Tag Archives: Classroom Environment

Social Justice, Current Events, Diversity, and Peace for Middle School: Reflections from International Week

Recently, our school celebrated International Week.  Every year, our foreign language department and diversity committee plan a week of programs to help put world cultures and issues surrounding diversity at the forefront of our students minds.  Obviously, such ideas and concepts influence our lives daily, but I also think that it is a good idea to illustrate to our students that we think it is not only worthy of the interruption but important enough to take a break from our regular routine to look at the world around us more closely.  The theme this year was “Peace in a Divided World.”  Many students were astounded to learn that even though the Berlin Wall has fallen, there are many emotional,social walls, and even physical walls all over the world dividing people groups from one another still today.

The view from my classroom window.

The view from my classroom window.

A quick side bar: my classroom windows look out on to a very literal wall that my students frequently bemoan.  I think, though, that it makes us all the more grateful for the light that manages to sneak in around it.  There is potentially a nice extended metaphor here that may bear further exploring another time.

An event from the week that stood out the most to me was when Rafael Romo, the Senior Latin American Affairs Editor of CNN Worldwide, came to speak to our students.  He did an excellent job of engaging with them and was able to bring multiple perspectives on our theme to light for our students. He spoke of his own immigration story and his journey to reaching his current role.  He also spoke of the value of following current events and the importance of understanding the larger world around you.  I am afraid that I was not surprised when he asked an auditorium full of students how many knew the name of the President in France, and only a few could raise their hand.  Hopefully, they now see the value in this type of information and are encouraged to explore it further.

Romo also spoke of how important it was for him in his job to keep an open mind and explore all sides of a story.

One of the most important points I think Romo really drove home for our students was that it is important to understand reality and not to hide it, even if it is harsh, even if it is ugly, even if it is hard to watch.

His job as a journalist helps him to seek justice for those who may not normally receive it.  The danger in not paying attention is that it creates room for injustice.  I think that Romo’s visit helped many students to know only notice and acknowledge the walls in their world but also to envision ways around and beyond them.

It is a difficult thing for schools and teachers to put their regular routines on hold for programs, special schedules, and the like.  I am, however, grateful for this intentional pause we take each year to open our eyes and ears to the larger world around us.

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Things ESPN Has Taught Me about Teaching and Coaching: Dean Smith Edition

While I am not a sports fanatic by any stretch of the imagination, ESPN seems to find its way onto our television quite regularly.  Okay, daily. Increasingly, I have found myself overhearing little tid bits of news or commentary that I find incredibly relevant to my classroom.  Many of you likely know by now that UNC’s storied coach Dean Smith passed away this weekend, and Sunday evening I cooked dinner to the tune of a great Smith tribute.  As I cooked, I found myself pausing more than once to jot down a quick note that related to my work as English teacher and lacrosse coach. So, here we go.  Things ESPN taught me about teaching and coaching this weekend.

Lessons from Dean Smith (Really, I can’t come close to doing the man justice, but here are the items I am bringing up with my students and players this week):

  • He helped to integrate a restaurant and neighborhood in Chapel Hill.
  • He took players to a prison each year to scrimmage for the inmates and to illustrate for his players that the world was bigger than the one they normally occupied and the importance of valuing all humans.
  • When coaching Michael Jordan, he told him that if he didn’t pass, he wouldn’t play because teamwork is The Carolina Way.
  • More than 95% of his players earned their degrees.
  • Even the legendary Coach Wooden said of Smith that he was the best basketball teacher he had ever seen.
  • A nice tribute online: Grantland

Education Applications: Any discussions about social justice, the civil rights movement, or teamwork can benefit from the good Coach’s legacy.

I would highly recommend you check out the short (three-four minute) video clip from ESPN here:  “Dean Smith: Lasting Impact On, Off Court”.

(ESPN provides an embed code for the video, but I can’t seem to get it to work with WordPress.  If you have advice on how to embed the video into the post, I’d be happy to hear it!)

And Then, Sometimes, They Get It.

There have been moments where I have told my students that they cannot silently out-stare me.  “When I ask a question,” I say, “you cannot stare me down to the point that I feel awkward, give in, and spill the beans on the answer.”  They try any way.  Among our students there seems to be a growing pattern of passivity.  They would rather be told than find out; they would rather get than build.  On a recent survey of my students, one in particular complained about the fact that I don’t just tell them answers but instead make them look it up and discuss possibilities with their peers.  The tone was negative, but I smiled slightly at the comment.  It meant I was doing something right.

