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?

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.

What do you need to know about the SLA model?

Today is the first day of EduCon. The school is full of visitors, getting tours from students, poking their heads into classrooms, observing the teaching and learning that goes on, finding inspiration.

It seems as good a time as any to announce that, if all goes at as planned, there will be a book published about the SLA model by this time next year!

 (ASCD approached SLA about the project last summer, and they’ve been fabulous to work with. Our goal is to have it published in time for EduCon 2015.)

The overall goal of the book is to provide a how-to for both individual teachers and schools/districts to transition to this kind of learning model, especially when they are taking the leap of going 1:1.

I feel incredibly humbled by this task. At SLA, we already have a culture of transparency and sharing, but the project has given me a good reason to do some extensive exploration the practice of my colleagues. Technically, I’m the “author” of this book, but I feel more like a compiler of the collective knowledge and practices of the school.

Of course, the book isn’t for us — it’s for all of you!  To those ends, I would love your answers to this question:

What would help you understand and implement the SLA model in your own school?

Folks often walk away from EduCon feeling inspired, and this book is intended to give people the advice an guidance needed to kindle that inspiration back in their own buildings.

I feel a little bit funny publicizing a manuscript so far in advance — but any thoughts from potential readers would be appreciated. Leave your comments here, or track me down on Twitter or in person at EduCon this weekend.

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!

What the students are watching.

I just finished The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract by Theodore and Nancy Sizer. Turns out it’s a great read for an evening when tomorrow’s snow day has already been called.

I’ve been thinking periodically about the hidden curriculum that all schools impart to their students, and their chapter categories resonated: modeling, grappling, bluffing, sorting, shoving, and fearing.

My mind quickly turned these categories into probing questions for my own classroom:

Where do I allow students to grapple with complex, un-solvable concepts? When do I discourage that behavior, and why?

When do I “shove” into the academic and personal lives of my students, even if they protest? Does it work, or does it backfire?

Do I induce fear in my students? Intentionally or unintentionally? Does this help or harm their work? How about our relationships?

I love thinking about this stuff. I’m fortunate to work in a building that allows me to address it explicitly with my students, and also with a staff that also wants to have these conversations.

There’s a danger, though, as well — if I think about it too much, I end up down the rabbit hole, over-analyzing every move that I make in the classroom, not to mention the hidden moral lessons being imparted by the larger school system (and in Philadelphia, that gets real depressing real quick).

And yet — in my sixth year of teaching, I can cautiously report that I’m getting better at that balance.

(Not going to try and figure out why, right now. That might ruin it. Wishing you all some balance in the new year.)

Letting people in the door.

I recently discovered Peg with Pen, and in particular her post “A Quick Guide for Resisting from Within for Educators.” I appreciate this list for a variety of reasons–especially her exhortation to take the high road, when educators have good reason to go for low blows–but it was the second item on her list that caught me:

Open the door.

In the context of the post, opening the door is about letting the greater community see the goodness and light in your classroom, instead of seeking to protect it from the potential harm that could be brought by outside forces.

In my head, however, this statement was also about opening the door as an individual teacher, to yourself and your practice.

I’m fortunate to work at a school where we (literally) keep our doors open all the time — and I work with colleagues who I trust to wander in, jump into class discussions and activities, and give me useful feedback whenever they feel like it.

But in the last year or so, I’ve also opened my door to other parties. I’ve scaled up the Student Assistant Teachers in my classroom so that I typically have one in every section that I teach. I said yes to a university researcher, who took transcripts in my class for two years, blew my mind with her doctoral thesis, suggested that I write an article (published) and apply to a national conference (accepted), and eventually inspired me to overhaul my entire approach to the 10th grade curriculum (more on that later). I had no idea that partnership was going to be so fruitful for me. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that it could turn into a partnership.

This year, I also finally took on a student teacher from the same program I completed six years ago. I got a freshly-minted colleague from September until April, and my students got an addition to their “teaching team,” which usually means three people. I cannot emphasize how awesome this is.

Despite the ongoing threat that my school district will crumble into dust, It’s been a really good year, thanks to the folks around me that were willing to step into my classroom and professional life.

So, who can help you? You should really open the door for them.

(Admittedly, the second half this year was not such a good one for this blog… considering a more regular schedule for 2014.)

Building thesis statements out of family comparisons.

For the past few years, my 11th grade students have been completing a media literacy project where they are invited to compare and contrast William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with a modern romantic comedy of their choice. (Read about the whole unit here.)

