Category Archives: Curriculum

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Teaching Bias: Where Do You Stand?

Last week, I posted about students taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) in my classroom. A common question I got in response to this post was, “what did you do to set up your students so they could participate in this activity successfully?”

The big answer is that SLA does a lot to make students comfortable with tough moments and difficult conversations. The small answer is that we did several activities in the days leading up to the IAT that primed students to be open and vulnerable.

On day one, I asked them to simply define bias, prejudice, and stereotype, and then  create a poster that visually clarified the differences between these terms — without perpetuating any of the stereotypes or myths that get tossed around these days.

This set a valuable precedent: we can mention common prejudices and stereotypes, but proceed with caution, because the way we talk can impact how people are affected by these ideas, even if they are not being presented as true.

On day two, we played one of my favorite games, which I call “Where Do You Stand?” The room gets cleared, and I project a series of prompts on the board. If you agree with the statement, you move to the window side of the room. If you disagree, you move to the wall.

The prompts, as you can see below, move from more personal and straight-up qualitative statements to more nuanced and complicated aspects of our society.

Once students have picked a side (and no, I don’t let them stand in the middle), it’s time to go back and forth and have folks try and convince their peers to come to their side. Students can switch at any time. One of my favorite scenarios is where just one or two students pick the less popular side of an argument–but by the end they’ve got more people thinking their way.

I think it’s also important to mention that, as the teacher, I hardly say anything during this discussion. Apart from reading the prompts, and an occasional “tell us more” nudge, I am just listening. Because everybody is an active participant, everybody has a stake in the outcome — and the fact that people can move at any time keeps interest up as the debate unfolds.

This game is consistently cited by my students as one of their favorite activities in my class. It consistently gets students who rarely speak to open up, sometimes because it gives them a concrete action they can describe (“Hey [student], why did you switch sides?”). In a class with lopsided participation, requiring everybody to comment once before somebody can speak again can work.

Do you play similar games in your classroom? What’s your experience with them?

The freedom to write about #Ferguson.

Late last year, I tweeted out the following photograph. The brainstorm was student-produced a few days after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting.

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What was great about this brainstorm — apart from the conversation itself — was that it didn’t involve a “break” from our regularly scheduled programming. Juniors already write 2Fer Essays where they analyze a topic of their choice, and we typically pick a topic to play with as a group. Lots of students were keyed up about this topic, and went with one of the questions we generated. But lots of them chose not to as well.

Here are a few of the thesis statements that evolved out of that day:

If citizens and law enforcers are on the same page, fewer crimes will take place and more people will be safe.”

Because they are held to such an unrealistically high standard, cops are unreasonably criticized when they make mistakes.”

“The conversations on the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases tend to drift away from the core of the problem, police brutality against black men, and instead use these instances as a platform for discussion on black on black crime and respectability politics. This is because media outlets, which influence much of the public debate, find it easier to comfort in addressing black responsibilities as opposed to addressing a systemic issue.”

“Since because people follow what they are taught… policemen are not at fault, it is the institutions fault because they are corrupt in the way they teach individual officers.”

Again, I emphasize: I didn’t do anything “special” for this assignment — the vehicle for individual research and composition was already built into our curriculum. That’s a benefit of authentic inquiry. Students know they have a safe venue to ask the hard questions and attempt an answer as best they can.

Book Club Toolkit: Meeting Protocol

This post describes some of the policies and procedures of the book club, originally described in this earlier post.

Lucky for us, both of our 10th grade classes are staffed by Student Assistant Teachers, who had experienced the book club before, either as freshmen or seniors with Alexa Dunn or Matt Kay.

They gave us a lot of pointers in the planning process, including:

  • Let students set their own pace for reading (but provide guidance to keep them moving)
  • Make sure there’s follow up for the job sheets, or else people will slack (they were emphatic about this!
  • Don’t let the meetings drag on — if it feels like groups are wrapping up, end the session, even if it’s less time than you expected.
  • Keep computer use to a minimum — as evidenced in the photo, one student took notes on their laptop, but everybody else was on paper. This prevented the screen-as-shield effect on discussion.

