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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PD-- Structure

I was asked by our support staff last year to lead a professional development workshop on how to make my room a place that allows all learners to succeed.  I asked my students these two questions and prepared my professional development seminar based on their responses.

1.     How do teachers structure their classroom to make it safer for students to share?
a.     Expectations—what is acceptable and not.  What are the non-negotiables?
b.     Make the connections to the our lives about the topics
c.     Teachers need to share
d.     Discussions—“what did you take away from this?”
e.     When reading a novel, not so much about the story, but instead the connection with the story
f.      Desk setup—conducive to the class activity, be sure to see everyone in the room
g.     No laughing, no ridiculing, no personal attacks, no option to not do or act a certain way
h.     Don’t be strict
i.      Question of the day?
j.      Teacher’s job is to defend when it becomes a personal attack
k.     Objectiveness of the teachers, but tell us what you think
l.      Wait time—silence!
m.   Act like a student, but be a teacher
n.     Share opinions
o.     Show that you are not perfect
p.     Relationships—be on our level
q.     Just talking with discussions—we do not need formal structure all the time
r.      … but structure it to start the year, then have less structure
s.      Teachers explain who/what they are make boundaries clear
t.      Students direct the instruction
u.     Have open-ended projects, assignments, but not too open-ended
v.     Know when someone is “not themselves” and care about it
w.    What’s on the walls 
2.     How do teachers reduce stress levels for students and help to alleviate anxiety?
a.     Work with teachers on homework, help us see what you see and why you see it
b.     Work into schedules, set up time to sit down with each student
c.     Go over the “hard parts”
d.     Structure—give us deadlines that some of us need, but do not give some of us deadlines-- individualize
e.     Personal assignments
f.      Big assignments—give us time
g.     Tell us the homework for the week!
h.     Assignments on blog
i.      Make sure we know when you are kidding

Just reminds me of how important it is to keep our students in mind.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Student Choice

For my graduate school program, our first course was on student choice and voice in schools.  Below is a response to a reading we completed at the beginning of the course.  I will be including a piece I am working on in the coming weeks to this blog--

Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide by Alfie Kohn

In my sociology course right now we are discussing how schools are agents of socialization and the impact that education can have on an individual and our larger social group.  I gave them a piece from Alfie Kohn and we have spent some time discussing what it means to be well-educated, what all students should know, what are the best practices teachers have, what are the not-so best practices that teachers have, etc.  When I ask my students what makes a great teacher, they often do not mention knowing your content, but instead say these common things:
1. Treat us with respect
2. Be laid back and fun, but strict when needed (my favorite one)
3. Be fair
4. Prepare us for the SAT, senior year, college, etc.

The reason I bring these ideas up after reading this article is because much of what Kohn is saying is what my students say to me at the beginning of every year.  I believe that if I live up to the four expectations my students set up for me, I can easily bring in more student choice to my classroom.

What I greatly appreciated about Kohn's article was that he mentioned you do not always have to involve student choice.  Choice can rotate from the teacher, to an individual student, to a small learning group and it can still work and help be a productive part of your course.  One of the points that I found really solidified his argument to me was not only how this help to engage students in their learning, but he hit home at my pedagogy.  On page nine he says "School is about more than intellectual development; it is about learning to become a responsible, caring person who can make good choices and solve problems effectively.  Thus educators must think about ways of helping students to take an active part in decisions that are only indirectly related to academics." When asked to write our philosophy of education in college, I turned most to the book that I thought I would least reference.  I remember seeing Nel Nodding's book about ethics and teaching caring in school.  I remember being a young undergraduate thinking that this book was a "fluff" education book that would not lead me to any "real" learning.  After finishing the book and reflecting on my best teachers and the adults in my life that have had the greatest impact, I realized that Nodding's ideas about education would become the cornerstone of my pedagogy.  Teaching students to respect and have responsibility for each other (Thomas Lickona) will ultimately lead you to helping your students learn to care for one another.  If our students can respect and care for one another, they can ultimately develop the sense of responsibility not only to themselves, but to others around them and to our greater society.

Another part of this text that I greatly appreciated was the solutions and questions that Kohn presents teachers to use in their classroom.  On page ten he says, "What do you think we can do about this?"  Whenever a student asks a question in class that I think can lead us to a greater depth of learning, regardless of it is directly connected with what we are discussing in class, I ask "What do you think about that?"  This allows students to think out loud and share their thoughts with the class.  Often times I will have students question each other's ideas and point out the areas where their argument does not work.  Kohn's question "What do you think we can do about this?" has led me to some great projects that engaged every one of my students.  At the end of last year, I ran out of time and did not create the project expectations and guidelines sheet, so I walked into class, worked with my students, and we created it together.  I had my expectations, they had theirs, and we met somewhere in the middle (quiet honestly, more towards their side) and I saw some of the best products from them.  This can work!  It is hard to do, and challenging to give up the control, but our students can create their own guidelines, deadlines, and expectations.  Not only will they meet those expectations, but they will far exceed them. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Let's make our schools safer

