Category Archives: Teachers Establish a Respectful Environment for a Diverse Population of Students

Buy a Kid a Book for Christmas!

Hey Radical Nation:  As you start to work on your holiday season shopping, I hope you’ll consider picking up a book for an important kid in your life, too!  There’s something special about having your own books lined up on your own bookshelf.  It sends the message that reading is important — that it is something that we believe in and invest in and spend time doing!

Have a middle school son, daughter, nephew, cousin or neighborhood friend on your shopping list?  Need a few suggestions?  

Here are some titles that have been really popular with my students this year:

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen is a dystopian novel — which means it is set in a screwed up future world!  In this world, people are divided into two classes:  Those with silver blood and those with red blood.  People with silver blood ALSO have remarkable powers that they use to keep those with red blood in their place.  Discontent grows among the “reds,” and that discontent leads to a rebellion and the beginnings of a civil war.  It’s the themes of fairness and justice that resonates with middle school readers — that and the incredible superpowers that the Silvers have!  Better yet:  Red Queen is the first book in a series — so if your kid digs it, there’s PLENTY more to read.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I like to describe Cinder — and the remaining books in the Lunar Chronicles series — as the book you would get if you mixed Star Wars with your favorite fairy tales.  The story of Cinder — a cyborg with an evil stepmother who falls in love with the Prince of her kingdom — starts of the series.  And while she’s unappreciated, Cinder plays a HUGE role in keeping the earth safe from Levana, the evil queen of the moon who has her heart set on world domination!  The story is fast paced and full of characters that you learn to love and hate.  That by itself makes it engaging to middle school readers.  What’s REALLY fun, though, is finding the parallels to Star Wars — and there are TONS to be on the lookout for.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve spent the better part of my career reading young adult literature and few stories have captured my attention like Steelheart.  Another dystopian novel, Steelheart is set on earth in a time when ordinary humans have been bestowed with super powers.  Some can create intense heat.  Some can turn buildings to steel.  Some can generate electricity or cause plants to grow at ridiculous rates.  But here’s the hitch:  Every time that one of these “Epics” uses their super powers, they grow a little more corrupt.  The result:  Tyrants who rule the world with impunity.  That’s where the Reckoners come in.  They are a small team committed to figuring out what the weaknesses of each Epic is and taking them down one at a time.

The Elements by Theodore Gray

One of the concepts that we talk about at length in science class is that everything on earth — the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the friends we have, the foods we eat — is made up of elements either on their own or working in combination with one another.  Need an example?  Water (H2O) is the result of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms joining together.  Kids are SUPER fascinated by this — mostly because they haven’t ever heard of most of the elements that we have on earth.  That’s why The Elements by Theodore Gray is such a cool book.  Gray worked to build an incredible collection of every day materials that are made of elements.  Then, he photographed and wrote about his collection.  This book is visually stunning and filled with just enough text to teach good lessons without flying over the heads of middle school readers.

Where Children Sleep by James Mollison

One of the lessons that I try hard to teach my own daughter is that no matter how bad she thinks she has it, our life here in the United States really IS #blessed.  Sometimes I think we forget just how lucky we are to have been born here.  That’s why I love James Mollison’s Where Children Sleep.  Mollison traveled all over the world photographing the bedrooms and detailing the lives of average kids in different countries.  Readers can quickly see drastic differences between rich and poor nations — and that forces some pretty deep reflection.  Given how passionate kids are about their bedrooms, this is the perfect book for introducing the notion that global poverty is real!

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs

If you scanned the desks in my classroom, you’d see three or four copies of Spy School at any given time.  It’s the story of Ben Ripley — a decidedly average middle schooler living a decidedly average life until he comes home from school one day to find a real live spy from the CIA sitting in his living room.  Turns out that Ben has been invited to Spy School — a school for kids in grades 6-12 who have shown some real talent in the arts and sciences of espionage.  What Ben DOESN’T know is that he has no real talent.  The leaders of the school are just using him as bait to try to capture a mole that is trying to destroy the school from the inside out!  I think Ben resonates with middle school readers simply because he is just like them: Funny and hopeful and struggling to be liked and falling in love all while trying to learn new skills in a new school.  This is a light-hearted, funny series that is an easy read.

Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly

My students made me write about Deep Blue for one reason:  I’m a dude — like literally all boy — and it is a Mermaid book.  I know, I know:  That sounds RIDICULOUS — and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own.  But I lost a book bet to one of the girls on my team and she chose this one for me.  What’s REALLY nuts is that I’m LOVING it.  It’s the story of Serafina — a mermaid princess who is forced to marry a prince from another mer kingdom to strengthen a family alliance.  While performing her Doemii — the ritual required of princesses before getting married — assassins attack, Serafina’s mother is killed, and her kingdom is destroyed.  The rest of the story is all about her attempts to rebuild her kingdom.  While I haven’t finished it yet, I can tell you this:  Every time I talk about this book in class, my kids — boys and girls — sit up and pay attention.  It’s THAT good.

Unbroken — the Young Adult Adaptation — by Laura Hillenbrand

One of the messages that I try to get across to kids is that nonfiction stories are WAY cooler than fiction stories simply because they are TRUE.  Sure, you can read about the heroic acts of Silverbloods, Epics or Mermaids.  But you can ALSO read about the heroic acts of Louis Zamperini — a real live pilot during World War II who was shot down over the Pacific and forced to survive in a life raft surrounded by sharks and salt water for longer than any human castaway had ever survived before.  And that was BEFORE he was sent to a Japanese Prisoner of War camp.  Zamperini’s story is an amazing story of the human spirit and survival, but it can be pretty intense.  Hillenbrand does a good job making it approachable in this young adult adaptation, but be sure to check this out if your child is a novice reader or still recognizing that war is a horrible thing.

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Related Radical Reads:

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2015

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2013

Three Fantasy Series Your Middle Schoolers will Dig

 

 

Wonder = Joy. (And Joy Should be Shared!)

Longtime Radical readers know that there are few people who have influenced my practice as much as Dean Shareski.  Dean has pushed my thinking around everything from the role that humor and humanity should play in our digital spaces to the role that students should play in assessing their own learning.  When I look back at the practices that I use in my classroom, I see elements inspired by Dean everywhere.

That’s why I was completely jazzed to sit down and read through his first book — Embracing a Culture of Joy.

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Dean’s argument throughout the text is that in our quest to bring more rigor and accountability to schools, we’ve stripped away much of what it is that makes learning spaces inspirational — and without inspiration, genuine learning really isn’t possible.  Dean goes on to share several practical ideas about the steps that teachers can take to bring joy back into their classrooms.

The idea that resonated the most with me was Dean’s argument that a sense of wonder is often a prerequisite for joy.  Dean writes:

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do in our classrooms to create a greater sense of wonder is to simply value questions more than answers.  This is certainly contrary to how we’ve traditionally viewed schools.  Schools are places to learn things, find answers to questions, and leave with knowledge.  Questions suggest doubt, uncertainty, and mystery.  Yet the idea that we learn to ask really interesting questions is indeed what sustains us and what makes us true learners.”

As a science teacher, those words ring true.  After all, science is inherently about asking interesting questions about the world around us.  And I’ve always tried to push my kids to take an #alwayswonder approach to the world around them.  In fact, the only homework that I regularly give students is writing two interesting wonder questions per week in a journal.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve never made time to celebrate those wonder questions during our regular class periods.  The reason is simple:  I’ve always believed that sharing those wonder questions steals minutes from an already short class period — and given the fact that we have an end of grade exam covering an enormous curriculum, the pressure to push forward has always won out over my belief that wondering matters.

What Dean forced me to wrestle with was that by giving lip service to the value of wondering, I was robbing my kids of the opportunity to revel in the joy that comes from curiosity.  NOT knowing the answers is a helluva’ lot more interesting than having to memorize a never-ending stream of answers delivered by the classroom teacher.

