It never hurts to ask

…for  chocolate and caffeine.

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Here’s a photo of the summer to-do list that the maintenance staff at my school taped to my door over the summer. It contains a list of the chores that were scheduled to be completed over the two and half months that are quickly coming to a close.

One day over the break, I visited the school to check my in-box in the workroom. My students had entered a contest that last March and I knew that correspondence about the contest would arrive sometime over the summer. Read yesterday’s post for that exciting news!

After checking my inbox, I dashed down the hall to my room just to make sure it was there. If you’re a teacher, you know the feeling!

For the majority of the year, those rooms are our domains. As such, our classrooms are not so much our workspaces, as our homes, albeit our second ones. It’s nice to check in at least once during the summer to see where things have been moved since we left, or to pick up a book to read from our classroom shelves, or to find some papers we need for planning.

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Photo by Mike Marquez on Unsplash

I approached the door to my room and noticed the to-do list. I read through all the mundane, simple cleaning tasks that were to be completed. Most of them were finished, but I decided to add a couple just for fun. I added “chocolate fountain” and “espresso machine” to the bottom because, well… chocolate and caffeine (hello).

Last week, when I dropped back in, I noticed my two requests remained untouched. No line had been crossed through them on the list. Were my requests over budget? Deemed unnecessary? Recognized for the joke they were? Oh, well. Maybe next year.

As I always tell my students when they desire something: “It never hurts to ask.”


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more tales from my middle school ELA classroom. Leave a comment about your BTS thoughts. 

Every Teacher Needs a “Why I Teach” Binder

Reading notes from my current and former students is an instant pick-me-up

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Do you have special notes, drawings, letters or small trinkets that students have given to you over the years?

About two years ago, I finally decided to keep track of those treasures by putting them into a box. However, the box took up so much space in my closet (read this post) that I finally decided to recycle a three-ring binder that I no longer needed for the purpose of holding all these reminders of “why I teach.” I transferred all those loose notes and other gifts into plastic page protectors and then placed all of those into the binder.

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It’s a blessing when students take the time to write a note!

My “Why I Teach” binder is a better solution than that old box; it’s easy to find and doesn’t take up much space since it stores alongside all my other notebooks.

I absolutely love pulling that binder from the shelf every so often for the instant boost it gives me.

Reading the notes and cards and letters from former and current students is such a gift.

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Gifts such as this Christmas tree ornament store nicely in a page protector.

At the end of a particularly long day or week, flipping through my “Why I Teach” binder provides a brief moment of quiet reflection, where I can recall those students who are now in high school or beyond… those students whom I had the pleasure of knowing during their middle school years, which are arguably the toughest years of anyone’s life.

Reading my students’ ideas, their thoughtful gratitude, and their humor brightens my day.

It doesn’t just remind me why I teach, but proclaims it!

 

Understanding Laura Ingalls Wilder through historical context

There’s a standard for that, and students are mastering it.

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Students get it. They are learning to appreciate the historical and cultural contexts of literature. Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

There are two reading standards contained in the Missouri Learning Standards that address the historical and cultural contexts of the literature that students in grades 6-12 read during their education. One standard, coded RL3C, specifically requires students to be able to explain how a story’s plot and conflict reflect historical and/or cultural contexts. The other standard, coded RI3C, requires students to explain, more generally, how a nonfiction text reflects historical and/or cultural contexts.

Both standards reveal educators’ and legislators’ expectations that student readers recognize the era or timeframe in which a narrative or article is written. It could also be said that students are expected to take into account the prevailing attitudes of that era when evaluating, discussing, and even merely appreciating the work.

At an English education conference last week, I noticed how applicable these two standards are to the discussion regarding the removal in June of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s name from a prestigious annual authors’ award given by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), an arm of the American Library Association.

According to an ALA press release, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Formerly called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the prize is now named the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

In effect, the removal of Wilder’s name from the ALSC’s award ignores two things: 1) the values these standards support and 2) the work of teachers (in Missouri, at least) who are actively teaching their students to:

  • recognize and explain the historical contexts of the literature that they read.
  • consider how texts reflect the history of the era in which they were written.
  • appreciate a historical author’s work, including its prejudices and biases, without feeling it necessary to denigrate the author.
    • For example, students are prepared to read Little House on the Prairie and understand that Laura’s descriptions of the Osage Indians reflect her biases and prejudices.  Students can also do this with Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird or any other text they may read.

Let’s give students some credit, ALSC. Thanks to these two standards, students get it. They understand how a piece of literature can be biased, show prejudice, and perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, be considered an important record of a specific time in history.


Thanks for reading! Click like so others can more easily find this post. Follow my blog for more essays on education and, more specifically, middle school ELA.

