Teaching Elections: Part 2

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_114757342A few weeks ago I wrote about using the election in our classrooms. I said it was important to respect our students’ beliefs and try to keep our own political opinions out of the classroom. I suggested that focusing on skill development was key.

That was a lot easier before the election.

Now, after the election, I’m left wondering how to respond to my students. Some are upset and worrying about their futures in a country that doesn’t seem to value them. Others are excited and certain that now is the time America will finally rise to its full potential. It feels like focusing on skills would be artificial at best and probably just insensitive when they’re trying to process all of this.

As an adult who is highly engaged in political conversations, and as an educator who wants to help my students respond to this divisive election, what is my responsibility now? I still think it’s important to respect their beliefs and stay as neutral as possible, but tonight I’m wondering if focusing solely on skills is enough.

A Moment for Grit

Sometimes, answers pop up in incredibly unlikely places. Tonight, my answer, I think, is coming from Trolls. Not internet trolls–I’m talking about the fuzzy-haired singing ones in the recent Dreamworks movie. I took my four-year-old and seven-year-old to see Trolls last weekend, and throughout the whole movie, I kept thinking that the main character’s life perspective–keep trying, get back up again, etc.–was eerily reminiscent of a book pretty popular in education circles these days: Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. As the main character sang her way through all kinds of problems and, ultimately, succeeded because of her grit, I chuckled to myself about the parallels. The cartoon was like a commercial for grit–just with glitter.

Truth be told, I’ve always been a little skeptical of the whole “grit” concept. It seems a little shallow to look at a student drowning in problems and say, “Hey! Keep tryin’, buddy!” But, really, what other choice do we have? We want our students to be resilient. We want our students to respond with relentless positive action when they are faced with challenges. And, regardless of whether you saw this election result as a positive or negative, there’s no denying that this election has been challenging. This has been a rough fight, arguments have turned personal and people on both sides are hurting.

So perhaps this is the time when Language Arts teachers ask our students to respond with a little grit. Perhaps our response needs to be: What is your response? If your side won, what do you think we need to do to move forward? If your side lost, how can you stay engaged in the process? If this whole thing left you totally disillusioned and disengaged, what can you do to get back in the game?

Tomorrow, my AP Lang. students are comparing two texts. One is a speech given by Booker T. Washington during the Reconstruction Era. He believed African Americans should “cast down their buckets” where they were. He wanted them to accept low- or no-skill jobs and work their way up slowly in society. Another text is by W.E.B. Dubois, responding to Washington’s suggestions. He had a totally different response: seek higher education, demand opportunities. We will examine those two responses to a complicated, contentious time. Both men responded to a challenging time not by throwing up their hands in despair or gleefully skipping off into the sunset. They dug into the challenge and offered a way forward.

After we study the texts, I think the question for my students will be an obvious one. In this contentious time, what will you do next? What is your way forward?

If we ignore the outcome of this election and hope it will go away or that time will heal the wounds in our country, we are missing an opportunity. Before the results, I thought we could zero in on skills and use politics as our base. I still think that works. But today I’m thinking that we need to see political topics as a challenge for our students as well. The Common Core State Standards require us to teach students to “Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media in order to make informed decisions and solve problems.” Focusing on skills helps with the informed decisions part, but giving them space to write, talk, and think about how to solve problems is key to helping all of us move forward.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

School Year’s Resolutions

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_88053079On a road trip this summer, an old favorite track, Ice Cube’s “My Summer Vacation,” popped up on my shuffle. I immediately started ruminating about its amazing, subversive cultural commentary. The entire track plays out as a straightforward story of drug dealing and violence, until the final verse ends with the sudden revelation, “No parole or probation / Now this is a young man’s summer vacation / No chance for rehabilitation.” Every time I hear this final verse I react to it–I draw connections to research I’ve read, and I think of statistics about America’s youth. But mostly I react emotionally in exactly the way the song cleverly wants me to.

My years of writing and reading have trained me to react to everything–even decades-old pop songs–reflectively and thoughtfully. Even if I don’t actually grab a writing pad while driving, I have enough experience to know that my thoughts about something like this song would constitute authentic writing with powerful voice, and would probably include quite a few text-to-life and text-to-text comparisons.

