Hero or Villain?: 4 Resources for Exploring Columbus

October 13th is Columbus Day! Will your classes be celebrating?


(Photo Credit: Internet Archive Book Image)

We began our study of Columbus last week with the guiding question, “Is Columbus a hero or a villain?” The initial belief among my 5th grade students was that Columbus was a hero. However, as we exposed the class to Columbus’ own journal and various nonfiction texts,they began to question their original opinions.

This week, my students will be asked to answer the question, “Should we celebrate Columbus Day?”  They will need to create an argument either defending the celebration or advocating for its elimination, using text evidence to support their opinion.

This unit has been extremely engaging for my students and has given them the opportunity to deeply explore primary resources and nonfiction texts. I can already see that their thinking about Columbus has evolved and I recognize a growing excitement for learning about explorers’ impact on our world. If you’re looking for some resources to address Columbus Day, or other historically inaccurate holidays, I encourage you to check out these resources!

1)     Columbus’ Journal

Primary resources can be challenging but this one is worth the struggle! When students realize these words are straight from Columbus’ mouth, they become totally engrossed.

2)       You Wouldn’t Want To Sail With Christopher Columbus

This nonfiction text uses cartoons and humor to engage the reader. In addition to content, you may also use it to start a conversation about text structure and author’s craft.

3)     Encounter

This book gives students the opportunity to see the world from a different point of view. The narrator in this story is a Taino boy who suspects Columbus is misleading his people with his trinkets and smiles.

4)     Christopher Columbus: New World Explorer or Fortune Hunter?

This nonfiction text is unique because it exposes students to the positive and negative consequences Columbus’ explorations. This book and the other books in the “Perspectives on History” series have helped my students improve their critical thinking and questioning skills.


By |October 7th, 2014|General|0 Comments|

Pop Links 10.7.14: Finnish Education in the US; Nobel Prize Announcements; NYTimes Education Blog

  • While experts agree that racial and socioeconomic factors make it difficult to compare the education systems of the United States and Finland,  a Harvard professor says there are three key elements of Finland’s successful system that can and should be emulated here.
  • Starting yesterday and continuing through October 13th, the 2014 Nobel Prize winners will be announced. Check out the full schedule and watch videos of the announcements with your students!
  • Find neatly packaged current event stories to discuss with your students on the New York Times education blog, The Learning Network!
  • TFANet Resource: Bill of Rights

Motivation Monday: Success


By |October 6th, 2014|General|0 Comments|

Stand, Stand, Stand and Deliver, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindergarten Cop

(Photo Courtesy of Studio One)

From the music-fueled hijinks of Jack Black’s Dewey Finn (School of Rock) to the inner-city idealism of Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray (To Sir, with Love), Hollywood’s perennial fascination with teacher stories has produced an impressive lineup of iconic pedagogues over the years. One of my earliest teacher-on-film memories is watching a hell-bent Anne Sullivan reach her cathartic water pump breakthrough in the iconic climax of 1962’s The Miracle Worker, adapted from the autobiography of Helen Keller. The film’s title says a lot about why the educator archetype continues to be a popular source of dramatic inspiration: the idea of the impassioned teacher as an indomitable “miracle worker” for whom no troubled young mind is beyond reach seems to hold much sway for filmmakers and audiences alike.

Movies like this had so romanticized my perception of the profession that, as I readied myself for my first semester as a fifth grade teacher in the summer of 2008, it seemed only natural to wonder: should I fashion my teaching persona in the style of Robin Williams’ John Keating or emulate the eccentric profundities of Mr. Miyagi? Despite my best efforts, I ended that first year feeling more like Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher than anything else. I had not inspired a sensational love of poetry in my students. I had not convinced them to carpe the diem. The only standing on desks had occurred in rebellious defiance of (not in solidarity with) my teaching.

The melodramatic glorification of teachers perpetuated by films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers had made for excellent inspiration, no doubt. It had also been terrible preparation for the real deal. The more I thought about these teacher-worship movies, the more they bothered me. It’s not that I believe teachers unworthy of the exaltation – it’s that these movies totally miss the mark when it comes to what makes educators admirable and effective. The mythic Hollywood teacher conditions us to interpret passion as an acceptable substitute for patience, diligence, and partnership. We’re asked to value inordinately only the most obvious of a much larger set of characteristics actual master teachers exhibit, even when these characters are based on real individuals.

Take for instance Stand and Deliver, the true-ish story of Jaime Escalante’s expectation-defying advanced calculus program and a staple of miracle-working teacher tales. This was the movie I was told repeatedly that I “must see” in the run-up to my first days in the classroom. As depicted in the film, Escalante leads his ragtag band of inner-city pupils from a shaky grasp of basic arithmetic to calculus fluency in the span of a single year at East LA’s Garfield High – an impressive feat to be sure. That Escalante felt passionately about opening doors of opportunity for his students is obvious. What isn’t clear is that it took real-Jaime seven years to build his seemingly miraculous program; the movie seems content to give us the equivalent of a “greatest hits” compendium of Escalante’s achievement.

