Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rebuilding the Berlin Wall

One way I try to engage students in my classroom is to create simulations that will help them better understand concepts in history.  Sometimes the simulations flop, while other times they succeed better than I'd expected.   An example of one that worked was my trench warfare simulation, which the students have brought up numerous times since we did it last December- almost always in the context of comparing that kind of warfare to whatever war we were covering after WWI.

This past week we had another simulation: The Berlin Wall.

During this simulation, my goal was to get the students to understand the basic difference between capitalism and communism- no small feat.  In the past I've talked until I was blue in the face, designed organizers, had them watch cartoons about it and more, all with little success.  This activity seems to have gotten through to a number of them far better than anything implemented before.

Step 1: Background 
The students need a general overview of why the Berlin Wall was built in the first place.  This is given to them through a slide show that includes images of the wall and, for dramatic effect, a picture of their college-aged history teacher (complete with white-guy fro) standing next to remaining sections of the wall (if possible).  After taking a few notes, the students go through the next several steps while the teacher narrates the historical facts behind them.

Step 2: Build a Wall
Using desks and chart paper, students build the Berlin Wall down the center of the classroom.  This of course is unexpected and abrupt, dividing the class into two groups in an instant.

Step 3: Assign Roles

The students are now told they are in either East Berlin or West Berlin.  On the eastern side of the wall, two students are posted as guards and given the instructions to make sure no students come within ten feet of it.  The rest of the students are told that if they try to approach the wall, they will be shot on sight and given a zero for the day (which is not entirely true).

The students in East Berlin are then told to write letters to the people of West Berlin describing the life of a citizen in East Berlin.  Pros and cons of communism are outlined in the letters.

The students in West Berlin are told they can approach the wall and should, so they can tag it up.  They use markers, paper and tape to write pro-democracy, anti-communist, pro-freedom slogans fashioned after the real graffiti on the Wall shown to them in the introductory slide show.

Step 4: The Roles Play Out

Students on the west side post their graffiti, while the students on the east side either wad up or make paper planes of their letters and toss them into West Berlin.   Students in West Berlin then grab the letters and read several aloud to the class, so the that everyone can hear several interpretations of what living under the rule of the East German government was like.

Step 5: The Candy Bomber and Communism vs. Capitalism
During the Berlin Airlift, Colonel Gail Halvorsen was assigned the unique task of dropping candy to the children of West Berlin during.  At this point in the simulation, the teacher stands on top of a desk at one end of the Wall and describes again the basic difference between communism and capitalism.  In hand is a bag of Jolly Ranchers pre-sorted into two piles: grape and everything else.

Then, in the spirit of the candy bomber, the teacher throws handfuls of Jolly Ranchers (excluding grape) to the students of West Berlin, pointing out that some students get more than others and that stronger students beat out the weaker ones to reap more rewards.  Some students may not even get a Jolly Rancher, which is, of course, very sad.  It is also pointed out that there is a variety of Jolly Rancher flavors to choose from on this side of the wall.

After this, the teacher gets off the desk and, acting on behalf of the East German government, hands a single grape Jolly Rancher to every single student in East Berlin (and two to the guards).  There is of course a lot of mumbling and grumbling, first because only strange humans like grape Jolly Ranchers and second because while they admit it is fair that every students received a Jolly Rancher, most students wish they had gotten the chance to fight for more than just one.

Step 6: Tear Down the Wall
Guest presenter Ronald Reagan walks in and yells, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" and then David Hasselhoff comes and sings his heart out.  When he's done, students carefully dismantle the wall and look at a map of the former, dismantled Soviet Union.

To wrap the whole thing up, the students write a reaction to the simulation describing the differences between West and East Berlin.  This can then lead into more traditional lessons and discussions about the merits of capitalism and communism, which some students will easily access and some will not.  The hope is that the simulation gives some concrete ideas to those who do not easily access tough academic concepts through readings, lecture, small group discussions, etc.

And from what I can tell, many of my students that have such problems walked away with a better idea of the differences between communism and capitalism.

I'd call that a success.

Monday, May 23, 2011

5 Myths About Education- Washington Post Article

An article written by Paul Farhi went up on the Washington Post's website on the May 20th that caught my eye.  It outlines five assumptions commonly made about public education.

