My sixth graders finished our version of their Letters to the Next President right on Election Day. The next day, we knew who had won. Yes, we will add President Trump to the salutation and ship the letters out nearer to Inauguration Day. I hope the transition team isn’t in such disarray that the letters get lost.
It is no surprise that the environment was a popular choice. Young writers often are worried about what is happening with Climate Change (yes, Mr. President, it is real and not a hoax) and the plight of animals in the changing world. I suppose “pollution” could have fallen under the “environment” umbrella, too, but there was enough distinction to warrant its own category for my purposes.
Again, you can read more about what we were up to at Middleweb.
I led a deep and somber lesson this week with my sixth graders in our Digital Life unit about “Online Bullying.” I know the lesson is important but I always try to balance the negative aspects of online behavior with the many possible positives, and try to make sure my message is “Most of your experiences in online places will be a positive experience, but if it isn’t and you feel alone and threatened, know you have people like me who care deeply about you and can help you.”
We talk about the aspects of viral media, about how the potential for embarrassment and targeting can reach unknown levels, through YouTube or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever. The “public space” is greatly expanded with social media tools.
The very next day, in order to provide some ballast for that lesson, I talked about the not-so-negative aspects of various viral social media projects, such as the Ice Bucket Challenge. I asked if any had heard of the Mannequin Challenge. All hands in all four classes went up into the air. Well, I said, we’re going to do it. That led to cheers. Kids really do like being part of viral media, replicating what they see when they are online that seems cool and on the edge of something.
Since we are in the midst of reading independent books, I told them that our theme would be Frozen Readers. As I filmed with my camera, they should put themselves into a frozen reading stance. I later stitched the videos from all four classes together and shared it back with them (which I may share out publicly later, as I need to navigate the privacy issues — the short video here is just a taste of the larger video).
It was great fun, with lots of excitement, and a positive lesson on being part of something larger than our classrooms. Plus, our focus was on reading and books and literacy. Win-win.
The basics: They have a list of known sound effects that I have pulled from the Garageband loop library. They choose five to seven of those sounds on the list and write a small story, with those sounds embedded or embellishing their story. They record their story on Garageband, and edit in the sound effects.
There’s a lot of excitement in the air this short week before Thanksgiving. They do enjoy using Garageband and using what are called Foley Sounds (side note: check out this cool site where a professional Foley Sound expert challenges us to figure out the sound), even though I purposefully give them only limited instructions. I want to see if they can persevere and figure things out, and turn to each other for help. Mostly, they are fine, but you can almost visually see the lines between those students with learned helplessness (they ask for help before even trying to figure out how to solve a problem) and those who just need a push forward, and space to figure it out, into resilience.
I’ll try to see if I can post a few of their sound stories another time. Here is the one that I made last year, which I shared with them as a mentor text.
We had our annual Veterans Day celebration at our school yesterday, just days after the election of Trump. I am not involved in the planning of this event, which mostly is done by the fifth grade as part of their unit on the United States Constitution. The entire fifth grade does this powerful choral recitation of the Constitution with veterans as their audience during a special breakfast. Their voices remind of the “we” of the Constitution.
After the breakfast, all of the veterans come into the gym, where the entire school is waiting. We sing songs and listen as each veteran stands up, introduces themselves, connects to a grandchild or child or niece/nephew in the audience, and then receives a loud applause from the school. The two central songs were written by our music teacher. It’s beautiful to hear all those hundreds of voices singing to the veterans, to honor the commitment to our country’s ideals. (And I am one of those who gets to listen — I served in the Army National Guard in my life before teaching and join the veterans in the chairs.)
As emotional as the event was, and always is (and this year, there were nearly 65 veterans who came to our school to be honored), I could not shake the strange sense of disconnect in myself from what I was witnessing here as celebration and what I witnessed in the presidential election. I should note that the small town where I teach is fairly conservative. I know this already from my many interactions with the community, and the way the town consistently underfunds our school (we are at the bottom of the state’s list for local funding and support for schools).
But I was still rather shocked to see that this town where I have put my heart and soul into for 15 years, my entire teaching career, voted for Clinton, yet only by a margin of about 50 votes. That means that half of the voters who turned out support a president-elect, one whom I can’t even come to grips with the fact that he made it into office (he probably is shocked, too), and against whom I will work to remove and block as much as I am able. This is not a town of struggling families, not the demographic that seems to have been the wave of support for Trump. This is a solid middle class white suburban town (with some pockets of poverty), with many families connected to the local air bases.
I looked around at the veterans in the room — some from the Korean War, some from Vietnam War, some from the Gulf Wars, and some still in active duty. I thought about the day’s theme of these men and women fighting and serving to protect our rights and freedoms. I wondered about the message we were sending to all those young people — that our Constitution allows a bigot to become president because freedom of choosing leaders is a wide net — and whether an election like this is a symbol of contradiction.
