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:)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A History Of Us - A 10-Volume History Text

I taught a 5/6 combination class for many years and the social textbook for 6th grade was okay but the 5th grade textbook was old, out  dated, and filled with misinformation. I used to read aloud parts of The People's History Of The United States, by Howard Zinn. Students always asked me why they didn't have good texts to read, texts with multiple viewpoints. I decided to do research and found A History Of Us, by Joy Hakim. It is a 10-volume, award winning series about the birth and development of the United States. Students love it, as a matter of fact, I had to pry it away from my 6th graders because it is so well-written, in a storybook style with lots of visual aids, weird and interesting facts, diverse viewpoints, and humor!

It also comes with a teachers manual. I would divide the series teaching the first five volumes in 5th grade and the second five volumes in 8th grade.

My next  challenge was how to find the money to purchase the series. I decided to approach one of my neighbors, a local entrepreneur. He said he would give me a donation to buy the texts if I agreed not to tell any one where I got the funds as he was concerned other teachers would ask him for money too. I agreed and my students ( I did let 6th graders read) loved reading the texts and activities.

When I retired I gave my teaching materials to my student teacher and the last time I talked to him he was still using the series and told me how much his students enjoy the books and the activities found in the teacher manual.

I highly recommend this series to engage students.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Habits Of The Mind Standards

I learned about the Habits Of The Mind from Deborah Meier, an educator and advocate for democratic education for over 40 years. I use the habits in every aspect of teaching and learning. The habits should be internalized by every student, and used no matter what they are studying about, both in school and  especially out of it!

Habits Of The Mind Standards:

 Evidence - How do you know that? Proof? Facts to base claims.
 Perspective - Whose point of view? Who said it and why?
 Relevance - Who cares? Why is that important?
 Supposition - Hypothesizing. What if?
 Connections - What patterns? How related?

Knowing and learning take on importance only when we are convinced it matters, it makes a difference. Having a good mind and being well-educated don't always seem important to young people. It matters because it will help us get ahead, get into a good college, hold a well-paying job. But that's not the whole story! It  will also help save the world! That sounds kind of corny. But it is also true.
It's important to be able to stand alone, to take personal responsibility. But it's also important to learn to work together with others - to collaborate. That means not forgetting our family, our friends, and our community as we gain success in life.
Young people are in a lot of conflict between their ambitions, their compassion for others and their loyalties to family and friends. That's where they need you - their parents. There is no better source of wisdom on relevant issues.

Next time, I am going to write about Make A Difference Day on Oct. 27th and some children's picture books that are good to introduce any lesson you want to teach about how to make a difference i.e. create social change.

A great book for parents and teachers is, The Power of Their Ideas, by Deborah Meier
Happy reading:)