 The five myths are listed as:
  1. Our schools are failing
  2. Unions defend bad teachers
  3. Billionaires know best
  4. Charter schools are the answer
  5. More effective teachers are the answer

While there is obvious bias, I felt the information they presented was important in that most of what I've read in papers has been chastising public schools, rather than supporting them (the former sells more papers, as it turns out).  At the end of the article Farhi brings up the fact that there are a very large number of factors that affect student achievement that teachers cannot control at all.  He calls for support in improving the "state of families", which I think is an incredibly important part of increasing student achievement.

That said, the idea of the government playing any kind of direct role in family life is not something that most Americans want, nor is something that should be taken at all lightly, but to increase accountability for schools the way the public is demanding, there may need to be the formal acknowledgment that family life plays a role in each student's education.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

If the World Ends on Saturday...

 On Saturday, it has been predicted, the world will end.  One thing I can say is that I am not too worried about it, though I cannot say the same about my eighth graders.  The students in the South Bronx, while just as gullible as any group of fourteen year-olds I've worked with, seem a bit more superstitious.  On Monday, when the approaching end of the human race was the hottest topic of conversation (though to be honest, I prefer it to some of the things they talk about coming off a weekend), it wasn't all that surprising even though I'd not yet heard about it.

In past years I would have been a bit irritated that the students were off task and talking about such a ridiculous thing during my class.  This year, however, a few things caught my attention.  First, the students in each class tried to have a real conversation about it, supporting their opinions as to whether we're doomed with relevant facts and ideas.

Not bad.  Throughout the entire year it's been like pulling teeth to get some of the very same students to use outside information as they discuss what justifies a specific war, how social movements have affected U.S. history, etc.  

The second thing that surprised me was how valued my opinion was on the matter.  After some debate was thrown around, at least one student in each of my classes finally directed the question to me: "Mr. James, do you think that the world is going to end on Saturday?"  I took the opportunity to stop the class and put in my two cents.

Before answering, I wound up to swing.  Leaning forward and stroking my beard, I allowed for a dramatic pause as I was given a rare quantity of students' attention.  Starting my monologue, I described the very many accounts of doomsday predictions that had happened during my eighty-six years on the planet and how they'd all been discounted as the "day of reckoning" came and went.  I told them that even in the cases where people said they'd screwed up their timeline, their second failed shot at calling the armageddon left them with no friends.  Turning back to my board, I tossed over my shoulder that the prediction is absurd and they shouldn't worry about it.

And that was that.  Apparently my students value my opinion about whether the world will end or not, as that stopped the discussion dead in its tracks and each class moved to start taking notes.

On a related note, this week and a past conversation have made it apparent that our students might contemplate this issue a lot.  Below is a conversation one of my students had with our learning specialist just a month or so ago:

:  If it's the end of the world, I'm going to move to Pennsylvania.
Learning Specialist:  Tamitha, if the world ends Pennsylvania will be gone too.
:  So if the world ends in the Bronx and in Pennsylvania, will it end in Florida, too?
Learning Specialist: Yes, Tamitha, it will end in Florida, too.

This Saturday the world may very well end.  If it does, my eighth graders might be kind of ticked off at me.  Of course, it might end tomorrow or sometime a hundred years from now.  It may also wait until the Sun reaches its Red Giant stage and consumes the whole planet.  Whatever happens, it's good to know at any rate that after only three years as a middle school social studies teacher, I can calm the fears of a grade's worth of fourteen-year-olds who are concerned about life as we know it coming to an end.

Can I include this in the tenure portfolio the city wants to see when deciding next month if I'm worth my weight as a teacher?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Best PD on the Planet

A couple of weeks ago my principal forwarded an email about a professional development (PD) opportunity that was to be hosted by a private school connected and staffed by one of the more prestigious universities in the city.  Our school is completely on the ed-technology bandwagon, as am I through research interests, so a PD on new education technology hosted by this school was in itself enticing.  

After school last Thursday, I rushed out of the building and took the train forty minutes to the site.  I showed up to the building expecting a two-hour lecture on some new facet of technology in the classroom, which I was entirely prepared for.   When I got off the elevator, a seven-year-old kid scrambled by me on his way home, his teachers sending him off with the night's homework, and I walked back to art room, where the PD was to begin.  

Instead of a classroom with a projector and a few dozen people on laptops ready to take notes, I found tables full of appetizers, bins of iced-down beer and a couple cases of wine.  I was the second person to show up other than the staff members, who were ready and willing to chat me up.  The event quickly turned into a cocktail hour, where education consultants and teachers from various other private schools put on their networking afterburners and mingled hard.  After the initial startling wore off and I was able to suppress my surprise at what the evening actually was, I moved forward with my own amateur mingling skills.
Eventually I found my niche with the music teacher- a hilarious woman from Britain- and the admissions coordinator, a jubilant Indian woman.  These two were entirely preferable to a number of the other characters, who seemed difficult to warm up, to say the least.  As the only public school teacher in the room, I didn't exactly bring a lot of chips to the table (or so it seemed).  At any rate, my two fast friends and the rest of the staff certainly gave the impression that their school was a great one in which to work, and a tour of the facility helped show me why.