I wondered if it was just me, thinking that.
Knowing how the town voted, I suspected that while I was not alone in those thoughts, there were plenty in the room of adults who would disagree with me, and call the election something more positive.
I’d be lying if I didn’t also wonder to myself: do I really belong here as a teacher in this kind of town?
But, of course, I do. Maybe like never before. I am never overtly political in my teaching. I duck and weave when my students ask about my politics (outside of the classroom, I ‘d call myself a slightly left-of-center pragmatist but I do live in a very progressive, far-left city). I am purposeful, but thoughtful in my classroom. I am sure I have bias — in what materials I select, in how I teach my lessons, in the writing I ask my students to do. All teaching is political, to some degree.
This election reminds me of the importance of open minds and open hearts, and the role that educators can play in helping our students discover the values of our country. It’s OK that we can disagree. It’s not OK to let fear and intimidation stand, in or out of school. Active engagement in the world will become a renewed focus for me and my classroom. I’ve always known and celebrated the potential of teachers to shape lives, in a positive way.
Sitting in the midst of the dozens of military veterans, in gym full of hundreds of attentive children, it became even clearer to me what one of my paths forward to confront the results and message and tone of this election must be. Now, more than ever, teachers matter. I’m not going anywhere.
Our Veterans Day ceremony ended with a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. I’d like to believe that Woody would not stand around, either. He’d pick up his guitar and do something.
There’s still too much swirling around my head, and my world, about the election to make sense of what I am thinking. I know that I am worried about this man being charge of the most powerful country of the world. I am angry when I read about people saying “wait for the real Trump to now appear.” As if. I am confused with the knowledge that what I thought was my country … may not be “my country” after all. Or it may not be the country that holds the same ideals that I believe in.
I’m turning to writing because I have always believed that we write to understand the world. I am hoping my words will give me anchor again.
I understand why people voted the way they did. I’ve been around to enough parts and regions of our country (visiting as presenters or participants of events, traveling for other reasons, and spending six years as an infantry soldier in the National Guard certainly opened my eyes to the different viewpoints that exist in our country) to know that my corner of the Northeast is not how everyone views the world. I have plenty of friends who are right of center on the political map, living on the edge of the middle class and angry at the “system.”
They hated Clinton with a passion and venom that always surprised me (but, of course, shouldn’t, now that we see demographics of the election). They hate Washington DC with even more passion for leaving them behind and for being ineffectual (although, it is the Tea Party that has ground progress to a halt). Government, to my friends, is the problem, not the solution. (You can imagine the very heated discussion my friends and I have all year long). Of course, some of those same friends benefit from government support programs, like the VA and health care. I won’t get into the sad irony of voters who may have just sealed their own economic decline in order to “send a message” by electing a racist, misogynistic, and more than slightly addled leader to the White House. When even commentator Glen Beck calls Trump “unhinged,” you have to take notice.
I also know there is resentment against the so-called elite and educated. And, I know plenty of families continue to struggle economically, even in the face of positive news across all sectors (Bill Clinton (D) left the country in solid economic shape; Bush (R) burned the economy to the ground on his way out the door with his trickle down illusions; Obama (D) built it back up … see a political pattern here?). I believe that economic concern for the present and the future was/is at the core of this election, more than race and gender.
I won’t despair. But I won’t turn my back, either.
How this man governs will set the stage for the world my own children will grow up in, live in, becomes citizens of. I don’t think he sees anything beyond his own personal gain (and won’t be surprised if the absolute power corrupts him even further). My only faith is that the rest of the government will be the ballast (although I fear the Republicans holding Congress will see the election as a means for the Tea Party to ascend even further.) I am hoping my own senator, Elizabeth Warren, remains the powerful voice she needs to be, and that Chuck Schumer is the right leader of a minority party at the right time in history. I don’t even know what to say about the Supreme Court, which is the one thing that I have the most worry about. Again, this is my children’s world we are talking about.
No. No despair. Not quite hope, either. Not today, anyway. Maybe tomorrow. My friend, Ron, sent a message to my other friend, Simon, and me, about some of our tweets back and forth. Ron reminded us about love.
I believe in that notion of love and understanding, too. It’s why I teach. It’s why I write. It’s why I connect. It’s why I love my own children so dearly. This election has rattled me but not shaken me to the point where I lose faith in what I believe in — which is the potential goodness of people coming together to make the world a better place. One man elected leader can’t rob me of that. One election can’t change me. I am stronger than that.
You are, too.
Note: These Peace Posters were made in art class by my sixth grade students. I found comfort in wandering the hallways yesterday, taking in their notions of peace. It gave me a sense of hope that was in short supply.
(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are invited to notice the small moments. You write, too.)
There’s always an edge of chaos when I introduce something new and technology-related to our writing process. We’ve been working for about two weeks on a small research/writing project in which my sixth graders are composing Letters to the Next President based on a topic of choice. I wrote about it yesterday.
