Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Time for Service

On November 1, we kicked off our Holiday Family service project. Every year during the holidays, each team in our school adopts a family that has fallen on hard times and helps them have a better holiday by taking care of some of their needs and wants. During this time, we talk to the kids a lot about generosity, empathy and service. Many of our kiddos, fortunately, don't know what it's like to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. The concept of not eating for a couple of days or not having a bed to sleep in is alien to them.

Our kids are amazing. We are a team of 50 students and two teachers. The students take ownership of the Holiday Family service project from the get-go. Don't try to tell a 13 year old that they cannot do something! Every year we set a goal of 1500.00 in fundraising in order to help the family take care of needs (heating bill, beds, etc) and wants (clothes, toys, etc). In each of the nine years that Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I have been teammates, our kids have surpassed that goal. We budget six weeks for collecting, from November 1 through December 15. We don't just passively put it out there that we are collecting; we (both teachers and students) actively create ways to raise money. 

While we are trying to fund raise, we try to make it fun. We have "auctions" where a student (or the student's family that wants to donate) can bid on a prize. The prizes range from a dozen cake pops that have been donated, to a DVD or portable stereo that a student no longer wants, to a high-five. Yes, one year we had a student auction off a high-five. He would give a high-five to the person who donated the most for it. That high-five went for 22.00. It was a bit crazy, but it was a fun way to get another donation.

The funny thing is, kids rarely ask what we'll "get" for our fundraising efforts. In a day and age when everyone seems to only want to give something if they get something in return, these kids are selfless. They conduct bake sales, collect from the people at their churches, go around their neighborhood collecting for the cause and even ask their doctors or dentists for donations when they go in for appointments. We figure that everyone will give if they're asked. Our kids ask. Nearly all of the time, when the kids ask, they are met with a smile and a donation.

Our current service project ends two weeks from tomorrow (on December 15). So far we have raised over 1900.00 so we have surpassed our first goal and have set a new goal of 2000.00. Since these kiddos are so determined, they always reach their goal.

One of the beautiful things about the program is that, while the recipient family remains anonymous, we do get to hear about the delivery of gifts from our counselors. Often one of the parents will write a note to our team, telling the kids about the huge difference they have made in the family's lives. When the kids hear that real people, not a faceless organization, were immediately and positively impacted by their efforts, they gain a sense of their power. Our kids learn both empathy and a sense of what a positive force they can be in the lives of others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson: It's Not the Same Mile

What place does a post on the turmoil in Ferguson have on an education blog? Hmm, I think the right question would be, "Why wasn't a post about Ferguson on here sooner?" Last night, the prosecuting attorney released the grand jury decision. As expected, it exonerated the officer in the shooting of Michael Brown. Since then, there have been peaceful protests, violence, vandalism and looting. The news outlets have done a good job covering the most extreme parts of the protest while also calling for "peace" and "healing".

I am no defender of violence, vandalism or cruelty. I think those looting, burning and damaging property in Ferguson and around St. Louis should be arrested and charged. But let's not conflate the issues here. Anytime there is a large protest, there is going to be violence; we are a violent culture. Hell, even when a city wins a sports championship, there are riots in the city. Look at the Giants' World Series win and the aftermath in San Francisco. There is legitimate cause for protest here in Ferguson, violence notwithstanding.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...Until you c limb into his skin and walk around in it." I know that the mile I've walked in this life is vastly different from the miles walked by most of the Ferguson protesters. 

I am a white guy who grew up with all of the advantages of being a white guy. When I am driving and am stopped by police, the only thing I worry about is if I will get a ticket. I don't worry that I'll be harassed or harmed. I don't worry that I'll be stopped simply because I'm white and have three white friends in the car. This is not an anti-police point; it is simply a fact of life for many young black men. Many of my white acquaintances would say, "Well, if they were stopped, they must have been doing something wrong." Why? See, the presumption is that if the person has a black face, there must be some wrongdoing on their part. How did we come to these assumptions? I, a white guy, would not be presumed guilty. A 15 year old black kid is. When we close our eyes and think of what a criminal looks like, what does the face look like? I would bet that most people see a black male's face. Why? Why do we think this? The Ferguson matter is forcing us think of all of these issues.

