A blog following teacher Aaron Jura as he plans engaging, yet relevant English Language Arts content for High School students in New Orleans, LA.
After an amazing three-weeks participating in the National Endowment for the Humanities teacher seminar titled From Harlem to Hip-Hop: African American History, Literature, and Song I presented my culminating project titled The REAL Illuminati.
If you haven't noticed, many of my teaching strategy posts center around the concepts of engaging students in higher levels of academic achievement. Inspired by Dr. Tricia Rose's talk on Redlining and discriminatory policies and politics in the United States I concluded my project would take the redlining information from the federal government and juxtapose it against modern day racial gerrymandering.
This project would not have come together without the input of several amazing people:
Access all the readings, recordings, PowerPoint, and all other materials on Google Drive -- by clicking here.
This presentation uses the power of student friendly and culturally relevant ideas -- the narrative of "The Illuminati" to illustrate how power can be wielded behind the scenes to disenfranchise particular groups -- an impact very relevant today in America.
The presentation's main claim is that modern day racial gerrymandering in congressional districts is eerily similar to the now "illegal" discriminatory lending practice commonly called redlining.
When you look at the presentation, using Charlotte, NC as a guide you will see the similarities between 1940 redlining maps, the gerrymandered congressional district (blue line), when you layer in 2010 census data on racial concentration in Charlotte, NC.
The point of this exercise is to illustrate a claim, evidence, the tools of argumentation; while still using culturally relevant hooks to engage students in what could be viewed as "boring" without the strong sales pitch.
There are many exciting possibilities when using current events in the classroom, and the recent Supreme Court decisions on this issue also provide an opportunity for a larger, horizontally aligned connection to social studies, law, and even science (topography, etc.) Students could extend this even further into the math sphere by looking at election probabilities based on demographic data.
Again, the possibilities are endless -- I hope this inspires you or you use it in your class to create a more socially conscious student body -- the next leaders of our great nation!
I hope this is something you can use or modify to use in your classroom.
Every professional educator knows that engagement is a key element in ensuring students are committed to deep learning in the classroom. Every English teacher knows of the importance to engage students with riveting lessons that are both relevant and rigorous. This strategy layers in deep learning and investigation, while encouraging students to act as investigators. Getting them deeply involved in their text and evidence based analysis.
Haunted History is a term coined by Dr. Yohuru Williams in his AMAZING book Teaching US History Beyond the Textbook. This book and my time with Dr. Williams at this year's National Endowment for the Humanities seminar titled From Harlem to Hip-Hop have revolutionized the way I will approach the 9th grade English classroom for the next school term.
Haunted History and another strategy I will discuss in a later post called CSI -- are really simple presentation tricks and flipped classroom techniques that could be used in a variety of settings.
In my example, I use some of the alumni of the school I work for to engage students in biographical research projects ultimately resulting in the creation of a written biography of another alumni from our HALL OF FAME.
If you download the PowerPoint version (above) you will notice that creepy music plays when you dramatically read the introduction to the individual being profiled. This adds the drama that students love -- it's your hook!
After you present the case file you pass out to students (in small groups) evidence bags with various primary sources. Make it a mystery -- blackout names (as if they have been censored). Also, type up a list of questions you want students to be able to answer about the cases in question.
The case numbers and pictures are strategic -- use them to draw in the student (why those case numbers, etc).
While for my classroom this works with notable alumni, this can also work in other areas. Suggestions at the conference included exits off the turnpike (who are they named after), the names of cities, examination of important events, literary figures, scientists -- the opportunities here are endless.
Please feel free to post any questions about this you might have and I will definitely help out with what I know. Oh, and buy Dr. Williams' book -- the strategies are transformative.
I am about to blow your mind with a way to use MUSIC to give students context and deep analysis of a period of time/movement/really anything you want. This method is called KEYNOTING. Enjoy! I hope I just blew your mind. If you want more on these cool teaching strategies, check out Dr. Yohuru Williams' book Teaching U.S. History Beyond the Textbook: Six Investigative Strategies, Grades 5-12.
1) Select the theme or concept you will be having students work through. In the example, we used the concept of internalized racism and the black is beautiful movement.
2) Come up with a series of questions. These should be tied to your subject area. We worked through this using a more humanities driven approach to teaching English. Example: Who was the president? What was the unemployment rate? Who was the biggest celebrity that year? What's going on in foreign and domestic policy at the time? REMEMBER: These questions will remain consistent for the lesson -- doesn't matter which song the students are working on.
3) Have students work in small groups -- give them the year and have them use their technology tools to answer the questions based on the year.
4) Bring class back together for a report out -- chart the answers somewhere (board or a Google doc), etc.
