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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 970 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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One of my favorite things about teaching History is the projects one can do with students. This is one I did the beginning of the quarter which is a lot of fun.

For me, History is more than just names and dates–it is the story of the human experience, and as such, is relatable to everyone. I strive in my classroom to enable students to feel the feelings of those who have gone before us. Whatever the topic, whether through discussion or role play, I try to make my students “walk a mile in their shoes.”



One of my favorite projects is an approximately six week project I do involving colonization in America. Since I hated being assigned a group when I was in school, I always let my students choose their own groups. Before we get to the six week project, I do a smaller project where students have to work together to present one of the different Native American groups. I use that project to encourage my students to be creative (think outside the box) and let them experience group dynamics such as division of labor and which members you can count on. This way, when they choose groups for the six week project, they know whom they can trust.

Old New York

Old New York

I begin the project with the selection of jobs. There are approximately 105 original settlers, and, as luck would have it, I had 105 students in my class. Additionally, Jamestowne (historic) offers a list of the occupations of the original settlers. The original jobs included a majority of gentlemen, a large number of laborers, and a smattering of craftsman. I gave my gentlemen a set salary, my laborers no salary, and my craftsmen got to roll for their salary (so many “heads” equal so many dollars.) Each member had to raise a certain amount of money to secure a ticket to the new world. Because laborers received no salary, they have to “indenture” themselves to other classmates who are gentlemen and can afford them. I occasionally take taxes from them (or fine them for misbehavior). Those who cannot pay their taxes are placed in “stocks.” There are so many societal dynamics taught in this period of the project.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island

Once it is time to “Sail,” I took the class down to the football storage room. It is small, stinky, complete with barrels and a ladder where we could hang my Civil War kerosene lantern. There, by candle light, I had an alumni act as my “ship captain,” and between the two of us, we rehearsed what happened to the early settlers on the voyage, from the six week delay in the English Channel before they could get off to the problems with John Smith, who ended up spending a majority of the voyage in the brig for challenging the captain’s methods, to the Indian attack where two men were wounded the moment they arrived. Despite still being in the school, it lends a reality to the smell, the cramped quarters, and the experience.

When we return to class, each group selects one of the original 13 colonies that they will build. They are given a “plot of land” (white piece of paper) and a charter signed by their “proprietor.” Then, they have the next several weeks to create their colony. During that time, they will do research on their colony, create a travel brochure for their colony, create the rules by which the colony will operate, and build their colony.

History Fair 2012

History Fair 2012

It is always amazing for me to see the creativity and variety each group brings to the experience. I offer “supply ships” bringing items that may be purchased with any left over money from their initial salaries (all salaries stop in the new world.), but students may purchase or make their own supplies or used those provided by nature (rocks, sticks, etc.)

Finally, they are able to present their projects to the community in a history fair. We set up the projects and allow parents, teachers, and friends to come in and view all the projects. It is an incredible experience to say the least. Through the teamwork, the struggle, and the decisions, each student learns the decisions and challenges that faced our founding fathers. I think it’s a lesson they’ll never forget.

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I have mentally written this blog since I started this unit in January, but have been completely swamped. The Hunger Games has been one of my favorite books since I read it. This year, I was blessed with an Honors class that was actually willing to work outside of class (read an additional 10-13 pages a night and answer story questions EVERY night–on top of their regular English Homework.), so I decided to go for it. I received an amazing start from Tracee Orman, who has a TON of information available for on Teachers Pay Teachers. So, I took her ideas and ran with them.

Having 28 students in my class, I began the unit with breaking my class into groups of 4: One male tribute, 1 female tribute, 1 Stylist, and 1 mentor. The tributes were the ones to actually complete. The stylist helped with costume design and publicity, and the mentor was responsible for getting sponsorships and conducting advertising. Though there are 12 districts in The Hunger Games, I chose 7 because there are 7 districts that make it out of the first couple of days, and I wanted the kids to be able to follow “their” characters in the book for a while. The Opening Ceremonies

The first activity we did was the Opening Ceremonies. Students had one chance (Just saying their name and District) to make an impression on a group of study hall kids who were our “Sponsors.” At the end of the ceremonies, these students voted on their favorite tributes. They had another chance to vote after the tribute interviews, where I interviewed each student on their strengths and weaknesses, focusing on why the sponsors should support them.

Marine WorkoutsThen, we had the marines come in and do a boot camp with our students. They talked about real survival and how soldiers are trained to think in order to make it in life or death situations. And, they made my students (all of them–mentors and stylists too) do a PT session. My students were sore for the next few days.

The mentors and stylists had to publicize their tributes. They were each given a section of the hallway to use as their “District” space to decorate. They made advertisements and talked to their classmates and underclassmen. Both the seventh and eighth grade got to vote on their favorite tribute, which they did by putting “Panam dollars” in the envelope for their tribute.

