Importance of Imagination

I teach high school social studies and firmly believe in the importance of rigor and high expectations for myself and my students.  We do a lot of analytical reading in writing in the course as I want my students to leave with the most important skill – being able to formulate an individual argument/opinion based on evidence and reason.  That being said, I have come a long way from the teacher I was years ago when I was taught to never let the students see me smile until Christmas.  I have managed to balance fun and being personal with being professional and challenging.  I like to have fun in my class and to make students laugh everyday, and I can have this fun due to my class management and high expectations.  This past week, however, I was struck by an event in my classroom with a grade of students who are showing many signs of anxiety and perfectionism as they chase points.  We have had several discussions this year about the importance of learning and not focusing on points, that it is ok to fail as I do myself, etc.  I thought we were making progress until I gave an assignment that, I thought, was fun and engaging.  After I explained the assignment, I expected to see excitement and wonder in the eyes of my students and was disappointed when they began asking for the rubric, asking how many points it would be worth, and if I would tell them more about my expectations.

My classroom is full of wonder – posters of superheroes, WWII photos with stormtroopers photo shopped in, graphic novels and comic books galore, giant chairs to read in, and more toys that I can possibly explain away.  Here I was, encouraging my students to have fun with an assignment and they simply could not let go of their anxiety to do so.  I found out that they were reading Frankenstein in their Language Arts classes, and I wanted to make a humanities connection.  I firmly believe that we need to study the time period and life of authors to better understand the influences on their writing.  We happened to be starting the Industrial Revolution and so I was able to quickly put together a lesson that would infuse history and pop culture to not only engage my students, but also to allow them to have fun.  I gave them a excerpt from Frankenstein and simply asked them to complete the story – in any way their imagination took them.  It could be funny, sad, scary, – it just had to be a complete story.  (and for the potential wiseasses like me, it could not be “and then I woke up.”  The excerpt –

  • “I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his opened eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulated sounds while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.  He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand stretched out, seemingly to detain me.”

After the story was complete, the students were then to draw a representation about their story (to summarize – a key literary skill).  These two parts of the assignment unfortunately caused a little bit of a panic.  I can’t draw – will you take off points?  Does it have to be colored in?  How long does the story have to be?  I don’t remember this part of the book, what if I get the story wrong? -These are amazing students who care very much about their education and grades and tend to “do school” very well. This reaction really made me take a step back to evaluate the entire educational process.  How many tests do these students have to take over the course of the year? How much are their grades affected by these exams?  Do we give out too many rubrics for assignments to strictly define the assignment parameters?  How much freedom do we allow our students to explore and flex their imaginations?  I know we all have curriculum to cover – but I also believe that we can make time for what is important and that it is a cop out to say – we can’t do that, there’s not enough time.  So we talked about the assignment and I was finally able to convince them that I was not looking for a specific answer or drawing – that, yes, they were to have fun.  I also shared with them some of my “drawings” and allowed them to giggle at my pathetic attempts to even make stick figures.  The entire dynamic of the class changed and the students were the most engaged I had seen them this year.  The rest of the session flew by and the students were disappointed when the bell rang.  They were eager to finish their creations (see what I did there?) and to share with the class the next day.

I was being observed for the second part of this lesson and I was terrified that the students would not volunteer to share their stories or drawings.  I had set aside time in the beginning of the class to do so and was afraid of the potential for dead space with a principal in the room.  However, the students came in, sat down at their tables (we sit in groups of four as a collaborative education is the most effective) and began to share with each other without needing to be told to do so.  The class was loud and I loved it.  However, then I asked for students to either volunteer themselves or a partner to share with the whole class and then turned the floor back to them. I was so happy to see students eagerly encouraging others to volunteer their stories or drawings.  Students stood up to share – one even came to the front of the class to read his story in a Shakespearean fashion as he pantomimed a sword fight between him and the monster.  The students were constantly clapping for one another and it was awesome.  Sometimes we laughed and other times we were hushed into awe by a story or drawing.

The last part of the last part of the assignment was to draw the creature as seen today.  What does our society see as the creature?  We talked about the importance of symbolism in drawings and specific evidence.  Again, some were hysterical, some creepy, and some just were beyond words.  Some drew about the need to wear designer clothes, the control of smartphones on their lives, LGTBQ+, Muslims, educated women, and so much more.  As the students were talking in their groups on a second part of the assignment, I quickly scanned the collected drawings, took pictures, and put them onto a PowerPoint.  Some students declined sharing their drawings with the class and this was my opportunity to show them off anyway – I took off their names and showed them to the class.  Wow.  The students were able to understand the dangers of making humans into “others” and how some in our society fear what they do not know/understand.  For tenth graders to have such an amazingly mature insight into the world gives me great hope.

We also discussed the connection between Hulk and Frankenstein’s Monster in this amazing comic.

Also the amount of death that surrounded Mary Shelley in her life and how reanimation must have been on her mind.  This has also been written about in the below comic where the scientist actually brings back her son –

This was the result of allowing students to use their imaginations to create and share as I took a step back.  This then led us to a conversations about modern technology and the fears of new technology.  The students and I discussed potential issues with cloning and cyborgs – we can, should we?  Of course, we then made connections to Star Wars, the clone army, and the creation of Darth Vader.  But more on that in another post.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6bEs3dxjPg  – tell me this isn’t a homage to Frankenstein’s Monster from George Lucas!

Begun the Clone War has – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dylqDO4uEXc

 

 

 

Social Studies is Complicated

I saw a Twitter post today that had been reTweeted more than 18,000 times and liked more than 17,000 times, with more than 400 comments.  The post was about how King Leopold killed more Africans than Hitler killed Europeans – good point (we can quibble about specific numbers, but the point is valid and thought provoking).  The second part demanded to know why were weren’t be taught about this is in schools and that’s when I felt defeated.  With a simple retweet, thousands were immediately voicing disappointment, if not outrage, at educators across the country.  I felt defeated because I go very much in depth on Leopold and the genocide in the Congo, and also the African Holocaust.  The tweet may be an accurate criticism of a particular teacher, or maybe even school district, but I was also lumped into this grouping.  I wonder if this person reached out to their school district or social studies teachers before reaching out to social media?  I am not angry with the tweeter – I want to thank her for opening an important conversation, for knowing her history, for her courage in sharing, and for her passion.  This gives me a chance to blog about the importance of bringing home and school together, and why social studies is complicated.  I will share my lesson plan and resources on this immense tragedy at the end of this post.

When I signed up to take the social studies teacher exam as I began to plan for my career in education, I wondered how I could possible prepare for this all inclusive exam.  I finally decided that there was no practical way to fully prepare as the exam could have questions from ANYTHING in history.  Think about it.  Any possible historical topic could be on the exam, from any point in time, and from any place on earth.  Not only that, the exam would also have questions on economics, religion, culture, geography, psychology, pop culture, art, gender studies, astronomy, science, music, political structures, civics, etc.  I can be asked to teach any social studies course, grades 7-12, and I have taught many.  Don’t get me wrong – this is why I love being a social studies teacher as I can teach anything.  I open up my class every year with a discussion on “what is social studies?” as I show students pictures on a PowerPoint and ask them to write down yes or no, then explain why.  I show them a hip hop video, a movie trailer, pictures of comic books, drawings from major battles, maps, social media images, images of the universe, sports players, etc.  I then ask them to discuss with their partners why they answered yes or no for each answer. I am always fascinated by their discussions and do not interfere with them and say that all answers are valid.  When we come back to a full class discussion, I then tell them that the “right” answer for each is YES.  Everything is social studies – be it from thousands of years ago or what happened moments ago.  I hope you can now have a better idea as to the wonder and terror of teaching social studies, as my students often tell me that I blew their minds.

I am going to use the example of the previously mentioned to tweet to explain how we can tackle this issue and make it an amazing benefit for our students, our parents, our community, and for social studies teachers.  We all have a textbook, a curriculum, and a course title to guide us throughout the year so that we don’t just immediately shut down when tasked to teach a course.  This year, I teach Modern US and Modern World to high school students.  As a past teacher of European History and World History, I thought Modern US would be so easy because the content was much more defined.  However, my greatest strength, and weakness, is that I like to go down the rabbit hole of history – I like to explore and make connections.  I think it is so important to not “just” teach about the Civil Rights Movement in terms of the 60s, but also to explore modern civil rights leaders – in LGTBQ+, mental/physical disability, Latino, Japanese-American concentration camp victims, etc – and also to those in the past who fought for gender equality, historical struggles of the impoverished, etc.  When I teach about 9/11, I begin with the Crusades, focus on WWI and its impact, and end up with “terrorism” in the world today.  Everything is connected and we need to understand the historical impacts on the world of today.  Right now, you may be wondering why I didn’t mention _______________ in my listings above.  This is the heart of the issue – the more I try to encompass everything, the more I feel I leave out.  Allow me to get back to the tweet and my lesson about King Leopold.

