Monday, June 24, 2013

A Lesson in Commitment and Perservence

I recently read With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Women's Right to Vote, by Ann Bausum and thought about the MegaSkills  a system of character development that is used in my school district. MegaSkills are inner engines of learning, the vary basic attitudes and behaviors that determine a child's achievement in school and in life. We know that our children need basic skills to succeed...but for children to learn, and keep learning, they need a another set of skills that are taught at home. Throughout the school year  we focused on a particular skill of two. Teachers define and apply the skill in reference to students' interactions and relationships as well as to their school work and responsibilities. Awards for students who excelled in a particular skill are given once a month. I shared with my students how uncomfortable it made me to decide who would receive the award so they decided (in a class meeting) to nominate and vote for who would receive the award(s) each month. I also made a daily award  and would give about 4-5 a day. The award had a line where I wrote the MegaSkill and wrote the specific behavior they demonstrated. You never know the impact something like this can make in a student's life. One time at the end of the school year a had a boy (who had many difficulties and was identified as "at risk") mother tell me that he had hung all the awards I gave him on his bedroom walls. She told me it was the first time that a teacher recognized anything "good in him". I don't know if that is true, but it was their perception and those sincere awards (he had a record of specific examples of  him being worthy, that he mattered) made a difference in that child's life! At the end of each day for closure, instead of reviewing what they learned, they commended each other on a MegaSkill and the reason why that person demonstrated that skill. It went like this...For the good and welfare of room 13 I want to thank (name of student) for (the specific skill and how they demonstrated it).
History of MegaSkills
Dr. Dorothy Rich, the creator of MegaSkills, began teaching in the 1950's. During her years teaching she realized the important role of parents and learning at home to the success of children in school and life. Dr. Rich used this knowledge when she founded the Home and School Institute in Washington, DC. The Home and School Institute offered parent seminars called Success for Children Begins at Home and teacher trainings on building partnerships with families. The MegaSkills program became part of the Home and School Institute in the 1980's. MegaSkills focuses on building our children's love of learning through fun everyday experiences they shared with important people in their lives. This love of learning makes it possible for children to succeed in school and life. Dr. Rich passed away in 2009 but her very important work is carried on by many across the nation worldwide.
The MegaSkills:
Confidence: feeling able to do it
Motivation: wanted to do it
Responsibility: doing what's right
Effort: being willing to work hard
Initiative: moving into action
Perseverance: completing what you start
Caring: showing concern for others
Teamwork: working with others
Common Sense: using good judgement
Problem Solving: putting what you know and what you can do into action
Focus: concentrating with a goal in mind
Respect: showing good behavior, courtesy, and appreciation

Friday, April 5, 2013

New Venture

If you have been wondering where I've been I opened a tutoring business. I've been super busy. But soon I will start a new blog. I will write about study tips, good books, and how to achieve your goals and dreams.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Academic Courage And The Democratic Teacher

This post is a little different because I am writing about my philosophy of education and a few examples of how I resolved the on-going struggles of teaching in a democratic classroom. I have three books to recommend for adults about democratic education and one book to recommend to middle and high school students about people working for social justice/change.

Teaching is often said to be the hardest job in the world, after parenting, but if good teaching is hard being a good democratic teacher is even harder because many people do not understanding what it is like to teach in an institution that promotes "democratic ideology"  but isn't a democratic structure -it is a paradox that entangles teachers. I often felt alone, unsupported, and misunderstood and struggled working in an environment that really did not support democratic teaching practices, as it challenges the status quo. Those in school leadership felt threaten by the shift in the balance of power when students question the relevance of what they were ask to learn. Teaching demands that one examines and questions ones belief systems because our actions have profound impacts on our students. Self examination is often painful and lonely but we cannot live our life trapped in the confines of our egos. And while we should sometimes practice megacongnition (thinking about our thinking) alone, we should  much more often reflect with others, especially those who are different from us, and be wary when we walk in drumbeat rhythm of our suppose nature, fate, or calling. It is important to develop a support systems and not only did I have important on-going discussions with my colleagues, I read about what other democratic educators, like Deborah Meire, Art Pearl, Nick Meire, Paulo Freire, and others, were doing in their classrooms, schools and communities. They taught me the importance of aesthetics,democratic education and social imagination. I wondered, looked at, revised, acted, questioned, and change my world because of my connection to these profound educators.