Finally, everything was set and it was time for “The arena.” Outside, I made a circle of chairs about 40 feet apart. The stylists and mentors led their tributes blindfolded out to the “arena” and got them on the chairs. At my count, they had 60 seconds to look around the arena. In the arena (Space between the chairs), there was food (cracker packages), water (Water bottles), medicine (band aids), and weapons (glow stick weapons from the dollar store with stickers attached to them.) When I said go, they had to go grab what they wanted.

Our tributes played it safe (grabbed stuff and got out of the arena), so it wasn’t the “bloodbath ” of the book. Those who got weapons (Stickers) had supplies for the next stage. In between classes (and not in a way to get in trouble or be obvious), students had to try to “stick” each other. If they got another tribute with a sticker between the shoulder blades, that tribute was “Dead,” unless they had “Capitol medicine” (band aids) in order to be healed. I kept pictures of each “tribute” up in my room, where I kept track of how many times they had died, and how many “kills” they had, so their classmates could decide who to “Sponsor.” I also eliminated tributes in a number of other ways:

1. Minute to Win it: Intellectual capacity and dexterity were key components in the games. We played the Minute to Win it games of catching pencils (balancing them on the top of your hand, tossing them up, and grabbing them–2 at a time, up to 12 in under a minute.)and juggling balloons (3).

2. Fruit identification (for the chapter where Foxface dies.): From a distance, students had to identify what is fruit and what is not. I mixed wax fruit in with Prickly pears, ugly fruit, star fruit, red bananas, and blood oranges.

3. Muttations (for that chapter): We were down to four tributes, so I allowed the “Dead” tributes to be “mutts” and chase the live tributes through an obstacle course. If they “stuck” the tributes, they died.

4. “Knife Throwing.” I was down to 2 tributes for the chapter where Cato falls, so I had them throw pencils at each others’ tribute pictures. The first one to make a hit was the winner.

My winner got a copy of the book and a Mockingjay pin, while their District got Dairy Queen Gift cards.

Finally, today, we went to the opening showing of the movie. We got lunch for our kids and another teacher demonstrated archery. Then, we went to see the movie, and finally to Buffalo Wild Wings to analyze the experience. Doing this has been an incredible experience, and a TON of work. But, hearing a student tell another teacher that today was “The most fun I’ve ever had!” makes it all worth while. Truly an unforgetable experience!

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Yesterday, I taught my now annual lesson on suicide. I added it to my standard curriculum about 2 years ago when one of our recent graduates committed suicide. This past Spring, another student killed himself.

I use the poem “The Thread” by Ellen Hopkins, which is a poem of intricate design and artistry. I initially picked it because of its powerful imagery and how well it illustrates the fact that “Free Verse” doesn’t mean “No design.” I read it on the back cover of the book Impulse and loved it. (For those who have not seen it, it introduces the story of three teenagers who try to commit suicide, fail, and end up in the same rehab facility.)

The basic structure of the lesson goes like this:

1. I begin with a journal topic: What was the most difficult time for you to keep on going? What was it that helped you make it through?

Students write for about 3-5 minutes and then we share responses.

2. We read “The Thread” aloud. The last line of the poem is “Put the gun to your chest.” When we get there, most students react: “WHAT?!?” I immediately ask them for their initial reactions to the poem. Usually, I get the typical answers: Depression, suicidal, psycho, emo, etc. Occasionally, like this year, they go a little deeper: loneliness, they feel like no one cares…

3. Then, I go through the poem and ask them a series of questions right out of the poem: “How many of you wish you could stop thinking sometimes? (every hand.) How many of you have been in a situation where you wish people would just leave you alone? (every hand) How many of you have wanted to forget something about the past? (every hand)…” There are about 10 questions I draw from the poem.

I then explain that I include this poem in the collection because we have recently had two former students commit suicide. I share that at Zach’s memorial service, his mom stated, “There are a number of problems with suicide. First, no one talks about it. Second, everyone that commits suicide feels like they’re alone–that no one understands what they’re going through.” I gesture around the room and say, “Obviously, that’s not true. Maybe they don’t understand your exact circumstances, but I guarantee you, they can relate.”

4. We then discuss the options kids have when dealing with problems: i.e., counselling, play a sport, write in a journal, go to a friend’s house, etc. I explain that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. All problems will pass–don’t make a decision you can’t rethink to handle a problem that will eventually resolve itself.

5. Finally, I discuss the design in the poem–the repetition of words which make a “thread” running through the poem, breaking off at the stanza beginning, “Act.” I also explain the cliché “Hanging on by a thread.”

All in all, it’s a very raw, real day. This year, I happened to have the sister of one of the boys who killed himself. She didn’t talk much, but I talked to her today to make sure she had been okay, explaining, “I don’t want what happened to your brother to happen to anyone else.” I also had a student write me a note which explained that “I don’t usually talk about emotions, but I trust you…” She proceeded to explain that her mother had robbed their family for drug money, cheated on her dad (who moved the family away from her), then promised to come back and never did. My student was 5 when all of this happened.

Giving kids coping tools is one way we can help them make it to graduation–not just academically, but alive.

