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Lesson 2, The Crucible

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This lesson is a follow up to Hook, The Crucible. It’s another 90 minute one. 30 minutes of this lesson are devoted to a classroom management issue: cell phones, because I teach The Crucible at the beginning of the school year. So if you’re reading this and you’re a teacher, you might want to re-use that 30 minute cell phone lesson at some other point. Or omit it. One more comment: I am using reading questions as part of this lesson — a strategy I am trying to use sparingly. However, last year I found that the narration part at the beginning of The Crucible was challenging for my high school juniors, and reading questions simply helps keep them on track. I would weight the warm up questions based on the essay, “The Great Fear” a lot heavier than the in-class reading questions, because students read this essay for HW and had to do a lot more heavy lifting themselves to answer those questions. More on grading below…

  1. Warm Up: Five recall questions on the essay, “The Great Fear,” read for HW. Students can refer to the essay as they answer the questions but are limited to the 15 minutes. (15 min)

According to the article, what was Senator McCarthy’s underlying motivation for going on a communist witch hunt? (10 points)

What were two actions that could cause an American citizen to be accused of being a communist? (10 points)

What groups were targeted the most by the anti-communist witch hunt? Why were these groups targeted? (10 points)

Summarize the situation involving Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in a few sentences.(1o points)

Was communism a real internal threat to America in the 1950s? (10 points)

2. Collect warm up and instruct students to take out their copy of The Crucible from underneath their chair. Instruct students to work with the person they are sitting next to to read pp. 3-8 and answer the following reading questions. Instruct students to refer to a bookmark with vocabulary definitions as they read. As students are working in pairs, write down the # of their book. (45 min)

  • Draw a small stick-figure sketch of the opening scene. What does it look like when the curtain rises?
  • Describe Reverend Parris in a complete sentence or two (or three) in your own words.
  • What are some things the town of Salem didn’t allow?
  • What does the author say is going to “feed the coming madness”?
  • “In unity still lay the best promise of safety.” Explain this sentence in your own words. What is the speaker trying to say about Salem?
  • Why do you think the Puritans’ view of the forest was so negative?
  • Why couldn’t Massachusetts “kill off the Puritans”? What helped their community succeed?
  • How does the narrator define a theocracy?
  • What was the purpose of this theocracy?
  • A paradox is a contradiction. Why was Salem’s theocracy contradictory or paradoxical? (What was hard to balance?)
  • According to the narrator, in what multiple ways did the witch hunts change the Salem community?
  • List 2-3 questions you have about what you have read so far. (If you don’t have any points of confusion, list 2-3 discussion questions).

I suggest weighting these questions 1 point each.

Give rational for cell phone mini-lesson.

3. Continuing to work in pairs, have students read these sample college level cell phone policies from college syllabi and make a list of consequences that could occur if they violated cell phone policies at the college level. (15 min)

4. Ask students to recall the definition of a “growth mindset.” Explain that applying the principles of mindfulness is a growth mindset approach to refraining from inappropriate cell phone use in class. Project the definition and explanation of mindfulness from Psychology Today and instruct students to take a few notes:

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.

The cultivation of this moment-by-moment awareness of our surrounding environment is a practice that enables us to better cope with the difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations that cause us stress and anxiety in everyday life.

Rather than being led by emotions that are usually influenced by negative past experiences and fears of future occurrences, we are able to live with full attention and purpose in the present and deal with challenges in a calm, assertive way. We realize that our thoughts and emotions are transitional and need not define the next moment of our lives, or our potential for happiness and prosperity. This enables us to quickly escape the imprisonment of negative thought patterns and instead focus on positive emotions and increasing self-compassion and compassion for others.

5. Try a few mindfulness exercises as a class and encourage students to do these on their own when they have the urge to plug into their cell phone (15 minutes, #4 & #5)

One-Minute Breathing

  • This exercise can be done anywhere at any time, standing up or sitting down. All you have to do is focus on your breath for just one minute. Start by breathing in and out slowly, holding your breath for a count of six once you’ve inhaled. Then breathe out slowly, letting the breath flow effortlessly out back into the atmosphere.
  • Naturally your mind will try and wander amidst the valleys of its thoughts. But simply notice these thoughts, let them be as they are and return to watching your breath. Purposefully watch your breath with your senses as it enters your body and fills you with life, and then watch it work its way up and out of your body as the energy dissipates into the universe.
  • If you’re someone who thought they’d never be able to meditate, guess what? You’re half way there already! If you enjoyed one minute of this mind-calming exercise, why not try two or three?

