Monday, March 31, 2008

Teaching A Unit on Slavery: Part 2 (Literature Selections)

I hope the first part of my discussion on teaching a slavery unit in school was helpful. CLICK HERE TO GO DIRECTLY TO THAT POST. As I previously stated, the biggest mistake a lot of teachers make is following the text book that their school or school district has given them, it just doesn't tell the whole story and move students in the direction of anti-slavery teachings.

Now that I've talked a little about how to get started and have given a few picture book selections in that first post, I wanted to focus on some literature you can read with your students, have them read in groups, or whatever you decide to do with them. Let's get started:

  • My Jim: A Novelby Nancy Rawles: Feel free to go back to my post on this book by clicking HERE. It's definitely one of the better books I've read on the issue of slavery. It's a re-telling of the story of Jim, the runaway slave of Huckleberry Finn fame, told from the perspective of his wife. It's a book of heartache, terror, more heartache, and of the total shame that came with being a slave. It does have scenes that involve sex, but is done in a way that it's not inappropriate, but it is themed more towards older students, possibly 7th grade and beyond.
  • Day of Tearsby Julius Lester: A powerful short novel in dialogue that begins with the largest slave auction in United States history in 1859. The book follows a some of the people involved, both slaves, slave traders, buyers, and their families. It's told more like a dialogue, in a play format, and does take some getting used to. Wow though, it's a very strong book, a good read aloud, or a good book to have students read in small groups.
  • Elijah Of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis: I recently got this book through the Scholastic Book Clubs, and found it to be a very insightful, powerful book that would be appropriate for my 5th graders. It's the story of Elijah, the first freeborn child in Buxton, Canada. His family, who is free, living north of the slavery line, is saving money to free family in the south, until they are robbed of the money. Elijah embarks on a journey behind slavery lines to free his family, and sees firsthand the horrors of slavery. What makes this book so powerful is the way the mind of a child tries to come to grips with such a sobering reality. It's a long book (352 pages), so it could be a read aloud, or something a few of your students read together.

I realize that I'm starting small here, I'm trying to focus more on what I've found to be great books. There's obviously many more out there, I've thought a few times about adding to the picture book post, but decided to leave it as is. Hopefully in time, through comments and other things, these lists can grow larger. Part 3 of the unit on slavery will discuss a few activities you can do with your students.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Teaching a Unit on Slavery in Intermediate or Middle School (Part 1: Picture Books)

If you want to teach a unit on slavery, my first and only no-no is a textbook, stay away from the stupid things. The conventional social studies textbook will give you a few token pages about the history of slavery, might even show a pair of shackles, talk about Nat Turner and Frederick Douglas, then mention how not all slaves were treated very bad. Well, that's not what students need to know, so stay away from that.

Like when planning any unit, you want to have the end results in mind. What do you want to teach your students with this unit? If you want them to work on reading skills and get through the next chapter in the book, then by all means, use the social studies textbook. If you want them to learn about the horrors of slavery, why it happened, how it stopped, and the reality of slave life, then forget the textbook, it's only a resource at this point.

I like to start each unit in social studies with a video that shows a lot of pictures, facts, and video clips of the unit. What I tell my students is that the things they see on the video are things that they will know all about by the time we're done, then I show it. I show the video again as the last thing we do in that unit. So unless you're skilled at pre-planning and with some form of video making software, either Microsoft Movie Maker or ProShow or something like that, I wouldn't go this route.

The hard part about teaching slavery is, if you teach social studies in a chronological manner the way I do, you can't do the unit in one shot. You'll probably want to start out talking about the slave ships and routes that began back in the 1500's when talking about the rest of the 1500's and even into the late 1400's. It brings an edge of controversy to the discussions about the travels to the West Indies and places like that.

As you get to the main part of the unit, you'll be talking about slaves in the United States, probably mainly during the 1700's and 1800's. I have a picture book that I read to my 5th grade students called From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, by Julius Lester and Rod Brown, which is an honest look at slavery, its brutality, and the Underground Railroad.

