Saturday, November 24, 2012

Academic Courage And The Democratic Teacher

This post is a little different because I am writing about my philosophy of education and a few examples of how I resolved the on-going struggles of teaching in a democratic classroom. I have three books to recommend for adults about democratic education and one book to recommend to middle and high school students about people working for social justice/change.

Teaching is often said to be the hardest job in the world, after parenting, but if good teaching is hard being a good democratic teacher is even harder because many people do not understanding what it is like to teach in an institution that promotes "democratic ideology"  but isn't a democratic structure -it is a paradox that entangles teachers. I often felt alone, unsupported, and misunderstood and struggled working in an environment that really did not support democratic teaching practices, as it challenges the status quo. Those in school leadership felt threaten by the shift in the balance of power when students question the relevance of what they were ask to learn. Teaching demands that one examines and questions ones belief systems because our actions have profound impacts on our students. Self examination is often painful and lonely but we cannot live our life trapped in the confines of our egos. And while we should sometimes practice megacongnition (thinking about our thinking) alone, we should  much more often reflect with others, especially those who are different from us, and be wary when we walk in drumbeat rhythm of our suppose nature, fate, or calling. It is important to develop a support systems and not only did I have important on-going discussions with my colleagues, I read about what other democratic educators, like Deborah Meire, Art Pearl, Nick Meire, Paulo Freire, and others, were doing in their classrooms, schools and communities. They taught me the importance of aesthetics,democratic education and social imagination. I wondered, looked at, revised, acted, questioned, and change my world because of my connection to these profound educators.

Democratic educators help students develop citizenship skills through explicit attempts and practices required of democratic citizenship.This takes deliberate construction of experiences and knowledge systems built into students everyday practices. History and civics while important, represent only a part of democratic values. The world is faced with many problems. These problems cannot be solved without a democratic process, and becomes worse the more the intelligence of the public is insulted, it is known as a "dumbing down" process. Essential to a democratic resolution of social and personal problems, is a reconstructed school that prepares all students to be effective problem solvers. It must be understood at the outset that an ideal "democracy" is an unattainable goal. Democracy can only be a hypothetical vision used to measure progress much as infinity does in mathematics.

There are six attributes if democracy that have been generally recognized and I have applied them to education. These are: 1) the nature of authority, 2) the ordering and inclusiveness of membership, 3) the determine of important knowledge, 4) the definition and availability of rights, 5) the nature and participation in the decisions that effect one's life and 6) equality. I add a seventh which I believe derives from democracy - an optimal learning environment available to all students. It is the entwining of these different democratic requirements that determine whether the school and classroom are able to become more democratic. The long-term goal for a democratic classroom is that all students are capable of fulfilling the requirements of an informed, active, and responsible democratic citizen.

1) Authority. A democratic authority in a school, be it principal, teacher, administrator, advocate, coach, counsellor, or para professional, leads by persuasion and negotiation. No education can be even minimally democratic, or inclusive, if no persuasive case can be made for it. No teacher can be minimally democratic and inclusive if she/he cannot make a persuasive case that what is being taught is worth learning, or, when students accept the value of the curriculum, the teacher cannot make a persuasive case that all students in the class are capable of mastering that which is being taught.

2) Inclusiveness and the democratic classroom. The classroom is democratic and socially inclusive to the extent to which it welcomes all students as equally valued members of the school community. Democratic education, by definition, is deeply concerned with injustice and asymmetrical power. However, the democratic teacher does not allow inequity to be an excuse for poor student performance. Democratic authority responds to students when they claim to be treated unjustly, or have been victimised by abusive power, by suggesting ways that the problems raised can be made part of the curriculum, or, when injustice or abusive power interferes with a problem solving project, suggest ways to remedy that situation.

3) Important Knowledge -- The democratic curriculum. A school is a place where students acquire important knowledge and develop important skills, or going there is a waste of time. Democratic education cannot be effective unless it is a persuasive and coherent response to existing curriculum directions. It is not easy because curriculum and testing have become centralized, where process is more important than content, and where it has become increasing dumbed down, trivialised, and important subjects such as the arts, music and PE have been eliminated. The evidence is overwhelming that all students resist efforts to coerce them to master that which they find irrelevant. Even the few that do excel do so for utilitarian reasons - as a necessary means to succeed in a credentialed society. Just what is important knowledge, and who decides what is or is not important? Important knowledge in this case, is that knowledge that students believe can be used to solve important problems. While ultimately it is the student that decides what is or is not important, it nevertheless falls on the teacher to make a persuasive case for school derived knowledge. A good teacher inspires students to be interested in academic content, social justice, environmental and other important issues that must be addressed if we are to survive as a species.

4) Rights. Students are guaranteed a finite number of very specific rights. If a foundation for a democratic classroom is to be established, student rights will be few in number,(at least originally), and will be universal and inalienable. Students enter a democratic classroom with rights established, and then learn to be responsible. These rights have stood the test of time (1) the right of free expression, (2) due process, (3) the right of privacy, (4) the right of movement (i.e., not to be a captive audience). Part of the mandate of the democratic classroom is to help students define rights. Such a discussion is likely to be most profitable when the teacher advances the notion that a right is any unabridged activity that does not restrict the activities of other, or, require from others some special effort.

5) The nature of participation in decisions that affect one's life. Democracy, by definition, is government by the means of the people participate in the decisions that effect their life. Here, we confront two problems. One, a decreasing number of individuals committed to participate in citizenship activities. Two, those that do participate are too often insufficiently informed to be responsible citizens. We have through a variety of changes become consumers of politics, not producers of politics. It is important to organize schools to derive knowledge for the solutions to important social and personal problems, it is also necessary to organize classroom activities to create opportunities for all students to develop a variety of citizenship arts. These arts include the ability to engage in civil exchanges with a wide range of others, to listen with understanding and empathy, to develop coherent proposal based on logic and evidence, and to create visions, to negotiate differences between what others propose are negotiable, and to hold one's ground when differences aren't negotiable (and be able to tell the difference), to learn how to organize a constituency in support of a proposal/vision, and to learn how to meld coalitions with other groups on particular issues.  It's only under democracy that all students are equally encourage to reach her/his potential.

