Monday, August 17, 2015

Poetry's Power in Creating Social Justice

Collaborative Language Arts and Social Studies Amanda Leigh Cordes
West Chicago Community High School
West Chicago, IL
Tpt Store: Through the Doors of Room 304

           I was wearing a black, knee-length skirt and a red sweater that fit an 18-year-old me awkwardly: too big in the shoulders, too lopsided in the waist, too short in the arms.  A snow globe-light dusting of white powder remained scattered across the streets of Chicago’s downtown loop.  Carefully curled brown locks swayed around my head as I nervously gazed out the window of our car at the scene.  On this day in February 2004, I was about to be interviewed by the Golden Apple Scholars organization to determine whether or not I would receive a distinguished teaching scholarship as I entered my freshman year in college.  I was eager, I was determined, and I was in love with teaching.
            That day, the interview committee asked me many questions, but I’ll never forget when they asked me, “Why do you want to become a teacher?”   My answer?  Simple.  Because I love kids and because I want to help kids learn how to become smarter, stronger, more open-minded people.  If you’d have asked me that question a few years later, I would have simplified that answer:  I love kids and I want to teach them empathy.
            Empathy is the root of social justice - an end goal to many educational philosophies.  We, as teachers, aspire to create a community that achieves social justice, which provides opportunities to all students regardless of their wealth or status, and beyond that, to nurture the kinds of students who desire a future where they also can create social justice.  I also know that teaching empathy requires more than just reading To Kill a Mockingbird and telling the students to be like Atticus and “walk in someone else’s shoes”.  Teenagers are smart, conniving, creative, manipulative, and most of all, they are seeking real, tangible experiences.   After several years of teaching, I have found that the best space to create these authentic opportunities to experience empathy is through storytelling and poetry.
            Every classroom has the opportunity to become a stage - a place where students can inhabit a space and share their stories.   The more students are asked to speak about their own experiences and challenged to revise those stories artistically (through diction, tone, etc.), the richer the colors of the classroom become and the deeper the conversations about class content develop.
     Poetry in my classroom happens all year long.  The model is relatively simple:  read, annotate, watch, discuss, imitate.  I choose poems with a social justice punch to read together in class, for them to closely annotate, to watch, to discuss, and then to write their own versions.  I also use a tool called “The Big Six” to help students explore poems (this is included in my TpT product called My Poetry Notebook).  Some poets that I would highly recommend include:  Bobby LeFabre, Lamar Jorden, Patricia Smith, Marc Smith, Robbie Q. Telfer, Tim Stafford, Buddy Wakefield, Shane Koyczan, Taylor Mali, and Sarah Kay.  For more great poets, check out my YouTube playlist (screen for appropriateness) here.
            Take Shane Koyczan’s poem “To This Day” for example.  Shane, who in this particular poem is both the poet and the speaker, tells the true, yet fictionalized, experience that he had growing up being bullied.  Every year that I teach this poem every single student engages and connects.  We read the poem, we annotate the poem, we watch the poem (over and over again!), we discuss the poem, and then...we write our own versions of the poem.  Some students imitate Koyczan’s style - they emulate metaphors and imagery like, “he was three when he became a mixed drink/ of one part left alone/ and two parts tragedy” and “she doesn’t think she’s beautiful/ because of a birthmark/ that takes up a little less than half of her face/ kids used to say she looks like a wrong answer/ that someone tried to erase.”  Other students write reactionary poems about a time they were bullied or a time they witnessed bullying.  By the end of the lesson, the students have not only analyzed poetic devices, but they have connected to another person’s story, developed empathy, and are now prepared with a story of their own to share with their classmates.
            Through poetry, students zero in on a poet’s experience and connect to the emotional curve of the poem.  Throughout the year, students in my classroom are exposed to a variety of styles, subjects, and voices and finish the year with a collection of wildly impressive poetry.  About once a quarter, my team sets aside time to host a poetry open mic.  Once the ice is broken, the line of poets waiting to read their work is out the door and around the corner.  I’m not sure what the magic ingredient is, but year after year, the same thing keeps happening.
            Through their storytelling, through their poetry, students break down the barriers that once divided them.  We learned in our school that the student that lives in the only mansion in town has a younger brother with Asperger's Syndrome, the student that just moved into town was adopted, and the funniest kid in class has been living in his brother’s car for two weeks.  They speak honestly about their losses, their struggles, their joys, their fears, and their relationships.  Poetry offers a platform for students to get fired up about school politics and to demand that free and reduced lunches should be healthy and that prom tickets are just too freaking expensive.  If there is one thing I can urge you to consider about the school year as you sit down with a brand new 2015-16 lesson plan book, it is:  where and when can your poets speak?
            Even if your classroom schedule can’t seem to fit a poetic space on a regular basis, consider starting a club.  The Ink, our creative writing club at school, works together year round to organize after school open mics, larger stage productions, and goes to competitions for their poetic prowess.  In Chicago, the place to be in March is LTAB (Louder Than a Bomb).  It is the world’s largest poetry slam for teenagers.  Over the course of six weeks, over 200 schools in the Chicagoland/Indiana area come together to share many stages all over the city.  Teams of six to eight students compete in individual rounds and then, the most difficult of them all, a group round where four poets perform a choreographed poem.  This “competition” called slam poetry is really just a hoax:  founder Marc Kelly Smith began the poetry slam as a way to get all kinds of people in a room listening to poetry.  When poetry became something that could be scored by anyone that could walk into a bar, the high-brow, literary pretense fell away and poetry became something for all people.  Since the 1980s, slam has expanded across the planet, but here in Chicago, educators use this clever “hoax” to bring teenagers from parts of the city and suburbs that would never intersect in one of the most segregated cities in the country.  In these beautiful moments on stage, students from the south side, west side, north side, and from the suburbs listen to each other.  They experience just a few minutes of this person’s life and feel real empathy.  At the end of the competition, we are reminded that “the point is not the points, the point is the poetry!” and students all gather on stage for hugs, hi-fives, and fist bumps.
            The social justice definition that I use with my students is from the UC Berkley School of Social Welfare and it highlights four main components.  Their working definition of social justice is:
“Social Justice is a process which
  • (1) seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities;
  • (2) challenges the roots of oppression and injustice;
  • (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential;
  • (4) and builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.”
Poetry, I have found, can do all of these things both in a single classroom and in the much wider school community that you may be able to connect with.  Poetry creates a level playing field for students, the stories shared build empathy and challenge the biases and misconceptions students have about one another, it builds their courage and their confidence, and it creates a space for communities to grow.
            When I think back to that wintery, shook up snow globe memory interviewing for Golden Apple, I think about why I wanted to teach in the first place.  As teachers, we have the opportunity this August to reset.  To remember why we love this job.  To plan a year that plans experiences first and Common Core Standards later.  To seize opportunities to create an empathetic, authentic community of learners that can make real change and innovation happen on this bruised Earth.  This year, consider how poetry might transform your teaching and the lives of your students.

