There's more to learning than reading, writing and 'rithmetic...

When an opportunity presents itself that allows the students to get out of the classroom, I always take it. So when my colleague and I were asked to pull together the Veteran's Day assembly this year, we took it as a great opportunity to allow the students the chance to learn firsthand what it means to serve our country.

We invited about 50 Veterans and active service members to attend our assembly and enjoy lunch with our 8th grade students. Being our school is in a town with a naval base, some of our students are part of military families. They know what it's like to move every three years and start fresh in a new town, a new country, making new fri
ends. But the others don't know what it's like to lose a parent to active duty for an extended period of time.  So, this provided a great opportunity to get everyone on the same page.

We started in Language Arts by reading a short story written by Gary Paulsen titled, "Stop the Sun."  It is about a boy who's father, a Vietnam veteran, has a PTSD episode while shopping in the mall.  Reading this as a class gave us an opportunity to research the Vietnam War, and America's reaction to it and those who served in it. We talked about the draft, and how it changed the lives of many teenagers and young adults during that time. And, we looked at Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and how it can affect so many people.

The assembly began with the entire student body giving a standing ovation to the guests as they were escorted into our gymnasium. The bleachers were filled with students from grades Pre-K to 8, holding signs and clapping for them. Our guests were very touched, and surprised, by the welcome they received. The local high school junior ROTC members presented the Colors and demonstrated their drills.  Our presentation followed, with students speaking about the history of Veterans Day, and describing each branch of the armed services. Members of each branch were asked to stand to be recognized, and again, they seemed genuinely touched.

As part of the assembly, we showed a short video about a grandfather trying to show his grandchildren what it meant to be a veteran. Of course, the grandsons were more interested in their phones then in what their grandfather was showing them. But at the end of the video, the boys begin to understand what their grandfather was explaining. When some active service members enter the picture, the grandfather stands and salutes them, and the boys follow that gesture.  At this point, our entire student body stood and saluted our guests. And they stood and saluted back. Well, needless to say, not only were our guests crying at this point, so was everyone in the bleachers!

Here's the link - but I will warn you - you'll need tissues:

The school's small chorus then led us all in a rendition of "God Bless the USA". It was the perfect ending for the assembly. As students filed out, they shook hands with the guests, thanking them for their service. Once the gym emptied, our 8th grade students escorted the guests into our Media Center to have lunch and chat.

Many of the veterans who attended our assembly were veterans of the Vietnam war, which allowed the students to hear first hand accounts of how the draft changed the lives of many young men and women during that timeframe, and what combat was like. One veteran spoke about his suffering from PTSD, and the students were well equipped to speak with them all about these topics because of the research and reading we'd done prior to the event.

After the guests left, the students had very positive comments about the time spent with our veterans and active service members. Many of them walked away with a deeper understanding of what life in the military is all about. I can say that the exchanges that occurred over that lunch of sandwiches and potato salad was much more meaningful than anything they'd ever read in a textbook. Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.  What those students learned that day could not have occurred inside our classroom or by reading a textbook.  We're already planning for next year's event...


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Using Interactive Reading Journals for "In the Heart of the Sea"

Reading Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" was one of the most painful, yet satisfying experiences I've had in teaching 8th grade.  How can that be?  Well, it was a challenging book, for sure. My eighth graders aren't all avid readers, so the vocabulary at times had them stumped, but nothing we couldn't work through. It also was set in the 1800's, and gave us a lot of history on the early whaling industry, more than my eighth graders really cared to know. But it was necessary to understand what drove these men to the sea for months or years at a time. And then, there was the cannibalism. No surprise, but they actually enjoyed reading about that part. But like giving birth, the pain and suffering involved in the process is all forgotten when the students finally get to the end and tell you they enjoyed the story. That's when I exhaled that proverbial breath I'd been holding in since the day we started the pre-work on the novel study.  Makes it all worth it.  And knowing there's a Ron Howard movie coming out on the novel as well? Cherry on top.

In case you are looking for something different to do with your students, I'll fill you in on how I presented this book.

Introduce the novel, setting, author, genre, topic

Introduce the novel, setting, author, genre, topic

We always begin a new novel with a little background on the book itself.  In our interactive reading journals (my journal of choice is the marble notebook with pages that don't easily tear out, and a cover that won't rip off), we included a picture of the book cover, and listed our main characters so we could get to know them a bit. We also drew a picture, and included some origami.  We listed genre, author and publishing date. So far, so good.

Then, we included a map of the setting of the story. Easy for this book, since the whalers are from Nantucket.  We gave our colored pencils a workout and pulled out our Student Atlas books (thank you, PTA!), and when this happens, I always allow the students to take extra time to flip through the atlas to explore a bit.   Since many of my students rarely leave the state, it's a great way to introduce them to the huge world we have out there.  Strike up a conversation or two as they work. Talk about whales, global warming, the lines on the map and what they mean, and where Tanzania is.  So what if it doesn't have anything to do with the story.

Map out the setting so students know where the story takes place. Geography lesson!

