Thursday, September 25, 2008

Problem Solving

I've long been advocating for more problem-solving, cross-cultural communications and team work in the English/language arts classroom. Nancy Atwell put it beautifully: "Problems make the best curriculum." She echoes Dewey, Freire and Montessori here in recognizing that experience is the best teacher. As best I can in the context of the Juvenile Detention Home (security is always a factor of course), I try to build team problem solving and an awareness of (mis)communication and culture into my lessons.

Just a few days ago, I posed what seems like it should have been a simple enough problem: the kids were to line up in order from youngest to oldest--silently. They could not speak during the game; of course this forced them to cooperate and communicate in a variety of other ways. A breakthrough occurred in at least two units where it dawned on one student that they could use my whiteboard. The leading students wrote their birthdays up and other students soon caught on, allowing them to all line up in order, without having ever said a word. When we debriefed, I praised the use of alternative strategies and resources. I will continue to advocate for such goals being viewed as a valid aspect of any Language Arts/English classroom. Problem solving is critical to any aspect of life, and if communicating clearly and effectively isn't a "language art", I don't know what is.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It is always a good day when

one of your students, working on his Martin Luther King, Jr., essays, says he's "not used to thinking this hard." Dr. King would approve, I think.

I'm always amazed at what an intimidating process writing is for so many kids, which is why I repeatedly counsel them to "get it down before you get it right." When we wrote a class rubric together, detailed what an "A" essay should have and do, and so on through an "F" essay, spelling and grammar are always the first thing they think of. That's important, of course, but what about the ideas? Weaning them away from the mechanics over substance is a difficult process, and there is so little time with each kid here to accomplish it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Savage Inequalities: Invisible Edition

So a particular student of ours here was meant to have been released Sept 5, and meant to have been released May prior to the Sept tease. Our leadership was pushing a bit to have him released on the 2nd instead, as that was the first day of school, to let him begin a new school year fresh. This young man has been hear since before Christmas 2007! According to our principal, he has not received a visit from his P.O. or lawyer; I'm also told that his lawyer has not returned phone calls.

How is this possible? How can anyone consider this equal justice?

Amazing, the kid manages to come to class each day with a smile on his face. We hear now his new court day is early Oct. I wouldn't blame the kid if he didn't believe it. He's written "never" under Release Date on his class folder.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Quick Hit: Biden

"Countries that out-teach us today will out compete us tomorrow" ~Democratic VP Candidate Joe Biden

Why are there not more schools that require foreign languages in elementary school?? When we know for sure, from decades of research on the subject, that kids acquire language best under the age of 12?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Isn't that Goldie Hawn?

With a new school year, a new convocation, and I'm pleased to say that I heard some of my most deeply heard concerns about standardized education at least addressed (in words) by the new Superintendent and....wait, isn't that Goldie Hawn next to him?

It certainly was. Turns out that she has a foundation intended to bring what she called "mindfullness" into the classroom. With all the warmth and likability you might expect from her, she spoke as a mom worried about the violence, suicide, drop out rates and disengagement that I have written about repeatedly here. I loved most of all that she explicitly argued that addressing qualities like empathy and caring in the classroom is a learning outcome. That is, she argued that such character traits support student learning since, as teachers have been saying for decades now, kids learn better when they feel safe and when whatever they may be dealing with in their personal lives gets addressed instead of ignored. I would push her argument one step further, though, and say that we must begin thinking of skills (yes, SKILLS) such as empathy, communication, problem solving and compromise as learning outcomes in and of themselves, rather than needing to "justify" them by noting that kids' reading and math scores will go up, too. Yes, the will go up and yes, that's crucial. But in a country with such high rates of violence, with a prison population at an all time high, clearly we neglect such ideas as ethical reasoning and empathy at our peril. It's good to see someone with Hawn's charm, fame and money money money getting involved. I've visited her website and look forward to perusing the curriculum it offers.

