Portfolio Entry #1: Best Lesson

Each of the past two years, I put together a portfolio of my work along with other teachers at Bronx Lab.  I missed that tradition at Young Writers this year, so have decided to take some time to do it on my own before I completely dive into the work of opening Harvest Collegiate.  

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.

Portfolio Entry #1: Best Lesson

My best lesson of the year was one I came up with about three minutes before class.  In November, we spent most of the month looking at Occupy Wall Street, and we were moving towards a more traditional look at the meaning of democracy and its structure within the United States.  I used the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique to have students create questions, but they came up with so many good ones, that I was not sure how to move forward.  I decided to put democracy in action, and let my students decide.  My writeup of what happened is here.  What was great about the lesson was not only that it allowed students to apply theories of democracy, but that it also revealed many of democracy’s flaws.  This then gave us a rich case study to use throughout the coming classes, as we examined the advantages and disadvantages of democracy’s various forms.

This lesson also reveals the power of turning complete control over to students.  I later used this as inspiration for a task I gave teachers in my Critical Friends Group: give students directions in the first five minutes of class to complete a complicated task, and then sit back and let them work without your help.  I think both students and teachers would learn more and differently if opportunities like these were more frequent.

Next Entry: Best Things I Used from Other Sources


Student Engagement Strategy: Make Learning Public

I’ve written a few times about the various social studies fairs I have held over the years (“National History Day: The Best Thing I Do” and “My Students Solve the World’s Problems”).  Over at Education Week, I write about the formula that makes these events successful:

I’ve led an annual social studies fair for six years now. These events bring out my students’ best efforts and showcase their authentic intellectual work. Here are my suggestions for ensuring that students get the most out of these public displays of learning.

• Give students maximum choice of topics.

Whenever possible, I let my students choose their own research topics—within limits. When I taught government this year, for example, students chose a public policy issue they wanted to learn about. And when I’ve coordinated with National History Day, students chose any topic connected to its annual theme, as long as we had previously studied the topic in class.

I always tell my students that selecting a topic is the most important decision they make for a major project. Students who find topics they are genuinely interested in have transformative experiences; others wind up doing just another class project. We spend a full day in class brainstorming subjects and exploring possibilities. Once students decide on a topic, they must prove to me in writing that they care about it….

Click here to read the whole piece. 

Resources for Teachers Teaching about Trayvon Martin

Tomorrow we will begin a formal discussion of Trayvon Martin’s murder in my classes.  As all my students are of the colors that causes them to experience police harassment and distrust in lighter communities, there won’t be much need for background.  We’ll read this article to establish facts, and then use the following protocol:

  1. Students are presented with readings (and sometimes video) on the event
  2. The class constructs a list of the facts of the event based on the texts and their knowledge
  3. The class lists questions that the event raises
  4. The class discusses the questions

This will allow my students concerns and voices to dictate the class, as it should be in a case like this that affects them so personally. This “class” could take anywhere from a day to a week, and that needs to be the case.

If I taught a more diverse group of students, I might use some of the readings below to help my students who don’t experience race-based discrimination on a regular basis.  This reading list also serves as a good list for white teachers who might not fully understand why people are so angry (I’ve had three such conversations in the past week).  Each article speaks for itself, and all should be read. Continue reading Resources for Teachers Teaching about Trayvon Martin

My Students Solve the World's Problems

For the past five years, I held a school “History Day” fair, which I always called “the best thing I do.” As I’m teaching a senior government/economics course this year, I decided to hold “Citizenship Night” yesterday.  Students completed Project Citizen portfolios, and we opened up the doors of our school to the public to hear students discuss their work.  Project Citizen asks students to identify a public policy problem in their community. They then researched the problem, evaluated alternative solutions, developed their own solution in the form of a public policy, and created a political action plan to enlist local or state authorities to adopt their proposed policy.

The work my students presented last night was impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the passion in their voices as they shared their thoughts with members of the public.  It was a testament to the amazing things young women and men will do when they are given some freedom to choose a topic, instruction and practice in research skills, and an authentic public audience for their work.  Yesterday was the first time in seven years of teaching in NYC that I had 100% of projects completed on time, and for most of my students, it was the best work they’ve done.  In the coming weeks, I’ll post photos of the work as well as some more information about what into the event.