When my class is your class’ punishment

Since when should writing be a form of punishment?

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Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

This happens every so often: I’ll be talking to other teachers about some discipline issue they experienced during the day where they had to dole out some kind of punishment. More times than I want to remember, they’ll say something like, “So I made him write an essay about…”

Then I’ll think to myself: Great. Here I am trying to teach kids in my middle school language arts class to love writing, to need writing, and to see its value in their lives, and this teacher is using it as a punishment.

And no, this doesn’t happen frequently, but it still happens often enough.

Thankfully, the National Council of Teachers of English took a formal position on the issue as long ago as 1984. Its “Resolution on Condemning the Use of Writing as Punishment” warns that the practice “defeats the purposes of instruction in this important life skill and causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success.”

In other words, punishing students with writing assignments—whether those assignments are paragraphs, full essays, or even merely copying sentences over and over a la Bart Simpson—creates students who associate writing with drudgery.

However, writing should not be a punishment.

Writing should be seen as a diversion where students can express themselves and their ideas in creative and unique ways.

Writing should be seen as the literary art that it is, no matter if students are writing an essay for class, a novel for Wattpad, a screenplay for a contest, or even an entry in their own journal.

Writing should be seen as an intensely personal endeavor that can serve them well as they continue through life.

So punishing a student with a writing assignment does not sit well with me. After all, does punishing a student with the task of writing an essay actually curb the unwanted behavior? Or does it just compound the notion that writing is something to avoid, something no one would ever want or need to do?

When should the act of writing—and, in a broader sense, the act of learning (since writing is one way we learn)—be a form of punishment?

Never.


Click like if you can relate. Also, leave a comment with your own experiences with “writing as punishment.” Follow my blog for more writing about ELA middle school teaching.

Field trip idea: The Outsiders House Museum Opens Soon in Tulsa

Plus: 10 reasons teachers love this book

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It’s hard to find a photo that can be reproduced without violating copyright rules. This older version of the book will have to do for now! Photo: TheeErin on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/theeerin/3319626950

I have a black-and-white poster of The Outsiders in my classroom. One year, I decided to photocopy my picture, cut off my head, and snuggle it in between Darry and Steve. And then I laminated it, so it’s never comin’ off!  My students don’t always notice it right away, but when they do, they crack up to see me with the Greasers.

Obviously, you can tell I love The Outsiders. So imagine my excitement when I found out just yesterday that a new museum, located at the bungalow-style house where author S. E. Hinton’s Curtis brothers lived in the 1983 movie The Outsiders, will open in late summer or early fall!

The Outsiders House Museum is located at 731 N. St. Louis Ave. and will be open by appointment 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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The Outsiders house  has been restored since this photo was taken. Photo: TheDoctorWho [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Owned by House of Pain hip-hop artist, Danny  O’Connor, construction crews have spent several months restoring and preparing the house for its new life.  Inside, visitors will tour the house, see book and movie memorabilia, and browse a retail shop for serious fans, of which there are thousands… including every single student at my middle school.

Seriously, what is it about students and The Outsiders? I asked teachers this question: Do you still teach The Outsiders and why?  Here are some of those teachers’ comments, including several that shared content areas they address with the novel.

  1. “Yes, because it is a classic and because we have the opportunity to discuss tolerance, stereotypes, and other points of view.”
  2. “Because I can teach all the elements of fiction, character development and nearly all figurative language with this read that every student can relate to their own lives and how they treat others no matter what side of town they are from.”
  3. “Yes, because my students LOVE it. I was thinking of giving it a rest, but the majority told me it was their favorite book this year, and when a book touches kids like that, I have to keep it in the repertoire.”
  4. “Absolutely! We really focus on symbolism of eye colors, colors of hair, and numbers. Characterization done by a biased point-of-view. And stereotypes.”
  5. “The last few pages are well-written, especially when Pony has his epiphany that he can be the voice for the voiceless. That idea is powerful, and this coming year I want to do a project connected to that idea.”
  6. “I found that kids of all cultures could relate to it. The last time I taught it, I was at an all-girls school, and I liked the fact that it was (written by) a female author. We also did a writing project in which my students rewrote a scene from the book as if all the main characters were girls.”
  7. “I moved to a new school in a new state and hadn’t taught The Outsiders since 1995. I was absolutely AMAZED how it spoke to my 7th graders in 2018. They were engaged from page one and did a wonderful job discussing the themes in the novel: empathy, peer pressure, socio-economic pressure, the concept of family. Most exciting to me, I believe for about ten or so students, this was THE book, the one that caused them to see themselves as readers. My heart melted to watch this happen.”
  8. “It has become iconic. The references to the novel appear all over in pop culture. Stay Golden is what we want for all.”
  9. “Yes. My 7th graders love it! Students who have shown no interest in reading will finish the book before the class. They become invested in the characters and show true empathy.”
  10. “I have been teaching this to my 8th graders for nine years. EVERY year we start out with eye-rolls and “This book is sooooo old!” And EVERY year we finish reading the last chapter out loud together and—without prompting—they ALL say that last line TOGETHER. I swear I tear up EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.”

