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:


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.

EduCon Session: How to Build Teacher Tools that Work

Here are the links from my EduCon session. They’re all different online tools that SLA teachers have built to improve communication between students, teachers, and administrators.

“Behind the Scenes” Communication Between Teachers and Admin

IEP Progress Monitoring Form

IEP Progress Monitoring Results (Sample)

School “Walk Through” Visitation Form <– Most popular!

Survey for the book “Authentic Learning in the Digital Age”

Tools for Use During Learning Time

Independent Reading Survey

Book Club Meeting Calendar

Group Contract Template <– Most popular!

Water Quality Schuylkill River Testing Form

Student Reflection

SLA School-Wide Rubric

Ms. Pahomov’s first day survey <– Most popular!

Ms. Pahomov’s Mid-Year Survey, version 1

Ms. Pahomov’s Mid-Year Survey, version 2

Ms. Giknis’ “Being Human” course reflection


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?

Teaching Bias: The IAT Test

It’s a regular occurrence in my 10th grade English class that we spend some time talking about bias, prejudice and stereotypes. Phase one is graduating kids out of the blanket “these things are bad” attitude that can shut down potentially useful discussion about what’s actually going on.

After we have spent some time exploring our beliefs on what role these forces play in our society, it’s time to take the Harvard Implicit Attitude Tests.

If you wish, you can impress your students by showing this Buzzfeed video, and pausing it for some notes, and making a disclaimer for the out-of-context comments spliced together at the end of the clip (which unfortunately conflate bias, implicit attitudes, and racism).

After that viewing, kids are excited to take the test. In fact, about half of my students already have.  Then I tell them that I will take the test in front of them, projected on the screen  — and I want them to predict what they think my results will be.

This typically leads to nervous laughter, or dead silence, or a gasp, or sometimes even applause. Kids who want to make an educated guess try and ask some clarifying questions (“Who are your friends?” “What are you, again?”) and then they write down what they think.

I won’t reveal their predictions or my typical results, but I will say that this is the most nerve-racking thing I do in class all year, to the point where I make jokes during the first half of the test, and then say I’m going to shut up because I think it might skew the results.

Here’s what else I tell them: nobody has zero bias in this world.

After they see me do it, we’re off to the races: kids take one or two tests, journal about how their results turned out, and then brainstorm one or two “tough questions” that they want to bring to the whole class for a closing discussion.

Here are a few questions that got posed today:

  • How did you react if you got a result that was the opposite of what you expected?
  • How did it feel when the test was asking you to associate negative terms or ideas to a particular group of people?
  • Did you use any mental “tricks” to try and be less biased while taking the tests?

And then, the one we talked about the most:

  • For the test that asks you to specifically test your bias for or against Arab Muslims, do you think that your sympathy or pity for Muslims might have made you more biased towards them?

I am paraphrasing that last question, but that was the gist of how it was worded. That particular exam (“This IAT requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions”) was taken by several students… and several additional students confessed that they purposefully avoided that test, because they were too nervous about what their results might be.

“I have Muslim friends,” one girl pleaded. “I don’t want to find out that I’m biased against them.”

We scratched the surface of this issue with some reports about attitudes towards Muslims in the United States (making sure to pull from both Fox News and The Nation, naturally). Looking at multiple research studies, we tentatively concluded that knowing a group of people doesn’t necessarily increase your comfort level with them, but not having any direct contact with them seems to definitely decrease your tolerance and acceptance.

A small part of me wishes I could say we came to a big conclusion here, because it would make a nice kicker to this blog post. We didn’t. A bigger part of me wishes I could say, “my Muslim students felt better about their place in America after this conversation.” I have no idea whether that’s true (although I’ll follow up on that).

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working at SLA: A successful class is not about finding the answer, it’s about asking the questions together.


Note: At a school that’s ranked as one of the most diverse in the nation, that’s harder in some ways, but easier in others, because students cannot automatically assume that they are in the majority, or the group that they’re talking about is not in the room. If you work in a more homogeneous environment, I will be interested to hear how these activities play in your classroom.

Day 1 Activity: Who gets to inherit our intellectual traditions?

In the many dinner table conversations we have around education, my husband and I like to parse out what lasting impressions our different high schools left on us.

My husband attended one of the region’s prominent Quaker schools, so he knows how to sit and reflect and reach consensus. In terms of the humanities, teachers also clearly communicated to him — explicitly and implicitly — that there was a direct line between the great thinkers and doers of eras past and their own classroom.

Now, there are plenty elitist reasons why private schools naturally impart this message, and some aspects of their structure (small seminar-style classes, courses in Greek and Latin) that reinforce it.

And yet — in talking to him, I realized that while I believe my own students are equal inheritors of the global intellectual tradition, that fact is not something I do a great job of communicating in my classroom. And as a result, perhaps my kids were missing out on the empowered mindset that helps us grow into (and trouble, and challenge, and blow up) the adult world of thought.

So, today I made sure my first-day slide show included some explicit discussion about the tradition of writing, reading, and thinking that exists in our world — examples of the people that got together and hashed out some insightful, important, and entertaining documents that have shaped the course of literature and history.

Here’s a few examples.

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And here’s the prompt that lead to our first-day sticky-note activity:

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Phase two was “How did this work impact your life?” Phase three will come later, and will lead to the generation of new topics and ideas for writing.

Day 1 and we already have a rich collection of suggested reading for the class, and themes that can serve as a springboard for writing. And it all came from sharing our own positions in the larger tradition of reading and writing.

Summer Thoughts and Check-In

Here’s just a few professional things I am up to this summer:

On a more personal note, I am also interested in sitting on beaches, swimming in the ocean (and, in a new one for me, pools), eating watermelon, and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. Gotten to all but that last one so far.

Lastly, if you are in the Philadelphia area, you should already be signed up for the Caucus of Working Educators’ Summer Reading Series. In its second year there are ten books with twenty-plus facilitators, who are all among the best and the brightest in our fair city. Each book connects to the topic of structural racism. You do NOT have to have read the book in advance (that’s the point), nor do you have to attend every meeting of your book club. I will be out of town for several meetings of The New Jim Crow, but that didn’t stop me from signing up and thinking yes, yes, yes when I read the first page today: