NEH Fellowship: The First Week

Researching @ the Schomburg

After only one week of my first NEH experience-I am completely blown away!  The title of my summer institute: From Harlem to Hi-Hop: African American History Through Literature and Song, is horrifically terrifying due to the fact that my experiences with Hip-Hop are limited to: 1980s ghetto blasters, music videos, radio play, an unfortunate but memorable experience with Wyclef Jean, Eminem (I love MANY of his narratives), The Beastie Boys, and what I call Hard-Rap/Rock-Rap like Rage Against the Machine, or the much later Prophets of Rage.  The institute is a collaboration of Dr. Laura Nash and Andrew Virdin, who openly retell stories about how their first proposal for the fellowship was rejected by the NEH. Luckily, this agenda passed through all of the readers because in one week I’ve been connected to inspiring, intellectual voices in the vast field of African American studies.

Dr. Yohuru Williams

I think you can tell from the smile in the picture, Dr. Williams is an engaging speaker  who is not only knowledgeable, he introduces and models critical strategies that can immediately be used in the classroom to engage and challenge students.  At the same time, he is a prolific writer and I’ve included some links that you should NOT IGNORE!  In a later post I will share some lessons I am working on inspired by Dr. Williams.

The Nation, Huff Post, Books, The Progressive, The History Channel 

Dr.  Arnold Rampersad

We’ve enjoyed three Skype sessions with Dr. Rampersad who has been a Stanford faculty member since 1974 and also written books about W. E. B Dubois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and others.  The generosity of Dr. Rampersad cannot go unmentioned as he volunteered to Skype with any of the teachers present individually or in a smaller group to aid in research.

Dr. Tricia Rose

While Dr. Tricia Rose is most notably known for her books The Hip-Hop Wars and Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, her expertise and scholarship on 20th Century African American studies on politics, gender, social thought and popular culture allow her to reveal hidden layers in society that even well-read people have missed, or simply grown accustomed to over time.  Her lecture mainly dealt with the practice of Redlining and how that still impacts African Americans, as well as other underserved minority communities to this day.  While Dr. Rose is currently working on a new book, it will probably take me that long to unpack everything she shared at our institute.  An interesting website to look at is Mapping Inequality.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Sylviana A. Diouf

Our visit to the Schomburg exploded into a unique talk given by the curator and director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library! Though soft-spoken, I could feel through her words a woman of achievement and a certain amount of power who still has to fight to bring education to the public.  The two exhibits Sylviana A. Diouf worked tirelessly to present are Power in Print and Black Power! She let us know the irony of her speaking to us, for she had herself proposed an NEH institute for the summer, but she was denied because the readers felt it was propaganda.  While there have been various exhibits about The Black Panthers, Diouf explains this is the FIRST exhibit strictly about Black Power.

Digital images of the two exhibits: Black Power! & Ready for the Revolution

 

Research at the Schomburg
Langston Hughes burial

Before arriving at the institute, I booked an appointment with the Schomburg research library in the Archives and Special Collections department and I was able to spend hours underground, reading letters written by Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many, many others! While entrenched in a tapestry of letter-language, the Harlem rain poured outside.  At some point, I will write extensively about my specific research.

 

DJ Ivory Snow
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The Hate U Give: A Great Companion to Citizen: An American Lyric

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Navigating two worlds and a young life full of tragedy, Starr Carter drops into your view in that headline moment, at a party that is broken up due to a gun shot. While the obvious binary conflict of Power vs Oppression occurs in the moments after the party, when Starr and Khalil flee the party in his car, the less-than-visible conflict of Appearance vs Reality brings Starr’s different lives together. Will Starr have the strength to become one whole person?