Mindful Observation

  • This exercise is simple but incredibly powerful. It is designed to connect us with the beauty of the natural environment, which is easily missed when we’re rushing around in the car or hopping on and off trains on the way to work.
  • Pick something within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a painting, a photograph, a quote on the wall…
  • Don’t do anything except notice the thing you are looking at. But really notice it. Look at it as if you are seeing it for the first time.
  • Visually explore every aspect of this glorious gift of the space you are in. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence and possibilities. Allow your soul to connect with its role and purpose in the world. Allow yourself to purposefully notice and just “be.”

Touch Points

  • This exercise is designed to make us appreciate our lives by slowing the pace. This opens the gate to purer awareness and the ability to truly rest in the moment for a while.
  • Think of something that happens every day more than once. Something you take for granted, like opening a door for example. At the very moment you touch the doorknob to open the door, allow yourself to be completely mindful of where you are, how you feel and what you are doing. Similarly, the moment you open your computer to start work, take a moment to appreciate the hands that let you do this, and the brain that will help you use the computer.
  • The cues don’t have to be physical ones. It could be that every time you think something negative you take a mindful moment to release the negative thought, or it could be that every time you smell food you take a mindful moment to rest in the appreciation of having food to eat. Choose a touch point that resonates with you today. Instead of going through the motions on autopilot, stop and stay in the moment for a while and rest in the awareness of this blessed daily activity.

Mindful Listening

  • This exercise is designed to open your ears to sound in a non-judgmental way. So much of what we see and hear on a daily basis is influenced by thoughts of past experiences. Mindful listening helps us leave the past where it is and come into a neutral, present awareness.
  • Take a moment to simply listen to the sounds in your environment. Don’t try and determine the origin or type of sounds you hear, just listen and absorb the experience and let it resonate with your being. If you recognize the sound, then label it with what you know it to be and move on, allowing your ears to latch onto new sounds that come into your awareness.

Fully Experience a Regular Routine

  • The intention of this exercise is to cultivate contentedness in the moment, rather than finding yourself caught up in that familiar feeling of wanting something to end so that you can get on to doing something else. It might even make you enjoy some of those boring daily chores too!
  • Take a regular routine that you find yourself “just doing” without really noticing your actions. For example, when cleaning your house, pay attention to every detail of the activity.
  • Rather than treat this as a regular chore, create an entirely new experience by noticing every aspect of your actions.  Feel and become the motion of sweeping the floor, notice the muscles you use when scrubbing the dishes, observe the formation of dirt on the windows and see if you can create a more efficient way of removing it. Be creative and find new experiences within this familiar routine.
  • Don’t labour through thinking about the finish line, become aware of every step and enjoy each step of progress. Take the activity beyond a routine by merging with it physically, mentally and spiritually.

A Game of Fives

  • In this mindfulness exercise, all you have to do is notice five things in your day that usually go unnoticed and unappreciated. These can be things you hear, smell, feel or see. For example, you might see the walls of your front room every day, you might hear the birds in the tree outside in the morning, you might feel the touch of clothes on your skin as you walk to work, you might smell the flowers in the park on a summer’s afternoon, but are you truly appreciating these things and the connections they have with your life and the world at large?
  • Are you aware of how these things really benefit your life and the lives of others?
  • Do you really know what these things look and sound like?
  • Have you ever stopped to notice their finer, more intricate details?
  • Have you ever thought about what life might be like without these things?
  • Have you ever sat down and thought about how amazing these things are?
  • Let your creative mind explore the wonder, impact and possibilities these usually unnoticed things have on your life. Allow yourself to fall awake into the world for a while and fully experience the environment that encapsulates your daily routine.

 

Lesson Plan for “Growth Mindset”

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I’m in the middle of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights because I’ll literally read ANYthing written by this man. I picked up a copy at an old haunt in Lincoln Square (Chicago) earlier this summer. So much nostalgia for The Book Cellar

Anyway, I’m about halfway through, and I confess I’ve lost interest. My mind is half in school mode already, and so I hit pause on Rushdie and finally got around to reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The central idea of this book sounds corny at a surface level, and to extent, the book is corny and a little repetitive. But it’s also a tremendously powerful concept: the idea that our personalities and IQs, our abilities, and for that matter all aspects of our lives, are in a state of ongoing development. Viewing ourselves, our lives, OTHERS, and the world in a constant state of growth has profound implications for how we seek and obtain happiness, overcome depression, lead, parent, teach, and so much more.

Instead of presenting you with my usual “book review” format of commentary embedded in summary, I’ve decided to post my during reading notes to pique your curiosity as well as a lesson plan I’ve created about growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets for high school students as a way to build a positive classroom culture in the beginning of the school year.

Thoughts?

Reading Notes

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over

Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow?

Howard Gardner, in his book Extraordinary Minds, concluded that exceptional individuals have a “special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.” It’s interesting that those with the growth mindset seem to have that talent.

  • p. 12 — “Grow Your Mindset”
  • Developing yourself versus validating yourself

Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners”

  • CEO disease
  • Growth mindset — teacher versus student

When do people with the fixed mindset thrive? When things are safely within their grasp. If things get too challenging — when they’re not feeling smart or talented — they lose interest.

  • When do you feel smart?
  • p. 23, Marina Semyonova

Becoming is better than being

When [Nasa was] soliciting applications for astronauts, they rejected people with pure histories of success and instead selected people who had had significant failures and bounced back from them

The scariest thought, which I rarely entertained, was the possibility of being ordinary. This kind of thinking led me to need constant validation.

If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

  • p. 72, effort praise versus ability praise

What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.

Prejudice is a deeply ingrained societal problem, and I do not want to blame the victims of it. I am simply saying that a growth mindset helps people to see prejudice for what it is — someone else’s view of them — and to confront it with their confidence and abilities intact.

  • Girls grow up being praised, boys grow up being scolded, boys learn to dismiss outside criticism and girls learn to internalize it
  • p. 80-81 activities
  • Not knowing how to fail, p. 82
  • Do you know how to fail?
  • What is success? p. 98-99
  • What is failure? p. 99-100
  • What is something in an ideal world you’d love to do but you don’t consider yourself naturally good at?
  • Relationships and fixed mindset

You can believe that your qualities are fixed, your partner’s qualities are fixed, and the relationship’s qualities are fixed — that it’s inherently good or bad, meant-to-be or not meant-to-be. Now all of these things are up for judgment.

It’s been said that Dorothy DeLay was an extraordinary teacher because she was not interested in teaching. She was interested in learning

Lesson Plan for Growth Mindset
High School Juniors and Seniors
(About 90 minutes)

Pass around Mindset book and tell students that you recently read it over the summer. Introduce the book, e.g.: The book focuses on how having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset,” two terms we’ll eventually define in class today. These ideas can affect your relationships, your business, your education, your symptoms of depression, many facets of your life. We are striving to build a “growth mindset” as we prepare to deal with the challenges of a new school year. (3 min)

The following is a list of questions that came to mind as I was reading the book over the summer. Read all eight questions and then pick the one you want to free-write on for ten minutes. If you finish your thoughts on one question, move to another question. You should be writing for ten minutes. (10 min)

  1. What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?
  2. Can anyone learn to be a good artist?
  3. What do you think our society values more? Effort or ability?
  4. What is the best way to praise a child?
  5. What qualities are you looking for in a life partner? In your friends?
  6. Is it scary to be ordinary? Why or why not?
  7. How do you define success in life? In school? How do you define failure in life? In school?
  8. If you’re “somebody” when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

Stop writing — select students at random with popsicle sticks to share out responses — type into projector any comments directly related to growth or fixed mindset

Explain how each question relates to growth or fixed mindset. Example: #4, related to how we respond to feedback, #5, how to build healthy relationships, #2, how much of who we are is “nature” versus “nurture,” determined by genetics and pre-ordained ability versus environment and attitude (15-20 min)

Make a t-chart, fixed mindset on one side, growth mindset on another (3 min)

Project 10 scenarios and have students put them into each category into their t-charts. They are guessing according to what they think a fixed mindset is and a growth mindset is. Students can abbreviate the wording of scenarios to make the writing process less tedious.  (10 min)

Scenarios

1. An acquaintance says something mean about you on social media so you “throw shade” about that person on your own social media account.
2. An important criteria for your ideal life partner is that he or she challenges you.
3. You ace your math test and your teacher says, “Congrats, [insert name], you’re such a math wiz!”
4. You’re incredibly shy so you sign up for an improv class to come out of your shell.
5. You tend to procrastinate when you’re struggling in a class because if you fail, at least you didn’t try that hard.
6. A job application asks you to write about your biggest failure and how you bounced back.
7. You find it easy to objectively identify your own strengths and weaknesses.
8. A criteria for a good teacher is that they work to make you feel smart.
9. Healthy relationships — romantic and platonic — require work.
10. Some people just don’t have what it takes to be a performer.

Teacher tells students what numbers go in which category, students check their charts to see if they are “right” (5 min)

Discuss why given answers are “right,” students have the opportunity to question or challenge as teacher explains more about fixed versus growth mindset (10 min)

Based on discussion above, students work in pairs to define “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” (5 min)

Teacher selects pairs (popsicle sticks) to share their definitions, offers guidance on how to blend definitions into one class definition for both “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” (10 min)

Teacher gives instructions: Brainstorm a list of 10 common frustrating scenarios you experience as a student/at school and concrete ways you can approach that scenario with a growth mindset this year (t-chart format)

Teacher models 5 examples from their own t-chart (7 min)

Scenario #1: Lack of adequate access to technology (limited computer carts, computer labs)

Growth Mindset Response: Launch a crowdfunding website to raise money for additional chromebooks for the English department, view it as an opportunity to gain fundraising skills and build enthusiasm for next school year

Scenario #2: Eating in class leads to increased requests to leave the room for drink and bathroom breaks, and too many students don’t pick up after themselves

Growth Mindset Response: Put in the time to enforce the “no-food rule” — it’s worth it — and model all food rules yourself

Scenario #3: Too many students are on their cell phones while you’re teaching

Growth Mindset Response: Teach students about the philosophy of mindfulness, show students cell phone policies on college syllabi, teach students about growth mindsets, ask students to reflect on how they’re using their cell phones in class on a written self-assessment, make a poster reminding students how they can use their cell phones for learning, in addition to taking phones away when necessary

Scenario #4: The “amazing” lesson you planned didn’t engage as many students as you hoped.

Growth Mindset Response: View this “failure” as valuable information. Was it how you executed the lesson? Was it how you designed the lesson? Ask your students for direct feedback. Talk to your co-workers. Keep organized digital versions of your lesson plans so you can keep what works, and change what doesn’t.

Scenario #5: Too many students don’t show up with a pencil and then steal yours.

Growth Mindset Response: Over the summer, purchase a glue gun, some fake flowers, and a set of ballpoint pens. Make “flower pens” so your students will think twice about walking out with your pens — and so they’ll have something to write with if they forget their pencil.

Students work on scenarios independently (15 min)
Teacher collects

Homework assignment: Make a list of 5-10 people you admire. Choose one to focus on. Research this person’s experience with failure, either in the form of an interview (if it’s someone you know) or online research, if it’s someone in the public domain. Summarize your findings in a few paragraphs (cite your sources) and identify whether this person has a growth or fixed mindset, in your opinion.

Between The World and Me

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Here’s something I wrote about Coates’s popular book a few months ago and never posted:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work about racism and the American Dream, Between the World and Me, was recommended to me by a student last fall. So I read the book in November, then read his famous article, A Case for Reparations, in The Atlantic. Then Padraic read Between the World and Me for a book club, and now in semester two, I’m having my Writing Workshop class read both Between the World and Me and The Case for Reparations as preparation for their rhetorical analysis essay. So I’ve been sitting with these works for a while.

My mostly black students’ response to both the book and the article was jokingly to ask, “Are you okay, Mrs. O’Donnell? Are you depressed? This is really depressing stuff….”

It is depressing stuff, and ours is a depressing history. And it’s a testament to my position of white privilege that I’m considering the depressing things Coates has to say about the repeated destruction of black bodies and the illusion of the American Dream and sandwiching it between posts about lemon ricotta pancakes and poems I find inspiring… The sad truth is, because I’m white, and I’ve never LIVED racism, there will always be a level on which I don’t get it.

That being said, here is what I take away from Coates, how his book has effectively altered my thinking and brought me to a new level of understanding, inadequate as it is:

The fact that any display of patriotism is stained. Any reference to the greatness of America is ultimately a lie because of the “plunder” — Coates’s term — that our country was founded on.

The idea that we have a lot of intellectual jargon to describe racism, including the aforementioned term white privilege, but that ultimately racism is experienced in the body. Racism is something visceral and it amounts to the destruction of bodies, today as well as in the past.

The notion of “people who think they are white” — the idea that race is a construction created out of the evil desire to subjugate and subordinate other people.

The interesting reaction Coates has to “believers” in the American Dream — he feels sorry for them. Because the dream is tainted. It’s built on the backs of black bodies. And yet the “people who think they are white” keep believing.

It seems that Coates’s major preoccupation is getting our country to stop lying to itself. Even in his article, The Case for Reparations, he ends it by saying that we may discover that there are no reparations that would be enough. But the ultimate point in having the discussion is to become more honest with ourselves on how “the dream” was built on a faulty foundation.

I chose to have my students read his work for class because both his book and his article seemed to be suitable texts for a rhetorical analysis, rife with rhetorical devices and argumentation. My students are pretty familiar with the idea that American life for black Americans has been depressing for a while. So I don’t think his ideas are rocking their world. But I think, even though the book was written for Coates’s black son, this is an important book for all who “believe they are white” to read.

Reading Wonder

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclearan

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.45.07 AMI just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, assigned for a SPED class. In my opinion, the above quote encapsulates the spirit of the book as a whole, about the struggle for kindness in the most petty and mercurial of settings: middle school. The protagonist Auggie suffers from a rare, genetic deformity that leaves his face mangled, and Wonder charts his first year at Beecher Prep following years of homeschooling.

