School in the Summer?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be working at an Upward Bound program in Maine for the next six weeks. If you want to learn more about Upward Bound, here’s a link to the official government site about it. ( And this is my program: Essentially, my summer program is designed to giving rising sophomores, juniors, seniors, and college freshmen an academic boost heading into the next school year and to help connect them to resources and people who can support them in their efforts to become first generation college students.

My role in the program is primarily as an English teacher. I teach four sections of students (the rising sophomores and juniors) three times each week. In addition to my classroom responsibilities, I am also in charge of an “advisory group” — a small group of students that functions as sort of a “family” while we’re here, am involved in evening study sessions and “free time,” get to plan and organize activities for evening events, and live in the dorm on the girls’ floor. The amount of time that I can spend interacting with these adolescents over the next six weeks is truly boundless!

We started our classes on Monday and I was feeling quite nervous about making the transition from teaching second graders to teaching high schoolers. But, so far, things have been wonderful! The depth of our discussions and their engagement in my English class has been unbelievable so far. It is blissful to not have all of the (charming) interruptions of the younger set and to be able get through everything that I have planned without getting sidetracked by behavior or other issues. I’m sort of spoiled, because these students applied to be here and are highly motivated, but it is just so fantastic to work with them. They talk with me about what we’re doing in class in the lunch line (really!) and are thinking hard about the issues that we’re discussing around the media and technology — even outside of class. It’s been really invigorating — even more so than I could have possibly imagined!

While I’m loving the program and feeling great about being part of such a grand vision for supporting these students who will really benefit from the hard work all of the staff is doing, I can’t help thinking from time to time about how there were students who applied to be here who didn’t get accepted. I hate that programs that do such good can’t take on all students. Everyone who wants an opportunity to pursue an education ought to have that chance — it really frustrates me that the deck is stacked against so many students and that for each student who does get to engage with a program like Upward Bound, there are others who get left behind. I’m trying hard to stay upbeat and focus on doing everything that I can for the wonderful students who are here, but I can’t help but think about the other kids at their schools who were not as fortunate as they were in the application process.

Of course, it’s not the job of one program to solve all of the problems relating to inequality of educational opportunity, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we, as educators and citizens, might do to help make sure that no one falls through the cracks, that all students get a chance to feel like they can realize their dreams and live the life that they’ve imagined. It’s something I know that I’ll keep thinking about in the weeks ahead, while I spend time with students that may not appear to be obvious college-material on paper, but who are flourishing in the rich environment here at Upward Bound.


Open Minds to Equality

I’ve always loved Rethinking Schools, so I figured that one of their two publications on my reading list would be a good place to start my education reading this year. After devouring Open Minds to Equality this week, I think that I may have already found the most useful book that I will read from my list.

If you are remotely interested in social justice education in the elementary grades, I advise you to go buy this book right away. I cannot believe that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for two years and I’d never so much as opened it. If there was one book that I regret not reading before I started my first year teaching, this is it.

I became passionate about and did a lot of research and reading around social justice education while I was in college and in graduate school. The trouble with many of the excellent publications around social justice education (some of which I will also be reading this year) is that they are often very theoretical or focus on implementing these ideas at a secondary or college level. Open Minds to Equality opens with two quick chapters summarizing why social justice education is worthy of pursuit and then follows with 9 chapters full of brilliant activities for having elementary students explore many different dimensions of discrimination. The chapters build upon one another in complexity and I could imagine my second graders being able to complete many of the lessons with some minor modifications. (The ideal grade range for these lessons is probably 4-6).

I’ve already begun a list of activities from this book that I hope to incorporate this year, but I think that the foundational activities for building trust and classroom community will really set the tone for my classroom next year. (Again, that sense of regret that I didn’t read this book sooner!) Many of the lessons would map well onto any curriculum already in place in an elementary classroom — I know that I found many lessons that will help to amplify the critical lenses that my students bring to my advertising unit and there are several activities about calendars that I plan to use during my holidays unit next year. I also appreciated that many of these ideas could be applied to any content that a teacher might have to cover.

Another excellent feature is the extensive resource section in this book. I have been quite frustrated with my efforts to find non-biased books for my classroom and have worked hard to piece together many of the brief lists that seem to be out there for specific topics. Open Minds to Equality has a lengthy bibliography of fiction, nonfiction, and media resources for supplementing these lessons but which I will also use to continue to build a diverse classroom library.

I feel as though all this praise makes it sound like I’m trying to sell the book to you all — I only wish that I had some affiliation with Rethinking Schools. In the midst of a rough January in my classroom, this book has left me feeling inspired not only about the things that I will put into place next year, but about the lessons that I can use right now to rejuvenate my students and to deepen the sense of trust and community in my classroom.

I think that I’ll end this review here. Next up on my book list — the classic Real Boys by William Pollack, which will likely only inspire me to use the countering-sexism lessons I found and flagged in Open Minds to Equality!

Fostering the Growth of Worldly Citizens: Classroom “Field Trips”

Here, finally, is a post about my classroom “field trips.” Let me preface this entry by reminding those of you who do not know that I teach in rural Maine. Many of my second graders have never been outside of Maine in all of their young lives. While my students differ tremendously in terms of social class, it is also worth noting that they are all white. Thus, one of my objectives this year has been to increase my students’ awareness of different types of people, places, and cultures. This is no easy task considering that the racial diversity in my school is just above zero and our location in a rural area means that I cannot easily take my students to a diverse metropolis to experience different cultures firsthand. So, one solution that I have come up with is to take my students on monthly, day-long “field trips” where we explore a different country of the world.

In September, my students and I traveled to England — the country where I studied abroad and about which I feel I have the most expertise. I was a little bit worried about whether my students would buy into the field trip — but as they sat making their passports I realized that they really thought we were going to England! (One of my favorite funny moments of the year so far happened when I had to console one of my boys who was sobbing and shaking because he is apparently petrified of airplanes!) When they returned from recess and lined up at the “ticket desk” to board the airplane I’d set up in the room, there was actually some disappointment that we weren’t headed to the airport! By the time we did our second field trip at the end of October, my students were much more sure about what to expect, and were eager to make their way onto the plane to Mexico City.

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During the “flights” on these field trips, I give the students some background information about the country. On the England trip, I showed them maps, told them how many times they’d have to drive to the local pizza parlor to travel the same distance as it is from Maine to England, tried to explain the concept of time zones, and showed them some images of England’s diverse geography. On the Mexico trip, I also showed them maps, told them about Mexican money (money was our math topic of focus in October), and pointed out parts of Mexican culture that have made their way into the US (here I was a little wary of falling into the “food and holidays” multiculturalism trap, but I tried to think outside the box as best as I could.)

On each field trip I also have a “main activity” that we do while we are there. In England, it was a jigsaw where my students learned about three different famous landmarks in England — Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Stonehenge.

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In Mexico, our major activity was actually three different centers — reading a book all about Mexico, creating their own Day of the Dead altars to honor someone in their lives who had died, and writing a postcard that included at least three Spanish words or phrases.

My students have absolutely loved these trips. After the England trip, my students continued to use the English slang that they learned — they often ask me to say “queue up” instead of “line up,” and they kept talking about the landmarks for quite some time. They also continue to ask me to share more Spanish words with them from time to time and have been making even more connections between their lives and Mexican culture.

While I am always slightly wary of being tokenistic in my representations of other cultures, I think that these field trips — just one component of my attempt to open up the world beyond their small, rural town for my students — are a great way to immerse my students in thinking about ways of being other than their own. It doesn’t hurt that they’re a lot of fun, too!