6) Establishing optimum learning environments for learning.
 a) Encouragement to risk. Decreasingly the classroom has become a place where students take chances. There us too much to lose and not enough to gain when students risks opinions and challenge authority. The emphasis on high stakes testing (fraudulently defined as standards) and increased effort to control student behavior only serves to discourage risks. How can we expect students solve pressing personal and social problems, how can we expect them to create visions of a better world if we cannot provide a classroom climate where risk taking is the norm?
b) Elimination of unnecessary discomfort. Classrooms are not very comfortable places. Some discomfort is unavoidable, learning new things is at times uncomfortable, but my concern is with those discomforts that are avoidable and routinely become part of classroom practice - public humiliation, boredom and loneliness.
c) Meaning. Meaning is an important gratification. Humans struggle to make sense of their world. Meaning has two definitions. One deals with utility, how can I use what I am being asked to learn. The other is understanding what is expected of me in the classroom.
d) A sense of competence. A good part of a teacher's life is devoted to establishing a ranking of competence, something I always struggled with, because competence is too narrowly and arbitrarily defined, it is time to bury letter grades and traditional report cards. With competence it is not so much what students have done, but more what they are encouraged to believe they can do that determines student performance. In other words, when students have a positive sense of ability and efficacy to do a task, they are more likely to choose to do the task, persist at it, and maintain their effort. Efficacy and competence beliefs predict future performance and engagement even when previous performance is taken into account.
e) Belonging. Humans are a gregarious species. If the school does not take pains to welcome all students as full fledged members of centripetal learning community, students will search elsewhere to gratify a need for belonging. Cooperative learning is one strategy that can facilitate feelings of belonging and breakdown prejudices.
f) Usefulness. Schools are organized for future usefulness. Students are asked to put their lives on hold as a kind of promissory note. In a democratic classroom activities are organized for immediate utility. The problems solved are problems students perceive to be real and important. All students are recruited to help with the instruction and serve in many different capacities. All engage in cross age tutoring (when our kindergarten teachers had 36-38 students in a class for several years before class size reduction, my students were "life-savers"). All share research results, all have valuable roles to play in cooperative educational projects. All engage in community service that is integrated within the curriculum. All are part of a socially inclusive curriculum.
g) Hope. Hopelessness now comes at us from many different directions. Pessimism is reflected in opinion polls and loss of confidence in one's ability to influence one's future. Pessimism and social exclusion is becoming the one common characteristic in modern post-industrial life, many fear the capitalist dream is not for them. In a democratic classroom serious effort is made to equally encourage all students to be hopeful. But it's more than mere optimism. In a democratic classroom all students are given reasons to be hopeful, they are encouraged to dream and keep their options open. Problems are presented as opportunities for the creation or discovery of solutions.
h) Excitement Excitement is a legitimate and important human need and is another hallmark of the democratic classroom. Teachers must relinquish control, and students must participate in activities where they generate important knowledge, make important discoveries, participate in important decisions, and create visions of a better world.
i) Creativity. Humans are, by nature, a creative species. Each generation creates a new world. In a democratic class all students are encouraged to be constructively creative and to use creativity for community building i.e., to make the class far more interesting, exciting and creative place than is currently the case; and, far more interesting, exciting and creative than any of the current "reforms" i.e. The No Child Left Behind Act!
j) Ownership. Students are motivated to learn if they believe that learning is in their or their community interest. If everything done in the class is done to please or impress some external authority, performance suffers. All of this should call for a re-examination of intelligence - intelligence should be considered an ecological attribute - it is the expression of individual capacity to learn under optimal learning conditions. I talked about my own deficiencies, limitations, and the like, all the while getting students to challenge their own personal limitations and relationships to forms of alienation, oppression and subordination. Teaching for me presented a platform to both critique the present social and cultural structures as well as find ways to etch out possibility and social imagination.
7) Equality. Equality is a vital principle in democracy and it also difficult to define and difficult to achieve, no matter how defined. Effective social movements have been organized to make society equitable. Issues such as, race, gender, class and sexual orientation have been prominent. In the 20th century the campaigns for women' suffrage, the organization of industrial workers, and the civil rights movement are examples of progress towards equality. Sadly, history teaches us the progress made can also be lost. We now have a government in grid lock, with two costly unresolved wars, political unrest around the globe, economic downturn brought about by many factors, including greed, technology and the negative consequences of a global economy. And young people with huge debts, and lack of livable wage employment opportunities. The ever increasing gap between the haves and have-nots (plus countless social, environmental, and other problems) we still have a long ways to go. Whether equality is attainable is a political question that cannot be ascertained in advance. Moreover, while absolute equality is beyond reach, progress toward such a goal is realistic and is what a democratic education strives for.  Progress toward greater equality can only be made if the processes by which inequality are maintained, can be precisely identified, and specific action taken to reduce their effect. After 30 years of classroom teaching I found that  by equally encouraging all students, much of the differences by race, ethnicity and class disappears.

Moving towards democracy. Some practical issues the classroom teacher faces and though it may seem trivial these are important issues that impact the way students feel about themselves and each other. Every school has its own culture and some practices teachers may not feel comfortable with but they have pick and choose their battles. Many of us (staff) didn't like the school awards program because it was always the same students that receive awards, year after year. But after several staff meetings our principal over road our desire to eliminate the academic achievement awards. Since I had regular class meetings I decided to discuss this issue with my class. I told them that I felt the awards were detrimental to building community. I talked to them about how I felt it was unfair and that I didn't want to be put in the position to choose the six who would received awards each semester.They all worked hard and deserved acknowledgement. I wanted to boycott the awards assemblies and wanted my students support. Well, it didn't work out that way. Students that wanted to participate in the assembly were the ones that have always received good grades/awards in the past. Others shared how bad and disappointed they felt because they thought they would never receive an award and they liked the idea of boycotting. But in the end, they didn't want to be the only class that didn't participate. Someone proposed a solution that they all agreed was acceptable. They decided a random method of selection would be fair and allow them to participate in the assemblies.   I had a shoebox that students decorated at the beginning of the school year. I put slits in the top for popsicle sticks. Each stick had a students name on it. I drew the sticks at random when questioning students during lessons as a means to insure that everyone participated. So my class decided that six sticks would be randomly pulled and those students would receive the awards. It still made me feel bad because I knew and my students knew that there would be students who would never receive an academic achievement award. They decided everyone should receive adwards and I made each student an award and they made awards for each other. After the school awards assembly we had a classroom celebration of learning. I had hoped they would take a stand and boycott but I gave them a problem to solve and respected their solution. I guess it bothered me more than my students, and my lesson was the awards were about them, not me or my feelings.

Another issue I found troublesome was the old Carnegie unit (i.e. letter grade) and the traditional report card. What does an A or B in reading or mathematics really mean? We need to have deep and thoughtful discussions about what it means to be an educated person, what is worth knowing and how do we fairly measure academic growth. I used informal as well as formal assessments that included teacher and student generated rubrics, projects, portfolios and most importantly, student self-assessments. I met with each student individually to review their portfolios and completed their report cards together. It was hard and a  huge undertaking in a class of 33-35 students, but the results were worth it.

Schooling continues to be antagontagistic to democracy. Too many students look elsewhere to get a sense of the world and their responsibility to it. Strong constituencies are marshaled to maintain the present educational system. While students resist authoritarianism, they are no better off because of that resistance. They too often enter the world ill-equipped and overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness. That condition is the logical conclusion of the education they receive. It is in the context of history that I believe democratic education should be tested. Ultimately, I support democratic education because it enlist and prepares students for informal participation in efforts to solve problems critical to our survival as a species.

I will always engage in the constant and often difficult processes of meaning-making, dialogue and reflexive questionings of my actions in the world. In attending to how things could be otherwise, I don't want to sound like I have a "solution". 30 years of classroom teaching has taught me that there will always be unanswered questions. But I keep trying to choose the possible against the limits,  because I'm most afraid of numbness.


Recommended Books for Adults:
The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier
The Atrocity of Education  by Art Pearl
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Recommended for middle and high school students:
101 Changemakers Rebels and Radials Who Changed US History  edited by Michele Bolinger and Dao Tran
In the great tradition of Howard Zinn, 101 Changemakers offers students a "people's history" of the individuals who have changed our world. In the place of founding fathers, presidents, and titans of industry, are profiles of those who courageously fought for social justice in the US.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Introducing Saga Berg- Author of YA literature E-books

I've been so busy with the elections and will be happy when tomorrow arrives! I plan to rest for a day  and then it's on to the next volunteer project(s). I haven't written for a while and I have two post ready to be typed but no time, better find it soon before I forget! LOL! Anyhow.... Today I'd like to recommend a upcoming author of young adult literature Saga Berg. You can download her first book, Nordic Fairies (#1) for free. I recommend that anyone who likes romance novels read it.  Saga is having a book give away  and you can win prizes too! You can find her at:

Vote  for Nordic Fairies (#1) on Goodread's Young Adult Romance list

Follow @sagaberg on twitter


One winner will get a 50$ Giftcard on Amazon or Barnes & Nobel and the entire Nordic Fairies Novella Series (E-books)

Two additional winners will receive the entire Nordic Fairies Novella Series.

Good luck to all that enter!

Good  reading~ until next time:)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The cart before the horse-I explain how I tie into standards and thematic instruction

I realized that need to go back and explain how I develop units tied to the standards and how I got the funds for materials in my classroom. First, if you have read my blog you know that I became a teacher to reform education, structured my classroom as a democracy (a safe place to practice democratic ideas) and taught children how to be agents of social change. I wanted my students to know the lessons we studied were to be applied in their present day lives not in some distant future.