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I must confess that at one point I felt like Thomas gave Starr too many problems to overcome and this somewhat slowed down the pacing of the novel. After completion, I changed my mind and I realized that the issues in the book, and in our country, are so complex that no one can fully realize the ramifications of one interaction. Obviously, if you are unwilling to have an open conversation of the black/white divide that continues to create conflict, then this book is not for you. Likewise, if reading about drugs, alcohol, and language that typical teenagers use, then don’t read this book. However, if you want to read a well-written book that depicts real problems and real feelings, then READ IT NOW! One of the most enjoyable aspects of Thomas’ writing is her realistic dialogue that allows you to feel like you are actually sitting in the car. For example, when Starr is in the park playing basketball with her brother, she ends up speaking for the first time to one of the neighborhood gang members with whom one of her friends acts ridiculous over, Starr says, “Yeah, I’ve heard about you. And you may wanna get some chapstick if your lips that dry, since you’re licking them so much” (147). This illustration reveals that if Starr can speak her mind to a known gang member, she may have the strength to be honest with herself and everyone else in her life.

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Is Grading a Student-Centered Practice? Part Two

The Art of Grading

“The professor never explained that was how she wanted the assignment done; therefore, we all got low grades.  I wish she’d just tell us what she wants.”

I’ve heard collegues voice this complaint too many times to count.  These are adult, graduate students attending universities from Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount University, California State University, Northridge, amongst others.  The gap between what the professor expects in her mind, and what she receives from graduate-level, or shall we say professional learners, is reflected in the grades.  Does the grade reflect my colleagues’ understandings and capabilities? Of course not.  Should they be afforded the chance to redo the assignment to meet the unexplained criteria of the professor? Should they have to redo the work?

My answer to that question is with my own question: Do you allow your high school students the chance to redo assignments and assessments in your classes?

High school students experience the same frustrations after receiving a low grade for their work, and they are still developing the critical thinking skills required to articulate statements beyond, “The teacher sucks. . .the class is stupid anyway. . .or, next time I just won’t do the assignment.”  Without the support of an involved parent, students often defend themselves by becoming angry at the class or the teacher and eventually completely shut down and stop attempting to do the classwork.  The problem with the typical grading systems have long been discussed by teachers, and I wrote a lengthy blog post about the issue in Part One.

Feedback vs. Grading

As most assignments are practice for what will eventually be on a summative assessment, then it follows that most assignments are at least partially, formative assessments.  The purpose of formative assessments is to guide the teacher in planning which lessons the students still need in order to achieve the learning outcomes on the final assessment.  Obviously, nobody practices perfectly.  Teacher feedback should then be followed by student reflection.  In this moment, the teacher helps students build their critical thinking skills in analyzing the space between what they turned in and what skills they still need to learn to gain mastery of a learning objective.  Equally, this is a moment for the student to voice why s/he completed an assignment in a particular format and also point to places where s/he disagrees with teacher feedback.

Student Input on Grades

While I’ve heard amazing educators speak about how their schools are gradeless, I think many of us work in schools or districts where this would not be possible (at least not in the foreseeable future).  Therefore, I’m attempting to find ways to work within the grading system so that I may better serve students who struggle to achieve learning – without them becoming frustrated by the grading parameters.  What if part of the reflective process incorporated students assigning their own grade on larger projects and essays and then providing justification for the grade? Whenever there is a huge discrepancy in the student’s self-grade and what the teacher believes the grade should be, this would require a personal conversation where the student and teacher get to explain their thought process and ask each other questions.

Confession

I am guilty of every possible grading mistake a teacher can possibly make in their career! During last semester, I particularly focused on how day-to-day assignments are graded and what specific impact that has on the student. In the upcoming school year, I will experiment with incorporating student input into the grades and teaching the critical skills necessary to be self-reflective learners.

I am super curious to hear how other teachers struggle with the grading system and how they are addressing the issues in their classrooms.

