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Civil Rights and Rock and Roll Journey, Day 1

I am back from trip, and I’m tired. I chaperoned a trip to Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. The trip centered around two important revolutions in our history, both orchestrated by African-Americans — the Civil Rights Movement and Blues and Rock and Roll music. I wanted to share some of my journal with you. This is part of my journal from Day 1:

I think it is strange sometimes how serendipity can lead to life transformation. I hadn’t heard of Erin Gruwell two weeks ago. Then I saw Freedom Writers. Tonight I’ll finish their [the Freedom Writers] book. I am impressed by how relevant their stories are to the lessons and history I’m learning about today. Seeing the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) was probably the most moving experience for me because I know what they have done [moreso than the students]. I admire Morris Dees for his courage. I never thought of the SPLC as a physical place before. It seemed like more of an ideal. But it’s real and made of reinforced steel to protect its workers from the people who want to kill those workers for what they do.

Billy [Billy Planer, who runs Etgar 36, a touring company for Jewish teens] asked us this morning if knowing that Rosa Parks’s famous protest was “set up” somehow diminished its value. I think that the fact that Parks knew what she was doing and that it would result in arrest — knew that she would become the poster child for Civil Rights — makes her more courageous. If I were asked to do such a thing, could I stand up (or rather, sit down) and do it? Is that not braver than acting on impulse because one feels tired? I think she showed true courage in facing arrest in order to help her community and society become a better place [note: we had visited the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery].

I enjoyed hearing Colonel Stone Johnson speak (read more). He is so sincere in his love for people and God. His message of tolerance is not new, but hearing from an ordinary man — not a King or Abernathy or John Lewis — a real character, a storyteller — brought the struggles in Birmingham alive. If I had walked in that park and looked at those statues without his guidance, I doubt I would have thought as much about them. I will, I hope, always remember the four pillars representing those four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. They were placed in front of a statue of three kneeling pastors. Looking over the statues, I could see the church across the street. I touched one of those pillars and felt like I was really patting the head of one of those little girls. [Note: Colonel Stone Johnson was our tour guide through Kelly Ingram Park. You can see some of the statues here.]

[tags]field trip, education, Birmingham, Alabama, Civil Rights Movement, Colonel Stone Johnson, 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, Rosa Parks, Southern Poverty Law Center[/tags]

School Trip

I will be incommunicado until Monday, as I am accompanying our juniors on their grade-level trip.  We are traveling through Montgomery and Selma, Alabama to learn about the Civil Rights Movement.  We will travel north to Memphis to learn about the Blues, visit Beale Street, and see Graceland.  I have been looking forward to this trip, and I’m really excited.  I’ll tell you all about it when I return.

Freedom Writers: A Review

Freedom WritersI don’t have the opportunity to go to the movies very often, and I am choosy about which movies I see in the theater. Let’s face it, when movies cost $9.50 a pop, and I have two small children who can’t sit through most movies, I suppose it isn’t surprising that I might go only once a year. Do you remember being a teenager and going to the movies with your friends every weekend? I digress. My boss gave each faculty member gift cards to Starbucks and Regal Cinemas for Hanukkah — nothing extravagant, just enough for a cup of coffee and one movie ticket. However, I have always appreciated these gifts more than he might realize because I rarely get to indulge in going to the theater. I suppose for that reason, I also hang onto my movie gift card until something really looks good. Last year, I saw The Chronicles of Narnia with my gift card. This year, my gift card burned a hole in my pocket for some time. There really wasn’t anything out that I wanted to see. I saw a few commercials for Freedom Writers and decided it looked good, so I decided to use my gift card on this film rather than wait to use it on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as I expected I might have to do. I was not disappointed, and I believe I would have paid to see the film.