One of the bigger challenges to this project is getting students to look beyond simple “they are similar in x way” or “they are different in y way” statements, and think about the larger trends that can be identified by drawing a line from the older text to the modern one.

To get students thinking about this, I started class with the following journal prompt:

In what ways are you similar to your parents? In what ways are you different?

Students brainstormed for ten minutes — many of them created t-charts, love those t-charts — and then we shared out. I went first, and picked one item from each category that related to each other. We then tossed a bunch of examples into a chart on the board (names blanked out, because who wants their family business on the internet?)

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We then spun these into statements, where students had to either emphasize the similarity or the difference based on the order of the statements.

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We discussed the difference that the order makes, and what it means to differentiate a new generation from the previous one. (Do you feel like you’re breaking free from your parents, or are you destined to be the same as them?)

We then applied that nuance to comparing “Taming of the Shrew” and our selected movies. First off, students had to decide: in what ways did the romantic comedy they watched differ from the play? And did those differences outweigh the similarities? Could they observe a change in attitudes about love and marriage comparing these two texts? Or are we, the viewers, enjoying the exact same beliefs and ideas that we did 400 years ago?

I then shared my sample intro paragraph and thesis (comparing the play to “My Best Friend’s Wedding”)

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Am I saying that the two texts are more similar or different? What do I think the implications of that statement are?

The work they are asked to do ramps up quite a bit here. But I think the family statements activity could apply to any number of analytical projects, especially anything that asks students to look at change over time. Students spend so much time in the compare/contrast dichotomy, and are rarely asked to describe how things got from one extreme to the other — or alternately, how they only seemed to change.

(And it can be launched from the angst of trying to break free of parental influence.)

#Engchat and Teacher Action Group for Social Justice.

I am beyond thrilled to be co-hosting the next #engchat! This Monday, October 14th, Teacher Action Group will be hosting this week’s discussion around the theme of social justice education.

What’s more, this chat will not just be on Twitter — it will also be a live meet-up at Fado, located at 1500 Locust Street. Come join us starting at 6:30 for some in person discussion before the session begins at 7pm!

Here’s the official write-up:

Students learn to read and write in English class. They practice their methods of observation, analysis, and response. But does school give them a chance to apply those skills to the real world and its problems?

This week’s #engchat will focus on how teachers can facilitate social justice education in their classrooms. Now more than ever, students are living in a world where their lives are marked by inequality–in income, resources, and opportunity. No matter their situation in life, students can benefit from turning the critical lenses learned in English class towards their “real life.” The chat will be a space to discuss both the big picture theory behind social justice as well as tips and tricks on how to facilitate meaningful lessons and activities in school.

First time participant in #Engchat? Great! Bring your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and we can help you get set up to participate. (Don’t have a Twitter account? We can help you with that too.)

Not an English teacher? The topics discussed in this week’s chat will be for all teachers — so join us!

Outside of Philadelphia? Follow the hashtag #engchat on Twitter, starting Monday at 7PM.

Truth and Storytelling: The essentials from “Sweetheart.”

I had big plans to post some back to school activities on this blog. Now it’s October.

But! Here’s an activity that we did as a part of our Truth and Storytelling Unit via “The Things They Carried.”

After reading the chapter “Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong,” students had figure out the main plot points of the story, but by making it “universal” — no mention of the characters or setting, just some generic titles. We used “Person A” and “Person B” for Mark Fossie and Maryanne.

We then compared notes and made an outline for the class. One of them looked like this:

sweetheart storytelling

Is this a war story? No. This is a break-up story.

After we play with that a little bit (movie version: “I’ve grown, you’ve stayed the same” and “It’s not you, it’s me”) it’s time for the next step:

Based on our “universal story” version of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” discussed in class, it is your task to write a remix of that story. The basic conflicts, events, and resolution must stay the same, but the topical situation (names, places, dates, details) must change.

Start by coming up with a new setting for the story, and decide who or what the characters will be. (Hint: some of the most creative versions will have non-human characters.) Then tell the story of the break-up!

We got a crazy range this year, as always — students being transferred to different schools, a hamburger and ketchup being separated when the meat needs to go in the fridge, and a Nike sneaker upset when it sees its partner with a necklace of shoelaces dangling from its neck. (Love that reference.)

O’Brien’s focus on storytelling makes this activity especially illuminating, but you could do it with any text. Boil it down and then start again from there.

We’re all telling the same story, so how are you going to make yours good?