We all need to change our perceptions of each other. We cannot exist in a world of "us" and "them". There can only be "us", all of us! Things must change so that the advantages that I have as a white male are enjoyed by every person regardless of race or gender. We cannot have a two-track system. We cannot be okay with demanding that a group of people make up a permanent underclass in our society. When a group of people, on a daily basis, is shown that their lives don't matter as much as others, that their opinions are shrugged off as a "special interest", that their dreams are disregarded, I can understand the rage. Sometimes that rage manifests itself in ways that we don't like.

What are the weapons that this community can use against the structure of racism that we have in our society? They do not have tanks, body armor or tear gas. They can work within the system but many feel that the system is rigged against them in the first place. What are the options? Human nature dictates that when you are pushed into a corner and see no other option, you lash out. That is what we're seeing in Ferguson. People are enraged about losing their children in what seem to be preventable situations. Would white parents in Clayton and Ladue be expected to stand down and just accept that their children are being shot to death? No, of course not. Why on earth would we expect black parents from Ferguson and St. Louis to do it?

The lessons of Ferguson are that we must look inside and confront any racist thoughts that we have, and we all do have them. We must strive to see every person that we see as our brother, sister, child or parent. When we change the paradigm and consider others as "our" people instead of "those" people, we will make progress. We must deconstruct and unlearn systemic racism because it exists in our public policy and the way that policy is carried out. We must not get defensive about what we have learned over the course of our lives. Instead, we must think about what we've learned and realize that it is more myth than fact. We must give people the benefit of the doubt and not jump to pernicious conclusions because people are different from us.

These are the lessons that I try to teach my students, both through my words and actions, every day in my classroom. As a public school teacher, I have had the pleasure of teaching kids from every background imaginable. At the beginning of the year, my paradigm changes and I begin to consider each of those kids my own children. I do not accept anything but the best for every one of my kids. There is no "me" and "them", there is only "us". When we, as a society, can similarly change the paradigm, then we will be making progress toward solving our problems and minimizing our differences.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Teen Lit Review - Finding Our Voice

As part of our English class, we run the Teen Lit Review (@TeenLitReview), a blog on which the kiddos post some of their YA Lit reviews. We created this blog three years ago and have posted hundreds of reviews. All of the reviews are written by kids, for kids. Over the last few years, the TLR has built quite a nice following. Teachers, public librarians, school librarians, college professors, parents and other students often tweet us about how they use the TLR for book recommendations and insights.

One thing that I stress to the kids is that so many of the YA Lit reviews are written by adults and are done so from an adult perspective. Many of the best reviewed books are ones that the kids will not touch. I sometimes joke that the Newbery Medal is put on books to show the kids which books to avoid. Now, there are some excellent Newbery Medal winning books, but too often, the kids do not share the reviewers' enthusiasm for those books. That is why, I tell the kids, it is so important to get THEIR voices out there. The audience for the review, especially other students, really does want to know what actual teens are reading and liking. There is no more powerful voice than a peer when it comes to good reading material.

Last year, we had a couple authors contact us about reviewing their novels. In one case, the author sent us a link to the publisher's website and an access code so that we could access the novel. One of the kiddos volunteered to read the novel after reading the blurb. She liked it pretty well, reviewed it, and we sent the review link to the author. Pretty cool stuff for seventh graders. This year, while on Twitter, an author asked if the kids would review her companion books to the Divergent Series and Hunger Games series. After sending her the school address, we got a package today.