The above said, though, I did have a concern or three about what she may have thought of as an offhand comment but which I felt was very problematic, especially from my viewpoint as a teacher in a juvenile jail. She stated (perhaps with statistical accuracy, I don't know) that our affluent kids are the ones most "at risk". Because she didn't elaborate (at risk of violence? suicide? dropping out? addiction?) and I haven't yet seen a transcript of her speech, it was worryingly unclear what she meant. Does she think we overlook our rich kids ("oh, they'll be fine, they're rich")? All the evidence I've ever seen is that middle class and rich kids go to schools with better trained, happier teachers, are more likely to graduate and more likely to go to college. They are also less likely to be the victim of violence. In fact, if memory serves, just this past school year a study came out showing that suburban kids are far more likely to graduate as urban kids. Social justice as I understand hardly suggests that more resources (financial and social) need to go to affluent schools. Yes, it may be true that rich kids sometimes have disconnected parents with jobs that demand they travel and work constantly, and no doubt there is an impact from that. But what about the kids who show up here in my classroom whose parents are sometimes themselves illiterate, have themselves been incarcerated, themselves didn't graduate high school? Remember, Mom and/or Dad's level of education is still one of THE best predictors of how a kid will do. The invisibility of these kids is dangerous, which is why I had such a strong objection to that aspect of what was otherwise a very worthwhile talk by (wow!) one Ms. Goldie Hawn.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Incidents and Accidents

Today will mark over month that I have not had a single student in my classroom.

We remain "locked down" on the units, with the kids moving only to gym class.

That said, I have hardly seen my students even ON the units today. We're short staffed, detention staff wise, anyway, which means that the whole unit goes on lock down in their cells if one kid is involved in an incident. By law, once a unit is over a certain number of kids, we've got to have at least two staff at all times. (This is not always actually the case, I'm afraid, but it's the standard.) Some staff this morning apparently just didn't show up, and others were sick. I did not see my first group of kids because of this, and my second group was twenty minutes late because of a security issue with one young man in that group. We could hear him banging and yelling, since we've not been allowed back in the classrooms in the Education Wing yet. Two other young men in the group were crying through much of the class. There's no way to proceed with a typical, standard lesson like that. I gave some low-key praise for being in class, and told the boys it would be a laid-back, quiet day. We proceeded with a little grammar game I had planned, and spent the last ten minutes of class either journaling or drafting the personal narratives I plan for us to share next week.

If I see them next week.

Levels of frustration are high, and I'm no exception. I love the other teachers I work with, and happily, we're all always available to each other for venting and support. I've been meaning for a bit now to blog on classroom management and incentive structures; here's my chance, it seems. I've been (I hope respectfully) vocal about my concern that we have been keeping the kids in their units for so long. The kids remain either in the Dayroom (where we have been trying to teach) or of course, in their cells. Some kids here now have not even seen the Education Wing. I've gone on record about my concern about the lack of computers; any writing teacher can tell you how crucial they are to a writing program. And I've spoken up about my concerns that the collective punishment here, I feel, wrecks the incentive structures that one wants in place for an effective, secure classroom. It's so easy for a kid to think, if I'm going to be locked down anyway, why bother making the effort to control my temper or hold my tongue or put forth effort in class. What's the point? It's been clear to me (though I have not seen hard data) that the number of incidents has not gone down since we've been moving all operations to the Units. Perhaps they have not gone up either, I'm not sure. But I'd be very surprised to see data that showed me incidents have gone down as a result of isolating the units. And now, in my view, we've tied one hand behind our back because the kids who are doing well are being treated the same way as the handful of kids who are behind the fights, threats and assaults.

Some of this is staffing; if we're short staffed, it's much tougher to move the kids from classroom to classroom. And I know our program director has been working to hire a few good men; I'm told she's had trouble finding applications who can pass a background check! Much of the trouble before happened as this movement in between classes took place. But really, as I understand it, they were always supposed to have been moved one unit at a time anyway. That's why that procedure was there, unless I'm wrong. Did it need to come to this? Perhaps there is just context I am not aware of, but I know for sure that decisions should be data driven. This policy of keeping all the kids restricted to their units does NOT seem to be working. Of course, that's not my call, but what I can do is make my case that the data should direct what we do.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Two Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

Language is central, of course, to how people relate to each other and communicate, both as individuals and groups. Language is how we negotiate power. If there is any realization at the intersection of peace education and English class, it's the realization that words matter. I have yet to meet a kid who agrees with that childhood playground rhyme that "words can never hurt me." If a kid disagrees with this view, I prod him or her to consider if people get into fights over words. Of course they know this is true, and that people wouldn't bother fighting over them if they were not significant.