5) Expose the students to the songs -- for our example we used Nina Simone (1966) Four Women, India Arie (2001) Video, and Kendrick Lamar (2015) Complexion -- focused on the feature by Rhapsody.
6) Whole class discussion and close reading of the lyrics -- keeping in mind the overarching theme.
Remember: Your going to want to provide copies of the lyrics and close read the selections to speak to the historical periods or issues you are working on throughout the lesson.
Sample of the questions and "student answer":
Closing thoughts: Differentiation opportunity: Since the questions remain consistent you could easily differentiate for a particular roster, you could select one song in the middle that speaks to the theme based on the average year of birth for the class (ENGAGE!).
Students across the nation constantly lament about the monotony of the classroom. Every educator knows increasing student achievement requires engagement from all learners in classroom activities and content. I have always said that the practice of teaching is something that can be learned, while the art of it is something that must be perfected. Much like a top producing salesperson for a corporation would do, effective educators are constantly selling (or to add some finance jargon I am sure I heard on a movie) “always closing”.
The question is how to we, as educators, engage students in the process of learning and get them to use all the amazing critical thinking skills we have taught them to be able to use. I think I found the answer to that this year with the addition of breakoutEDU games into the freshmen English classroom.
BreakoutEDU brings the concept of the escape room into the classroom. Using a series of boxes; locks; invisible ink; and clues, students work in small groups (size varies by game) to solve the puzzles and breakout before time expires.
So, you might be asking yourself: How this could help increase student achievement? While the jury is still out regarding peer reviewed sources and data on the topic, my classroom has truly benefited from working toward a more active and gamified environment.
I would also like to point out that BreakoutEDU is such a versatile tool for the classroom. Breakout charges between $150-200 a kit, which includes the items; boxes; locks; and access to get started. Breakout also provides an “open source” option where you can shop on Amazon and build your own kit (about $100 a kit). I was able to get my classroom 4 complete kits by writing a request on Donors Choose.
Anyway, in my freshmen English courses we have done 2 games so far as part of the inevitable Romeo and Juliet unit. I used Shakespeare Lost in Time and Unlocking Shakespeare to help breakup the pre-work (Elizabethan society presentations, Queen Mab illustrations, and sonnet writing). Students must work in small groups (each group had their own box) and they had to apply the lessons they learned after deciphering a series of cryptic clues. Each breakout game had several winners; however, there are also students who don’t break out. Usually this is a result of a lack of leadership in the group or things the group can reflect on to improve for the next game.
If you haven’t heard of breakoutEDU you need to check it out – get your classroom to a place of active engaged learners. Once they play a breakout game they will definitely want to do more!
Well, we just finished up reading The Odyssey,
The students really seemed to enjoy it. I think what made it successful was that we led into the reading with a full reading of a bunch of Greek mythology. The Greek mythology we read helped students to contextually be better able to comprehend the allusions in The Odyssey.
Secondly, breaking up the book with high-engagement project work helped to keep student's attention during our 4-week long reading of the story. Students completed presentations with a partner on the structural elements of the Hero's Journey. They applied their analysis of the structure of this storytelling structure to a film of their choice and then presented to the class. The final project they did was a "mannequin challenge" project where students recreated scenes from The Odyssey in tableau set to music.
Breaking up a dense work like The Odyssey with managable, highly-engaging projects seems to be the best way to get it done.
As I have previously posted, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a 2016-2017 fellow with the LEAD program through an amazing school student and teacher advocacy organization called Stand for Children. This fellowship provides an opportunity for those in the profession of education to study, discuss, and engage on issues affecting public school children in the state and nation.
For our first module we studied teacher evaluation and observation. You can read the reports and previous study commentary on this blog post. Following our independent readings and discussions we engaged in a virtual town hall discussion on the topic with experts on the topic of teacher evaluation and observation. The conversation got me thinking about what exactly it is that makes a good teacher good.
During our town hall, Dr. Gary Jones (retired superintendent and current representative to BESE District 5) really got my mind thinking when he posed a few rhetorical questions. How do you concretely define what is an ideal student and how do you concretely define and assess the characteristics of a good teacher? Without a clear definition of what success looks like it will always be an issue to accurately judge a teacher as being good/bad/or otherwise.
Many of the esteemed representatives on the town hall panel seemed to agree that they know a good teacher when they see one. One representative on the panel talked about it as a “walks on water” teacher. While we can all determine good/bad instruction when we see it, the real question is how can we set a standardized evaluation model that takes into account all of the numerous factors that make up a good teacher.
