Category Archives: Teaching

#mybp2017: The Role of Audience In Project Based Learning

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Thank you for coming to my session on the role of audience in project based learning at the Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project Best Practices 2017 Conference!

In the essence of saving paper,  I am posting my presentation for you here.

Thanks for coming today! I look so forward to our conversation and connections.

 

 

 

 

 

A Challenge from The White Lady at the Front of the Classroom: 6 Ideas for Secondary Teachers During Inauguration Week

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Dear Fellow White Folks at the Front of the Classroom:

In less than a week, Donald Trump will be president of the United States.  Maybe you supported him.  Maybe you didn’t.  Maybe you really don’t care who is president.

However you feel, I promise you are in front of plenty of students who DO care, students who have paid attention to Trump’s stances on building a wall with Mexico, his support of stop and frisk, his derisive comments about women, and more.

You are also in front of students who supported Trump, whose families supported Trump.  These students are part of the conversation, too.

And so it’s a delicate balance.

In the interest of providing space for real dialogue and accurate information,  I issue you a challenge:

Teach something from the Black Lives Matter Syllabus this week.

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It was designed by Frank Leon Roberts (frankroberts@nyu.edu) at BlackLivesMatterSyllabus.com  and is is a rich, current curriculum to investigate and discuss race relations in our complex, beautiful, and divided country.

For example:

  1. Discuss/debate/find examples of these non-violent actions.  What have students witnessed?  What issues need attention in their schools and communities and which actions could they use? Which shouldn’t they use? Why?

2.  Watch one of the many Ted Talks on the syllabus.  What did your students learn, like, and wonder?

3.  Create a scavenger hunt of Black Lives Matter.  Have your students scour the website and find real information for themselves, not filtered through another site. A great example of using primary sources.  In fact, check back – I’m going to make one.

4.Debate Colin Kaepernick’s controversial decisions to kneel for the National Anthem at NFL games.  This is a wonderful opportunity to discussion professional vs. personal and non-violent protest.

5. In the spirit of Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, investigate the school-to-prison pipeline.  What is your school and community doing to support all learners and to limit students’ involvement in the judicial system? How does stop and frisk impact interaction with the judicial system?

6. Although this isn’t from the Black Lives Matter Syllabus,  many people are participating in an inauguration blackout, meaning they are refusing to watch it in protest. Research this with your students and ask them what they’d like to do and why. If they want to watch it, watch it. If not, what kind of alternative activity can your students design?  As they sang in Rent, “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.”

Finally, if like me, you are worried about this administration and Congress, start thinking about how you personally are going to help get out the vote for midterm elections. Our work is just starting.

 

 

Please post any and all comments/ideas below.  We need you.

From The White Lady At The Front Of The Classroom: Election Fallout

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My heart pounded in my chest as the electoral college number creeped toward Donald Trump’s column.  It was 3 a.m., my cat curled against my side as I looked to Facebook for solace and CNN for information. When John Podesta told us to go to bed, I knew it was over.  I trudged upstairs, hoping a miracle would happen overnight, like when you find $20 in your jeans pocket.  I cried to my husband, my mind whirring about how I would talk about this with my high school students.  How would I, as a white woman, explain how white America voted against them, my beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, students of color? The LGBTQ+ students I advise in our gay/straight alliance?

After asking for help on Facebook, I came to these conclusions:

  1.  It was a day to listen.  During the riots in Ferguson, when I felt just as helpless, a wise, African-American colleague told me to just listen. That advice has never failed me since.
  2.  Art heals, so I’d give my high schoolers space to create.
  3. We would  do a lesson in communication skills, practicing “I feel” statements.

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    This student wrote a message to her nephews who are autistic.  She is upset our next president mocked a reporter with a disability.

I arranged my tables in a rectangle and covered the surfaces with long strips of butcher block paper.  I put out markers and a talking piece for the circle we would have.  It was a small, orange pumpkin. Orange, the color of the solar plexus chakra, of creativity.  Seemed fitting.

I invited each student to sit where they were comfortable and to do their warm up in Google Classroom: How are you today? What’s on your mind?   Answers ranged from tired, hungry, and fine, to expressions of sadness and fear over the election of Donald Trump as their president.