Words can privilege or render invisible. Words can liberate and empower, or confine and label. I've repeated on this blog my concern that we do not focus nearly enough attention on critical and creative thinking in high school. Frankly this is a reflection of an anti-intellectual streak in our cultural at large, but it is also I think just easier to grade spelling tests or objective questions on a short story than to vigorously engage with and debate complicated ideas. I'm hardly observing anything new what's stopping us? Why is this conversation still necessary?

One of the critical understandings I want my students to have is the danger of "black and white" thinking. Either ors and false dichotomies abound, and they trap us. They trap how we understand ourselves (women can be smart or pretty, not both), X group of people is either good or evil. Everything from useless products to gangs to wars can be sold with such sloppy thinking. So I recently told my students to guess the two most dangerous words in the English language. Many of their guesses I won't repeat here *ahem*. One student, recalling the Ladder of Hate, said "genocide". Not a bad guess. I then tell them the two most dangerous words are "always" and "never." As they're puzzled by this, I prompt them to connect these words to the Ladder of Hate to understand why. Through discussion, they come to see that you really can't stereotype without those extreme words. Also, avoiding those words forces us to speak, and therefore think, in more subtle, complex ways. I ask them to give me examples of something that is *always* or *never* true about people, and they find how hard it is to do. My hope is this discussion will give them pause and encourage more reflection on the words we choose to define a person or an idea. It's counterculture, but essential.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Of Classrooms on a Cart and Testing

What a strange couple of weeks this is shaping up to be! We're beginning the end (if you will) of A Long Way Gone, but due to security concerns that are greater than usual apparently, all the teachers have been teaching "on the unit", that is, in the common living space each unit comes equipped with here at the Detention Home. I'm not a fan, and have a new found respect for the Social Studies teacher who teaches there permanently! I can't imagine. It's been fine, but the distractions are doubled and the kids are antsy. I turned it into a writing prompt, asking them which they preferred: having classes "on the unit" or in the classrooms. Most of them, not to my surprise, preferred classes in the classroom. Some felt unfairly punished for the behavior of a few students; others said it was harder to concentrate or focus in a space they are used to having as their "living room". I've only been seeing about half of my kids, since the rest have been on room restriction, due to various infractions. Yikes! No one can really learn, especially when one is already starting with lower skills, in such a "stop and start" manner. Given rumors of riots, though, I understand the need. I look forward to some real critical analysis of how it came to this and the plan for preventing such problems in the future. And I was glad to hear the underlying (and sometimes quite explicit) racial tensions between the Hispanic and African American kids acknowledged. Addressing this will be key to security, peace and to learning.

Tomorrow should really be the last day that we're on the units, though, since we have another round of SOL testing coming up on Wed-Fri. This will be the third time this year that we've tested kids! That seems stunning to me. I can understand once a year, but especially given the limitations of standardized testing to begin with, what is this really accomplishing? It's funny, as I look over the testing schedule, I just finished reading an article about a local teacher who apparently inspires her kids. A real pleasure to read it--but I have to wonder, with articles like that, and yet a system that enforces teaching to the test, what mixed signals a new teacher must be receiving! No wonder the retention rate for new teachers is still so low, even after years and years of political and educational leaders trying to keep them! On a more positive note, it looks like a colleage of mine who was caught up in the war in Sierra Leone will indeed be able to come pay us a visit--something I hope will really bring the memoir to life as we finish it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Little Is Known of Sierra Leone....

So we've been reading and discussing Ishmael Beah's amazing memoir, A Long Way Gone. It explores his experiences as a conscripted soldier in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. Beah describes children with limbs chopped off, families burnt alive, weeks of hunger and the agony of not knowing where his family is or if they are even alive. His writing is honest and vivid, sparing no one, least of all himself. This makes his book an especially book candidate for the "reading writing connection". The other day we selected especially great visual detail from Beah's work, and then with highlighters (a writer's best friend), I asked the kids to identify a particular line or description from their own journals that they thought was vivid.