Because many of our students had participated in book club last year, the introduction went smoothly. We suggested a “median” number of pages they would need to read if they wanted to move at a steady pace, and then students quickly got down to business selecting jobs and deciding on their page goals for the first meeting.

When the meetings happened, here are some unexpected results:

  • Students did police each other to get the work done, but not until after the first or second meeting — when it really sank in that a group was crippled if somebody came to the meeting empty handed.
  • After four meetings, some groups requested flexibility in how they prepared. One group elected to write letters to the main character. Another group chose to finish the book faster, and then watched the movie version for the last two meetings. We always allowed this.
  • Groups sometimes explored a particular theory over multiple meetings. This was great — each meeting allowed them to add new data that confirmed / refuted their idea. (Two groups reading “Passing” became especially focused on the possible gay subtext in the novel — and were then thrilled to see that they weren’t the only critics with that theory.)

Because they only had two options, several students (and sometimes an entire group) did not “love” their books. But the culture of the book club kept them more tuned in than they would have been otherwise–and also gave them space to discuss why they didn’t love it in a critical, productive way.

After the first couple of meetings, we introduced one more element, namely an introduction to literary theory and applying those “lenses” to their book club. More on that later.

How to unpack the “Invisible Knapsack” in high school.

How do you talk about privilege in the classroom?

In a lot of schools, the unfortunate answer is: you don’t. But if you’re reading this, you likely have some interest in the topic. You want to expose your students to the concepts and practices of a culture of power, systemic racism, and unacknowledged privilege.

Of course, you also know the potential range of reactions that it will elicit in your students, depending on their viewpoint: anger, despair, denial, frustration, shock, guilt. These are not the kinds of emotions that are typically lauded as the signs of “successful classroom management.”

And yet. Here’s a series of activities to get the (hard) conversation started. We did them in two days, but they can be managed in one.

We started simply enough: “Time to play a game!” Students were already familiar with “where do you stand?” — A statement is presented, and students must move to one side of the room according to whether they agree or disagree.

These were adapted from and inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack,” but we didn’t tell them that. We just told them they were personal statements that would make them think.

We spent nearly a full class period sharing responses. This activity relied on students being comfortable with sharing their viewpoints, and seeing each other as individuals, not tokens representative of their racial and ethnic background. As a result, they were willing to share unique cultural knowledge, whether it’s eating halal, living on “colored people time,” or being mistaken for any number of identities due to your skin color. [1]

The next day, we moved on to reading McIntosh’s essay. We started by reading the first page as a class, and gave students time to summarize that intro in one sentence. I then invited them to read the rest of the piece on their own, and then respond to the following prompts:

1. Choose two items off of her list, copy and paste them, and explain you agree or disagree with those statements (as they relate to white people) and why. (It would be most interesting to hear one you agree with and one you disagree with.) 

2. Ask a meaningful question based on the last few pages of her essay. If you finish this before the time is up, refresh the forum in your browser and you can begin to comment on what other people have written.

Before they dive in, I point out that this essay was written in 1988. Do they think that some of these statements might have changed since then? I emphasize that they have the right to disagree with Peggy McIntosh, but that they should be reading to understand, not simply to accept or reject her theory.

Here are some questions that were generated this year:

  • Why does society avoid the subject of race?
  • If privilege is to be fully realized, should it be eradicated completely? Are their instances in which privilege isn’t harmful?
  • Has she gone out and tested these theories in places where there are less white people and more minorities?
  • Do you think it is truly possible to distress about and admonish a privilege if you fit into the category of people that has that privilege?

Did we answer all these questions? Of course not. We barely scratched the surface in the follow-up discussion. But, we got to a place where we could at least start the conversation.

