Creating Connections

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

The newspaper ads are signaling that a new season ( and no, it isn’t Christmas) is upon us.  That’s next month.  They are announcing their back to school sale, causing parents to scramble to find just the right folders, pencils and notebooks that will hopefully ensure success in school.  And while parents are working their way through the aisle of highlighters and backpacks, teachers are also madly squeezing as much fun into the waning, lazy summer days.

Yep, it’s August. Sigh.  And students, although they whine and complain as each new sack of school material is dropped at their feet by excited parents, they too are secretly jazzed about returning to school where they can swap summer stories with friends they haven’t seen since June.  They are ready to connect.

connectingThe connecting process is powerful in all of us, and teachers need to learn how to harness this powerful tool to end the bullying in our schools.  In our last post, we discussed the ineffectiveness of the top-down method of teachers delivering top-down edicts students hoping to foster some kind of respect, and we acknowledged that the edicts and even the posters, put up by well-meaning bullyadministration, do little to deter bullying.  We all have done it, and we have to admit that we have been ineffective, at best.  And because of our ineffectiveness, we signal to our students the school’s apathy to end bullying.  However, the need to connect that is within all of us is a powerful way we can create an environment of trust and honor to hopefully end disrespect in our school.

Creating empathetic students through their connections must be the focus of the classroom climate teachers create; a place of learning where we encourage a connectedness that produces respect.  Brene Brown, PhD. and author of The Gift of Imperfection defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; they can give what they receive without judgment; and why they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. And Brown goes on to say this will occur when we set boundaries for behaviors, becoming compassionate and accepting, while still holding people responsible for their actions.

connecting 1

Everyone wants to be seen, hear and valued-even the teachers!  But putting the boundaries and respect into practice, ah, and therein lies the rub.  Boundaries may seem the rules that control the class, but they are the glue that holds the class together.  But when we feel are classrooms are clogged with curricular standards and district expectations, boundaries and behaviors seem like “one more thing” to take precious classroom time from the curriculum map and test prep that has become an integral part of the classroom today.  So teachers silently point to the ineffective poster on the wall when boundaries are not respected, and yet still hope for the best.  And disrespect and bullying continue.

Admittedly, we know the importance of connection in the classroom, but do we always actively foster it?  Using the material of Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Brown demonstrates the power of connectedness when she cites his research, “Even our most routine encounters act as regulators in the brain, priming our emotions, some desirable, others not.  The more strongly connected we are with someone emotionally, the greater the mutual force.”  Simply put, this means that the students have a need to connect with others, and creating a more positive connection creates students who will respect one another.  Teachers want that  positive connection, where  character values are strengthened through the classroom environment.  Remember, students can connect in a negative or a positive way, and if we get them to connect for a better learning environment, everyone wins!

valuesA connected classroom has the ability to develop character in all students and creating opportunities for students participation to end bullying in the school.  At at the very least, it will make all students aware of the anti-social behavior connected to bullying and the consequences for the victim and the bullier.  Creating authentic curricular opportunities that  connects students to appropriate social behavior is a lesson that will stay with the students after the class is long over.  Remember, the students we teach today want relevance in their education.

Rafe Esquith’s book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire has a chapter that focuses on the research of Lawrence Kohlberg and the Six Levels of Moral Development. Esquith discovered this while researching lesson plans for  To Kill a Mockingbird.  The more teachers help students move on this continuum, the better classroom environment and respect within the classroom.  It moves beyond passive behavior into moral decision-making that will change the classroom.  The concepts in  Kohlberg’s theory changed the way Esquith ran his classroom because it went beyond the attempt to build obedience and moved into the moral development of the character of the entire classroom.   Integrating the material into the literary lessons he taught, he was able to create students who cared for themselves and for others; he created students who protected themselves and others-yes, even from bullies.

Listed below are Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Development with a simplistic explanation from Esquith in italics:

Stage 1:  Obedience and Punishment Orientation:  Students chose to behave, simply to stay out of trouble. Level I student-thinking is based on fear and avoidance and this form of thinking stagnates moral development.

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange:  Students want a reward for their behavior, and this is a learned response.  They do not understand that appropriate behavior is an expectation of living together.

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships:  Many students want to please and have that reward from teachers.  However, they need to learn right behavior without the expectation of the reward.

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order:  Rules are necessary, but we need to teach our students to continue to think beyond the rules.  They need to understand that all rules are not helpful and understand people like King and Ghandi who transcended the rules to make a better society.

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights:  Students become considerate of other people.

Stage 6: Universal Principles:  A personal code of behavior has been established by the student, and this is what Esquith calls the Atticus Finch model.

authntic curriculumThis is best achieved through the curriculum and classroom discussion. Pattie uses the authentic curriculum in creative writing classes to connect her students to one another and the events of the world in hopes of leading them to stage 5 of Kohlberg’s stages.   Peter Sears, poet-laureate of Oregon, has been her mentor as she changed her creative writing approach. Her goal is that, through the connections, they will move beyond rules and rewards, and begin connecting and developing empathy.  Spicing her lessons with real-life experiences, whether it be the experiences of a high-schooler or something with a global slant such as women in Afghanistan or child soldiers of the Congo, she moves them to humanity and truth in creativity.

Pattie’s Creative Writing II super-rapper, Brycen Dodds, created a poetry slam that he and a group from the class presented at an assembly that targeted respect and the power to create change by placing honor on others.  The assembly was packed with stories and PowerPoint of people who have created change in the world through respect.  Brycen and the slam poetry group ended the assembly.  The event was a packed with standing room only, and over 600 students from various age groups in attendance. Their performance was to a student body who were transfixed by the power and the truthfulness of the message from the slammers.  Here is a re-creation of that slam:

A big thank you to Logan, Kate, Matt, Sarah, Jasmine and George for taking the time to re-create it for the blog!

This slam accurately portrayed the powerful feelings students have when they are disconnected through the bullying process.  Students described the loneliness and the fear that comes through the separation and isolation in the high school experience.  It wasn’t a top-down message; it was about them.

