Teaching Tolerance and Celebrating What We Have Created: Some Thoughts for September 11

Note: A version of this post appeared on this blog on September 11, 2013.

I was torn about how best to approach September 11 in classrooms. On the one hand, this day, now known as Patriot Day, is an important one to remember. It is seared into our national memories and has become part of our psyche, a painful, painful moment that brought us to our knees and in some heartbreaking way united us then and unites us still. On the other, many children we teach were not yet born when this day happened. Why dredge up an uncomfortable past, one that these children don’t remember, and that to most adults around them, is still raw? Further, I wasn’t sure what I believed was an appropriate way to address the day. Somehow talking about the buildings coming down and the aftermath, or even rehashing my own experience of that day in a classroom in New York City didn’t feel quite right.

And then I thought: This is one reason I believe so much in history education. To strive for a better future than the past. Hence my middle of the night quest to find an appropriate way to address September 11, and this middle of the night post.

As I was searching for clarity, I came across a list of lesson plans for grades K-12 curated by the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Two themes stood out in particular as I perused the list:

  • Celebrating and shining a spotlight on what we have created, not what was destroyed
  • Teaching tolerance and accepting differences, no matter which group of people is considered the “other”.

Following are some lesson ideas that address these themes.

Celebrating landmarks in our communities with a read aloud. Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff is a beautiful picture book about the building of the Cathedral St. John the Divine in New York City. Some lines from the beginning of the book:

Momma’s first day on the job, she comes home late, trudging up the stairs as if they laid that heavy stone right on her shoulders. She is grey and ashes, from her headscarf to her boots. Even her bouncy beaded earrings have gone dull as dirt.

And from the end:

I think about the hands that worked on every stone until it was exactly right, knowing that it had to hold up all the rest. Knowing that it had to last a long, long time. Then I think of all the people who will come together in Big John. Not for an art to look at. For an art to be.

What a beautiful way to celebrate construction, not destruction. There are many buildings across our country, in every community, that were built with love and care and that serve to bring people together. This book honors those buildings and the men and women who built them. The read aloud could follow with a discussion of the important buildings in children’s communities and the ways in which those buildings are unique and enhance the lives of the people who use them.

Teaching tolerance and accepting differences with a read aloud. There are many, many lessons that aim to teach tolerance. Of course, our society continues to be rife with racial tension. And, of course, racial tension played a role in the 9/11 tragedy. Racial intolerance may feel too huge an issue to address in one lesson, with one group of children. But by aiming to teach tolerance and acceptance, and by discussing small ways in which children can take a stand against injustice, we are planting seeds for the next generation to be better. More tolerant, more accepting, and less likely to cultivate the beliefs that led to an event such as 9/11. It’s easy to think, someone else was responsible for September 11. It’s not us who should learn tolerance. But tolerance starts with each of us. The more we contribute to a collective belief that differences are to be accepted, not stamped out, the more we can create a world in which living together peacefully is possible.

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles is about a young white boy, Joe, growing up in the American South in the 1960s. His best friend is John Henry, an African American boy. Joe and John Henry ignore the racial tension that surrounds them until a mandate that leads to the filling in of a local pool makes this ignorance no longer possible. John Henry finally gives voice to his hurt and anger, and Joe must decide whether to take a stand for his friend. This book shows that tolerance starts with each person, and each of us can work toward a more accepting society, a world in which events like 9/11 are fewer and farther between, just by taking one action.

I wish for all of you a safe, reflective September 11, and I wish for all of our children a future where a day such as that one never happens again.

Note: These ideas were adapted from lessons that can be found here and here.

Image           Image

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Teaching Tolerance and Celebrating What We Have Created: Some Thoughts for September 11

I was torn about how best to approach September 11 in classrooms. On the one hand, this day, now known as Patriot Day, is an important one to remember. It is seared into our national memories and has become part of our psyche, a painful, painful moment that brought us to our knees and in some heartbreaking way united us then and unites us still. On the other, many children we teach were not yet born when this day happened. Why dredge up an uncomfortable past, one that these children don’t remember, and that to most adults around them, is still raw? Further, I wasn’t sure what I believed was an appropriate way to address the day. Somehow talking about the buildings coming down and the aftermath, or even rehashing my own experience of that day in a classroom in New York City didn’t feel quite right.