The film begins as Erin Gruwell, a fresh-faced, naive first-year English teacher is given her classroom assignment of remedial freshman classes. She carefully chooses her outfit for the first day, confidently adding a string of pearls her department head advised her not to wear to school. When she peeks in her classroom for the first time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own first look at my classroom in my first year teaching. She writes her name in neat cursive script, and as she waits for her class to file in, her excitement is palpable. The very first day, a fight breaks out in her class and it is clear that this experience is not going to be what she thought it would be. A short exposition reveals the violence and despair that are a daily part of her students’ lives. She resolves to keep fighting, despite the advice of her father and worries of her husband. When she finds a racist cartoon drawn by one of the students, she uses the moment to teach the students about the Holocaust. The classroom is gradually transformed into family, a safe zone, and a vibrant writing lab. Students begin to chronicle their lives in diaries given to them by Ms. Gruwell. Students read literature like The Diary of Anne Frank and begin to see how others have dealt with living in war zones that resemble their own home in Long Beach. They write letters to Miep Gies, who sheltered the Frank family in her home during the Holocaust, and raise funds enable Gies to come and speak at their school.

The reviews on this film are mixed, mainly because Freedom Writers is not the first film to feature a white teacher transforming the lives of students — in this case, Cambodian, African-American, and Hispanic (along with one very scared white kid). I can’t deny that it’s true that this story has been done before; however, don’t let that discourage you from seeing it. I thought the movie was incredibly moving. I think if you have ever taught a difficult group of students — or perhaps if you’ve ever taught, period — and this movie fails to make you cry at some point, then you have a heart of stone. I think all of us walk into a classroom at some point, believing we will be crusaders who change the world. We have these little mugs that say “2 teach is 2 touch lives 4 ever,” right? Or the little poster that says, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” I think many of us begin the profession with the same eager optimism that Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell captures so well in the film. Many of us gradually become more like Gruwell’s department head — convinced the kids are bad, unteachable, and ultimately going to quit school anyway, so why bother? Or we become like the teacher in Erin’s department who refuses to teach anyone but Honors students or upperclassmen. I read at least one review that took exception to the portrayals of Erin’s colleagues, but anyone who has ever taught has run into teachers just like them. However, one simply doesn’t run into teachers like Erin Gruwell often.

[tags]Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, Hilary Swank[/tags]

Five Things You Probably Don’t Know About Me

Will mentioned this in his blog, and though no one’s tagged me, I decided to play.

  1. Will begins by mentioning his relation to William Bradford and John Proctor. Some of you probably know I am a genealogist, but you may not know it is a quirky hobby of mine to figure out how I’m related to famous writers. I am Mark Twain’s fourth cousin six times removed, Tennessee Williams’ sixth cousin three times removed, Jane Austen’s fifth cousin seven times removed, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ fifth cousin eight times removed, Robert Penn Warren’s eight cousin three times removed, Willa Cather’s eight cousin three times removed, Sir Walter Scott’s sixth cousin nine times removed, Ray Bradbury’s ninth cousin three times removed, twentieth great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, sixth cousin six times removed of Emily Dickinson, and… well, I could go on, but the point is that I am just barely related to anyone famous. At least no more related than you probably are. The difference is I am weird enough to figure out the relationships.
  2. I was what is known, I suppose, as a heavy metal chick in high school. Hair bands. Yep. And I had big New Jersey mall hair. No, you can’t see a picture.
  3. My son Dylan is named for the poet Dylan Thomas — Dylan Thomas Huff. My dad’s name is also Thomas, so Dylan’s middle name serves the dual fuction of completing the poet’s name and honoring my dad. My hope is that Dylan will not emulate the poet’s lifestyle.
  4. My husband is an operatic tenor. He has had roles with the Knoxville Opera and has sung in the Atlanta Opera Chorus. I think he gave up on making it a career after he didn’t make the last round of Met auditions for which he was eligible.
  5. Elaine of Astolat as rendered by John William WaterhouseI am a King Arthur buff. A walking encyclopedia of Arthuriana. And yet, I have never had a chance to put it to much use teaching. Gawain is my favorite knight. My daughter Maggie’s middle name is Elaine for the Fair Maid of Astolat. May she not suffer the same fate.

I tag Mr. Teacher, Nani, and Ms. George. Well, really anyone else who wants to play.

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Have you heard about NaNoWriMo?  I have been hearing about it (and scoffing, I’ll admit) for about five years.  I finally decided to see if I was up to the challenge.  I must be crazy to think I can do this with three kids and a full time job teaching, but it isn’t as if sitting on my rear scoffing about it for five years has enabled me to put pen to paper.