As teachers however, we do not only want students to learn how to learn and think critically.  We also want students to learn to enjoy the process and make it a habit for how they approach and interact with the world around them – even if it’s hard.  As middle school students, the ideas and suggestions of adults are often dead-on-arrival.  What do grown-ups know anyway?  Still, we are planting seeds and hope that students will recognize the value of these days in the days to come.

Every now and again, though, they get it in real-time.  Some will share there revelation with you; others will try to hide it, but I bet you catch it anyway.  For my classroom, these moments most often come during my Romeo and Juliet unit.  There is much digging in of the heels and protesting at the start. “He wrote in Old English!” they cry.  “False,” I calmly reply. “Stomp your feet all you want. It’s okay. We will agree in a few weeks.”  Then, I get to catch them having fun.  It is the best kind of I-told-you-so.  Last week, I had a student verbalize this moment for the class.  We had spent several days writing our own sonnets.  On Friday, students were given the opportunity to share their sonnets if they wish, and a surprising number of students signed up.  Towards the end of one class period, one student shared with the class that she had been frustrated for most of the writing process and didn’t really understand why we had to do it.  “Today, though,” She said. “I’m so glad that we did!” Yes!  I wanted to plant her in each of my classes so they could hear her, as well.

Feel free to share your own “They get it!” moments in the comments.

Practically Paperless

The idea of going paperless, or even practically paperless, in the classroom makes a lot of teachers – and parents, too – nervous. In my own attempts to use less paper this year, I have discovered that the students do not seem bothered by it at all. In fact, they appreciate it, especially the more disorganized among them.

From a student perspective, there is always an extra-copy of hand-outs available, it is nearly impossible to lose things, and if you do misplace something, you have a handy search box to help you find it.

I find myself both wary and excited about the potential for a near-paperless classroom. My fears simply stem from a residual distrust of technology that I find gradually diminishing the more I work towards my goal. I love using technology, view myself as reasonably adept at it, and like to experiment with new uses in the classroom. However, a fear that my computer will spontaneously lose all of my hard work nags me from time to time.  However, be smart, back-up your work, teach your students to back up theirs, have a contingency plan, and those pesky fears should gradually be abated.

There are a number of reasons to pursue a practically paperless classroom.

1.  The benefits for helping students with their organization we have already discussed.

2.  Students are receiving training in communicating and managing resources in a technology-rich environment.  They will encounter similar environments in college and the workforce, except that they will most likely be expected to already have an understanding of how to be productive within them.

3.  As a teacher, you can take more of your resources and grading piles with you to more places.

4.  Students find technology rich lessons engaging.

5.  With such a wide variety of presentation and assessment options out there on the web, differentiating instruction becomes more manageable.

Now, I understand that different levels of “going paperless” are going to be reasonable for different school environments.  Schools that are limited in their access to technology will not be able to implement everything I have outline.  However, I’ve tried to come up with some modifications help such school better use the resources they do have.  If you have ideas for increasing technology use in a technology-limited environment, I am sure your comments would be greatly appreciated by both myself and other readers!

In the meantime, here are some ideas to try if you are setting your own “practically paperless” goal.

1.  The Flipped Classroom:  Especially for student bodies who may not have easy access to computers or the internet at home, try a modified version of classroom flipping so that non-technology based lessons might become more home-based to allow maximized computer time at school.

2.  Use web-based services to manage the “paper” load so that documents can be accessed both at school and at home.  I like using Drop Box for keeping track of student work.  I pair it with the DropItToMe service, and now I can access work that students have submitted from any computer.  By having my students save their submitted work based on a period-name-title (ex: 2_Smith_Mythology Essay) formula, submitted work is automatically organized for me, first by period and then by last name.  Easy access to my files and automatic organization leads me to prefer this method to email submission of work.

2.  I have my students organize their work using the Microsoft OneNote program (Software Website).  If you are unfamiliar with it, this program works just like a binder.  Each notebook can be customized with tabs and document-like tabs are stored within each tab.  I use share a notebook with students over our school server as a means of passing out handouts, sharing links, etc.  Students keep their own notebooks for my class to house their personal notes and work.

3.  Blogs!  Writer and Reader Journals have morphed into blogs in my classroom.  The theory and practice remains the same, except now they have an authentic audience of peers sharing with them and providing motivation.  Student blogs also provide a nice window into our classroom for the parents.  I plan on writing a post detailing my students’ use of blogs in the classroom next week.

Below I’ve linked to other websites an blog posts that can help you go paperless.