When I begin teaching about the Jewish Holocaust, I ask my students to write down what they know about the events in general, and how many Jews were killed in particular.  I am always impressed with their background knowledge and that many can tell me that about 6 million were killed.  I then ask students how many were killed in the African Holocaust, Native American Genocide, and Holodomor.  This is where the room gets quieter as the students are not sure of the answer when they discuss in small groups.  Very few have ever heard of the word Holodomor (this word continues to not even show up in spell check) and they begin to ask questions.  This also then leads us into a discussion on the terms genocide and holocaust and how they may be misunderstood or applied (as I did here).  Some students even ask why they had never been taught these ideas before, and as part of the discussion, I bring up how some folks even believe that the Jewish Holocaust did not happen and that Jewish groups are just pushing their agenda, to you know, take over the world and stuff.  I quickly point out that so many Jewish organizations are the ones leading the charge about genocide in general – not “just” about the history of Jews.  I then made it my mission to teach about several genocides alongside the Jewish Holocaust and to make connections between all off them and the lessons we must understand.  I thought I was doing my due diligence in expanding the knowledge base of my students and was proud of not just following the textbook.  I was also determined to go in-depth on the genocide in the Congo with a multimedia presentation, primary sources, etc.  Then, in one class, a quiet young woman spoke up, I had not heard much from her all year, and she asked – “what about the Armenian Holocaust?  My Dad was angry that we weren’t learning about it.”

Immediately I saw the flaw in my thinking – by trying to widen my approach, I had opened minds, and now everything was on the table – and I mean this in the best possible way.  To my credit, I acknowledged the “failure” in my approach and said that we would scrap my initial plans and brainstorm on how to approach this “complication.”  WE decided to research a list of genocides in history, form groups, and teach each other about them.  I would teach about the genocide in the Congo, other students would pitch me ideas and present on events where they felt connected.  After all of my classes did the initial research, the list was shared between all four classes, and we came up with a game plan on how to research, what needed to be in the presentations, etc.  WE then had it all formalized into an assignment sheet and it was sent home with a written explanation.  WE asked parents to give input, to let us know of any other ideas that they might have about events in their own cultural backgrounds.  So many students came into class excited to tell me that they had no idea that this had happened in so many other places in the world and that they couldn’t wait to do the research.  I told them that I would present on the Congo Genocide and would do the research and work alongside them.

The presentations were amazing and I learned so much from my students.  Most importantly, I learned that I didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility to know EVERYTHING in history -that I had classes full of motivated researchers in front of me every day.  I will now leave this assignment open every year for topics and I have broadened this approach to everything I teach.  I put this on my class syllabus that goes home and I say it to parents on back to school night – please let me know what you think we are missing.  If you have a personal connection to history and want to share, let us know.  If you think I missed something important, let me know.  I will do my best to teach about a broad range of topics, but I can never cover everything and I cannot possibly know everything.

To bring this post full circle, I would encourage the author of this Tweet, and you, to reach out to your schools and teachers when you have similar thoughts and feelings.  History is passionate and important to everyone – we need to build a community where we can learn from one another.  If you don’t get a response, then take other actions.  But please, I implore you, reach out to the teacher first.  When we take to social media first, we confirm often wrong assumptions, something I try so hard to make sure my students never do.  Just because you or your child didn’t learn about something in your class, doesn’t mean others aren’t doing a great job.  Perhaps this teacher missed this point, but does amazing things on other topics.  Just give them the chance to learn with you and your child.  Education is a boat we are all surely in together and we all want what is best for our students.  I never want a student, or parent, to feel that they are marginalized or ignored in my class.  This is also why I allow my students to choose their own topics for the research paper, but this is a topic for another blog.

Below are some of my resources for teaching about Leopold.  It is difficult to fully translate the full classroom experience and our discussions, but I tried to give some highlights of the lesson below.  Much of my information comes from King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Step 1 Do Now –

  • Interpret the following poem – think – who was Leopold? Why would he be burning in Hell? How does the poem tie into the picture?  What questions do you have/want to know more about?

“Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost

Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host,

Hear how the demons chuckle and yell

Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.”

 – it is important to allow students to discuss in small groups after they have had a chance to write down some ideas. Ask for textual evidence when students volunteer to the large group discussion.  

 – Step 2 – set geographical context.  How can such a small nation come to enslave a much larger nation?

Step 3 – Why were the hands cut off?  State officials would see to it that the victors severed the hands of dead warriors.  During expeditions, Force Publique soldiers were instructed to bring back a hand or head for each bullet fired, to make sure that none had been wasted or hidden for use in rebellions.  A soldier with the chilling title “keeper of hands” accompanied each expedition.  Force Publique soldiers were slaves who had been press-ganged through hostage taking or stolen as children and brought up in child colonies founded by the king and the Catholic Church

Step 4 –  we now discuss what else we see in this photo.  I have students create questions about it.  I let them brainstorm and we discuss.  One of the most important questions is often overlooked – who took the picture and why?  When I put this question to the class, their conversation takes an entirely different course as we try to figure out the purpose of the picture.  These photos were taken to counter King Leopold’s powerful propaganda machine and his being reinvented as a Christian philanthropist.

Step 5 – I then read some excerpts from Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone  to make a connection to more current events in the same area of the world.  I then ask the students why – what did the Europeans want from these people then and today?  I explain that Leopold wanted rubber from the trees.  Why?  What were new inventions that would make the value of rubber rise so much?

Step 6 – How did these “examples” lead to European domination of the Congo?

  • As reported by George Washington Williams – an African-American journalist who wrote a letter to King Leopold. He was informing the King of what his representatives were doing in order to gain territories from the Africans – he gave several specific examples:
  • “A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand, the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet.… When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.”
  • “The white man took a percussion cap gun, tore the end of the paper, which held the powder to the bullet, and poured the powder and paper into the gun, at the same time slipping the bullet into the sleeve of the left arm. A cap was placed upon the nipple of the gun, and the black brother was implored to step off ten yards and shoot at his white brother to demonstrate his statement that he was a spirit, and, therefore, could not be killed. After much begging the black brother aims the gun at his white brother, pulls the trigger, the gun is discharged, the white man stoops . . . and takes the bullet from his shoe!”
  • The Europeans also often gave bottles of gin to the leaders

Step 7

  • King Leopold never saw a drop of blood and never stepped foot in the Congo.

An account in 1884 describes the actions of an officer against those who refused to collect rubber or failed to meet their quotas – “I made war against them.  Once example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies ever since.  My goal is ultimately humanitarian.  I killed a hundred people… but that allowed five hundred others to live”

There was no written language in the Congo when the Europeans arrived – therefore, history is skewed, as, instead of African voices, there is largely silence.

8 million dead (most likely much more) in this one nation – comparison to Jewish Holocaust.  Why is this not in the textbook?

Step 8 – role of propaganda and the importance of media literacy

  • Henry Stanley – “American” journalist – was actually from Wales and was a bastard – he even changed his name.
  • He fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War and was captured at the Battle of Shiloh. He was sent to a prison camp in Chicago where he was promised freedom if he fought for the Union – which he did.  He was assigned to the USS Minnesota that wound up shelling a Confederate fort – so he fought on both sides.
  • Livingstone was a celebrity – he had “explored” throughout Africa and was the first all-white to cross Africa from coast to coast. He disappeared for five years on another journey – Stanley set out to find him.
  • Leopold II – was largely ignored by his father growing up and was left to his own devices. He was only the second ruler of Belgium – a newly independent country. He thought the country to be too small (half the size of West Virginia) and wanted to expand his kingdom through imperialism.  He was also upset that kings were losing power to constitutionalism and wanted more power – his own colony would allow him full autonomy.
  • Eventually, Leopold used Stanley to do his bidding and set up a one-man colony under the guise of philanthropy.

Step 9 – Video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5z4M1dPYZ4 .  I ask the students to pay particular attention to the museum curator towards the end and why he thinks that having a museum paid for and dedicated to Leopold is acceptable.

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In AP Euro, I took this lesson a bit further and had the students read and annotate Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy –  the entire text can be found online http://diglib1.amnh.org/articles/kls/twain.pdf – I print it and have the students mark up the text and answer the following questions when they complete the reading:

King Leopold’s Soliloquy – Mark Twain

Answer these questions on lined paper – you do not have to rewrite the question, just write your answers after the number.  Be sure to give specific textual evidence to back up your answers.

  1. What questions do you have?
  2. What sources were made to make the argument against Leopold by Mark Twain?
  3. Bullet some of the evidence amassed of the atrocities – include the page number from the writing
  4. List Leopold’s defensive arguments
  5. How did Leopold stop information of the atrocities from becoming widespread?
  6. What was the one form of media Leopold could not stop? Why?
  7. What makes Leopold II’s actions different from other rulers?
  8. Why was Leopold not tried for his crimes?
  9. What one item stuck out to you the most, why?
  10. How many died?
  11. How does this compare to the Jewish Holocaust?