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Today, I had the rare opportunity to showcase a student, and I was reminded just how much it needs to be done.

We have spent this quarter reading The Outsiders, and have had a number of good discussions in conjunction with the book. We have varied between letting students read and listening to the narrator on the CD. In one of my morning classes, I have a student who is an unbelievable reader. In his class, we have stopped listening to the CD altogether and just let this kid read since he’s better than the professional narrator. He reads with unbelievable expression and feeling, pausing at just the right spots, and really drawing the reader in. As a voice actor myself, I love listening to him.

This morning, he looked at me and said, “You should let me read to all your classes.”

Since we were reading the very last chapter, I said, “Okay. Ask your teachers if you can come down.”

This kid came down every hour (minus his math class where the teacher teaches to the bell) to read to his classmates. As I listened to him read four times, I thought about his life. Here’s a kid who got a WDF last quarter because he barely makes it to school. But, he’s smart, and he has a talent. And today, he wasn’t the weird kid, the dirty kid, the geek, or the loser–he was magic. When the bell rang and his classmates said, “No, keep reading.” or other classes clapped for him, I can only imagine what it did for his self-esteem.

As for me, it reminded me that every kid has a treasure somewhere inside them. We just have to dig a little to find it. And when we do, we polish it up, step back, and watch it shine.

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Strange as it may seem, there is a great deal of time in eighth grade English devoted to teaching the Holocaust. The Diary of Anne Frank is required reading for every eighth grader in some format (Ours is a play). The more I’ve taught, the less I’ve made it my mission to teach Anne Frank, and the more I’ve made it my mission to teach the lesson of the Holocaust: Don’t judge someone on the basis of anything other than who they are as a person. Notice I didn’t say don’t judge–But then again, neither did Martin Luther King, Jr. He (and I) said, “You’re going to judge people–it’s natural. But WHEN you judge, judge by character, not color of skin.” The challenge is how to explain that to a student in a way that sticks so that the horrors of the Holocaust are never repeated again. This is how I do it.

Day 1: I begin my lesson with a bit of background information: How World War I caused World War II by the treatment of Germany and the Kellogg–Briand pact. We give a bit of background on children in hiding, and then the fun starts.

Day 2: I show a video called “Survivors of the Shoah.” It is a free video available upon request from the Shoah Foundation. I’d encourage every History and English teacher to own one. (Show the actual video, not the 15 minute intro with Morgan Freeman.) It lays out the Holocaust better than anything I’ve ever seen. I tell my kids before we begin that the people they will see are not actors. The videos are not reenactments, but real news reels. I plead with them to listen to these people as REAL people, because that is what they are. I tell them to watch with a piece of paper so they can jot down what stands out to them or questions they have. Then, I press play. Most never tear their eyes from the screen. From that moment until I stop it, there is rarely a sound in the room–unless it is of someone sniffling (Several students cry every year.) or my explanation of something. It is my favorite day of the year. At the end, I explain that until you understand how bad something really is, you’ll never be mad enough to stop it. That concludes day 2.

Day 3: I begin with a quote attributed to Edmund Burke (It’s actually a paraphrase): The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” We discuss their questions from the day before. This year, a number of students asked whether slavery or the holocaust was worse, so we had the opportunity to compare (options, duration, brutality, value, etc…) But, I had a flash of inspiration of how to bring the message home to them. About 2/3 of our student population is Hispanic or Hispanic mixed, so the issue of immigration is a huge hot button for our students, many of whom have had family members deported. I decided this year to compare the Holocaust to the issue of Immigration, but the lesson can be brought home using the hot buttons in your area. Here’s what I said:

“Let’s look at the issue of immigration. What have we done? First, we identify I group of people. Then, we start to blame them for our problems: Hispanics are costing us our jobs. Hispanics are bringing drugs into our cities. Hispanics are bringing gang violence. Hispanics want to take over and drive us out. Have you heard these things? (They all nod.) Are they true? (There’s silence…) In some cases, yes. But of ALL Hispanics. No. But what do we do? We judge all Hispanics by the actions of some. Suddenly, ALL Hispanics are illegal. We brand them border hoppers. So we make laws against them. Do you see how this works? Pick a group, label them, attribute wrong to them, judge them for it, and make them pay…It’s an easy progression. It’s the same thing Hitler did. Most people never even stop to think. That’s why I’m challenging you with 2 things. First, BE EDUCATED. The first thing Hitler did was eliminate the 2000 smartest people and burn books with ideas against him. WHY? Because education is power. Educated people are the ones to see when something is going down and do something against it. Think for yourself. Second: Understand that everyone has an agenda for your life. I do, your parents do, MTV does, Apple does, your friends do, your enemies do. Everyone is trying to get you to do something. Ask yourself: What is this person trying to get me to do? and Is it right? Remember, the ONLY thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Don’t just let things happen. Stand against what’s wrong now, before it’s too late”

Then, we begin Anne Frank. I let them act out the play, and then we end the quarter with a movie about the Holocaust. All in all, amazing life lesson time!

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