Category Archives: In the Classroom

In The Classroom: Book Graffiti

Some time ago my friend Susannah Richards, professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University, told me about book graffiti, a fabulous way to share favorite books. Ever since I had wanted to do it and finally did a few weeks ago with my 4th graders. I asked each student to chose one favorite book from the current school year to feature. It could have been read independently or one I’d read aloud to them. They went off an found cover photos, pasted them on a large sheet of brown paper, and then — most fun of all— added in the graffiti.

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Thank you, Susannah, for such a great idea! (Now you need to fill me in on book gossip — that looks intriguing too:)

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In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery

Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.

Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.

In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.

And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:

To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.

Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and  Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.

Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Risingsome of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources  (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)

Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.

Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:

  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
  • Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
  • Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis. 

Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):

  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
  • Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
  • One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
  • Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.

Books set in America under slavery:

  • Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
  • Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
  • I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
  • Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
  • The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad  by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
  • Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
  • Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
  • All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
  • Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
  • Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
  • Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
  •  The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.

And so, tomorrow  I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.

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In the Classroom: Africa and Animals

Right now I’m listening to the NPR show On Being where they are talking with Katy Payne, “a renowned acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility.” Her comments about elephants in particular are so moving and made me think about the recent complicated responses to the killing of Cecil the lion.

I was completely disgusted and disturbed when first learning of Cecil’s death as trophy hunting seems a completely horrible activity to me. But as the media juggernaut continued it struck me that here again was the way Africa is perceived by those in the United States. (I was particularly taken by Goodwell Nzoua’s New York Times op-ed, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions” and this CNN piece.)  And this is because we grow up with our media featuring mostly a handful of striking animals from one small part of a very large and diverse continent. As I wrote last year in my Horn Book article, “Books About Africa“:

The distortions begin with animals. From a very young age, American children are exposed to Africa almost exclusively through its fauna — in ABC and concept books, in cartoons, in toys, in Broadway shows…the list goes on. Stories full of appealing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other popular African animals make it easy for young readers to assume that 
wherever they go on the continent, there those animals will be.

And as we grow up it continues. Just a few weeks ago I was watching BBC-America and there were constant ads for a series on “Africa” that seems to only be about its animals. And so what bothers me isn’t the response to the killing as much as how it shows the way we focus so much on African animals (think also of zoos) and so little about its people. And how this results in the sort of media frenzy that happened with Cecil. How I wish we could be more balanced and that the media do a better job representing the continent so it doesn’t just become again and again about animals, war, and poverty.

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In the Classroom: First Week Read Alouds

I don’t go back to school till after Labor Day, but know that many others are going back now. Like other teachers, I think carefully about the books I read aloud that first week. My way of connect to kids is very much through books. And so I Iook for books that will relax them, see me as someone safe to be around, and consider that this is likely to be a good school year. Ideally the first book will be school-related, but not necessarily. There are many, but tend to be for younger kids. I’m far from my classroom right now (being on a Swiss Alp:) and so not able to browse through what I have there. Also, I have to love the books myself. I’m going to be establishing a tone and a way of engaging with read aloud books and so need to be at my best. This first week isn’t the time for me to check out a book I’m not so sure about.  So, as of this writing (a month to go for me) here are three books I’m considering:

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Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School by Adam Auerbach.  This distinctly amusing twist on the “being at a new school” trope was a big hit last year so it is top on my list to use again this year. Edda lives on Asgard, one of the homes to the Viking gods and when her father decides she needs some experience with other kids her age (there being none on Asgard), he sends her to school on Earth. The result is a gently humorous look at Edda learning how to bring her own self into a new and very different place. This is a book that is definitely one that can be best appreciated by my students — some of them have already studied the Vikings and others know about them. And Edda’s fish-out-of-water feeling is one they probably are all feeling on that first day of school. Not to mention, it is quirky and different — I mean, are there any other first-day-of-school books inspired by Wagner’s Ring series (as this evidently was)?  Though that it was doesn’t matter a wit; I don’t know Wagner’s operas firsthand, but do know that this little off-beat story is a great one to start my class out on their 4th grade year.

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Each Kindness Jacqueline Woodson. I fell in love with this book the fall it came out and advocated for its consideration for the Newbery that year. Since then I’ve been pleased that so many others agree. This is not a book I read aloud the first day. It is one I read at the end of the first week (or sometimes a week or two later) to start an ongoing conversation about kindness. It is a book that we refer back to all year.

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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. I always start reading aloud a novel that first day. It is definitely challenging to find time every day in my schedule to read aloud, but I do it. At our morning meetings I usually read a fun picture book and then a novel for the last 15 minutes of an afternoon period that is called Lab. This is an important element of my school’s philosophy — it is a time where kids can work on various projects, see teachers, etc. Taking 15 minutes out it for a read aloud is tricky for me. I love the idea of Lab, but also feel strongly that we need to have a read aloud period. So the latter trumps the former. I like to start with something that is new or not out yet and so am still considering what this year’s will be. I adored Jones’ book and would like to see how kids react to it. It isn’t long, something I think is very important as I think we teachers have to assume that no matter what the kids say to our faces that not every child in the class is going to be equally in love with a read aloud and so if they aren’t they don’t have to live with it too, too long. But I’ve got time to contemplate this decision. I do know I would like it to be a sure fire hit — not something that I have to abandon before we are done. I’ve done that very occasionally with read alouds the kids are just not warming up to, but never the first one.

