Student Voices Matter

Notes from the Classroom
InsideOut Literary Arts Project gives student voices power through presence and audience at Western

InsideOut Literary Arts Project empowers student voices through presence and audience

I was thrilled.

On a visit to Western International High School, a Detroit Public School close to the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, I had the opportunity to witness a poetry reading by students who had been part of the legendary InsideOut Literary Arts Project. As is clearly demonstrated on their Facebook page, InsideOut empowers students throughout Detroit by affording them a vehicle to express their thoughts and feelings in creative and unfettered ways. The work dispels despair and replaces it with hope.

Students read, recited, and performed their poetry in Western’s black box theatre. Poems spoke of the reality of growing up amidst the challenges of adolescence. Some poets spoke of the inequity and indignity faced by people of color, and the societal challenges we all must address in order to create a more just reality for everyone.

What struck me as most meaningful was the profound feeling of liberation that accompanied the opportunity to share. While students had no illusions that their situations would change quickly, what endures with me is the profound feeling of empowerment that was on display. Kids’ voices were heard. There is real power in providing a time and place for students to express themselves.

InsideOut enables students to live a writerly life. Kids understand the power that comes with self-expression, and leverage it to speak up and speak out. Messages of hope abound. Students’ voices are heard!

rick josephRick Joseph (@rjoseph852) is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Being Bilingual is Better

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
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Students progress in their language learning by using Spanish in all subject areas

How many languages do you speak? Chances are, if you are like many native-born Americans, the answer is a resounding…one. Only English.

Students at Marquette Elementary School in Muskegon, however, learn in both Spanish and English in the school’s dual language immersion program. The idea is that by the end of 8th grade, students will be prepared to enter high school fluent in two languages, regardless of their native tongue. The results are astonishing.

Kids begin in kindergarten classrooms where 90 percent of the instructional language is Spanish and 10 percent is English. Slightly more than half of the students come from homes where English is the spoken language, while the rest are from families where Spanish is the parents’ first language. This model of bilingual education is known as an “additive model,” in that students “add” a language to their first language without losing the capacity to listen, speak, read, or write in their home language.

It works.

A Fraught History of Bilingual Education

Dual language programs have been in place in the United States since the late 1960s, when educators realized the power of language-minority communities to create language-additive environments for the benefit of all. Native English speakers could learn English and acquire a second language. Spanish speakers could retain their native language while learning English.

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Students from a variety of cultural backgrounds benefit from dual language immersion at Marquette Elementary

Historically, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with bilingual education—one that may mirror the immigration debate. There is no doubt that language itself carries a vast array of not only cultural but political implications. Few people doubt the cognitive benefits of knowing more than one language. The advantages of being multilingual and multicultural are self-evident from the perspective of the business world and the competitive marketplace.

At the same time, there are the voices of those who seek to build walls—literally and figuratively. These may hurt the enthusiasm necessary to create and sustain robust models to cultivate bilingual education.

A Vast, Untapped Potential

At Marquette, the community has seen the profound impact of the school’s dual language immersion program, which helps sustain a healthy school and attract students to the district. Principal Kristina Precious need look no further than the scores of families who see the value in her program and seek to gain entrance for their children.

“When you hear English-dominant children speaking Spanish without an accent, you know the program is working,” Precious says.

If you ask the kids about learning Spanish, they just tell you it’s fun. The “fun factor,” of course, is one of the reasons the program succeeds.

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Principal Kristina Precious with a kindergarten friend who will be bilingual by 8th grade

The dedication and passionate commitment of teachers make the dual language immersion program happen on a daily basis. They see the value of an approach like this, in which students naturally acquire language without consciously realizing they are learning a second language.

This is one of the essential differences that sets effective dual language immersion programs apart from much more common world language programs, where kids attend “Spanish class.” None of us are conscious of our ability to understand and speak our first language. By providing natural language learning environments, dual language immersion programs create a very authentic opportunity to learn a second language.

I truly believe we continue to have a vast, untapped potential of language learning in the United States, especially in communities where immigrants continue to arrive and provide access to native speakers. But for the kids at Marquette Elementary, it’s just how they do school.

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Extraordinary Learning for All

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

teacher_Joseph“Every child is born a genius, but is swiftly degeniused by unwitting humans and/or physically unfavorable environmental factors.”
– Buckminster Fuller

When I entered Todd Bloch’s science class, in Woods Middle School, I was immediately captivated by the high energy and dynamic learning environment. Students were so involved in hands-on, minds-on learning that I found myself yearning to sit right down and join them.