 

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Patient H.M.-A Great Pairing With One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family SecretsPatient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blood and brains, mystery and intrigue, secrets and cover-ups, Luke Dittrich introduces the reader into the unimaginable world of Patient H. M. Slicing up Henry Molaison’s existence, minute by minute, is all that Dittrich can do to the most important case in the field of neuroscience and neurosurgery. While Molaison’s memory was obliterated by a 1953 experimental brain operation that failed to eliminate his epileptic seizures, the ripples of this one moment have still not completely played out, and the complete details of Molaison’s six decade-long interim as a test subject will never be fully known. Dittrich’s writing is comprehensive and understandable, detailed with insights and stories that keep the pages turning automatically. Beyond the dark history of lobotomies in the United States (we all think we know the history, but while reading this book we realize we can never fully know the extent and how long the surgeries took place), Dittrich also reveals a rivalry among scientists that unfolds like reality TV with lawyers. Now, thanks to Dittrich, we will never forget the man who couldn’t remember.

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5 Questions About Mindfulness in the Classroom with Lisa Harrison

Mindfullness with Lisa Harrison

I’ve worked with Lisa Harrison in the Special Education department for over five years.  As an RSP teacher (Resource Service Provider), she is passionate about helping students with autism overcome social obstacles to be able to communicate feelings and develop the skills necessary for friendship.  This year, Lisa has utilized a mindfulness practice in her 6th period resource class. But let me take a moment to describe the class:  Imagine a room full of wiggly high schoolers, during a 6th period class who are supposed to be completing homework, and then imagine asking them to pause for ten minutes and breathe.

On the last day of school this year, I had the opportunity to interview Lisa and ask her 5 questions about mindfulness in the classroom.

* I recorded the interview on my iPhone, while excited students finished with finals celebrated outside the classroom. You can listen here, or read below!

What inspired you to bring mindfulness into the classroom?

At the start of the interview, Lisa referenced a PD we had before the school year  a couple of years ago where representatives from Goldie Hawn’s Mind-Up program came in and talked to teachers.  She was interested in how the program

“helps  develop student’s potential brain [thinking process] and the ability to calm themselves.”

What were your biggest fears about trying to introduce this practice to students?

“The biggest fear was whether or not I could get the students’ buy-in. Once I started it with one of my classes, I went gung-ho and realized that not everyone’s comfortable sitting there with their eyes closed, so I kind of had to adjust.”

What did you do to adapt? 

“I looked at different programs to see what they were doing. Some of the programs require more teaching. Some of them are with all of the senses and that was tough to do in a resource class so I had to adapt and just go to the breathing techniques.”

How has the practice impacted you as a teacher, or how do you think it has impacted the students?

“It’s helped me quite a bit to get grounded and ready for the chaos that can be sixth period. I think it’s helped the kids too, because the kids come in, after doing it all year, some of the kids come in looking forward to it.”

What advice would you give other teachers that might be interested in sharing mindfulness with their students?

“I would say research the different programs and do what you’re comfortable with. Rushing into it, telling people ‘sit down! Be quiet! Don’t move! isn’t conducive to relaxation. There’s so many different ways to come at it, you can do the breathing which is more like a  meditation. You can do the senses and have them listen to something and focus on something. You can do body scans. There are just so many different options.”

As a special education teacher, I can attest to the numerous distractions and extreme issues that students can walk into the classroom with-and this is not always visible to people around the student.  While some students exhibit behaviors that tell the teacher something isn’t right in life, other students can shut down completely, or put on the “I’m fine” face.  I truly appreciate teachers like Lisa who are brave enough to take valuable class time and teach students skills and tools that let them feel in control of how to react and get through challenges in life. 

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All Teachers Who Love Frankenstein: Read Charlotte Gordon’s Amazing Duo Biography

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary ShelleyRomantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two women who never truly met, whose lives intertwine and mirror each other in surprising and alarming experiences, create a masterfully told story of a past that is constantly being rewritten. No matter how much you know about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, this book reveals the passions and struggles faced by all women in the time periods and every reader will gain historical insights that help bring literature to life.

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4 Uses for Newsela to Help Struggling Readers in Special Education

There is a divide between teachers and administrators when it comes to addressing the needs of lower performing readers.  Administrators want data in the form of charts, graphs, and test scores to show parents how the school is raising the reading level of their child while teachers want time for reading, choice books in hands, and discussions about personal connections, intertext connections and world connections.  The battle plays out year after year and when there is a new administrator, teachers think, for a moment, this time things will be different.