Then I talked to them about how their feelings are never, ever wrong, despite the messages they might get from other people.  I told them about times people were successful in calling me a troublemaker when I was expressing concerns over a loved one and how I have learned to ignore that and speak my truth.  Then I added how no matter how we feel, we have to do our best to treat people with respect.

I asked for a “tough” student volunteer.  I  was clear what I was going to say wasn’t true, but to go with it.

Me: I am going to say two sentences to you.  What is the effect of each one?  Jose, you are annoying.  Jose, I feel that you are annoying.

Typical Student Answer:  When you say I’m annoying, it makes it sound like the whole world thinks I’m annoying, that it’s true. But when you say you feel that I’m annoying, I know it’s your opinion only.

 

So we passed the orange pumpkin around the circle, each person having the opportunity to say what was on their minds using “I feel” statements.  Some shared, some passed, all listened.

Comments included:

Is this a real pumpkin?  (because ninth graders)

I feel angry.

I feel that it’s not right for the president to think it’s OK to touch women without their consent.

I think  Trump might do good things, but I’m nervous because my brother is a Marine.

We have to come together.

I feel unsafe.

I feel unsafe.  That was the word that, by 7th period, had me in tears.

We have an awesome responsibility to do our best to offer safety to each other.  An ear to listen, open eyes, open hearts.  We are responsible for standing up for each other, even when it makes someone else uncomfortable.

And …

….it’s OK to tell people their vote makes you sad, makes you uncomfortable.  That you feel disappointed.  That they have to accept responsibility for their vote.  That their  vote for Trump was a vote for bigotry.

Just remember those “I feel” statements.

I’ll leave you with some of my students’ artwork.  I hope I served them well today.

Onward in hope.

 

From The White Lady At The Front Of The Classroom: The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

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If you are looking for more information about Black Lives Matter, to dive deeper, to lean into the discomfort, to  open your eyes and heart a little more, here is a comprehensive list of movies, videos, books, articles, poems and more for you.

I wish I could take this course in person, but geography makes it impossible.   Luckily, the age of social media makes information like this easy to disseminate: I share with you The Black Lives Matter Syllabus, Fall 2016.

Much respect and admiration to Frank Leon Roberts for sharing this so freely with fellow educators and the world.

I’ll post more as I dive into these resources myself.

 

 

 

Can We Please Please Please End The Pencil Debate, Fellow Teachers?

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To give or not to give a pencil? That is the question.

And it makes me want to stab myself in the forehead with a sharp #2.

For those of you not in the classroom, here’s the debate: when a student asks for something to write with, should you always give a pencil or pen to the student?

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The struggle shouldn’t be this real.

This Google search will make your head spin.  So. Many. Articles.  Considering we have so many  important things to talk about like the school-to prison-pipleline and the high-stakes testing debacle, it’s astonishing pencils get this much air time.   And as much as I adore Teaching Tolerance and consider them to be one of my best teaching resources, I think it’s totally understandable to tell a student to ask friends first. It doesn’t make you a jerk at all.

Here’s my evolution on the “Yo, Miss, you got a pencil?” saga:

  1. The Oprah Effect

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I used to give all of my students a pen or pencil. Gladly.  No questions asked. It kept them on-task and working.  And then I ran out constantly.  And I was constantly buying more. And then I was resentful that my students weren’t coming prepared  and that I was spending so much money on stupid pencils. I wondered if I was enabling them. So then…

2.  The  Hammer Factor

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I put a moratorium on giving out writing implements. There’s something to be said for offering opportunities to be responsible.  I told my students to ask a friend, saying that when I forgot a pen at a staff meeting, I didn’t raise my hand and ask the principal; I asked a colleague.  It worked, for the most part.  Students almost always ended up with one somehow; if not, I would let them sweat it out a little bit and then slip them a Bic.  It was fine, but sometimes a little distracting when a student, the one who always forgot a pen, had to ask six people in a row because the first five were totally over giving her another one.  It was also uncomfortable when a co-teacher or a paraprofessional didn’t think along the same lines as me. So…

3. The Most Interesting Idea In The World

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I work in an urban school district where about 90% of our students live at or below poverty.  I also serve students of color and am working really hard to be a  strong white ally. Learning about trauma-informed teaching really made me think about making how making one thing go easier in the day for a student  could make a difference.  So, I came up with Borrowing Boxes.  I went to The Dollar Tree and bought plastic containers for each table to hold pencils, erasers, paperclips, etc. so student could ideally borrow and return at the end of  class.Students has access to pencils, I didn’t have to stop class, or spend much more money on supplies. Win, win, win!  It worked well, but when I transitioned from middle school to high school, I discovered 9th graders aren’t as careful with the Borrowing Boxes as 8th graders.  My containers were scribbled on and picked apart.  They used pencils and pens but forgot to return them.  The boxes were often empty and we were back to Square 1.  So now.

