than a little embarrassed to ask, but I’m also more than a little motivated to leave my kids convinced that THEY can change the world and I just can’t scrape together the money to buy more devices on my own.



Related Radical Reads:

Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome

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Edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Interview with the #SUGARKILLS Gang

My Kids, a Cause and Our Classroom Blog

“If We Were Going to Have a Safe, Happy and Fun Classroom…”

As I mentioned over the weekend, I’ve been working with my students to craft a set of classroom promises designed to make sure that our classroom is a safe, happy and fun place this year.  

The experience was inspired by a process described in Pernille Ripp’s newest book, Passionate Learners. Pernille’s argument is that a healthy classroom depends on giving students genuine input in developing the expectations that govern a classroom.  Students will only invest in their learning spaces, she believes, once they realize that they truly have ownership over what happens once they walk through the classroom door.

While I spent WAY more time on this process than I expected to, I think the experience was super productive.  At the least, we had a fantastic conversation about the commitments we need to make in order to ensure that our year is something special.  At the best, we have a set of promises that will guide our work and that will allow my students to thrive without “supervision.”

Here’s what my students decided was important to them:

If we were going to have a safe, happy and fun classroom, Mr. Ferriter would:

Be fair and firm with all students.  This means that Mr. Ferriter will recognize and reward good behavior.  This also means that Mr. Ferriter should recognize and help when a student is struggling.

Be fun, active and creative while working.  This means that Mr. Ferriter will do his best to plan fun lessons and to be humorous.

Recognize that there are activities besides school in our lives.  This means we need Mr. Ferriter to give an appropriate amount of time for assignments and an appropriate amount of homework.

If we were going to have a safe, happy and fun classroom, students would:

Work hard and give our best effort all the time — whether we are working alone or in groups.  This means no matter how hard or easy our task is, we will try our best.

Participate, cooperate and be positive during class.  This means we will include other students in group efforts and we will participate by raising our hands, working well in a group, and recognizing the right time to lead and to follow.

Listen to the teacher and respect other students.  This means we will treat others the way we want to be treated and we will stay quiet when it isn’t our turn to speak.


Not bad, huh?  If you’re interested in learning more about the process that we used to develop these statements — or in the handouts that structured the work — keep reading.


We started by silently brainstorming around four key questions:

  1. What kinds of behaviors are important for making classrooms safe, happy and fun?
  2. What kind of behaviors make classrooms unhappy/unhealthy places to be?
  3. What kind of behaviors drive you completely crazy in a classroom?
  4. What promises would we have to make to one another in order to make this the best year ever?

Students recorded their initial reactions to those questions on butcher paper.

Then, I asked them to craft a written reaction to a comment added by another student.  I explained that a reaction could include agreeing with the original comment, disagreeing with the original comment, adding an example to the original comment, or asking a clarifying question about the original comment.

We were left with papers FULL of thoughts about the kind of teacher and student behaviors that make classrooms safe, happy and fun (see here and here for samples).

The next day, students worked in groups of three to look for trends in the kinds of behaviors that both teachers and students would have to demonstrate in order to make our year the best ever.  They used this handout to structure their observations, to record any trends that they could spot, and to write promise statements detailing the kind of behaviors that we wanted to see in our classroom this year.

While writing promise statements, I explained that it was important to express our expectations in positive language.  We practiced by converting statements like, “If our classroom is going to be safe, happy and fun, students shouldn’t blurt out” into statements like “If our classroom is going to be safe, happy and fun, students should be good listeners when others are speaking.”

Once groups had written three statements describing the trends in both teacher and student behavior that they spotted on our initial brainstorming documents, we came together to generate a master list of every expectation that we had for one another.  Our final list of teacher expectations included 15 different promise statements and our final list of student expectations included 9 different promise statements.

Together, we worked to combine statements that shared the same core ideas.  We also polished language a bit — making sure that we had turned every negative into a positive.  Finally, students voted for the statements that mattered the most to them.  Each student could vote for both three teacher behaviors and three student behaviors.

While voting, I asked students to see if they could spot the will of the class.  “Sometimes when we are voting,” I explained, “I don’t want you to be influenced by your peers.  In this case, though, I DO want you to be influenced by your peers.  If you see that one of our promises is SUPER important to everyone else in our class and you think you can live with it, vote for it.  We are trying to find the ideas that we can ALL get behind.”

When voting was over, I asked four students to stay at lunch time and pull our promises together into one neat list that was wordsmithed, polished and ready for review.  I took their final language and turned it into a handout that students now have in the front of their notebooks.

Here’s that handout:


My plans are to review our classroom promises each day while we are filling out our agendas.  The way I see it, classroom culture — like the culture in any human organization — needs constant nurturing and reinforcement.  I will also reward and recognize students publicly for honoring our classroom promises.  Students need to hear and see examples of our promises in action if those promises are going to become valued expectations for everyone.

I’m also going to ask students to reflect regularly on their own ability to honor our classroom promises.  The second page of the Promises handout linked above is designed to give kids chances to think about how their actions are moving our class forward and/or holding our class back.

I also have plans to develop a handout that allows students to give ME feedback on how MY behaviors are either moving our class forward or holding our class back. I figure that I can be a model for my students, showing how to receive and react to feedback — both positive and negative — publicly.

Finally, I’m going to develop mini-lessons designed to give students the kinds of skills necessary to confront peers who are breaking our classroom promises.  I want my students to recognize that if we are serious about making our classroom safe, happy and fun, we have to be comfortable correcting one another when our behaviors are getting in the way.  I’m not sure what those lessons will look like yet, but my guess is that they will involve a bit of role playing and a set of suggested phrases that are polite but direct.


Looking forward to hearing what you think.  In fact, I’d LOVE some feedback.  What do you like about the lesson?  What would you change about it?