Category Archives: Teaching

Talking Race at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’m just back from a remarkable week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where I participated in the workshop, “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” I learned about it in May when I was exploring the museum’s website after visiting and wanting to know more, more, more. This was the fifth summer of the workshop, but the first in the physical museum. And so, in addition to fabulous speakers and thoughtful activities, we had hours every day to explore the galleries, some of them before the museum opened. You can learn more about the workshop from this article by the wonderful museum educators who created and ran it — Candra Flanagan Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator. I am so grateful to them for their passion, commitment, and hard work in creating this workshop and all the rest they do.

We were just under 40 folks — classroom teachers, museum educators, parents, and others who care deeply about learning more. It was a diverse group in terms of race, institution (some in independent schools like me, others in charters, and others in public schools of all kinds), age, and more. Having mostly done this sort of work at my school I appreciated enormously getting to know and hearing from those who were working in such a variety of situations yet care deeply as I do about doing better in terms of talking race with young people.

Presentations and workshops included:

  • “The Color Line,” a gallery activity led by Allyson Criner Brown of Teaching for Change.
  • “Bias in Childhood: When Does it Emerge and How Do We Reduce it?” a presentation by Melanie Killen.
  • “Middle Childhood & Teens” Cognitive Development, Racial Identity Development, & Talking About Race,” a presentation by Erin Winkler.
  • “Implicit Bias, Dominant Culture & the Effects on the Academic Setting,” a workshop led by Jane Bolgatz and Erica Colbin.
  • “Beyond the Classroom: Getting the Larger Community Onboard with Equity and Justice Work,” a presentation by Mariama Richards.
  • “Bridging the Racial Divide and Self Care,” a workshop by Hawah Kasat.

I was especially excited to reencounter Erica (she and I had been involved in a PD on introversion last summer) and Mari who, with her colleague at her then-school, Georgetown Friends, did a brilliant workshop at my school years ago. I appreciated tremendously the other presenters as well.

Additionally we had small group meetings (by the ages we teach), affinity groups (white/people of color), and time to informally chat and learn.

And then there was the museum itself. What a gift it was to have so much time to explore it, especially those morning times before the public came in. It is an extraordinary place and I urge all to go visit. (This requires commitment as the tickets are timed mostly — it was challenging to get them when I went the first time — but absolutely worth it.)  I spent the most time in the history galleries, especially the section devoted to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but also found the Community and Culture galleries mind-blowing. The choice of artifacts, the careful and thoughtful text on the wall cards, the organization of the museum and exhibits — it is all outstanding.


I walked every morning across the mall from my hotel near the Air and Space Museum, using the Washington Monument as my landmark. The museum is the gorgeous building to the right.

We arrived early before the museum was opened. We were incredibly lucky to have the galleries almost to ourselves at that hour.

Here is the same view a few hours later. I loved also visiting the galleries when they were full, listening to the moving responses of visitors.

Excited to see these trading beads as I have some (from my time in Sierra Leone) just like them.

 

In my research for Africa is My Home I read that children were not shackled, but that was clearly not always the case as here are some for a child.

 

This is hard to see, but it is from a short film on slave factories and the one on the lower right is Bunce Island (in Sierra Leone)

The stone is from a slave market in the US.

 

Greatly appreciated the mention of the Amistad and Joseph Cinque.

 

Love the commitment to make the museum accessible for young children.

Tuskegee Airmen plane.

 

The following are from the Community Gallery

(Mrs. Reeve’s hat shop is beautifully recreated in the museum.)

Was very excited to see this as I’m assuming she is the model for the editor in Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods.

Nine of Carl Lewis’s Olympic medals. (The tenth was put in his father’s coffin.)

A few from the Culture Gallery

George Clinton and P-Funk’s Mother Ship!

 

 

Thank you so much to all who were involved in making this week possible, especially once again, Candra Flanagan, Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives and Anna Hindley, Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Africa, Amistad, History, Teaching

In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

2 Comments

Filed under In the Classroom, Review, Teaching, Writing

In the Classroom: This Blog’s on a Top Ten List!

Thank you, Teachability Lounge‘s Mary Graham, for including this blog among your “Top Ten Teacher Blogs.”  With all the blogs now out there, I sometimes wonder how many teachers read this one. After all, I’m pretty eclectic. So, I was thrilled with this affirmation.