The events of Auggie’s school year are described by several child narrators, including Via, Auggie’s sister, sympathetic classmates Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend, Auggie’s bully, Julian, and Auggie himself. Each narrator grapples honestly with the ramifications of Auggie’s physical differences, from the need to suppress visceral, uncompassionate responses to his appearance, to the resentments created by Auggie’s special status. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Auggie’s special circumstances are explored; no attachment to political correctness dilutes the very real and present challenge of being in the world with an unusual-looking face. There are insights to be gleaned from each character:

Auggie…

possesses forthrightness, courage, and charm. Having been home schooled due to frequent surgeries, middle school presents Auggie with a new, formidable  world in which to immerse himself. He excels academically but is predictably subjected to a high quantity of teasing from his peers.

For example, Auggie is at the center of a game called “the plague.” As the rules go, any student who touches Auggie catches it. So Auggie watches as his peers make conspicuous efforts to avoid him. His charm stems from the detached, matter-of-fact resignation he exhibits toward his deformity, and toward the gaping and staring and knee-jerk immaturity that his appearance inspires.

In the opening pages, titled “Ordinary,” Auggie makes plain the severity of his physical differences — “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” — and makes an equally compelling case for his commonness — “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” I wonder how many children who are marked by visible, defining differences, either physical or behavioral, feel this way, feel regularly misjudged and misread on the basis of what is obvious about their appearance or demeanor, when for them, their differences are simply something to get past.

This disparity between what a person feels on the inside — ordinary hopes, fears, desires, aversions — and projects on the outside — extraordinary physical or behavioral qualities — is a heavy burden. It demands a heightened level of thoughtfulness and empathy from the outside world, and sometimes the world refuses to give it. Circle back to the need for kindness, the mindset that everyone is fighting a battle, that our eyes deceive us, that a second, third, fourth closer look reveals the shared humanity, the ordinariness, of every human being.

Jack…

is Auggie’s best friend. But even for Jack, it takes time to develop the maturity and compassion that Auggie’s differences demand. For example, Jack admits to the reader that he was initially averse to the principal’s request to meet Auggie prior to the start of school. Then, on Halloween, Auggie overhears Jack talking disparagingly to several boys about his obligatory friendship with him. This incident drives Auggie over the edge, emotionally — a shock, when he thought Jack saw the real person underneath the face. Auggie responds by giving Jack the cold shoulder, a shift that bewilders and flusters his friend. Jack asks their mutual friend Summer Dawson for an explanation and she drops him a hint.

Just before Jack and Auggie are assigned to be partners for a science-fair project, Jack puts two and two together. Auggie caught him in a moment of pettiness, smallness, projecting the attitude toward Auggie that he was supposed to have, according to Julian and the popular crowd. This look at himself, reflected through Auggie’s eyes, kills him. Back to science class. Julian tries to get Jack to switch partners, inciting, “You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be,” and impulsively, Jack punches Julian in the mouth. Underlying the punch seems to be Jack’s frustration with himself for trying to be someone he is not. It’s an overcompensating statement that says, “I am definitely not Julian, not a bully.” Needless to say, this action softens Auggie’s resentment toward Jack, and the two boys resume their friendship.

I like the character Jack because he represents a response to physical difference that is at once sincere, good, human, and imperfect. He has moments of selfishness, as evidenced above, but his feelings toward Auggie are sincere and strong. His friendship with Auggie is an honest depiction of a relationship with a person who is different — sometimes it involves hurt feelings, sometimes loyal friends make mistakes, sometimes the differences get in the way. Jack reassures the reader that he/she can also overcome the small, pettier impulses that strike (well beyond middle school, if we’re honest with ourselves), and that authentically embracing others’ differences is possible even for judgmental, selfish, not-always-so-nice folks.

Via…

is another ally of Auggie’s, fiercely loyal but without a resentment-free relationship to Auggie. As Auggie’s sister, just a few years older, Via has born witness to his unusual struggles more than anyone, to the point that her own identity is partially defined by her brother’s special needs. When kids stare, point, or register disgust on their faces, Via feels it by extension. When the janitor at Via’s elementary school calls the home-schooled Auggie by name, it’s an invitation for Via to resettle into the familiar role of Auggie’s sister. Or when she can’t play so as not to disturb her brother after surgery. Or when she sees mom hovering nervously outside Auggie’s bedroom door, and wonders, for her mother’s sake, how many times she’s done that, and then, if it’s ever been her bedroom door. Or when she lies about taking the subway and gets away with it, because mom is distracted.

