What would Atticus say about Ferguson?

After participating in a #gfedchat (the hashtag for our district’s online PD) on Twitter Monday night about empowering students, I thought, “Why not empower my students tomorrow?!” I had planned to take what was happening in Ferguson and tie that in with To Kill a Mockingbird in sophomore English because of the many tweets like this one:

In terms of student empowerment I wanted my students to learn as much about this situation as possible so that they could be informed citizens, but how they did that and proved it was up to them. This quote became a point of contention for my students. Was this the most applicable quote from the book to the situation in Ferguson? Here is what we have done the past three days:

Day 1 – Track your thinking and start learning

I want to know what my students think and how their thinking changed. I asked them to create a map of their thinking throughout the week. I gave an example of how it might be done, but they had freedom in choosing what point they want to prove. I offered this as a starting point if they wanted:



The goal of this activity is to make students aware of their thinking. What changes their opinions? What changes their goals in this assignment? Maybe guilty and innocent do not matter anymore to a student, and the most important issue becomes racist vs. empathetic or good vs. evil.

At the end of the first day, I asked students to return to their map and determine where they were. They also asked what questions they had about anything that they had read, watched, or thought about.


Day 2 – What is important, and how do we use it?

We discussed some of the areas of confusion in the Ferguson case. The Washington Post’s article on eyewitness testimony of Michael Brown approaching Officer Wilson offers a variety of different stories about what happened. We discussed the reliability of witnesses as well as the reliability of what people say. Who can we trust? How do we determine what websites and news sources to trust?

We also looked at NFL player Benjamin Watson’s Facebook post on his feelings. As a white teacher, Atticus Finch’s words are important: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Does this post offer facts that help students understand the case? Nope. But if we are going to strictly look at the facts, it is going to be impossible to understand why riots were spilling over into the streets.

We had a student-centered discussion on their opinions before returning to the computer lab. Our research time there was very focused. The students are starting to see the relevance in something that is happening right now.


Day 3 – Big questions and determining our product

Today we mapped our thinking again at the beginning of class. I showed my map where I switched from “guilty vs. innocent” to “racist vs. empathetic.” My students had the chance to do the same. What really matters in this case? We need to get past the focus of just one dead person and understand what implications this has for our world – issues of trust, judgment, class, poverty, and so much more.

Big questions. We started to discuss what some of those topics might be. We talked about the riots and celebrity opinions to determine what those tell us about the importance of this issue. An example from Kenny Smith’s open letter to Charles Barkley was, “Why is there so much distrust in the police and the legal system from the African American community?” My goal is for my students to walk around in someone else’s skin and understand the importance of this situation.

We then moved on to determining how we will prove what we know and answer our big question. Here is what I was told that I will see on Monday: debates, conversations, email conversations, papers, TED talks, and videos.

What has become clear through these three days is that students are becoming less concerned with guilt and innocence, and more concerned with bigger questions and ideas. It has taken some prompting, but it has been fun to watch students start to think deeply. And I hope the students learn just as much about themselves as they do about Ferguson.


Let’s start a school…

where one of our main goals is to engage students in a meaningful unit of study that is completely based on student interest and ends with creating something authentic to be used in the world.

One of the things that made me connect so strongly with Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner was the importance of authenticity in schools. These innovative young people were not innovative when completing their worksheets. They didn’t display their empathy for the world in the isolation of a simple report. The question or problem was one that the teacher did not already hold the right answer to.

SchoolThe teachers that were featured were outliers in the sense that they saw themselves as peers of the students in the creation and learning process. So how about we try that in our new middle school? Here’s what I’m thinking:

We create an interdisciplinary unit that is similar to the genius hour or 20% time. Every Wednesday (seems like a good day) we have the students working together in groups to investigate and solve their problem. Teachers are available in their rooms throughout the day for students to have a chance to get feedback and just-in-time learning if needed. The students are able to move from the science lab where they are creating something to the English room when they need to write a letter or prepare for a speech.