The 6th graders were motivated by the chance to get messy as they learned about changing states of matter, by mixing corn starch and water to make oobleck, the mythical substance of Dr. Seuss fame. All the kids were fully engaged in a way that enabled them to feel the changing states of matter, not just intellectualize them.

In a nearby 7th grade science class, students used their choice of media to depict mitosis in animal cells. The opportunity to access their preferred learning modality–whether text based, visual or musical–afforded kids the opportunity to represent content in exciting ways. Students showcased their design skills through comic book creation, or their lyrical talents through rap. Again, it was evident that students were accessing the content in ways that resonated best with them, and enabled them to display their learning both creatively and thoughtfully.

As I spent the day at the school, I was keenly aware of Buckminster Fuller’s principle of geniuses. By the end of the afternoon I realized that this school brims with the kind of engaged teaching and learning that recognizes the genius inherent in every child.

Accessing Genius in Every Child

girl2_JosephAs a career reading and writing teacher, I was utterly impressed by the students in a writing workshop who were taking turns sharing personal narrative pieces in their weekly author’s chair. These students were extraordinary in their passionate writing and dynamic storytelling. The fact that they all had very significant learning differences made me realize that with effective, dedicated instruction, their voices can be heard as easily as those of students in a regular education setting.

All children are born geniuses. All children.

I was struck with the realization that everyone has stories to tell and that everyone’s voice matters. A highlight came when one of the students asked me to read his story aloud for him. Initially I hesitated, as I’d never met this child before. My first instinct was to reply, “Me? Are you sure you want me to read it?” Instead, I took a breath and said, “Sure, I’d be happy to!”

I read that boy’s story with enthusiasm and passion in a way that pleased both him and his classmates, based on the wide smiles on their faces. It was one of the best parts of my entire day. I was humbled by the enthusiasm the students displayed as they listened intently, with great joy. I left the room overwhelmed.

I am confident that at Warren Woods Middle School, students are motivated, uplifted, and above all else, valued for who they are and what they bring to their learning environments each day. Their myriad intelligences are valued and employed. They are able to demonstrate and live their geniuses.

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Read. Read. READ!

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

JunkyardWondersjcktA few months ago, after soliciting ideas on social media, I selected The Junkard Wonders, by Michigan author/illustrator Patricia Polacco, as the Official Book of the Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016. The story compels readers to realize that no matter their ability, they are geniuses.

The message of The Junkyard Wonders is that we ought to seek out our genius, nurture it through hard work, and use our genius to contribute to the betterment of others and the world. We all belong, and we all have something to contribute to our communities, the book suggests.

This is a message that everyone needs to hear constantly. But no group needs to hear this idea more than our children—especially in the form of stories, read out loud.

As humans, our brains are hardwired for stories. We tune in naturally to the familiar architecture of a story arc, with its problems, solutions, characters, and settings. Joseph Campbell writes about the Hero’s Journey as a global story archetype, one that is common to all cultures around the globe. Our stories have always helped us not only to communicate, but to make sense of our world and realize our place in it. By reading aloud, we share these stories, and in doing so we create community.

People have also known for years that stories develop children’s vocabulary, improve their ability to learn to read, and—perhaps most important—foster a lifelong love of books and reading.

Associating Reading with Pleasure

main-centermastThe ability to develop a passionate reading life is crucial, according to Jim Trelease, author of the best-selling The Read-Aloud Handbook. “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain,” he writes in the Handbook. “You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”

This reading “commercial” is critical when competition for a child’s attention is so fierce. Between television, movies, the Internet, video games, and myriad after-school activities, the pleasures of sitting down with a book are often overlooked. In addition, negative experiences with reading—whether frustrations in learning to read or tedious “drill and kill” school assignments—can further turn children off from reading.

A child who does not have a healthy reading habit may suffer long-term consequences. As Trelease succinctly puts it, “Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much, cannot get better at it.”

This is a relatively simple idea, and comes down to the importance of building a habit. Additionally, reading aloud is, according to the landmark 1985 report Becoming a Nation of Readers, “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”

Excitement in the Classroom

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Auburn Elementary students after a read-aloud of The Junkyard Wonders

Recently, I read The Junkyard Wonders aloud to 5th graders at Deerfield and Auburn Elementary Schools, in the Avondale School District. The kids were enthralled with the story and connected easily with Polacco’s message of optimism, hope, and perseverance against all odds.

The next day, in an unrelated visit to Auburn, I stopped in the same classroom. What was most remarkable was that as soon as I entered, I was swarmed with kids who were thrusting their books in my face.

“Mr. Joe, have you read The Crossover?” came an inquiry from an eager 5th grade boy.

“I’m reading El Deafo. Have you read this book?” spat another.

“Look what I’m reading: Wonder. I love this book. Have you read it?” another asked.

I was flabbergasted that a read-aloud from the day before, to complete strangers, had created this instant reader-to-reader bond. I was reminded of out-loud reading’s intense power to stimulate a desire in the listener to grab a book and read more.

I felt part of a community of readers who talk about the stories they’ve read, try to make sense of them, and connect them to their own lives. Kids were so hungry to share their books with me. And they were hungry to communicate their excitement about stories—and to urge me to read, read, READ!

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Literacy Outside ELA

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

shutterstock_171031157Recently I had the pleasure to conduct professional learning sessions on literacy with three separate groups of teachers. The teachers spanned every discipline, which is understandable, given the trends in education throughout the country.

Ever since the adoption of college and career-ready academic standards in Michigan, and throughout the country, more emphasis has been placed on nonfiction reading’s important role in all disciplines. All learners benefit when science teachers, social studies teachers, and math teachers take the time to deconstruct their texts, which helps students understand how to read them. This is true for both traditional print resources and online resources.

To this extent, content-area teachers have realized that they must also become teachers of reading. This realization helps students best access course content and achieve greater understanding.

Real Reading at Hamtramck High

In our professional learning sessions, we emphasized the Reading Apprenticeship approach to teaching reading.

The approach was developed by WestEd, an educational research and services agency. As the agency describes it:

Teachers using the Reading Apprenticeship framework regularly model disciplinary-specific literacy skills, help students build high-level comprehension strategies, engage students in building knowledge by making connections to background knowledge they already have, and provide ample guided, collaborative, and individual practice as an integral part of teaching their subject area curriculum.

This approach helps educators appreciate their important role in teaching students to read and comprehend course content, whether in a traditional English class, a physics class, or physical education.


Hamtramck students in a lab

The approach is useful for a school like Hamtramck High School. Hamtramck is a haven for students whose families hail from all over the world. One of two small municipalities located entirely within the city of Detroit, Hamtramck has a sizable number of students from Yemen and Bangladesh.

For these students, educators realize the need to make esoteric academic language comprehensible. During the professional learning sessions, I clearly saw that these teachers not only had a passion for helping their students learn; they also had a willingness to embrace the approaches of the Reading Apprenticeship model.

Metacognitive Conversation’s Benefits

In the sessions, we explored metacognitive conversation and the four dimensions of literacy–social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building. And through this, the teachers came to understand their critical influence over students’ attitudes toward reading.

The metacognitive approach–which largely centers on “making thinking visible”–enables educators to demystify their thought processes as they read and engage with a text. As a teacher explains what is going on in his or her head while reading, students are able to understand the thinking, and gain easier access to course content. This demystification of content also clarifies how information is acquired and why it matters.

So, when educators consciously engage in self-talk during a lesson, students benefit. Furthermore, these skills are very transferable. Students realize that they can apply these newly acquired content-area reading strategies in other disciplines.

This can having lasting effects. Teachers who engage in metacognitive strategies truly help their students, creating a future where the power of reading is enshrined as a lifelong value.

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

A ‘Stachetastic Idea: Raising Money in a Teacher’s Honor

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_274462241It all started with a ‘stache.

Sure, I had participated in Movember every November since 2011 to raise money for Men’s cancer and mental health. But I had always shaved off the mustache on December 1, much to the delight of my patient and accommodating wife, Mary Beth, who enjoys facial hair about as much as washing her face with heavy grit sandpaper.

This year, however, was different.

My team teacher at Covington School, Karen Smallwood Fitzgerald, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2013. Karen left the classroom and quickly underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation throughout the course of that school year. After enduring a painful and challenging recovery, Karen was back on the first day of school, 2014, ready to serve her students. A week later, a visit to her doctor revealed that the cancer was back and that it had metastasized to her lymph nodes. Karen hurriedly left the classroom again, and started a new round of chemotherapy. Despite a passionate will to fight, Karen lost her battle with breast cancer in January of 2015.

Our school community felt the need to help any way we could. A team of teachers and parents created Team Fitz in the summer of 2014 and raised thousands of dollars for Race for the Cure, walking in Karen’s honor. While Karen was fighting against cancer in the fall of 2014, our school community held the Fitz Walk at the end of October, which raised nearly 40,000 dollars for Karen’s care. Through t-shirt sales and pink-out Fridays, an idea was hatched by some 7th and 8th grade students who were former students of Mrs. Fitzgerald. A knock on my classroom door, revealed these eager girls who were members of the BCS Spirit Team, dedicated to performing works of service for our community. They were accompanied by a dynamic parent volunteer named Alicia Acey, who helped the girls formulate the next steps.