Some other great PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT SLAVERY include:

  • Under the Quilt of Nightby Deborah Hopkinson: This book is actually appropriate for any grade level, but was received well by my 10-12 year old students. It's the story of a young runaway slave girl and her family on the Underground Railroad. You hear the horrors of slavery and the dangers runaways faced through the eyes of a child. The pictures are beautiful as well, this is a great book.
  • To Be A Slaveby Julius Lester: This book takes you inside what it feels like to be a slave. It's a picture book more appropriate for kids ages 9 and up, but very very telling with strong images.
  • Almost to Freedom (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book), by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: This book could be appropriate for even primary grades, but it's a good one to include. It's the story of a young girl on the Underground Railroad and her rag doll. The story is told by the rag doll, and is an excellent tale.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Jim, by Nancy Rawles

My Jim, by Nancy Rawles, is a re-telling of the story of Jim, the runaway slave from Huckleberry Finn fame, told from the point of view of his wife, Sadie. The topic of the book is appropriate for middle school ages and up (12 years old and up I would say). You would need to be careful with this book, because it is written in the slave voice, with all of its differences to the English we speak today. A struggling reader would struggle to no end with this book, but students ready for a challenge would love it.

The book is filled to the brim with heartache, stories of struggle, abuse, and demoralization of slaves during the later years of slavery, and the hatred boiling in the hearts of white southern people after the emancipation. I could easily see this book being the back bone of a well done unit on slavery.

I will be doing my next post about the topic of slavery, how to approach it, how to teach it the way it should be taught, and some good resources to use when teaching it. Keep the book My Jim in mind, it's a great story.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Today is Friday, and I've been on spring break this past week, and will be heading back to work on Monday. It's been a nice break, a nice chance to relax, catch up on some reading, and go places with my kids. I'm currently reading the book My Jim, by Nancy Rawles. It's the story of Sadie, a black woman slave near the end of slavery in the mid 1800's. She was married to Jim, the same Jim from Huckleberry Finn fame (and of course, it's fiction).

It is an interesting book, I've always had some difficulty reading books written in the incantatory voice of the slaves, but it is sad to actually feel their treatment from up close. I'm going to sit down this weekend and think of some good stories to read and things to do when teaching slavery. I did my slavery unit back in November, I try to, in 5th grade social studies, start with pre-Colombian native tribes, and move all the way up through the present. It's an ambitious task that I only pulled off for the first time last year. I put the finishing touches on a World War II / Holocaust unit right as the break hit, so I'm hoping 8 weeks will be long enough to get up to the present.

I'll post very soon with some ideas and resources for teaching slavery.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Rules by, Cynthia Lord

Rules by Cynthia Lord is a great book for the pre-adolescent age group (grades 5-7 seem very appropriate). It is the story of Catherine, who has an autistic brother, David. The book lays out social norms, as well as how handicapped individuals are treated in public. We see the treatment of David, and Jason, Catherine's friend who is nonverbal and in a wheelchair, and it is a good story to make students question maybe their own actions around people that are 'different,' or think about people they know who are treated differently.

Preparing to read this book to my class, I had a discussion about racism, prejudice, and what it feels like. Of course the students brought up issues like racial prejudice, because that's the example they're usually taught. One of my students, a very bright 11-year-old girl, got very upset when discussing this subject, because she has an older brother with severe cerebral palsy, and is very aware of the looks people give him every time they go in public.
Having this come into the open, and dealing with it as a class strengthened my desire to read this book with the class. It is appropriate for 5th graders, there is no bad language in the book, and the theme is most definitely pertinent to the issues of equity and multiculturalism. If you're interested in this book, click HERE to go to the page for it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Teaching With Graphic Novels

I have wide literary interests, that's certain, and lately, I've been getting more and more involved with graphic novels. Now, I'm not just talking about long comic books, like the Dark Knight series (you know, Batman), and Manga, those Japanese comics, I'm talking about novels that are told through graphic form.

There are a few that immediately jump out as growing classics in the field of young adult literature, which I'll get to in a little while. Think about it this way. You want students to scaffold their readings skills to become more fluent and accomplished readers. They do this by questioning, visualizing, connecting, responding, and extending what they read. By using a graphic novel, you'll find that many of your students are drawn more deeply into the story, plus, it allows you, as the teacher, to bring up important questions as to why the author used certain visual symbols and other things along visual lines, it really brings a new dimension to the text.