Via’s is a lifetime of choices, moments, that link her to her brother, which is both a source of great affection and angst. In “A Tour of the Galaxy,” Via writes that “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” Later she recalls a four-week visit to her “Grans” during one of Auggie’s surgeries. For the first time, she experienced normalcy — no Auggie, no one pointing or staring in public. Before she left, Grans let her in on a very taboo secret: she was Grans’s favorite, even more than Auggie. Knowing this meant the world to her, given the galaxy at home.

As much as Via’s self-concept is shaped by forces beyond her control, she demonstrates a strong and consistent ability to step outside of herself, to regard her brother’s problems and her parents’ reactions with a high level of empathy and objectivity. For example, she follows up the comment about Auggie being the sun in their familial galaxy with the admission that her “worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through…” In “August Through the Peephole,” Via wonders what her brother sees when he looks in the mirror — his face, or the person behind the face? She professes to feeling profoundly sad when Auggie cuts off his Padawan braid, associated with his lifelong obsession with Star Wars. This signal of a desire to conform, of heightened self-consciousness, also signals Auggie’s loss of innocence, perhaps, a lagging insulation from the cold, hard perceptions of others, kicking in Via’s protective instincts and her profound sense of empathy.

What does Via teach us? That sibling relationships are complex, enduring, and deep. And the existence of special needs further complicates things. And we shouldn’t forget the sister, the brother of the kid with special needs. Theirs is a ongoing world of “wonder” (and worry): who am I in relationship to this person? To his problems? What would life be like if…? What can mom and dad deal with today?

Summer…

More than any other character, Summer embodies the spirit of kindness invoked by Ian Maclearan. In “Weird Kids,” Summer admits to befriending August on the first day of school because she felt sorry for him. But what starts as a kind gesture — sitting next to Auggie at lunch — quickly develops into something more mutual. “I keep sitting down with him because he is fun,” Summer writes. When an insecure Auggie accuses Summer of befriending him because the principal, Mr. Tushman, requested it, Summer gets the chance to set the record straight directly to Auggie: She just plain likes his company, and “he was such a good sport about himself.” Summer is curious, open, non-judgmental, and in the end, she benefits from Auggie’s friendship.

Julian…

is, in many ways, the opposite of Summer. Julian is anxious kid, and decidedly unempathetic. He’s a jerk to Auggie for the majority of the school year; to the point that he gets called into the principal’s office for bullying. But Julian gets the last word — his chapters close out the book — perhaps this is the author’s way of asserting that his and Auggie’s stories are deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, Julian has special needs of his own, albeit psychological and behavioral, making it easy to write him off before putting his behavior in context. Julian has nightmares and anxiety issues, and Auggie’s face exacerbates them. In the chapter, “First Look,” about Julian’s first time meeting Auggie, Julian says about the moment he first saw Auggie’s face, “I think I said that word [dude] a thousand times to myself.”

However, Julian’s anxiety about Auggie is separate from his outsized, mean-spirited response to that anxiety, which includes trying to turn all kids in the grade against Auggie, creating “the plague” game, and posting taunting notes in Auggie’s locker. Julian’s tactics don’t work in the end. While he ends up switching schools, Auggie becomes a class favorite after a school camping trip, and wins a big award at the end of the school year. Julian is left to feel embarrassed by his lack of kindness.

Like Auggie, Julian has a chapter called “Ordinary,” in which he defensively claims that despite being mean, he’s just an ordinary kid responding to an anxiety-producing situation in an ordinary way. Julian’s mom encourages him to justify his mean behavior — she’s a member of Beecher Prep’s board of trustees who engages in her own acts of meanness, such as photoshopping Auggie’s photo in the class picture and expressing outrage at Mr. Tushman, the principal, for allowing a “special needs” child in a non-inclusion school. Julian mimicks his mom’s tendency to translate anxiety into anger.

It’s not until Julian spends some time in Paris with his grandmother over the summer that he breaks down and admits that he was in the wrong, that he was afraid of Auggie, that his fear drove him to do unfair, immoral things. His grandmother, who lived through the Holocaust, tells him a moving story about being hidden by a crippled classmate that she had previously mocked. Her admission of similar guilt allows Julian to fess up, and motivates him to change. He writes a letter of apology to Auggie and Auggie responds generously.

So what do we learn from Julian? That angry, intolerant kids are fighting their own battles, ones they don’t know how to handle. That it’s a choice to let one’s fear of someone else’s differences translate into anger and bullying, it’s not something to be justified. That parents set the tone for their kids…and sometimes, grandparents need to intervene!