Democratic educators help students develop citizenship skills through explicit attempts and practices required of democratic citizenship.This takes deliberate construction of experiences and knowledge systems built into students everyday practices. History and civics while important, represent only a part of democratic values. The world is faced with many problems. These problems cannot be solved without a democratic process, and becomes worse the more the intelligence of the public is insulted, it is known as a "dumbing down" process. Essential to a democratic resolution of social and personal problems, is a reconstructed school that prepares all students to be effective problem solvers. It must be understood at the outset that an ideal "democracy" is an unattainable goal. Democracy can only be a hypothetical vision used to measure progress much as infinity does in mathematics.

There are six attributes if democracy that have been generally recognized and I have applied them to education. These are: 1) the nature of authority, 2) the ordering and inclusiveness of membership, 3) the determine of important knowledge, 4) the definition and availability of rights, 5) the nature and participation in the decisions that effect one's life and 6) equality. I add a seventh which I believe derives from democracy - an optimal learning environment available to all students. It is the entwining of these different democratic requirements that determine whether the school and classroom are able to become more democratic. The long-term goal for a democratic classroom is that all students are capable of fulfilling the requirements of an informed, active, and responsible democratic citizen.

1) Authority. A democratic authority in a school, be it principal, teacher, administrator, advocate, coach, counsellor, or para professional, leads by persuasion and negotiation. No education can be even minimally democratic, or inclusive, if no persuasive case can be made for it. No teacher can be minimally democratic and inclusive if she/he cannot make a persuasive case that what is being taught is worth learning, or, when students accept the value of the curriculum, the teacher cannot make a persuasive case that all students in the class are capable of mastering that which is being taught.

2) Inclusiveness and the democratic classroom. The classroom is democratic and socially inclusive to the extent to which it welcomes all students as equally valued members of the school community. Democratic education, by definition, is deeply concerned with injustice and asymmetrical power. However, the democratic teacher does not allow inequity to be an excuse for poor student performance. Democratic authority responds to students when they claim to be treated unjustly, or have been victimised by abusive power, by suggesting ways that the problems raised can be made part of the curriculum, or, when injustice or abusive power interferes with a problem solving project, suggest ways to remedy that situation.

3) Important Knowledge -- The democratic curriculum. A school is a place where students acquire important knowledge and develop important skills, or going there is a waste of time. Democratic education cannot be effective unless it is a persuasive and coherent response to existing curriculum directions. It is not easy because curriculum and testing have become centralized, where process is more important than content, and where it has become increasing dumbed down, trivialised, and important subjects such as the arts, music and PE have been eliminated. The evidence is overwhelming that all students resist efforts to coerce them to master that which they find irrelevant. Even the few that do excel do so for utilitarian reasons - as a necessary means to succeed in a credentialed society. Just what is important knowledge, and who decides what is or is not important? Important knowledge in this case, is that knowledge that students believe can be used to solve important problems. While ultimately it is the student that decides what is or is not important, it nevertheless falls on the teacher to make a persuasive case for school derived knowledge. A good teacher inspires students to be interested in academic content, social justice, environmental and other important issues that must be addressed if we are to survive as a species.

4) Rights. Students are guaranteed a finite number of very specific rights. If a foundation for a democratic classroom is to be established, student rights will be few in number,(at least originally), and will be universal and inalienable. Students enter a democratic classroom with rights established, and then learn to be responsible. These rights have stood the test of time (1) the right of free expression, (2) due process, (3) the right of privacy, (4) the right of movement (i.e., not to be a captive audience). Part of the mandate of the democratic classroom is to help students define rights. Such a discussion is likely to be most profitable when the teacher advances the notion that a right is any unabridged activity that does not restrict the activities of other, or, require from others some special effort.

5) The nature of participation in decisions that affect one's life. Democracy, by definition, is government by the means of the people participate in the decisions that effect their life. Here, we confront two problems. One, a decreasing number of individuals committed to participate in citizenship activities. Two, those that do participate are too often insufficiently informed to be responsible citizens. We have through a variety of changes become consumers of politics, not producers of politics. It is important to organize schools to derive knowledge for the solutions to important social and personal problems, it is also necessary to organize classroom activities to create opportunities for all students to develop a variety of citizenship arts. These arts include the ability to engage in civil exchanges with a wide range of others, to listen with understanding and empathy, to develop coherent proposal based on logic and evidence, and to create visions, to negotiate differences between what others propose are negotiable, and to hold one's ground when differences aren't negotiable (and be able to tell the difference), to learn how to organize a constituency in support of a proposal/vision, and to learn how to meld coalitions with other groups on particular issues.  It's only under democracy that all students are equally encourage to reach her/his potential.