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In the Classroom: Teaching on the Screen

I find it fascinating to see how classrooms and schools are represented on the screen. Too often they look little like my own reality — the desks are in rows (I have them in table groups), the teacher sits at her desk at the front of the room (I’ve a rug and rocking chair at the center of my room), and the walls are full of commercial stuff (mine are full of children’s work). As for the interactions between children and teacher — they tend to be pretty limited.

And so may I just mentioned the kick I’m getting out of how my professional life is represented in the new Amazon Prime series, Catastrophe. A rom-com about two different people meeting (Rob’s from Boston and Sharon is Irish), getting to know each other, and falling in love, the conceit is that it all happens after they get together — when she gets pregnant after a brief affair and they decide, for the child’s sake, to marry and live in London (where Sharon lives and works). This is a witty series, loads of fun to watch for many reasons, but one for me is that Sharon is a teacher of what looks like kids the age of the ones I teach. And so the bits in the classroom and school are totally hilarious. Sharon is clearly a terrific teacher, well respected and no doubt loved by her students, but she also is a strong and complicated person and ….things happen…in school. Just teeny bits among the larger scenes of the real story, but fun nonetheless. Highly recommended for teachers and non-teachers alike.

There’s a brief bit at 1:16 in this trailer:

And a pretty over-the-top one at 37 in this one. (I remember thinking — no, she isn’t! And she does. The kids’ reactions — need to see the full episode for them — are fabulous.)

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In the Classroom: The Pushcart War Project

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I’m a big fan of whole class creative projects celebrating works of literature.  Some have come about due to my passion for a particular book, notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while others are due to the kids’ excitement, say the murals we did for The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me.  The latest of these is a digital storytelling project of Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War.

It was upon learning of the death of its author, Jean Merrill, a couple of years ago that I was reminded of her fabulous book and the play I’d done of it with a class long ago. Having seen a colleague’s PuppetPals project, I thought it might be just right for digital storytelling of The Pushcart War.

I began by reading the book aloud while the kids followed along in books. Sometimes they participated in the reading, but often it was just me doing the reading. We talked about the book as we did so. And they loved it, eagerly look forward to the days when we continued the story.

This being the second year we’d done the project, we teachers realize the kids needed some experience with PuppetPals before diving in. And so we did a mini-practice-project first with a favor book of my class this year, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole.  They were put into groups of three and four and each assigned a few pages. We made the puppets (Sam, Dave, dog, cat, tree), the kids made the backgrounds, and then they made the little puppet shows. After that we all critiqued them together so they would see what worked for the bigger project.

We then brainstormed all the backgrounds needed for The Pushcart War and had the kids make them. My inspiration was Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny where the backgrounds were photos and the characters cartoons. For us, the backgrounds were collaged black and white photos. We had some that kids had taken and they searched for others in some copyright free data bases. Next came the characters. Again, we brainstormed all possible ones. Then the children made them, using brads for the limbs so they could be moved about. Lastly, the kids chose their favorite sections of the story from which I put them in small groups to create the actual movies. They came out so well!  You can see them all here.

 

 

 

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In the Classroom: Cultural Norms

Because we are living abroad, my kids have lots of inevitable small embarrassments during the day due to being international students and being out of linguistic and cultural step. Consequently, my husband and I are really conscious of making sure they have the “right” things with them when we can. The thing is, there are so many unarticulated things that cultural insiders just know and that no one thinks to tell you.

That is from Marika Seigel‘s  thoughtful article, “On Being the Mom of ‘the Foreign Kid.'” (Thanks to Pooja Makhijani for posting it on facebook.) It reminded me of situations I encountered during my time in various German schools as a child. (My father was a specialist in German politics as well as originally German and so we spent a couple of years there at different points in my youth.)  In one case, I was to sing a song with some others in my second grade class for a Christmas performance. I knew I was to wear a party dress, but it was only when I got there that I discovered that all the others were wearing white dresses while I was in blue. We were, I learned, meant to be snowflakes.

I think the article is something that we in the US should take to heart too. Those cultural norms are all over the place. For example, my school had Pajama Day this past Thursday. Most of the girls in my 4th grade class excitedly came to school all dressed up in pajamas. None of the boys opted to participate nor did one of the girls who prefers to hang out with the boys. One child at our morning meeting said something along the lines of being offended by those who decided not to participate. I firmly pointed out the problem with that statement and she got it. I’m actually glad she said it as it gave me a chance to point out why it was so important to not make anyone feel self-conscious about how they participated or if they did. And then I thought back to my childhood and how problematic it would have been for me. I wouldn’t have had the right sort of pajamas (my mother didn’t shop local), I’d have worried that they weren’t pretty/new/etc enough. In fact, I’d have been a wreck about this whole day. So being the foreign kid can be as simple as being not part of the dominant school culture, whatever it is.

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