I received this email from a listserv that I am a part of regarding GLBT issues in schools and America.  I am copy and pasting this below as I think everyone should think about this as we go into this next month:

Dear Safe Schools Coalition Members and Friends:
If Ever There Was a Time to Talk … Five Teens Have Killed Themselves in September
Five teens in the last three weeks had been so severely brutalized by peers for being gay that they felt the only answer was suicide.
First, Billy Lucas, age 15, hung himself in his grandmother’s barn in Greensburg, Indiana. Billy wasn’t out if he was even gay – you don’t have to be gay to be harassed about it. Then came middle school student 13 year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, California. Then 18-year old college student and violinist Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge (between New Jersey and New York). The next day, in Houston, Texas, straight-A student Asher Brown, age 13, shot himself. Less than a week later, 19-year old Raymond Chase hung himself in Providence, Rhode Island.
We have to talk about it!!! Talking about suicide doesn’t make people commit suicide. Talking about bullying doesn’t make people bully. And talking about gay people doesn’t make people gay. Please, please take some time this week to talk with your classes about both.
What your students need to know about suicide and self-harm:
  • People who are considering suicide usually give signals.
  • There are concrete things you can do if you see what might be signals:
  • ~ Show you care. Something like, “I’m here if you feel like talking.”  ~ Bring it up. Something like, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” ~ Get help. Something like, “Let’s talk to someone. I’ll be there, too, if you want.” ~ If they won’t talk with a parent or someone at school, do it yourself.
What your students need to know about bullying:
  • Bullying, harassment, cyber-bullying and assault can lead to suicide.
  • You don’t want to live with knowing that what you did or allowed a friend to do led someone to take their life.
  • Bullies need an audience. Refuse to participate.
  • Bullies often fly under adults’ radar. Make sure adults know what’s happening.
  • Harassment is illegal. The students who broadcast footage of Tyler Clementi before he killed himself may get as much as 5-10 years in jail.
What your students need to know about gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender (GLBT) people:
  • Who you like – whether you are GLB or Straight – has nothing to do with whether you’re a good person.
  • How masculine or feminine you are – whether or not you’re the way people expect you to be – has nothing to do with whether you’re a good person.
  • GLBT people can be as mentally healthyhappy, and loved as anyone else.
  • GLBT people have made awesome contributions to the world we all share.
    The Youth Suicide Prevention Project suggests that you don’t want to glamorize or dramatize events like these recent suicides. But you DO need to talk with your students. Discussion questions might include these:
    • What kinds of things stress you and your friends?
    • What can you – or your friends -- do about the stress? What are some options?
    • If your friend was considering suicide, what could you do? What would you do?
    • What kinds of things do people in our school get harassed about?
    • What can you do if you see it happening? What are some options?
    • What if it happens to you? What are some options?
    • What do you already know about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people? What stereotypes have you heard that you know aren’t true?
    • What good things have lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people done for the world?
    • If you – or your friend – were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender where could you go to find friends and support?
Resources for adults:
Youth Suicide Prevention Project
Bullying & Harassment Background, from Seattle Public Schools
Maine’s Best Practices in Bullying and Harassment Prevention: A Guide for Schools and Communities
Safe Schools Coalition, addressing LGBT Issues in schools, headquartered in Washington, serving schools everywhere
Safe at School, a new report from the Williams Institute at UCLA addressing the school environment and LGBT safety through policy and legislation
Resources for the classroom:
Look, Listen, Link and Help Every Living Person, suicide prevention curricula for middle and high school, respectively, from the Youth Suicide Prevention Project
Let’s Get Real and Straightlaced ... films and discussion guides from Groundspark about bullying for middle school and gender for high school, respectively
Lipstick and Who I Am … films and discussion guides from Scenarios USA written by youth, performed by pros & discussion guides, about friendship, coming out, and more for middle and high school
Lesson planning guides for integrating LGBT issues into the fabric of the classroom, from the Safe Schools Coalition
Resources for youth: … Get Through Tough Times
Raven Days
Teens Against Bullying
Safe Schools Coalition’s YOUTH page

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The KKK in America

In my humanities class right now, we are studying reconstruction time period after the Civil War and racial issues in America at the turn of the 20th century and then at the turn of the 21st century.  An organization that has had an extremely negative impact on race relations in the United States is the Ku Klux Klan.

This is the first time I have taught reconstruction as in-depth as I have in the past and I am going to ask my students their thoughts on the subject, content, depth covered, etc. in an evaluation soon (I will have that information available), but it seems to be going quite well.  Yesterday in class, we spent some time watching Birth of a Nation (1915) [Remastered Edition] which you can also access as live stream on Netflix.  We spent most of the period looking at different parts of the film.  While the film is three hours long and has little value to watch the film in its entirety, I would suggest a few clips to watch in class with your students.