Last Friday, I put students across my four classes into Virtual Writing Groups. They “invited” other students from their groups into their documents in comment mode. Then yesterday, after a mini-lesson on Warm and Cool Feedback and how to comment in Google Docs, they spent about 30 minutes reading other students’ letters, using the comment tool to offer support and suggestions for improvements.
For most, this is the first time they have used the commenting feature as collaboration and the first time they found themselves in a single document with other students, sometimes in the same document at the same time (since all groups had at least one or two other students from the same class as well as students from others).
If you’ve ever been with young writers then they suddenly discover the power and potential of commenting into Google Docs, as well as its potential collaborative features, you know what the room suddenly becomes. A scream out loud, a laugh across the room, a shout to someone else, a burst of confusion. We had it all, in each of the sixth grade classes yesterday.
My role, as teacher, was to allow those moments to happen, put what they were finding out into context (“Now, imagine if we extended your Writing Group to students beyond our own sixth grade in our own school ….”) and then guide them forward to keep actively reading and offering suggestions for improvement.
I asked that they NOT yet read the comments on their own letters, as we will be doing that today in a lesson around accepting/rejecting feedback from others while acknowledging the authority of the “outside reader.” I wasn’t strict on that point, but most were fully engaged in reading what others had written and offering comments.
Next up? Final editing/revision of the Letters in today’s classes, printing them off and mailing them to the White House in the coming weeks. It’s a nice bit of symmetry that our letter project comes to an end on the day of the election.
Check out Letters to the Next President — there are more than 6,500 letters of all media types from students 13 and older and more seem to arrive every day. Since my students are under 13, I have been working on a similar project but not for that site (which does not allow letters for writers under the age of 13). Letters to the Next President is part of a National Writing Project/Educator Innovator project.
I’ve been able to guide my students into the research component of Google Docs, using tables to track information and sources. This rather small-scale research component sets the stage for longer research pieces later in the year. We’ve color-coded a few letters from high school students as a way to notice facts and opinion as a way to visualize how they can use facts from research to bolster their opinion on the topic they have chosen to write about. And they have been writing their own letters on a topic of choice, laying out an argument for action by the next president.
Last week, I put them into “virtual writing groups” with students in all four of my classes — they “invited” other students in other classes to comment on their Google Doc letters — and today, they will be peer reading and reviewing other letters, with the Warm/Cool Feedback approach. Tomorrow, just in time for election day, they will read peer comments, revise their letters and then be just about done with the project. Well, except for the printing and mailing to the White House, which we will be doing.
I admit that I missed a few opportunities: I had an offer from a CLMOOC friend who teaches upper middle school to have his students peer review my students. I dropped the ball (maybe it’s not too late). I keep contemplating using Youth Voices as a publishing platform. I still might offer that option up, but it requires parent sign-off, and so I need to get my act together.
So, we are the finish line and yet, maybe not quite yet.
(This is a post for Slice of Life, a weekly writing share hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We look at the small moments. You write, too.)
I noticed something amiss the fourth or fifth time I looked at the wall clock. It was still 7:40 a.m. Or so said the clock. It wasn’t. It was 8:25 a.m. and students would be arriving soon.
The clock was dead and I was nearly out of time.
I scrambled to see if it was just my clock. It was. Time had stopped on me. I notified the custodians, who promised to replace it, and finished up my morning message for students. I was thankful for my Saxophone Clock at the back room (although it was interesting when some students who have been with me for two months now only noticed it now, when the school wall clock was busted. So much for being observant.)
Later, while my students were at Physical Education and I was working on plans for the day’s writing, the custodians did indeed come in. They took down the old clock and put up a new one, and then told me that it would take a day to settle into the automated system.
Ten minutes later (I think), I looked up and time, as they say, was flying. The seconds hand looked like it had a jolt of caffeine and the minutes hand was doing its steady dance around the hours. By 3:45 p.m., after school had ended, the clock read 5:20.
We’re in the midst of our version of the Letters to the President project right now. My students are too young to partake in posting to the site, but wow … I think I saw there are nearly 2,700 letters at the site already. What a rich resource of student writing and ideas!
My sixth graders have had lesson on the Electoral College (an eye-opener to them, who thought the candidate with the most votes wins the election) and worked on a short essay on whether voting should be mandatory or not. We’ve read articles and watched some videos. Yesterday, I had them set up a Research Journey in Google Docs and showed them the Research tool inside of their Doc. Today, they will determine a topic for their Letter and start diving into some websites to be informed when they start writing (and hopefully, podcasting).
And in-between, we had them work on a Political Button (via Make Beliefs Comix) in which they had to invent or use an imaginary candidate and create a catchy button for their candidate. We talked about phrases, rhyming and loaded words. Some of their buttons were very funny. It was a nice creative break from the serious talk of our country’s future.