Pattie’s fourth grade granddaughter asked for help in writing a play. When she asked what the play was about, her granddaughter, Dahlia, told her it was about bullying.  Pattie told her there were so many plays on the subject and that hers had to be different to gain attention. Dahlia replied, “Oh it will be different. In my play, the teachers do something.”  Ouch!

We can and must do better.  Make the connecting and authenticity a goal as everyone returns to do battle with the forces of apathy.  It will be worth it to so many.

















Posted in bullying, character development, Character education, Creative Writing/poetry slam, Education, Social Action, To Kill a Mockingbird | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Implementing Justice in an Unjust Environment

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  challenging the status quo

justiceThe daunting task of managing a classroom of very active students is a juggling act for teachers that makes them part benevolent-dictator,  part subject-guru and part entertainer.  But if we truly want to create an equitable classroom experience for all students, we must move beyond learned procedure and become proactive dispensers of justice to the students in our classrooms that are suffering from the social phenomenon of bullying.  Its insidious results appear on our nightly news and in morning newspapers, but in all honesty, the eyes of many of our students are filled with silent pain from bullying.  It is one of the most difficult experiences for a classroom teacher.

We believe that by using the curriculum, teachers can become proactive in defining bullying and its consequences, and through classroom lessons, students will learn that teachers will not allow it, and students can be actively involved in ending it.  So rather than handing this problem to the administration to handle, by defining its actions by the perpetrator and its  consequences to the victim and to the perpetrator, administrators, teachers and students can work together to end this practice.bullying 5

Coaches, teachers, and administrator since time eternal issue the school 11th school commandment, “Thou shall not bully,” but this top-down approach has not changed the actions or the hearts of students.  However, using the current curriculum as a  tool to teach against bullying not only raises awareness but causes the students to become proactive and protect themselves and others against this destructive action.  Those statistics below do not represent numbers but the faces teachers see every day in their classrooms.

Do Something. Org lists some statistics on bullying that should give every teacher pause:

1.  Over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year.

2. 1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will only intervene 4% of the time.

3. Approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying.  bullying boy

4. 17% of American students report being bullied 2 to 3 times a month or more within a school semester.

5. By age 14 less than 30% of boys and 40% of girls will talk to their peers about bullying

6. Over 67% of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying, with a high percentage of students believing that adult help is infrequent and ineffective.

7. 71% of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school.

8. 90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying.

9. 1 in 10 students drop out of school because of repeated bullying.

10. As boys age, they are less and less likely to feel sympathy for victims of bullying. In fact they are more likely to add to the problem than solve it.

 11. Physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks in middle school and declines in high school. Verbal abuse, on the other hand, remains constant.

The numbers are harsh and represent the discomfort children left in our care feel.  But even more than discomfort, the bully has taken away the educational opportunity of the victim.

Lord of the FliesWe must face this problem in the classroom, and to do this teachers do not need another workshop or a speaker.  They do not have to invent new materials or research; they simply need to look at their current practices with new lenses.  The Lord of the Flies, mandated by almost every school in the nation, is used by teachers to teach the nihilism of the author, the use of literary tools in a novel or even for character studies; however, it is best used as a tool to teach bullying and its tragic results.  Every character in the book is a classic representation of a student in our current classrooms, and the characters’ actions in times of stress demonstrate the need to give our students tools to handle the social situation of bullying.

Teaching the novel in this manner is the simple Into, Through and Beyond, the literacy tool teachers have been using since cave paintings.  Let us explain:

Into:  Beginning with articles and presentations to raise awareness about current bullying events, students read articles that deal with real-life situations on the subject.  Unfortunately, there is no shortage of articles that teachers can use.  Pattie found there were even articles on sports bullying.  So many areas in the lives of students can become arenas for bullying as Pattie found out when the students shared their experiences with bullying.  YouTube was rich with first-hand accounts of bullying, and watching these created an empathy in the classroom students.

Through:  After sharing and reading from articles and life experiences, the students form groups of three and choose a character to follow through the book.   The teachers may assign groups or allow students to self-select.  Remember, the teacher can always move non-productive groups around.

  • The students chronicle what a character says about himself and others but also lists what others say about them.  Chart paper is important on the walls to list each day the new discoveries made about the characters through dialogue.chart paper
  • And then they predict.  Short paragraphs, following the Common Core mapping of the school writing should be used to guide their writing to demonstrate competency.
  • Dotted throughout the reading are article and videos focusing on real-life bullying.
  • Using the articles and the materials from videos and the book, the students can begin to see more than a story set somewhere on an island far away; they see young people making the same mistakes made in school every day.  And through the death of Piggy, they see the importance of taking a stand against bullying by protecting one another.
  • Beyond:  This can be the formal essay, reflective essay, character study, or it may become more than that:

  Pattie’s story:  I was standing in  the long line to use the faculty bathroom when M came to me and said she needed to speak to me.  Grades were close, and I was having the same conversation with other students, so I told her I would talk to her after using the facilities.  Too much coffee and no prep made for a long morning. But M insisted that we talk now because it was urgent!  High school girls live in two time zones: Urgent and NOW! and I knew by her non-verbal communication, we were leaving Urgent and heading into Now!, so  there was going to be little relief for me unless I addressed the issue.  

Watching sadly as someone else took my place in line, I took M to the back of the room, where nervously her story came pouring out: about a text that she received and was circulating the school; about pictures of disabled  and plain students tagged with the most insensitive, cruel remarks; about her need to end this Now!.  I was told, “You have to do something.” 

I love the trust of a student!

A hurried trip to the admin. with M in tow resulted in missing the bathroom break, but I was grateful as I listened to M’s story about the text, about the mean girls, about the poor victims, about how she knew we had to take a stand because of what we had done in class.  Wow!  When lessons become alive, little else matters.  Running back to my room, and missing the my break, I thought of the girls with no arms who were the target for such horrible unkindness; I thought of the plain girl who was the best reader in the class, and the unkind words used to attack her; and I thought of M, who was a delightful average girl who caught it and made a difference.




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The Difference Between Challenge and Stress

by Joan Flora, in honor of Pattie Sloan’s retirement

teens-and-stressAccording to a recent survey in USA Today, 27% high school students report “extreme stress” during the school year, as opposed to  13% in the summer.  34% predict their stress levels will rise with the new school year.

Check out the specifics from Sharon Jayson’s report:

  • 59% high school students report that managing their time to balance all activities is a somewhat or very significant stressor
  • 40% say they neglected responsibilities at home because of stress; 21% say they neglected work or school because of stress
  • 32% say they experience headaches because of stress; 26% report changes in sleeping habits
  • 26% report snapping at or being short with classmates or teammates when under stress

High school students are stressed.  And they are not handling it well. But neither are their parents who want to protect their children from stress.  Managed stress is actually a good thing, but it’s easy to lose sight of the appropriate stress that helps us reach challenging goals.  It’s even easier to resort to ineffective means for releasing stress.  If we’re worried about our children not knowing how to manage stress, maybe they’re learning helplessness from us:

Among survey findings on U.S. adults:

  • 37% report exercising less than once a week or not at all
  • 27% say they eat to manage stress
  • 62% manage stress with screen time: 42% go online; 42% watch two or more hours of TV or movies a day; 21% play video games.
  • 43% exercise or walk and 9% play sports to manage stress

How much stress can you take?  Take this quiz to find out.

We became high school teachers because we love watching teenagers learn and grow. That hasn’t changed in our 55 years of combined experience with teenagers.  But we are concerned with the stress levels that our students face, and we’re alarmed at our students’ parental response in confusing stress with academic challenge in an effort to protect their children.   We believe protecting our students from stress is exactly the wrong move and actually diminishes our students as thinkers and problem-solves.

Cognitive neuroscience has proved that the stressed brain (the amygdala) hijacks the learning brain (neocortex).  That’s not conducive for learning, but we also know that appropriate levels of stress enhance learning–the tricky part here is “appropriate,” which is a variable we adjust to as we read the emotional levels of our students on a daily basis.  Expert teachers–facilitators of deep learning–balance challenge with support to create pressure that heightens authentic learning and problem solving:

Challenge + Support = Learning

We strive to create intense classrooms to help students brave the world.  We think softening academic challenge creates dependency, which is not the world we want to retire into.

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 6.05.44 AM

Pattie writes: My 6th period calls themselves Sloan Survivors. Love them all. This is Alex, who actually loves reading now. So happy!

Does that mean we don’t have parents complaining that we’re stressing out their children in our intense classrooms?  Of course not, but we also have supportive administrators who are right to trust our work with students, and we’re articulate about our stance and how the process nourishes students, prepares them for college, career, and the problem-solving this blog is dedicated toward. It also helps to keep artifacts of student notes and reflections as evidence for doubting parents: “Mrs. Sloan, you taught me how to think.  Thank you,” or “Ms. Flora, I’m proud to write that I’m a reader!”

Pattie’s sixth period English class called themselves “Sloan Survivors” as a badge of courage and accomplishment.  Pattie challenged and supported them, demanding their best thinking and work.  Sometimes students were stressed; they certainly felt pressure. Sometimes they were caught in the uneasy disequilibrium that authentic learning demands.  But Pattie is a master teacher; she eased the way for her students without removing the worthy struggle of learning hard concepts and processes.  Her students and their parents grew to trust her.  That’s partly why we get so emotional when we see our students succeed and grow.  That’s why we cry at graduation and goodbyes.  And that’s why it’s hard to see an expert teacher like Pattie Sloan retire.

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 6.04.30 AMPattie writes, “Today I cleaned out my classroom, and after 33 years of teaching, I am retired–until my new adventure begins! How hard to say good-by to such wonderful people! I love West Salem High School and will miss the staff and the students so very much. Our English department was the best in the district!  My heart broke a little today. But it was time. And it is good to leave on a high note. So what is next? Surprise me, God!”

The good news?  Pattie will continue to co-author this blog without relying on caffeine and sacrificing sleep, which means she’ll be doing beautiful work in a rested state (think neocortex).  She will continue to read, stretch herself, and contribute as a volunteer and as a consultant.  And she will help us understand the value of worthy struggle of on-going learning and contribution.

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A student celebrates the end of the school year with flowers for her teacher, Pattie Sloan.

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Moving Forward Requires Character

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

In many sectors of our country, public education is spinning in preparation for the Common Core roll-out in the fall.  Districts, schools, and classrooms are frantically preparing for this new movement in education as they gear up for this new approach  Many districts are weary with rushed professional development and anxious about the results.  Teachers are learning new standards, writing new curriculum, and discarding former practices.  Everyone is in a buzz to prepare for education’s new launch.

apathyThe only group of people seemingly unfazed by this daunting new approach are the people most effected by it: the students.  For them it is school as usual, which translates to being ill-equipped to master the academic challenges facing them.  Equipping students to be in charge of their own learning and helping them prepare for opportunities outside of high school is near and dear to our hearts, but it’s the part of our work that challenges us most.  Still, we think of this issue as a worthy struggle because the answer changes with every student: how do we best accomplish the challenge of college and career ready high school graduates?

According to James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner, schools must also teach “soft skills” or “non-cognitive skills.”  Highly predictive character traits or “soft skills” were developed by Drs. Martin Segilman, Chris Peterson, and  Angela Duckworth for the  KIPP Academy.  The traits, although simplistic in design, allow the student to develop skills that will allow them to monitor their learning behavior and be in charge of their own learning. imgresUsing a common language to address character traits that create better learners, teachers can direct students to be in charge of their academic and social behavior to improve their own learning. But sometimes this approach could be misconstrued as “one more thing” on the teacher’s already long to-do list for the district and the school.  We concede that it is “one more thing,” but it’s the thing we didn’t know to add that could actually put wheels on our new program making it successful and profitable for our students.  It’s new information that helps us further develop our students. It’s a welcomed “one more thing.”