I've been in contact with Beah's publicist, as he travels frequently telling his story and speaking out on behalf of child soldiers and other kids impacted by war, in the hope that he can come speak to us. I have also connected with a friend and classmate of mine (I'm finishing up my doctorate at ICAR) who himself was impacted by the war in Sierra Leone. He's happy to come speak to my students and we're working out a time. I know he'll have a story to tell that the kids won't forget. I love seeing them learn about a place so unfamiliar yet contemporary that so rarely makes the curriculum. We can't create global citizens without knowledge of life beyond one's own borders. I was impressed, when I asked my kids about similarities between Ishmael and kids here in the U.S., to hear them identify broken and separated families, hunger and gangs (the rebels, as they said). Such discussions are also a good way to begin, to whatever extent possible, talking about some of the tensions I observe here, especially between some of the Hispanic and African American students.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Savage Inequalities (Guatemala Edition)

So one of our most difficult, damaged students was just released today. This was a young man from Guatemala, here illegally. He'd apparently jumped trains from Guatemala. He's told staff here of being on his own since about the age of five and of having been prostituted. As with a lot of our kids, the irony is that here behind barbed wire is probably the safest, healthiest environment he's ever been in, and now he's presumably being deported. Maybe that's the right decision; after all, plenty of American kids need more support than they receive. But I fear for this kid like I've feared for few others who have been released from the Detention Home and frankly, I fear for some who may cross his path. He assultled another of my students one morning, kicking him repeatly out of the blue, and bit a staff member after an apparent escape attempt. He was on Suicide Watch for his final couple of weeks here, but apparently did achieve enough progress under those circumstances that he was allowed his journal from my class, which he constantly wanted to have with him. He was always eager to show me new English sentences he could write, and I'm told he did well in other classes to. What amazes me is this capacity, despite all of this kid's struggles. What angers me is the loss of human potential he might represent.

Some staff here, myself among them, believe this kid to be diagnosable with PTSD or even multiple personalities. What will he go back to? There are civil society and government organizations throughout South America, and even UNICEF, which work to support kids who struggle with prostitution, abuse, gang violence and addiction. Will he find one of them? If so, will they have the capacity to help him, to whatever extent possible? One of the most unsettling dynamics of this place is that there is really no way of knowing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Security and Community

It's been said by one of my favorite writers and thinkers on peace building that conservatives start with security, believing it will lead to peace, and liberals start with peace, believing that it will result in security. Where ever one falls on that spectrum, I hope most would agree that security and community (peace) are inherently linked.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as someone who believes that a classroom is (or can and should be) a community. Writers and thinkers grow best in a community of other writers and thinkers. That's why I involve so much discussion in my classroom, as well as projects that ask kids to draw on a variety of interpersonal, communications, language and problem-solving skills. Yet this is of course a particularly challenging environment to build community in. For one thing, kids come and go very quickly. Secondly, with some students who are struggling with the most serious of charges and mental health issues (one might soon be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder), keeping myself, staff and other students safe is responsibility one. Kids can't learn in a tense classroom where every move is corrected; neither can they learn when they don't feel safe. (It sure affects my teaching, too!) One of our security guys said he's never seen kids like some we just got in. He's been here over 25 years, so I'm inclined to listen. I've recently had a student assault another student, out of nowhere, in my classroom. Just today nearly have of last period was on lock-down. Apparently things had not gone well throughout the day.

I've reflected all year on how best to build community in my classroom here, and I think I've hit on a few things that work at least sometimes. I think the journals can be key to this. Students regularly ask me to bring them back to their living units to write in. We share daily. I get inappropriate responses that I stop mixed in with humor, honesty, missing home, missing cats, your own bed and self-reflection. Right now we're exploring media literacy, identifying techniques of propaganda in ads and commercials. The final assignment for this will be to create a commercial (using the handy wonderful video recorder our Executive Administrator scared up for us) that shows two or more of the techniques. They'll be putting text together, essentially, and along with all of the creative, critical thinking and language skills involved, it will take community for my students to put together a successful project.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Live Blogging: CIES Conference, Teacher's College, 2008

Any conference that doesn't send you away with a million ideas and questions swirling probably was a waste of time. This is my first time at the Comparative International and Educational Studies Conference, hosted this year by Teacher's College of Columbia University, and I'll be back. I was honored to present on the role I feel hip hop can play in peace education. This conference has confirmed the suspicion I've been harboring that teachers have in fact been at the forefront of any lasting social change. It didn't begin with Freire, I think it began with Socrates and one could no doubt identify examples prior to him.