Students were always surprised when I told them that everything that can and cannot be done in a classroom is determined by a politician and that was one of the main reasons I am politically active. Of course, with the recent Chicago teacher's strike and all the emphasis on The No Child Left Behind Act, and standardized testing you'd think they would be aware of this; but elementary school children do not make the connections. I'm not sure if middle school or high school students do...but my niece and her friends in the 6th grade didn't have a clue! I explained how district committees and curriculum councils develop benchmarks and standards based on state standards. How textbooks are chosen and the many functions of the school board. I also explained how politicians on local, state, and national levels make the policies and rules. It's not a democratic process. When I was on the CA committee for mathematical standards I found classroom teachers were not listened to. We'd tell them that a math concept was not appropriate developmentally for certain age and it was adopted anyway. We do find ways to work around dumb ideas and  I'll write about how I did that! I never give up and I'm inspired by the many teachers, parents, and educational advocates working to change the way we think about teaching and learning, schooling, and education. I want to make all students capable of participating in and sustaining a democracy...our future depends on it!


Post The  Core Standards In Your Classroom. Although no one ever questioned me about what I did in my classroom, I posted the standards. I always integrated the standards into the units of study I taught and made sure my students knew which standards we were studying and why. I kept parents informed through newsletters, classroom volunteers, and always gave my principal a copy. I felt that because I was "nontraditional" I wanted to be prepared. If any one came into my classroom and ask why I (or students) were studying something I could point to the standard(s) posted on the wall. I never taught to the standardized tests though I taught test taking skills. I think no one questioned my classroom practices because my students always performed well on standardized tests .How? Teaching the essential thinking skills (Habits Of The Mind) and how to apply those skills to everything prepared them better then teaching to the test, isolate facts.  The middle school teachers always told me that they knew which students were mine. A real testament to how powerful the essential thinking skills and curriculum designed to empower students really works! I don't know how to add all the common core state standard to this post but they can be found by goggle and downloaded for free. All the curriculum units I present here are tied to the California's Common Core States Standards. The standards are general and all age appropriate literature can be used.

Post The Essential Thinking Skills i.e. Habits Of The Mind Standards: List in previous blogs.

Reintroduce (hopefully students have been taught these concepts) the cultural universals. These concepts should be integrated into all academic studies. They are important because they help students make connections between areas of study and they help them in the visioning processes.
Cultural universals are an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all cultures, past and present, but varies from culture to culture. While reading novels they are a useful tool to use for comparing and contrasting, and analysis. They are also elements that I had students include in creation of the kind of world they want to live in. I always share that as we gain more knowledge we have the ability to change our mind about our ideas and visions. This is important because some students don't understand that is what learning is about and that critical thinking is hard work!
Cultural Universals:
  • Art & Architecture - (music, dance, folklore ,plays, acting, buildings)
  • Environment - I think a case can be make for adding Architecture here, even if it is a human endeavor because it does impact the environment. (landforms, peninsulas, rivers, valleys)
  • Language & Communication - (non-verbal and verbal including literature, alphabet)
  • Recreation - (games,festivals)
  • Economy - (food, clothing, money, cars, toys, jobs)
  • Institutions - (education, government, church)
  • Beliefs -(religion, customs, morals,values)

My integrated theme no matter what grade I taught has always been, Stand Up-Speak Out-Make A Difference, because there are ways children can empower themselves and have their voices heard regardless their age. When I retired I was teaching 6th grade at an elementary school and I taught 6th grade for 15 years. For this post I'm going to write how I began the school year. Of course I've updated the the novels and each year I refine and do tasks differently, as I am a life long learner, I always try to improve whatever I am doing,  and want to model that for students.

I began the year with If I Only Had A Brain a unit that combines building a classroom community, leadership, the brain and how we learn, The Habits Of The Mind Standards i.e. essential thinking skills. The CA Core State Standards for English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects are integrated. In my school district 6th graders study ancient civilizations but because it is an election year I would add that through current events and use the Newspaper In Education Program. In Santa Cruz County the local paper, The Santa Cruz Sentinel has a teachers guide and they deliver newspaper free. The Sentinel also has a field trip program students enjoy-anything to get out of the classroom for a day! Ha, ha! Duck for President, by Doreen Cronin is a picture book that explains how one becomes a candidate for political office and the election process. I assume 6th graders are familiar with the process because most schools have student council.  There are many activities in an election year but that is beyond the scope of what I want to discuss today. I just think that it's important at every grade level to address the current events of the day and connect it to whatever you are studying in your class.

Building a classroom community:
Day one
Large paper hang on wall-heading:  What Makes A Good Student?
post-its for students

I give a brief introduction of the goal to create a safe environment for learning and that we will write standards and a class constitution. This usually takes about 4 weeks, but student ownership and empowerment and a democratic classroom really pays off. I rarely had discipline issues which allows more time for teaching.

Habits Of The Mind-I have a one page handout with a short description of each skill. I will attempt to
post (I want to see if I can find a way to photo the add the image) the hand-outs I created but if I can't anytime soon because I lack the computer skills at this time just send me a note with your snail-mail information and I will send you a copy in the mail. If copying image doesn't work I will recreate the handouts on this blog.

I introduce The Habits Of The Mind and talk about each a little and students help decide which are important for today's tasks. For example: Listening with understanding and empathy-holding in abeyance one's own thoughts in order to perceive anothers 'point of view and emotions. Thinking interdependently-being able to work and learn from others.

Pose the question-What makes a good student?
Students in groups of 4 brainstorm ideas write them on post-it notes
Groups share their ideas with the class and post their notes on the paper.
I leave the paper hanging up.

Day 2
Large paper hang on wall-heading: What Makes A Good Teacher?
Post-its for students
Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin
Teacher read aloud (I often use picture books as a short introduction to a lesson) Click, Clack, Moo Cows That  Type,  is a book about farm animals that stand up for their rights by writing to Farmer Brown their demands and the consequences if he doesn't. It's funny!

Same steps as day one.

Day 3
Large paper hang on wall-heading : What Kind of Class Do We Want To Be?
Post-its for students.
Thump,Quack,Moo,by Doreen Cornin (another picture book)
Keys to American History-Understanding Our Most Important Historic Documents,by Richard Panchyk is a good book to use to review The Bill of Rights and The US Constitution.

I introduce The Habit of The Mind-Finding Humor: Laugh a little! Finding the whimsical, incongruous and unexpected .

Review concepts and ideas from days one and two.

Read Thump,Quack, Moo Farmer Brown and the animals work together preparing for the annual Corn Maze Festival.

Same steps as days one and two.

Students study US History in the 5th grade but review the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution.

Begin the process of writing your classroom bill of rights and constitution. Depending on the group of students this can take anywhere between 2-4 weeks.

In my school district the 4-6 grade teachers wrote a study skills handbook. I added rubrics, The Habits Of The Mind Standards, and other resources to the handbook. We updated it yearly.

Its All In Your Head  - is a the best book to learn about the brain and how we learn. It also a tool to discuss the importance of having a safe classroom environment and how the way we treat each impacts are ability to learn.

Leadership: The Habits Of The Mind Standards & I included the Essential Thinking Skills as Habits Of The Mind.

Students engage in discussions and write about what makes a good leader.

There are many resources (beyond the scope of this blog) to develop leadership skills. But there were a few very cool ones I'll mention here. We had kindergarten buddies and did an activity together at least once a month. My 6th graders also were teacher aides to the kindergarten teacher and they supervised small groups and worked one-on-one to teach specific skills. We were fortunate to be near Henry Cowell Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains and they have a ropes course designed for student groups. Another fun field trip we did was a hiking trail from Boulder Creek to the Pacific Ocean. Our parent volunteers made our field trips possible. And of course I had to tie all activities to the standards. Which isn't that hard to do as many standards are so general. Any worked!

Leadership: On My Honor,  by Marion Dane Bauer is  a deceptively simple but beautifully written story, it's only 90 pages, and is about the 4th grade level. But I always tell students that a great novel can be read at any age. The story is about two best friends Joel and Tony. Tony is a daredevil and it's his idea to make the long bike ride to Starved Rock State Park, and it's Tony's idea to stop along the way to swim in the dangerous Vermilion River. Joel warns Tony that they have been told not go near the treacherous river, but eventually Joel gives in. He doesn't want Tony to think he's scared. Joel challenges Tony to a race across the river but it isn't until he reaches the other side that he realizes the devastating truth: Tony cannot swim.  Joel is raked by pain guilt as he struggles with his conscience, he wants to do the right thing but he is afraid so he tries to cover up his involvement in friends death. The story may be fiction, but it feels agonizingly true to life. Bauer doesn't turn the novel into a moral lesson or a cautionary tale, she just tells a story allowing the reader to draw the conclusions for their own lives.

Leadership: I recently read Across The Universe , by Beth Revis and although it's another science fiction/ mystery/ dystopian novel it would be an interesting read aloud and would foster thoughtful discussions about what makes a good leader. The story is about love, murder, and madness aboard  the enormous spaceship Godspeed that is headed to a new earth-like planet. The chapters alternate perspectives between the two protagonist Amy and Elder, each has a unique and authentic voice and the plot seamlessly uncovers conspiracy and hidden secrets.
Amy, 17, is cryogenically frozen and placed on Godspeed with her parents and others. Three hundred years from now, the settlers will be unfrozen to settle a new earth-like planet. Amy's parents are important to the mission but she isn't essential. She's going along because she is only 17 and they are her parents.
Elder, 16, was born and raised to become the leader of the space ship Godspeed. He is has access to books, leaning and history. He's been raised a little bit apart from those on the ship, as the leader Eldest teaches and trains Elder to be the leader the ship needs. His most important lesson is that differences cause "discord" - all the problems on earth., such as wars, poverty,etc. were due to differences.
Elder is brilliant and rebellious but frustrated because Eldest (the ships tyrannical and frightening leader) doesn't teach him about many of the details that keep the ship running. He gives him hints and expects him to figure out the the lessons to be learned.
Godspeed's passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest. They are a bio- genetically engineered -  mono ethic people and act like robots. Only the scientist and a few creative free-thinkers are allow to have a mind of their own. They are isolated from the other passengers.
50 years before Godspeeds' scheduled landing Amy's cryo chamber is unplugged if Elder hadn't found her she would be dead. Now Amy, is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense and soon Amy is convinced that there is something very wrong. The people, plants, and animals are genetically engineered.  The general population isn't allowed access to learning and no one cares that they don't know.  The strange world Amy finds herself in is not just the result of generations passing, it's also the result of a disaster.Years before, a Plague killed most the population, drastic measures were taken to ensure survival, and the ship hasn't totally recovered. Part of the survival is a system of government with a dictator "Eldest" who trains a selected heir "Elder: The names are always the same; the selected leader is always older than the generation he'll lead.

All this detail is related to part of the mystery, with the details unraveling as the mystery unravels. Who unfroze Amy? Who unfroze and killed the others? There is a murderer on board, complicated by Eldest's total rule and concern the what is best for the people on Godspeed is for there to be no murder investigation. Most mysteries involve the reader trying to guess "who did it," something complicated here because there is so much about Godspeed's culture that is different. And that to is also the mystery for the reader and Amy to solve. But for me, the story is  about Elder and what kind of leader he is going to become. He joins Amy to find answers. What, exactly, was the Plague? What really happened? What secrets are Eldest keeping from his people and Elder? All these threads and questions come together in one resolution. And the story is about issues that are equally relevant today.

Many of the issues that connect to the human condition will be brought forth by students but I have included a few for "food for thought".

Amy discovers that the history books have been re-written. Hitler is portrayed as a great leader. Lincoln solved the problems between the states by sending the slaves back to Africa. When Amy tells Elder the truth about how the history he has learned is not accurate, how does that information change Elder? And importantly, how do we know the difference between the truth and propaganda. Perspective and Evidence.
All the people are alike - they look the same, and they don't think for themselves. Differences caused the problems so they have been genetically engineered to look alike but they have also been altered mentally to serve the different needs of the ship. Some are scientist, some are farmers, some are creative thinkers, etc. What about free-will, choices, and control over our destiny? What if we were all alike? Supposition.
Elder controls the populations emotions, reproducing habits, and basically all aspects of their life through the use of drugs which are added to the drinking supply and genetically modified crops. What are the effects of illegal and legal drugs such as antidepressants on people? Connections.
What about the genetically modified plants, and animals? In California we have a proposition on the ballot about the labeling of genetically modified foods, the long term impact of consuming genetically modified food is unknown. Do we have a right to know what is in the foods we eat, water drink, and other beverages? Relevance.
There is a surveillance system to monitor the inhabitiants thoughts and actitivites? Recently there has been a lot of buzz in the news about rights to privacy and some are concerned about the use drones. Relevance.
How are Eldest and Elder alike and different?
Examine the ways our cultures (especially teenage - pop cultures) institutions, families, and friends influence our thinking and behaviors.
What about human rights?
What acts of resistance do the differenent characters enage in? What will it take to create a better situation? What model is used to demonstrate social change? Relevance.
How are the people aboard Godspeed oppressed, marginalized, or alienated? Compare and contrast to present situations in the world and with the corporate take-over of our schools. Relevance.
And most importantly, who cares? Why are these issues relevant to our lives?
I would examine different models of social justice and the different possiblities for enacting change.
What are the different features of social transformation within the text and in the "real world"?

I think I'm going to end here, I want to write more but I've been working on this blog for a couple of weeks and want to publish it. I volunteer for various organizations but have taken on the extra tasks of volunteering for my presidential candidate, and a new experience for me, I'm the co-manager for a local city council candidate. Attending lots of strategic planning meetings , phone banking, and precinct walking. Time consuming but fun and exciting!

Until next time - Happy Reading:)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where To Get Resources - Money

When I began teaching over 30 years ago there was always enough money to buy whatever I needed for my classroom. We had class and school budgets that teachers could use to buy supplies/curriculum that was not mandated, this is how purchased sets of class novels. I also save points from book orders to buy novels and had my students help select what we would read following specific criteria. Santa Cruz County has Schools Plus Grants that underwrites projects that enhance learning aimed to improve student achievement, and augment the students' educational experience. These grants are usually funded up to $1000.00. Year after year, I received grants and always thought the foundation would say they had given me enough money but... I think I did a few important things that helped. One, I always promoted the grant program by having students acknowledge it in their projects/presentations. I also had students write how the grants helped them with their projects - good PR for all. And of course I send them a copy of a class book and thank you notes. Another thing I did was I approached a local businessman and he gave me classroom donations yearly, between $2,000-$6,000.  Having students write thank you letters is very important to receive on-going support. I know teachers have other creative ideas and would love to hear from you!

Happy reading:)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Make A Difference Day - Saturday, Oct.27th - And Books!

Make A Difference Day is America's largest annual day of volunteering, on Saturday, Oct.27, millions of us will be helping our communities, you can too. I found ideas in my local newspaper and you can also get ideas and tools at However, I promote having children come up with their own ideas and use other resources as a guide.

Democratic education engages students in deep conversations, has them conduct meaningful research, discover rather than being told and utilize rather than store learning. Such an education has students working on projects designed to promote some form of community involvement -a public  good. These projects are not just for a day, it is the focus of the the curriculum, hence my classroom theme and the focus of this blog to Stand Up- Speak Out-Make A Difference.

