Tag Archives: Community

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.

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!)

Beyond Classroom Walls: Encouraging Independent Reading and Engaging the Community

Too often, students, at least those in middle school, maintain and apply the skills  and habits we seek to build in our English classroom struggle once they walk out of our doors.  Of particular interest to me today is how we build up students to read for pleasure.  There are many great classroom practices, such as free-choice book units and independent reading time built into the school days.  One of our hopes in these practices is that students will find an appreciation for reading within the school day that they will eventually pursue on their own.  For many students, though, even if they enjoy the practice of selecting their own titles and reading independently at school, it becomes more of a task in the real, often chaotic worlds they live in outside our walls.  Lately the question of turning a reading practice into a reading habit follows me everywhere I go.

Star Wars ShakespeareOne thing I think is key to creating independent readers among young teens, especially, is showing them that they are  surrounded by independent readers and that those independent readers are not only their peers.  I try to keep a book I am reading for pleasure on my desk at school at all times.  It usually takes me a long time to finish these titles since there is not much time for pleasure-reading in my day, but it’s presence and the slow progress of its book mark is still valuable.  Right now, you will find Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher presiding over my desk.  Despite my significant lack of Star Wars knowledge, it is clever, funny, and surprisingly well done, but I will provide a review when I finish in a few weeks.  My hope is that they will see that not all reading is assigned and that there is a surprising amount of variety out there.  Star Wars written in the style of Shakespeare? Who would have thought!?!

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

Still, I am their English teacher, and of all the adults they know, my students expect me to be one who reads for pleasure.  I needed to expand the picture for them.  I reached out to my fellow 8th grade teachers and asked them what they were reading for pleasure that would also be appropriate for our students.  The response was great!  I created a collage/slideshow on my class website (see screenshot to the right) to illustrate for students that reading for pleasure is not reserved for English teachers alone.  Math teachers read! Science teachers read! History teachers read! And, they read things you may be interested in!  I also wanted to provide these teachers with a new avenue for reaching out to their students by showing the kids what their teachers are reading and hopefully inspiring some new conversations and connections.

So, now students know that there are adults out there who read for pleasure, but you may have noticed by now, that one critical element is missing.  Parents.  Teachers are a unique subset of adults in the minds of teens, and what applies to teachers does not always apply to the world around them.  Teens need to see adults in the world outside their school, and their parents in particular, reading – maybe even reading to them!  On numerous occasions, I have had eighth grade parents share with me that their children used to be readers, but that their enthusiasm has drop as they progressed through middle school.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon pattern as students go through dramatic changes that seem to consume their thoughts and more demands are placed on their time.  Just because it is a pattern, though, does not mean it needs to persist.  In communication with parents, I usually give three pieces of common, research-based practices in encouraging a student’s at-home reading practice.  Feel free to share with the parents of your own students:

  • As a family, make sure that reading for pleasure is a visible act from time to time.  If reading for fun is modeled, it will become a more normalized activity that teens are more likely to pursue on their own. 
  • Have casual conversations about what your teen is reading.  These conversations should not feel like work or a quiz.  For instance, I know that [insert student’s name] just started a book for independent reading titled [insert title and author].  This title could be a great jumping off point for some dinner table conversations.
  • When appropriate, recommend something you have read to your teen, or read a book you may both be interested together. 

Hopefully,at least some of these practices are already a part of a family’s environment, but even when they are, I remind parents that being a little more intentional in them can make a difference.

How do you move beyond reading logs and book reviews to help students turn reading independently into a valuable habit?

English Classrooms and Libraries – Bound at the Spines

I know, I know, National Library Week was a while ago.  We celebrated in my classroom by showing a little extra love to our school’s part time librarian (who is also our art teacher) and by encouraging those amongst us with out library cards to go ahead and sign up for one.  However, the state of libraries in our state, nation, and the world at large is seriously bothering me.  Fortunately, the county in which I work seems to have a reasonably healthy library system.  They are large, with many programs, well stocked and staffed, and boast ample hours.  However, the county in which I live is trying to sustain a library system that has taken some serious hits.  Entire branches are closing and many have had their hours and staff cut back significantly.

Teachers, and English teachers especially, should be some of the libraries biggest advocates.  Many of us know the value of a classroom library and pour hours, and often dollars, into cultivating a classroom environment that boasts easy access to a wealth and variety of books.  We know that the more students are surrounded by books, the more likely they are to develop life long reading habits.

The same benefits are true of our school and public libraries.  They provide the invaluable service of opening up more opportunities for reading and research than most of us could find on our own.  They are staffed with knowledgeable persons eager to cultivate our reading interests and habits.  For teachers, that’s one more expert in our boat, one more advocate for the reading practices we are preaching in our classroom, and hundreds more books than we could provide on our own.

Now here is the tricky part – Library usage is not down.  In fact, it is the highest it has been in recent decades.  Libraries are seeing more visitors and less money than ever before.  Does this seem as backwards to you as it does to me?   It blows my mind that local officials could look at the ways libraries are serving their clients and decide to reduce funding.

So how can we help?

Here are some ideas I’m sharing with my students.  I would love to read some of yours in the comments section – especially if you are a librarian.  How can we help YOU?

My ideas:

1.  Donate used books to library sales and restock your home library from those same sale tables.

2.  Join your local “Friends of the Library” group and participate in the many avenues for service those organizations offer.

3.  Write to local officials advocating for increase funding for your library.  Share what the institution has meant to you.

4.  Show your librarians a little extra love.  While this may not get them more funding.  Letting them know that you care while they may not get the same appreciation from those negotiating their budgets will be uplifting.

Check out the info graphic below (you can find it online here):

Poem-A-Day Challenge Updated

So, I am mostly up to date with my efforts in the poem-a-day challenge. Each entry was written this month. However, I cannot actually claim that each was written on the day ascribed to it. Let’s think of it as “Thirty Poems for April” instead. If you are interested in checking out my efforts, go to the “Writing Teacher Writes” tab above, or you can just click here.  Keep in mind that I never promised they would be good!  If you would like to follow along with the challenge on your own, you can check out the daily prompts at Poetic Asides.

The promised follow up to the summer reading poll is coming tomorrow.  Get your votes in on the poll and check back Monday for my thoughts.

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