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Friday, December 21, 2012

Writing to Change People's Minds

Twas 2 days before Winter Break and all through the class……
Usually this time of year there are so many distractions that it is hard to believe that there is any meaningful teaching/learning going on.  This year it seems especially true, we have students who are wound up for the holidays, terrified that it is the end of the world and still reeling from the effects of the Newtown tragedy and Super Storm Sandy (no relation).
Is it any wonder that teachers would just love to plug in a movie or phone in a lesson?  In fact the opposite is true, now is the time that teachers reach into their bags of tricks and work to provide the most engaging lessons of the year.  I happened to be invited to just such a lesson yesterday in Joe Pizzo’s ILA class in the Black River Middle School in Chester, NJ were students were actively engaged and excited to learn.
Joe’s students were starting a new unit on persuasion (Imagine that!  Before a vacation!).  He invited advertising and media producer Mr. Rea, a parent, to come and show students how ads were created and how they are written to “change people’s minds.”  What a great lesson!  The students were all fascinated and had so many great insights regarding each of the commercials he showed.  We were all riveted as Mr. Rea explained the production of commercials for Volvo (seen in the Superbowl!) and Coppertone (filmed in Costa Rico!) and dissected the components used to appeal to their intended audience.   The students were highly engaged in the activity, peppering Mr. Rea with questions and observations.  He demonstrated how company’s ad campaigns range on the “rational” to “emotional” spectrum  and how the components of the commercial – images, music, script, etc all contribute.  Of course, Mr. Pizzo expertly tied in all of these aspects with the components necessary to write a good persuasive essay.  Students will begin their practice of these principles as they create their own 60 second commercial for their newly assigned free choice reading.  I could tell that they were inspired and their minds were reeling over the possibilities.  This “book report” was now building persuasive writing skills, integrating technology, connecting career opportunities and had captured student’s imaginations.  I cannot think of a more powerful, relevant and authentic way to teach students how to develop the “power of persuasion” than to tie in the everyday media whose job it is to “change people’s minds.”  Using a member of the community to teach it?  Priceless.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Teaching for Life-Readiness

Last Wednesday, I sat in an elementary classroom and thought, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”  I was sitting down to share my experience in this blog on Friday, when I heard “the news” – and I thought it couldn’t get any worse.  I did not have the heart to write about the joy, the smiles and the pride that the teachers and students demonstrated at PS 154 in NYC, when I knew that same joy, smiles and pride were obliterated for some 26 people.  I have participated in many a drill, sitting with kids in complete darkness and silence, trying to console some and make others realize the seriousness.  Even the drills were scary.  I cannot imagine the horror and fear those students and educators all must have experienced, and now the sorrow.   I know my colleagues are struggling with their emotions as they return to their classrooms with an acute awareness of the respect, responsibility, and compassion they feel for their colleagues, students and their families both here and in Newtown, CT.  
The kids at PS 154 were celebrating their learning with videos and action plans.  Given a framework, technology, and teacher guidance, they were given the ability to see other perspectives and problem solve.  Imagine 4th graders researching the issue of child labor and discovering that the children affected were their age and that child labor exists even in their own country.  They developed an action plan that included writing poetry, short stories and filming public service announcements.   They sang Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World – Make it a Better Place” with the passion of true believers.  Their presentations were touching, powerful and could not help but make you smile. 

These children demonstrated what is best about our children and the importance of school in their lives.  They were developing the capacity to think outside the box, demonstrate empathy for those less fortunate, and develop actions.  Through this simple activity, the teachers had given those students hope and confidence that they have the power to create change and overcome adversity.  This is truly what education is all about, “life-readiness.”

In the face of all this sorrow and despair, these children have given me a reason to smile.  What went on in PS 154 is happening all over this country.  Our children are our hope and it is an honor and a privilege to help prepare them to take on the world.

My thoughts and prayers go out to those families that have been shattered by a senseless act of violence.  Peace be with you all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Simple Questions lead to Complex Learning

Watching the news this morning there was a story about a baby panda growing stronger in the zoo.  Isn't it ridiculously cute?  As usual, it got me to thinking about zoos and breeding programs and endangered species….and off I go!
With the new Common Core, teachers can turn their focus from “the test” to teaching students to think for themselves.  Sometimes it just takes a simple question.  That seems to be the basis of “Problem-Based Learning.”  Think about the question posed by the NYCDOE Nonfiction Reading and Opinion/ Argument writing task for 5th grade:  “Should zoos exist?” or for older students, Room for Debate’s “Does Captive Breeding Distract from Conservation?”  These simple questions can be the basis for some great informational reading and research-based writing and some great critical thinking.  

Check out these resources that provide different perspectives on the debate on zoos:

The same resources can be found here, all neatly arranged in this “live binder” – a digital binder that will allow you to share all of these resources with your students in one easy place.  Have your students do the research and use this great persuasion map from to get their writing started!

Jumpstart their thinking!
Having a discussion before students start writing can help them understand new perspectives and gain a deeper understanding of the issues.    The SCAN tool  at has a great new scenario “Should Zoos Exist?” (always free) complete with scenario, four perspectives, resource links and a private discussion format to get them started.