What are the questions or problems? Ed Carryer of Stanford’s Smart Product Design Laboratory has one problem for his students to solve in his course. The example from Creating Innovators was “The world’s most dangerous jobs.” Students designed boats for crab fishing that harvested the crabs and brought them back to the dock to unload them. The project had competition, innovation, and fun, or “whimsy” as Carryer called it. One group played the role of Greenpeace and tried to set all of the crabs free!  Here are some other examples from Stanford which are high level, of course, but it might give you an idea.

It might be a good plan to start our unit with all students working on solving a problem together in order to learn how to think this way. It takes a change of culture to get students to be more innovative. Any ideas of a problem or question we should use to start?

Eventually the students can identify their own problems that they want to fix. Let’s say that the chairs or desks that they are sitting on are uncomfortable. A group of students might choose to develop a chair that is more comfortable and still cost effective. Math and science would be necessary for the design angles and weight distribution as well as the costs associated with the chair. The English teacher would be a help in marketing the chair as well as writing any letters and applying for patents. And the history teacher, although probably not her area of expertise, could help in the research of chairs for inspiration. That last one might include the art teacher a little more, but go with me here. I imagine students pitching their questions/ideas like that one to the class and recruiting their group. When the project is over, students could create their own TED Talk to showcase their genius to the world!

Think of the engagement that a project like this would offer! To create something and make someone’s world a better place is the reason people want to learn and innovate. The hope is that our classroom walls are no longer the limits. I would imagine this would lead teacher to continue to expose our students to other parts of the world in order to see what the needs are all over.

This could be done as a competition where ideas and projects are presented to a panel. Picture Shark Tank or The Apprentice coming to your classroom. One class even presented to fourth graders to be their judges. Students receive feedback and continue to grow and learn. The best part? There are no wrong answers. We try and fail? So what. Try again!

When I mentioned a culture change earlier, failure is a part of our culture that needs to be looked at. Students feel like they failed when they know there is no chance to try again or to use what they learned in order to improve. This type of system encourages failure as a learning tool with feedback and time to try again. And when the end result is something authentic that can help others, there is a reason to keep trying.

Plagiarism lessons with Vanilla Ice

Plagiarism is one of the toughest things to teach to a middle school student during a research paper or article. The words are there, right on the internet, and I can’t just copy them? No. You may not.

Here is my attempt to help students understand what they need to do in order to create their own work:

First, I want to blatantly give an example of plagiarism, so I copy and paste from Wikipedia.

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.[16][page needed] The question of whether gun control policies increase, decrease or have no effect on rates of gun violence turns out to be a difficult question.

Yes, this is plagiarism. You can see the citation still on there. I would never use some of those words!

Ok, good. We’re off to a good start. I then copy the first sentence and Google it to show that the exact website shows up, and that this cheating is easy to find. That, and it isn’t even creative!

So what if I change words?

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.

We’ll change that to:

High rates of gun deaths and injury are often seen as a main causes for gun control policies.

Is that OK?

Well, this is where things get a little tricky. Some students think that since we changed the words, we have avoided plagiarism. Some say that we didn’t change the format, and we’re basically saying the same thing, so yes, it would be plagiarism.

To help in this decision, it is time to turn to one of the great plagiaristic icons of our time, Vanilla Ice. We listen to the beginning of “Ice Ice Baby” to hear his version of the beloved beat.


And here is Queen’s version of the same beat in “Under Pressure”:


Was Mr. Ice plagiarizing? Another tough question for the students, but this real-world example gets them to really consider the issue. They want to know who was right and who was wrong in this lawsuit.

The best part about Vanilla is that he doesn’t sound too believable. And as it turns out, the courts say he wasn’t either. We discuss the penalties that he faced because of plagiarism as well as the penalties that students face in different situations.

So how do we avoid plagiarism?

I use the same two sentences that I copied and pasted. I read them in the document I found, and I write my version of what was said in front of the students as a model. My goal is to show the students how to take something and make it my own and say it in my own way. As writers, we need to sound consistently like ourselves.

The next step? A bibliography!