In Pattie’s view, high stakes testing pits state against state, district against district and school against school.  We create a class distinction through testing that is contrary to the purpose of public education.  And every time students fail a test, their self-esteem and their desire to participate plummet.  Pattie believes we can end that cycle if we create students who are more  involved in their learning. Researching and interviewing over 300 people considered genius, Dr. Duckworth found this trend:


The tendency not to abandon tasks is the KIPP trait of grit.  We tell students not to be discouraged or to work harder, and that means that all of the grit is coming from an external force-the teacher, rather than from the internal force-the student.  Duckworth’s research on grit demonstrates that the students with grit are not always the smartest, but they will stick with it until they have accomplished the task.  And isn’t that what we want from our students rather than entitlement we sometimes see when teachers are in charge of the grades? Employing this method  allows teachers to change the way students think about themselves and their schoolwork.

Dr. Carol Dweck found that telling students they were smart actually impeded their academic growth because they did not know how to respond to challenging work they could not easily master.  Her work on mindset in the classroom, requires that we need to re-think how we respond to our children.  Helping students develop the grit to overcome the classic classroom slump will help them reach the desired content learning goals.

KIPP Academy believes that there are keys to using the goals:

1. Believe It and Model It: Breathe life into the James Baldwin quote: “The children are ours. Every single one of them… children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them.”

2. Name It: Give the intangible and often-unnamed a name. Only by labeling and talking about the character strengths that Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson identified can we embark on the journey to develop them.

3. Find It: Introduce kids to real-world and fictional examples that display the various character strengths.

4. Feel It: Help kids and adults feel the positive effects of focusing on, and developing, their own character strengths.

5. Integrate It: Create dual-purpose experiences and lessons that involve the character strengths. Learn more about how character is integrated into the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching.

6. Encourage It: Provide people with growth mindset praise (i.e. precise, descriptive praise) around character.

7. Track It: Record and discuss progress toward character goals regularly.

Pattie recently assigned the KIPP traits to her students, requiring them to identify three that they were willing to work on over the summer.  The three traits most identified were zest, grit, and optimism.  As students wrote about their desired traits, Pattie was amazed at how clearly students saw themselves and took ownership of their own shortcomings. Her students realized that identifying their weaknesses’ was both humbling and energizing:

Learning about the KIPP traits has strengthened me because it helps me understand what I need to work on.  A person is as strong as their weakest part, so by knowing the weakest part I am able to strengthen myself.  — Sara Egbert

I thought this was a very good experience to look into ourselves… It was also very 912humbling experience.  –Darby Estes

Character needs to be developed in all students, and if we are united as a school, we can impact the academic growth of our students through character development.  With our passion and commitment to change, we can develop a classroom of independent learners who are excited to learn.  And that is what we all desire. `

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What is the Real Price of Cheap?

  Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging the status quo

Transformational classrooms allow the world into the curriculum and create open discussion about the world and its problems.  But moving beyond the problems, a transformational classroom creates change in the students as they address the problems that have created the global crisis they will face.  Transformational teaching creates a new paradigm for students, allowing them to see the world through different lenses, realizing they cannot always change the problem, but they can change themselves.  This will bring paradigm shiftincremental change, but sharing their knowledge to change problems with others will bring even greater change.  Simply put, by changing themselves, they are changing the face of the problem.  It is a paradigm shift in teaching.

So, when we continue our examination of poverty and its victims in our classroom, we need to have an open discussion with students about spending values.  Values?  Yes, there needs to be an open discussion on what they buy and who that purchase directly impacts.  We need discussions about what cheap means, not to us, but to those that are manufacturing our products.  Having this discussion will allow our students to understand that the very poverty we attempt to eradicate in our country, we are innocently, or maybe not so innocently, perpetuating in other countries. cheap

Our students are targeted and taught  consumerism at a very early age.  Consider the mall, their favorite hangout where the majority of the stores carry merchandise for teens.  From shirts to shoes, teen tastes are catered to, and oftentimes at very cheap prices.  The products may appear inexpensive to us, but somewhere across a great ocean, border, or maybe even a state, men, women, and children are working in inhumane conditions to supply our cheap.

The sweatshops and the horrible facts that detail their existence, is a topic that can be addressed in the classroom as we create compassionate global citizens through our curriculum.  Remembering America’s dark history with sweatshops, we also need to remember that they have not been eliminated.  The sweatshops are still here in the Unites States but have become clandestine operations where illegals are held against their will to provide the cheap merchandise we crave.  The above article documented the fact that in 1995, 72 illegal Thai men and women were found in a shop in El  Monte, California.  We like cheap, and as long as we continue to consume, manufacturers will find ways to provide us with their goods.

children in sweatshopsSo what is the human price for cheap?  This is where the classroom becomes a vehicle of education, social justice, and change.  This is where the transformation begins.  This classroom lesson does not teach against a certain product or brand name; this lesson is about creating a conscience consumer so they can become more ethical shoppers.  Through study they discover that they are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

IMG_1200 (1)Pattie links her lessons on sweatshops to her human trafficking projects.  Groups of students are assigned specific regions of the world to research, and the sweat- shops are a part of that research.  This again does not target a brand but rather a mindset we have, that as Americans, we have to have it if it is cheap. Through this exercise, Pattie makes her students confront the cost of cheap to humanity. t-shirt

Students need to be aware that the money they spend is not going to support the worker but rather a manufacturer and a corporation.  Learning about the workers who are employed in the factories, toiling in dangerous environments, students researched and will never forget the images  from the Bangladesh factory fire . And the poverty in many nations is so deep and ingrained in their culture that the sweatshop allows the workers little chance to break free from the cycle of poverty.  Pattie’s students research documents such as this  undercover report from in an investigative journalist about the time the author spent working in a sweatshop.  The article is horrifying, but what the students found most horrifying was that there was just enough information out there for the public to feel uncomfortable but not enough to do anything that will bring significant change.  And that is why students are such a great avenue to spread awareness and change.