The essential question we looked at in class, and throughout most of the year, is "What role does the media play in our society?"  We can argue that film is a part of media and it clearly has an impact on America.  While there are many different events and incidents in history one can point to for this rise in the KKK in the early 1900s, the membership jumped from 400,000 to over 4 million in 1920.  While we can point to the end of WWI and other issues of race in the different parts of the country, Birth of a Nation had an impact.

If using the live stream on Netflix, here are the times for the scenes--
1hour:10 mins

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lighting a Fire

I just finished reading Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery by Kathleen Cushman and her students as a part of my graduate school work.  While I found the book interesting, I would like to point out one of the key pieces I am walking away from the book with.  For those of you who love project based learning, this is something to keep in mind.  [My apologies as I feel like I am cheating using a post for my graduate school blog as my Don't Just Put a Movie On blog, but oh well!]

There were many sections of this book that spoke to me as an educator, but one that I believe directly connects to my practice was the criteria for a first-rate project on page 144.  At High Tech High we talk a great deal about the six a's of project planning.  While I like to keep those in my mind when creating a project, I believe that this list should be added to every person's checklist when crafting a project.

1. We clearly state the central question that our project addresses.
Without a central question, a project cannot succeed.  Last year for our festival project, our students worked on an interdisciplinary biology and humanities project.  When you go back and look at the project, we did not satisfy the six a's; however, I believe that the project was still a success because the students created their own central questions, completed their own research, and then displayed their learning.  We had a clearly stated overarching question that each group had to answer, but then students created their own individual essential questions for their own work.  They were motivated to answer their questions because they created them and decided what they wanted to learn about a topic.

2. We collaborate on planning and carrying out the project.
Every good project allows for student input in the different stages of a project.  From the planning, the day-to-day of the project, and the reflection, students needs to have time to voice how they are doing with the project and their opinions of it.  When we sit in our classrooms and create projects without asking students what they think about it, we forget one of our most important audiences.

3. We gather evidence from several primary and secondary sources, including at least one interview with an expert in the field.
As a student with a history background, I live and breathe primary and secondary sources.  I always include them in my teaching because I think too often students are afraid of "really old" documents or language that they cannot understand.  The sense of accomplishment that comes from analyzing and spending time with this material, questioning it and getting it wrong, then going back and finally understanding and mastering it is indescribable.  I had a student who came to me with a question about James Baldwin's essay titled "Stranger in a Village." She stayed up a few hours past her bedtime not because the assignment was due the next day (because it wasn't) but because she did not want to go to bed until she had figured out what he was trying to say.  In our discussion on the essay after school, she realized she had it all wrong, but was even more excited to go back and find out what she could from the piece and master it.  This is why primary and secondary sources are important and not those dreaded textbooks.

4. We set deadlines for all project tasks and meet them.
I partly agree with this.  For one project I had students complete all the deadlines themselves, and it worked.  For another project, I created "check-ins" or "benchmarks" for students to follow.  They did not have to, but many of them did, and it worked as well.  As long as student choice in the deadlines is involved, whether they create them, or they can decide to meet them or not, then it will be successful.

5. We seek out critique along the way and revise our work as needed.

6. We deliver a product or performance that throughly addresses the project's central question.
A student asked me in class the other day, "How do you know you have an impact on your students?"  My response to him was that I don't know in the moment if I do, but I can see it when I look at interactions I have with my students.  I can also see it when they bring their parent or friend to school and show them what they worked on.  When they perform their product to their audience and they are excited about it.  That is always when I know I have had an impact on my students.

7. We give evidence that our project had a positive impact.
One of my professional goals this year is to work on this component.  This has always been a challenge for me because how do we measure whether this has happened or not.  If one outsider experienced the project, is that enough?  If a student has changed his/her ideas and has become a more knowledgeable citizen for it, is that enough?  This is an area that I am still exploring and trying to figure out.

8. We reflect on our process and our product.
I think this piece is important especially when as a teacher we care more about the process and less about the product.  I was working with a group of students and even with critique after critique and meetings with the instructors and others, they still had not produced a piece of beautiful work.  It was not a piece of beautiful work in the eyes of the instructor, but also in the eyes of the students.  They learned more from that experience than they would have if their piece had been exhibited.  This is why the process of a project is important and figuring out ways to assess that process is something we as educators must continuously work on.
I am reminded of a comment a colleague of mine made years ago at a meeting with a group of students. He was referencing Plato's Allegory of the Cave and was making the claim to our students that they are all the light atop of a candlestick.  If you walk too fast, you can easily be blown out.  If you walk too slow, you won't be able to light up the room.  You must find the pace for yourself in order to light up the world around you, and in doing so, you will ignite the fire in your mind.  As educators, that is what we must to with and for our students.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Listening Project Follow Up

As I promised over the summer (see my earlier post Teaching About Various Viewpoints in America) I planned on making use of The Listening Project in my introductory unit to my American humanities class.  I found great success with it and my students seemed to take away a great deal from watching the film.