You'll want to read up first, don't just grab a graphic novel and throw it at a group of 10-year-olds, it might not be appropriate. Here are a few of my favorite graphic novels, as well as my opinion regarding their age appropriateness.

Maus I & II by, Art Spiegelman: I just wrote about Maus a few days ago in a post about the best young adult (ya) holocaust literature out there. So, yeah, again, this is the true story of Spiegelman's father, a Jewish holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz. The books are heart breaking, and brutal in their honesty. The animal metaphor is very straight forward, and has even been defined by Spiegelman himself as 'stupid,' but kids can understand it and really read deeply into this story.

American Born Chinese by, Gene Luen Yang: This is a great story that is told in three parts. Your students will love the story of the Monkey King, will be able to identify (especially if they're of minority race or ethnicity) with the main character, Jin Wang, and will scratch their head and become challenged by the Asian stereotype of Chin-Kee. It's a great story all around, look in to it.

Persepolis by, Marjane Satrapi: What a great story. It's the autobiographical account of Satrapi growing up in Iran, and living through the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's a great way to introduce students to what happened and is still happening in the Middle East, as well as how the vast majority of people over there are good and hard working people who are being judged by the actions of a few extremists.

Yeah, there's many many great graphic novels out there. This is just a start. Actually, Maus and American Born Chinese were both introduced to me by a professor of mine, and I'm actually doing research on Maus, something that I'll probably be discussing more, it has become a major interest of mine, the symbolism in ya and children's holocaust literature.

Forced Into Doing Something Idiotic?

It's the question that applies to 100% of all teachers in this country. At one point or another (sometimes at all points), we're forced into some kind of program, whether it's a literacy program, a test-practice program, or a math program, that is completely idiotic and hasn't been thought out very well.

I live and work in New Mexico, which, needless to say, means that I am VERY familiar with idiotic ideas in education. I could be talking about many things right now, but mainly I'm talking about the Response to Intervention model that is currently a dark cloud hanging over our schools(you can Google it yourself if you'd like more information, because I don't want to provide a link that is completely one-sided in its definition and explanation of RTI).

Here is precisely what Response to Intervention is:

Everyday, for 40 minutes (longer in some places), students are pooled in to homogeneous groupings (groups of students at similar skill levels, so all the high kids are together, lows together, etc). In these groups, the teachers have to design some interventions that will serve the students. Since this is reality, and not some superintendents wet dream, the interventions have quickly turned to 40 minutes of daily test taking strategies.

It's supposedly mainly an intervention model that focuses on literacy components. However, intervening on students in no need of the intervention is not just a head scratcher, it's absolutely moronic. Now, I'm sure that some schools out there have appropriately implemented the model to only address those students who 'need it,' but now we've stumbled into a new area of debate.

The struggling student, many times a student with special needs, has obviously, OBVIOUSLY, become the plague of schools across the nation, because they hold down test scores (called Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP). Response to Intervention was crafted to serve these students. Before RTI, many schools would just pull these students out of science or social studies instruction (because who needs those? I'm not joking, I have literally been told that social studies doesn't help on the test, so it's not important) and work on reading strategies more. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, social studies and science are important disciplines, especially at a younger age. When educators make the error of assuming that literacy instruction is isolated to some sort of 'reading block,' or must be done in a certain way, they are taking away the power of differentiated and cross-curricular instruction. Done correctly, science and social studies are extremely valuable literary subject areas, especially for the struggling student, who is also at risk for being the bored student.

Second, well, I think I just said it. The struggling student is at risk for being the bored student. If we pull them out for 40 more minutes of test taking strategies, echo reading, and comprehension testing from isolated passages and short stories that they connect to in no way, then they'll just hate it even more.

So, have you been forced into doing something idiotic? I'm going to make a new label titled 'forced into something?', as well as 'teaching the test,' and will put similar posts under those labels so that this discussion can be furthered in the future. I realize this blog is new and doesn't have many readers as of yet, but if you come across this post and a light bulb goes off in your head, let me know what you're thinking or what's happening where you work, and we can discuss that a little more as well.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

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Reading Instruction: The Basics (Intermediate Grade Levels)

If you're a new elementary school teacher, chances are pretty good that you're freaking out about how to teach your reading class. In the current political climate, such a huge emphasis has been placed on 'literacy learning,' that new teachers really feel the pinch from day one. Beyond politics, literacy learning really is the backbone of education, so it needs to be approached appropriately.