So I made a decision on Monday that I think is going to breathe a little more joy back into my classroom:  Now, we are going to start every single day wondering together.

Here are the details:

When my kids roll into class, they know to get out their wonder journals and have them ready to go.  Some kids are journaling on paper.  Others are using a Google Doc or a set of Google Slides to record their thinking.  I’ve simply told them to figure out a system that works for them.

As soon as class starts, I set a timer and ask students to write for five full minutes.  My hope is that they will write a new wonder question each day — but they are also allowed to polish previous questions or look for answers to a question that really moves them. The only rule is that they have to work for the full five minutes.  I’m finding that sitting in their own thoughts isn’t a skill that every student has — so building intellectual stamina is another goal of mine for this task.

When the timer goes off, students spend two minutes sharing their wonder questions with their table mates.  I’m emphasizing that “sharing your wonder questions” doesn’t mean simply reading them to one another.  I ask students to build on the questions asked by their partners — adding related questions, making additional observations, providing predictions or theories as possible answers.

Finally, I ask three students to share interesting wonder questions with our whole class — but they have to share a question asked by someone else!  That accomplishes two things:  First, they learn to see and to celebrate their peers as interesting people with interesting questions — which I hope will build community in my classroom.  Second, it gives me the opportunity to model the process of building on questions asked by other people.

That whole sequence takes about 10 minutes at the beginning of every period — and that’s 10 minutes that I’m more than happy to spend simply because the questions my kids have been writing are really, really cool.

Here’s five of my favorites:

“I wonder how brains work, like how do they send things to your body saying like your hurt? Does your brain also control how you move?”

“In class my teacher was talking about space and I woundered if space doesnt have oxygen and earth does how does the oxygen from earth not flow all the way to space does it just die out and stop flowing? It cant just stop flowing and die out it has to go somewhere and since we have already been to the moon and outer space there is no force that is keeping the oxygen from not flowing to outer space.”

“Today I was printing something for my mom, and I wondered how does an image that originated from the computer pas over to the printer and then the printer magically knows what colors to blend together, were to put them, and what shapes to make? I know that printers only come with 4 or 5 colors, pink, light blue, yellow, black, and maybe grey, so how does the printer create red and lighter colors, with only 4 inks?”

“I’ve always thought fingernails were weird. But, I wonder about is the process of a growing fingernail. Do they grow at the tip (like the white part) or, do they grow near the cuticle part.”

“I read every night, last night I didn’t read before I went to bed and I had a hard time going to sleep. I wonder what effect reading had on my mind before I went to sleep. And does reading help, or hurt your mind?”

All of that in and of itself seemed like a pretty good start at prioritizing wonder in my classroom until I had the chance to hear George Couros speak on Wednesday at the Convergence conference here in Raleigh about building the digital presence of your school .

George made a simple point that stuck with me:  When working in social spaces, your goal should be to make the positives so loud that the negatives are impossible to hear.  If we consistently share the best things that are happening in our classrooms, we can create a culture of outward celebration and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders that we serve.

George’s examples were all incredibly approachable:  Teachers using Twitter to record video reflections after days of professional learning, principals using YouTube to share videos of students reporting on the academic happenings at different grade levels, teachers using Instagram to post pictures of classroom activities.  “As a parent,” George asked,”what would you rather have:  A paper newsletter to hang on the fridge or a video of your child sharing what they’ve learned in class that day?”

So I decided to take my wonder project one step further:  I’m going to record short videos of students sharing their wonder questions and post those on Twitter using our school’s hashtag.

Here’s our first:

My primary goal with our #gnomeswonder Tweets is a simple one:  I want my students to recognize that it is okay wonder out loud.

I also want to give parents the chance to see the curiosity in their own kids and to see my classroom as a place that prioritizes questions over answers.  Finally, I’m hoping that we’ll get some dialogue started between my curious kids and experts in our community that might be willing to post answers to my students online.

