Sunday, October 26, 2014

Viva La Causa

Viva la causa, or long live the cause, was the phrase Cesar Chavez coined while working for equal rights of farmer workers in California in the 1960's. We began our unit of workers' rights by learning about this Chavez and this movement for a few reasons.  One, most of my kids have at least heard of Cesar Chavez.  He is probably the most well known union organizers in history. Also, many of my students immediately made a connection to Chavez and the other farm workers.  A majority of them are Hispanic have some awareness of the struggles that immigrants face in America.

What I personally like about Cesar Chavez and the story of the farm workers is the lesson of perseverance and creativity. The fact that Chavez and his group came up with ideas, and revised them when they weren't working, rather than giving up entirely, is such an important message for my students to hear.  When striking alone didn't create the necessary changes, they went back to the drawing board.  They often looked to other great change makers, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, for ideas.  The thought of giving up was never an option.  Rather, they revised, reconstructed ideas, and continued on their mission with determination!

To learn about Chavez and the farm workers, we watched a great documentary from Teaching Tolerance (one of my favorite teaching resources EVER!) called "Viva La Causa".  Along with the video, there is also some great information to help students understand the similarities and differences between Chavez, MLK and Gandhi. This was a great introduction to the discussion of nonviolence.

After we learned some basics about unions and union organizing, boycotting, and protesting, we dug a little deeper into the world of workers' rights and began exploring sweatshops.  First, we watched an interesting video about the sweatshops that exist in the United States. The video can be found at this LINK.

Truth be told, the video was a little old, and I'm not quite sure if/how much has changed.  The optimist in me hopes that the information is so outdated that it is practically irrelevant.  If anyone has more information about the current state of sweatshops in the U.S., I would love to some information!

After a day or so learning the basics out sweatshops, my students read articles about some of the more well known international situations regarding sweatshops.  Unfortunately, there is no shortage of information about the ongoing atrocities that many garment workers are facing around the world.  We read about the fire that killed 112 people in Bangladesh, as well as the building collapse also in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 workers. Some kids also read about Nike and the many issues that have come to the surface regarding the treatment of the workers at their factories.  In addition, we looked at some poetry that also depicted the trials of sweatshops.

A few weeks ago, I met with a friend and was tell him about this unit.  He is a big union advocate, so I was interested in his thoughts.  After talking for a bit, he looked at me and said, "So are you learning about anything good that's happened?"  It may seem like we only focused on the negative side of workers rights, but we did move toward making some change.  One of the coolest things I learned throughout this unit was about a new ordinance the city of Chicago just passed.  This ordinance prohibits city employee uniforms from being purchased from sweatshops. This may seem like just another article title, but it really is a pretty big deal! Check it out HERE and see what a huge step Chicago is making in ending the exploitation of sweatshop employees!

This issue isn't as cut an dry as others for me.  Obviously, I believe the abuse and exploitation by sweatshop is inhumane and needs to be changed.  At the same time, I understand why it is such a difficult system to overhaul.  After reading the article about Chicago's new ordinance, one of my kids made the comment, "But isn't that going to cost more money?" And it all comes back to money...  As a thrifty shopper myself, I get that people want the cheapest possible prices.  But what we all need to ask ourselves is, "What is the cost on others?"

Everyone Has Their (social justice) Issues

After spending a few weeks reading and discussing homelessness, the cycle of poverty, and the minimum wage with my classes, we wrapped things up with a small action project.  At the end of the year, we will do a much bigger version of this, with a lot more student choice.  For now, we wanted to try and keep things simple.

Students were given a few different opportunities to show their knowledge about homelessness and try to engage others in creating a change.  Some students wrote songs, poems or stories depicting their newly developed ideas about homelessness and the struggles than many people face on a daily basis when trying to avoid becoming homeless.  Other students created informative videos, fact sheets, flyers, etc... A few unique projects included a powerpoint presentation informing others about the help that is out there for those living in poverty.  This group of girls decided to visit a local food pantry, volunteer, and interview the woman who ran the food program! I was so impressed with their efforts! Another group created a website.  Once most kids turned in their projects, we linked their projects to the website (this can be found under the "Other Projects" tab).  If you are interested in taking a look, here is the LINK.  Some other students also wrote letters to their principal and assistant principal asking to host a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity!

I'll forgo the suspense, and let you know that the fundraiser was approved!  We shared my students' projects throughout the week to the 6th and 7th grade students, and at the end of the week all students were allowed to wear a purple shirt (apparently the color associated with homelessness awareness) if they donated $1.  We raised $180!  This isn't too shabby for our first endeavor, but next time, I think we will aim for more!

