Category Archives: SLA

New Historicist Lens (A Lesson in Reverse)

I just had a chance to send this letter off to one of my Sophomore classes:

Dear Silver Stream,

Just wanted to give you a collective shout out for the quality of today’s conversation in class. Here are a few things that made it so good:

  • You talked about how you felt, not just what you thought. The space was safe enough for you to share some deep feelings. 
  • You really listened and took each other’s viewpoints into consideration. You built off of each other, and sometimes surprised me with where you agreed and disagreed (in a good way).
  • You really used the literary lens we had just learned to dig deeply into the different angles of our topic, so it wasn’t just strong feelings. It was strong feelings and analysis. 

There are many schools where this kind of complex, emotional conversation would never happen. Thank you for making our school a place where we can really talk. I am proud to call you all my students. Keep asking good questions. 

Peace, Ms. Pahomov

Here’s the topic that prompted the conversation that went so well:

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And here is the super-condensed literary analysis tools that we reviewed before diving into this discussion:

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Talking about “A Birthday Cake for General Washington” wasn’t even on my official plan for this conversation — but some of my pre-written prompts made me think of it on the fly:

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People often wonder how we make things work at SLA. Listen to Saltz: there is no secret sauce. This lesson was embedded in a book-long conversation about literary lenses, so this was not their first time applying some critical theory. But thanks to a few years of inquiry and learning to talk about race in the classroom — props to the work of fellow SLA English teacher Matt Kay here –the students were able to speak their minds and actually listen to each other.

They were able to say, I’m sick of having to hear about slavery, as if that’s the way my people came into this world.

They were able to say, I’ve spent so long learning about slavery as an abstract, horrible thing with a lot of numbers attached, we need something to humanize what often gets painted as a phenomenon without real people in it.

They were able to argue about when children need to learn about the problems of the world, and whether it’s acceptable to sugar coat the bad stuff (and to what degree).

And they were able to to both agree with and challenge each other, across racial lines that you don’t always see in the room together in Philadelphia, converging and diverging in ways you didn’t expect in the first place.

At the end, we were asking questions: How do you tell the story of somebody who was denied the chance to tell it themselves? Do you even have a right to? Should we trust stories told by anybody other than the person who experienced it personally? What do we have to gain by re-creating the past?

So yes, having this conversation can be easy. And yes, it takes a whole school to make it happen.

And yes, the work is totally, totally worth it.

Reclaiming PD in Philadelphia

One of the hardest things about working in a large school district is the unique combination of proximity and isolation that schools have to one another. There are over 200 public schools in Philly, but I’ve only been in a handful of them (and much of that happened the year I was in graduate school getting my teaching degree). Teachers can take an “observation day” to go see another school, but this needs principal approval, and with the current substitute fill rate, I expect administrators are loathe to release teachers from their classrooms. As a result, we’re all on our own islands. It can be tough to get into a colleague’s classroom next door, much less a different school.

But! There are not one but two fabulous events taking place in the next couple of months that do much to connect and enrich the professional lives of educators.

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The first is Educon – Friday, January 29th to Sunday, Jan 31st.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Smack in the middle of your school year, this is a place to dream. We have conversations, throw out ideas, challenge each other, and get to hear from some fabulous speakers (including Philadelphia’s newly appointed Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney.)
  • Folks from both around Philadelphia AND around the country come to visit SLA for a weekend. The opportunities for cross-pollination are huge.
  • Virtually everybody from SLA will be presenting, so if you’re interested in x y or z aspect of the school, there is a session for you. My session is going to be a workshop on how to build the right online tools for your classroom.

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The second is the February 26th Professional Development Day, where SLA will be hosting a Collaboration of Educators. Here are a few highlights:

  • Can’t make it to EduCon on a weekend? Many of the SLA sessions (as well as sessions from other Philly schools) will be repeated here.
  • Entire schools will be attending — if you would like your school to sign up en masse, let me know and I can issue your administration a formal invite. Ask now!
  • There will be specific time for teachers from different subject areas to get to know each other, trade contact info, and share best practices.

I hope to see many of you at either (or both) events.

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.

Photo Post: Snow Day

Hello PECO Building.

Hello PECO Building.

I’ve got a great view from my classroom. And with a gentle snow today, it’s even better.

When I came in this morning, the shades were down, and for a split second I hesitated. Would it be better to keep the view blocked? Will we be more productive? Will today devolve into a day-long whine about snow days?

That idea did not linger. I’m happy to report that authentic learning and a nice view blend well together.

View Now: “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age”

Last week I conducted a webinar for ASCD members. I’m thrilled to share the recorded version, which is available to everybody!

The presentation is full of images and examples from SLA. If you’re reading the book and are wondering “what this stuff looks like,” this talk is for you.

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Join the Book Club!

If you’re an ASCD member, you’ve already received your copy of Authentic Learning in the Digital Age. Perhaps you have gotten into the first chapter or two. I am thrilled that you are getting to know the school environment that I enjoy being a part of every day.

I am even more thrilled to announce that you have a chance to communicate directly with that environment.

Starting tomorrow, myself and ten other SLA educators will be participating in online discussion Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 6.20.13 PMand sharing of resources via ASCD EDge, their discussion and sharing platform.

Have a question about a particular activity? Curious to see the full lesson plan behind an anecdote from the book? Want some advice on how to apply a piece of the framework to your environment?

Over the next five weeks, Marcie Hull, Matthew Kay, Tim Best, Pearl Jonas, Stephanie Dunda, and others will all be available to expand on the book and help you get the most out of the text.

And the best part is, you don’t have to be a member to sign up for the discussion — just create a profile for ASCD and you’re in!

Why are these educators willing to help out? Apart from the fact that they want authentic learning for all students? Apart from the fact that I asked them to, and they are nice to me?

Well, you should know that 100% of the profits from the sale of the book go directly to SLA, so we also have a tiny bit of self-interest in seeing copies sell. So if you haven’t ordered yours already, you can do so directly via ASCD or on Amazon.