Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

Category: Books

Middle School Matters by Phyllis L. Fagell

Did you realize that every middle schooler today was born after September 11, 2001?

Their world is completely different than the one in which we grew up. While much has remained the same (“Oh no! There’s the boy I like.” or “I’m not going to try out, because I know I won’t make the team.”), so much is different (“Should I vape with my friends?” or “She posted that picture on Snapchat just to make me jealous!”).

I don’t yet have a middle schooler of my own; however, I have spent the last 15 years teaching middle school. It certainly has its ups and downs, but I firmly believe in the importance of the middle school years in a child’s development. Students in Grades 6 to 8 need adults in their corner as they test boundaries, emerge from childhood, and discover who they are going to be in the next chapters of their lives.

However, if there’s one thing that’s predictable about middle school, it’s that it’s unpredictable! Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor who works actively in schools and in private practice with parents and their children. She wrote Middle School Matters as a guide for parents (and educators) with the key skills we can help foster in our middle schoolers.

I found myself nodding along in the scenarios she described, as I have seen many of them in our day to day life at school. Fagell tackles shifting friendships, bullying, sexual health, anxiety, academics, and more. What I love most about this book is that throughout each chapter, she provides possible conversation starters you can use to speak to your children or students.

Since I teach middle school, my students all head off to high school after they’re finished with me, and then many of them plan to attend college or university. It’s easy for me to get locked into the mindset of preparing them for high school; however, I loved being reminded that the purpose of school isn’t to get into another school. Our purpose as teachers is to prepare them for their career and for their relationships with others as they grow. This resonated quite a bit with me.

I wonder about the middle schoolers who don’t have a supportive home life. How might we help them see their value in this world? How might we guide them during difficult moments in their lives? How might we build our relationships with these students in a meaningful way to be their safe space?

Middle School Matters is also must-read for parents with children middle school. I quite enjoyed it, and I suspect parents of middle school students will glean important insights and tips for all of the ups and downs that come along with this transitional period in their children’s lives.

Jenn

A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliott

If you’re looking for some Indigenous non-fiction for yourself or your classes, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground may be a title to check out.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is award-winning Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott’s debut essay collection that holds back nothing as she shares her thoughts on the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada.

These essays are thoughtful, controversial, and absolutely necessary. Part-memoir, part historical exploration, Alicia Elliott opens up about her own trauma and abuse while simultaneously examining the systematic roots of oppression Indigenous people in Canada faced throughout history and continue to face today.

“We know our cultures have meaning and worth, that that culture lives and breathes inside our languages. Canada knew that, too. Which is why they fought so hard to make us forget them.”

 

She tackles the issues of mental health, abuse, language, culture, residential schools, racism, colonialism, poverty, belonging, cultural appropriation, and body image. Additionally, she calls out Canadian political parties (both past and present) for what they have and haven’t done to help mend these relationships, so healing in these communities can begin.

“No one should have to feel thankful that their child isn’t dark-skinned.”

 

While these essays examine how racism continues to be fed in Canadian society today, Alicia Elliot offers hope for us to be thoughtful about our own voices and choices moving forward. If you’re interested in learning more about a modern perspective on Indigenous relations and history, I highly recommend this coming of age collection by a wonderful writer. It’s available now from your favourite bookseller.

xo

Jenn

Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim – Book Review

Seeing yourself in a book is such a gift. The moment you read a passage and instantly feel validated or less alone is powerful. More than once, I’ve reread sentences, paragraphs, and even whole pages because the author was able to put into words exactly how I felt about something. However, this feeling doesn’t come around with the same frequency for everyone.

Well-Read Black Girl is an essay collection of Black women writers reflecting on how they found themselves in literature, how certain pieces of work guided them through childhood and adolescence, and how the words of others inspired them to write as well. It was born from Glory Edim who created the @wellreadblackgirl community on Instagram.

Well-Read Black Girl is small but mighty. I was introduced to so many authors, playwrights, poets, and titles I’d never heard of before. My formative years were vastly different than the women in this book, so reading this collection for me was eye-opening and reminded me how reading can be a powerful act of empathy to learn about others.

As an educator, I firmly believe that it is important for both children and adults to be able to connect with the texts they are reading, and this essay collection reaffirms that we need to ensure that young readers have a wide-range of books at their fingertips. You never know which book is going to connect with which reader, and it is important for them to read about and reflect upon the experiences of others, as well.

Highly recommend!

Jenn

Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada to read and review. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart – A Second Language Teacher’s Perspective

Sometimes I find reading educational books as a French teacher to be challenging. There are always so many wonderful, inspiring ideas, but how do I harness them in a second language and remain true to prioritizing use of the target language in my classroom?

The language barrier is a big area of tension for me. How do I engage high-level thinking using a beginner/intermediate-level of vocabulary while also keeping our learning meaningful and engaging for young teenagers? It’s a lot to hold at once!

I haven’t found the magic answers yet; however, Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart gave some ideas to mull over. The sections on prioritizing what is absolutely the most important in our classrooms resonated with me the most. I loved his question, “If you had your students for only six weeks, what would be the single most important thing you would want them to understand? ” (Ritchhart, Creating Cultures of Thinking, p.100.)

My answer would certainly be that I’d want my students to understand how to communicate orally for a purpose, which reaffirms much of the work I’ve been exploring over the past year.

The other idea I really loved was about how teachers, “have to weigh the importance of accuracy against the goal of developing independence.” (Ritchhart, Creating Cultures of Thinking, p. 209.) This is something I’ve been thinking about for the past few years in my teaching, especially with written tasks my students complete.

I used to spend ages giving feedback on every single grammatical error, but I’ve learned that I need to shift my thinking around written feedback. I do not need to edit all of these errors. The students do not need to correct all of these errors. Not only is it, I’m sure, discouraging to see such a high volume of edits on  your work as a student, but perfection is not actually our goal. I want to assess students not for the number of mistakes they make but, rather, for the clarity of their ideas. This idea is certainly still a work in progress in my classroom and in my teaching, but it’s where I’m hoping to move more and more in my assessments.

There were plenty of other great ideas in his book as well. I’d recommend any teacher pick it up!

Jenn

Under Pressure by Dr. Lisa Damour – Book Review

 

Note – @gnichols  has an excellent post about Under Pressure here (with charts!) if you are interested in more.

I have been a middle school teacher for nearly 15 years, and I can confidently say that some of the most significant shifts in education have aligned with the awareness of mental health challenges taxing our teens and how to support them. Under Pressure by Dr. Lisa Damour is a refreshing look at stress and anxiety, and explores how we as parents and educators can help our girls during their tumultuous teenage years. I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Damour speak a few months ago on her book tour. I took pages of notes during her presentation with ideas of how I can best support my students, and I couldn’t wait to read her book for more. While Dr. Damour focuses her work on girls, I found so much in her speech, and in her book, helpful for both boys and girls.

Dr. Damour begins her book by sharing the framework through which we should look at stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety have a bad reputation, and it’s important to remember that stress and anxiety are often healthy for us. She says, “Stress is what happens when we operate at the edge of our capacities, and when we operate in this arena, we stretch ourselves and grow.” Anxiety is closely connected. She describes anxiety as, “the gift that keeps us safe.” (She also acknowledges that chronic or traumatic stress and anxiety are real, though different than everyday/healthy stress and anxiety.)

Secondly, we have good kids. Our teens (boys and girls) are the best generation on record. They drink less, smoke less, have less sexual partners, and are doing the most interesting things. This is a hopeful book. Technology has changed the landscape of youth, but it has not made it worse as we may be quick to believe.

With all of that in mind, Dr. Damour explores five areas where girls experience stress and anxiety: at home, with their friendships with other girls, with boys, at school, and as part of the culture society builds for women.