This You Tube  demonstrates the conditions inside the world of sweatshops:

Pattie’s students, while preparing to teach at the local middle school, discovered an app for the phone called free world in the Google playstore.  IMG_1219 (1)It gives its users guidance in their shopping.  Here are some of its reminders:

  • What’s worse than an all- nighter?  An all-dayer on top it.  In order to meet holiday demands for toys, Chinese manufacturing plants force young girls to work at least 2 24 hour shifts
  • 80% of the clothing from Argentina is produced in clandestine factories
  • 10,000 Pakistani children under the age of 14 work 10 hours a day
  • SE Asia employs over 200,000 children to weave carpets

Pattie’s students found the time they spent preparing and presenting some of the most valuable time they had spent in a classroom.  One student commented:

I don’t buy insert BRAND NAME anymore-and I don’t let my family either.  This made me more aware because I didn’t know what the problem was real.  It thought it was like mythical.  Oh no, I thought, they are good companies, but when I realized how they abused their labor, it made me disappointed on how little has been told to us and what else is really out there.  They aren’t telling me how to avoid it! –Alexia Boaz


Transformational classrooms can happen and change the world.  Teachers need to embrace the potential of the curriculum and prepare to create change in the lives of their students, and as they do, their own lives will be magically transformed.




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Left Behind: Children of the Incarcerated

By Joan Flora, Pattie Sloan, and Dorothy Flora, three teachers challenging the status quo

imgresOrange is the New Black, Season 2 is scheduled to be released in two weeks by Netflix. Here’s the gist: the television show is based on Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, who was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for an old crime of transporting drugs.  Random House Publishers describe the book:

The well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.  Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

As with most television, people either love this hit show or find the lead character insufferable.  While we think it’s a compelling story, we’re not critiquing the book or the show, and we’re not studying either in our classrooms, but we have students who have parents in the prison system, and that affects us because it impacts students’ achievement.

Oregon isn’t alone in this scenario:  nationwide 2.7 million children under age 18 have a parent in prison or in jail.  Michael Leo Owens of The Guardian writes:


In our previous posts we’ve connected literature with today’s poverty, how poverty impacts students’ learning, and pathways out of poverty.  So what’s the link to parents in prison and students living in poverty? According to Harvard’s Bruce Western and University of Washington’s Becky Pettit’s research, prison seems to be a guarantee of generational poverty:

Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 8.16.04 AM

Note the impact of race and education levels on the male work force: black men, especially if they fail to obtain a high school diploma or a GED, face the worst odds of supporting their families.  And the ability to support a family doesn’t necessarily get better after prison.  Check out the impact of prison on earning power:

Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 8.21.11 AM Long-term prison sentences are poverty traps for families.  Bruce Western claims that prison “has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

  • One in four African-American children have or have had a parent in prison.
  • Young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than to hold down jobs.

But there’s good news here, right?  Because this blog is about hope, right?

We haven’t found a silver lining to incarceration.  It’s a profound, disturbing experience, but Joan’s mother, Dorothy, a retired teacher,  shared her experiences in helping inmates into society via a prison GED program in Alaskan Correctional Center:

The ten years I spent tutoring GED students in an Alaskan correctional center were vastly different from my years as a public school teacher.  My GED students were all felons-murderers, thieves, prostitutes etc. Was I ever afraid? Never! These students had come to class because they wanted to do so.  For most of them, a GED diploma was possibly the only positive goal in their lives, and their ages ranged from 18 into the 60s.

imagesTheir abilities were greatly varied.  Approximately 60% were average, 35% had learning impairments, and 5% were above average.  In my ten years with the prison system, 650 students were enrolled and 250 graduated, about 38%.  Constant transfers and discharges greatly affected their rate of success.

My job was to administer placement tests (TABE, tests of adult basic education), determine a course of study for each student, tutor in five subjects of math, reading, social studies, science, and writing, and administer trial tests.

When new students entered the room, I greeted them with a handshake and learned their first names.  This gesture seemed to ease the tension because most inmates approached the class with apprehension. I explained the TABE tests, the trial tests, and the scoring needed to pass any test. I always stressed that reading was the key to passing the tests, even math. Since much of the instruction was on the computer, I had to teach older students how to use the computer.

A perfect test score was 800.  On the trial test we demanded 470 to pass and 450 to pass the final test in every subject.  A final minimum average of 450 was needed to graduate.

The computerized TABE test covered all five subjects, and it took from three to five periods to complete.  The results determined the course of study for each student.  The 60% average group usually scored between 7th and 9th grade level.  These students needed instruction in most subjects.

Learning disabled students scored between pre-kindergarten and third grade.  The tests would be too difficult for them, but I encouraged them to get instruction without ever letting them know their unlikely odds.  Eventually, though, they stopped coming to class.

The top 5% scored at a 12th grade and college level in all subjects. I immediately started the trial tests and most had passed all final tests within a two-week period.  They were all avid readers.   The other two groups were not.


Dorothy Flora, retired teacher

Math was a difficult hurdle for both male and female inmates.  I had to instruct them in the basics-adding, subtraction, multiplying, and division.  60% of my students had retained none of this from grade school.  Some were able to advance up to basic geometry and pass the test.  Only a small number of women were able to do so. However, writing was easy for my female students; for the men, it was a challenge and many could not pass that one test.

When a student was given his diploma, the entire class cheered and clapped.  For a day or so that student exuded such a “high” about achieving what probably was the best goal of his or her life.  Students always thanked me and my supervisor for our help. It made us feel so good to be teachers!

Unfortunately, only 10% or so used their GEDs to better their lives.  The rest returned to former companions, former environments, and without the help of a support system, they were unable to avoid a life of crime.  I felt such disappointment when I read about them in a police report or saw them back in custody.  I had done my best for them.

So what is the answer?