To connect with me and learn more about how to infuse poetry and performance in your classroom, email me:

For more information about LTAB and how to bring it to your city, visit:

For a great series of teachable Slam poems, visit my YouTube channel (please preview each video first for your comfort level):

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Technology for the Secondary Classroom by Chalk Dust Diva the technological advances and the proliferation of social media, the way educators teach and students learn has change dramatically. It’s essential that teachers keep up with the current technological trends as to prepare their students for the challenges and demands of the 21st century. Below are some of my favorite technology strategies that I have implemented in my secondary social studies classroom:

1. My students love to play interactive, technology-based review games. One of my students’ favorite games is Kahoot. This is a fun and interactive review game where the teacher can either make his/her own questions or search through several questions that have already been created. The students log in to the internet-based game with a specific code and the results of their answers will show up immediately. I usually give my students a choice whether they want to enter their real name or a fake name since the game will rank the students in order based on the number of answers they get correct. This game is great because it gives them IMMEDIATE feedback. It also shows the teacher what information needs to be retaught.  You can also choose to play in pairs or groups.

2. In my history and civics classes, I often ask my students to share their opinion on specific topics. For example, in my U.S. History class I might ask if they believe the U.S. should have dropped the atomic bomb. On the other hand, in my Civics class I might implement a survey about their beliefs on the separation of “church and state.”  To create technology-based polls, I use PollEverywhere. Students can use their cell phones to text-message their opinions. The entire class can see the results of the poll immediately.