A real inspiration

IMG_0803One of the things that I have always struggled with when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night with my classes is that the students look at the horrendous crimes and acts against humanity like they are a work of fiction. Although there is an initial shock at some of the memories of Wiesel, it seems like the real always needs to be reinforced.

We were lucky enough to have Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a Holocaust survivor and author of Four Perfect Pebbles, come to our school and speak to our middle school students along with eighth graders from two other middle schools. Now that makes things real.

She spoke of hope, courage, humanity, the importance of being kind to others, and valuing what we have while working for others to ensure equality for all. Her message was moving and inspirational.

But most importantly with Marion’s visit, she made history real for my students. She made the terror and hate a real event. She made the soldiers capturing Jews, ripping them from their own homes, and packing them into cattle cars a real story. When we read Night in the coming weeks, these students will be able to make connections with their growing background knowledge.

Connections to these times in history are disappearing. As Marion said, “This generation is the last that will hear the story of the Holocaust from a survivor.” If we are going to count on our students to fight against inequality and hate, to believe in the good in others, and to stand up for what is right, Marion’s lesson is a crucial one. I choose to read Night with my students because of this lesson, and there is no doubt that this year it will be more real than ever.

Listen up!

We demand it, we ask for it, we give it, and we get it. At least we hope so. But respect is extremely important when thinking about how we use the Common Core in order to engage our students in close readings, discussions, and Accountable Talks.

Respect is shown when we look at someone who is talking, when we recognize what was said, and we do not repeat each other because we weren’t paying attention. Simple listening skills that we all expect our students to utilize. Yes, I would love to have students doing this while I speak, but I also know that it is a must for when students are speaking to each other. 

Now the question is: how do we teach this? I’ve seen videos like this one from the Teaching Channel that show students listening, reacting, interacting, and commenting appropriately when other students speak. And those are just fourth graders! I want that! Actually, I need that in my classroom.

Is this something that comes from having the same expectations across a team or grade level? Instead, we set different rules and expectations, or worse yet, simply lament the fact that our students do not seem to care about what their body language says to their speaking peers.

As I was reading Kim Campbell’s book If You Can’t Manage Them, You Can’t Teach Them, she talked about respect and the role that it plays in teachers’ sets of rules.

One of my expectations is that we respect each other… After several years of this approach, I realized I was operating under the (faulty) assumption that students understood exactly what I meant. Teachers continually demand respect. But students do not always know exactly what it means or what it looks like in a classroom.

Uh oh. That sounds an awful lot like me. I am very conscious to avoid long rules lists on the first day of school. The word respect encompasses everything that I want to see in my classroom. But the meaning of the word respect varies greatly among my students. That is what needs to change. We need to know what respect looks like in my classroom because that can have the same meaning for everyone.

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One thing I am trying is the use of the hand signals that you see to the right. I recently added the “I agree with you” signal to encourage active listening as well. This gives the listeners a reminder that it isn’t just about the person speaking. It also asks the listeners to think about what they plan to say ahead of time and see where that fits in with what is currently being said.

As teachers, we can spend our time complaining about the poor manners, listening skills, and peer interactions, or we can start teaching students what to do instead. I’m in, now I just need to know where to start!

What message are we spreading?

Do you ever get the feeling that the more you talk about something, harp on it, and ask it to stop, that it seems like that something tends to become more of an issue? We know that being proactive in what we do, to be intentional, and to seek out solutions to our problems in schools is what leads to success.

But do anti-bullying programs seem to be more of a reactive measure? Yes, there is no arguing that bullying is a serious issue that affects growing numbers of students on a daily basis. My school is a small one compared to the others in our district, and because of that it seems like we view bullying as almost a non-issue. This has all changed this year with a group of heartbreaking stories that are opening many peoples’ eyes.

Our district adopted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program last school year, and we have been using class meetings and discussions on a weekly basis. We discuss various situations and emotions in order to help students to feel comfortable, build trust, and feel confident in standing up to bullying or helping a victim out.

What scares me is that bullying is always on the minds of our students. I hear the word “bullying” all of the time, and even though a goal of the Olweus program is to clarify what bullying truly is, it is still a word that is thrown around much more than ever before. It could often be compared to the boy who cried, “Bully!”