Of course, I’ll have to check the video/photo permissions list before choosing kids to record daily wonder tweets — but my guess is that as more and more parents see what we are doing, they will be more than willing to sign our video waiver in order to have the chance to see their kids wondering live, too.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?

Will setting time aside for wondering be worthwhile — even if it means I have ten less minutes of instruction time every day?  Is encouraging my kids to share their wonders publicly a good idea?  Is this something you’d consider trying with the kids in your classrooms, too?

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Related Radical Reads:

How Limited Technology Budgets Failed My Students Today

More on the Challenges of Wondering in Schools.

This is Why I Teach:  They Always Wonder

 

What SHOULD Teachers Tell Kids about Elections?

I made a HUGE mistake today.  

After checking out this Washington Times article about an elementary school in New York that cancelled its mock election because students were showing open disrespect towards one another based on nothing more than the political party that they “supported,” I read through the comment section.

#badmove

Here’s a sampling of what I found there:

 “Nice going ‘educators’…you don’t realize it now, you think you’ve won because you stopped the Trump chant. You’ve lost, and lost big. The students just got an up close and personal experience with what marxist/communist/fascist tyranny feels like.”

“Agree with you. I taught my son the opposite. He knew that he was there to learn to read and write not for the opinions of the weak teachers or students. If one of his teachers started preaching their brainwashing, he knew to tun out!”

“It’s nice to see the youth of this island haven’t been corrupted and indoctrinated by the damn liberal teachers. To you “teachers”, what’s the matter, it didn’t work out the way you hoped it would? Children have figured out early that there is no assimilating the barbarians into Western culture? Why don’t you liberal dipschits move to Sweden and then you can write about how peachy everything is.”

“Go, kids, go! Lookit how their politically correct lefty narrative teachers scramble to cover it up. No doubt they all went to the transgender bathroom to make themselves feel less “offended”; the teachers, I mean. Fools. Morons. Idiots. It’s why all children ought to be home schooled.”

“It really is a necessity to check with your children about what was taught at school each day.  So you can correct the garbage fed to them by liberal-left unionized teachers.”

I wasn’t all that surprised by the hate being hurled at classroom teachers in these comments.  After all, the “teachers are trying to brainwash students to be slaves to the Democratic party” line of thinking — which makes me chuckle given that I’ve voted for as many Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates as I have Democrats in the last three decades — has been a part of talk radio shows ever since  Rush Limbaugh first started calling people Sheeple.

But those arguments are pretty darn crazy, y’all.  Seriously.

I’ve taught for over 20 years and I’ve never tried to brainwash the kids in my classroom to support and/or oppose a particular candidate for public office.  More importantly, I’ve never had a supervisor order me to brainwash the kids in my classroom OR been handed sets of curriculum materials that were designed to trick me into brainwashing the kids in my classroom.  Turns out most of us teacher types actually dig the idea of helping kids to form their own positions.  In fact, my guess is that most teachers would flat out celebrate a student that made an articulate, informed argument in favor of positions that we personally opposed.

We call that critical thinking.

What drives me nuts is just how little people really know about the kinds of conversations that teachers are having with students about elections.

The fact of the matter is that the VAST majority of classroom teachers say little to nothing about elections to their students.  That’s mostly a self-preservation strategy.  Read enough stories filled with angry comments calling you a “politically correct lefty narrative teacher” or a card carrying member of a “Marxist/communist/fascist tyranny” and you’d keep your mouth shut, too.  The risk of being misunderstood by the wrong person and dragged head first through the professional mud far outweighs any potential reward that can come from talking to students about elections.

And that should FRIGHTEN anyone who REALLY cares about America.

You see, one of the primary goals of schools has always been to prepare students to be educated, respectful participants in our democracy.  Accomplishing that goal depends on teachers and other important adults — coaches, parents, preachers, neighbors, uncles, grandparents — who are willing to show students what “educated, respectful participation” looks like in action.  After all, “power to the people” is only an effective governmental strategy when “the people” understand how to use that power in positive ways to move our nation forward.