As unwavering believers in education as a pathway to opportunities and options, we stand by helping our students demystify the profound challenges they face by integrating our curriculums with relevant issues and facilitating students’ critical and creative thinking into problem solving.  We know there is no one answer to complex, multi-faceted, long-standing issues, but we think real hope lies in awareness and in action.

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Implementing Justice in an Unjust Classroom

By Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo

deskWhen thinking about poverty and its impact on society, many of us to think about the streets of the inner-city or across the ocean to a Third World Nation.  The reality is that we only need to look out at the desks across our classrooms and see the poverty that inhabits our rooms.

And though we are trained professionals, competent in curriculum and practices, we need to admit we are not  fully aware of our students and their complicated lives.   We do not understand those special situations that make school and its practices difficult for them and their families.  But once we acknowledge this, we need to take action to create change, ensuring that our students of poverty do not feel differently about themselves because of the requirements of our class.

No teacher consciously chooses to make a students feel differently about themselves while they are in the classroom, but the lessons and projects we create can inadvertently create a strong class awareness.  For example, consider the teachers’ favorite conclusion to a unit:  the project.  The parade of creativity begins with the with:

  • the hot gun genius who loves demonstrating his/her prowess with hot glue and shiny things
  •  the art work done with sophisticated  art products that probably were bought by a frantic parent who made a wild and crazy run to the craft shop before closing

appleAs teachers, it is hard to hold back our admiration for students’ efforts on end of unit projects, and who among us does not like sparkly things?   But consider the project done on plain cardboard with three colored pencils.  This may receive the very same grade as the others, but we may have inadvertently taught the artists of the latter projects that they are not as fortunate as their peers because their products do not sparkle and shine; they do not have the resources; they are poor.  And though we cannot see it, their self-esteem plummets.

Most teachers come aren’t aware of situational and generational poverty, but we think most people can remember how it feels to be left out or made to feel different.  Jeff Sapp, a professor at Cal State Domiquez Hills excellent article, How School Taught Me I Was Poor, underscores the fact that more is “caught than taught” in the classroom when it comes to status and class order.  We inadvertently allow inequity and injustice to enter our practices and affect our students.

changeTo create equity pathways, public school teachers must be aware that our practices and projects are often not thought out to include the needs of students in poverty.  Ann Van Etten, in response to this article, How Gadgets Teach Kids They Are Poor, underscores the need for a new sensitivity as we attempt to reach our students in this age of technology that separates the haves from the have nots.

Sonia Nieto’s demonstrates how many of our activities inadvertently exclude the very students we are trying to reach in the same article in  Teaching Tolerance  Her list of ideas, Making Students Feel Welcome, was a response to Jeff Sapp’s article and asks us to consider our students, their environment and their family circumstances:

  • It is clear from this article that the traditional “Family Tree” assignment excludes or marginalizes many students, including those who live in poverty, those not from traditional nuclear families, or those who are adopted, among others.
  •  Another project that draws a clear distinction among students of different social classes is the traditional science fair. For one thing, middle-class families frequently help their children out with the projects both with advice and with extra resources. 
  •  For a variety of reasons, students who live in poverty are often absent from school sports and other after-school activities. 
  •  Students are automatically excluded from some school rituals and traditions that require their families to pay (for example, school trips, “Spirit Days” where everyone is expected to wear particular items, and so on).  

 Moment of Clarity: Chatting with my school’s literacy coach about the this issue and my work to change practices and create a classroom of equity, she shared her story:clarity

It was on spring break when she received a call from an emerging a high school ESL student asking for her help with a history research project.  He was a quiet young man who came to the US and worked in the fields at a very young age.  His hands were calloused like a grown man when he was placed in the 5th grade with little or no English skills.  Working to always catch up, he called her as his lifeline to a project assigned over break.

Meeting with him the next day, he produced the directions he received for his research project.  Text-heavy, she knew this was an assignment he could not understand it, so she began to take it apart with him and realized it required a great amount of research.  Asking him if he had access to technology, he pulled out his mother’s cell phone, his only form of research.

He was also required to have a special binder with page separators, and on and on and on.  He had no extra money for any of this or had any resources to find and print out research.

Rolling up her sleeves, she went home and researched and printed documents for him, and meeting with him the next day, taught him close reading strategies so he could understand the text.  Outlining the task, she worked with him until he felt secure to work independently, and then she  shopped for his materials.  The shopping list meant little to her budget, but would have been a meal to his family.

And they worked together that break period until he completed the project.

And he went back to school, aware now of the importance of the Viet Nam War, an event that occurred while he was working in the fields, and confident his work would be like the other students.

Have Faith

We choose to teach and to be agents of change in the classroom.  There is so much we can accomplish if we remember that the most important element of our teaching is sitting before us, complex and fragile.  And they are counting on us to make their lives better.





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Bravo! Encore! In Praise of Teachers


by Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging the status quo

rocksWe are advocates for teachers and all they do for students and schools.   Because of their sacrifice and service, teachers will often  miss exercise, play, naps, and all of the wonderful elements that make life a little less stressful.  And so it is  with that knowledge that we want to share a chorus from Forever Young and dedicate it to teachers everywhere as they finish out the school year:

To Teachers Everywhere:

May God’s blessing keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
 May you stay forever young.  -Bob Dylan

Dylan’s words encapsulate our desire for every teacher who continues to teach and give 100% in this most complex and oft confusing time in education.  As many of you have extended  a due date for an assignment, we decided to extend practice Teacher Appreciation Week.

We are doing this simply because teachers are singled out this one week every year, and because of  schedules, it is easy to miss the applause and the accolades pouring down around us that we so deserve because we are running to a 504 meeting, a PLC meeting, a parent-conference, an end-of-the-year evaluation meeting, a department meeting/staff meeting, or squirming in line at the one and only staff bathroom in the hall or school.

And so for the teachers everywhere, and you know who you are:

  •  who wore their pants inside out until a student in third period questioned her on it;
  • who wore two different shoes and could not understand why the floor felt uneven;
  •  whose student asked if she got dressed in the dark;
  •  who walked down the hall with her skirt tucked in her panty hose –  We say, “You rock!”           