6) Establishing optimum learning environments for learning.
 a) Encouragement to risk. Decreasingly the classroom has become a place where students take chances. There us too much to lose and not enough to gain when students risks opinions and challenge authority. The emphasis on high stakes testing (fraudulently defined as standards) and increased effort to control student behavior only serves to discourage risks. How can we expect students solve pressing personal and social problems, how can we expect them to create visions of a better world if we cannot provide a classroom climate where risk taking is the norm?
b) Elimination of unnecessary discomfort. Classrooms are not very comfortable places. Some discomfort is unavoidable, learning new things is at times uncomfortable, but my concern is with those discomforts that are avoidable and routinely become part of classroom practice - public humiliation, boredom and loneliness.
c) Meaning. Meaning is an important gratification. Humans struggle to make sense of their world. Meaning has two definitions. One deals with utility, how can I use what I am being asked to learn. The other is understanding what is expected of me in the classroom.
d) A sense of competence. A good part of a teacher's life is devoted to establishing a ranking of competence, something I always struggled with, because competence is too narrowly and arbitrarily defined, it is time to bury letter grades and traditional report cards. With competence it is not so much what students have done, but more what they are encouraged to believe they can do that determines student performance. In other words, when students have a positive sense of ability and efficacy to do a task, they are more likely to choose to do the task, persist at it, and maintain their effort. Efficacy and competence beliefs predict future performance and engagement even when previous performance is taken into account.
e) Belonging. Humans are a gregarious species. If the school does not take pains to welcome all students as full fledged members of centripetal learning community, students will search elsewhere to gratify a need for belonging. Cooperative learning is one strategy that can facilitate feelings of belonging and breakdown prejudices.
f) Usefulness. Schools are organized for future usefulness. Students are asked to put their lives on hold as a kind of promissory note. In a democratic classroom activities are organized for immediate utility. The problems solved are problems students perceive to be real and important. All students are recruited to help with the instruction and serve in many different capacities. All engage in cross age tutoring (when our kindergarten teachers had 36-38 students in a class for several years before class size reduction, my students were "life-savers"). All share research results, all have valuable roles to play in cooperative educational projects. All engage in community service that is integrated within the curriculum. All are part of a socially inclusive curriculum.
g) Hope. Hopelessness now comes at us from many different directions. Pessimism is reflected in opinion polls and loss of confidence in one's ability to influence one's future. Pessimism and social exclusion is becoming the one common characteristic in modern post-industrial life, many fear the capitalist dream is not for them. In a democratic classroom serious effort is made to equally encourage all students to be hopeful. But it's more than mere optimism. In a democratic classroom all students are given reasons to be hopeful, they are encouraged to dream and keep their options open. Problems are presented as opportunities for the creation or discovery of solutions.
h) Excitement Excitement is a legitimate and important human need and is another hallmark of the democratic classroom. Teachers must relinquish control, and students must participate in activities where they generate important knowledge, make important discoveries, participate in important decisions, and create visions of a better world.
i) Creativity. Humans are, by nature, a creative species. Each generation creates a new world. In a democratic class all students are encouraged to be constructively creative and to use creativity for community building i.e., to make the class far more interesting, exciting and creative place than is currently the case; and, far more interesting, exciting and creative than any of the current "reforms" i.e. The No Child Left Behind Act!
j) Ownership. Students are motivated to learn if they believe that learning is in their or their community interest. If everything done in the class is done to please or impress some external authority, performance suffers. All of this should call for a re-examination of intelligence - intelligence should be considered an ecological attribute - it is the expression of individual capacity to learn under optimal learning conditions. I talked about my own deficiencies, limitations, and the like, all the while getting students to challenge their own personal limitations and relationships to forms of alienation, oppression and subordination. Teaching for me presented a platform to both critique the present social and cultural structures as well as find ways to etch out possibility and social imagination.
7) Equality. Equality is a vital principle in democracy and it also difficult to define and difficult to achieve, no matter how defined. Effective social movements have been organized to make society equitable. Issues such as, race, gender, class and sexual orientation have been prominent. In the 20th century the campaigns for women' suffrage, the organization of industrial workers, and the civil rights movement are examples of progress towards equality. Sadly, history teaches us the progress made can also be lost. We now have a government in grid lock, with two costly unresolved wars, political unrest around the globe, economic downturn brought about by many factors, including greed, technology and the negative consequences of a global economy. And young people with huge debts, and lack of livable wage employment opportunities. The ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots (plus countless social, environmental, and other problems) we still have a long ways to go. Whether equality is attainable is a political question that cannot be ascertained in advance. Moreover, while absolute equality is beyond reach, progress toward such a goal is realistic and is what a democratic education strives for.  Progress toward greater equality can only be made if the processes by which inequality are maintained, can be precisely identified, and specific action taken to reduce their effect. After 30 years of classroom teaching I found that  by equally encouraging all students, much of the differences by race, ethnicity and class disappears.