1 Comment

Filed under In the Classroom, Teaching

In the Classroom: Testing

It is testing time. In my private school and the public schools around us, children are taking annual tests. However, the nature, number, amount, and consequences of the tests are distinctly different.  Our students are taking standardized tests, one a day; my fourth graders will take a total of three.  They haven’t been spending weeks prepping for them and the tests are not interfering in any way with their regular learning. For example, I spent a couple of periods earlier this week going over some strategies with the kids and having them take a practice test. That was it. Today they take their first test and it will take one period. Before it they will have a regular math class and afterwards I’ll introduce a new unit on historical fiction. The tests have not affected our daily instruction in any way.

The results will be used to inform us, to help us improve our instruction, to see if anything jumps out at us. Did a lot of kids end up struggling with something we thought they knew? Then we will know to do it differently and, hopefully, better next time. Did a child who is already struggling do poorly? These assessments results will help us considering how better to help him or her. And at the other end, did we overlook someone who is especially good in math? If so, we will look at his work, perhaps do an in-school assessment and then consider if he or she should move to a faster paced class in that subject next year. These assessements give us more to work with when considering how best to help him or her. They do not determine whether they move on to the next grade, get into a middle school, or anything else that could affect them lifelong. They are NOT high stakes.

I started teaching in the  mid-1970s and ended up in a private school only because there were absolutely no public school jobs available at that time. After all, I had gone to public schools myself. I stayed here because it was a great place for me — I have always had enormous freedom to be creative as a teacher, to do so many wonderful things over the years.  At first I felt guilty not being in a public school, but then the testing mania got going …and going…and going. Many public teachers of my generation, creative teachers all, took early retirement rather than having to keep going in this climate. They were no longer able to do the wonderful creative projects they had been doing successfully for so long. The tests took over. Preparing for them changed the curriculum and not for the better.

I have mostly stayed quiet on Common Core. After all, it is not required for my school. And also, there is much in it that resembles ways I teach and so I admire the intent with that. I can see aspects of  it that are very much what we do in my private school and others like mine. But there is one profound and huge difference.  The tests. Everything I read and hear about them is horrible. I will admit that I always personally hated taking tests. They have never reflected my abilities. And so I’m totally sympathetic to those like me. And can only imagine how miserable it must be for them in these days of relentless testing. I’d have begged my parents to let me opt out.

I see no benefit to children with this relentless testing. No wonder I see more and more teachers caving and quitting. I think I probably would too.

Learning should be joyous. Teaching too.  Joy and tests are not two words I see together. Frankly, joy is not a word I see used much these days about schooling.  I hope it comes back soon.

4 Comments

Filed under Teaching

In the Classroom: Rum is for Funerals

As part of a year-long exploration of immigration, I’m currently teaching a unit on African Immigration at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  And thanks to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s Sugar Changed the World, I’m much more informed about sugar’s place in all of this,  notably in the West Indies, today better known as the Caribbean. Thus, my wary interest in “On the Caribbean Rum Trail” in today’s Travel Section of the New York Times. At first there seemed to be next to nothing about the hideous history behind rum’s creation in this part of the world, but then as the article goes on, the reporter shifts gears, focusing more on history.

Nearby Saint-James [a Martinique distillery], the biggest, was overrun by French tourists lining up for rides through the cane fields on a Disneyesque “sugar train.” In its museum in a 19th-century Creole house, I pondered rum’s iconography: old ads depicting happy plantations with cheerful slaves, women with madras headwraps and seductive smiles.

My musings led to a dialogue with Michel Fayad, distillery manager and former history teacher. “Our whole history is wrapped up in this alcohol,” he said. “But what is it? Depends who you ask, yes? For the European visitors, it’s holiday. To the bekes” — white Martinicans, colonial descendants who still run the bulk of the island’s economy and all but one of its distilleries — “rum is pride. To blacks, locals, it’s also colonialism, slavery, alcoholism, sadness. We drink Champagne at weddings. Rum is for funerals.”

And powerfully ends it with this:

But during an audio tour that thoroughly covered rum history and production — maps, diagrams, photo exhibits, French-accented voice-overs — I decided that here lay the educational apex of distillery-hopping. I wandered through the plantation’s sculpture garden and, reflecting on the legacy of the liquid I’d been trailing, spotted something remarkable: blood on the leaves. A massive red statue of the word “Blood,” poised before a picture-perfect cane field. It evoked, of course, the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in a pastoral Southern landscape: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” she sang. This scene, stunning yet haunted by perennial pain, struck me as perfect homage: Behold a spirit whose legacy contains all the paradoxes and complexity of the wistfully beautiful region that gave birth to it so long ago.