So what SHOULD teachers tell kids about elections?  

We should start by telling kids that the first step towards being an educated, respectful participant in our democracy ISN’T identifying candidates or parties that you believe in.  Instead, educated voters identify the causes and issues that matter the most to them.  For example, I care most about the economy, the environment, education and equality.  Those aren’t the ONLY issues that matter in an election, but they are the issues that I will use as a lens for focusing my study of the candidates that are running.

Then, we should tell kids that becoming educated about the issues that matter to them depends on studying a wide range of sources.  The saddest truth about the digital world that we live in is that it is all too easy to find content that is heavily slanted in one direction or another.  In fact, it’s darn close to impossible to find content that’s NOT slanted.  Kids need to be able to identify bias in the sources that they are studying and have a plan for countering that bias when working towards making important decisions.

Finally, we should tell kids to remember that people we disagree with are reasonable, rational people too — and that instead of demonizing them, we should sit down and talk to them.  Being educated means fully understanding what people who disagree with you feel about the issues that matter the most to you — and accepting that there are elements of truth that are worthy of consideration and respect in the positions of people who see things differently than we do.

If we could use election season conversations to convince our students that studying politicians and parties should ONLY happen after a voter has a clear sense of the issues that matter the most to them, has sought out unbiased information on each of those issues, and has had substantive conversations with people who see things differently, we’d leave our kids AND our country in a better place than it is right now.

#enoughsaid

 

If teaching students about managing information, thinking critically and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.  

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Related Radical Reads:

The Curse of Our Online Lives

Pushing Against Incivility

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue

Tool Review: Google’s Translate Feature Rules.

Over the last few months, I’ve jumped feet first into using Google Classroom with my students.

It’s something that I haven’t done much of before only because I work in a pretty tech limited environment.  Handing materials out and organizing my course in a digital space when my students rarely have widespread access to technology just felt pointless.

But over the last twelve months, I’ve bought, begged, borrowed and stolen a bunch of devices that I let my students use — and combined with the devices that they bring through our school’s BYOD program, I ALMOST have one device for every student.  At the very least, I have enough devices for every student who WANTS to work digitally.

One of the things that I did first was show the kids on my team how to use the Translate feature in Google Docs to convert all of my digital handouts into the language that they are most comfortable with.  

The process is pretty darn close to seamless.  As soon as a user chooses a language to translate the document into, Google creates a copy of the document in that language.  The only thing that I have to do as a teacher is remember to post every handout in my Google Classroom and remind students that they can translate anything as needed.  When they turn in an assignment written in a different language, all I need to do is follow the same process to translate the document back into English.

While the translations aren’t always perfect — I’ve had several Spanish speakers review the translations made by Google and they’ve told me that about 90-95% of the content has translated correctly and the rest is close enough to understand — they are WAY better than the English only handouts that I’ve been offering for my entire 20 year teaching career.

That’s been a HUGE relief for me this year:  I’ve got lots of students who aren’t comfortable working in English yet — and who have a wide range of language needs that I’ve never been all that good at meeting.  Given the fact that the content is most important to me, I don’t mind if they work in their primary languages.  What matters most to me is that they learn the concepts in my curriculum.

Another interesting side benefit of Google’s translation tool has been the impact that it has had on the parents of my bilingual students.

Often, the KIDS in our community are pretty fluent in English — so they didn’t really need a translated version of every document.  Their PARENTS, however, are often not fluent in English at all — which made it impossible to participate in conversations with their children about class assignments or stay current with the content that we were teaching in class.  One of the most heartfelt reactions I received after showing students how to translate documents was from a girl who said, “I can finally show my parents my schoolwork!”  It was really beautiful — and something I hadn’t ever considered before.

Long story short:  If you are working in a GAFE district and your bilingual students can access devices, providing translated resources has just gotten REALLY easy.

#thanksGoogle

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Related Radical Reads:

 Tool Review:  Quizlet Live

Tool Review:  Blendspace by TES Teach

Tool Review:  Edpuzzle