So even though the book was first published 51 years ago and the movie came out 35 years ago (can you believe it?!), The Outsiders is still a winner. If you don’t teach The Outsiders, think about doing so for next year. There’s a wealth of lessons and unit plans available for you to adapt to your teaching style and curriculum. If you already teach The Outsiders… well—all together now—Stay Gold.


Click like and leave a comment to share your experience with The Outsiders. And it’s okay to have a different opinion, since some teachers just don’t care for it.  Share your ideas either way!

 

 

 

Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder

Write inclusively… or else.

 

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Photo by Carl Newton on Unsplash

Little House on the Prairie, Ch. 11—Indians in the House

By Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Laura was frightened. Jack had never growled at her before. Then she looked over her shoulder, where Jack was looking, and she saw two naked, wild men coming, one behind the other, on the Indian trail.

‘Mary! Look!’ she cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.

They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.”

Note: I’m including this essay on this blog because, as a language arts teacher, I think it’s imperative to be up-to-date on current news in literature. In addition, providing reading materials for students that can be read for their historical accounts is also important. I think the ALSC decision discussed in this post may ultimately be harmful to students.

I remember reading this excerpt as a young girl when prairie mania reigned in one small slice of American pop culture. The craze for all things “prairie” owed its popularity to a series of nine volumes collectively called the Little House books. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series’ popularity was aided by the launch of a TV drama, Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon. I owned the entire Little House set and a pricey collectible wall calendar. I even visited Mansfield, Mo. with my family to tour Wilder’s final home where she wrote her books.

Spellbound through that breathless chapter where the Indians later entered the Ingalls cabin for tobacco and cornbread prepared by the girls’ mother, I considered how vulnerable the Ingalls were as they settled into the frontier of the Osage Indians who lived nearby. Based on my own background and Wilder’s perspective as told through the eyes of Laura, I never considered the vulnerability of the Osage and their culture. I just wanted to keep reading and turning the pages, so I could finish the book and dash off to the bookstore to buy the next.

The sage was enthralling and heart-breaking: white settlers making a home on the American frontier, occasional clashes with the Native Americans, Laura’s coming-of-age, tenuous friendships with the Olson family, Mary’s blindness.

Diverse? Not at all. Inclusive? Nope. It was 1975. As such, Wilder’s Little House series was considered a darn good story and was deemed worthy of recognition.

Until last week.

That’s when the American Library Association (ALA) and its branch, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), decided to change the name of its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Inaugurated in 1954 and awarded to Wilder herself for her book series, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” according to this ALA newsletter.

Sounds reasonable. Few would disagree that Wilder’s books indeed made “a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature” over the years, albeit not universally among readers.

Here’s how ALSC President Nina Lindsay explained the name change in a letter to her board of directors: “Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced…”

She continued, “Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion—something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award. While many of Wilder’s books received Newbery honors, (and one may easily find other books within our award canon that don’t live up completely to our current values), we recognize that the name of an award itself holds significant power… The ALSC Executive Committee noted that the name of the award is a currently potentially significant barrier to achieving our goals, and is within our power to change.”

It’s a change many authors, publishers, librarians, and teachers advocate. Debbie Reese, founder of the comprehensive website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) and a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, believes the images contained in Wilder’s books of “Native people, cultures, and history work to misinform young readers.” One example of misinformation is the dehumanization that appears in Chapter 11. Here’s one instance:  Wilder writes the Osage Indians’ eyes were “glittering like snake’s eyes.”

To counter these messages that misinform young children, the AICL website recommends works “by Native authors who write books that provide children with accurate information about American Indians.”

After all, Wilder’s books do contain racist depictions and stereotypes (in Chapter 11 of Little House on the Prairie and in other books in the series) of Native Americans and Africans. In addition, Reese cites Wilder’s recurring descriptions of the land as “empty” and her arguable notions that Indians were primitive beings without civilized, autonomous societies.

Therefore, to celebrate contemporary authors with an award named for an author whose perspective is found objectionable, seemed incongruous for some members of ALSC, which exists to engage “communities to build healthy, successful futures for all children.”

And let’s not forget this: the ALSC is not censoring Wilder’s work. Anyone can still purchase her books or find them at their local library. The ALSC merely removed Wilder’s name from its prestigious award.