The warping of Escalante’s story, however well intentioned, seems an all-too-common phenomenon in the profit-driven entertainment industry. I suspect it’s a matter of marketing: it’s much easier to sell a sensationalized tale of miraculous accomplishment than it is a record of the slow, incremental progress by which great teachers often impact and are impacted by their students (though there are always counter examples – Mr. Holland’s Opus comes to mind). My time in the classroom has shown me that excellent teachers temper their bold visions with patience and planning. They recognize that quiet consistency and persistence can be powerful forces for change. They master their craft through years of practice and patient study, making plenty of mistakes along the way. In short, they understand that the really important work takes time, constant effort, and an accumulation of small, boring victories. That’s what real passion looks like: less a singular dramatic shout from the proverbial mountaintop and more a solicitous, ever-present whisper of encouragement, a diligent striving to bridge the gap between what is and what should be.

That’s why I’ll risk massive ridicule by proclaiming Kindergarten Cop one of my favorite teacher movies to date, if only for this reason: it’s the relatively simple story of a man (a very large Austrian bodybuilder, as it happens) who learns the hard way how demanding the life of an educator can be… and then embraces it anyway. By the film’s end, Schwarzenegger’s John Kimble hasn’t miraculously rescued his kids from destitution*. He hasn’t even really mastered the basic foundational skills of a novice teacher. But he has, in spite of his repeated failures in the classroom (which seem surprisingly realistic in light of the more ridiculous action/crime elements of the plot), made the monumentally courageous decision to trade his position as a celebrated public hero for a demanding career with a long, hard road to excellence. And it takes an entire movie for him to reach this point!

As the film fades to black, Kimble resembles so many real teachers I know that embody this more understated brand of heroism; having survived the chaos of those first few weeks, he is humbled by and in love with his students. There’s a sense that, though he may be incapable of academic feats as glamorous as his crime-fighting exploits, he’s at least ready to fight for those small, boring, important victories that imbue a teacher’s life with such meaning. You might call that miracle working, though by degrees.

*He has however saved them from the machinations of a nefarious drug dealer.

Pop Links 10.2.14: Student Evaluations; Education & Healthcare; US History Curriculum; Ebola Film

By |October 2nd, 2014|General|0 Comments|

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

Before I tell this story, before I unwind it to reveal the raw truth, I want to admit my cowardness. Because I wouldn’t have written the poem, I wouldn’t have spoken the words, I wouldn’t have done any of it in this way if I was brave enough to ask:

How do you feel about Michael Brown?

It was haunting me that first week of school. As I worked in my classroom, as I met my new students, as I paced the halls. Alerts on my phone kept reminding me of Ferguson, and I wondered … I just … wondered.

The question burned on my tongue as noise rose while the students laughed, ran, and jumped at recess, while Ms. B, Mrs. Henderson, and I jabbered on and graded papers. It haunted me as I waved goodbye at the end of the each day and hello at the beginning. Just ask, I told myself. But an appropriate time never seemed to come.

I went home over Labor Day weekend, filled with hope and despair, joy and sorrow; it seemed that an adrenaline rush crept into every moment, every memory, and my hands shook with the weight of it.

That’s when I wrote the poem. It came to me the way Ruth Stone would get a poem, (according to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk.) I was working on lesson plans when I felt and heard it, barreling down on me like a thunderous train of air.

I’m not sure it’s appropriate or sensitive, all the things I say or feel about life in my classroom. I don’t understand what it’s like to grow up like many of my students. But sometimes I’m not sure that matters.

I host a Bible Study at my house on Monday nights. We eat dinner and toss our ideas about verses around the room. Last night we talked about 2 Corinthians 6, which has this uncomfortable section of scripture about how unbelievers and believers shouldn’t be yoked, and it led to a raw and honest discussion.

“Maybe it’s saying we have to be careful about who we’re yoked to,” I suggested. “Because when you’re yoked you are bound to someone in a common direction and burden.”

“I don’t know, Lydia,” Anya told me. “I’m from a different world than my students, and so we don’t come from the same place and our burden is different. Our burdens are different, but we’re bound together and our direction is the same.”

The poem is my struggle, my burden, my own frailty, and I know that my students would bare their souls in another way. But I’m convinced that because I have been yoked with them, we will move in the direction of a shared dream. It won’t be easy. It won’t be perfect. But that’s okay. This work that I do in the classroom is not solely about educational equity and test scores – it’s about understanding, empathy, and peace.