Moving towards democracy. Some practical issues the classroom teacher faces and though it may seem trivial these are important issues that impact the way students feel about themselves and each other. Every school has its own culture and some practices teachers may not feel comfortable with but they have pick and choose their battles. Many of us (staff) didn't like the school awards program because it was always the same students that receive awards, year after year. But after several staff meetings our principal over road our desire to eliminate the academic achievement awards. Since I had regular class meetings I decided to discuss this issue with my class. I told them that I felt the awards were detrimental to building community. I talked to them about how I felt it was unfair and that I didn't want to be put in the position to choose the six who would received awards each semester.They all worked hard and deserved acknowledgement. I wanted to boycott the awards assemblies and wanted my students support. Well, it didn't work out that way. Students that wanted to participate in the assembly were the ones that have always received good grades/awards in the past. Others shared how bad and disappointed they felt because they thought they would never receive an award and they liked the idea of boycotting. But in the end, they didn't want to be the only class that didn't participate. Someone proposed a solution that they all agreed was acceptable. They decided a random method of selection would be fair and allow them to participate in the assemblies.   I had a shoebox that students decorated at the beginning of the school year. I put slits in the top for popsicle sticks. Each stick had a students name on it. I drew the sticks at random when questioning students during lessons as a means to insure that everyone participated. So my class decided that six sticks would be randomly pulled and those students would receive the awards. It still made me feel bad because I knew and my students knew that there would be students who would never receive an academic achievement award. They decided everyone should receive adwards and I made each student an award and they made awards for each other. After the school awards assembly we had a classroom celebration of learning. I had hoped they would take a stand and boycott but I gave them a problem to solve and respected their solution. I guess it bothered me more than my students, and my lesson was the awards were about them, not me or my feelings.

Another issue I found troublesome was the old Carnegie unit (i.e. letter grade) and the traditional report card. What does an A or B in reading or mathematics really mean? We need to have deep and thoughtful discussions about what it means to be an educated person, what is worth knowing and how do we fairly measure academic growth. I used informal as well as formal assessments that included teacher and student generated rubrics, projects, portfolios and most importantly, student self-assessments. I met with each student individually to review their portfolios and completed their report cards together. It was hard and a  huge undertaking in a class of 33-35 students, but the results were worth it.

Schooling continues to be antagontagistic to democracy. Too many students look elsewhere to get a sense of the world and their responsibility to it. Strong constituencies are marshaled to maintain the present educational system. While students resist authoritarianism, they are no better off because of that resistance. They too often enter the world ill-equipped and overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness. That condition is the logical conclusion of the education they receive. It is in the context of history that I believe democratic education should be tested. Ultimately, I support democratic education because it enlist and prepares students for informal participation in efforts to solve problems critical to our survival as a species.

I will always engage in the constant and often difficult processes of meaning-making, dialogue and reflexive questionings of my actions in the world. In attending to how things could be otherwise, I don't want to sound like I have a "solution". 30 years of classroom teaching has taught me that there will always be unanswered questions. But I keep trying to choose the possible against the limits,  because I'm most afraid of numbness.


Recommended Books for Adults:
The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier
The Atrocity of Education  by Art Pearl
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Recommended for middle and high school students:
101 Changemakers Rebels and Radials Who Changed US History  edited by Michele Bolinger and Dao Tran
In the great tradition of Howard Zinn, 101 Changemakers offers students a "people's history" of the individuals who have changed our world. In the place of founding fathers, presidents, and titans of industry, are profiles of those who courageously fought for social justice in the US.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Introducing Saga Berg- Author of YA literature E-books

I've been so busy with the elections and will be happy when tomorrow arrives! I plan to rest for a day  and then it's on to the next volunteer project(s). I haven't written for a while and I have two post ready to be typed but no time, better find it soon before I forget! LOL! Anyhow.... Today I'd like to recommend a upcoming author of young adult literature Saga Berg. You can download her first book, Nordic Fairies (#1) for free. I recommend that anyone who likes romance novels read it.  Saga is having a book give away  and you can win prizes too! You can find her at:

Vote  for Nordic Fairies (#1) on Goodread's Young Adult Romance list

Follow @sagaberg on twitter


One winner will get a 50$ Giftcard on Amazon or Barnes & Nobel and the entire Nordic Fairies Novella Series (E-books)

Two additional winners will receive the entire Nordic Fairies Novella Series.

Good luck to all that enter!