The “Where do you stand” activity was essential to setting the stage for this, because it simply illustrates that everyone is a participant in this complicated system of privilege–but also that your role goes beyond the simple binary of being a victim or a beneficiary, the oppressor or the oppressed.

Another key is to give students adequate space to approach the essay on their own terms. Personally, I’m 100% aligned with McIntosh, even if I think some her items on the list are a bit outdated. However, I avoided trumpeting this viewpoint in class, for fear of cultivating that accept/reject mindset among students who would possibly be facing a major paradigm shift as a result of the reading. The downside: I had to trust that students who needed reassurance that I actually believe this stuff would intuit that from the fact that I chose to teach the essay in the fist place. You may want to choose differently.

So, there you have it. We read this in conjunction with the student book clubs for “Passing” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” You probably already have an idea of what text or theme you could connect it to.

Give it a try.

This seems as good as any to mention that I’ll be co-moderating the #wellrED book club with Zac Chase and Jose Vilson. We’re (re)reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children – join us on Gooreads!

1. Working at a diverse public school in Philadelphia, my students come from a wide range of backgrounds, which naturally leads to a multitude of responses to the prompts. In a more homogenous setting, student responses to these slides might not make as much room for student sharing, but would still serve as conversation starters: Why is there nobody on that side of the room? Who do we know that does belong there? Why aren’t they represented in our classroom?
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Making Thesis Statements from Commonly Held Beliefs.

I’ve presented templates for thesis statements on this blog before, and recently in class we did a quick brainstorm activity that was in the same style.

When students can’t find a topic to write about, I often encourage them to explore a commonly held belief — not simply to refute it, but to analyze.

We started with blank sheets of paper and a simple prompt:

Many people believe that…

Students passed clockwise, and then had to build on somebody else’s prompt like so:

They believe this because…

Pass again. Third student continues with this starter:

However, they are ignoring that…

For the final prompt, the last student had to pick make a choice: either analyze why people continue hold this belief o explain how the belief is faulty.

Their belief is misguided because / The reality of the situation is…

At the end, students had a brief but somewhat coherent intro paragraph: set up the belief, poke a hole in it, and explain why. Successful versions of this read to the class included explanations about the ascendancy of LeBron James (even though some people believe that he’ll never surpass Michael Jordan in his career) and the commonly held belief that Marijuana is a dangerous substance (due to the wealth of popular media that portrays it as such).

These brainstorms weren’t necessarily airtight, but they encouraged specificity — important when students are tempted to embrace more generic thesis statements like “x is the greatest basketball player ever” or “y substance should be legal.”

(This is one of several times this year that I’ve used writing templates either taken from or inspired by the book They Say / I Say. Check out their blog here.)

Book Club Toolkit

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The wish for book clubs in my 10th grade classes came out of a mid-year survey. Students reported that they were enjoying picking their own books, but that they missed being able to have class discussions about their reading. (We did read short stories and essays in class, but it’s not quite the same.) 

To those ends, we decided to give our students fewer choices than you would for a typical book club. They could read either “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, or “Passing” by Nella Larsen. Both were required titles in last year’s curriculum. We gave them time in class to physically browse both titles, and then wrote down who picked what in order to place them in groups of four.

The next day, we revealed the groupings and then gave them the basic instructions.. Click on the role titles for the job sheets.

Welcome to your Book Club!

You club will be meeting twice a week: on Mondays and Wednesdays. There will be seven meetings starting Thursday, Feb. 20th (one time only) and ending Wednesday, March 12.

Before each meeting, you must…

1. Decide on your page assignment before you meet. If the readings were divided evenly, Passing would read 19 pages between meetings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God would read 27 pages between meetings. Keep this in mind when making your schedule!

2. Pick Roles via the worksheets. There are four possible roles right now:

Questioner, Note-Taker, Clarifier, and Connector.

If your group has fewer than 4 people, make sure you have a questioner and note-taker, they’re required! If your group has more than 4 people, you can double up on clarifier and/or connector.