After reading this article from the Huffington Post, my skepticism and concern about bullying programs grew. Are we teaching students the ins and outs of bullying? Do we give kids the tools to know what to say to get out of trouble and shift blame for their behavior? Do we help them to know how to sound depressed in order to have an excuse for what they do or gain attention that is so desperately needed?

We recently watched Bully with our 7th and 8th graders in a large group. Throughout the rest of the day we had individual class discussions that lasted over an hour. The discussions were incredibly enlightening to many of the issues that are going on in our school, the depths of which were unknown to many of our teachers. It truly was a moment that I will never forget as I heard students open up about their feelings and struggles at a place where they are supposed to feel safe.

I couldn’t help but think as we left the meetings that yes, these students just got a lot off of their collective chest, but what does that mean for the rest of the day? Next week? Will there be repercussions for their words? Will reliving those negative experiences make their sadness build up?

What if we took a proactive measure in bullying prevention? Instead of dwelling on the negative things and reacting to them, we build on the positives and increase everyone’s awareness of the good in our lives. We tell our students that they need to stand up, help others, and be a good person, but if we aren’t giving them confidence to do that, will it ever happen? Just by telling a child in a classroom that the right thing is to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves does not make it easy for that child to do so on the playground or when everyone else is watching and judging them.

If we were to help students to relive happy experiences and positive relationship moments, we could help to create an atmosphere of hope instead of the gloom of what I heard in one of our meetings: “Bullying is always there, and it will never go away.” But what if we helped teach our students to be positive, helpful, and selfless and did this through their entire time in our schools?

In my previous post I shared some of the things that I am doing at the start of class to encourage students to be positive and relive experiences that bring a smile to their faces. This is a contrast to journaling and thinking about things that ask students to consider the negative things that are going on. If we dwell on those parts of life, we are going to be much less likely to smile, help each other, or hope that things are going to get better.

But if we encourage our students to participate in service learning where we are helping others, pass on a positive message to friends, or thank someone who had a positive impact on them, we are much more likely to see a change. Those activities are ones that change lives because of how they make us feel and how they intrinsically motivate us.

Happiness can be contagious. Unfortunately, so can unhappiness.

What is my job?

babyI find myself thinking more and more about that question as an English teacher. Along with the reading and writing that we do, it has become increasingly important to do more than simply teach basic skills inside the walls of a classroom. How can I help students prepare to be successful? How can I help students to get involved in something they believe in? How can I help students to question? How can I help a student be happy?

Deep. I know.

But there is so much opportunity to be deep in an English classroom. We can explore opinions and defend our own real-world ideas. We can know what is going on in the world. We can practice habits that will lead us to being happy.

After watching this excellent TED Talk by Shawn Achor, I wanted to incorporate some of the habits that help lead to happiness in my classroom. Achor talks about the belief that once we accomplish something we will be happy, but that only leads to setting another goal. True happiness comes before we do anything. People with true happiness do not depend on something to trigger it. Their happiness triggers something else in their lives, and this is often success. Happy people tend to have a happiness advantage:

  • Better at keeping jobs
  • Superior productivity
  • Less burnout
  • Less turnover
  • Better sales

In my classroom we spend the first few minutes writing in our journal. What a perfect place to accomplish some happiness building! Here are Achor’s ways to train your brain and rewire it to help you work more optimistically and more productively:

  • Three gratitudes – Write down three new things that you are grateful for each day for 21 days in a row. Your brain will develop a pattern of scanning the world for positive instead of negative.
  • Journal – Write about one positive experience that you have had over the past 24 hours. It allows your brain to relive it.
  • Random acts of kindness – Write a note or an email to someone and thank them for what they have done for you.

We are losing the battle of raising conscientious human beings. Too many young people are stuck thinking only of themselves and never feel the joy that comes from making someone else happy. If we want our children to grow up and become positive individuals, we cannot take for granted that this is going to come from home anymore. School must be a place where we are helping children develop emotionally. These three small things, interspersed with the other daily activities, are my way of trying to do more than just teach English.