Good  reading~ until next time:)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The cart before the horse-I explain how I tie into standards and thematic instruction

I realized that need to go back and explain how I develop units tied to the standards and how I got the funds for materials in my classroom. First, if you have read my blog you know that I became a teacher to reform education, structured my classroom as a democracy (a safe place to practice democratic ideas) and taught children how to be agents of social change. I wanted my students to know the lessons we studied were to be applied in their present day lives not in some distant future.

Students were always surprised when I told them that everything that can and cannot be done in a classroom is determined by a politician and that was one of the main reasons I am politically active. Of course, with the recent Chicago teacher's strike and all the emphasis on The No Child Left Behind Act, and standardized testing you'd think they would be aware of this; but elementary school children do not make the connections. I'm not sure if middle school or high school students do...but my niece and her friends in the 6th grade didn't have a clue! I explained how district committees and curriculum councils develop benchmarks and standards based on state standards. How textbooks are chosen and the many functions of the school board. I also explained how politicians on local, state, and national levels make the policies and rules. It's not a democratic process. When I was on the CA committee for mathematical standards I found classroom teachers were not listened to. We'd tell them that a math concept was not appropriate developmentally for certain age and it was adopted anyway. We do find ways to work around dumb ideas and  I'll write about how I did that! I never give up and I'm inspired by the many teachers, parents, and educational advocates working to change the way we think about teaching and learning, schooling, and education. I want to make all students capable of participating in and sustaining a democracy...our future depends on it!


Post The  Core Standards In Your Classroom. Although no one ever questioned me about what I did in my classroom, I posted the standards. I always integrated the standards into the units of study I taught and made sure my students knew which standards we were studying and why. I kept parents informed through newsletters, classroom volunteers, and always gave my principal a copy. I felt that because I was "nontraditional" I wanted to be prepared. If any one came into my classroom and ask why I (or students) were studying something I could point to the standard(s) posted on the wall. I never taught to the standardized tests though I taught test taking skills. I think no one questioned my classroom practices because my students always performed well on standardized tests .How? Teaching the essential thinking skills (Habits Of The Mind) and how to apply those skills to everything prepared them better then teaching to the test, isolate facts.  The middle school teachers always told me that they knew which students were mine. A real testament to how powerful the essential thinking skills and curriculum designed to empower students really works! I don't know how to add all the common core state standard to this post but they can be found by goggle and downloaded for free. All the curriculum units I present here are tied to the California's Common Core States Standards. The standards are general and all age appropriate literature can be used.

Post The Essential Thinking Skills i.e. Habits Of The Mind Standards: List in previous blogs.

Reintroduce (hopefully students have been taught these concepts) the cultural universals. These concepts should be integrated into all academic studies. They are important because they help students make connections between areas of study and they help them in the visioning processes.
Cultural universals are an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all cultures, past and present, but varies from culture to culture. While reading novels they are a useful tool to use for comparing and contrasting, and analysis. They are also elements that I had students include in creation of the kind of world they want to live in. I always share that as we gain more knowledge we have the ability to change our mind about our ideas and visions. This is important because some students don't understand that is what learning is about and that critical thinking is hard work!
Cultural Universals:
  • Art & Architecture - (music, dance, folklore ,plays, acting, buildings)
  • Environment - I think a case can be make for adding Architecture here, even if it is a human endeavor because it does impact the environment. (landforms, peninsulas, rivers, valleys)
  • Language & Communication - (non-verbal and verbal including literature, alphabet)
  • Recreation - (games,festivals)
  • Economy - (food, clothing, money, cars, toys, jobs)
  • Institutions - (education, government, church)
  • Beliefs -(religion, customs, morals,values)

My integrated theme no matter what grade I taught has always been, Stand Up-Speak Out-Make A Difference, because there are ways children can empower themselves and have their voices heard regardless their age. When I retired I was teaching 6th grade at an elementary school and I taught 6th grade for 15 years. For this post I'm going to write how I began the school year. Of course I've updated the the novels and each year I refine and do tasks differently, as I am a life long learner, I always try to improve whatever I am doing,  and want to model that for students.

I began the year with If I Only Had A Brain a unit that combines building a classroom community, leadership, the brain and how we learn, The Habits Of The Mind Standards i.e. essential thinking skills. The CA Core State Standards for English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects are integrated. In my school district 6th graders study ancient civilizations but because it is an election year I would add that through current events and use the Newspaper In Education Program. In Santa Cruz County the local paper, The Santa Cruz Sentinel has a teachers guide and they deliver newspaper free. The Sentinel also has a field trip program students enjoy-anything to get out of the classroom for a day! Ha, ha! Duck for President, by Doreen Cronin is a picture book that explains how one becomes a candidate for political office and the election process. I assume 6th graders are familiar with the process because most schools have student council.  There are many activities in an election year but that is beyond the scope of what I want to discuss today. I just think that it's important at every grade level to address the current events of the day and connect it to whatever you are studying in your class.