I am not one to use worksheets at all, and so before we started the film, I introduced the students to three questions I wanted them to take notes on throughout the film:
1. What did you learn about your view on America by viewing/hearing the viewpoint of foreigners?
2. Were there any parts in the film where you thought those interviewed were wrong?
3. What questions would you have asked if you had the opportunity?

I asked students to respond to these questions and be prepared to discuss the film when we finished it.  The conversation was not very structured, we started off with what struck us the most from the film and then moved on to talk about the three questions they responded to.

At the end of the discussion, I asked them to write down on an exit card one idea they think every person who watches this film should leave knowing.  Here are some of their thoughts:

  • "America always wants to say something, but we don't listen to what other people say."
  • "It is easy for America to speak, but not listen to what everyone else has to say."
  • "You don't really know about other people and their countries until you have gone and seen for yourself, and see what they have to go through."
  • "God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we could listen more.  I think that it is important to have opinions but to also have perspective."
  • "The U.S. isn't the only country in the world.  There are other people out there.  Make a change, offer your help."
  • "A lot of American have suffered because of Americans, what we do has an impact on everyone else."
  • "I think that everyone who watches this video should know that people have opinions, some may be kind but others are rough, but either way have an open mind."
  • "People from other countries know a lot more about us than we know about them."
  • "We're not citizens of a country, we're citizens of the world."
  • "One thing that really struck me was that most people in Iraq didn't want us to be there fighting and most of us don't want to be there either.  So why are we fighting?  It is becoming pointless."
  • "Why is it the world knows so much about America and yet we know so little about the world?"
  • "We should realize that to help others, we have to listen first."
  • "A lot of our country's freedoms and items we take for granted were established at the cost of others."
  • "I think people should know that America has a lot of power, but we have been using that power in wrong ways."
  • "You need to know your neighboring countries as much as they know you."
  • "Most people just need help from the American people.  They are disappointed that most citizens are turning a blind eye to the needs around the world."
  • "Not everyone hates America.  We are all family."
  • "Even though we've made some bad decisions and have hurt a lot of people, some people are still very open and kind with us."
  • "An unbiased opinion has little to no effect for change."
  • "People, especially Americans, shouldn't believe everything they hear; they should take the to visit, research, and understand themselves before they come to conclusions."
  • "America somewhat controls more than they know."
  • "Americans are generally good people with good intentions.  We just tend not to do the best things."
  • "People want more respect from America."
  • "Be grateful of where you come from and get to know those who are around you."
  • "America need to be careful with the amount of power they have because when America falls no one is going to be there to help them."
  • "Know that your views will change, know to be open minded."
  • "America is not perfect."
  • "Stop, think, listen.  Other countries matter as well."

As you can see, this film, discussion, and activity was a success.  It only took two class periods!


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Keep a Class Website!

My apologies for not posting last week.  We were back to school and the first week was even more draining than I thought it would be.  It is amazing that even after doing this for a number of years, the first week is still extremely difficult.

This week I am going to step away from films and curriculum and work on posting why you should keep a class website and the importance of being transparent with students and parents/guardians about our work in our classrooms.

I first saw a post about how vitally important this topic is over the summer and thought to myself how silly the post was because it is just an expectation at my school.  However, I recognize that at other schools teachers are not expected to do this, and this may seem like a great deal of work, but I can tell you it is very easy.  Some districts have begun to use websites like Moodle and other blackboard type sites, but I would suggest you take a look at Google Sites.  It is extremely easy to use, and it also allows you to have a website with professional appearance using very little time.  All you need is a gmail account (which you can get for free), one hour of free time, a computer and you are set up with a great communication tool.  A friend of mine has a post about it on his blog, here is the link.

Here is the website I keep for my courses.

What can you do?
Course Resources-- I have a portion of my site that is dedicated to keeping a collection of resources, files and readings for class.  Whenever I copy something to give to my students, I make use of the "send pdf" function on our school's copier.  I think most copiers have this option and you should check on it with your school's IT person.  You can send the handout to your email address and easily upload it on your website.  If your students have the problem of eating handouts (mine do, they seem to disappear moments after I give them out) they can get a copy of it online.

Course Announcements-- Need to make sure people outside of school know the homework?  Google sites allows you to have announcements that the world can see.  You can even link to the homework on your site so parents/guardians and students can access it.

Document your work-- Show off what you do with your students using Google sites.  It is really easy!


Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't Just Put a Movie On: Back to School Edition 2

Here is a list of some great introductory readings for any class that you teach.  I like to use them because it helps engage conversation about the different courses that I teach and set up a classroom environment that is safe to share and discuss:

A friend of mine uses Plato's Allegory of the Cave as a way to introduce students to thinking about themselves and the role knowledge plays in their lives.  I have made use of it the last few years of teaching and have found it successful.  I generally ask students to read it and then create an illustrated version of the story for the next day of class.  As one of the founders of our school says, "When in doubt, teach the classics."