“Mr Joe? We were wondering if we could use your Movember mustache to raise more money for Mrs. Fitz?”

In the spring of 2012, I was one of five teachers who had shaved their head for hunger relief, so these students knew that I was no stranger to “hair-brained” schemes to raise awareness and funds for a cause.

“Sure, girls,” came my instant reply. “I’ll do anything to help Mrs. Fitz.”

The idea was hatched. The BCS Spirit Committee designed a logo of our school mascot, the Covington Cobra, with a handlebar mustache on its face. Mrs. Acey had t-shirts printed up that featured this image with the slogan “Students Against Mustaches”. When I was presented with my shirt, I hung it proudly in my classroom, right next to the door, for all to see. The idea was that my mustache would be a hook to raise money for Race for the Cure, as Team Fitz was gearing up again to walk again in 2015, this time, in memory of Karen and her valiant effort against the disease. When families donated money to Team Fitz, their name would be entered into a drawing. Two lucky students’ would be selected to use my electric clippers and shave off a half of the ‘stache onstage in front of the kids during lunch.

shutterstock_224233276Much to Mary Beth’s dismay and the delight of my students and kids at home, my mustache was turning into an iconic cookie duster of the handlebar variety, a style which was selected by a popular vote of the students on my team, and required several youtube tutorials and the purchase of Firehouse mustache wax to perfect. Not to mention, an extended growing season.

“So, when are you going to shave it off?” Mary Beth would ask, as the fall became winter and then spring.

“Soon,” was all I could muster, with inserted hope in my voice.

The truth is, I had received a significant number of compliments on my mustache from a random assortment of admirers, usually men and children. Everyone from a passing pedestrian on the Las Vegas strip to a server at our local diner to the bagger at the grocery store would remark, “Nice mustache!” Part of me wanted to keep it.

While my nose neighbor took on a life of its own, it always served as a reminder of the endurance and strength that embodied Karen’s fight for her life. She continued to dedicate herself to her daughters, Mackenzie and Erin, and her fiancée, Malcolm, whom she was actually able to marry, exactly one week before she died. Karen went forward in peace and love.

I felt like every time someone made a positive comment, it was Karen herself who was reminding me that I was doing this for something larger than myself. This was part of the grieving process, and I was healing. I told everyone who asked the story behind the ‘stache, and how I was growing it, to raise money for Race for the Cure, in Karen’s memory.

Rick Joseph with students about to shave his mustache.

As we dedicated the “Fitz-Hive” reading corner in our school media center in honor of Mrs. Fitz, the day neared for the big “shave-off.” Finally, on June 5, after seven months of growth, the mustache was finally finished. I prepared my students by showing them “How to Kill a Mustache” a hilarious video by Youtubers, Rhett and Link. Two grade 3/4 students were chosen, and I brought my clippers to school for the event, to be held on the stage in our cafeteria in front of 200 3rd and 4th graders.

As I faced the kids, I felt compelled to address everyone and articulate the reason behind the mustache. “You might be wondering why I have this handlebar mustache,” I began. “Well, it’s not because it looks cool, or because I like it all that much. Actually, my wife can’t wait to see me without it.” I smiled.

“The reason I grew this was to honor someone who is no longer with us, but who supports us in spirit every day.”

The murmurs of “Mrs. Fitz” rippled from table to table through the cafeteria.

“Yes, Mrs. Fitz. Mrs. Fitz was the type of person who loved people. She loved being a teacher and working with children just like each one of you. She enjoyed reading aloud and would get excited when she could bring a character to life and make you feel like you had entered the world of the story. One of her favorite things to do was to teach kids how to write exciting stories and prove their ideas with good reasons. She believed that kids mattered and that their voices should be heard, not just by other kids but by adults as well. She knew that kids’ hearts are pure, and that we should listen when they speak.”

“You don’t have to grow a mustache to celebrate Mrs. Fitz and her life. You can do something that Mrs. Fitz used to do every day. Just smile. Smile at the people around you. Smile at someone you pass in the hallway, even if you don’t know them. Maybe even say “hello.” You never know, your kindness just might make someone’s day.

“This is what Mrs. Fitz would want. This is the message that she leaves for us today. Remember to smile.”

It all started with a ‘stache.

9.21 face shot JoeRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher of 5th and 6th grade students at Birmingham Covington School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was named the 2015-16 Michigan Teacher of the year. He believes in the power of multi-age education to break down barriers in traditional school settings. Rick advocates for the meaningful use of digital tools on a daily basis to help create meaning and relevance for all learners.  He is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.