To earn an A in social studies students had to complete a community service project each grading period. Community service was basically anything you don't get paid to do but helps individuals, the community, or environment. I had a form where students wrote a description of their project(s), the location and the times . I had to approve the project and sign it off and so did the parent(s). After students completed their project they wrote a paragraph reflecting on the experience. If students wanted to share their service project with the class I always made the time, it was important to them.  Some students wrote about their projects for the school newsletter, others gave presentations to the PTA and the school board, and some students shared their projects through other social media outlets (it was always a choice but I discovered they wanted to share their experiences). Projects varied but these are a few examples, one student helped his elderly neighbor with yard work, another student was a docent at Henry Cowel Park, one student provided after school care, and groups went regularly to clean up local beaches and the San Lorenzo River. Community service is an opportunity to apply lessons learn in the classroom to the real world! There are many things students can do to make the world a better place and they always told me it made them feel good and it was a positive experience.

In the 1980's tuna fisherman were catching (killing) dolphins and other ocean creatures in their tuna nets, it was school children that made this issue international news and school children who wrote to politicians to make laws that tuna fishermen have to use nets that only catch tuna fish. This is a great example of the power of children's ideas and the power of the spoken and written words. My students always liked this story because it is proof that they can make a difference. Now, with a wider variety of social media sources there are many more examples of children making a difference in their communities and more tools available for students to change the world.

A good teacher inspires students to be interested in subjects and topics that they otherwise would not engage in. Sharing stories like the one above demonstrates that just because they are kids doesn't mean people will not listen to them. I also like to use picture books to set the stage for units of study. I have a couple of recommendations today to introduce the process of making social change.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin is a hilarious book about how farm animals stand up for their rights. I like it because it shows how the animals organize, stand up for their rights, and most importantly how they use the written word as a powerful tool for change. I would have students pick something they cared about then conduct research, develop a community service project, and write about their project. Students also wrote about how their projects made them feel. Students published their work in the school newsletter, local newspaper, open house, and a class blog. I also made class books, including a few for our school and local library and they became popular with our school librarian, other teachers, students, and we always had lots of positive feedback from parents!

Giggle, Giggle, Quack, by Doreen Cronin is a great follow up book about how the cows (leaders) example has taught the other farm animals to cleverly standing up for their rights when Farmer Brown goes on vacation and leaves his brother Bob in charge. When you are exploring emotional topics, for example hunger (maybe you have students that experience this) it is sometimes important to use a little humor to relieve stress. Doreen Cronin's books are about important topics but the use of humor doesn't diminish the seriousness of the issues.

If you go to my store look on the left side for Debra's recommended books. Thank you.

Until next time - happy reading:)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A History Of Us - A 10-Volume History Text

I taught a 5/6 combination class for many years and the social textbook for 6th grade was okay but the 5th grade textbook was old, out  dated, and filled with misinformation. I used to read aloud parts of The People's History Of The United States, by Howard Zinn. Students always asked me why they didn't have good texts to read, texts with multiple viewpoints. I decided to do research and found A History Of Us, by Joy Hakim. It is a 10-volume, award winning series about the birth and development of the United States. Students love it, as a matter of fact, I had to pry it away from my 6th graders because it is so well-written, in a storybook style with lots of visual aids, weird and interesting facts, diverse viewpoints, and humor!

It also comes with a teachers manual. I would divide the series teaching the first five volumes in 5th grade and the second five volumes in 8th grade.

My next  challenge was how to find the money to purchase the series. I decided to approach one of my neighbors, a local entrepreneur. He said he would give me a donation to buy the texts if I agreed not to tell any one where I got the funds as he was concerned other teachers would ask him for money too. I agreed and my students ( I did let 6th graders read) loved reading the texts and activities.

When I retired I gave my teaching materials to my student teacher and the last time I talked to him he was still using the series and told me how much his students enjoy the books and the activities found in the teacher manual.

I highly recommend this series to engage students.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Habits Of The Mind Standards

I learned about the Habits Of The Mind from Deborah Meier, an educator and advocate for democratic education for over 40 years. I use the habits in every aspect of teaching and learning. The habits should be internalized by every student, and used no matter what they are studying about, both in school and  especially out of it!

Habits Of The Mind Standards:

 Evidence - How do you know that? Proof? Facts to base claims.
 Perspective - Whose point of view? Who said it and why?
 Relevance - Who cares? Why is that important?
 Supposition - Hypothesizing. What if?
 Connections - What patterns? How related?

Knowing and learning take on importance only when we are convinced it matters, it makes a difference. Having a good mind and being well-educated don't always seem important to young people. It matters because it will help us get ahead, get into a good college, hold a well-paying job. But that's not the whole story! It  will also help save the world! That sounds kind of corny. But it is also true.
It's important to be able to stand alone, to take personal responsibility. But it's also important to learn to work together with others - to collaborate. That means not forgetting our family, our friends, and our community as we gain success in life.
Young people are in a lot of conflict between their ambitions, their compassion for others and their loyalties to family and friends. That's where they need you - their parents. There is no better source of wisdom on relevant issues.

Next time, I am going to write about Make A Difference Day on Oct. 27th and some children's picture books that are good to introduce any lesson you want to teach about how to make a difference i.e. create social change.

A great book for parents and teachers is, The Power of Their Ideas, by Deborah Meier
Happy reading:)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bloggers Vows

I was turned-on to a great blog, I suggest anyone interested in children's literature check it out. And I hope this is an appropriate thing to do as I'm not sure of all the Do's and Don't of polite blogging. On this site the author, Kara Schaff Dean, renewed her blogging vows and gave some great advice that applies to all of us to blog. I know I've make mistakes as a novice, but my goal is really to share how we can reform education and make the world better place. My ideas are not new, I've have many awesome mentors over the years. I do think I have learned over 30 years as a classroom teacher how to apply innovated educational concepts/philosophies to empower children to be leaders and make a difference.  I hope you continue to read my blog and I know as time progresses and I learn how to use all the new technology my site will visually improve. I just wanted to get started as I miss students and teaching so... much! Please leave comments or suggestions how I can improve my blog. Thank You! :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stand Up - Speak Out - Make A Difference

Stand Up - Speak Out - Make A Difference: My Philosophy Of Education

I never intended to become a teacher, in fact it was the last thing I wanted to do. I worked my way through college by working as a paraprofessional. Many of the teachers I worked with encourage me to get my teaching credential but I always blanched at the idea although I never told any of them why. I didn't like what I saw going on in classrooms by what I thought were dedicated but naive teachers. The teachers I worked with came from middle class backgrounds and I didn't think they were aware of all the institutional racism, classism, and other "isms" within the school system. Their thinking was based on the deficit model, some kids inherited a dumb gene - that didn't sit well with the liberals so they came up with another explanation -  accumulated environment deficit. Some students didn't fail because they inherited the dumb gene they were dumb because of the lack of intellectual stimulation during early formative years. That became the basis for Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Still others blame an anti-intellectual culture.

Virtually no one was taking about why minority children and children from lower social economic classes were in the special programs and  how that was the connection to systemic "isms" prevalent in all aspects of the school system.  No one was saying maybe some students were failing because of the learning environment was insufficiently encouraging. These are three features of a learning environment that could lead to a differential academic performance:
Competence - Encouraging students to believe they could successfully master the school work.
Belonging - Students welcomed into the classroom and made to feel each had a an important part to play.
Usefulness -Students find immediate use to what they have learned, or visualize many ways in which what they have learned has utility.

Real life is about work and a career, it is about making serious, sensible, decisions in personal life, and sometimes life and death decisions in one's political life. Real life is music, social relationships, knowing a wide variety of people from a wide variety of cultures and life-styles, and real life is about making intelligent decisions about how to save the earth!

Education should be directed toward learning how to make intelligent decisions in the most basic arenas of our lives - war, economics, governance, race, ethnicity and gender, and ecology. Corporate education (No Child Left Behind Act) does not want anyone to make intelligent decisions in these matters. Only a democratic education that probes and searches collectively for solutions to overcome war, violence, discrimination, poverty, and ecologic destruction can begin to move use to real and positive change.