Building a classroom community:
Day one
Large paper hang on wall-heading:  What Makes A Good Student?
post-its for students

I give a brief introduction of the goal to create a safe environment for learning and that we will write standards and a class constitution. This usually takes about 4 weeks, but student ownership and empowerment and a democratic classroom really pays off. I rarely had discipline issues which allows more time for teaching.

Habits Of The Mind-I have a one page handout with a short description of each skill. I will attempt to
post (I want to see if I can find a way to photo the add the image) the hand-outs I created but if I can't anytime soon because I lack the computer skills at this time just send me a note with your snail-mail information and I will send you a copy in the mail. If copying image doesn't work I will recreate the handouts on this blog.

I introduce The Habits Of The Mind and talk about each a little and students help decide which are important for today's tasks. For example: Listening with understanding and empathy-holding in abeyance one's own thoughts in order to perceive anothers 'point of view and emotions. Thinking interdependently-being able to work and learn from others.

Pose the question-What makes a good student?
Students in groups of 4 brainstorm ideas write them on post-it notes
Groups share their ideas with the class and post their notes on the paper.
I leave the paper hanging up.

Day 2
Large paper hang on wall-heading: What Makes A Good Teacher?
Post-its for students
Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin
Teacher read aloud (I often use picture books as a short introduction to a lesson) Click, Clack, Moo Cows That  Type,  is a book about farm animals that stand up for their rights by writing to Farmer Brown their demands and the consequences if he doesn't. It's funny!

Same steps as day one.

Day 3
Large paper hang on wall-heading : What Kind of Class Do We Want To Be?
Post-its for students.
Thump,Quack,Moo,by Doreen Cornin (another picture book)
Keys to American History-Understanding Our Most Important Historic Documents,by Richard Panchyk is a good book to use to review The Bill of Rights and The US Constitution.

I introduce The Habit of The Mind-Finding Humor: Laugh a little! Finding the whimsical, incongruous and unexpected .

Review concepts and ideas from days one and two.

Read Thump,Quack, Moo Farmer Brown and the animals work together preparing for the annual Corn Maze Festival.

Same steps as days one and two.

Students study US History in the 5th grade but review the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution.

Begin the process of writing your classroom bill of rights and constitution. Depending on the group of students this can take anywhere between 2-4 weeks.

In my school district the 4-6 grade teachers wrote a study skills handbook. I added rubrics, The Habits Of The Mind Standards, and other resources to the handbook. We updated it yearly.

Its All In Your Head  - is a the best book to learn about the brain and how we learn. It also a tool to discuss the importance of having a safe classroom environment and how the way we treat each impacts are ability to learn.

Leadership: The Habits Of The Mind Standards & I included the Essential Thinking Skills as Habits Of The Mind.

Students engage in discussions and write about what makes a good leader.

There are many resources (beyond the scope of this blog) to develop leadership skills. But there were a few very cool ones I'll mention here. We had kindergarten buddies and did an activity together at least once a month. My 6th graders also were teacher aides to the kindergarten teacher and they supervised small groups and worked one-on-one to teach specific skills. We were fortunate to be near Henry Cowell Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains and they have a ropes course designed for student groups. Another fun field trip we did was a hiking trail from Boulder Creek to the Pacific Ocean. Our parent volunteers made our field trips possible. And of course I had to tie all activities to the standards. Which isn't that hard to do as many standards are so general. Any worked!

Leadership: On My Honor,  by Marion Dane Bauer is  a deceptively simple but beautifully written story, it's only 90 pages, and is about the 4th grade level. But I always tell students that a great novel can be read at any age. The story is about two best friends Joel and Tony. Tony is a daredevil and it's his idea to make the long bike ride to Starved Rock State Park, and it's Tony's idea to stop along the way to swim in the dangerous Vermilion River. Joel warns Tony that they have been told not go near the treacherous river, but eventually Joel gives in. He doesn't want Tony to think he's scared. Joel challenges Tony to a race across the river but it isn't until he reaches the other side that he realizes the devastating truth: Tony cannot swim.  Joel is raked by pain guilt as he struggles with his conscience, he wants to do the right thing but he is afraid so he tries to cover up his involvement in friends death. The story may be fiction, but it feels agonizingly true to life. Bauer doesn't turn the novel into a moral lesson or a cautionary tale, she just tells a story allowing the reader to draw the conclusions for their own lives.