In each chapter, she shares specific examples of girls she has worked with and her advice for coaching them through stressful periods of their lives. Rather than taking a negative view on stress and anxiety, she offers specific language to help girls manage tricky situations in a thoughtful way, so they do not get overwhelmed or scared by their emotions. For example, when a student says she’s feeling really nervous about a test, you can reply, “Good! I’m glad you’re worried. That’s the ideal reaction, because right now you know you’re not ready. As soon as you start studying, your nerves will calm down.”

Under Pressure is a helpful book for parents, educators, counsellors or anyone else who finds themselves in coaching situations with teens. From my teacher lens, it gave me much to draw on the next time I need to help one of my students who is feeling stressed or anxious. Through my parenting lens (even as a boy mom), I found much of the book transferrable to how my son may encounter stress and anxiety, and it made me think about how I want to talk to him about his relationships with girls as he grows.

Jenn

Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of Under Pressure from Penguin Random House Canada for review purposes, and my school covered the cost of my ticket to see Dr. Damour speak. All thoughts and opinions are still entirely my own.

Quiet by Susan Cain

On the first day we met Face to Face as a cohort, I was in the initial phases of formulating the questions and challenges I wanted to take on this year. I knew I wanted my focus to be somehow connected to oral communication.  As a second language teacher, I spend a good part of my day encouraging people to speak. To take risks. To make mistakes in front of their peers. For my students, I recognize that this is not easy and it is not for everyone. So, how do we do it anyways?

My coach, @acampbellrogers, told me I’d probably be interested in reading Quiet by Susan Cain. This book describes what life is like for introverts and how we can harness the power of those who aren’t often the loudest speakers in the room.

I consider myself a velocireader, so I’m always happy to take on new book recommendations. I immediately borrowed a copy from a co-worker and started reading.

Quiet really has me asking myself what speaking fluidly means and has shifted my perspective. Speaking slowly doesn’t mean that a student is not speaking fluidly. Additionally, the medium is not always the message. If the message is thoughtful, there is room in second-language education to acknowledge this, even if it is “easier” to evaluate errors that are right and wrong. And my students who are fluent and don’t speak extensively in class are still fluent. As I enter report card season, this is something I am keeping in my mind much more than I ever have before.

Another interesting point is that the rise of social media and the Internet has given introverts a “voice”, especially with writing. My question is, “How can I transfer this to oral communication?” Flipgrid is a start.

Being mindful of seating was something else that I had never thought of before. Don’t seat quiet students in “high-traffic or high-interaction” areas. It will increase anxiety, decrease concentration, and they won’t actually speak more.

And finally, never underestimate the power of empathy. I’d like to find more opportunities to check in with my introverted students before presentations. To encourage them. To tell them that I also get nervous, but it does get easier with time. I loved reading how we should teach our students the importance of rehearsal and practice. This is a concept I’ve been hammering home with my students more recently, and it’s validating to read that I’m on the right track with this one.

I’d definitely say that Quiet is a  must-read for second-language teachers. It certainly gave me quite a bit to think about!

Jenn

GMorning, GNight by Lin-Manuel Miranda – Book Review

While I haven’t yet been able to see a Hamilton production (gasp!), I still have so much love for Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter. Social media can be a catalyst for emotions of negativity and not enough-ness. Thankfully, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Twitter account is a bight light in what sometimes feels like dark noise.

Awhile ago, he started beginning and ending his day on Twitter with little pep talks. Phrased for us, but written also for himself, these short bursts of encouragement will fill your cup as you take on, or recover from, whatever life brings you. (Side note – Lin-Manuel Miranda was an English teacher once upon a time, so to all of the educators in the house, I’m sure he feels us!)

Now you can get many of these inspiring tweets all in one place with GMorning, GNight! little pep talks for me & you. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun (who is Canadian! 👏👏), this little book is charming and heartwarming, and your heart will be so happy you’ve picked it up.

No matter how you spend your day, whether it’s in an office, or home with your little ones, or in a classroom, GMorning, GNight will be a meaningful and calming addition to your morning and evening routines. I know it has felt that way to me.

xo

Jenn

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