A democracy puts control of all aspects of society in the hands of and informed electorate. It requires that a serious effort be made for all eligible to vote are equally informed and equaled empowered. Some say that's impossible! But that brings us back to education.

A democratic education accomplishes two things. Students learn about democracy by experiencing it in classrooms. And they learn how to be responsible citizens by practicing citizenship.

Democratic education engages students in thoughtful conversations, has them: conduct meaningful research, discover rather than being told and utilize rather than store learning. Such an education has students work cooperatively in projects designed to produce some form of community development - a public good. Such an education encourages every student to become an independent thinker while at the same time helps the student understand that change in  a democratic society requires collective action. Democratic education has its goal not only a rich understanding of complicated multifaceted rapidly changing world that the students live in, but also, the intellectual wherewithal to be effective agents of change.

As anyone who has spent time in classrooms knows the single most important agent of education is the teacher. If ever a truly positive educational reform is to be achieved, it will occur when responsibility is located in the classroom teacher. That is where education takes place. And there is where true reform begins. Creative teachers learn to work within the system while they work to reform it. I support public education because the diversity of ideas that comes from people with different backgrounds and experiences which is what is needed to solve problems, what will we accomplish if we think alike?  Ben Frankin as a great example, he didn't invent or create ideas in isolation, his genius is documented through  his correspondence with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Frankin bounced ideas off others. If you read Darwin's biographical history you will find that he had been thinking about the theory of evolution for a long time but was unable to fully articulate it. Good democratic schools demand that we acknowledge every one's inalienable capacity to be an inventor, dreamer,and theorist - to count in the larger scheme of things. I truly believe that the foundation for a democratic education should be at the local level where all concerned, teachers, students, parents, and community members participate in defining the criteria for what's worth knowing. I will write about how teachers can work within the system while they are striving to reform it. Teachers can use the standards creatively. They don't have to follow a prescribe curriculum. It is also my hope that reader's will join me by participating in exchanges about how to reform education.

If teaching is be effective it has to be guided by a  vision. Some aspects of the vision are simple, instilling a love of learning. Other aspects which I will discuss in detail in future blogs include:
*An environment that enables all to grow to their fullest potential.
*A legitimate authority - consent of the governed.
*Inclusion - all equally protected and empowered.
*Equal access and capacity to use knowledge on which important decisions are based.
*Development of the skills necessary to participate in collective decision making.
*The inalienable rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
Any serious discussion of the democracy brings in all of the above. I look forward to exchanging ideas with others interested in education.

 If public schooling is to be rescued from the clutches of an un American global capitalism, the alternative must be clear and precise. Such an education must be desirable and feasible by the majority of the public. And by desirable meaning that students must want to be a part of it. It must be strong enough to withstand the naysayers who serve no other purpose than to dumb down what passes for debate and there by undermines democratic institutions. There is no agreement on democratic education but I suggest you read the works by Deborah Meier, and other educational reformers.

Democracy embraces diverse opinions engaging in meaningful interactions in a effort to arrive at a negotiated consensus. If is not possible, and it rarely is, the the contending parties gain the benefit of mutual understanding. For a deliberative democracy to work the must be: diversity of opinion, a place for deliberation, and sufficient time for ideas to be worked out. There must be some negotiated rules/standards - a willingness to listen, disagreeing without being disagreeable. Also the development of understanding that differences are not settled by a preponderances of opinions, or who can argue the loudest, but by logic and evidence, i.e. The Habits Of The Mind. For a deliberative democracy to work the electorate has to know how to deliberate. And that is  precisely what a democratic education makes possible and what corporate education by its insistence on monopolizing time for test taking vigorously opposes. Their agenda is no secret - the dumbing down of citizens, lack of opportunity to learn and participate in the political process, all means to control the population
However, there is hope. Thousands of teachers have democratic classrooms and are challenging the status quo.

My teaching model was based on democratic education/classroom and the theory of integrated thematic instruction, which embraces Howard Gardener's theory of multiple intelligences, and teaching to different modalities. The theme I choose and all curriculum units where designed around was: Stand Up - Speak Out- Make A Difference. Stand Up - for what you believe in, Speak Out - what you feel is wrong, or what you know to be right, Make A Difference - in your classroom, school, community, the environment, your life, and the life's of others. Be agents of social change and build a better world!

Follow my blog and learn how I created a democratic classroom. Students always asked - what about next year when I don't have a teacher like you? How do they empower themselves with the tools and the lessons they learned?  I will write about my on-going struggles with being an advocate for children and for democratic education reform. And let's discuss the qualities of the signal most important agent of eduction, the teacher. Also learn about how to use popular young adult and children's literature as a tool to analyze the world, create a vision for a better world and act upon that vision. All change is political and our children's ideas are powerful!

One summer I took an introductory course to education taught by Dr. Art Pearl he inspired me to become a teacher and taught me how teachers dedicated to democratic education could transform classrooms and empower students. I did that for 30 years. He changed the course of my life. And  most of all, I want to thank all my students, I learned so much from them!

Happy Reading - Until next time:)

Vocabulary for Essential Thinking Skills

Toward A Mindful Language Of Learning

Years of research have shown that the close, intertwined relationship of language and thought. In fact, the cognitive processes that children derive are embedded in the vocabulary, inflections, and syntax of adults' language. Through these interactions in their formative years, children develop foundations of thought that endure throughout their lives. (Vygotsky, 1962)

Language is the foundation for the essential thinking skills. A person must have both inner and expressive language to develop critical thinking skills. For example, if students do not have an inner language (talking to themselves), they will have difficulty thinking through a problem or being aware of their own thinking so they can use what they have learned in other situations. If a person does not have expressive language (talking to others), they will be unable to participate in social thinking or to articulate questions.

We can all develop the habit of thinking and communicating with clarity and precision. In so doing, we educate students' cognitive structures, which ultimately leads to increased academic performance. Today's blog contains suggestions for vocabulary, synonyms, key terms, and word phrases that stand for and convey meanings similar to the terms used for each essential thinking skill.