Leadership: I recently read Across The Universe , by Beth Revis and although it's another science fiction/ mystery/ dystopian novel it would be an interesting read aloud and would foster thoughtful discussions about what makes a good leader. The story is about love, murder, and madness aboard  the enormous spaceship Godspeed that is headed to a new earth-like planet. The chapters alternate perspectives between the two protagonist Amy and Elder, each has a unique and authentic voice and the plot seamlessly uncovers conspiracy and hidden secrets.
Amy, 17, is cryogenically frozen and placed on Godspeed with her parents and others. Three hundred years from now, the settlers will be unfrozen to settle a new earth-like planet. Amy's parents are important to the mission but she isn't essential. She's going along because she is only 17 and they are her parents.
Elder, 16, was born and raised to become the leader of the space ship Godspeed. He is has access to books, leaning and history. He's been raised a little bit apart from those on the ship, as the leader Eldest teaches and trains Elder to be the leader the ship needs. His most important lesson is that differences cause "discord" - all the problems on earth., such as wars, poverty,etc. were due to differences.
Elder is brilliant and rebellious but frustrated because Eldest (the ships tyrannical and frightening leader) doesn't teach him about many of the details that keep the ship running. He gives him hints and expects him to figure out the the lessons to be learned.
Godspeed's passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest. They are a bio- genetically engineered -  mono ethic people and act like robots. Only the scientist and a few creative free-thinkers are allow to have a mind of their own. They are isolated from the other passengers.
50 years before Godspeeds' scheduled landing Amy's cryo chamber is unplugged if Elder hadn't found her she would be dead. Now Amy, is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense and soon Amy is convinced that there is something very wrong. The people, plants, and animals are genetically engineered.  The general population isn't allowed access to learning and no one cares that they don't know.  The strange world Amy finds herself in is not just the result of generations passing, it's also the result of a disaster.Years before, a Plague killed most the population, drastic measures were taken to ensure survival, and the ship hasn't totally recovered. Part of the survival is a system of government with a dictator "Eldest" who trains a selected heir "Elder: The names are always the same; the selected leader is always older than the generation he'll lead.

All this detail is related to part of the mystery, with the details unraveling as the mystery unravels. Who unfroze Amy? Who unfroze and killed the others? There is a murderer on board, complicated by Eldest's total rule and concern the what is best for the people on Godspeed is for there to be no murder investigation. Most mysteries involve the reader trying to guess "who did it," something complicated here because there is so much about Godspeed's culture that is different. And that to is also the mystery for the reader and Amy to solve. But for me, the story is  about Elder and what kind of leader he is going to become. He joins Amy to find answers. What, exactly, was the Plague? What really happened? What secrets are Eldest keeping from his people and Elder? All these threads and questions come together in one resolution. And the story is about issues that are equally relevant today.

Many of the issues that connect to the human condition will be brought forth by students but I have included a few for "food for thought".

Amy discovers that the history books have been re-written. Hitler is portrayed as a great leader. Lincoln solved the problems between the states by sending the slaves back to Africa. When Amy tells Elder the truth about how the history he has learned is not accurate, how does that information change Elder? And importantly, how do we know the difference between the truth and propaganda. Perspective and Evidence.
All the people are alike - they look the same, and they don't think for themselves. Differences caused the problems so they have been genetically engineered to look alike but they have also been altered mentally to serve the different needs of the ship. Some are scientist, some are farmers, some are creative thinkers, etc. What about free-will, choices, and control over our destiny? What if we were all alike? Supposition.
Elder controls the populations emotions, reproducing habits, and basically all aspects of their life through the use of drugs which are added to the drinking supply and genetically modified crops. What are the effects of illegal and legal drugs such as antidepressants on people? Connections.
What about the genetically modified plants, and animals? In California we have a proposition on the ballot about the labeling of genetically modified foods, the long term impact of consuming genetically modified food is unknown. Do we have a right to know what is in the foods we eat, water drink, and other beverages? Relevance.
There is a surveillance system to monitor the inhabitiants thoughts and actitivites? Recently there has been a lot of buzz in the news about rights to privacy and some are concerned about the use drones. Relevance.
How are Eldest and Elder alike and different?
Examine the ways our cultures (especially teenage - pop cultures) institutions, families, and friends influence our thinking and behaviors.
What about human rights?
What acts of resistance do the differenent characters enage in? What will it take to create a better situation? What model is used to demonstrate social change? Relevance.
How are the people aboard Godspeed oppressed, marginalized, or alienated? Compare and contrast to present situations in the world and with the corporate take-over of our schools. Relevance.
And most importantly, who cares? Why are these issues relevant to our lives?
I would examine different models of social justice and the different possiblities for enacting change.
What are the different features of social transformation within the text and in the "real world"?