And then I thought: This is one reason I believe so much in history education. To strive for a better future than the past. Hence my middle of the night quest to find an appropriate way to address September 11, and this middle of the night post.

As I was searching for clarity, I came across a list of lesson plans for grades K-12 curated by the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Two themes stood out in particular as I perused the list:

  • Celebrating and shining a spotlight on what we have created, not what was destroyed
  • Teaching tolerance and accepting differences, no matter which group of people is considered the “other”.

Following are some lesson ideas that address these themes.

Celebrating landmarks in our communities with a read aloud. Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff is a beautiful picture book about the building of the Cathedral St. John the Divine in New York City. Some lines from the beginning of the book:

Momma’s first day on the job, she comes home late, trudging up the stairs as if they laid that heavy stone right on her shoulders. She is grey and ashes, from her headscarf to her boots. Even her bouncy beaded earrings have gone dull as dirt.

And from the end:

I think about the hands that worked on every stone until it was exactly right, knowing that it had to hold up all the rest. Knowing that it had to last a long, long time. Then I think of all the people who will come together in Big John. Not for an art to look at. For an art to be.

What a beautiful way to celebrate construction, not destruction. There are many buildings across our country, in every community, that were built with love and care and that serve to bring people together. This book honors those buildings and the men and women who built them. The read aloud could follow with a discussion of the important buildings in children’s communities and the ways in which those buildings are unique and enhance the lives of the people who use them.

Teaching tolerance and accepting differences with a read aloud. There are many, many lessons that aim to teach tolerance. Of course, our society continues to be rife with racial tension. And, of course, racial tension played a role in the 9/11 tragedy. Racial intolerance may feel too huge an issue to address in one lesson, with one group of children. But by aiming to teach tolerance and acceptance, and by discussing small ways in which children can take a stand against injustice, we are planting seeds for the next generation to be better. More tolerant, more accepting, and less likely to cultivate the beliefs that led to an event such as 9/11. It’s easy to think, someone else was responsible for September 11. It’s not us who should learn tolerance. But tolerance starts with each of us. The more we contribute to a collective belief that differences are to be accepted, not stamped out, the more we can create a world in which living together peacefully is possible.

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles is about a young white boy, Joe, growing up in the American South in the 1960s. His best friend is John Henry, an African American boy. Joe and John Henry ignore the racial tension that surrounds them until a mandate that leads to the filling in of a local pool makes this ignorance no longer possible. John Henry finally gives voice to his hurt and anger, and Joe must decide whether to take a stand for his friend. This book shows that tolerance starts with each person, and each of us can work toward a more accepting society, a world in which events like 9/11 are fewer and farther between, just by taking one action.

I wish for all of you a safe, reflective September 11, and I wish for all of our children a future where a day such as that one never happens again.

Note: These ideas were adapted from lessons that can be found here and here.

Image           Image

The Content Area Read Aloud: Cross-Genre Skill Integration

shadbush         The iroquois englar cover

This year, I am teaching social studies for the first time in quite a while. That isn’t to say I haven’t been thinking about social studies. I have been studying it, talking about it, writing about it, in short, obsessing over it, for several years now. This obsession has taken the form of instructing at several Content Area Literacy Institutes for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, helping to author the Project’s new content area curriculum, presenting workshops on Writing in the Content Areas, and co-authoring Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the new Units of Study for Writing series. But all that aside, I had to wonder what would happen when I was charged with actually teaching social studies three times per week. Could I put all of my lofty ideas into practice?