There was a professional photographer on hand who took incredible photos (a little tricky to find: Go to http://jaydorfmanphotography.com/, click on the little arrow button, scroll down on the list in the top-right corner, and click ISA Citizenship Night). Gotham Schools has also an absolutely tremendous write-up of the event that, I have to admit, included some information from my students I didn’t even know yet.  From Jessica Campbell at Gotham:

“Don’t be nervous,” Young Writers’ history teacher Stephen Lazar told his 72 seniors last night. The seniors were buzzing around the warm cafeteria, prepping their final citizenship projects for the imminent arrival of evaluators, who would be assessing their work and knowledge. “They’re nervous to hear what you’re going to do with the world.” Continue reading My Students Solve the World's Problems

Citizenship Night Tonight!

If you happen to be in the Brooklyn-area and are free from 5:00-6:30 pm tonight, please join me for the Academy of Young Writers 1st ever Citizenship Night.

There, our seniors will present their work as part of Project Citizen.  Project Citizen, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, is a curricular program for students, youth organizations, and adult groups that promotes responsible participation in local and state government. The program helps participants learn how to monitor and influence public policy. In the process, they develop support for democratic values and principles, tolerance, and feelings of political efficacy.

Groups of seniors identified a public policy problem in their community. They then researched the problem, evaluated alternative solutions, developed their own solution in the form of a public policy, and created a political action plan to enlist local or state authorities to adopt their proposed policy. My students developed a portfolio of their work and are eager to present their project to civic-minded community members.

Students are taking on a range of issues, including:

  • Cyber bullying
  • Internet Privacy/Piracy
  • Gentrification
  • New York City School Reform
  • Domestic Violence
  • Animal Cruelty
  • Trafficking
  • Obesity
  • Gay Rights

We hope you will join us to listen to what our students have to say, ask them difficult questions, and potentially help them begin to make the changes they wish to see.

The Academy for Young Writers’ Citizenship Night will take place on Tuesday, March 20 from 5-6:30 pm in the cafeteria of our current building at 183 S. 3rd St in Williamsburg.

(For those of you not in NYC, I will share pictures and more here in the coming days)

Resources for Teaching about Kony 2012

I’ve been quite bummed as my students near the end of a major research project with students for Project Citizen (which they will display to the public next Tuesday), because I have not been able to have deep conversations with my students about the Kony campaign.  It’s the perfect teaching opportunity:

  1. Students are engaged and curious about the content (I heard about it from a half-dozen students before any major media picked it up),
  2. The truth about the situation is far more complicated than it seems at first, and
  3. What appears at first to be a black and white moral issue reveals many shades of gray after further inquiry.

I’m hoping students will still be excited for it in a couple of weeks, especially because the teacher(R)evolution job has put together an incredible wealth of resources  to investigate the Kony2012 phenomena in much depth.  There’s enough great stuff there for a week’s worth of lessons, as well as to kick-start a great inquiry-based research unit.  Check them out and I hope there will be many great, complex conversations in classrooms in the coming weeks.

Can't Wait to Have Students Read This

There’s an interesting op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times, “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior.” The author Eric X. Li, makes some claims in it that are beyond radical from an American perspective:

In the history of human governance, spanning thousands of years, there have been two major experiments in democracy. The first was Athens, which lasted a century and a half; the second is the modern West. If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

The power of this piece for helping students develop is that its perspective is so radically foreign.  Were any US politician to write such a piece, their career would be over.  This might even be true for academics.  It completely challenges most of the assumptions of  American political discourse, and therefore will be useful to help students a) make those assumptions plain and b) really think critically about the extent to which America is democratic.  I’m looking forward to an in-depth discussion of it in a Socratic Seminar with students in the coming weeks, and will be saving it for use in all future social studies courses I teach.

3 Ways to Honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have Your Students Participate in the Manning Marable “Along the Color Line” Speech Contest
While there is more to the contest than just writing about King, one of the suggested lessons focuses on King’s legacy, and Dr. Marable’s view of it.  The King lesson is here, and full contest information and suggested lesson plans are here.

Remember King’s Reality
Last Martin Luther King Day, I wrote about four lessons students, and their teachers, can learn about Dr. King that challenge common misconceptions about his life and work:

  • Sometimes, history happens by accident
  • King dreamed of a whole lot more than white and black boys and girls joining hands
  • King fought against terrorists
  • King was a human being, with flaws
Learn about the People Who Made King’s Work Possible, and Lessons we Can Learn From Them
My most recent article on Education Week Teacher tells the story of the Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, whose work became the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.

Teaching World-Changers: Lessons From the Civil Rights Movement

Seven years ago I fell in love with two wonderful woman named Bernice Robinson and Septima Clark, who founded the Citizenship Education Program, the little known backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.  Without these two, I am certain we would not be celebrating Martin Luther King Day this Monday.  We in education have much to learn from them:

The primary goal of the Citizenship Education Program was to teach and develop first-class citizens. And every aspect of the program was grounded in this goal—from teacher training sessions to day-to-day practices to the rhetoric of staff correspondence. Dozens of adult literacy programs had targeted African-Americans in the South—but none were as successful as the CEP, because too many narrowly focused on the skill of literacy, rather than its application in citizenship.

In my opinion, we have made a similar mistake with skill-based competency testing under No Child Left Behind. A curriculum and testing regimen that only focuses on skill development outside of meaningful and relevant application cannot prepare students and communities for 21st-century success. I hope that with the implementation of the Common Core standards, we will not make the same mistake again. As teachers, we need to develop a clear sense of our own purpose—and make every effort to ensure that how we teach each day aligns with that purpose.

Read the rest at Education Week Teacher. It’s an honor to share part of their story.

Democracy in Action: Following Up on My Students' Questions

(This is a long overdue follow-up post)

A few weeks ago, my students left me with a wonderful problem: they generated so many great questions leading to larger inquiry, that we had to narrow down the list in some way.  I must admit, when I came to school that Wednesday morning, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I took a chance.  I gave my students the entire list of questions, and told them they had 30 minutes to democratically choose five of them that would help us answer our unit essential questions: “How democratic is the US?” and “Does my vote count?”  I held an election for a facilitator, told students they first had to decide how they would go about making the decision, and then sat down and took notes on their process.  What followed in each section captured the American political process in all its flawed messiness.

First Period

This class held no discussion of how to make their decision.  The facilitator started by asking everyone which of the categories (that I had rather arbitrarily created) they were most interested in.  At one point, the facilitator said, “I think we should take 2 questions from each category with more than 4 votes.” Another student responded, “that doesn’t make sense, we’ll have too many questions,” but the discussion about how to go from there ignored the complaint.  The class was much more focused on their objective rather than discussion how to create a better process, much like the American electoral system, where we still vote on Tuesday for antiquated reasons.  The conversation also showed just how much ballot construction can influence the results of a vote.

At another point, one student took on the role of the media, encouraging people to continue arguing for his entertainment.  When a student lost a vote, she said “I feel like this classroom is not a democracy.”  The facilitator asked her, “What would you like to change?”  But the instigator then shouted “Fight fight fight fight!” distracting everyone from the base issue that was raised.  The process of deciding continued without any discussion of how to create a better process.

Second Period

Much like first period, there was no discussion of process.  The facilitator on her own decided to go question by question asking for yes or no votes.  People were voting on their interest levels.  At one point, a student reminded the class “We need 5 questions to answer these [essential] questions [on the board].”  Her comment was ignored, much like how in American democracy, we rarely focus on big picture and long-term, but rather on the issues right in front of us.

About 15 minutes into the process, one student noticed “No one’s even voting!”  Nonetheless, the voting continued.  Five minutes later, another student berated the class, “Can everyone participate, because you are going to start complaining about our decisions?”  Despite the complaint, no further effort was made to include other’s voices.

Third Period

Much like the earlier periods, the facilitator decided how to proceed on her own without discussing with the class.  She too went category by category, and then had students vote for one question within each category.

In the end, these were the questions students chose:

First Period

  • Where is the government when Black Friday events happened?
  • Why is pepper spray legal when police use it?
  • If people are allowed to protest, why do police attack protesters for protesting?
  • Can we manage to have safer Black Fridays?
  • How do we eliminate poverty without becoming Communist?

Second Period

  • What makes the US democratic?
  • Can my vote get canceled out?
  • What limitations do voters face?
  • Is there a way to make our country more democratic?
  • What would the US economy be with a Communist government?

Third Period

  • Why is it okay for shoppers to campout out and not for protesters?
  • How are citizens affected by police decisions?
  • Why hasn’t there been another form of government in the US?
  • How much power should one person have in the government?
  • What would you want to pursue other than a capitalist lifestyle?

The questions about communism and capitalism were tabled until our second semester economics course.  The remaining closed questions were discussed in class the following days, which eventually led all three classes to questions about the influence of money in politics, which we have been examining for the past two weeks.