  • Never give up
  • Perseverance
  • Indefatigable
  • Focused
  • Try and try again
  • Stamina
  • Continuing
  • Stand your ground
  • Undaunted
  • Drive
  • Relentless
  • Sustained
  • Systematic
  • Tenacity
  • Diligence
  • Reliant
  • Enduring
  • Stick-to-it-tiveness
  • Hang in there
  • Hang tough
Managing Impulsivity:
  • Think before you act
  • Deliberate
  • Strategic
  • Thoughtful
  • Patient
  • Mediate
  • Self-regulated
  • Calm
  • Reflective
  • Controlled
  • Count to 10
  • Wait time
  • Take a deep breath
  • Planned
  • Considered
Listening With Empathy And Understanding:
  • Empathic
  • Tuned in
  • Mirroring
  • Attentive
  • Attuned
  • Caring
  • Concentrate
  • Paraphrase
  • Respectful
  • Focused
  • Summarizing
  • Compassionate
Thinking Flexibly:
  • Adaptable
  • Bendable
  • Options
  • Changing
  • Open-minded
  • Diversity
  • Alternatives
  • Expandable
  • Plasticity
  • Lateral thinking
  • Pliable
  • Creative
  • Different points of view
  • Resilient
  • Different perspectives
  • Growing
  • Multiple solutions
  • Fluent
  • Repertoire
  • Many possibilities
Questioning And Posing Problems:
  • Quest
  • Interested
  • Probing
  • Investigative
  • Clarifying
  • Curious
  • Interrogative
  • Inquisitive
  • Skeptical
  • Cautious
  • Inquiry
  • Query
  • Seeking
  • Proof
  • Delving
  • Speculative
  • Qualify
  • Hypothetical
  • Perplexing
Applying Past Knowledge To New Situations:
  • Re-use
  • Recycle
  • Draw forth
  • Know your resources
  • Reminds me...
  • Remember
  • Recall
  • Apply
  • Bridge
  • Transfer
  • Use again
  • Prior knowledge
  • Scaffolding
  • Just like the time when...
  • Similar situations
  • Reservoir of knowledge/experiences
  • Transform
  • Translate
  • Implementation
  • Utilize
Gathering Data Through All Senses:
  • Engaged
  • Involvement
  • Perceptions
  • Sensing
  • Hands-on
  • Interactive
  • Touch
  • Concrete
  • Physical, visual, tactual, kinesthetic
  • Feel it
  • Experiential
  • Perceptual acuity
  • Clarity
  • Sensitivity
  • Move it
  • Dance
  • Auditory, gustatory, olfactory
  • Sensitivities
  • Sensations
Creating, Imagining, Innovating:
  • Unique
  • Productive
  • Fertile
  • Generative
  • Brainstorm
  • Prolific
  • Imaginative
  • New
  • Fresh
  • Ingenious
  • Novel
  • Fecund
  • Fluent
  • Engender
  • Unconventional
  • Inventive
  • Clever
  • Divergent
  • Artistic
  • Innovative
  • Spontaneous
Taking Responsible Risks:
  • Bold
  • Adventuresome
  • Courageous
  • New pathways
  • Exploration
  • Daring
  • Pathfinders
  • Unconventional
  • Gamble
  • Living on the edge
  • Vagabond
  • Venture
  • Challenged
  • Roving
  • Individualistic
  • Free-spirited
  • Do your thing
  • Just do it
Thinking Interdependently:
  • Cooperative
  • Collegial
  • Congenial
  • Collaborative
  • Sense of community
  • Family
  • Interdependence
  • Interconnected
  • Support group
  • Teamwork
  • Reciprocity
  • Synergistic
  • Mutual
  • Harmonious
  • Amicable
  • Social
  • Reciprocal
  • Companionship
Remaining Open To Continuous Learning:
  • Continuous learning
  • Lifelong learning
  • Problem finding
  • Insatiable
  • Inquisitive
  • Self-modifying
  • Self-help
  • Self-evaluating
  • Continual learner
  • Perpetual student
  • Failing forward
  • Learning from experience
  • Self-actualizing
  • Mastery
  • Commitment
Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision:
  • Articulate
  • Choice of words
  • Grammatically correct
  • Communicative
  • Enunciate
  • Command of the language
  • Eloquent
  • Define your term
  • Editing

Striving for accuracy:
  • Correct
  • Craftsmanlike
  • Check it out
  • Refine
  • Adroit
  • Hit the bull's-eye
  • Sharp
  • Perfection
  • On target
  • Exactness
  • Clear
  • Specific
  • Stamina
  • Proof
  • Flawless
  • Effortless
  • Quality
  • Surety
  • Mastery
  • Ensure
  • Quality control
  • Fit
  • Uncompromising
  • Zero tolerance
  • Finished

  • Self-aware
  • Awareness
  • Thinking aloud
  • Reflective
  • Strategic planning
  • Have a plan in mind
  • Self-evaluative
  • Thinking about your thinking
  • Knowing what you know and what you don't know
  • Mental map
  • Talking to yourself
  • Inner dialogue
  • Self-monitoring
  • Inside your head
  • Inner thoughts
  • Inner feeling
  • Talk-aloud problem solving
  • Consciousness
  • Alertness
  • Cognizance

Responding with wonderment and and awe:
  • Wondrous
  • Alive
  • Sensation
  • Aha!
  • Amazed/Amazement
  • Appreciation
  • Far out
  • Astounding
  • Fascination
  • Excitement
  • Phenomenon
  • Awesome
  • Passionate
  • Marvel
  • Exuberant
  • Way cool
  • Miraculous
  • Energized
  • Challenged
  • Insatiable
  • Wide-eyed
  • Mysterious
  • Visionary
  • Obsessed
  • Motivated
  • Enthralled
  • Surprised
  • Transfixed
Finding humor:
  • Laughable
  • Laugh at yourself
  • Funny
  • Comic
  • Comedian
  • Absurd
  • Bizarre
  • Pun
  • Jokester
  • Irony
  • Satirical
  • Clown
  • Playful
  • Caricature
  • Fanciful
  • Whimsical
  • Capricious
  • Comedy
  • Wittiness
  • Funnybone
  • Merry disposition

In an upcoming post I am going to discuss the Habits Of The Mind Standards, how I began my school year. I will also recommend a few children's picture books to introduce a lesson.

Happy reading:)


Friday, September 14, 2012

How teachers and parents can use popular young adult and children's books to create social change

I am a retired teacher and miss teaching and being with children. Unfortunately, I had to retire before I was really ready due to health issues ( I'm better now but not 100%) I do lots of different kinds of volunteer activities. I'm involved politically because I believe all substantive change is political. I work as an advocate for children and for educational reform. Everything a teacher can do in her/his classroom is determined by a politician. I just started a tutoring service and I became an Amazon Affiliate because I need to earn extra income as my retitement doesn't cover all my expenses-medical insurance is outrageous! I thought maybe I could combine my passion for teaching  by writing about how I worked within the system while at the same time worked to reform it. My blog is about my educational philosophy. I share lesson plans and ideas, and  I focus on how to use children's and YA books to foster thoughtful discussions and how to empower students to become agents of social change. Each entry is a little different, Stand Up- Speak Out- Make A Difference is about my journey and my philosophy of eduction. My hope is that my readers will join me in a on-going dialogue about how we can use popular literature and other educational tools to build a better world.

My 11 year old niece was reading THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, and yuck was my first response. Children killing one another isn't appealing to me especially when there have been so many recent shootings. But I didn't want to lose a "teachable moment" because of my prejudices. My teaching experience has taught me to trust children. They know if the content of a book is too disturbing for them. They just set it down.  I wondered why this book was so popular with young people. I asked my niece and her friends what was appealing about such a dystopian novel. They didn't know what dystopian meant so that was our first discussion. A dystopian system is repressed, controlled, and restricted with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often the key, as is a constant emphasis, that this is not a place where you'd want to live. There are four major elements that appear in good dystopian novels. Certainly books need not have all of them, but the best do: a setting so vividly and clearly described that it becomes almost a character in itself; individuals or forces in charge who have a legitimate reason for being as they are; protagonists who are shaped by their environment and situations, and a conclusion that reflects the almost always dire circumstances. They talked about how the book engaged them with a complex story that included love, teamwork, and survival and one girl said she thought if the government ran out of money they would have real Hunger Games. How could she think such a thing?

 I reluctantly read the novel and was pleasantly surprised! I'm glad I got over my prejudices and read the novel with an open mind. I would have missed the opportunity for countless "teachable moments". The novel is well-written and the taut, intricate plot is haunting, compelling, and rich- like peeling an onion, the layers explore issues that eerily parallel what is happening in the world today. Imagine a future in which the all that is left in the world is the ruins of a place known as North America. Panem the rich Capitol is surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is cruel and harsh and represents the empire of the future. Panem keeps the districts under control by forcing them to all send one girl and one boy between the between the ages twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.  Is this the method an authoritative government will use to wage war and insure peace in the future or is there a different way of living and being in the world?  Children know this planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don't poison the water, air, or soil, don't let the Earth get overcrowded, and don't touch the thermostat, have been broken. I now understand why that young girl thought that if the government runs out of money there would be real Hunger Games
Our children  need guidance and need to figure out what is means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. We need a new vision/system and we need it within a few decades. Forget that the task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after they are done.

When I am asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same. If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the data. But if you meet the people working to restore this Earth and the lives of others, especially the poor, and you aren't optimistic you haven't got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. Our children need to know they too can make a difference!

No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights and more. Children can research and join one of these movements or they can create their own movement and gain strength by connecting with others. By working for change children can provide hope, support and meaning for themselves and for others.