It left me thinking, is a good teacher one that gets results (student test scores on standardized high stakes exams) or is a good teacher much more than that. I believe a good teacher is so much more than the results on a particular test. Participant Dr. Laura Goe (researcher with ETS) stated that one thing that stands out in the American system of evaluation versus other countries is that nearly no other country judges the effectiveness of the teacher on the standardized test data (SLT, VAM, or otherwise) of that teacher’s students. Why? What I got from the overall conversation goes back to the original rhetorical questions posed by Dr. Jones: what is the definition of success? One student might be successful because he or she is the first to graduate from high school in their family, while another student would feel successful based upon acceptance to an ivy league college. Success cannot be determined based upon a cookie cutter definition that doesn’t consider the fact that students are people and are unique. What makes one student a success might not be even on the realm of possibilities for another. These definitions need to be clearer in order to ensure fairness in determining what makes a successful teacher.
Another point of this debate that I found to be poignant is that good teacher provides so much more than content. If you think about the best teacher you ever had you will likely remember non-quantitative factors. I don’t think about the best teacher I ever had as the one that helped me pass this test or that test. Instead, I think about the personality of the teacher and the inspiration I got from the person. I think about how the teacher created an environment to think creatively and sometimes to fail. I would say she was a successful teacher in that I now am a teacher and think of her often. This type of logical analysis cannot be done using a rubric alone. Teachers and students alike are human beings and intrinsically unique. Teacher evaluation and judging the differences between bad and good instruction must be done with flexibility and an overall view of the teacher, their students, and the unique goals of their teaching population.
When reading these reports (see link buttons below), I was struck with a line in the Aspen Institute’s Roadmap to Improvement reading. The Aspen Institute said that current evaluator training and certification programs “… send the message that the main purpose of evaluation is to rate teachers, rather than support their professional growth.” I’m sure many classroom teachers could agree with this claim as the current state of teacher evaluation in the state. Even on a teacher level, colleagues will often focus on the rating as opposed to focusing on the feedback given. Getting anywhere near a reflective practice will require changes in the ways that leadership and educators in the classroom view evaluation and observation. The reflective nature of observation and evaluation is also highlighted in the principles listed in the CCSSO report titled Principles for Teacher Support and Evaluation Systems. The first principle listed sums up the main issue that the purpose of evaluation and observation must be better defined and tied to student achievement AND professional growth. Getting to a place where teachers feel supported through evaluation and observational feedback is an important goal. In order to increase buy-in and in some cases re-legitimize the profession as a profession and not merely a job is an important element too.
In my experience, there is a clear management gap that must be addressed at the leadership level in order to focus on selling any new observation or evaluation tool. Managing people is very difficult and does not come naturally to some people. I have observed nearly every leader I have ever worked with struggle to communicate with classroom teachers about observational feedback. The leader often presents as timid or overly aggressive and ultimately unfocused on the ultimate goal of professional development.
Student achievement can be positively impacted through effective observational feedback that directly relates to improving teaching practice. Also, doesn’t it just make sense to directly tie the feedback to the student’s ultimate success? Most teachers do what they do because they believe in their students and want to see them succeed. If the conversation is moved toward students and away from the hypercritical teacher centered rating I would say that the messaging issue relating to this being about the students and their success and not merely on the educator and their perceived challenge areas.
Fairness, credibility, and transparency would be my next area of interest. When I worked for General Electric in management many of the elements of an employee’s observation were available for viewing and analysis by the team. It shouldn’t be scary to share about your evaluation and observational feedback. I think that celebrating student achievement could be the focus of PD’s – discussing solid classroom practices that increase critical thinking while also positively impacting engagement. This is where I think that peer groups or professional learning communities (PLCs) could be a big asset to a refined evaluation model. A well implemented PLC program could be very beneficial when refocusing back to reflective practice and performance improvement. Colleagues can be a huge asset to improving teacher performance and nurturing/fostering an environment where that is celebrated would help educators and also leverage the highly effective qualities of others to improve our own performance in the classroom.
We ask students to constantly reflect on things and to consider new possibilities. I believe that teachers should be consistently engaged with doing the same thing about their own practices to positively impact student achievement. In the Aspen Institute report I was also struck with how they described how a prescriptive plan for improvement would be more effective to better develop teacher professional growth. I think this could be a very interesting way to use a Professional Growth Plan (PGP). In a perfect scenario, the PGP would be formed with the observer as a focus area for teacher improvement. Based on previous observations or evaluation information, feedback from PLC group, and self-reflections teachers could work with their evaluator to monitor and improve teacher effectiveness. This would of course look differently in every setting, but I think some fluidity at the local level could allow the PGP to be a tool for student achievement and at the same time be a conversation point or focus area for the teacher and evaluator throughout the year.