I had the pleasure of breaking bread last night, after the Monday sessions, with a senior official of a Ministry of Education. He is a deep believer in the role of education in bringing about progressive social change. In fact, he argued that education itself is a political act. There is, he said, no neutral. This is a critical truth to my mind. It is not "neutral" that so many U.S. schools graduate students who have studied the American Revolution, the Civil War and mostly likely WWII as the sum of history. (Maybe some of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution was in there too.) Where is Vietnam? Rwanda? Iraq? What about the hopeful, disturbing, exciting election season we're in right now? Of course I don't argue that more contemporary or even controversial issues are not addressed in history, social studies, government and language arts classrooms in public high schools. But the culture of standardized testing (when there are no standard kids or for that matter teachers) greatly restricts and actively discourages this kind of inquiry, I think. Several presentations thus far have reminded me of the need to actively study peace just as we study war. What has enabled peace? What stands in its way? Too often, our very assumptions about education themselves do.

It is also not neutral, as this gentleman and I discussed, that so many school systems track some kids off to college and some off to "vocational" skills. The underlying belief about who those kids are and what they can be must first be made explicit and then repudiated. To be crystal clear, there is not a thing wrong with being, for example, a taxi driver or a plumber or whatever. There is something morally very wrong with an education that offers critical and creative problem solving to one group of (already privileged) kids and "basic skills" and little but worksheets to other kids who are already dropping out in droves.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Another Brick in the Wall

A conversation with a couple of colleagues, both of whom I like and respect, got me thinking yesterday about some of our most basic philosophical assumptions about education and why we do it. We're providing certain skills that we judge to be critical to getting on in the world--reading, writing, a understanding of how one's own government works, and so on. Kids need to get into college, because they need jobs that will actually allow them to support themselves and a family. In the specific context of the Detention Center, how and what we teach is revealing of what assumptions we make about these kids and where we think they're headed. Will they be teaching? Fixing cars? Checking people out at Target? Nurses? Doctors? Working in an office? Back in jail? Running an office?

I don't think the role of curiosity, self-expression or problem solving in education can be overstated. This brings me back to the chat with my colleagues. One colleague and I were in agreement, it seems, that students can produce a variety of "products" to demonstrate a certain skill. In art, it might be a painting, or a sketch. It might, in English, be an essay, a journal entry, a skit, a thank you letter to a visiting speaker, or participation in a debate or discussion. These are all assignments my students have produced. Another colleague seemed to express that if a product wasn't "computational", it might be nice and fun, but was not necessarily actual learning. As I understand it, memorization as a means of building the capacity to concentrate and focus play a role in this classroom. These are necessary to learning, of course, but to my mind this beg the question of what one then does with the facts one has memorized or to what end one applies such focus. The argument went that life is full of unpleasant tasks and students need to learn to focus on them and do them anyway.

The underlying assumptions here about what's worthwhile and what isn't fascinate me. Thought processes, by their nature, can't be 'seen'; when expressed they can be read or heard. Is loving a poem a "product" of a quality education? What about the kid who was in my class for a few weeks as we were reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the one who was released before we finished it? He returned to us a couple of weeks later and asked me if Anne and Peter had gotten together, and did she survive? Where's the role of inspiration in our classrooms, of excitement about a good book because it's a good book? Isn't that what being "life long learners" is about? Or do we view that as an extra, great for the kids who have passed their standardized tests but not a priority for kids with low skills who still struggle with the basics. I am, of course, arguing that creating that excitement is necessary to raising those basic skills. I believe human beings are hard-wired to want to learn. Every society has had art, music and stories to tell. Every single one, period. Do we believe still, in the 21st century, with our industrialized, standardized schools built to suit kids for jobs, in the joy of learning? This approach is counter-culture today indeed.

Now, don't misunderstand. Learning is work; knowledge, like anything worthwhile, is earned. And clearly, an important job of our schools is to prepare kids for the jobs they'll have. In the midst of all the worksheets and testing, curiosity and problem-solving can be tough to quantify. Yet I believe, I insist, that an education that is not centered around powerful, resonant themes (my classroom's theme is telling your story) does not serve a democracy well. After all, what else are those critical basic skills for?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Debating American Justice

As we begin reading 12 Angry Men, I invited my students into a debate and put the following claim on the floor: the U.S. justice system is the best in the world. Given that my kids have direct experience with the American juvenile justice system, I knew this would be relevant and look forward to hearing what they think of the play, which I consider to be a powerful look at human weaknesses and biases, as well as human courage and integrity.