You can follow my progress if you like at my personal blog and NaNoWriMo profile.

Clock Buddies

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s an idea I got from our biology teacher. Essentially, “Clock Buddies” is a system of group work that I have found (after using it a great deal in several classes over the last few weeks) to be very effective.

Students are given a handout that has a clock face on it. They sign up with twelve other people for “partner” assignments. Once they have a buddy for each time on their clock, you are ready to go. Next time you want students to work with a partner, tell them to work with their 9 o’clock buddies (or whatever number you prefer). Students have choice in terms of who they work with, but they also work with different people. Hint: Students usually sign up with their best friends for 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock, so if you want to make sure they really buckle down, you can avoid calling those times often.

Download the handout by ReadingQuest: Clock Buddies (PDF)

My Classroom

I took some pictures of my classroom in our new building.

This is the view outside my window:

Outside View

As you can see, we still have some construction going on.  You can see a piece of the baseball field.  The building is our gym, which is still under construction.  It doesn’t look as pretty through my camera as it does when I look out, but I have pretty view of the hills and trees.

This is my desk:

My Desk

I was lesson planning.  Ms. George, can you see my Jim Burke Teacher’s Daybook under the curriculum unit book?

This is the view toward the front of the room from my desk.  You can see my projection screen, which is pulled down over my SMART Board.

Front of Room

This last picture is a view of the back of the room, including my then-empty bulletin board, student desks, and book shelves.  This was is kind of blurry.

Back of Room

Isn’t everything shiny?

Moving In

The Atlanta Jewish Times has a nice article about my school’s new building and campus.  It’s hard to describe my excitement when I entered the building this morning.  The last time I toured the school, it was decidedly unfinished, and I think I halfway wondered how on earth it would be transformed into a school by our September 5 start date.  I grew more anxious as pre-planning started and we were unable to get into the building to work on our classrooms.  Of course, our administration apologized profusely, and I realize it wasn’t their fault.  We finally got in, and yes, in order to be ready for school on Tuesday, that means I’ll be working over my Labor Day weekend, but considering I was at home for much of pre-planning, I can’t complain.

Our campus is gorgeous.  If you click the link to article, you can view pictures of the building.  Everything is new.  I received a brand new teacher’s desk and chair, two file cabinets, two shelves, 22 new student desks and chairs and…. cue drumroll… a SMART Board!  I am beyond excited about having this wonderful technological tool for my classroom.

I am on the third floor, and clearly the stairs will take some getting used to.  There are still some tell-tales signs that construction continues.  However, when I saw that all of the furniture from our old campus fit in one tiny section of our basement, I realized how much more space we would have.  Our old campus was composed entirely of modular units, and one could walk across the campus in about a minute.  I actually got lost in our new building today.

We have a beautiful faculty dining room.  Previously, we tried to squeeze around one table in the faculty workroom in order to eat together, but now, we will all fit, and there shouldn’t be any scrambling for chairs.  The students also have a beautiful cafeteria with kosher kitchen.  The new media center is absolutely gorgeous.  Our Learning Lab has real study carrels.  We used to cram into a closet-sized room for Learning Lab.

We all have our OWN classrooms.  For the last two years, I have shared a classroom with a wonderful friend and teacher, and part of me will miss having so much interaction with her.  However, our floating teachers were most grateful for their own rooms, and I know having my own space will be nice.

This morning at our faculty meeting, we celebrated as our headmaster arrived, dressed in a tux (as was our Judaics head) and playing his accordian, and some of the braver teachers (not me) actually got up and participated in Israeli dancing through the media center.  It was so much fun to be a part of.  I felt kind of silly just sitting there, beaming (and clapping along with the accordian), but we were all so excited and happy.  I really enjoyed sharing that moment with my colleagues.

What is really going to be cool is when the students come on Tuesday and get their first look at their newly completed school.  I wouldn’t have missed today for the world, and I can’t wait to see what the students think on Tuesday.  I wish you all could have seen it.  It was just amazing.

P.S. Check out the award-winning video our students created.  That’s my principal in the green sweater.