While the school serves as many grades as mine does, they have one hundred fewer students and more than twice as many teachers.  They have the latest technology accessible- each student has a MacBook at his or her disposal, there are class sets of iPads available for checkout, rooms are equipped with SMART Boards, etc.; the class sizes are substantially smaller than ours and classrooms younger than fourth grade actually have two teachers in them (an assistant and a lead teacher); the parents are involved, and the list goes on.  The tour itself was surreal (in part because I was drinking a beer in empty kindergarten classrooms), led by one of the school's librarians and consisting of me and one other woman- a private education consultant nearing retirement with a slight hearing problem who was both soused and hilarious.  She kept sitting in the very small classroom chairs and stating how very aesthetically pleasing the rooms were- "PERFECT!"

After the tour the mingling continued and I struck up another conversation with the music teacher.  In no time the "PD" was coming to a close and the kicker was that they were going to raffle off an iPad2. Now, at this point, I was thoroughly entertained and absolutely content with my experience at this school.  In fact, I'd already been sold on attending a session at their summer institute, which was the topic of conversation as the raffle began.

And then BOOM- they handed me the iPad.  

There are few words that can describe this "PD" other than: Best Professional Development in the History of the World.  Hopefully attending one of their PDs in June is exactly the same! 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Budget Mix-Up Provides Nation's Schools With Enough Money To Properly Educate Students

I think that most Americans believe schools should be better-funded.  Most may also agree that the dollars being spent should be spent more wisely, but of all the conversations I've had about public education, very, very few people have said anything contrary to the idea that schools need to be better funded.

Below is the link to an Onion article that of course is satirical, but speaks to an unpleasant truth.

Budget Mix-Up Provides Nation's Schools With Enough Money To Properly Educate Students

If we continue to nationalize public schools (which may or may not be a good idea), perhaps funding the system won't be a mistake at all.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Home Stretch to the Battered End

Well folks, we're headed into the home stretch of the school year.  The posts on this blog have been a bit less frequent as of late due to the tenacious hammering I've received on the job.  Mind you, I've readily invited it.  Something an old mentor told me young teachers tend to do as they move from the survival stages of teaching into the professional stages of the career is say "yes" to everything.  I seem to have done that and more, yessing everything and trying to start a few large initiatives of my own to boot.

While it's probably not more than I can chew, it certainly looks like that stubborn adolescent who's been scolded for taking too big a bite doing his damnedest to gnaw away at whatever he has packed into his fat mouth.  The mouthful includes, but is not limited to, things like organizing a school-wide pep rally, prepping my students for state exit exams, starting and completing with my students the first large research paper they've ever written, serving on several committees whose primary objective is to revamp our school's operation- the list goes on and on.

My hope was that I would get a jump start on these many tasks over spring break, which was somewhat true.  Unfortunately I tripped out of the gate last week.  While it was a short week (3 days) right after a week and a half break, it did not go well.  Over break I may have made the rookie mistake of thinking too much about what my classroom should be like rather than what it is like.  During your first year you see, read, or hear things over a break and oftentimes come back newly inspired to teach, but fail to realize that your are newly inspired to teach kids that listen to what you say, complete the work you assign, and generally do their jobs.

Then you get dropped to your knees, the wind knocked out of you, and cracked on the back of the head.  

Over break I suppose I read so much negative crap being thrown around by media, politicians, and extreme conservative bloggers that having trouble in my own classroom really just sent me through the roof.  And to make things more interesting, I picked up a nasty illness that put me in bed shivering and incoherent for the weekend- just in time to make sure I didn't have a head start on the massive laundry list I've accumulated over the course of this semester.

Now, wanting to help out at school and take on things in addition to your classroom practice is fine and good, but it seems as though there actually is a limit to what can be done by a single teacher.  My goal has not been to impress my administration, nor has it been to kiss up to people in the DOE or the Union.  It seems to me that the more you say yes to taking on new roles and the more you talk to others in the school and in the community, the more you find out how your students tick.  

I'll figure out how to balance the thing next year.  Maybe.