When I was student-teaching/interning, my cooperating teacher handed me the introduction to Howard Zinn's You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times titled "The Question Period in Kalamazoo."  I use Howard Zinn all the time in my class (so much that when he died last year, my students got into my classroom in the morning and put up RIP H.Zinn signs), but especially this introductory reading.  It allows you to engage your students in the following questions:

  • What is history?
  • How and why is perspective important to understanding and learning about history?
  • What role does our personal bias, and a teacher's personal bias, play in their teaching?
  • Who are heroes?
  • and many more
Also while student-teaching/interning (I had a truly master teacher as my cooperating teacher) she introduced me to a great text to use with students who are studying sociology.  The reading is "Eating Your Friends is the Hardest" and while gruesome, helps to put in perspective the different agents that are involved in socialization.

What are your first week readings?  Post a comment and let me know!
Good luck with the first week of school!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Don't Just Put a Movie On-- Back to School Edition

In eight days I am going to have students sitting in front of me, expecting me to be prepared, rested, exciting, firm, strict, fun, easy going, and most importantly care about them.  Of course all those listed come from a list my students have generated in the past about their expectations of their teachers.  As we enter the beginning of the school year, I wanted to share some of the first day activities for you to either steal or borrow from if you would like.

First Day Name Games--
There are too many to count but I always like to ask students to share their name and an adjective that they feel represents them, but it has to begin with the same letter their names does.  For example, I am "jabbering John."

Another one to test different classes is a name game where everyone stands in a circle and you have to throw the ball to someone.  I would take the ball and shout across to Jenny "Here Jenny" and I would throw the ball to her.  She would catch it and say "Thanks John, here you go Allison," and so on.  Once you get through everyone you can add balls to the list and have a competition between the teams.

First Day Activities-- 
Get everyone to talk.  Not just their name, but something else.  I start class off with a question each day for students to share before we get to talking about anything.  I start this on day one, so before I even introduce myself, I do the Question of the Day.

Also, talk about what students know or can talk about on the first day.  I have a questionnaire that I have students fill out that has anything from what they want to be when they grow up to what expectations do they have for me.  These questions are topics that most anyone can talk about on day one.

First Week Games: Communication Games--
Since so much of my class is discussion based and centered around the idea that we all need to listen and communicate with one another, I spend a lot of time in the first week playing communication games.  Whenever you say "game" you almost always get buy in from your students instead of "let's have a discussion about how we communicate."  There is a great collection of games that you can find online.  I have my favorite ones that I like to use  (Schmidt and Schmoo).

 More Back to School Edition posts to come as we get back!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lessons from Secretary of Defense-- Fog of War

Any class that discusses the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis would be greatly enhanced by using the film The Fog of War - Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara about the life of the late former Secretary of Defense.  The film is based on eleven lessons that McNamara has taken away with him throughout his years both in the public and private sector about war and the responsibility that comes with being a superpower.

Not only can you make use of this film to talk about Vietnam and CMC, you can also use the earlier parts of the film to talk about World War II and the post-war military industrial complex.  There is one part of the film that I like to show where McNamara makes the argument that proportionality should be a guideline for war.  I make use of this section when I discuss the Atomic Bomb and its use on Japan during World War II with my students.  This section of the film talks about the various bombings that took place in Japanese cities throughout the war.  It then takes the city and couples it with a U.S. city of roughly the same size.  When students see big cities that they know, it becomes even more powerful.

If you haven't seen this film, you need to!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

On the advice of a friend and colleague of mine (check out his blog about technology and education at, I bumped up Crips and Bloods: Made in America to the top of my list of films to watch before returning back to school.  I am glad that I did, because I am planning to start the year off with a unit on race in America at reconstruction and then jumping to the Rodney King Race Riots in L.A.  I will likely make use of sections of this film in my classroom to cover some of the racial issues in L.A. in the 1960s- present day.

The film starts off with a brief history about race in America, but specifically about race in L.A.  When I finished watching the film, it raised the following issues or questions that I would use with my students:

  • racial profiling
  • Why join a gang?
  • Watts Riots vs. Civil Disobedience
  • drugs/violence
  • wealth and poverty
  • the rise of unequal distribution of wealth
  • Rodney King
  • Police vs. Citizens 

The film is a good one to show students about these issues and many others.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Teaching Reconstruction

In selecting a name for this blog, I was thinking about one of my teachers I had in high school who would put a movie on as a way to teach something, and not discuss the film at all.  Actually, our discussion would come in the form of writing a paper, which is not the best way to go about discussing a film.  Discussing the film first is important, and then have students write a formal paper if you so decide.

However, that is not the point of the post today.  I was worried that people would think this blog is solely about how to use films in the classroom.  While this is part of this blog, another goal of mine is to share resources that can improve our practice as teachers of the social sciences.  I recently was on vacation and shopping with my mother when I came across a book by Philip Dray called Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen.  I had decided days prior that I was going to start the year off teaching reconstruction in my eleventh grade humanities class and this book just about fell into my arms.

