Category: Teachers Know the Content that They Teach

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.

———————————-

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

 

 

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.  

———————-

Related Radical Reads:

The Curse of Our Online Lives

Pushing Against Incivility

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue