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Friday, September 28, 2012

Banned Books: The Forbidden Fruit

It’s that time again!  It’s time to celebrate 30 years of liberating literature.   September 30th – October 6th is Banned Books Week.  Learning out the forbidden fruit can be a great way to get kid's involved in reading and critical thinking.  Last year’s blog featured the resources to get students to locate books banned in their area in the last year using this Google Map and the list of banned books found on the ALA site. 

 Book Banning ripped from the headlines
Book banning is not just something that occurred in history or in totalitarian countries.  Just last week there was another news story about a book banning in Pennsylvania!  This story with some great quotes from students and ties to the First Amendment would make a great “ripped from the headlines” lesson.   Talk about your timely current events!

The Banned Books Week site has links for teacher resources and lots of information including lists by year. It is surprising to see so many of the books that I was required to read listed as books that were challenged.  I bet your students would find that they too have read banned books (since the Harry Potter Series and Hunger Games Series are on the lists).  Do they think that books should be banned?  What are the issues?

TregoED is offering a free SCAN lesson for Banned Books Week called “Banning Books – Do you agree?”
Here’s the scenario:

Since the release of the Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series, there has been a lot of controversy in your town. A group of influential families has campaigned to have these, as well as a list of other books, banned from school libraries. It seems these parents object to the values represented in certain books, and do not want their children exposed to controversial or inappropriate topics. As taxpayers, these parents feel they have the right to say what is appropriate for their children to read in school. They have threatened legal action against the district if the books are not removed from the library. Students, media specialists, parents, and school officials all have different points of view on the subject. What action can they take to resolve the issues? 

Students are given some information from the perspective they choose to represent and work together to decide what should be done.  You simply register, log in and set up the free discussion platform for your students. (New to SCAN check out this 3 minute video)  No student registration or emails required.
There are lots of other great ideas to get your students thinking about the freedom to read.  Have them check out the videos on the Youtube Banned Books Week Channel and contribute their own.  

Banned books week is another opportunity to get kids to think critically, write persuasively and learn to appreciate the freedom to read!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Election Issues and Critical Thinking Resources

Can there be any other time when critical thinking is more needed than election time?  When we talk about critical thinking in schools, we are talking about getting kids to analyze their thoughts, to see and consider other perspectives.  You really need to look no further than the headlines to find great authentic topics for students to discuss, write persuasively, and learn their facts about!
Want a great unbiased resource for those hot topics? is a great place to start! has got a long list of “controversial” topics perfect for getting kids involved in real life research, reading and discussions!  Here are some examples of how critical thinking ties into your curriculum and can help your students to understand the importance of their vote!:
Social Studies has got a great section devoted to the elections.  Start with this great quiz, 2012 Presidential Quiz:  Find your Match, which asks students their opinions on issues and matches them to the candidates (including the Independents).  What a great way for students to see the issues!  You do not have to answer all the questions and you can see what candidate most closely aligns to your way of thinking.  It also points out how important it is to understand the issues before you vote!  There is another section which lists all the issues and where each candidate stands, in their own words.  There is even a “procon” on voting machines!   
Although social studies is the obvious place to start, there is not one subject area that we teach that does not tie into election issues.   What a great way to get students (and maybe even voters) to understand the relevance of what you teach!
Take a look at the “procons” of the environmental issues that separate the candidates including the environment, energy, geneticially modified foods, etc.  A great answer as to “why do we have to know this?”   Have them discover how the laws and policies of our government depend on good science and impact your life.   There are “procons” for climate change, vaccines for kids, alternative energy vs fossil fuels, the safety of cell phones,and more. 
Health care in general is always in the headlines.  Besides health care policies, there are “procons” on the drinking age, DARE, medical marijuana, obesity, and vaccines.  There are even some on sports – drug use, college football playoffs and whether golf is a sport. 
Take a look at all the numbers in these facts on climate change!   Seems like there are tons of relevant math questions you could come up with based on those facts.  And think about it, they would be talking about real numbers, not just apples, oranges, and trains! 
Language arts:
There are some great topics for reading and writing:  Why not start with topics in education? They could not be any more relevant!  Check out the "procon" on “Are standardized tests improving education?”  Other hot topics include:  video games and violence, social networking, and immigration. They have some great Language Arts lessons plans that hit on the national standards.

The lesson plans they provide hit on national standards in a number of areas.  They even suggest using online discussion boards.  The SCAN online discussion tool at will not only allow students to discuss the issues, but it will guide them to clarify them, assess what’s important and come up with an action plan.  There are facts on over 43 controversial issues.  Looks like a SCAN session waiting to happen to me!  Now that’s critical thinking at its best!   Help your students understand the issues and understand the relevance of what they are learning in school.   After all “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."
- Daniel Patrick Moynihan, American sociologist and US Senator (D-NY)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Implementing BYOT: A Great Critical Thinking Activity

I love to visit classrooms this time of year. Both students and teachers are excited and hopeful about what they will be doing in the coming year. This year the Mt. Olive Middle School will be implementing a new BYOT program. Starting in November, students in grade 8 and 9 will be able to Bring in their Own Technology and use it in their core content area classrooms.