Wouldn’t it be great if, this year, your kids were engaging in all of those targets during the first five minutes of every class?

Scorching Hot Takes!

I’ve tried stretching my imagination, believing that the kids are producing meaningful notebook entries–questioning Gatsby’s greatness or their favorite independent-reading books. But the truth is, this is uninspired writing.

And I’m the one who has failed to provide the inspiration.

This year, my notebook topics will be ripped from the pop-culture world of high schoolers and the headlines of the day. And the kids are going to produce a rather new form of writing, perhaps not completely unique to the internet age, but certainly popularized by it.

My kids will be writing…daily hot takes.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’ll let The Week’s Paul Waldman define it for you, from an excellent piece defending it in the pantheon of opinion writing:

Briefly, the “hot take” is a piece of opinion writing, produced quickly, about some breaking event or controversy. It seldom involves reporting heretofore unknown facts, but instead is meant to provide a unique perspective that will supposedly deepen your understanding of that event.

This sounds a lot like how teenagers prefer to write and think–maximum weight on emotion and personal perspective, little effort expended on reasoning or (God forbid) research.

Not the usual criteria we’d put on a rubric, eh? But think about how well it lends itself to what a good notebook entry could do for a student. It would engage them, draw out their natural voices as writers, encourage them to draw on their own experiences, remind them that their social-media voice is valid in other forms of writing, and provide them a safe zone for writing.

Those last two elements are what I’m hoping will result in better writing. My students are on the internet all the time, but rarely do we, teachers, call attention to the number of colorful, energetic voices that flood that realm. If we celebrate the truly colorful voices in students’ most natural writing, then maybe we can get them to develop more subtle tones as well.

“Safe zones,” too, are going to factor largely here. It’s not news that the material we ask of students sometimes intimidates them, and that many kids don’t extend themselves as writers because of this. How often have your weaker writers produced entire essays that are clearly their perception of what you (the teacher) want to hear? How often have they produced the generic when you were looking, nay, begging for the original and nuanced?

They Might Like it Hot

shutterstock_101218786I’m prepared to be proven wrong. But I think shifting the focus of their low-stakes writing might result in much higher-quality results. A student who felt lost the whole time you read A Doll’s House, for instance, might bring the noise if you ask her to assess the gender stereotyping of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.

You can make up your own, but you get the idea: Give your students some lively, real-life topics to chew on, and make it clear that the hotter the take, the better. In fact, I’m going to create a “Hot Take of the Week” corner in my classroom, a place to share the best–and hottest–student takes about that week’s topics.

The eventual question is what to do next. Great, they produced a ten-minute free write that captures their rage about The Grammy Awards. Now what? Here’s one possible answer: Perhaps a really good “hot take” is only a few steps away from being a damned good piece of writing, provided students get writing guidance, and pursue a sprinkle of research and/or revision.

That’s getting ahead of the game a bit, but what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t start off the new year on an ambitious note?

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Curriculum

Common Core logoUNITS OF STUDY

Oakland Schools led the development of the MAISA ELA Common Core-aligned units of study that were piloted and reviewed by teachers statewide. This multi-year project resulted in a comprehensive K-12 curriculum that is aligned not only to the standards, but also across grades. These units are not scripts but are guidelines for teachers; we encourage educators to adapt them for their population and context.

Click on a grade level below to expand the accordian table and see links to specific units of study.

ELA Common Core-Aligned Units

Interdisciplinary Units

Dlogo_6uring the 2013-14 school year, the C4 (Common Core Cross Curricular Research Writing Project) brought eight teams of teachers from five schools together across the year to write interdisciplinary units aligned to the Common Core that focus on research writing.  All eight teams implemented their units and continue to refine them.  The three units described and linked to below reflect the completion of publishable units for use by other educators.  They include:

What Does it Take to Survive Civil War? – ELA and social studies (middle school)

What’s Eating You?: the Industrialization of Food – ELA, science, history (high school)

World War II: Barbarism & Conflict – ELA & history (high school)