For the  teacher who:

  • who left a sobbing child at day care and wore a mantle of guilt all day;
  • who taught on an antibiotic haze;
  • who quietly walked to the back of the room to throw up in the waste can;
  • who desperately begged Ibuprophin from students, and then nervously questioned what he ingested“Bravo!”

Teachers do amazing work in surreal contexts, but in an educational  culture of fast-moving change, we see many comrades lose their love for this crazy profession and leave for greener pastures.  Many articles  continue to surface on the exodus from our profession, as this one from The Atlantic, where Liz Riggs writes:

“This overwhelming desire to help students is a common thread among all the teachers I speak with. They all cared for their students deeply, but even this couldn’t keep teachers like Hayley or Emma in the classroom. Simply put: everything else—the workload, the emotional toll, the low pay—was just too much.”

Although the loss of new teachers is disheartening, the fact that the dropout rate increases, as in this report from The Oregonian, is truly sisyphusdistressing.

Oregon’s dropout crisis

Worst graduation rates
Four-year graduation rates for the class of 2011
1. Nevada: 62%
2. New Mexico: 63%
3. Georgia: 67%
4. (tie) Oregon and Alaska: 68%
6. (tie) Florida and Louisiana: 71%
8. Alabama: 72%
9. (tie) Colorado, Michigan
Still, people notice the great work that teachers do, and they continue to believe in us:
Jenn Hatmaker’s amazing blog sincerely reminds us that we are appreciated:
“First of all, I’ve calculated your earnings by adding your classroom hours, pre- and post-school hours, conferences and phone calls, weekend work, after-hours grading, professional development requirements, lesson planning, team meetings, extracurricular clubs and teams, parent correspondence, district level seminars, and material preparation, and I believe you make approximately 19 cents an hour.”
Jen gets it!  But wait, there is more:
“That high standard you set for our kids? We freaking love it. Thank you. Thank you for insisting on kindness and respect, excellence and persistence. Thank you for sometimes saying, “This is junky work and you can do better. See you at recess.” BOOM.  All day long, teachers. We stand behind you. Thanks for requiring their best.”
Need more?
Remember George Lucas’s acceptance speech when he received Irving Thalberg Award at the Oscars?  Lucas said, “All of us who make motion pictures are teachers, teachers with very loud voices. But we will never match the power of the teacher who is able to whisper in a student’s ear.”
 He mentioned his teachers.  He may not know us by name, but he knew to acknowledge those who impact the dreams of young people.
Consider this blog from Mina Malik-Hussein in The Nation:
“Our teachers are the ones who spend their mornings with our children, showing them how to find the power of x, the properties of hydrochloric acid, the correct way to hold a baseball bat. They spend years doing it over and over again with legions of our children, putting up with eye rolling, mean gossip, obtuse questions. Our teachers are the ones who are kind when our kids throw up in their class, when they have a panic attack before going onstage to make a speech, when they cry after losing an election or are jubilant after a football match. We all remember that teacher.”

stages of life

Their words help teachers realize that their work is important and lasting.  Teachers make a difference.  We just need to believe on a daily basis.

So how can we continually change our minds about what we do and accept that we do creates change that will shape this world for years to come?  Try humor!  Check out this amazing poetry slam:

Every teacher makes a positive difference for students.  It can be hard to realize this in May when AP tests are here, graduation is before us, along with the constant and never-ending tasks to still accomplish at the end of the academic year, but we must continue to teach with conviction and passion.   We believe know that we teach with the very best and that our students’ amazing futures begin in our collective classrooms.

Go as far











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Why We Need the Arts and PE in Our Schools

by Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan: two teachers challenging the status quo

Brace yourselves for CNN’s report by Kathleen Porter-Magee; this is going to hurt:

Affluent youngsters, especially if they were also white, were much likelier to get rigorous curricula, advanced courses, college-prep “tracks” and “gifted and talented” classes. Poor and minority students were apt to be placed into low-level courses and into vocational tracks.

More than that, reliable studies show that even the hardest-working teachers with the best of intentions can unconsciously hold students to lower expectations, depending on where those students come from.

For instance, one study published in 2012 by Rutgers psychology professor Kent D. Harber reported what happened when his team gave a poorly written essay to 113 white middle-school and high-school teachers. The teachers were told that the essay was written by a black student, a white student, or a Latino student, and that their feedback would be given directly to the student to help him or her improve.

The result? The teachers provided more praise and less criticism if they thought the student who wrote the essay was black or Hispanic.

Thanks to Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, we know that the stresses of living in poverty change children’s brains.  Jensen writes, “Most low-socio-economic kids’ brains have adapted to survive their circumstances, not to get As in school.  Their brains may lack the attention, sequencing and processing systems for successful learning” (p. 57).

While that means low s-e students typically begin kindergarten behind their middle class peers, it doesn’t mean that our impoverished students’ backgrounds doom them to academic failure.  Why? Brace yourselves again: teachers and schools matter.  Educators are game-changes for students, especially for students living in poverty, but schools need reasonable funding to make that happen.

How School Changes Students’ Brains First, teachers must believe that change is possible and that every student can succeed. Here’s what research tells us:

  • Clear expectations (standards) on what all students should know and be able to do helps students and teachers focus on what matters most: a shared quality / equality of learning.
  • Aligning instruction to rigorous standards boosts learning.
  • Aligning assessments to instruction increases achievement.
  • Giving meaningful feedback on students’ work lets students understand what to focus on–Joan uses this student-reflection guide to help students consider their drafts before handing their work in for her feedback.
  • Intelligence is fluid, and the brain is more malleable than researchers once thought.
  • Certain activities prime our brains for more learning:imgres
    • physical activity can increase production of new brain cells (Pereira et al, 2007)
    • playing chess can increase students’ capabilities in reading and in math (Cage & Smith, 2000)
    • art education can improve attention, sequencing, processing, and cognitive skills (Gazzaniga et al, 2008)
    • computer-assisted instruction can boost IMG_1333working memory, reasoning skills, and attention span (Kerns et al, 1999; Klingberg et al, 2005; Westerberg et al, 2007).
    • music impacts self-discipline, verbal memory, core math skills, and other wide brain functions (Chan, Ho & Cheung, 1998; Spelke, 2006, 2008).