3. Whenever I want my students to mark important events on a map, I have them use Google Maps (in lieu of using a paper map). For example, when we study the Cold War, I have my students mark important events of the time period on their maps. They also need to include a detailed summary of the event and a picture of the event. What I like about this activity the most is that it is very student-centered. Here is the lesson I gave my students:  COLD WAR GOOGLE MAP TIMELINE

4. I often incorporate short video and sound clips into my lesson plans. This is especially helpful for my visual learners. Although I often use YouTube to find appropriate clips for my classroom, I find that TeacherTube is a great site as well. Many of the clips are created and uploaded by teachers. This site also includes pictures and sound clips.Another site that is useful in bringing curriculum to students is Discovery Education.  This site is accessible via your district, if they have chosen to purchase use of the site.

Here are a few of my favorite film clips that I use in my history class:
Why It’s Important to Study History
An Open Letter to Students Returning to School (I love all the CrashCourse videos!)

5. The last couple of years I have been using GoogleClassroom to host my assignments for each course I teach. The great thing about GoogleClassroom is that you can post assignments, quizzes, writing assessments, surveys, etc. as well as have your students turn in their assignments via the website. The students can also make use of Google Docs, Google Forms, Google Slides, Google Sheets and Google Drawings. No longer can your students use the excuse of “my dog ate my homework” because once they complete their assignments using Google, they will never lose an assignment again!
Here is a lesson using Google Slides or Power Point: POWER POINT STUDENT PROJECT. If students use Google Slides they can work in a group on the same presentation at the same time from various locations! Pretty cool!

6. Last, but certainly not least, I highly recommend an application (app) for your cell phone called Genius Scan. This app will make your life as a teacher much easier, but is not intended for student use. This app will take a picture of a document and convert it to a PDF. Once a document is scanned, I simply save it to my computer. Now I can easily find my documents in my computer rather than searching binders full of handouts!

To see my other teaching resources, follow the link to ChalkDustDiva.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The 13 Components of a Teacher’s Sanity-Saving Private Collection by Connie Casserly