 

A Human Humanities Course

When I first began as a teacher, the advice I was given was to not let the students see me smile until Christmas and to not divulge any personal information.  Now in my fifteenth year of teaching, I realize how true it is to say only a Sith deals in absolutes.  (I always wonders who reads my blog – pop culture nerds or educators?  lol).  I have allowed myself to be more flexible and to see my students as individuals and humans – I also try to have them see me in the same way.  Don’t get me wrong, we can also go too far the other way by obliterating the line between teacher and student.  There is a lot of my personal life that will never be discussed with my students and, likewise, I would never ask from my students.  That being said…

Image result for only siths deal in absolutes

Facebook is great for reminding us of what we did on a certain day throughout the years – it is often wonderful to see memories that have been posted.  However, it can also remind us of a painful time and today was one of those days.  My son suffers from a rare form of Meningitis – so rare, that we often need to explain it to medical professionals.  We are lucky enough to live in the Philadelphia area with so many wonderful hospitals, doctors, nurses, etc (we have been frequent customers at CHOP and St. Christopher’s — have also traveled a bit south to visit the amazing Johns Hopkins), and to have solid health insurance (don’t even get me started on the the healthcare debate in our country).  My son continues to suffer from migraines, body pain, extreme fatigue, and can even be hospitalized for days on end.  He has undergone so many tests and evaluations, but the best prognosis we have been given is that he will hopefully grow out of it – maybe by age nine.  This year, my little man turned nine and it just hit my wife and I – perhaps this is just something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.  Facebook often shows me pictures of him in different hospitals over the years, and this morning was one of those memories in my timeline.  He often has to miss out on so much with friends and it can translate into struggles at school as well.  As an example, we were at Camden Comic Con yesterday – it was a smaller convention on the campus of Rutgers University.  We had taken a break and were sitting in a lobby (we always need to schedule breaks for my son on any trip so that he does not get too fatigued – this is what will lead to hospitalization), when he asked if he could sit in my lap.  My first response was to tell him no – he is too big to be sitting in my lap.  But then I saw THAT look on his face – where I could tell he was in pain but wouldn’t tell me.  I quickly pulled him into my lap as I honestly just didn’t care what any passing adult might think.

My father, (my hero – a Philadelphia Cop) suffered through ALS for about two years and died five years ago this August.  I had to watch this proud man suffer the wrath of a disease that continually shut down his body while keeping his mind 100% sharp and intact until the bitter end.  He was the type of man who never wanted to rely on anyone or to ever ask for help – but he also had the most amazing sense of humor.  It was so hard to watch him have to rely on me as our roles switched and I took care of him.  I won’t get into much more detail here, I’ll get to my point soon.  My Dad died on the first day back to school and I decided to not take any time off and just dedicated myself to my students and the all important beginning of the year.

Here’s my point, and one I make to my students.  We are are human.  We all struggle.  We all need help and are often afraid to ask for it.  There might be a reason why a teacher, or student, was snippy or short with someone.  You never know what someone is going through as they come to school each day.  I know so many teachers who are suffering through horrendous circumstances, yet they come to school every day with a smile and nothing but encouragement for their students.  I also know that students come to school also dealing with serious issues.  I have shared some of my experiences with my students and they have with me as well.  I see heroic deeds in front of me every day.  I try to keep this in mind when a student has a “bad” day – I force myself to take a breath and think about what is happening that has nothing to do with me.  I am also a firm believer in restorative practices with my students – I truly believe that 99% of what happens in the day is never personal.

Image result for a hero can be anyone dark knight rises

Oddly enough, perhaps, when President Trump ordered 59 missiles to be fired into Syria, all of these thoughts came to mind and I decided to scrap what I was doing on 4/7 and to teach about the events in Syria. (I am a firm believer that teachers, especially social studies teachers, need to make connections to the real world, even if it is outside of the proscribed curriculum).  I knew that my high school students would have questions and that many would have heard different things – some true and some not.  I also knew that some would fear a coming war, attack, etc and would just increase their anxiety.  However, as we are heading into the Jewish Holocaust, I also thought this to be the perfect vehicle to discuss the false concept of “never again” and today’s modern atrocities.  I had a comic book in mind to use at some point, and this was the perfect time.

Image result for madaya mom

Madaya Mom was put together by ABC News and Marvel Comics – it is available for free and even has a teacher discussion guide – http://abcnews.go.com/International/deepdive/madaya-mom-mother-struggle-survival-syria-civil-war-42362213 .  Xana O’Neill, Rym Momtaz, and Dalibor Talajic have put together this amazing resource and have made it easy to access.  The videos that accompany the comic are very insightful – take a look for yourself.  This was put together after they came across a mother in Syria who was putting out information on social media about the struggles of her and her family.

When I looked through the teacher discussion guide, I came across the idea of asking students to reflect on a time in their lives when they felt powerless.  This is the moment when my lesson plan completely came together.  My Do Now was exactly that – think of a time in your life when you felt powerless and what steps you took to overcome it.  The students then shared with their partners (we sit in collaborative tables of four) and I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to the larger group.  This was one of the only times that I did not walk around the room and interact with students as they worked on the Do Now – I did not want them to feel uncomfortable with my presence.  I was astonished with what my students were willing to share and how much of a need for expression I had tapped into.  I will not share their responses here to respect their privacy.  I reacted to each volunteer, even taking the time to thank students for their bravery and to put my hand on their shoulder.  I think I took them a bit by surprise when I shared my own times of feeling powerless – both as a father and a son.  After speaking of my son, I related a particular time of powerlessness for me.  He was given a spinal tap (one of several through the years) and was too young to be given a sedative.  Four adults had to hold him down in the fetal position (I must admit a bit of pride there – strong lad!), and my job was to maintain eye contact with him and to talk with him so that he cold be as relaxed as possible.  I then told my students that I love them – that I do call them my kids and that I feel the same way when I see them struggle.

After this discussion, the students were all wondering why I had brought this all up – they know that I am notorious for making everything tie into academia, and this was no different.  I told them that, when I began teaching at 25, I thought I understood the Holocaust.  I “knew” that all the Germans were evil and that I would have stood up and protected my Jewish students.  But then I had kids.  I now have a better understanding, an understanding that I will never by able to fully comprehending these times.  No longer was life a simply choice – I now had to protect my own children.  I would like to think that I would still be the outspoken fighter for justice – I just now understand that, to say the least, life is more complicated.

We then related all of this to a mother in Syria. A mother who had used social media in an attempt to get the world to help.  To get the world to care.  For me, 18 million dead in the African Holocaust, some 4 million in Holodomor, 6 million Jews, etc – is just impossible to comprehend.  I am a visual person, but photos of ghastly images cause the brain to shut down.  But if I read about one person or one family – this personalization of  history gets through to me in a profound way.  Madaya Mom is a way to get this type of story and to make the events more accessible.  I want my students to be able to relate to people in these events as, well, people.  I want them to see them as normal people caught up in extraordinary events.  I believe Madaya Mom, again, is an amazing way to make this happen.

My students were chomping at the bit during this entire introductory phase to talk about the missile launches into Syria – I had heard some asking each other why we weren’t talking about it and were instead talking about our own lives in the Do Now.

I finally explained what we were doing and turned them loose on the internet (we are a one to one school) with some guided questions to find out about the civil war in Syria and why we were involved.  The final question was one that pulled it all together – I asked the students to write down whether or not the US should send in more ground troops and to defend their answers.  These types of culminating questions are so important – students should not only know how to research, they should also understand the impact of world events on their own lives.  They need to think for themselves and be able to defend their ways of thinking.  This research was done on their own – I wanted to see what resources they used to find information.  We had just spent several lessons researching fake news and source credibility – this was the perfect way to put this teaching to the test.

In 30 minutes, students were able to pair-share their responses and sources – I was impressed with their ability to gather a solid understanding of the history and current events in Syria.  Some even made the Jewish Holocaust connection on their own and began to discuss.  We then talked as a large group, looked at some maps, and discussed the impact of geo-politics on the region.  We discussed Obama and Trump’s choices in the region, the roles of the US and Russia and other players, etc.

For the next class, we will be reading the Madaya Mom comic and watching a video (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/teachers-guide-discussing-madaya-mom-students/story?id=42419439) Students will be asked to create a document with the one panel in the comic that stood out the most to them.  They will then have to explain the meaning of the image and why they chose it – using specific textual (visual) evidence.  Students don’t just read comics in my class as a “neat” thing to do – there are real analytical reading and writing skills involved – more so than in traditional text and writing.  We will then share them as a class and I will share my choices.  The next step is to Skype with a member of the Madaya Mom team – my students will come up with questions ahead of time.  My hope is that this becomes a call to action for my students – and not just for Syria.

I will update my blog when we do this next step on the week of 4/17 – currently on Spring Break!!!!!  I am truly thankful for the ABC News and Marvel team for not only creating this resource, but also for making it accessible to us all.  I was able to show the comic and lesson plan to educators at the Camden Comic Con at Rutgers University on 4/8.  The lesson was well received and I believe others will now be using it as well.

 

Big picture – we are all human.  We all have scary times of vulnerability – if we could internalize this, I truly believe our shared humanity would be the better for it.  I would love to hear your thoughts or suggestions in the comments below.

 

Update – 4/17

Since we were off of school for a week, students came in and were asked to summarize what has been happening in Syria – and what had just happened over the week-end.  I was impressed with the ability of my students to remember what we had talked about a week ago and many were drawn to the news when they heard about the recent bus bombing in Syria.  There were a lot of questions – what will the US do, what is Russia doing, I heard there were talks being set up, who was behind the bombing, etc – students were now personally involved in the ongoing events in Syria and it showed.

We then watched this video about the making of Madaya Mom http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/teachers-guide-discussing-madaya-mom-students/story?id=42419439 and students were asked to reflect on the video.  Rym Momtaz does a wonderful job of making this difficult topic easy to access and more human and personal.  We focused on why this was made into a comic book – how we are a visual society, how it might help readers to connect, etc.  Students were impressed that social media and text messaging were able to help get the word out of a struggling mother and her family.  Again – the students were now emotionally and personally involved.  It was also noted how text messages were being sent in Arabic – students had assumed that texts were just sent in English. We were also able to discuss the breaking up of Yugoslavia and why Dalibor Talajic was chosen to draw the comic. (over and over, the students remarked about the powerful illustrations and how they were able to connect to Madaya Mom through them.  In their reflections, students wrote about tearing up and becoming emotional due to Talajic’s work).   We will be discussing these events later in the year during the Cold War, so we will be coming back to this comic again.  The students also thought it was powerful that ABC News and Marvel comics took the time to get out this message when it seems like many in the world don’t care.  When Axel Alonso (editor-in-chief at Marvel) came on the video to discuss making the comic and why Marvel was quick to jump on was a great moment for many students – comics are not just capes and tights – we all know how comics are societal artifacts and can cause real change.  This really brought together the core of my teaching and why comics are so important.  Many comics tackle tough topics about our world today and are written on a deep and analytical level.  As educators, we need to reinforce the power of this medium as another way to engage students in a meaningful and intelligent way. Superheroes truly are all around us and Madaya Mom is certainly of them.

Students were then able to quietly read the comic and answer the following:

Read the comic.  When done, go back and choose one panel.

Write –

  1. Why did you choose this panel? (The power of Talajic’s images is such that students had a tough time choosing only one panel to discuss and analyze).
  2. How did it make you feel? Use specific textual evidence.
  3. What connections did you make to history/current events?
  4. Explain the meaning of the panel – describe it using specific textual evidence
  5. What questions do you have for the creative team?

This is the power of comics – we are able to focus on skills – close reading, textual evidence, etc while reading a powerfully visual text.  I will then collect the responses and send the student questions off to ABS News to prepare for our Skype session next week.

I did share my own thoughts on panels that I had chosen and why – such as

The use of angles and loneliness in this image are just so powerful.  In one image, I am able to garner an entire story about this woman and how she must be feeling.  The bare cupboards, the cracking walls, the look on her face – all powerfully resonated with me as a father.

Student reflections –

#1 –

#2 –

“This image made me feel some sort of responsibility for how helpless they are depicted. In the comic, most of the people’s mouths are not even drawn. I take this to depict how they feel like they don’t have and say/their words mean nothing. It makes me feel responsible for this because how I feel that I have to spread the awareness so the people in this picture, hopefully, will know that they are heard.”

“It made me truly realize how much I love my family and that I would make any decision to save them from experiencing this kind of pain”

The use of black creates a sense of darkness, isolation, and the scariness of the unknown. Splattered paint makes me imagine the mental/emotional state of the characters… “They had to step in their friend’s blood” – wow.

This comic made me feel grateful for what I have in my life… one time, during a snowstorm, we lost all power – it was very cold at night even under all the blankets… my power was out only for a few days makes me feel horrible for this family.

Panel #32 – throughout the comic, I felt teary-eyed and tried not to cry, but once I reached this panel, I hit a breaking point… it just shows Madaya Mom’s hope deteriorating. Her goal is to keep her kids alive no matter what it takes, but at this moment, she says that “death is more merciful than what they are going through now”

Seeing them sleep together pulls at the heart strings as we connect with them as a family.

This made me feel bad for the daughters because they look traumatized. The one girl on the left is clamping her fists together to show how angry she is. The other, however, looks as if she can’t even hold herself together because she is leaning on her mother who is trying to calm the girls down.

…Her sprawled position on the floor shows how helpless and weak she feels.

#3. We discussed the connection to the Battle of Stalingrad, Holodomor, German Hyperinflation from the 1920s, etc – all through the power of visualizations and how our minds connect to make meaning.  The most obvious connection was to the Jewish Holocaust – this even led us to make a parallel to Anne Frank – what if she had a cell phone and social media?  Could she have gotten out her story?  Would anyone have cared?  Would anything have been different?

This made me think of things that happen in the US – school shootings. I instantly thought of this because the panel has to do with girls watching their friends suffer from an event at school.

9/11 and the helplessness felt by the people in the buildings when they knew they were going to die.

I can connect as a lot of my family lives in Venezuela – not as bad as Syria, but – is currently going through a severe economic recession. There are protests that have been going on since 2014.  Violence is at an all-time high. People can’t earn enough money because of inflation to buy groceries ro medeicine.

#5. Why isn’t the Syrian government letting these people get aid?

Why is the mom called a superhero when the dad is there as well?  Did he have any role?

Why is the comic in black and white/muted colors?  Was this a conscious choice?

Is the family still alive and in contact?

Do you think Marvel has a future in other current event journalism type pieces?

In the comic, the characters are not making eye contact with the reader – why?

Has this comic made a difference?  Had the US or Syrian government responded?

Has the Syrian government tried to find her and silence her?

What was the most challenging part of this process?

What feedback have you gotten from the comic?

How do YOU feel when reading her texts? Do you feel powerless or empowered?  What goes through your mind on a personal level? (to the creative team)

Why don’t more people know/care about what is happening?

How did you initially find Madaya Mom?

How do you know what Madaya Mom is saying is true?

Did she tell you other things that you decided not to publish?  If so, why?

Will there be a Madaya Mom #2?

How much artistic license was used in drawing the panels?  How did you know what to draw with no pictures?

How does Madaya Mom feel about her story being published?

Will you create comics for other struggling people around the world?

What do you want the reader to take away from the comic?

What is your opinion about the USA stance on taking in refugees?

WHAT CAN WE DO?

 

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Next step – Skyping with members of the team who made this resource available for all of us.  I will have students ask questions as we discuss what we have learned about in class.  Stay tuned for the next update on 4/24!

4/18 – As we are currently learning about WWII and the Jewish Holocaust, the students are also researching other genocides throughout history – Cambodia, Holodomor, Armenia, etc — the students asked to form a team to research the events during the break-up of Yugoslavia because of Talajic’s emotional testimony in the video we watched and what he witnessed!  Wow – the students have amazed me their genuine interest and ability to personally connect to the events in Syria through this comic.  They see what the power of journalism, and yes, comics can accomplish in the world.  Talajic’s artwork had a strong impact on the students as well.

And Now – an update from ABC – http://abcnews.go.com/International/thousands-bused-mass-evacuation-besieged-syrian-towns/story?id=46788854 — my students will be reading about this as well before the Skype session next week. Heartbreaking.

 

4/24/17 – Update.

Wow – Today was one of the most memorable days I have had in 15 years of education.  We had the honor of Skyping with Rym Momtaz and Xana O’Neill today for 30 minutes.  The experience was funny, human, sad, empowering, and inspiring all at the same time.  After the session ended, my students immediately began to brainstorm ideas on how we can help – we decided to present Madaya Mom to our clubs and to get as many students involved as possible.  I am going to take a backseat on this – I want the students to lead the charge.  Students no longer felt helpless when learning about depressing news – they knew that they were part of a larger world – the walls of the classroom had been successfully broken down.  Xana and Rym shared their personal feelings with my students and how they sometimes questioned themselves if they were doing enough.  We told them that they should feel empowered, as now three classes of students felt a personal connection to a far away place and people – something not easily done with all the distractions in today’s world.

I have never Skyped before and was so nervous to make this happen – but it was simply amazing.  The buzz from the students continued when the bell rang an I cannot wait to begin planning the next steps with them.  I will update this again after I have had more time to digest and to come back down to earth a bit.  I will go through my notes from today and share specific responses in the upcoming days.

 

Star Wars and Totalitarianism/WWII

 

 

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Most of us Star Wars nerds know that it is, in part, based off of real events – including WWII.  The book, Star Wars and History, gives great insight to those unfamiliar with these ideas.  (while on the topic, I would also suggest buying Star Wars Propaganda as an awesome resource that comes with posters.  Also – check out https://thirteenthfloor.us/ for some absolutely amazing photos incorporating WWII and Star Wars – I bought two sets for my classroom – I have my students compare them to the original photos and we discuss why we need to make sure our sources are credible).  Here are some resources for incorporating Star Wars into the classroom – I am not going to blog this time about my exact lesson plans, but more wanted to share some ideas.  I’d be happy to answer any questions and would be excited if anyone would be willing to share with me what they have used.

Image result for star wars WWIIImage result for star wars WWII

Cult of Personality – what a great intro to being a BLERD (http://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/10/12/blerds-the-beauty-of-nerdism/)   ) and some great “historical” music I loved growing up.  We need to get past hero worship and see leaders for fallible people who are like you and I.

Speaking of propaganda… Important to point out the racism inherent in this clip as well.

I also have my students use the below Star Wars comic book earlier in the year to teach close reading skills.  As this comic is from the Storm Trooper point of view, they need to go through and pick out the evidence that is given in the comic.  They then write an argumentative based essay on this evidence to answer the prompt – are Storm Troopers good or evil?  -We have had some fascinating discussions in the classroom based on individual student interpretations of the source material.  It is a great lesson to teach skills apart from content – often difficult to do in a content rich course like social studies.  Again, I’d be happy to share more and would be happy to see any suggestions you may have as well. (Issue #21).

Image result for star wars comic 21

 

 

Watchmen, Dylan, Counter Culture, and Close Reading

When reading through the class textbook (McGraw-Hill’s United States History and Geography 2016) and planning ahead on a new section, I came across an aside box on Bob Dylan that got me thinking.

I love playing music throughout the year – we often annotate hip hip to discuss modern social and political issues and Dylan was an obvious tie-in.  I also thought about a beautiful book I had in my classroom – Bob Dylan: Revisited.  13 Graphic Interpretations of Bob Dylan’s Songs from Norton (ISBN 9780393076172). Copyright 2009.  I began to page through and chose the graphic interpretation of Blowin’ In The Wind, illustrated by Thierry Murat to use in our lesson.  Here is how my lesson worked out –

My PowerPoint – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B4dp60FXADRoSS1CNWlDVWY0VVk

Day 1 Step 1 – Do Now – take out a piece of paper.

  1. While listening to the song – Every Breath You Take – write down what you think the meaning of the song is and how it makes you feel. (annotate – give textual evidence)
  1. Read pp. 728-731 – bullet why people were upset and/or scared about events in the world. Don’t read every word – skim. (We had a class discussion on what it means to skim through a reading.  The students were surprised that I was instructing them to not read everything.  I explained how this is a literacy skill as well – just to get an idea of what we will be reading more in depth.  Students wrote about a lot of reasons why Americans were “nervous” – fear of nuclear war, civil rights protests, unequal distribution of wealth, putting an end to apathy, Vietnam War, free speech protests, Berkeley student protests, etc).
  2. Define the term “counterculture”.  (We also discussed what it meant to be counterculture today – surprisingly tough, as, in a good way, US culture is much more diverse today and difficult to tie down to “mainstream” – perhaps hipsters?)
  1. You will listen to Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Think – what is this song about? Write down the meaning of the song. YOUR opinion no wrong answer. Give an example from the song. (evidence) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G58XWF6B3AA
  2. We will now take a look at a graphic representation of the song. You are to write on each panel – what is going on? We will then discuss – does this representation match your explanation of the song? (I bought 7 copies of the Bob Dylan Revisited book – one for each table of four students.  Students were tasked with writing a one-two sentence summary of each drawn panel.  What does it represent?  Students were NOT allowed to ask me what the graphic meant – it was up to them to make meaning.  When we discussed their interpretations as a class, they needed to supply textual/visual evidence for their answer.  This is an important skill in my room – having students understand that there is not always a “right” answer – but that they need evidence to back up their thinking.) Below is one page from Murat’s awesome interpretation.  We did this page together and eventually decided it was about WWII (looked like planes from WWII), WWI (barbed wire), but could not agree on the third panel – many thought the wind was whispering about the evils of war.

  1. Remember what you wrote about the meaning of Every Breath You Take?
  2. We will watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAqBuHXbUns (Sting Explains) to discuss what songs really mean and how they can be taken out of context – but it is up to the listener to make meaning . Compare it to what you wrote down.  (Many students were surprised that this was actually a “stalker” song and that Sting was ok with listeners interpreting it as they wanted).  I then collected the Do Now sheets.

Day 2 – Step 2

  • Annotate the Times They Are a-Changin’ lyrics sheet
  • There are no wrong answers – what do YOU think it means?
  • Then we will pair/share

  • You will now draw five panels from Dylan’s Times They Are a Changin’ song, using the annotations you completed. Draw a representation of what each stanza means to you. Does it represent you? The World? The Past?  The Present?  (again – a focus was on textual evidence – why did students choose to draw what they did?  What in the song made them think this way?
  • We then went through the Watchmen images in my PowerPoint (https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B4dp60FXADRoSS1CNWlDVWY0VVk) before watching the opening credits to the movie.  I also explained how Watchmen changed comics and how superheroes changed in the 80’s to match society (Frank Miller’s Batman as an example).  This was the counterculture of my childhood.
  • We then discussed my thoughts on the song – see my PowerPoint.
  • To finish, we looked at some songs and images to again discuss the importance of textual/visual evidence and individual interpretation (see PowerPoint)  – this was a fun way to wrap up the two day lesson and to review the needed skills.  Some examples –

A great song to use is Pumped Up Kicks – sounds cheery – until you realize what the song is actually about….

I would GREATLY appreciate any comments and suggestions below — this is the first time I have taught this course and I am always looking to improve.  I will say – my students were completely engaged and had a lot of fun – while also learning history and literacy skills – I was pleased. (I’ll have to upload some of my student drawings when I have them graded)

Teacher Wars

Can we agree to end the teacher wars?  I am a huge proponent of using social media as an educator who has been inspired by so many around the world.  However, Twitter only gives us so many characters and this can lead to overstatements, misunderstandings, and even sadness.  Feel free to disagree with me – but this has been on my mind a lot lately.  I see many posts stating an absolutist stance on a topic – one that can unintentionally make others feel angry, disillusioned, frustrated, or ready to throw in the towel.

Worksheets = bad, boring, uninspired

Lecture = bad, boring

Technology = perfection – has to be infused in EVERY lesson

No teacher desk = only way to set up a classroom

Paperless classroom – ONLY way to go – don’t you love the environment?  Paper is so 2008.

Project Based Learning, guide on the side/not the sage on the stage = only way to teach because it is authentic and is a complete representation of the current world and workplace.

Students need to want to come to your class every day or you aren’t interesting/engaging/fun enough

Students must never use the textbook = evil!  (Instead, they should only read comics and graphic novels – lol!)

Homework = waste of time, stress on students.

Etc, etc, etc.

 

I think everything has its place – I am not against any of the above practices/ideas, but feel that we need a varied approach.

So much can be done with a “worksheet” – empowering questions, deep thinking, and analysis are but a few.  Same can be said for the dreaded guided reading packet – yikes!  It all comes down to this – what are you putting into those worksheets and packets?  Are they engaging and encourage deeper level thinking?  Do they give students pause and a chance to reflect with specific textual evidence? Can they form opinions based on evidence?  However, we also need some lower level questions as well – there is a place for them in our teaching as we learn.  I have had some amazing experiences in my classroom that came from “just” a worksheet.

Lecture I LOVE listening to engaging lectures – isn’t that why Ted Talks are all the rage?  I loved it when history professors would just go off on a topic and tell the most amazing and personal stories of historical actors.  Funny thing is – my students love my lectures as well – perhaps it is just the name.  Lecture. Perhaps we should call it presentation, or personally guided engaging chat.  However – lecturing all day every day is certainly not in the best interest of anyone.  We also need to turn the mic over to students as well – let them lecture.

Technology – I am lucky enough to work in a one to one laptop district, let me put this up front.  If you don’t have access to tech – it is not your fault, you are not doing any damage to your students, and they will be able to find gainful employment in the 21st century world.  Even with all of the access to tech, there are days when I will not allow students to bring out a device – there are many instances when the students tell me how much they need a break from all the screen time.  That they want to talk with their table partners, not interact via an online discussion.  However – technology also allows us to interact with classrooms around the world, to virtually visit museums, discuss with authors, share our learning with the world, etc.  Again – everything has its place.  I will say this – I sent a survey out to dozens of universities and asked History Professors to share their experiences with students and their preparation for higher education.  Just about all responded that their students do not have a dearth of technological skills – but that they are weakest in writing a cohesive and analytical argument.  The second most mentioned need was a basic background knowledge so that they can readily interact and contribute in class discussions.  This is the core of learning and will remain so, not matter the century.

No teacher desk.  This wouldn’t work for me – need a place to grade my 120 research papers, essays, etc throughout the year.  But it is not a wall between my students and I – nor should it be.  Whenever I chat with my students, I am never behind my desk, but in the classroom.  I do not lecture from my desk.  I have a wireless doohickey that allows me to present PowerPoints or other smartboard material as I walk around the room – never standing just in front.  Just because there is a desk in my room, does not mean that I sit there all day.  That being said – I have tables in my room, reading chairs and a reading nook, a small rug to lounge on, etc – I like having the flexibility and warmth in my room – it is a home.  I am there every day – I also want to feel at home.  I do not like walking into rooms with bare cinderblock walls – so depressing.  I have up posters, comics, student work, etc – and I change these throughout the year.

Paperless classroom – I personally do not see the value in getting rid of everything on paper.  In addition to being a social studies teacher, I am also a reading specialist who believes that we are all teachers of reading.  There are so many studies that tell us – pen to paper makes connections.  Students must interact with the text and, yes, this can be done on the computer.  However, in my experience, most students enjoy the tactile feel of paper and even the ease of flipping through the pages.  My students annotate (or close read – whatever jargon we are calling it today) when they read.  They make connections.  They draw.  It is much easier to do this on paper – they tell me this to be true.  We are also currently reading two different comics to learn about the civil rights movements.  One is online (the Montgomery Story) and the other is a paper format – March.  The students are already reflecting that they like the ability to read the paper text better – they have sticky notes and will often show the book to others in the class as they are reading, to point out different panels and discuss.  This is obviously much harder to do while reading on a laptop or other device.  That being said – I would not have even been able to offer the Montgomery Story unless it was free and online.  We were also able to find versions of it in Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi – none of this is available without the technology.

Project Based Learning – again – it is a great tool to use – but not all the time.  There are appropriate times when you do need to be the sage on the stage – it is why you are in the classroom.  You have experience.  You have years of reading and learning.  There are times when the students need to do what they need to do – not everything in life is a choice.  There are books that they need to read.  There are periods of history they need to learn specific things about.  However, there are awesome and engaging projects that we can do and through which I learn a lot!  For instance – I am teaching World History for the first time this year – I am more used to Euro.  I had a legitimate question – what was the role of non-Western peoples in WWI?  I presented this question to my students and turned them loose – no rubric, no minimum number of slides, etc.  As they researched, so did I.  We all presented and we all learned.  I am never afraid to tell students when I don’t know – I am not that sort of sage on the stage.  I also allow my students to choose their research topics for their papers – yes, there are guidelines, a rubric, etc – but they choose the topic which I then need to approve.  This eliminates the 100 papers on the beginning of WWII and allow me to learn along with the students.

Comic Books – I do not teach with comic books every day and in every lesson.  As much as I love them – they are but one tool in my arsenal.  There are some students who will NEVER enjoy reading a comic and will never understand my love for them.  But there are others who can be reached in powerful and engaging ways.  I hated reading Anna Karenina in high school, but I read it and I, begrudgingly, learned a thing or two from the experience.  My point is this – I am guilty of sharing out on social media my successes – but not my failures.  But believe me, I fall on my face.  A lot.  But I give myself the permission to fail (as long as I am not being observed – lol).  Some days, I have an amazing lesson and I delivered it in the most amazing way – but the kids were off.  Or they were not into the topic as much as I – and that’s ok.  We learn, improve, and move on.  If you don’t see the value in using comics as a way to create analytical readers and writers, that’s ok.  I will disagree with you.  But I will not judge you.

Homework – I am going to weigh in here as a parent to three children.  I love that they bring schoolwork home and we can sit and review the day with them.  It is an important window into their worlds and allows me to also give them my own personal insight.  We do need to pay attention to what and how much we assign, true.  I also volunteer after school in a grass roots program that we began to help our underprivileged students.  They come from situations at home that may not be conducive to completing homework – for many reasons.  So I also understand that part of the argument as well – that, for some, homework simply will not get done.  On this topic, I cannot come down definitively on either side.  However, I will not judge a fellow educator as unkind or uncaring because he or she assigns homework.  Nor will I think that teacher is too easy or non-rigorous because he/she does not assign homework.

When we see social media giants tweeting out about these great ideas – that’s awesome.  I have learned so much by so many wonderful educators from around the world.  But there is only a limited amount of characters in a tweet.  Nothing can be absolute in education.  Take it easy on yourself.  Breathe.  Do you.  Be you.  Find success and share it with all of us.  Just be open-minded.  I hope, that should we have an actual face to face dialogue, that we will share our imperfections and that we really do use many tools.  Just because someone has 50,000 followers doesn’t make them any better or worse than you or I.  If you only have one Twitter follower, but have managed to inspire him/her – be happy.  Your job here is done.

I remember, following the birth of my first child, all of the advice that was given to us – some helpful, most not.  My daughter had some issues that made her inconsolable and a truly challenging child.  So many told us that we just to do to ______________ or __________ and everything would be fine. Many judged us as parents – and not in a kind way.  No one knew what we were going through.  Much of this continues to this day – as does a lot of these types of issues for parents.  Be kind.  Do what works for you, your students, and your children.

(I hope I have not left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth after reading this – my intention was to show how we all learn from one another.  There is so much more to say – but, even in a blog post, only limited time and space to do so.  Feel free to comment below.)

Spreading the Nerd Word at GMercyU

I completed my MS Reading Specialist degree requirements at Gwynedd Mercy University in 2008.  I had a unique perspective in being the only male and almost only secondary student in the program.  One of the repeating topics of concern was the idea that boys don’t read, don’t like to read, and were falling behind.  I began to ask what were boys being given to read and remarking on how I didn’t like to read those titles either (I always relate how Anna Karenina almost destroyed my love of reading in high school).  I was lucky enough to have dynamic and open-minded professors who encouraged me to research and write about using comics as one tool to engage these students. ( Here is a link to the paper I eventually wrote – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0q0hv_n2-9xajBkejd5aVd2N3c )

This is the paper and initial research that began to fundamentally change me as an educator – the idea of bringing in my passion to ignite my students.  To bring in a tool that was, at the time, not looked upon with much praise or value.  After writing the paper, however, I still did not implement the use of comics in my classroom- not for several years.  Two people eventually gave me the final push to integrate comics – my own son, designated a “reluctant reader” – and a student with whom I was having difficulty reaching (more of that story here – (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/how-i-use-comic-books-as-a-learning-tool-in-my-social-studies-classroom/) .  I began finding much success and decided to bring my passion to the greater world, beginning in June of 2016 (https://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/06/08/best-worst-year-ever/) .  In 2016, I went from seriously considering leaving teaching, to reinventing myself and loving every minute of it.

Long-story short – I was published in a local newspaper after Dutch Godshalk (@dutchgodshalk)  – an amazing writer – check him out – published an interview with me on the front page of the local paper – http://www.montgomerynews.com/amblergazette/news/comics-in-the-classroom-how-one-wissahickon-teacher-uses-comic/article_aceed392-c658-5dfb-bec2-e339fecacd56.html – when my picture made the front cover, my kids went crazy!  After this was published, Gwynedd Mercy reached out to me to also conduct an interview.  My wife and children were asked to come to the interview and we were met with a catered lunch, bags of goodies for my children, and a most welcoming hostess – Kirsten.  It was such an amazing experience – to be welcomed back by my Alma Mater in such a rewarding manner.  When the interview was published – I was placed on the front cover of the university’s magazine – I am still laughing at the picture.  I received some phone calls and emails from alumni and friends – but the hoopla died down after a few weeks.  However, this was not to be the end of my new relationship with the university. (https://www.gmercyu.edu/career-outcomes/griffin-success-stories/tim-smyth)

Another person from GMercyU, Nick, reached out to me and kept in contact – telling me that he really enjoyed the article and could relate to it in a number of ways.  He then reached out to the dean of education and business and set up a conversation that led to me being invited to be a guest lecturer at the university.  I presented on Jan. 31st, 2017 – almost a decade after I had begun my initial journey at the university.  Needless to say, I was nervous and did not know what to expect – this was the ivory tower, the hallowed halls of post-secondary education.  However, my experience could not have been further from this expectation.  I was able to meet Nick in person (we talked a lot of nerd shop) and then had lunch with the dean and an immensely dedicated education professor – Mary Jo Pierantozzi.  They treated me to lunch in the cafeteria as many students came and went.  They knew many students and interacted with them in a family-friendly manner.  We did not eat in an executive dining room, set apart from the masses.  I was thoroughly impressed with the sense of community I was experiencing at Gwynedd Mercy.  We talked shop about education and, by the end of lunch, had so many ideas on how to change the world and education!  These were not the stand-offish academics that I had unfairly stereotyped in my mind.  These were real people with real passions – fired up about education and making a difference.

When lunch was over, we walked to the room where I was to present.  Nick was awesome as he helped me transport my boxes and graphic novels to and from my car.  Not knowing what to expect, as any educator, I over-prepared and wasn’t able to just pick a few good examples.  The students were standing outside of the room, waiting to go in.  I did not know what to expect from them either – but, as a teacher of juniors and sometimes seniors in high school, these college students didn’t look all that different.  Again – I noticed the warm interactions between the adults and students, even as we waited for the classroom to be cleared.  As we shuffled in, the tech department rep made sure I was set up and comfortable (after we talked some nerd shop! – seriously, I have found in my travels, that everyone is a fan of comics – to one degree or another).  I was introduced and then began my presentation.

The crowd was a mix of professors and students – approximately 40 in total.  I had to laugh internally when many of the students pulled out notebooks and began to write down some of the information I was sharing.  Me – college students were taking notes on me!  Ha!  I always start out shaky and nervous, but then the passionate nerd in me takes over and I just start talking.  Several professors and students asked me some excellent questions and we genuinely interested in the information.  One great question centered on how students relate to comics and each other in my classroom.  That there are cliques and students who would not respond well to comics.  My answer was that comics cut across all social status groups – that while I may not be able to reach every student, there is enough diversity to allow for many personal connections.  We also discussed how being a nerd today is a self-described compliment, that so much has changed since I was in school

I watched the audience as I showed a clip of John Lewis accepting the National Book Award for March.  It is an emotional but quick speech – relating how coloreds were not allowed to have library cards.  Yet, here he was, accepting this book award. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqmYNOPVyO4&t=45s) It was a universal message of hope and redemption and a reminder of why we are educators.  I noticed students nodding their heads and smiling when I discussed the diversity in comics and how we need to see ourselves in our heroes.  When I spoke about the impact of comics on my own children, the audience understood and internalized my feelings.  The presentation went better than I had hoped – I only wish I could have kept them for many more hours.

The first part of my message is always that I am a rigorous and challenging teacher.  My students write, write, and write more – we focus on textual evidence, analysis, annotations/close reading, persuasion – even culminating in writing two research papers a year.  Some people may initially view me, and my presentation idea, as a gimmick or way around rigor.  This could not be further from the truth.  It is after showing how I use comics and visual literacy to promote reading and writing that I begin to win converts.  I show Common Core standards and how comics are a perfect tool to use (one of many) to meet and surpass these standards.  But we also discussed the idea of breaking from the textbook, allowing for imagination, and giving student strengths to show through.  I give GMercyU a lot of credit for having me present – it is still an uphill battle convincing educational leaders of the value of this medium. I loved that I was able to have the audience laugh, be emotional, and to connect on a personal level to comics in education.  I was also able to invite them to an Edcamp which I am running on April 22nd (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/edcamphuman-tickets-30742174672) and to share in a collaborative google doc being shared with educators on how to teach March – (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dwm96U7CfvPtRgc6Azd3mO3bF8wy4z4_i9tGh-1D2Ao/edit?usp=sharing) – I always reinforce the idea that we need to collaborate – social media is such a wonderful vehicle for this idea.  I remember, as a beginning teacher, how confining the four walls of my classroom were – but now, I am co-planning the teaching of March with a teacher in Norway, engaging authors on Twitter, participating in Twitter chats, etc – such a wonderful time to be an educator.

When the presentation was over, I had many students waiting after to speak with me.  One student even asked for my autograph!  Me!  This was certainly a first for me and I was happy to do it.  Students came to shake my hand, tell me their names, and to let me know that they would be in contact with me.  I was humbled by the experience – to know that I might have an impact on a classroom in the future.  That I helped students see beyond standardized testing, observation frameworks, etc.  One student even asked if I would teach a course and if these resources could be included in ongoing college courses.  This is when I began to think that this could be taken to another level – perhaps, one day, I will look into teaching a higher education course on integrating comics on the classroom.

To bring this blog back to a beginning idea – my mental prejudices of higher education were shattered throughout my experiences with Gwynedd Mercy University.  I found passionate, warm, and caring adults who cared deeply for the success and engagement of the young people in front of them.  I was welcomed and made to feel as if I was an official part of the family.  I have already been welcomed back for happy hours and to be kept in the loop for future events.  Many issues in education come from the wide chasm between high schools and universities – there is little interaction between the two (at least in my experience).  I now see that we all need to reach out to one another – to open the lines of communication.  A few years back, I had sent out a survey to PA university professors about their expectations and experiences – the number one comment was that they would be happy to engage with primary and secondary teachers.  I know fully understand the value of this connection and look forward to many more experiences.  To close, I will share an email I received from Dean Pfleger – one which will help me to stay motivated as I spread the nerd word –

Thank you for a wonderful presentation yesterday!   The students and faculty in attendance were thrilled with the information you provided. I think you opened a lot of minds to a new way of presenting material to classrooms. It was a pleasure meeting you and having some time over lunch to chat. You are a remarkable teacher.

 

My parting words – put yourself out there.  Blog. Share your ideas and make connections. You never know where it will lead you – but you’ll never know unless you try.

Twilight Zone and Textual Evidence

twilight_zone

Time Enough At Last

I used the above Twilight Zone episode to tie into my Cold War Unit.  We were discussing the impact of mass media on culture – more tvs, transistor radios, etc.  I remembered watching this episode as a kid and wanted to share it with my students.  It turned into a great skills-based lesson that only took about 35-40 minutes.

Student task-

Write down as many pieces of evidence you can that tells you something about the society in which this TV episode was made.

Evidence that we found:

Lack of diversity – actors/characters were all white

H-Bomb

Paper newspapers and reading paper books – students thought it odd how involved the main character was with reading paper items

Technology – caught reading books – today, people are caught on phones.

No dead bodies – TV was less violent than say, the Walking Dead

Smoking of cigarette

Tape/voice recorder

Payphone

Manual cash register

Fear of a nuclear holocaust

 

I am

I just had a mom email me and ask for help – a mom who is beyond frustrated and is looking for any means to help her autistic child find success in school.  We have all felt this way – with our own biological children or through our school kids.  In this case, she really helped bring to mind my personal passion for comics in education and how it has helped my own kids.  Below is my conversation with her so far……
Thank you for reaching out and for your kind words.  Your story is one I hear often, perhaps too often.  I have also struggled with my own children – my daughter is ODD and my son has a rare form of meningitis.  Comics have been the answer for a lot of their issues and why I have such a personal passion for sharing with other educators and parents.  I have also taught many students on the Autism spectrum and know that a good book – whether a comic or traditional – is often both a blessing and a curse when dealing with their focus.  My heart reaches out to you and I admire your dedication to your daughter.
    Of course, comics are not a panacea – but they are often a great add-in or even reward.  As for the technology piece – I completely understand.  My district has been a one to one laptop institution for a few years now – this has been wonderful, but as you well know, can also cause issues.
     I built an in-home library for my daughter, complete with a swing hanging from the ceiling so that she can go there and read a book to help ease herself when the ODD is especially bad.  She loves reading graphic novels and comics – I credit them for her extensive vocabulary and love of reading.  My daughter is in fifth grade, but is on a high school reading level and this feeds into her frustrations at time.  She feels frustrated with the world and why she is being treated as “just” a child.  We supplement her education at home as well – more for enrichment purposes.  I love her – but there are so many days when I just don’t know how I will survive the day.
     My son was termed a “reluctant reader” early on and had no confidence in his abilities – due in some part to the advanced levels of his older sister.  His teacher cracked down on him and was upset when he would wear superhero shirts to school and thought that his love of superheroes and Star Wars was distracting him from a proper education.  We backed the teacher and even went to the extreme of giving him a plain backpack, plain lunchbox, and plain clothes.  We initially followed the teacher’s directions and thought he was just being defiant.  I have so much regret over taking this route and punishing my son for something was simply was not his fault.  His meningitis plays havoc on his cognitive and physical abilities – he would shut down because of severe fatigue and chronic pain.  
     As a high school social studies teacher, I realize that we often just assume students know how to read at a certain level and often ignore teaching reading skills.  However, I knew that this was a not the case for many of my students and so went back to school to earn a MS degree as a reading specialist.  I brought these skills to bear with my son – I knew, in my heart, that it was just a matter of hooking him with the right reading material.  That being said, I began to indulge our shared loved of superheroes and Star Wars – I began to take him to the comic store and let him pick out books to read with me,  He was so excited and his reading level, and confidence, began to blossom.  Long story short – we pulled him out of that private school and placed him into an awesome public school.  He loves reading everything now – it was an “easy” progression to go from small comics and picture books to illustrated chapter books to full on chapter books.  
     Sorry to write so much – I just have never really shared this story with anyone and your email really touched me.
     So – back to you and your daughter.  
     It may sound simple, but I would suggest taking your daughter to a comic book store – find one in your area.  It is amazing how much these stores and titles have changed over the years.  Try http://www.comicshoplocator.com/ to find a store in your area.  Having her choose the books is a powerful tool – I use it as a reward every Wednesday (it is when new comics are released).  I am often asked for a good comic to begin with – there are simply too many genres from which to choose right now.  I have put some of my books and lesson plans on www.historycomics.net – if you are home-schooling, perhaps it will you give some ideas on where to begin.  My daughter LOVES Manga Classics – https://mangaclassics.com/  – perhaps this would be a good fit for your daughter as well.
    I hope this helps you a bit – hang in there!  Please stay in touch and let me know if there is anything else I can do.
    As teachers, we put aside our personal issues, anxieties, depression, and anger to be there for out students.  Being a teacher is not a job – it is a calling.  Spreading the cognitive and emotional possibilities of comics is, for me, extremely personal.  In the midst of my personal chaos, I have found the most important complement when my son has told me that he wants to be a student in my class.  I hope we all have an open mind and seek to reach students on a personal level.   I know that I have reached unreachable students.  I know that non-valued students find value and solace in my classroom.  I see the importance of recognize multiple levels of intelligence.  We all must see ourselves in our superheroes.  When a Black Spider-Man means more to an African-American student than a Black president….  I can only hope that other educators also give my own kids the same chance.
    I am not sure how this blog post will be responded to – my posts are usually positive and less emotional.  Perhaps I should write more of my own personal experiences.  I know that I have been able relate better to parents in IEP meetings and to connect with them on an emotional and personal level.
   Let me know what you think.