As we wound things down in this unit, and I began to introduce the upcoming unit, I mentioned to my students that they might not feel connected or moved by every issue we discuss. Though I have some students who are sympathetic to their core, I don't think it is possible to "take on" every cause personally.  For me, the issues or hunger and homelessness are very close to my heart.  From a very young age, my mom started taking me with her when she volunteered at a local baptist church that hosted a soup kitchen once a week.  Our temple was just a few minutes away and had developed a relationship with the church.  I had a very important of my job. I passed out the to-go lunch bags to the visitors as they left.

Years later, I was able to revisit this church, which still operated a weekly soup kitchen, and continued to partner with my temple.  This time, I came with a different agenda.  I was inspecting the facility! Yes, believe it or not, before I became a teacher, I held a variety of other jobs.  One of which was an agency relations representative for The Greater Chicago Food Depository.  My job was to build relationships with the shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens that worked to provide services for those in need.  I would help them get grants for new refrigerators, sign them up for classes at our "Pantry University", make sure their monthly orders went through, and to ensure that their facilities were in good condition.

When I arrived with my clipboard in hand, I immediately introduced myself to the coordinator and explained that I was familiar with their site and had volunteered years prior.  Within minutes, before I had a chance to really know what was going on, I was serving food in an extremely efficient assembly line.

Although I no longer work at GCFD, and it is pretty impossible to serve the Tuesday lunch at the soup kitchen, my family and I volunteer every Thanksgiving day at another church in Rogers Park.   Because I was introduced to this issue at such a young age, and my family helped me understand the gravity of the problem in society, I have continued to keep this issue close to my heart.  Although I secretly hope all of my kids walked away from this unit feeling deeply, personally inspired to create change in regards to hunger and homelessness, I understand that is isn't quite possible.  But I do hope that through the course of the year, they will find one issue that truly reaches them, inspiring them to become a social justice superhero!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reading Conference = My Wonderland

I was just having a conversation with some friends about how we find it a little strange when adults go to Disney World without children.  I just didn't get the appeal.  But then I realized, Disney is for many what a reading conference is to a dorky reading teacher - a wonderland!

(Proof that we were in Springfield: See Abe in the background.)

I had the privilege of attending the Illinois Reading Council (IRC) conference this past week/weekend. Along with many co-workers from my district, my very good friend who teaches at CPS also joined me. The last time I attended the annual conference was about five years ago.  Though many things have changed within education during this time, I was pleasantly surprised that the energy was the same.

During the 3 days, I heard some amazing authors speak.  Chris Crutcher, Wendelin Van Draanan, and Jay Asher were just a few that blew me away! Clearly, I spent way too much money buying their books for my class and getting them signed! But, when in Rome...

Getting Chris Crutcher's autograph! #authorsaremyrockstars

Along with the authors, I also sat in on a few really interesting sessions.  One of my favorites was about discussion techniques that help empower students.  It seems basic, but having a discussion in a middle school class can be nearly impossible! The balance between getting kids to actually speak, and making sure one or two kids don't take over entirely, is a challenging task.   But I got some great ideas that I am excited to try and pass on to other teachers that are interested.

Another especially great session was about vocabulary.  The presenter, Camille Blachowicz, was someone I had heard of throughout my time at National Louis University for grad school.  I really see myself being able to use some of the new ideas and techniques with our school wide vocabulary program throughout the year.

(Notes from Jay Asher's presentation - so funny!)

In addition, there were some more theoretical sessions that were not quite as exciting, but were still extremely important.  As always, I was impressed with Richard Allington and his research about the volume of reading students need to be doing.  It seems obvious, but kids need to READ if they want to improve their READING skills.  Shocking, I know.  In the same vein, Brandi Noll's session about RTI and how it often replaces instructional time, rather than being used to increase instructional time was very eye opening.  While discussing RTI, she also brought up the rather controversial research that computer based programs are often the least beneficial for students. Again, I know it is shocking to think that a computer can't teach a student as well as a real live person, but that's just what the research says!

Overall, the conference reaffirmed why I love teaching (especially reading) and rejuvenated me! I'm super excited to bring back these books, ideas and lessons to my school!

Jay Asher, from a distance.  He's one hilarious, interesting, and witty guy!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Starting a New Year

No, I'm not losing my mind (although it does feel like that sometimes).  I realize it is not January 1st. I'm not popping a bottle of bubbly or tossing streamers about.

But it is a new year for me - the Jewish New Year.  Last week we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, which literally means the head of the year.  One of my favorite traditions of this holiday is to eat apples and honey as a way to ensure you will have a sweet new year! I like apples. I like honey. And I love the idea of having a fresh, new start to the year! Since becoming a teacher, I think it is particularly nice to have this new year fall relatively close to the beginning of the school year.  It helps me align my personal, religious, and professional goals for the year.

Last night was the beginning of a second holiday, Yom Kippur. This is the day of atonement.  During the time between these two holidays, we are asked to reflect upon our last year - how we changed, what we did in our community, how our relationships changed, how we lived our lives overall, and if we have done anything we wish we could change (basically, our sins we want to atone for).