Below are the words to: Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

This story is colored by the rhythm of a copier, pushing and pulling paper in time with the rhythm of my beating heart.

The first week of school is a kaleidoscope of colors and images, fleeting moments and overstimulation, sleepless nights and names blurring with faces.

I called Michael Edward, Michael Brown six times in class on Friday. Each time he looked at me, eyes wide with confusion. It took me till Saturday for me to realize that I was calling him the name of a boy shot by the police.

Ms. Pitts had left early that Friday, and I had Marion Ramsey in my room. Marion, whose father was killed in a drive by this July. How can I teach him that violence does not solve violence? Is there a way I can jam the gears that pull pain up and around again?

I’m always listening for the copier to choke on the paper. When it does, I take apart the machine, reach my arms into the crevices, spin the rollers under my hands, just like Ms. B taught me. Later, I will find ink coloring my fingers. You can’t heal brokenness without touch, and you can’t touch something and leave unmarked.

I went to Mrs. Henderson’s church this Sunday, the Sunday before school started. The message was about God’s guidance through fire, through brokenness, through pain. Afterwards, she took my hands in hers. “You’ll never know how much this means to me,” she said.

Jamison can’t read. When he takes his medicine, he’s a zombie. When he doesn’t, he’s running his hands over the ground as if he can read the soul of the earth. Once, after recess, he dropped grass in the hallway. I tried to have him pick it up, but it took too long. He was too slow. We didn’t have a broom.

I’m praying as I fall asleep that I will become a warrior for my students while demons try to steal them away. Just Thursday I saw the “1”s littering the page of their test scores, and if it is true that prison cells are built by literacy rates in minority children, I am on the front lines of a war.

Ricky cries easily, talks slowly, and exudes differentness. But when he answered in class, cool Tyron flipped around in his chair, grinned, and gave him a high five.

Don’t mistake my children for felons. Don’t mistake the ink-smudges on my hands for filth. Don’t mistake this pain for hopelessness.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.

Glory. Glory. Hallelujah.



Pop Links 9.30.14: ATL Cheating Scandal Trial; Afro-American Girls’ School Troubles; Free Microsoft Office for Students


  • Yesterday began the trial for Atlanta school administrators accused of changing student answers on standardized tests. NPR analyzes how high stakes No Child Left Behind testing may have instigated administrators’ alleged deceitful behavior.
  • When Obama started his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to help young men of color, many critics asked, “what about the girls?” A recently released report about the disproportionate struggles African American girls face in school seems to validate the criticism.
  • Your students (and soon, you) may qualify to receive Microsoft Office software for free! Find out more about the initiative and whether your students fit the criteria here.
  • TFANet Resource: Figurative Language
By |September 30th, 2014|Pop Links|0 Comments|

Back to the Middle School Cafeteria


 (Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass)

I haven’t yet mastered the art of assembling myself nutritious lunches before I go to bed each night, which means I usually end up with a hastily made sandwich and whichever fruit I was able to locate first. About half the time, the sandwich is peanut butter and jelly, because I can always find those in the fridge.

That’s what I was holding when I walked back into the middle school cafeteria for the first time since my own eighth grade graduation. Eating lunch with my kids at least once a week was a goal I made when I first visited the school—I decided that it was one of the ways I would build relationships and get to know my students. But standing in the doorway of the cafeteria as sixth graders streamed around me to get their pizza and chicken nuggets, I started to have doubts. I had my own cafeteria traumas as a kid (I’m pretty sure I was in sixth grade when my best friends told me to eat at another table because I talked with my mouth full.) Besides, what middle school student wanted to have lunch with their English teacher?

I shouldn’t have worried. I’ve had lunch in the cafeteria four times now, each time with a somewhat different mix of students. Once I accidentally sat at the “tardy table” where students are supposed to sit as punishment for showing up late, and the lunch monitors had to explain to me that as a teacher, I could dismiss kids from the table, but I think I’ve got it figured out now. I’ve chatted about mariachi band, favorite desserts, and squids.

Today the instructor of my certification program visited the classroom while I tried to explain the rationale for studying Greek and Latin word roots in English class. When I asked why we were spending time on this, kids seemed convinced that I wanted them to communicate with native Latin speakers. Afterwards my instructor explained that the kids weren’t grasping my rationale. The reason they worked so hard on the lessons is because they know that I’m on their team, and if I think it’s a good idea, they’ll give it a try.

I know I’ve got to work on my rationale, but for now I’m so grateful for what I’ve got: the grace and patience of my students. I’m far from perfect, a lesson I re-learn every day in the classroom. But as long as they’re willing to try, as long as we’re on this wild adventure together, I believe we’ll all make it through stronger. All it takes is stepping into the middle school cafeteria and taking the time to make those relationships.

By |September 30th, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|