I would not recommend reading the entire book with your students as many of them will get lost in the complexities of the people involved, laws passed, court struggles, etc.  It does give a different perspective to reconstruction that I have never studied before, that of the black congressmen elected during the years following the end of the Civil War.  I would recommend the following chapters for use with your students:

Chapter 2 "A New Kind of Nation"-- This chapter provides a good overview of the early days of reconstruction.  I would first have students take a look at Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and complete a simulation about what the north, south and the newly freed blacks would want from reconstruction.  After doing that, I would then have students read this chapter as it would provide them with some background and a better understanding of the goals of Johnson and the radical Republicans.

Chapter 5 "Kukluxery"-- This chapter addresses the early influence the Ku Klux Klan had in the south during the early days of reconstruction.  It helps put into context the response by the federal government with the KKK Act and other responses by Congress to this terrorist group.  In teaching about this, I would also include portions from Birth of a Nation (1915) [Remastered Edition] and discuss the power film can have over shaping the ideas and history of people.  This film was a "recruitment" film for the KKK if you look at the number of people who joined after this film was released.  While you might be jumping around a bit, it is important for students to understand the power this group had not only in the south, but in the north as well.

Chapter 8-- There is a scene here in this chapter (beginning on page 168 in my edition) that focuses on and explains the "show down" between the former vice-president of the Confederacy (serving as a congressman from Georgia) Alexander H. Stephens and Robert Brown Elliot, the black congressman from South Carolina over a Civil Rights law.  The speeches these two men gave are a great source for students to begin to understand the deeply entrenched ideas of racism that existed in the time.  I am looking forward to using this chapter in my class this coming fall.

I have not fully completed the book yet, jet lag and unpacking has since been in the way, but I will add on to the post if any other chapters seem helpful.

If you have any other tools you use for teaching reconstruction, please share them with me by posting a comment here.  When I return to school, I will make available some other resources I have for teaching reconstruction, which will be posted on my resources page.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Got Credit? Got Debt? Got recession?

I came across the film Maxed Out  on Netflix and loved it!  The film does a great job of raising awareness of the credit industry and how they market and select people for credit cards, loans, etc.  It is not something I would use in my American History classroom, but it is something I may use in my Sociology class when I talk about rites of passage with adolescents.  Since (according to the film) high school graduates do not get as many offers as their counterparts who attend college do, it is important for students to be aware of what is "coming their way" in the very near future.  More to follow if and when I incorporate it into that class.

If I wanted to use this film in my history class, I might find a way to connect it to the Gilded Age, and then also use it to talk about the Great Depression and the recession of the last few years.  A goal of mine, whenever I select topics to study with my students, is to make sure that I can find a way to connect it to their lives and to current events.  If I can't do it, then I don't talk about the topic with my students.

A great way to bring the most recent events of the recession to life would be to use selections from Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story or for a less "controversial" producer/director, Frontline's Inside the Meltdown.  I have found success using both of them in class and both do a great job at simplifying (as much as possible) the "meltdown" that took place a few years ago.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Teaching The Jungle and Food Today

As I said in an earlier post, I do not like to teach a topic that I cannot connect to events today for my students.  One of the important units I like to do, because it is very relevant, is a look at Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  You can find an online version of the text, but you can go to my resources section and find a copy of the chapters I use with my class.

The novel is quite long, and I do not use the entire text.  I select chapters from the novel (special thanks to Meg Guanci and Brian Deveney for helping me select) and use it to teach students about:

  • the time period--1900s
  • the disadvantages the working class had
  • the way immigrants were treated
  • the "American Dream" and what really happened
  • food at the time
  • industrialization and the ideas of scientific management
We get through the early chapters and I ask students to create their own discussion questions.  You can see example student generated discussion questions on my resource page and then I like to show them the film from California KPBS called Food: A Project Envision Documentary.  I know that there are other films, like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation but this documentary covers a great deal of material in 27 minutes and it connects to my students in the San Diego area.  

You can spend anywhere from three class periods on this topic to a project that could take four weeks.  Notice this-- no textbook readings! 


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Vacation Surprise! Top Ten Blogs

I am on vacation spending some time with my family on the east coast and logged in today to see that I have made it on the Top Ten Blogs for History Teachers.  Thank you for the honor!

As the school year begins, I will be including more details about various films and activities I include in my classroom.  This blog will not solely be about using films in class, but will begin to include some of the strategies I use in my project-based learning classroom.