Map out the setting so students know where the story takes place. Geography lesson!

Next, we looked at the history of the whaling industry. What was a whale used for? How did the whalers process huge whales while out at sea?  We drew pictures and flow charts, and jotted down facts as to what people did with whale oil.  What did whales have to do with ladies' corsets? Well, you need to go look that up.

With about a week of background work under our belts, and some very colorful pages in our interactive journals, we finally picked up our books and began to read.  We wrote chapter summaries after each chapter as we discussed what had occurred, what we learned about the characters, and what we thought might happen next.  We glued a picture of the map from the book that mapped out the ship's voyage, and we marked chapter numbers on the map to show how the story took us through their journey. We learned sailing terms, looked up Cape Horn, and how whales mate. Yup, we covered everything.

Hand-drawn pictures to explain some of the details of the process were key. I had some of my better artists in class assigned to draw. I then copied the drawings and shrunk them down to fit in our marble notebook journals. (Shrink an 8.5 x 11 sheet to 80%, and once trimmed, it fits perfectly!) Once glued in, the kids used colored pencils to doodle and color them while we discussed what the pictures were.

Have the students draw out pictures, then copy them for the class.

Have the students draw out pictures, then copy them for the class.

Keeping track of which characters were in each of the smaller whale boats required some doodling as well.  Especially as certain people began dying from starvation.  There's one point in the book where students will learn all there is to know about a body shutting down from lack of food and water. Great health lesson and discussion.

To break things up, I bought some cotton cloth at the fabric store, needles and colored embroidery thread. Since sailors often embroidered to record scenery they'd see on their trips, or to remember a sweetheart left at home, we all spent a class period learning how to embroider.  The masterpieces were hung proudly in the hallway when they were completed. (See them below)

The cannibalism resulted in some great side conversations on eating raw meat and sushi.  As horrible as the event was to read about, the thoughtful discussions that it prompted were really quite entertaining!

Encourage students to draw maps in their notebook to understand what's happening in the story.

Encourage students to draw maps in their notebook to understand what's happening in the story.


Looking back at the experience, I can honestly say there were times I vowed not to use the book the following year. In fact, at one point, I was ready to scrap it halfway through because the students in one particular class were having a hard time connecting to it. It was at that point I thought about introducing the embroidery activity, and it turned out to be a hit.  It was just what was needed to help the students connect with the characters in the book.

So some final advice when doing a novel study: step out of the box and away from the literature circle with the assigned "jobs".  Use an interactive reading journal to not just write in, but to draw in, and map, and glue, and research in, and then take pictures of the students drawing and creating, and embroidering, and sewing, and give them copies of the pictures to glue into their journals. They will enjoy the novel as they "live" in the moment while reading it. Take time to do the pre-work to introduce the topic, setting and timeframe.  You and your students will get so much more out of the novel experience.heart 9

Embroidery cloths that students made, just as sailors did.

Embroidery cloths that students made, just as sailors did.

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Student's embroidery


When teens ask for boundaries...

In my 8th grade classroom, we begin the day participating in an extension of Responsive Classroom, called the Circle of Power and Respect. Geared toward middle grade and teens, the idea is to build community and trust within the classroom by spending a few minutes every morning greeting and sharing.

A recent activity we did surprised me.  Around the classroom hung three signs: Agree, Disagree, and Unsure. The task for students was to listen to a statement, and respond by standing near one of the signs. Then, I would ask a few of them to share their reasons for their choice.

The first few statements brought no surprises as far as responses. They all agreed that they shouldn't get homework and that school should start later in the morning so they could get more sleep. They disagreed that schools should ban cell phones.  They were mixed on whether video games promote violence in teens.

I was very surprised at what occurred when I read, "Parents are too strict with their teens."   All but two stood under the sign that showed they disagreed. Two were unsure, and not one agreed.  I read the statement again, thinking that maybe they misunderstood what I read. I even rephrased it and clarified it. They didn't move.  So I asked them what their thoughts were. One 14-year-old girl volunteered, saying that "parents need to have more lines for kids."

I thought for a minute. "Boundaries?"

"Yes, boundaries.  Kids have no boundaries and don't know when they've crossed a line. Parents try to be friends with their kids, and they need to be parents and tell them when they do something wrong."  Wow.  I looked at one of the boys raising his hand, wanting to comment.

"I agree. Parents need to follow through with what they say and punish us. Otherwise kids won't learn how to act."

"You mean by punish, for example,  a parent should be giving a consequence?" I tried to clarify.

"Yeah, they don't do that. They threaten, then just forget about it. So kids keep doing things that are wrong because they don't get into trouble for it."

At this point, one of the "unsure" students walked over and joined the group at "disagree".   The activity was designed to show just that - whether one student's statements could sway another to change his mind. But the message here was heard loud and clear. Teens want more discipline in their lives. They know they need it, but don't know how to ask for it.

So, parents, I hope you heard this message loud and clear. Teens want their parents to be parents. I was as surprised as you are, but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't pleased at that response.