Wonder

So…Wonder. The title of this book seems so appropriate to the reality of living with special needs — from the wonder of how one individual’s circumstances, differences set in motion an altered reality for so many other people (think Julian switching schools to Via’s identity being defined by her brother), the wonder of the ordinary and the extraordinary being embodied in one person, the wonder of the human body, its strange complexity magnified by having certain limitations, the wonder of how families and individuals push through challenges and overcome tremendous obstacles.

As teachers we are trained to use people-first language, as in, “students with disabilities” versus “disabled students,” as a sign of respect for the humanity of the children in question. But I think the best way to dignify the experience of students with special needs is through storytelling. And Wonder, with its kaleidoscope effect of multiple narrators exploring all sides of Auggie’s story, keeps the reader questioning, and marveling, at the richness and the struggle of an utterly special, utterly ordinary life, fully lived.

Something Simple

Alice Henneman Eggplant CC BY 2.0How shall I describe this roasted eggplant salad — it’s meaty and succulent, with big chunks of sweet eggplant, and it’s got bite, with tangy touches, including pickled red onions, diced feta, and a swig of red wine vinegar.

I wanted to write another post about Teacher Wars, the new book about the history of the teaching profession by Dana Goldstein that I just finished, but the lazy writer in me is having an easier time finding words for roasted eggplant.

What can I say — the history of teaching is intricate, enigmatic, and cyclical, with many of the same debates being tossed around for decades, and many of the same ineffective policies being stubbornly reinstituted in the name of innovation.

Roasted eggplant salad, on the other hand, is just plain good. There’s a saying that we write to experience life twice, which is especially apt for food blogging, I think. Here’s the recipe, adapted from Smitten Kitchen:

Ingredients

2 medium eggplants or 6 small, Japanese eggplants, cut into bite size chunks
4 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup diced feta
1/2 cup pickled red onions*

Tools

Large mixing bowl
Spatula
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Sheet pan

*To pickle the red onion, dice half a medium red onion and place the pieces in 1/4 cup cold water mixed with 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, a tablespoon of salt, and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Drain it when you’re ready to add the pickled onions to the roasted eggplant.

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  • Combine the eggplant, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Spread the eggplant evenly on a sheet pan and roast it in the oven for about 25 minutes.
  • Remove the roasted eggplant from the sheet pan and allow it to cool in a large bowl… such as the bowl you started with. Then add the remaining ingredients. Eat with a fork or enjoy on top of toasted bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and drizzled with olive oil.

Empathy As Change & We Are Not Trayvon Martin

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I recently heard Bill Clinton being interviewed on BBC News about his philanthropic work in Africa. When asked whether his poor, Alabama upbringing allows him to empathize with people there, he said that he is proud of his humanitarian work because it comes from a place of empathy, not necessarily of mutual experience.

It was so refreshing to hear someone elevate pure empathy as a foundation for social change. Often, it seems that leading social change requires a certain degree of “street cred”  in the form of a shared connection to the population or situation being served. I recently attended a non-profit gathering, during which several organizations shared their story. They attributed their success to effectively spreading a narrative. The story usually went something like this: I had cancer and I started a mentoring program for kids with cancer; I am Muslim and I started a theatre company to address issues facing Muslim Americans.

This is a beautiful thing.

But what if your struggles/experience/story don’t mirror those of the population you serve? Can you be a credible leader of change? Let’s hope so. It’s much harder to be complacent when experiencing other people’s pain vicariously, through imagination and compassion, rather than through personal experience, is a sufficient call to action. 

This is what I love about http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com.

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What an enlightened, beautiful, and courageous public forum for the pain we ALL feel, as in, all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and combination thereof, regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and the racial tensions that surround it.

I think the flood of responses shows how many everyday people of racial or socioeconomic privilege are affected by issues of race, but they don’t typically express their feelings. Why is this? Perhaps they feel uncomfortable or tentative about claiming any part of race-related struggles as their own, for fear of seeming insensitive to their own privilege.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white female. I probably get more welcoming looks in a hoodie than I do in preppy clothes. Like most people, my upbringing, education, and day-to-day adult life defies and embodies stereotypes. I have lived with, been longtime friends with, attended school and church with, been neighbors with, been colleagues with, and supervised by “people of color.” My grandfather’s memorial service disproved the trope that 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, for someone born long before the civil rights movement in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Growing up in Saint Louis, attending a private high school located in a very manicured, affluent, white suburb, I encountered excellent teachers, some cringe-worthy wealth, some outdated traditions, and some of the most open-minded, well-traveled, and socially conscious people I know. I attended undergrad in another affluent, manicured, and predominantly white neighborhood, but my peers were Egyptian, Indian/Muslim, Nigerian, Chinese, Sikh, Hindu, and Israeli.