If you're anything like me, I came out of my teacher preparation program feeling shamefully unprepared to teach what is referred to as the language arts. I was handed a basal series and told to follow it, and I did. The end result of that first year was a very unsatisfying literary experience, both from my end, as the teacher, and for my students. Sure their fluency and comprehension scores went up, but did I really do my job? If you're feeling at all like this, trust me, you're not alone, we all go through it.

So how should you 'teach' reading? Did you notice the quotation marks around the word teach just now? There's the first lesson here, you don't teach reading, your job is to open doors to your students, to make them want to read, and to keep them reading. As a teacher, it's also your job to provide a model of what a good reader does in order to be a good reader.

The best way to do this is through read aloud. It doesn't matter if you work in a head start or are teaching 12th grade literature/composition, read aloud can be a valuable component of your instruction if used appropriately.

READ ALOUD: I'm sure we've all seen read aloud defined in different ways, and it is practiced in different ways as well, as it should be. Your read alouds should first and foremost be appropriate for the students you have. Trust yourself, you're the teacher, just because something worked for me and my group of students does not mean it will work for you and yours. The basic of read aloud is that you, the teacher, are reading. Sure it's nice if the kids have a copy of the text, if you're reading an actual chapter book, but even if they don't, it can be a valuable experience.

What about all those things you want your students to practice and become fluent with? You know, critical thinking skills, questioning, inferencing, using schema, all that good stuff? Do it aloud, dialogue with yourself, they'll love it. Make mistakes when you read and see if they catch them, but also let them see what the process of being a good reader is. Remember, it's not about speed, it's about comprehension.

Now, from here, things aren't quite as easy. A lot of reading programs are mandated from either a school, district, or state level. You may have to use a basal, a center based approach, or a combination of many different things. But there is room for you to interpret those things in most cases. Since we're talking basics right now, I won't dig too deep into the differentiated methods and approaches.

The second thing I would like to discuss today is book choice. I am against the use of basals in the classroom. A basal is a collection of portions of stories, or para-phrased stories that students read. It's the reading textbook, and is organized as such. The problem with this is that students are taken out of authentic literacy practices, which involves reading books in their entirety, and goes beyond reading and answering a few multiple choice/written response questions.

So think about what you're studying in the other disciplines. Maybe you're doing a unit on Slavery in Social Studies, so why not find some great texts to go with that? Or maybe you're just interested in finding some of the greats, it's up to you. As this blog grows, I will be providing many great books and what ages they're appropriate with.

The final thing I would like to discuss today is individual reading. Remember, the only way to become a better reader is to read. Also, try to define what being a better reader is. Does it mean reading fast, or reading for meaning? Or does it mean reading for pleasure? In my classroom, it means reading for pleasure, the best readers are those who love to read.

As a teacher, it's your job to cultivate that love of reading. You're not going to accomplish this by choosing every single text they read, unless you've got 20 amazing books up your sleeve that will keep them on the edge of their seats, and even then, you're not going to reach all of them.

So, in the end, you need to let your students read individually, silently. You need to let them explore the books, find out what they like and don't like, and have some choice. The best and most obvious way to do this, although it's a little pricey, is to start a book shelf in your class. I did this by asking parents for age appropriate books that they were through with, you'd be surprised how much you can get that way. Also, sign up with Scholastic book clubs, because then your students can buy books, and you earn points that you can use to get books for your class. Finally, look around, go to garage sales, used books stores, or even on if you want something that's newer. As a last resort, get as many books from your library at once as you possibly can.

Starting a book shelf in your classroom will give your students more opportunities to read and more options than a weekly trip to the school library. "Students in classrooms with libraries read 50% more books than students in classrooms without them" (Morrow, 2003, p. 3).

Morrow, L.M. (2003). Motivating Lifelong Voluntary Readers. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J.R. Squire, & J.M. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts (pp. 857-867). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Teaching the Holocaust

If you teach anything beyond 4th grade (and especially if you teach Social Studies), there's a good chance that at some point, you come across World War II. One of the major events of that period was definitely the Jewish Holocaust of 1939-1945. But how do you approach these events in a way that is appropriate for the age level of students that you have? If you teach high school, this isn't as much of an issue, your students are capable and ready for a more 'head on' approach.