 With so much apathy and many children feeling powerless (the media and books strongly influence our children's perceptions) I began to think about if I was still teaching how I could use the themes in this novel for the positive. I talked to my niece and her friends about what kind of world do they want to live in.  They told me a world without war, hunger, poverty, clean water; a world with peace, enough goods for everyone, and guarantee human rights (all themes in the book). I asked them how they could make this happen, they didn't feel like they could do sad. We talked about how all change is political and if you want a different world you need a vision and a road map. It doesn't have to be perfect and will change over time but it's a beginning! Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers and our children are making a difference everyday. Let's continue to empower and engage them in meaningful ways. We brainstorm ideas that they could do right now to make the world a better place. Here's a list of some of their ideas:

*Create a vision of the world they want to live in-if you don't like the way things are now you have to propose an alternative
*Pick one problem/issue and develop a solution
*Join student council and share their ideas
*Write for the school newspaper about important topics and things kids can do
*Have a can food drive
*Car washes and donate the profits to a charity
*Start a school recycling program
*Start an environmental club
*Tutor younger students
* - this is a website where people can write petitions and have people sign them. Petitions  are forwarded to government officials. There are a lot of websites to post petitions on.

I want children to know that they do have power and they can make a difference. They are not a test score!
My message:
The living world is not "out there" somewhere, but in your heart. Follow your heart and know that you are brilliant, and the earth is hiring!
I wouldn't want to discuss all the themes in the book. I think you run the risk of ruining a good piece of literature that way. But do have children reflect on how they can apply the lessons you or they choose to examine to real-life situations.  Pick and choose what fits your circumstances. Happy reading!

A few themes and discussion ideas include:

*What does it mean to be human?
Study evolution and /or different religious beliefs from a multicultural/historical perspective.

*Examine the qualities of the different characters in the book. Katniss is able to survive because she has learned essential thinking skills and how to apply these skills.

Gathering data through all senses: Intelligent people know that all information gets to the brain through sensory pathways: gustatory, olfactory, tactical, kinesthetic, auditory and visual. Katniss sensory pathways are open, alert, and acute and she absorbs more information from the environment then Peeta whose pathways are oblivious to sensory stimuli. What happens when Katniss losses hearing in one of her ears? To know a dance it must be moved; to know a game it must be played; to know a goal it must be envision.
Managing impulsivity: is another essential thinking skill  that helps Katniss survive and there are many examples in the book. Effective problem solvers are deliberate: They think before they act. Her ability to delay gratification (she is hungry but the threat of being killed must be weighed) is perhaps the essence of emotional self-regulation. Katniss and Peeta have the ability to deny impulses, hunger and reacting to others in the Game without fully understanding their strategies. They take the time to reflect on alternatives and consequences of several possible directions before they take action.
Persistence: Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes but they never quit. Katniss is able to analyze a problem (and there are many for her to overcome)  and then she develops a strategy to attack it. If one strategy doesn't work she knows how to back up and try another. Katniss recognizes when an idea must be rejected and another employed. She has a systematic method for analyzing a problem, which includes knowing how to begin, what steps must be performed, and what data must be generated or collected. Because she is able to sustain a problem-solving process over time, she is able to deal with ambiguous situations
Thinking flexibly: Of all forms of mental activity, this is the most difficult to foster even in the minds of the young. An amazing discovery about the human brain is its plasticity-its ability to "rewire", change, and even repair itself to become smarter. Flexible people have the most control. They have the capacity to change their minds as they receive additional data. Katniss creates and seeks novel approaches to problems she encounters. She displays confidence in her intuition and is willing to let go of a problem, trusting her subconscious to continue creative and productive work on it.
Applying past knowledge to new situations: Intelligent humans learn from experience. Would Peeta survived without Katniss? Would he have eaten the poison berries? When confronted with a new a perplexing problem Katniss draws forth experiences from the past.
Taking responsible risks:To survive Katniss must draw on past knowledge, be thoughtful about consequences, and have a well-trained sense of what is  appropriate. Her risks are educated and she knows that all risks are not worth taking. Again there are countless examples you will find in the book.                                     
Listening with understanding and empathy: Some psychologists believe the ability to  listen to another person-to empathize with and to understand that person's point of view-is one of the highest forms of intelligent behavior. It's at the very core of what it means to be human. Katniss struggles with the tasks place before her. Her ability to see things from the other Game contestants point of view helps her plan a winning  strategy. She develops bonds with Rue and Peeta and the internal conflicts and choices she makes demonstrate her connections to others.
Creating, Imagining, Innovating: All human beings have the capacity to generate novel, clever, or ingenious products, solutions, and techniques-if that capacity is developed. Katniss conceived problems solutions differently, examining alternative possibilities from many angles. Peeta use a clever method (after he was seriously injured) to hide.
Thinking interdependently: Human are social beings. In groups we contribute our time and energy to tasks that we would quickly tire of when working alone. How do the players take care of each other?   How does forming alliances help the different players in the book survive?
 Remaining open to continuous learning: Intelligent people are in a continuous learning mode. "Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Albert Einstein. Katniss' confidence, in combination with her inquisitiveness, allows her to constantly search for new and better ways to win the Games.
Metacognition: Thinking about thinking, metacognition is our ability to know what we know and what we don't know. It is our ability to plan a strategy for producing what information is needed, to be conscious of our own steps and strategies during the act of problem solving, and to reflect on and evaluate the productiveness of our own thinking. I don't know how many times I've asked a student how they solved a problem and they say they just did it, unable to describe the process. This is one of the most important thinking skills we can teach. The book describes what is going inside Katniss' head as she thinks. Katniss reflects on her thinking by tracing the pathways and blind alleys she takes on the road to her problem's solution i.e. winning the Games.
Striving for accuracy and precision: Check it again! A desire for exactness, fidelity and craftsmanship. Katniss checks to see if her tools/devices used work well enough for her purposes for example, will the trap she made work.
Questioning and problem posing: How do you know? Having a questioning attitude; knowing what data are needed and developing questioning strategies to produce those data. Katniss is constantly questioning the strategies of the other players and of those who are in charge of the Games. How does this help her win?
Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision: Strive for accurate communication in both written and oral form; avoiding over generalizations, distortions, deletions, and vague language. Find the passages in the book that contain examples of concise, descriptive, and coherent language. Find analogies in the book that demonstrate this skill.
Responding with wonderment and awe:Finding the world awesome, mysterious and being intrigued with phenomena and beauty. Katniss displays compassionate behavior toward other life forms. She understands the need to take care of the environment. She learns which roles and values are to respected in other human beings.
Finding Humor: Finding the whimsical, incongruous and unexpected. This is a trait that Peeta has developed to cope with stress. He uses humor to lift both his and Katniss' spirits when they are in a difficult situation.

There are many other ideas to explore in The Hunger Games.

Human Rights: How does Katniss and Peeta rebel and stand up for their rights? Study the abolition movement, civil rights movement, peace movements,  and more recently the Occupy Movements.

The Constitution Of The United States and the Bill Of Rights: Students could write their own constitution and their bill of rights.                                                

Post traumatic stress disorder: Is Haymitchs' alcoholism related to this disorder?

There are so many more lessons to explore in this book but I hope that I have given you some ideas about how to use the book to help children focus on the more positive aspects.

In future post I will spend more time on actual lessons. I just wanted you to get to know me a little. I will also recommend some adult books to educate ourselves and pass that knowledge to our children. For the next post I am going to write about vocabulary words and phrases related to each essential thinking skill.  I am also going to describe more essential thinking skills. In every academic field there are vocabulary words that define that discipline and gives a common language to communicate ideas. For example, these are a few key terms, synonyms, and word phrases that stand for and convey meanings similar to the terms I use for the essential thinking skills: characteristics, character traits, virtues, dispositions, qualities, attitudes, inclinations, proclivities, mental disciplines.

Until next time, happy reading!
Debra You can visit my store at:

I also have started tutoring. I can be reached at 707-628-8590, visit my site