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, Teaching

In the Classroom: Some Questions About Some Common Core Lessons

As a teacher in a private school I am not currently required to follow the Common Core State Standards. That said, because I am a teacher, I am following closely the discussion about them, their implementation, issues, and so forth. One resource I’ve come across is the Achieve the Core website created by Student Achievement Partners, who describe themselves as  “….a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students.”  As for the site, they state the following:

This website is full of free content designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. It includes practical tools designed to help students and teachers see their hard work deliver results. achievethecore.org was created in the spirit of collaboration. Please steal these tools and share them with others.

So I decided to check out a few of the ELA/Literacy “Common Core-aligned sample lessons with explanations and supporting resources.” And the ones I looked at were so full of problems that it made me wonder who is vetting them as worthy of teacher use.

One  that I looked at particularly closely is on Charlotte’s Web. (I came across it by looking through their lessons for fourth grade. I can’t link to it directly, I’m afraid, as it takes you to a word document of the lesson.) Because I feel I’m pretty expert at the teaching of  Charlotte’s Web, I was curious about the lesson they had on the book.  And I found it very problematic. The questions seem to suggest it is a play version of the book, but no reference for it is cited. No edition of the book or play is given although there are page numbers given for various questions.  The level of questioning is simplistic, surprising given the desire of the Common Core creators to make experiences with reading more complex and rigorous.  Since I feel White’s book is a wonderful one to use with children as an entry into close reading, the lack of it and very low-level engagement recommended in this particular lesson was something I found despiriting. It looked similar to the many poor lessons about the book I have seen over the years.

The final task is to “Write an essay explaining what makes Charlotte ‘no ordinary spider’.  How do these special qualities help Wilbur? Use evidence from the story to support your answer.”  That makes me so sad — there is so much more to this book. The major themes of the book (say that of life and death) that fourth graders are completely capable of discussing are completely missing from this incredibly muddled lesson plan.

I then also looked at a lesson focused on a single chapter from the book, “Escape.”  It is evidently  to be taught in five sessions over five days, 45 minutes each. I can only say that I’d curl up and die if I had to spend that much time with that particular chapter. Sure, it is a fun one, but it barely even gets to the serious themes of the book. While I could perhaps see spending more than a period on “The Cool of the Evening,” or “The Last Day,” even then I  couldn’t see spending five periods on them or on any one chapter of any book. Further, in these five lessons there is little about the wonderful opening that was White’s original beginning of the book or anything much on the glorious writing itself, say White’s extraordinary use of language to convey sensory details. Now THAT I could and do spend quite a bit of time on (but still probably not a full period, much less five).

At the end, students are asked “Describe what lesson(s) Wilbur learns at the end of the story. What in the text helps you to know this?” The answer provided is:

Wilbur learns that sometimes we aren’t ready to accept the consequences for our actions/decisions. He also found out that he was too young to go out into the world alone.

Hmm…I don’t think that the first sentence is the point of the chapter at all. (I’m guessing it is more likely something the writer of the lesson wanted to emphasize for his or her own reasons.) The second is closer to what I think White had in mind, relating it more to the theme of growing-up that runs through the book.  Yet to take five days to study this one chapter in isolation from the whole book — I can’t even imagine it.

Then there is the culminating task that is again about the moral lesson:

Wilbur has second thoughts about his choice to escape. First, describe what it means to have second thoughts about something. Then, use evidence from the text to explain how Wilbur’s second thoughts show that sometimes we are not ready to accept the consequences of our actions.

Nothing against moral lessons, but again, I don’t believe that is the main point White wanted to make.

I looked at a few more lessons and none of them seemed any better.  So just be wary, folks, of some of the lessons being touted for Common Core.

8 Comments

Filed under Charlotte's Web, In the Classroom, Teaching

The BEST Way to Teach Classical Writers and Books

I love today’s Nerdy Book Club post, Melissa Williamson’s “Tales of Adoration $ Appreciation.”  In it, Melissa describes her passion for Edgar Allen Poe and how she successfully communicated that passion to her students.  While as teachers we want to encourage our students to find their own passions as readers I feel there is a place to also model and share ours with them just as Melissa did with her students. She used her own enthusiasm, comics, visuals, public speaking, and more to excite her own students with the work of this classical writer.

I do something similar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That is, through my excitement and the activities I do, my students become as infatuated with that book as I am. I read aloud the book, stopping along the way for my class to try out a quadrille, play a bit of indoor croquet, and explore various logic and mathematical tricks along the way.  And we always end with a project. For  years it was a new kid-illustrated and annotated version, then we did toy theater puppet shows, and last year we did book trailers.

I encourage other teachers to do this as well.  What may appear old and tired can come alive with the personal passion of a creative and talented teacher!

2 Comments

Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Classic, In the Classroom, Teaching