Blerds – the Beauty of Nerdism

“Blackness isn’t just one thing” – Dr. Sheena Howard

 

After a long day of presenting and attending panels at New York Comic Con, my wife met me at the hotel after taking the train up from Philly.  We were both tired – me from a day of “work” and she from a day of teaching.  I told her how impressed I was to meet so many people who were willing to give up their free time to present and learn about using comics in education (more on this later.) We were both hungry, but she knew how much I was looking forward to attending one last panel – Afropunks & Blerds: The Black Nerd Renaissance.  The panel did not even begin until 7:45 (after the con floor was closed) , but I really wanted to see Dr. Sheena Howard speak in person.  Her amazing book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (read my detailed review here – Black Comics Review)  had such an amazing impact on me, that I had looked forward to this panel all day.  Dr. Howard was kind enough to help a student of mine write a research paper and even sent her a signed copy of her book.  Also, I have found such powerful connections with students through comics – especially Miles Morales and Sam Wilson. (read my PBS article here – PBS Article).  I knew that comics were not just for white guys and so wanted to hear more about this topic as it is near and dear to my heart.  So, my wife and I grabbed a hot dog and walked back to the Javits Center.  We arrived a bit early, and I am glad we did – a line quickly formed – people who were also exhausted after a long day, but had hung around just for this panel.  I quickly noticed that we were in the minority – but there were a few other white folks with us.  That being said, in a sense, we were all together in our nerdiness and unique outfits.

When we went in, the room quickly filled up and I was thrilled to see the full panel.  I was looking at one guy at the end and when he was introduced, my mind was blown!  It was Corey Glover – the lead singer for Living Colour!  Then, a few people over, sat Vernon Reid – the guitarist for the same!  I often use the song “Cult of Personality” in my classroom when teaching about dictatorships, social movements, etc — I loved the group growing up and saw them open for the Rolling Stones in 1989 – my first concert.  I remember what a big deal it was having an African-American rock N roll band – and they are awesome.  Wow – but, I thought – why were they on a panel on Black Nerds – were they comics fans?  I was about to be schooled on just what being a Blerd and Afro-Futurist meant.

The idea here is that Blerds are African-Americans who don’t fit into, and who actively fight, the definition of being “Black.”  The idea here is that, to be Black, one needs to listen to hip-hop (only), not be educated, wear baggy pants, etc, etc, – all of the negative stereotypes that our society so unfairly places onto African-Americans.  (Once upon a time, I was known as a “whigger” because I listened to hip-hop and wore my pants baggy.  I never understood how the music I connected with was termed “black”.  I also love Blues music…) As the panel discussed many topics, it became clear that they were all there to share that they had other interests and often faced criticism from within their own “community” and from without.  Some were comic book fans, rock n roll fans and stars, opera fans, gay, and one shared his struggle with depression and anxiety.  Not everyone on the panel agreed on everything, but this only added to the importance of the panel and their discussions.  I was impressed on a human level at their honesty, dedication, and humanity.  These were people who were sharing personal stories and opening their souls – their words resonated with those in the hall and I was in awe of what was happening.  This humanity went right to the very end when David Walker connected with a young audience member who asked a question on the mic and related her own struggles with depression.  In front of the entire room, this man spoke to her – as if it was only the two of them – and opened his heart and humanity to her.  It wasn’t a black thing.  It wasn’t a nerd thing.  It was a human thing.

That’s it – that’s what I love so much about the nerd community in general.  When at SDCC, my own daughter remarked how anyone could be a superhero, that girls could be superheroes, and boys could be princesses – that was one of my proudest moments as a parent.  My wife and I reinforce that we simply want our children to be happy and to treat others well – no restrictions given. I had struggled with my own identity – a white kid who loved N.W.A. and Public Enemy, but also the Cure and comic books – I often felt the need to code switch between groups.  This is in no way to say that I know what it is to be a Blerd, or even African-American, it’s just that what the panelists were saying connected with me.  Here, in the East Coast version of the nerd Superbowl, as a minority white male, I felt like I had found a home of sorts.

As a teacher, I metaphorically live and die through the successes and failures of my students.  I am not one who believes that “we can’t save everyone” or that throwing the one starfish back into the ocean is something of which to be proud.  I carry the failures of my students as personal failures – I love my students and call them my kids, just as I do my own biological children.  I teach all levels of students – from ELL and academic, to honors, gifted, and Advanced Placement – I love the experience and challenges of all students.  One of my biggest upsets involved three African-American female students who were in my one honors course.  They were amazing – I think, in part, they found their confidence in being in the same class together.  Towards the end of the year, I took them aside and told them that I was recommending all three of them for the Advanced Placement course as SOPHOMORES.  I also taught the course, and I looked forward to being lucky enough to teach them a second year.  To my surprise, they told me that they would not take the course.  I could see the nervousness in their eyes as they did not want to disappoint me.  When I asked why, the related how painful it was for them just to walk into my honors class – that their friends made fun of them for acting white.  They knew, that should they take an AP course, that the ridicule would just be that much worse.  I was flabbergasted.  I did not want to pressure them, but I did explain to them that my door was open and that I would speak with their parents.  It wound up that only one of the three took the AP course and she was the only African-American in that course in that school-year.  She found much success, but I also knew that she had suffered loss as a teen and with her friends.  this is what the panel was speaking about – these three were Blerds before the term was even coined.

I was able to reach an African-American male a few semesters back through comics. He was a student of few words – he had the tough guy act down pat.  He wanted to let me know that he didn’t care about school and that he would only do the minimum required, no matter how much I encouraged him.  A brick wall was put up between he and I, until I brought in a comic.  Miles Morales had just been introduced as a superhero – the Black Spider-Man.  His eyes got wide and said – “wait – Spider-Man is Black?”  I could almost see the wall begin to crumble.  For this student, it wasn’t a Black president that made the difference, it was a highly visible superhero who looked like him.  Our relationship changed as I brought him in comics and he stated after class to chat.  We didn’t become best friends and he didn’t turn into a straight A student, but we had connected.  He work ethic improved and he wanted to be in class.  I wasn’t some white dude – I was a fellow nerd.

We are all outsiders to some extent – some more than others.  I thank the members of this panel and I hope these conversations continue.  I hope to see the panel earlier in the day and with a crowd of even more white faces.  I love the diversity in comics – I only hope that the movies and toys catch up soon.  I wish my words could better convey the power of this panel – I can only hope someone caught it on video and that it can be shared with you all.  If you want a starting point on African-Americans in comics, I implore you to buy Dr. Howard’s book – trust me.

We all laughed as a room when references were made to Star Trek and the idea of Futurism – we all had something in common – we are all nerds.  I wish I had taken more notes during the panel presentation, but I was just so enmeshed in what was being said and the collected intelligence and humanity that was taking over the room.

Thank you –

Dr. Sheena Howard

David F. Walker, Corey Glover, Jamie Broadnax, Ytasha Womack, John Jennings, Vernon Reid, and The Blerdgurl herself and an awesome moderator.  Can you come to Philly Wizardworld?  IF so, I am there and I will encourage my students to come – of all backgrounds.

blerds2