Thanks again to Milestone Documents for the selection!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Teaching about various viewpoints of America

I just came across this movie called The Listening Project which is available for live stream on Netflix.  The film selects a group of Americans to travel the world and do something that all too often we forget to do, listen to others.  The movie is focused on asking foreigners in countries outside the United States how they view the U.S.  It is a bit hard to bring the perspective of "average" or every day non-Americans into the classroom (much of the written work is done by journalists or scholars with at times differing viewpoints), but this film makes it easily accessible.  I am planning to show this film to my students at the end of the first week of my American Humanities class when we talk about "What does it mean to be an American?"  More news to follow!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Letters Home From Vietnam

One of the struggles with teaching the Vietnam War is perspective.  How can we look back as historians and history teachers and support the decision of the United States to enter a country that was asking for its independence from foreign colonial powers for years?  When I have time to spend to look solely at Vietnam, I like to start off by looking at Ho Chi Minh's Declaration of Independence and discuss with students the ideas of the Enlightenment and why Ho Chi Minh would select, copy, downright plagiarize Jefferson.  We usually lead to a discussion about what freedom and liberty are and then discuss the events that lead up to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Once students have a general background about Vietnam, the film Dear America does a good job of showing what the fighting was like in Vietnam.  The film uses actual footage shot by the military and other civilians, with voice overs from many prominent stars reading letters that were sent home to America from the soldiers in the war.  It even includes songs, both pro-war and anti-war from the time period.  You could spend a great deal of time analyzing the different songs, letters, and footage seen.

I generally pose a set of questions for students to think about and respond to while they are watching the film.  I often change the questions for different sections I may be teaching in order to focus on the interests of the students in the class.  Recently, I had a group of 20 boys (in my class of 25) and a majority of them played the game Modern Warfare.  Before watching the film, we brainstormed, using the game, what many of them knew about war, the Vietnam War, weapons, the enemy, military slang, etc.  I then crafted a set of questions that had them focus on the reality of war.  This allowed them to analyze the Vietnam War as a time period in history, but also allowed them to make a connection to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We were able to have a very thoughtful discussion not only about the Vietnam War, but about how video games are designed, marketed, and create a false reality of war.  I was only able to do this because I had a great understanding of the interests of my students and knew their interests in studying history.  Make sure you set up an environment in your class that allows you to do the same.

I also like to read selections from:
an American history textbook and then compare it to the chapter from Lies My Teacher Told Me
Dear America has a text that you can purchase that has many of the letters in it too.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Discussing Mental Health and Prisons

Words like psycho, loony, madhouse, crazy, retarded and phrases that demean individuals with psychological disorders are prevalent in adolescent vernacular.  Even in classes like psychology, where students are supposed to study and begin to understand these diseases and disorders, I found these words used many times.  When I asked my students to rephrase or to change the words they used, I often received comments like, "stop being so PC" or "that's how my parents talk about them."

Just when I was preparing to teach my abnormal psychology unit, I came across the Frontline episode The Released.   You can find this episode on the Frontline website and live stream it for free and it is also available for live stream on Netflix.  This episode follows a number of individuals in the Ohio State Correctional Facilities who are living with psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (to name a few).

After watching this film, my students (seniors who were graduating in three weeks) shared how it changed their perspective of people with these different disorders.  Many were able to now recognize why the words they used could be offensive, especially to people who know others with these various diseases.   My apologies for not having a detailed set of questions and other information about the film, but I had planned on showing only parts of it in class, but my students were so interested in it that I decided to show all of it.  Even with very little preparation and guiding questions, based on the unit we had already completed, students had enough prior knowledge to become actively involved in our discussion.  Many of them even went to the PBS Frontline website to learn more.

I am planning to use this film in my Sociology class this year and will be developing more curriculum and materials for this film.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching about Hate Crimes: The Laramie Project

A film that I have found success with in talking about hate crimes and stereotypes that exist in the United States is HBO's adaptation of The Laramie Project.  The play by Moises Kaufman was transformed into a film that is available on Netflix along with some materials, put together by Time Magazine's Time Classroom, for use by teachers.  The film The Laramie Project includes some famous actors as well.

I have taught this unit in a psychology course when we studied Social Psychology, but it can easily be adapted to a Sociology course, English course, Philosophy, really anything.  I have uploaded some documents that I used to prepare for teaching the unit, as well as some materials that I created.  A great amount of preparation came from reading the material available on the Time Classroom website and Kaufman's website.  Another way that I prepared for discussing this topic and this material was having discussions with my mentor teachers and others who have taught topics like this one before.  I spent many hours thinking about, and practicing in front of the mirror, how I would present the information and respond to uncomfortable questions from students.

Individual Accountability
I asked students to keep a graded notebook during this film.  I provided them with the final assessment sheet and told them that instead of an essay or a test for this unit, they would be responsible for a graded discussion.  I found that students who are unwilling to share in class, especially about a topic like this one, were able to show their thought and understanding using their graded notebooks.  Many of my students who often were uncomfortable participating in class, found ways to include their ideas in the discussion.

The discussion was based on the following essential questions for the unit:
  • What is hate?
  • Where does hate come from and how does the mind impact that development?
  • How can one personally overcome hatred?
  •  How can one help others to overcome their hatred?
  •  How do words or thoughts of hate impact the mind?
I also asked students to be prepared to discuss the questions they were required to keep notes about. I never really had to say to students, "Now let's talk about question five" and instead, they were able to guide the discussion on their own, without me.