This past year was quite a roller-coaster for me.  I certainly had many adventures and exciting experiences, but it was also riddled with challenges.  I would assume that many people had a similar year.  Even amidst the most joyous times, our lives are likely to take unexpected turns, and can become turbulent, and even seemingly uncontrollable.  Due to many of these trying situations, I feel as though I may have lost my focus.  I'm not sure I was as good of a friend, sister, daughter or teacher last year as I could have been.  Although I know that many of these things couldn't be helped, I think it is important for me to recognize my shortcomings so that I can make this year better.

During our Rosh Hashanah service, the educator at my synagogue shared a lovely poem with us.  The poem, and it's message really resonated with me, and also made me think of my students.  I think it is so important to recognize that we are not always right, so that we can work on getting better.  If we are always right, where do we go from there? This is the poem:

Along with the reflection aspect of this "holiday season" (the teacher in me loves to reflect!) is the action part.  I think improvement isn't about berating yourself about the past, but rather about using those experiences to plan and guide you on a journey toward betterment.  

So, what are my plans for the this year???

1. Get more involved! I want to volunteer more this year.  It doesn't have to be every week to make a difference. Along with this goal, I want to work on involving my kiddos in making a change in the world.  Even if it's just planting a seed that they have the ability to create change is a great start!
2. Balance - I think this will be on my list every year because it is soooo hard for me! But even though it is a struggle, it doesn't mean I can avoid it.  Finding balance in all aspects of my life seems to be a true key to happiness. 
3. Take some chances! I worked on trying new things (even if it scared me to death) this past year, and I want to continue pushing myself to do this.  I have a few things brewing already...
4. Just be happy! There are too many wonderful things going on every day to simply focus on what isn't going well.

Even if you aren't Jewish and celebrating this new year, I wish you all a shana tova umetuka - have a sweet and happy new year!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Jumping Into the Issues: Homelessness

After exploring the history and concept of the Human Rights Declaration, as well as some of the specific rights, we finally began our first mini unit.

Last week we began focusing on homelessness.  I think this is one of the best issues to start off with because all students are familiar with the topic.  Some have seen homeless individuals on the streets downtown, others have watched movies or tv shows that somehow touched upon the topic, and some of my kids have personally struggled with finding a permanent home.

One of my major goals while teaching this unit is helping students realize that homelessness, hunger and poverty are not always easy to spot.  Many kids assume that someone must live beneath an underpass and wear old, dirty clothes to be homeless. Kids, along with most adult, hold a variety of stereotypes about homelessness.  While doing my own research about this issue, the most shocking fact I learned was that teens and single mothers are among the fastest growing groups of homeless individuals in America.

We also discussed the unavoidable issues of substance abuse and mental illness.  I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of maturity that most kids showed when talking about drug use is often a way for those struggling with mental illness to self medicate.

There is a great article about the myths of poverty that I stumbled across a few weeks ago.  I did not share the whole article with my kids, but we did discuss the myths. I will link the article to my resources page shortly. After going through these myths, as well as discussing the cycle of poverty, I received this email from a student:

I was surprised to see that many homeless people were homeless because of low minimum wage jobs, under the poverty line and because some of them are single parents.  Surprising to know that usually the people who are in poverty wasn't due to abuse of alcohol or drugs.  My mother always told me that homeless people were homeless because they were abusing drugs or alcohol and because they don't have jobs for being lazy or couldn't find any.  Now I know more than she does and what she said was mostly myths. 
Ok, I hope she doesn't go home and call her mom out for being uninformed, but hopefully she will share this new information and help her mom become a bit more sensitive about this issue.

In addition to sharing these myths and discussing the cycle of poverty, we also talked about the best way out of poverty - EDUCATION!  I hope my kids know that I honestly believe this to be true.  I'm not so naive to think that it is easy, or even that a good education is something every individual has access to, but I do believe it is one of the only ways to change the cycle of poverty and create change individually and systemically.

Another one of my favorite things to do while teaching this unit is to watch an episode of Morgan Spurlock's television show "30 Days".  In the episode we watch, Morgan and his girlfriend Alex move to a new city and try to live on the minimum wage for 30 days.  This proves to be challenging, disappointing and frustrating to the couple.  It is an extremely honest and thought-provoking look at the lives that many Americans are forced to live.

Before we take on our action projects, we also spent a few days reading a short story by Walter Dean Myers called, "The Treasure of Lemon Brown."  While the story is multilayered and discusses a variety of issues, it does include a homeless character and briefly delves into the events that lead to his homeless state.  While I love to have my students read non-fiction articles to really get the facts about issues, I also like the more human element that is garnered after reading a story with dynamic, relatable characters.

I'm currently away at the Illinois Reading Council Conference (aka a reading teacher's wonderland) in beautiful Springfield, but my kids are back at school beginning their action projects.  I can't wait to get back and see what they have decided to do to create some change in our community!