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Living in Chicago, segregation is normalized. Racial inequality is one of many talking points in the news, built into segments between inefficient lawmakers or expensive city parking. Riding the el pretty well lays out the situation.

I do not have to make peace with, or normalize the possibility that my skin color might invite violence, legal trouble, or certain forms of harrassment. It would be easy to say that I live in a different world, but the truth is, it is very obvious to me that our society is racially tinged and driven by appearances and stereotypes.

Depending on who I am with, what I am wearing, or what neighborhood I am in, people don’t look at me at all, or they look at me with curiosity, or they look at me with mild hostility. It doesn’t compromise my safety or tangibly impact me in a negative way. But the predictability of such reactions is a subtle, demoralizing reminder that “we” — the heterogenous mix of people that make up a city like Chicago, any city in urban America — go about our business in a state of quiet alienation and mistrust.

As the racial minority in my classroom, I have a glimpse of what it feels like to be judged on small attributes of my appearance, demeanor, or language. For example, pronouncing names correctly on the first day of school can bridge the unspoken racial difference. I am careful to offer unwarranted assistance with say, a reading assignment so that the help is not interpreted racially — otherwise, such “help” might cause a struggling student to shut down. I may consider myself enlightened, I may have diverse experiences, but I am also, unavoidably, a white authority figure. As such, it takes a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more care to build trust.

The polarized reactions to George Zimmerman’s trial, the racially charged criticism of President Obama, the various perspectives on Paula Deen’s racial slurs  — all are public, sobering reminders that race divides us. Apparently, whites, blacks, and all shades in between feel mutually misunderstood, or in the words of Ralph Ellison, “invisible… simply because people refuse to see [them].”

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To get beyond this state of mutual misunderstanding, we need to legitimize empathy and compassion as catalysts of social change, independent of shared experience. They may be abstractions, but they have concrete power.

Check out this story about Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman protestor to die in the civil rights movement. She acted on the belief that civil rights were “everybody’s fight.” For years, the purity of her motives was questioned. The family was finally vindicated when last May, Liuzzo was awarded the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award, an honor shared by none other than Nelson Mandela.

I have to believe that the prestige of this award, and the magnitude of Liuzzo’s courage, reflects her ability to translate empathy into action, boldly, despite her status as a privileged outsider. For those of us who are not Trayvon, we are still hit hard by his loss, and we can still be part of the solution.

[Photos: Picture called “L’empreinte Digitale Oubliée” from Twistiti’s Flickr Photostream, “Rain on Hand Prints” from jcoterhals’ photostream, “Bean in Black and White” from james_clear’s photostream, “Raised Hand” by feverblue’s photo stream]

Pro Dev, Seriously

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As the school year approaches, those of us in the teaching profession start pondering things like “motivation,” “engagement,” and other intangibles that either invigorate our classrooms with the best kind of energy, or swallow our best efforts.

Hence, August Professional Development!

I was recently required to watch a video on the use of humor in the classroom, including appropriate targets for humor, explicit reasons why humor is important, and suggestions for incorporating humor cues into your planning. This breakdown could easily sound a bit OCD, but I thought it was one of the better professional development topics I’ve encountered.

I remember last year I was reading a teacher’s blog. It made the astute, somewhat taboo assertion that yes, you should care about your students liking you. Obviously, set limits with your students, build a structured classroom environment, set a goal of mutual respect and not personal popularity. Whew. That sounds familiar.

That said, teaching (and learning) are both benefited when students like the teacher. The importance of like-ability is widely accepted when it comes to landing a job or interviewing at a college, so why dance around the issue between teachers and students? What is the best route to like-ability? As demonstrated by Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘em laugh…”

To me, the really smart aspect of the humor PD was the suggestion of scripting humor into your lessons, alongside transitions and pacing and other planned elements. This seemingly uptight approach to humor is perfect for the teachers who are more to the point, so to speak, who could most benefit from using humor to lighten the mood. Planned humor may be excessive, but it acknowledges the relationship building skills at the heart of teaching, and the fact that everyone can build these relationships in their own way.

It also acknowledges the importance of being yourself in a position of authority. So much of high school teaching boils down to effectively asserting your authority and respecting students’ sense of independence. One of the best pieces of “professional development” anyone gave me was this quote by Nelson Mandela:

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory within us. It is not just some. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we consciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Humor is one, small way to give students permission to “let their light shine” by consciously doing it yourself. To be fair, certain instances of unbridled “self-expression” are not so enlightened — for example, doing a standing split against the door frame and farting in the middle of class, or sitting out a dance class, eating a tub of icing in the corner. These are horrible examples of “letting your light shine,” but I had to end with them. They make me laugh out loud.

[Photo is from Charlottes Photo Gallery on flickr]

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