I think I'm going to end here, I want to write more but I've been working on this blog for a couple of weeks and want to publish it. I volunteer for various organizations but have taken on the extra tasks of volunteering for my presidential candidate, and a new experience for me, I'm the co-manager for a local city council candidate. Attending lots of strategic planning meetings , phone banking, and precinct walking. Time consuming but fun and exciting!

Until next time - Happy Reading:)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where To Get Resources - Money

When I began teaching over 30 years ago there was always enough money to buy whatever I needed for my classroom. We had class and school budgets that teachers could use to buy supplies/curriculum that was not mandated, this is how purchased sets of class novels. I also save points from book orders to buy novels and had my students help select what we would read following specific criteria. Santa Cruz County has Schools Plus Grants that underwrites projects that enhance learning aimed to improve student achievement, and augment the students' educational experience. These grants are usually funded up to $1000.00. Year after year, I received grants and always thought the foundation would say they had given me enough money but... I think I did a few important things that helped. One, I always promoted the grant program by having students acknowledge it in their projects/presentations. I also had students write how the grants helped them with their projects - good PR for all. And of course I send them a copy of a class book and thank you notes. Another thing I did was I approached a local businessman and he gave me classroom donations yearly, between $2,000-$6,000.  Having students write thank you letters is very important to receive on-going support. I know teachers have other creative ideas and would love to hear from you!

Happy reading:)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Make A Difference Day - Saturday, Oct.27th - And Books!

Make A Difference Day is America's largest annual day of volunteering, on Saturday, Oct.27, millions of us will be helping our communities, you can too. I found ideas in my local newspaper and you can also get ideas and tools at However, I promote having children come up with their own ideas and use other resources as a guide.

Democratic education engages students in deep conversations, has them conduct meaningful research, discover rather than being told and utilize rather than store learning. Such an education has students working on projects designed to promote some form of community involvement -a public  good. These projects are not just for a day, it is the focus of the the curriculum, hence my classroom theme and the focus of this blog to Stand Up- Speak Out-Make A Difference.

To earn an A in social studies students had to complete a community service project each grading period. Community service was basically anything you don't get paid to do but helps individuals, the community, or environment. I had a form where students wrote a description of their project(s), the location and the times . I had to approve the project and sign it off and so did the parent(s). After students completed their project they wrote a paragraph reflecting on the experience. If students wanted to share their service project with the class I always made the time, it was important to them.  Some students wrote about their projects for the school newsletter, others gave presentations to the PTA and the school board, and some students shared their projects through other social media outlets (it was always a choice but I discovered they wanted to share their experiences). Projects varied but these are a few examples, one student helped his elderly neighbor with yard work, another student was a docent at Henry Cowel Park, one student provided after school care, and groups went regularly to clean up local beaches and the San Lorenzo River. Community service is an opportunity to apply lessons learn in the classroom to the real world! There are many things students can do to make the world a better place and they always told me it made them feel good and it was a positive experience.

In the 1980's tuna fisherman were catching (killing) dolphins and other ocean creatures in their tuna nets, it was school children that made this issue international news and school children who wrote to politicians to make laws that tuna fishermen have to use nets that only catch tuna fish. This is a great example of the power of children's ideas and the power of the spoken and written words. My students always liked this story because it is proof that they can make a difference. Now, with a wider variety of social media sources there are many more examples of children making a difference in their communities and more tools available for students to change the world.

A good teacher inspires students to be interested in subjects and topics that they otherwise would not engage in. Sharing stories like the one above demonstrates that just because they are kids doesn't mean people will not listen to them. I also like to use picture books to set the stage for units of study. I have a couple of recommendations today to introduce the process of making social change.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin is a hilarious book about how farm animals stand up for their rights. I like it because it shows how the animals organize, stand up for their rights, and most importantly how they use the written word as a powerful tool for change. I would have students pick something they cared about then conduct research, develop a community service project, and write about their project. Students also wrote about how their projects made them feel. Students published their work in the school newsletter, local newspaper, open house, and a class blog. I also made class books, including a few for our school and local library and they became popular with our school librarian, other teachers, students, and we always had lots of positive feedback from parents!

Giggle, Giggle, Quack, by Doreen Cronin is a great follow up book about how the cows (leaders) example has taught the other farm animals to cleverly standing up for their rights when Farmer Brown goes on vacation and leaves his brother Bob in charge. When you are exploring emotional topics, for example hunger (maybe you have students that experience this) it is sometimes important to use a little humor to relieve stress. Doreen Cronin's books are about important topics but the use of humor doesn't diminish the seriousness of the issues.

If you go to my store look on the left side for Debra's recommended books. Thank you.

Until next time - happy reading:)