I think I was most impressed with the balance many students brought to the discussion. Many students thought that, while certainly not perfect, the U.S. justice system offers much that some other countries don't. One student raised the point of an article we'd read earlier on a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being raped. Another noted that when U.S. soldiers commit abuses or war crimes, they are (usually) charged. Certainly, students brought up the racial and class prejudices that weaken our justice system. If they hadn't, I would have. One student even noted that he sentence, he felt, was lighter that someone elses might have been since his family had the money to hire an excellent lawyer. But I was impressed with the ability to see both the positive and negative aspects of such a complicated and, for many students, personally painful subject. Not every student--or every person--has that ability. Not every student is willing to make a claim of what she or he really thinks and try to back it up; that takes some real mental courage. It's a risk to be real. But building critical thinking skills cannot happen otherwise. Growing as a writer, reader and as a person can't happen otherwise. This is the heart of why I give so much time in my classroom to discussion and debate, even though the "product" is results in is intangible.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Perceptions of Poverty

As a part of my unit on the connections of hip hop to other kinds of poetry and to peace and social justice movements around the world, I show my students several video clips (god bless YouTube) on the hip hop movement in Uganda, a country of course torn by a terrible civil war. The hip hop artists there call for peace, and work to educate orphans, raise AIDS awareness and empower Uganda's poorest citizens. Here at home, local groups like Peaceaholics and others strengthen community peace building and raise awareness about homelessness.

As I'd hoped, this lead to come revealing discussions on homelessness and povetry, and who is responsible for it. Especially in the Uganda clip, my kids (many of whom are by no means rich) were shocked by the sight of kids so malnourished that their stomachs were distended, or kids who had one pair of shoes, and those were broken plastic flip flops! Interestingly, a lot of the kids (reflecting what most Americans believe, I fear) felt that homeless people were homeless by choice, and could just get a job if they wanted. This was obviously a teachable moment; I pointed out that not all educations are created equal (as they know) and that mental illness is a major factor in prevented a lot of homeless people from being able to hold a job down. Yet despite our continuing lack of a living wage, we blame the poor for their poverty. We also romanticise overwork, such as when President Bush beamed proudly and spoke so highly of the woman who was working three jobs to support her family. Like many others, he seemed to have completely missed the reality that it shouldn't be necessary to hold down three jobs! I hold more the view of Sen. Obama, who recently said, "If you work in America, you shouldn't be poor in America!"

Friday, February 1, 2008

Living History

The student of Room 5C revceived a visit today that I don't think any of us will forget for a long time to come. Ms. Schiff, a local Holocaust survivor who volunteers with the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, came to tell her story. She shared her memories of living in a forest for nearly three years as they dodged Nazi soldiers. She told of hunger and cold and still, some 60 years later, not knowing for sure what became of her mother, father or sister. She's the only member of her family to have survived. She explain to my students about how indifferent the world had been as entire towns were rounded up and murdered. To my delight, she also noted that much the same is now occuring in Darfur and the Congo. She spoke of her love for American and the second chance it, and a good education, offered her. Knowing that my students are all, of course, currently detainees, she challenged them to seize the second chance they will all have when they leave and stressed the role of education in making that second chance real.

I think what I loved the most was seeing the thoughtful and respectful questions they had for her. What was it like not knowing the fate of your family? How did you first make it in America without speaking English? Having faced such racial hatred yourself, what did you think of the segregation of whites and blacks in your new country? (This elicited a story of how her husband, who was then in the Army, once refused to be served dinner because the restaurant wouldn't serve some of the other men in his squadron who were black.) Have you met other Survivors? Didn't Jewish people fight back and if not, why not? One student didn't have a question, he just wanted to shake her hand. Privately, some students shared with me their surprise that she didn't mind coming her (to a detention center) to talk with them. Mrs. Schiff was warm and kind and a gifted speaker, able to share vivid details of a living nightmare. To judge by their response writings, what impressed them most was the courage she finds again each time she tells her story to essentially relive it. Along with reading and writing skills, a major goal of mine is to teach tolerance itself, and so I especially enjoyed a young Muslim student of mine referring to Mrs. Schiff (who is, of course, Jewish) as a "godly woman".


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Savage Inequalities

With admiration and love for Kozol, of course.