These were some of the questions plaguing me as I sat in front of a blank google doc the other week, attempting to plan my first day. Where should I start? Should I be thinking about content (what my students need to know in order to start learning about Native Americans of New York State), or should I be thinking about constructs (what methods will best reach them one day one)? Then I remembered one of the most important principles of workshop teaching: begin by studying yourself as a reader and writer. Where would I begin a new study as a historian? Personally, I would start by reading about the big picture. But of course, workshop teaching is so much more than just asking students to do what we would do. We have to break down huge tasks into small, surmountable steps. I couldn’t just hand my students a book and say, “have at it”.  Further, I couldn’t just model what kinds of books historians read, I had to model how historians read when they are just beginning a study. Often, historians read several texts on a broad topic in order to get a lay of the land. I decided there would be no better way to model this kind of reading than with a cross-text read-aloud.

Richard Allington reminds us in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that one of the top reasons readers abandon books is that they are not able to envision what is happening in the text. This is just as true for content area reading (the bulk of which is nonfiction) as it is for reading literature. So I decided to begin with a goal of bolstering students’ skill in envisioning, with a secondary goal of building background knowledge. I chose When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz, a lovely picture book about a young present-day Lenape girl who connects with her past through the seasons, and The Iroquois: The Six Nations Confederacy by Mary Englar.

My teaching point:

read aloud envisionment chart

I began with When the Shadbush Blooms, and modeled how I used the text to envision the actions and surroundings that the little girl was describing, then how I used what I was imagining to spur some thinking about what I was learning. Then, I guided students to try the same work, telling a partner what they were envisioning and what they were learning. At the end of the read aloud, I modeled for students how I put together some of the details we had learned – such as: the Lenape often ate what they grew or caught – to come up with larger ideas about what I was learning – such as: the Lenape have an important relationship with nature. I invited the students to talk in partnerships to try the same – putting together some of the details they had learned into larger concepts. Finally, I invited students to join each other in a whole-class conversation, sharing some of these ideas into the group. While students talked, I captured some of what I heard them saying in an idea web. (Side note: I decided to model this kind of note-taking as a way to plant the seeds for future note-taking experiences to come, more on that topic soon.)

Lenape idea web

Though I kept the conversation brief, as I found students’ stamina for whole-class conversation to be at about five minutes (for more on talk stamina, see my previous post), from this charting, the students and I were able to see how much real information they had gleaned from a picture book and a brief amount of discussion.

Next up: trying the same work with an informational text. I read few passages from The Iroquois by Englar, modeling and then inviting students to try the same strategy process as before. Of course, envisioning the text can be more difficult in an informational text. To support students in transferring this skill, I chose passages that were similar in content to some of the concepts that are explored in the picture book – for example, passages that described jobs of men and women, and ones that described ways in which the tribe gathered food.

We added some of the students’ new thinking to the web.

iroquois lenape idea web

Finally, we compared the ideas we had come up with after reading the two texts, annotating similar categories and starring ideas that seemed particularly important.

iroquois lenape web annotated

A thoughtful (albiet brief) discussion ensued, about gender roles and how these might translate in the students’ own culture, and about the similarities between the two tribes’ approaches to living from the land. Students tried to imagine present-day New York as the place where Native American tribes such as the Lenape and Iroquois depended on the nature around them in order to survive, laying the groundwork for a concept that is central to the Unit of Study.

Some big ideas about cross-text read alouds:

  • It is not necessary to read whole texts, or huge sections of texts. In fact, carefully chosen snippets of texts often work best. Researchers often read short excerpts of texts in conjunction with one another to corroborate what they are learning. It is perfectly acceptable to model how to do this with a read aloud.
  • You can model several skills at once with a read aloud. Note-taking is a perfect skill to model in a cross-text content area read aloud. Keep in mind that a major purpose of read aloud is to model skills and strategies that are just beyond what students can do on their own.
  • It’s not too early in the year to start with skills and strategies that feel lofty, such as reading across texts or taking notes in a web format. By modeling skills such as these early in the year, you are showing students that they are attainable, and you are also setting the groundwork for skill development along higher trajectories of learning.