If you teach in an Elementary of Middle School, it's not so easy. Many teachers don't teach the Holocaust out of fear that it will be inappropriate or that someone will complain.

Yes, it was a terrible series of events, and many people don't want to say that horrible word in their classroom: Hitler. But there are ways to do this and do it appropriately for even pre-teens.

Let's start with some great Holocaust literature and discuss its merit in your classroom:

The Book Thiefby, Markus Zusak: This book is ideal for your advanced 5th graders and beyond (Amazon recommends it for grades 9 and up, but trust me from personal experience, it will work with younger kids), even up to adult age groups. It's narrated by Death, and follows an orphaned German girl during the Nazi time period and the Jewish Holocaust. It's a great book that sets the stage for the pain and suffering of the Jewish peoples, but is told from a German perspective. It's imaginative, engaging, and will keep them reading. It's long though, so it might not be appropriate as a read aloud.

The Broken Mirrorby, Kirk Douglas: The story of a Jewish boy who is the only one in his family left alive at the end of the war. He tries to hide his true Jewish identity and tells everyone he is a gypsy, but is faced with an identity conflict. It's short (under 100 pages), is appropriate for grades 4 and up, and yes, it is written by the Kirk Douglas. It's a good book, very appropriate.

Nightby, Elie Wiesel: This story has been around for some time, but recently gained notoriety when Oprah put it in her book club. It's a heart-breaking story of survival in a concentration camp. This book brings into the open questions of the evil that lies in the human heart, the questions of the existence of God in the face of horrible events, and personal anguish. It's appropriate for middle school (probably grades 7 and up), but is more common in high school. It isn't the easiest read, in fact it's brutal and almost icy in its presentation.

Maus I & Maus II by, Art Spiegelman: These now classic graphic novels depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, have an extremely unique angle, the characters are animals. The metaphor is powerful, the images are very real, and the story doesn't hold anything back. I did read the first Maus with my 5th grade class, and felt like I was walking on egg shells. However, in the end, it was an extremely rewarding experience, and many of the students who read it said it was the most powerful literary experience they've ever had. This is one book that you need to experience for yourself before throwing it to your students, because some will find it appropriate, and some won't.

The Devil's Arithmeticby, Jane Yolen: This book is more or less, as I originally saw it described on the website, 'Schindler's List for kids.' It really is that biting. It's the story of a young girl living in the late '80s who is transported back to 1942 as a Jewish girl in a concentration camp. Be prepared for a difficult journey, and a lot of questions from your students. This book is, however, appropriate for 5th grade and beyond.

Obviously there are many many more books out there for you to use. I left out Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girlbecause it is an obvious choice. What I would do with this book is read something shorter with your class, either a picture book or a shortened version, and watch a documentary or movie about Anne Frank, as the entire diary is quite long. It would be more appropriate to read it with an older age set, but it's up to you, I've seen students as young as 4th grade love this story.

What we as educators need to remember is that the Holocaust is a very important world event that shouldn't be ignored. There are many examples of prejudice and racism out there, but this is one that obviously stands out as an example of what happens when racism is allowed to run free. Ignoring it will do no good, and from a standpoint of the critical pedagogist, it must be taught head on.

What is This All About?

I hope that this blog can serve as a resource to educators and university students involved in the areas of children and young adult literature. I also will hope to serve as a resource in critical pedagogy, multiculturalism, equity, and social justice. I have been and will be deeply involved in multiculturalism and critical pedagogy for the rest of my life, and will be providing this blog with information that can hopefully serve to help those in need of some help outside of the scholarly realm, which I'm also involved in.

My personal background is, and not that anybody cares, even me, but just so whoever reads this knows that I'm not totally full of crap:

B.S. Elementary Education - New Mexico State University (2005)

M.A. Curriculum & Instruction: Reading/Literacy - New Mexico State University (2008)

Those are my current credentials, and I will be starting in the New Mexico State University Department of Curriculum & Instruction Doctoral Program in the Fall of 2008 to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction. So, I do have a number of resources, and am growing in knowledge of these topics. Hopefully, as I continue through my doctoral studies, I can make this blog an enriching experience.