Scholastic Classroom Solutions: Going Paperless

The “Teach Paperless” Blog

The Free Technology for Teachers Blog

Thoughts on a paperless classroom (and OneNote) from the Cool Cat Teacher blog

Another Cool Cat Teacher blog post (She’s on a roll!)

From the education blog of my grad school Alma Mater – USC! “Visions of the Future Classroom”

If you have any questions, please let me know!  You can leave a comment or use the “Contact Me” page.

If you have any great paperless comments or ideas, please share!  Collaboration is wonderful.

Happy Teaching!

All About Transitions – Middle Schoolers and Me

When I was getting my education degree, I was pretty sure I would end up teaching High School English.  I loved student teaching in a 10th grade classroom and assumed that something similar would follow.  Surprisingly, the job I ended up taking was in a middle school classroom teaching one section each of 6th through 8th grade English, among other subjects, as well.  Like a meet-cute in a movie, I remember meeting my first homeroom of 7th grade students as a first year teacher and realizing that I love middle school.  Before, when I was still in college, I would tell people that I planned on teaching high school English, and they would say, “High School? But, you look like you’re in high school yourself!”  Now, when I explain that I am a middle school teacher, I get funny facial expressions, comments on what a “unique” age group that is, “well some one’s gotta do it” sentiments, and (because I’m in the south) that slightly condescending endearment, “Well, bless your heart!”

Image from Flikr User AwesomeJoolie

Middle school students are a unique group, for sure, but my heart also does feel blessed to be working with them.  What I’ve learned most about working with this age is that, to put it as simply as possible, it seems to be all about transitions on the part of the students and all about flexibility on the part of the teachers.  For middle school students so much, even the familiar things, are new.  Having a locker and a class schedule without spending the whole day with the same twenty-five kids is enough to send some sixth grade students straight to the floor in the middle of the hallway surrounded by a confusing shower of papers.  Then there’s the fact that your friends, especially those of the opposite sex, are suddenly different and so your friendship now has to be different, even if you were perfectly happy riding your bikes all over the neighborhood and running through sprinklers two summers ago. To add to the chaos, there’s also this strange phenomenon where all of a sudden friends have broken themselves up into little groups and each group seems to have its own social expectations and code.  Whew! I get kind of dizzy just thinking about it, and then I remember that all of those things are being towed behind my students when they enter my classroom each day.  I smile, though, because they are bringing these things into my English classroom, and, among other very important things, English is all about communicating about my world and your world and the worlds that have come before us and those that will follow.  It is using this great gift of language to deconstruct our ideas, philosophies, understandings, and questions.

This past school year, I came to the decision that it was time to make a transition of my own and decided to seek employment at a different school.  When I began the process of applying and interviewing, I knew without a doubt that, no matter what other changes I made, I wanted to keep teaching middle school.  I may have stumbled into middle level education, but I have no desire to leave. This sentiment is viewed as crazy-talk by some (even some within the field of education) but that also means that the majority of teachers you have on a middle school faculty really want to be there.  Others may have stumbled into it, like I did, but I’ve also found that those who find it is not for them don’t seem to hang around for long, which means you are left with a faculty who is largely happy that they are working in a middle school – at least in my experience.

This coming July, I will begin the move to my new school where I will teach 7th and 8th grade English.  It is an independent k-12 school just outside of Atlanta, and also just happens to be where I attended high school.  A lot has changed since I was in attendance, and I am excited for this next stage in my career.  Looking ahead, though, I am also finding a few more ways to relate to my transition-laden students.  I will be learning to work within the new codes and expectations of a new faculty and a new curriculum.  Additionally, the school has a couple of innovative programs and ideas in place.  For one, in the 6th-8th grades, Math and English classes are gender divided.  I am eager to see how this new dynamic will affect my classroom, but also want to make sure I am preparing myself for this new class element as much as possible, so that creating the right environment for my students is not too trial and error based.  In the upcoming school year, the school is also launching a one-to-one tablet program.  I am glad that this is a transition that all faculty members will encounter and not just the new additions.  I’ve brought my tablet home and am excited to begin playing around with it.

For my students, middle school is all about transitions.  As for me, I am in full transition mode, too.  It can seem a little overwhelming at times, but overwhelming in a way that fills me with energetic enthusiasm for the year to come.  So now, dear PLN, I am calling on you to help me in this transition, and hopefully we can all learn a little be from each other in the process.  Do you have any great resources on teaching to different genders? One-to-one tablet programs? Entering a new faculty and curriculum?  I appreciate all the ways you help guide me and will be sure to share what I learn along the way, as well!

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