Addressing the guiding question, I believe that the stigma of evaluation needs to be addressed and many people in leadership roles need to be better versed in the objective of the evaluation. If the evaluation/observation is used to encourage teachers to do better for their students and their future students, then the evaluation system can be used as a level for improving student achievement. Secondly, I think that addressing this messaging concern could also help to make the experience for new teachers and those who are veterans more rewarding. By encouraging improved performance for students through reflective critique and peer support systems we could also impact the severe problem of teacher retention. Elevating the job of teaching to the profession of educating is a message I believe anyone in the field can get behind.
Here are links to the articles I referenced in the post:
Continuing on yesterday’s post on technology in the classroom and how I (a high school English teacher) use it. In the part I post I detailed several key sites and apps to make life easier. If you picked up one or two (MAX – it’s the rule) of those tools, be sure to master them before moving on a new tool.
CURRICULAR TOOLS FOR THE ELA CLASSROOM
I teach English and reading at a high school level, so the majority of tools I will share are those that will work best in an upper grade application. I am sure my lower grade teachers could also use some of them too with minimal to no modification.
Hope you can take away some ideas from this post of curricular technology tools and their potential applications in the secondary English classroom. Next time, I will post on some tools you can use to help keep engagement during lecture presentations. Until we meet again.
One thing that teachers (newbies and veterans) always need to talk about is technology in the classroom. New teachers tend to be so tech heavy they literally fall apart (I’ve seen it) when the inevitable projector bulb goes out. Veteran teachers tend to be a bit fearful of change to the classroom environment and at times the element of handing off control to students becomes an issue with technology application during instruction. Overall, this was one of my most successfully taught professional development courses, because it seems that everyone is searching for more opportunities to leverage technology in the classroom.
START SMALL AND BUILD ON SUCCESS
Don’t try to do it all! Try to use one (or maybe two) of the tools – master their use and application to your classroom and then move to another tool. If you try them all at once you will fail, you will feel the failure, and it may turn you off from trying again. Whatever you think, DON’T DO IT! I am especially speaking to the newer teachers out there.
There is more to being successful with technology in the classroom than being able to use the tools yourself. The real magic of technology in the classroom is when it helps students to connect with content, learning, and ultimately increases achievement. This is not something that will come right away, and teachers should prepare to start small and incorporate management tools and technology to make life easier before jumping head first into some of the more “feature filled” applications.
MAKING LIFE EASIER
I use a variety of technology tools to make life easier on me. Many of these tools have an initial investment of time and labor (setting up classes, assigning logins, etc.), but really pay off once you have them operational.
This is just part one of my list – in a week or so I will be posting a comprehensive list of tools to use in the classroom with students to increase engagement and achievement.
If you are anything like me you have probably wondered to yourself (more than a few times) HOW AM I GOING TO GET THE KIDS INTERESTED IN THIS. Well, that can be one of the most challenging or exciting (depending on why you do what you do) aspects of the profession of education. How do I deliver this content or skill to the student, while keeping them engaged and committed to success.
I actually think about this quite frequently when planning lessons, units, and especially when I am reteaching something that didn't quite go as planned the first go around. I always ask myself this fundamental question: How can I make this thing relevant to kids? If you are planning amazing questions without a focus on the relevancy you are not able to get into the deep analysis level that makes me (an English teacher) so excited.
I'll admit it. I'll do almost anything to make a lesson come to life in the classroom. I've read books like Teach Like a Pirate and Ditch that Textbook and have really embraced the full engagement model in the secondary classroom, at times, to my great personal embarrassment. However, with personal embarrassment can come professional triumph. Getting kids engaged in content is key to developing skills they can use later on in their lives to achieve their goals, their dreams, and will directly impact their families and futures.
Our class has been working through The Odyssey and has done a great job sticking to our objective:
Students will be able to analyze elements of an epic poem, such as, plot, setting, character, and figurative language.
We just completed student presentations, prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday, where students (in pairs) dissected, analyzed, and presented to class about a movie selection of their choice and how it fits within the elements of a Hero's Journey.
Coming back from class I hope to reinvigorate students in the story as we move to Part II (The Homecoming). Leveraging the viral social media sensation of the mannequin challenge students will be asked to in three scenes produce, film, and publish an original mannequin challenge video in small groups acting out scenes from The Odyssey. Students will be required to work together to tell the whole story (think Cyclops, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, etc.) in a three scene mannequin challenge format.
Leveraging relevancy (viral nature of the project) student engagement will skyrocket and they will (without knowing it) be analyzing the plot, setting, and characters in a three scene tableau. See how easy that was? To make it even easier, I have posted the assignment and rubric I created for this project below.
Mr. J is a high school teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. J believes in the power of educators to help children and families achieve. Follow his blog for tips and techniques to keep engagement high and student achievement at the forefront.