Collaborative Language Arts and Social Studies ink on my college diploma was barely dry before the call of the Sirens, the same entities that enticed Odysseus to the land of the lotus flowers, lured me toward the August displays of folders, paper and pens in the local G.C. Murphy store. Because my first teaching contract was imminent, I eagerly filled my shopping trip cart with pens bursting with rainbow-hued colors for grading, stacks of notebooks to hold my teaching ideas, and a binder or two to protect the master copy of those inspiring lessons that I would create on my Underwood-Olivetti typewriter.
With my veins still pumping the ivory-tower-theory blood that formed the backbone of all of my education classes, little did I know that notebooks, pretty pens, and binders would not save my sanity, my health, or my na├»ve visions of a room full of teenagers eagerly shouting, “More work, please!” when reality merged with the late bell on the first day of school.
During my college years, my lecturers armed me with lesson planning and teaching techniques that have served me admirably throughout my 30+ years in the classroom, but
  • not one professor warned me that as autumn leaves started to fall, and when winter chose to aid and abet cold and flu viruses, I would be surrounded by an avalanche of sneezing, snurfing, coughing students seeking comfort from their stuffed up nasal passages and scratchy throats in the soothing presence of  the Teacher with the Tissues.
  • not one professor based a course on The Components of a Teacher’s Sanity Saving Private Collection.
  • not one professor mentioned the saving graces of Kleenex, Lysol, a coffee/tea maker and a radio/CD player. And chocolate…lots and lots of chocolate.
My beloved typewriter served me well until I became attached by an invisible umbilical cord to my computer, the ultimate teaching necessity. We educators will not survive with just Apples, Apps and Word, though. For that reason, here is my Teacher’s Sanity-Saving Private Collection. Over the decades I spent in the classroom, it conserved my serenity and helped me to accumulate sick days –days that turned into money when I left the system. I want to share it with you- colleagues who face close encounters with hormonal types for a minimum of 184 days each year.
Collaborative Language Arts and Social Studies
  1. An extra-large bottle of waterless hand cleanser is crucial. Don’t even allow yourself to imagine where those 25 sets of adolescent hands (per class period) have been. If you do, you’ll be relieved that you also have a stash of
  2. Tylenol in extra-large quantities. This item is a necessity for the headache that will mushroom because you didn’t stop yourself from imagining the journey of those hands, for those mornings when you forlornly realize that the cut-glass scratchiness in the back of your nose is the result of free-range germs, for those afternoons when the screeches of adolescent girls threaten to shatter your eardrums, and for those days when the class clown’s only goal is to perfect his patter for Amateur Night at the local Comedy Club during discussions and/or seatwork.
  3. Kleenex: boxes and boxes of Kleenex. Enough said.
  4. Lysol-or any powerful cleanser-will ward off the effects of those students who sneeze or cough on their homework or tests and then try to hand you the tainted papers. Talk about Germ Warfare! If and when they do attempt to force those papers into your hands-and they will- just smile, hand them the sanitizing aerosol can and urge them to scurry into the hall and de-germ those Weapons of Mass Congestion.
  5. A Mr. Coffee machine or, if you can spare a few dollars or a have a generous friend, a Keurig will give you many, “Ah, thanks, I needed that,” moments throughout the day. Fill a file cabinet drawer with coffee-flavored coffee - okay, okay throw in some Mocha Java and some Hazelnut- along with some Constant Comment, Green Tea, Matcha and Tazo tea bags.
  6. Some type of music system is essential! My aging, but still working Boom Box, complete with a radio, CD player and cassette deck, yes, a cassette deck, still serves me well. The latter will play that tape of ballads you found in your parents’ attic. You will want to use it for a lesson where students produce some verses following this poetic format for a writing assignment during an across-the-curriculum study of The Historical and Literary Effects of the 1960’s Protests. Music can set the mood for any lesson, too. A little Chopin, on low, works well during in-class writing sessions. The songs, “Stars” and “Dog Eat Dog”, from Le Miserables will jump start a lively discussion during a study of existentialism and The Stranger. Also, every time that first snowflake falls, you and your students will want to tune in the local All-Weather channel periodically for early dismissal announcements.
  7. Sturdy paper cups, plates and garbage bags will keep you and the custodians on a sanity-saving BFF basis. A strategically planned cultural event – a euphemistic title in many a school district since, “Parties are frowned upon in this establishment,” (see old E-Trade commercials) will charge up sluggish gray matter and boost camaraderie.
  8. Multi-roll packages of Paper Towels are an absolute necessity for cleaning up everything from Animal Cracker crumbs to water spills to wine-free zabaglione puddles. The latter occurred when Sophia took ethnic food over the top with the Italian custard she made for a Romeo and Juliet cultural event.
  9. A stapler, as well as scotch tape, paper clips, sharp scissors and glue sticks should anchor your office supplies. Be sure to include stacks of loose-leaf lined paper and some black pens for those adolescents who don’t seem to understand that they must have something to write on and something to write with when they come to class. This is your private collection, the one that students know better than to raid unless they want to doom the whole class to your version of Lecture #572: Violation of Personal Space, which won’t be pretty.
  10.  Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate should line your private collection shelves. Just like burgers need fries and eggs need bacon (or sausage), grading essays calls for the fruit of the cocoa bean…in any form.
  11.  A toaster oven is a necessity for that ooey, gooey ultimate comfort food, a grilled cheese sandwich. Studies show that this treat is the only cure for GDS- Gloomy Day Syndrome or Gosh Darned Students! or both.
  12. A small refrigerator/freezer will help you to keep your cool with chilled water, a crisp apple or a 2:20 P.M. Klondike Bar.
  13.  Comfortable walking shoes will be your go-to item when you desperately need a 15-minute powerwalk to stomp away your frustration due to too many up close and personals with PTAMBT- People That Annoy Me Big Time-types.

Remember, my friends, a well-stocked supply closet diminishes doctor bills, reduces the stress of creating substitute plans, and guarantees that all students will be ready and able to complete that in-class writing activity.

What’s in your Teacher’s Sanity-Saving Private Collection?

Oh… hold that thought. Isn’t it time for a cup of green tea and a Hershey’s Kiss…or two?