So an interesting conversation happened in class the other day as we finished Anne Frank in preparation for our visitor from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a woman who is herself a Holocaust Survivor. I've always believe that literature is one of the most wonderful ways to learn history, and that history is a lot of what brings literature to life, so I've emphasized some of the WWII history surrounding Anne's circumstances. As always, there are kids who have not heard the word "Holocaust" or "Hitler". I've created a bulletin board with pictures from the Museum's website with pictures from the Concentration Camps and of Nazi propaganda to engage kids in what the scale of the Holocaust really was as we read about this fourteen year old who chronicled both the horrors of genocide as well as the more ordinary struggles of growing up. During one of these conversations, a couple of students protested that "we all know this already". This was a teachable moment, and I used it to reinforce that schools in our country are of staggeringly varied quality and that not 30 minutes before, I had had to explain in full who Hitler was, and that Germany and Holland are countries. The boys who had assumed all of their classmates would of course know were, I think it's fair to say, surprised to learn otherwise. No kid in my classroom here has had it easy; none of them are privileged. But perhaps a little more awareness of the "savage inequalities" their own peers face is the most valuable lesson I can offer.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Writer's Power

A major theme throughout my language arts class is the power of telling your story. Maria, Sharoud and the other Freedom Writers did exactly that. As we finish Anne Frank, we're discovering that she did the exact same thing. I've asked questions to prompt this observation, such as asking who it is that has the power in the Secret Annex where the Franks and the Van Danns hid. Some of their answers included Anne's parents or Hitler, all valid suggestions, but I went on to suggest that the most powerful person in that hidden attic is Anne herself. This is because it's her voice that, generations later, we still hear.

At one point, Anne says that she is determined to "go on living" after she has died. I asked my students if this was really possible. The strong opinion was that yes, it is possible, and that this is exactly what Anne accomplished through her writing. She is immortal now.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Relating to Anne Frank

So we're heading towards the middle of Anne Frank's Diary now. I'm impressed by how much many of my students know about WWII--though at the same time, it's also important to say that I've had students how hadn't heard of the Holocaust. Seeing them respond to The Freedom Writer's Diary was rewarding, but I'm even more impressed to see some of the connections they are making to Anne. The connections to this young German/Dutch girl from the 1940s hiding for her life in a little attic in Amsterdam are not as obvious as some of the themes of gang violence, addition and broken families in the Freedom Writers. But they are making those connections.

When one student asked why the Freedom Writers had loved this book so much, other students jumped in to answer before I could. "She's locked up." "She's hated for her race." The fear Anne and her family faced is the same fear of a kid who hears bullets outside his or her window at night. Some students are also related to the frustrations Anne writes about with her family, whom she doesn't think are really capable of understanding her. (Is there a fourteen year old alive who feels differently?) As with any book worth the time, its themes are universal. I can't wait for the local Holocaust survivor who is coming to visit; what a powerful experience that will be to hear her experiences first hand!

On a bit of a more humorous note, referring the the Franks' constant efforts to be silent so they won't be caught, one student said, "Imagine being on quiet time for three years!"

Thursday, January 3, 2008


I find myself often emphasizing ideas that I want my students to unlearn.

In my Language Arts classroom, one of the things I want students to immediately begin unlearning that the crazy idea that writing must be perfect on the first try. There simply is no such thing. Revision does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a good one. Nor do we expect this perfection on the first try outside the classroom. No coach only puts her players on the field during game time. There are drills, scrimmages, and practice. There must be a "safe" space to practice writing, make mistakes, fix them, and try again without penalty. Freewriting, for me, is that space. It's also a wonder way to let kids tell their own story, which to me is the most meaningful kind of writing possible. I know kids are "learning" that it must be perfect from somewhere. They constantly want dictionaries for spelling and exhibit a focus on, for example, handwriting. I tell them those things are important, but not yet. Eventually, most of them relax and simply begin writing.

Does it count as "data" that some of my students have asked to take their journals with them when they left the Detention Center? I think so.

This is why I philosophically stand behind the practice of "freewriting", though some argue that it is too unstructured and informal to "do any good". In freewriting, the topic is wide open, and the only rule is you must keep your pen moving. If you get stuck, write that. As I say to my kids nearly every day, it's not that you get an idea and then start writing. You start writing and then get an idea. This is the second misconception that I want kids to "unlearn"--that you must know exactly what you're going to say before you put pencil to paper. Writing is a process of discovery of one's self and the world. There's no way possible to know where you may end up once you start.