Want to know what doesn’t work?  Teacher Kelly Gallagher described the “chop-chop” approach to over-teaching in his book Readicide.  Gallagher’s toxic recipe:

 The Kill-a-Reader Casserole

  •  take one large novel.  Dice into as many pieces as possible.
  • douse with sticky notes.
  • remove book from oven every five minutes and insert worksheets.
  • add more sticky notes.
  • baste until novel is unrecognizable, for beyond well done.
  • serve in choppy, bite-sized chunks

In addition, research shows us that the following moves will decrease student achievement:

  • focusing on the basics (drill and kill) demotivates students
  • maintaining order through show of force
  • eliminating or reducing arts, sports, and PE
  • installing metal detectors
  • lecturing and assigning instead of teaching

Early in our blog, we introduced our recipe for students:

The Create-Socially-Responsive-Learners Soufflé 

  • Take any required novel.
  • Add a little Paul Freire’s advice*
  • Stir in a few sticky notes to hold your thinking.
  • Spice it with a parallel non-fiction books and other materials
  • Let simmer.
  • Serve via conversations, investigations and projects that take students from the classroom into the world

*First assignment—not sure of the Freire reference?  Read or re-read Freire’s introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed before you don an apron.

We believe that learning carries the responsibility of action (see post from September, 2013), and we strive to integrate that core value with literacy standards, instruction, and assessments.  Check out Joan’s “Fast Car” ELA mini-performance task on exit points from poverty.  Use “Fast Car” in your classrooms, and please let us know your students’ thinking and levels of engagement.  But be warned that once your students begin to understand the inequities of their worlds, they’ll want to take action.  It’s that wonderfully human response that deeply nourishes us and our students.  May it be true for you as well.


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Giving Poverty a Voice: West Salem HS Students for Change

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo.

ladder Generational poverty isn’t easy to talk about.  It’s challenging to understand poverty as a complex social force; it’s uncomfortable to look at our own responses, as Americans, to American poverty.  However, without attempting to understand poverty as a social force, we deny students living in poverty an opportunity to take a meaningful place in middle-class society.

Studying our students’ responses to and biases about poverty, helped us realize that American society has inadvertently done a disservice to people both in and out of poverty.  People not in poverty are allowed to look down on people living in poverty, devaluing their importance, making the middle class blind to their strengths and their skills.  On the other hand, people in poverty do not have the relationship pathways to help them enter the middle-class.  Why?  We think both conditions are borne from lack of understanding, which means teachers can take a powerful stance toward making a difference.

Nelson Mandela’s encouragement to see poverty as a solvable social issue inspired Poverty MandelaPattie to take on poverty education through authentic learning; she decided to give a voice to generational poverty but inviting poverty into her high school.    Hosting a school assembly, Pattie arranged for  Lynda Coates  to speak to West Salem High School on the issue of generational and situational poverty.  Lynda was born into generational poverty, and her transparency before the students allowed them all to see a beautiful young woman who worked her way out of poverty and into the middle class through the help of a work ethic and mentors.

Before 600 students,  Lynda shared seven tips to escape poverty that she discovered as she made her way out of poverty.

Seven steps into a middle class life:

1)  Working hard is not enough.  Simply put, the belief that working harder will not take you out of poverty.  Many people in poverty work harder than their  middle-class counterparts, but working three jobs at minimum wage will not bring a family out of poverty.  Ironically, working more jobs ensures the cycle of poverty.

2)  You can control how smart you become.  At the outset, learning is most

Lynda Coates speaks about her background in poverty with West Salem High School students

Lynda Coates speaks about her background in poverty with West Salem High School students

difficult, but the more you learn, the easier it becomes. The more connections the brain makes, the easier it becomes to learn.  However, if a person drops out of school at 14, returning to the classroom can be overwhelming because they have not created the necessary connections for learning.  Making it through the first two years of community college can be overwhelming, but as our brains make connections, learning eases and quickens.  Still, students coming from an impoverished background need help understanding the process.

3)  No one succeeds without help.  People cannot break out of a generational economic life-cycle without the help of others or without the monetary aid that will allow them to create life changes (this directly applies to Lynda’s second point about persevering in learning).

4)  Find mentors.  Dr. Donna Beegle was her mentor, and before that, Dr. Beegle relied on her mentor at the University of Portland.  To succeed, students in living poverty need people who will not judge them as they learn to walk into the middle-class.  Lynda makes clear that the middle-class has its own vocabulary and its own culture that people of generational poverty need help decoding, internalizing, and accessing.

5) Ask for what you want.  People who have grown up in poverty believe it is wrong to ask for help, and they need to become embolden to ask for those things that will help enrich their lives and help them reach their goals.broken society sign

6)   Step out of your comfort zone.  This is difficult for everyone but especially for someone who feels unworthy because of their economic situation.  We have to encourage and help them move away from the familiar and challenge themselves in new life experiences.

7)  Build a network.  Middle-class networks unknowingly; it is simply how the culture operates.  People of generational poverty need to understand the importance of networking and that they have worth within that network.

Watching students seek Lynda out after the assembly to tell their stories or to seek advice, Pattie knew this was the right approach to teach understanding poverty and solutions to poverty.  As poverty rates in America rise, we desperately need a paradigm shift in our thinking that will allow us to reaches all students.  We believe the shift begins in our classrooms.   If one student and one teacher change because of authentic conversations about poverty, then the shift is underway.

And we will never be the same, which is what we think education should do for us all


Pattie with Lynda and West Salem High School students. Pattie and her students are wearing their “Students for Change” t-shirts, April 2014



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