But it’s always the same-the results are felt by students in classrooms all over America.  The school buys a “Magic Program” that if used with fidelity, Lexile scores will increase and the charts will look pretty.  The discussion is not about the students or tapping into engagement strategies such as student interest, and this results in frustrated teachers and even more frustrated students who learn only that reading is boring, and a chore.

I’ve been through so many different professional developments on various reading programs such as: Language! and LindaMood Bell and Achieve 3000. While each program sells administrators with data, I’m not sure if administrators question the efficacy of the data–Which student population produced this result?-How many hours a day did students use the program?-How many students was each teacher/facilitator working with for the duration of the program?  As a high school teacher, I have found most programs to be extremely limiting in regards to student interest and choice.

This year, I have a new administrator. And I think things will be different.  Over a portion of the summer, I get to work with two other amazing educators and develop a curriculum for struggling readers.  Yes, it will include a program; however, it is a program that contains interesting material and it allows teachers to control how the lessons are taught and it allows for plenty of student choice.

Upon my suggestions and pleadings, my administrator purchased a three year subscription to the Pro Newsela for our students. I’ve used the unpaid version for various purposes with students, but the advantage to the paid version is that I can write my own directions for what I want students to do while reading, and also create my own writing prompts. The program also contains comprehension questions to allow teachers to give data to their administrators and also know which Lexile level will best challenge each student while reading.

I’ve brainstormed very simple uses for the program that I believe will benefit the students.  Please note that not *all* activities should be done each day–and furthermore, I don’t believe the program should be used everyday.  Most teachers understand that students need variety. While proficient readers internally monitor and adjust their reading strategies to match the challenges of a text, struggling readers have not learned these skills.  Listed below are four ways I believe that Newsela can be combined with other strategies to address struggling readers.

Annotating

Annotating is probably the most important skill to teach all readers.  I tell students this is the way you have a conversation with the text.  Unfortunately, if you do not teach *how* to annotate, and provide examples or sentence frames, students write summaries or small phrases such as: “I like this,” or “This is important.”  My go-to tool for teaching annotation skills for nonfiction texts is Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note: Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by @KyleneBeers and Robert E. Probst @BobProbst. Annotating texts keeps students focused and helps them check understanding as they read.

Writing

Obviously, if a student struggles with reading, writing is even more problematic.  Sometimes struggling readers can be good with creative writing and poetry, but when it comes to more formal academic style writing, they often don’t know where to start, or what details to include. For the last few years, my school has focused on how to promote critical thinking across the curriculum.  One teacher shared a strategy that I have used ever since.  The technique is SEE-I response which is detailed in Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum  by Gerald. M. Nosich.

Comprehension

In my Methods of Teaching Special Education class with Sally Spencer, she introduced The Simple View of Reading originally posited by Gough and Tunmer in 1986:

Reading = Decoding + Comprehension

As teachers, we understand that comprehension can be shown through the annotations, through the SEE-I writing response-and various other projects and methods.  Alternately, administrators want data-driven comprehension measurements that are derived from multiple choice questions from programs that measure Lexile levels.  Newsela does have the data component and the best aspect (from the student perspective) is that after each article there are ONLY FOUR QUESTIONS!  While teachers can go about their business of introducing engaging texts and making reading strategies visible, they can simultaneously collect data for administrators and parents in a less painful manner.

Research

Finally, because texts do not exist in isolation, I want to utilize Newsela as a pairing with Poetry 180, a poetry website hosted by Billy Collins who is an amazing poet, and he was also U.S. PoetLaureate from 2001 to 2003. Students will read a poem from the website and then research an article that connects to ideas within the poem.

These are just my initial thought on Newsela–and I’m sure many more will tumble out at unexpected times.  What are some ways you’ve used Newsela to cultivate readers in your classroom?

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