I also invited guest speakers to talk about their experiences, either with this type of hatred, or with the film/play.  I taught at a school that a few years prior, had done its own production of The Laramie Project, so I asked the director to talk with my students about the experience.  I also had colleagues that worked on a documentary about the First Amendment and had interviewed various people about religion and gay rights.  They provided me with an interview that I was able to listen to and watch clips from with my students.  You should check out films by Scott Strainge and Josh Silveria who both run Blind Squirrel Productions.

I will be posting soon about their documentary titled What a Piece of Work Man Is and sharing some strategies a colleague of mine used in her biology classroom to talk about evolution.

Before showing this film, I made sure that I had fostered an environment in my classroom that allowed for students to share their personal thoughts and ideas about any given topic.  I have to work hard at the beginning of every course to make sure that students are able to challenge the ideas of each other and also my ideas in a respectful way.  

Depending on your school's policy about "controversial topics" (which I have a problem calling topics this, but I will post a response about that in the future) you may need to get permission from administration and/or parents/guardians.  If you need to do that, I usually send out a letter at the beginning of the semester saying all of the "controversial topics" I am going to cover (this letter I learned, borrowed, and adapted while interning).   The list is usually long, but for an example, you can see one here.   You can also get by with including a statement in your course syllabus, given the age of the students and the course you are teaching. 


Monday, July 19, 2010

Teaching the Impact of the Atomic Bomb

As a teacher of United States or World History, we must at some point discuss the impact the Atomic Bomb had on shaping the world and shaping the foreign policy of the United States.  I have seen some teachers talk about the bomb in the abstract, focusing on the options that President Truman had and the difficulty he had in making the decision.  However, I like to present students with the information, let them make a decision, and then let them see the power this bomb truly has.

A film that I use in my classroom to discuss how the bomb impacted the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is Steven Okazaki's White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This film is broken into four parts, each with interviews of people who survived the bomb, Americans who dropped the bomb, and Japanese youth and citizens living in the rebuilt cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This film is one that you should watch before showing it in class and make a decision, based on the comfort level of you and your students, if you need to contact parents/guardians to watch the film.  

The Lesson--
I usually first ask students to look at the various options that were available to the United States and the decision makers at the time.  I make use of the "Choices: Truman, Hirohito, and the Atomic Bomb"   resources and ask student to write a one-page position paper that discusses the options and then provide advice to President Truman on what they believe the best option would be to bring the war in the Pacific to a close.  The day the assignment is due, I have a brief discussion with them about the options and take a tally of the number of students who advised the president on the various options.  I have also completed this activity as an alternative if I have more time and can go more in-depth.  I like to make sure to focus on the time constraints due to the negotiations at Potsdam the U.S. had before the Soviets entered the war.  It adds an interesting perspective that I don't think is touched on in the post-war build up to the Cold War in regular high school classes.

I am usually not one to require worksheets during films, but when I was preparing to teach this film, I came across a guide to teaching the film and made a worksheet for my students to follow along.  I like to tell students that this worksheet is not one that you can listen for key words and fill in the blank, but instead is one that requires them to think and ponder the important critical thinking questions.  You may want to stop the film throughout the time watching it in order to allow students to think and respond to the questions.  I like to stop it after each section and discuss the questions students are unable to create a response to immediately.  Be careful not to discuss them too much as you want to make sure you can have a thorough discussion at the end of the film.

At the end of the film, I provide a set of guiding questions for students to think about as homework and come back to discuss the following day.  I require them to journal their responses to the film and then ask them, at the conclusion of our discussion, to reflect on their advice to the president earlier.  There are many different ways you can go with this discussion, and each individual teacher, using his/her own style, structure, and course goals, can personalize this section as they please.

Have more time?
I also include readings from different perspectives of World War II to make sure that students get a more balanced approach to their study of this war.  Many call it a just war and I like to include readings about what a just war is.  One that I have recently found is from a San Diego State University Philosophy course reader taught by Tom Weston which provides a brief overview of "Just War" theory.

I also like to include readings about the events leading up to the United States' involvement in the war:
Four Freedoms
Atlantic Charter
Lend Lease
FDR's Speech to Congress

Prior to learning about the Atomic Bomb, I like to include readings from Studs Terkel's The Good War and E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, especially chapters three and five, (those two chapters are available on Google books)


don't just put a movie on: What is this blog about?

This blog has been designed because all too often when teachers put a movie on in class, parents, administrators and our colleagues question our use of movies and this material.  With the advent of places like YouTube and the Netflix service, teachers have access to a wealth of material, either for free or at a low-cost.  I recently "gave in" to Netflix and have found a wealth of amazing material available either for rental or to live-stream into your classroom.  The goal of this blog is for me to share information with you about films I have used, or plan to use, in class with resources I have found, "borrowed from colleagues" or developed.

I have taught World Cultures, English, U.S. History, Psychology, Sociology, American Humanities, and Film Studies.  I  have worked to develop curriculum in all of those classes, that is inquiry and project based. Resources:
If you have any feedback or you have resources you would like to share with others, please do not hesitate to comment and contact me.  If you use any of the materials listed here, all I ask is that you provide me with any feedback you have on the material and resources you used.