3. Read and prepare for your role. Before the day of the meeting, you must complete the reading, as well as fill out the worksheet to prep. (Note-takers are the exception: they take notes during and after the meeting instead!)

During the meeting, you must…

1. Fill your role, but mix it up too. Book club will run at least 20 minutes each time you meet. Don’t just go around in a circle and spend 5 minutes on each role. A good group contributes spontaneously and comes up with new ideas on the spot!

2. Play devil’s advocate when needed. If everybody is agreeing, don’t be afraid to try out the opposing viewpoint. You never know where it might take you!

3. Cooperate. It’s a club, not a war!

Additional notes

1. You must play each role at least once. Once you have tried every role, you may repeat.

2. You may do independent reading alongside your book club book. The assigned reading may not get you to 30min/night 5x a week. Just make sure you get your book club reading done first! We will still have reading journals, so you can tell us about either book in the journal.

3. If you’re struggling, read with a partner! Read out loud to each other, review before class. And try listening to the audio as well — both are posted on canvas.

Book clubs are a common practice, including at SLA, and I take zero credit for any of these ideas. Our resident book club expert is Alexa Dunn — everybody who adopts the practice goes to her for materials and advice! After consulting with her and Matt Kay, I figured out a way for book clubs to work in my independent reading setting.

More on how it went in a later post.

EduCon Session: Reading Writing Workshop Gone Digital

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Sometime last summer, I decided to set my sophomore English students free.

Well, that’s not entirely true–it started earlier than that. Heather Hurst put the thought in my head last year, when I got to read her dissertation based on research in my classroom and it blew my mind a little bit. She had already used a workshop model back when she was a classroom teacher, which made it seem less impossible to me.

And then I spent a couple of weeks communing with Nancie Atwell’s “In The MIddle,” which, as Lehmann put it to me sometime this fall, is the book that everybody reads in graduate school, thinks it has great ideas, and then shelves it in favor of a more traditional approach.

That was me for five whole years. I was exactly like Atwell herself, before she transitioned into the workshop model. And her assessment of that life rang true to me: “I didn’t learn in my classroom. I tended my creation.”

So, after a lot of hard thinking (like, the furrowed-brow-this-hurts-my-brain kind) and sketching out of routines based on the “In the Middle” model, I decided to take the plunge. On the first day of class, I told my sophomores:

This is going to be a grand experiment that we embark on together.

Here are the next four things I told them:

  1. This year, you will read what inspires you and write about what moves you.
  2. We (Ms. Pahomov, Mr. Kolouch, and your Student Assistant Teacher) are here to instruct and support…
  3. …But you are in charge of your own learning and improving as a writer and reader.
  4. Constant Check-ins = more feedback and help when you are learning, instead of when the project’s done.

Of course, I meant to blog our progress starting in September… but now, in January, I’m happy to report that we are still living in (and loving) reading writing workshop.

If you had told me even two years ago that I would be doing this, I would have unequivocally responded: you are crazy.  And yet, here we are. Students participate in independent reading full time. They contribute pieces of writing to their portfolio each quarter, and they decide what genres and topics to tackle. I get to give more individualized, formative feedback that students actually use. More than ever before, I can say that I really know my kids.

Interested in learning more?

A whole group of us will be talking about this “grand experiment” during our EduCon Session this coming Sunday, January 26th at 10:30 AM Eastern. We encourage you to join us in person, if you are attending live, or via the live stream that will go out via the website.

Additionally, we would love to hear what your particular questions or areas of interest are for our presentation. Here are two questions we plan on addressing so far:

  • How do you scale this model for a public school classroom of 30+ students, and an overall grading load of 120+ students? (The workshop model is often seen as viable only in a smaller private-school setting.)
  • How do you blend digital and analog tools to make the model more meaningful and efficient for students? (The most recent edition of Atwell’s book is from 1998, so reference to technology is minimal–I think there’s a mention of having students word process their final drafts.)

Feel free to send us your thoughts in advance, via this site or the EduCon write up. Or just show up and join in the conversation!