This of course brings up a number of issues from all kinds of perspectives. Melissa Blitzstein, teaching a new course called 8th Grade Seminar (focusing on research and writing skills) and Cynthia Cassidy, Media Specialist (ultimately involved in the implementation) decided this was the perfect opportunity and high interest complex topic they were looking for to kick off student researching and writing! What a great way to involve students in authentic and relevant problem solving!

They recognized that successful implementation of a complex undertaking like BYOT, requires a true collaborative effort by parents, policy makers, IT personnel, curriculum specialists, teachers and administrators, each of which have different issues and concerns that need to be addressed. Although there is information about other districts' implementation, every district is different. Different demographics, budgets, staff members, etc. all play into the program’s success.
Why not let students take a crack at it?
Blistzstein and Cassidy developed a great activity based on these Key Points in English Language Arts from the Common Core Standards:
· The ability to write logical arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence is a cornerstone of the writing standards, with opinion writing—a basic form of argument—extending down into the earliest grades.

· Research—both short, focused projects (such as those commonly required in the workplace) and longer term in depth research —is emphasized throughout the standards but most prominently in the writing strand since a written analysis and presentation of findings is so often critical.

Students began the project by researching BYOT programs and their successful implementation then selected a perspective to represent in the collaboration. Roles included 8th grade student, parent, teacher, and US Department of Education. Cassidy and Blitzstein posted the problem and perspectives in the SCAN tool at TregoEd. When I walked into the classroom, the students were highly engaged in the discussion using the private online discussion tool which walks them through SCAN (See the issues, Clarify the issues, Ask, what’s most important, and Now, what should be done?). Of course, you do not need the tool to have students go through the process, but it is a powerful way to get ALL students in on the conversation!
Students at work!
They had written logical arguments based on their perspective and were using sound reasoning and relevant evidence to support their claims. Their issues ranged from cheating and possible theft of devices to bandwidth and teacher training! Their research had added depth to their understanding of the situation – giving true authenticity to “Research –short focused projects (such as those commonly required in the workplace)” as this was precisely the work that had to be done “in the workplace.”
Developing a plan
As I circulated around the room, many were working on the last step where they were creating some great suggestions for policies and actions that will address the concerns that their classmates had brought up. They were talking about insurance policies, collecting IP addresses, classroom rules and board policies. They understood that they now had valid input in the district discussion and would have an understanding of both the “what and the why” of district policies that would be put in place. They had a plan! (We can only hope that those who were tackling this problem in the district were using the same process. District leaders trained in TregoED’s Situation Appraisal would find the process would result in great decisions and a sure fire implementation plan)
High interest=high engagement
It was exciting to see how engaged kids were in the research and the writing when given a high interest problem that touched their lives. They took their roles seriously as they knew their input would be heard through Ms. Blitzstein.

How have your students been involved in the success of your BYOD or BYOT programs? Do your students take part in school problem solving?

Friday, September 7, 2012

911 Memorial Activity Reaches the Common Core

Next week, I am going to the 911 Memorial in NYC.  Learning about the vision, debate, study, engineering and design of the memorial is a great opportunity for deeper learning for our students.  Just looking at the symbolism that is incorporated into the design – waterfalls into footprints that never fill, trees from the Flight 93 site in PA and the Pentagon, the Tridents from the original building, five buildings spiraling up like the torch of Lady Liberty- and how it comes together to complete the monumental task of healing this deep wound in the earth with a balance of awareness of the tragedy and hope for the future is a great lesson.  The question of what was to be done at the site brought about great debate and was only resolved when all parties perspectives were considered.  This is an example of great problem solving at its best with science, engineering, art, language arts and social studies content all rolled into the task.   

What a great opportunity to use the problem solving strategy...SCAN.  Imagine looking at the devastated site 11 years ago and trying to determine what should be done?  Imagine the perspectives that had to be considered.  Business leaders, families who lost loved ones, city workers, artistss and entrepreneurs all had unique perspectives on the best way to honor the victims, the heroes and American resilience.  What a great way to demonstrate how a simple strategy like SCAN (See the issues, Clarify the issues, Ask what's most important, and Now, what's the plan?) can help solve complex problems.

Reaching the Common Core
Why not have your students select a perspective and "write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence." (CCSS) The 911 Memorial website has wonderful resources where your students can find information and teachers can find a great diversity of lessons plans all linked to the Common Core Standards.  Lessons range from the historical impact to the making of memorials.  You can easily move them from stating their position to collaborating on their own solutions.

There is also a series of videos by the Discovery Channel about how the master plan for building the Memorial came about.  You can watch the video through teacher’s hub video writing prompts or directly though Discovery (with commercials).  I love this video about the building that is being designed around a wedge of light that will appear on 9/11 at precisely the time the second tower fell.  Think of all the science and engineering that had to go into the planning of that!   

September 11th is a great time to have your students "think historically" to gain an understanding of how this area has risen from the rubble to include the tallest and strongest building in American history and a memorial to honor those who were killed at the site.

Looking for more?
Other teacher and student resources for studying 911 can be found at the George Bush Library or the Edsitement Launchpad of activities.  

You can get kids looking at security issues that arose from 911 through different perspectives using the free online discussion lesson:  Patriot Act:  Security or Freedom at TregoED.