It should also be noted that the decision does not appear to have been made hastily and members did not unanimously favor the change. An ALSC task force conducted a survey of members and ALA ethnic affiliates. The results: 305 favored the name change; 156 did not. Still, according to the ALSC task force’s recommendation, “We believe that this decision serves the best interest of our Association, its members, and all of those they serve, not only now, in 2018, but in the long term.

But what about history? Is it wise to attempt to remove evidence of the prejudicial attitudes from our past by denigrating the authors who recorded them? Wilder’s works were clearly set in the past and while they contain objectionable content for some, they remain a historical account. According to a statement from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo., “Mrs. Wilder believed her books to be historically accurate and reflect American life during the Western Movement. However difficult it may be to agree with social mores within these years, the fact remains that was a different time and what was accepted then would not be today.”

Even so, the quest for diversity and inclusion in historical literature takes precedence. With its action, the ALSC is indirectly controlling authors by condoning the events, characters and the actions of the characters those authors write about, historical or otherwise.

Regardless, the end result of all this is that now Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name comes with a warning label attached. And so does the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is what that label says:

  • Your characters will speak and behave with respect for all.
  • Your plot’s conflict must offend no one now nor in the future, and include the diverse views of all parties.
  • Your character’s thoughts and impressions must not be their own, or the author’s, but of those with the ability to make institutional change within the prevailing culture.

In short, write inclusively or you will be punished.


What are your thoughts? Click like and leave a comment so more people may see this and be able to weigh in. Follow my blog for more articles on education topics, as well as teaching ideas and resources, and news about writing contests specifically for middle schoolers.

How to forget the Holocaust

Remove it from the curriculum

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Concentration camps, including Auschwitz, posted these words: Work sets you free. | Photo: Pixabay

Are we forgetting the Holocaust?

I asked myself this question recently as I perused an English Language Arts curriculum map for grades 6-8 and found that out of dozens of texts the curriculum uses over the three years, only one text addressed or had any connection to World War II:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. However, this book, while an excellent and necessary text, does not focus on the Holocaust; instead, it depicts Japan’s brutal treatment of American POWs during wartime.

The curriculum map I browsed through recently is commonly known to teachers as Engage New York. It is more accurately called EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, an open educational resource that can be accessed at no cost online.  It is a rigorous Common Core curriculum that “supports teachers in making the transition to Common Core instruction,” according to this informational brochure.

I’m afraid the omission of Holocaust literature from this curriculum means we are forgetting one of history’s most horrific sins.

In March, research firm Schoen Consulting revealed the results of a “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study” commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, New York, NY. Major findings of the survey revealed:

  • Seven out of ten Americans say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to
  • Nearly 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of Millennials believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust
  • 45 percent of all Americans and 49 percent of Millennials cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto of the 40,000 that existed

In fairness, the Engage New York middle school ELA curriculum does list other grievous events in world history. The curriculum contains a diverse range of texts. For example, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park chronicles the life of Salva Dut, a “lost boy” refugee fleeing the war in South Sudan. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai tells the story of Ha, a ten-year-old girl Vietnamese girl forced to flee the violence of her home country to find refuge in the United States. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts the hardships and dehumanization of the slavery system of the American South.

And yes, perhaps placing emphasis on these other events adds greater relevancy to classroom discussions of oppression. Students can, after all, livestream discussions with  Salva  Dut. Also, some middle schoolers have grandparents and great-grandparents who may have fought in Vietnam. The effects of American slavery are still reverberating in our current racial divisions and controversies. In contrast, very few Holocaust survivors are alive today. I’m sure that in the minds of many kids, the Holocaust is ancient history.

However, studying the Holocaust is necessary. And I’m glad there is at least one Holocaust-oriented text in Engage New York’s ELA & Literacy Curriculum for grades 9-12: Wiesel’s Nobel lecture, “Hope, Despair and Memory.”

Without doubt, the inhumane intention, shocking magnitude, and cold machinations of Nazi Germany reveal humanity’s darkest side. We must learn from the Holocaust to prevent its reoccurrence. As Wiesel wrote in his lecture, “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history…It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered.”

Here’s another major finding from the “Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study”: a majority (58 percent) believe something like the Holocaust could happen again. I fear that if students don’t read about the Holocaust, it will be forgotten, and could likely reoccur.


And, in case you’re wondering why an English teacher is teaching history, it’s really a very common approach educators take to teach literacy skills. It’s necessary to provide a context within which language arts skills—reading, writing, speaking and listening— can be taught. Comma worksheets don’t engage students; real-world events do.

Thanks for reading! If this post made you think, please click “like.”  Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts about the need for Holocaust literature in our schools. Which Holocaust texts have you read or taught in your classes?