In fifth hour, I reminded the kids about the conversation we had last week when I told them of the request. When I showed them the books, I had several volunteers to review each book. They are all checked out and we hope to have reviews up by the middle of next week. We should have multiple reviews for each book. I feel that it is imperative that these kids know that others WANT to know what they think, that they have a voice, and that when they create something, others are paying attention. Their work is out there for the world to see, critique and use. I want them to get a sense that their contributions go way beyond the walls of the classroom. When they talk, people really do listen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Leg Broke Off"

One of the things that we always tell kids is that we want them to experience real-world learning. We have moved to a Project Based Learning environment to allow the kids to create knowledge and learning that are relevant to their lives. We balance what the curriculum says they should be learning with the kids' natural curiosity and desire to learn the things that they want to learn. Sometimes, a real-life learning situation comes up that is not related to our curriculum but we follow that path anyway.

One simple problem occurred Friday in class. One of the table legs broke off. As I walked in to class, a small table, where two boys sit, was balancing books and laptops on its wobbly three legs. One of the boys was trying to hold it steady.

"The leg broke off," one of the kiddos said.

"Well, I guess you guys have to fix it, huh?" I replied.

"Can I do it? I can do it," a boy from across the room said.

"There are tools in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet in the back, behind Owen's chair. Get what you need and make it happen," I told them.

And so, four boys got to work. They thought about using the hammer but then thought better of it. Pliers were the tools of choice. It was a tricky fix because the screw that holds the leg on to the table is at an angle and is very hard to reach. A couple of the kiddos figured out the best way to approach the problem, took turns wrestling with the screw, and finally restored the leg to its proper place. The table is now functional and all is well again.

Owen, Liam, Kaiden and Musa repairing the table

This is just one of those real-world problems that will occur time and again in these kids' lives. Instead of calling for a maintenance guy, I want the kids to rely on themselves first. I want them to think, "Oh, here's a problem. I've never dealt with anything like this before. Let me think of the best way to tackle this problem." Then, I want them to try until they figure out a way to solve the problem. Were these boys successful on their first attempt? Nope. It took three tries, each time attempting a different fix, before they got it right. They saw it as a puzzle and were motivated to solve it.

This is not an earth-shattering problem like world hunger or world peace that these kids solved. It was a minor inconvenience. However, the kiddos did what we all must learn to do: figure out a solution to the problem and don't give up until it's solved. They showed a lot of cooperation, they talked through the problem, and they never gave up. These are the qualities that I want the kids to show whenever they encounter a problem, no matter how huge or small.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Maslow and Minecraft

For the last five or six weeks, we have been studying the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. We have looked at the physical geography, culture, economics, and government. We look at enough content to give the kids a good idea of how things were back then but we don't worry a lot about the finer details that they probably won't remember anyway. I want the kids to grapple with the concept of what it takes to create a self-sustaining civilization and so, we worked on a project called YOUville.

In this project, kids must create a civilization based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We dedicated one week to each of the levels (we did not do the self-actualization level) so that kids could develop their civilization in steps. During Week 1, for example, kids located their civilizations in an existing, undeveloped area of the world outside of the United States that could sustain life. The location had to have a water source and the kids had to plan for the acquisition of food. Each week, the kids had to build another layer of their civilization according to the hierarchy.

Not only are we seeing some amazing projects but we are also seeing what the kids feel is important. Some really built up the defenses while others focused on art and culture. Kids could use any tool they wanted in order to build. Some chose paper and some chose digital tools. The two most popular digital tools were Build with Chrome and Minecraft. Now, we don't have Minecraft at school, but the kids do at home and on their phones. Would they be allowed to build their civilization on Minecraft? Of course. Why wouldn't they? Well, the results were astounding. Here are two snippets of one pair's Minecraft civilization.

After finishing their presentation, the two boys were asked how much time they spent creating this civilization. "Oh, we spent a lot of hours working on this at home." BOOM! I loved hearing that. I've always tried to make learning fun for kids so that they would eagerly do some of the learning at home. After all, extending the school day because kids WANT to do the work is a huge win for any teacher. Needless to say, I was pleased. 

The kids are learning what it takes to create a successful civilization and they can now appreciate the ancient civilizations we are studying so much more.