4. My Current Solution

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One Borrowing Box.  Just one, at the entrance to our classroom in a place where students can easily access it.  We’re entering Week 3 and the box is just as full as  Day 1, thanks to responsible students who return the pencils, a few stray pencils and pens found on the floor, and classmates naturally sharing their supplies with each other.

No drama.  No fuss.  Super-easy.  Students solve their own problems. I spent a total of $2.  Everybody wins.

Ultimately, it’s up to you.  Do what you think is best for your students. You’re a professional.  I trust you. Let me repeat. I trust you.  We don’t hear that enough in our profession, do we? And don’t agonize over it like I did.  Spend more of your time thinking about fun lesson ideas and how much awesome sauce you have to offer your students.

Heather Harlen is in her 18th year of teaching and finds something to smile about each period. She has degrees in English, education, and creative writing.  Heather has taught in Russia, Northern Virginia, and currently teaches in an urban district in Eastern Pennsylvania.  She has served all types of communities of learners, from elementary school through college, to fellow teachers. She is proud to be a National Writing Project Fellow and is also a professional writer.

 

 

 

An Anthem For Teachers

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 Welcome to my twice-monthly feature about anthems, the songs that inspire us.  You can listen to the songs on my Spotify playlist, Carry A Watermelon Anthems. New Anthems will be posted here the 1st and 15th of each month. 

Well, this month it’s the 18th because I’m a teacher and it’s mid-June and it was time to…

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Now that all of my scores are in and for the first day in since September, I don’t have a looming deadline (writing or teaching), I can reflect.  I’ve been in the biz for about 17 years and so each year brings different life lessons, different joys, different sorrows, different relationships, different discoveries.

Some years, we expect this:

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Steel Force, Dorney  Park, Allentown, PA. I got stuck on the first hill once for 20 minutes. It was kinda fun.  We got free soda coupons at the end 🙂

 

And often get this:

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Find the article about this sculpture here.

Don’t misunderstand me – I wouldn’t change my experience for anything.  I work at an innovative, amazing school with some of the best people around.  But it was also a very hard year personally, so changing jobs is stressful enough, but add the mix of deaths of three people I love very much and two people I love very much having near-death experiences, it’s been a ride.

Also, I am the teacher who gets hugs and letters and drawings that say, “Thank you so much for pushing me, Ms. Harlen.  You can be hard because you really care about us.”

I wish they’d figured that out a little earlier this year…but the good news is I’ll teach the same students next year.  We’ve all learned from each other; I’m a better teacher and person because of what I’ve learned from them and my colleagues.

So fellow teachers, when you are feeling beat down by  by all the things, stay true to yourself and who you are.

That’s how I got by this year.

I am a teacher with a huge, generous heart, with clear expectations and big dreams for my students.  My general rules:

Be safe, be respectful, and try.

But sometimes, this is a lot for teenagers, especially those working through trauma.  The push-back can be immense, but I know that who I am makes me a damn good teacher.  So the words of a wise 21st century philosopher, “Baby, you were born this way!”  helped me stay the course.

HAPPY SUMMER! HIGH FIVE!

Don’t forget to follow Carry A Watermelon Anthems on Spotify to hear this Anthem and a playlist of additional inspiring songs from other posts.

Compilation of Junot Diaz Stories!

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Junot Diaz‘s writing has strong voice that never, ever shakes.  If you’ve never read him, now’s your chance.  Enjoy these free stories in print and in audio.  These are perfect for any reader and especially English teachers.  His language might be a little dicey for the classroom at times, but his characters speak the way teenagers speak, so find a school leadership ally and ask for support in bringing an authentic Dominican voice to your classroom.

A huge thank you to Josh Jones for putting this list together. Whydontcha give him a follow?