The Necessity (& Trials) of Teaching Cultural Texts in a Small Town

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I wouldn’t trade teaching in a rural, small-town district for all the money in the world.

I’ve taught in several districts during my teaching career and there is nothing that quite matches the compassion of students who grow up in a small town. Their hearts are big, even if their parents’ pocketbooks may not be.

The majority of my students live in absolute poverty and the story behind most of their lives brings me to tears each time I hear them. I couldn’t single-handedly fix the brokenness of their lives, but rather than dwell on that kind of hopeless thought, I decided to give these kids something that their small town couldn’t. World culture.

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I can promise you, the first time I introduced a cultural novel to my English 12 class, I was met with an onslaught of insensitive and culturally crude remarks from a few of my more rowdy pupils. These students had NEVER been asked to read a novel set somewhere like the Middle East. They had grown up hearing negative remarks about anyone from the Middle East, stemming from the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Yes, I know that was a while ago, but mindsets are very set in a small town where ideas tend to lay stagnant with very few opportunities to change them. Yet I knew that culturally-aware kids became culturally-tolerant adults, so I continued pushing forward.

Everyday, I addressed any sort of comments that came up and flipped them in to teachable moments. I would correct the child’s remark and launch into a conversation about where such ideas stem from and how they are SO incorrect. At first, my students grumbled because the very ideology they had grown up with was being challenged.

I remained persistent in course-correcting them, and I noticed the remarks and slights ceased entirely. I exposed the students to a wide variety of non-fiction texts, video clips from YouTube, and gave them a basic but profound foundation on the culture found in these countries that we were about to read about in our class novels. Slowly, their comments turned into questions and I knew they were ready to begin.

I taught novels such as The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. They soaked up the narratives, explored the character’s inner trials and tribulations and often would come into my room before class to exclaim over what had happened to a favorite character of theirs. On the surface, I was teaching novels set in a different location but what I was REALLY teaching was compassion, empathy and a deep-set understanding for those who are not exactly like them.

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It was not always easy to gain support from the parents of my students either. I was once confronted by a parent who requested that I teach something more to the interest of their child, something they could use once they had graduated. When I asked what the parent would suggest, they mentioned reading articles on dirt bikes or mechanics since that was what their child was mostly interested in. The crazy thing is, I UNDERSTOOD where the parent was coming from. I understood that their child was more interested in motors and going fast, and that was definitely what they would do after high school. But these novels weren’t just assigned reading-they weren’t meant to just be “interesting”. They were skill building. They were explorations into cultures that these students may never get the opportunity to explore on their own or in person. If no one opened their eyes to the beauty of cultures in other countries, would these students spend the rest of their lives in fear of cultures other than their own?

I had to justify using these texts in my classroom several times to my administration, and in the end IT WAS WORTH IT. It was worth every single meeting explaining the purpose behind the novels, every single eye-roll from a student when I would announce a foreign author’s name, every single angry parent-email demanding to know why their child was reading non-fiction that taught them the founding principles of a different religion prevalent in a culture.

Why? Because my students were transformed. They weren’t making those same insensitive comments they did when they first were introduced to new cultures. I had given them one small opening to a new perspective on life in different parts of the world, and so many of my students flourished after that.

As the years have flown by, I have gained the trust and admiration of the community and I don’t receive those angry phone calls, upset emails or demands for meetings with the administration. The changed thinking of many small town students speaks for itself – all through choosing to teach them even ONE cultural novel that widens their understanding of what it means to be human.

Here’s to making the world a little bit more tolerant of each other, one cohort of small-town minds at a time.

The Genius Educator TeacherPayTeachers Resources for Cultural Units

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How To Challenge The “Good Enough” Mentality

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“Ms. C, I finished my paragraph. Is this good enough?”

When I first started teaching at my small, rural school, this phrase was practically set on repeat. Student after student would approach me with their work, asking if it was “good enough”. I would look at the page and see that the student was calling two sentences a full paragraph. I would encourage them to write more. They would return to their seat, write, and come back up to my desk. “Okay, is it good enough now?”. I would glance down at the paper and see that they had added one additional sentence to their paper. Cue blood-curdling scream and commence tearing out my own hair.

I couldn’t understand why these students didn’t intrinsically WANT to try harder, why there wasn’t this inner drive to produce work that they could actually be proud of. Even the phrase itself, “good enough”, set my teeth on edge. Good enough for what? Whenever I heard a student utter that phrase, I wanted to retort, “If you have to ask, then you already know that it isn’t” (Okay, I may have said something like this to a student once). It’s maddening, mostly because we assume that they know what their work is lacking, and we think the only reason the work isn’t being done can be boiled down to pure, unfiltered laziness. Whoops.

When Enough Was Enough

I suffered through a year or two of listening to the “good enough” refrain, until one day in class I was approached by a top-achieving student. This student turned in the day’s written assignment and when I looked down at it, I was shocked. There was barely any writing on the paper. I called the student back to my desk and asked if they did not understand the assignment. Here was the reply:

“No, Ms. C., I understood the assignment. I’ve seen what some of my classmates have been turning in, and it is NEVER as much as I do. So, I guess I just don’t see the point of doing more if it doesn’t matter.”

I. Was. Stunned. This student’s words sucker-punched me right through the gut and left me feeling kind of dizzy. It was me. I was the reason that kids were aiming for “good enough”. Now, that’s kind of harsh considering there are other factors such as home environment and the student’s choice of friends that play into their drive to succeed. Yet, I knew at that moment what the power of a teacher’s expectations had on student performance. I was rewarding laziness by allowing sub-par answers, and students that worked hard to truly answer the questions were noticing. That was the day I decided that “good enough” was dead.

How I Transformed “Is This Good Enough?” to “Is This The Most Relevant/Analyzed/Thoughtful Answer?” 

How do young children learn how to act? They watch adults and model after their behavior. This can be a positive thing, depending on the adult that the child is watching. The same rule can be applied to how children learn how to write – they read writing and imitate it.

So, the very first thing I did was create models of exemplary paragraphs. I showed these to students. We went through these paragraphs to identify topic sentences, located relevant evidence, and discussed whether the explanation was thorough enough. We studied these paragraphs. Every time I assigned a new type of writing assignment, we repeated this process of modeling work and going through the model to point out all of its best features. Students had a CLEAR idea of what was considered acceptable.

I no longer accepted basic vocabulary in their answers.

Once my students got used to modeling exemplary work together, I decided to set my expectation bar even higher. I stopped accepting written work with vocabulary such as “very”, “many”, “good”, “bad”, “things” and “stuff”. We created synonym charts for these words and I saw kids having fun as they started “leveling up” their vocabulary – a term that I started using. A vast majority of my students love video games, and so the idea of gaining a new “level” was enough to get them giggling and trying to find a better word than their original choice.

I Stayed Consistent

Bottom line? I would not let a paper even be considered for grading if it was not written correctly or I found any basic terms in it. The students learned quickly to complete the work right the first time, or they would be revising the work over and over until it was right. I cannot tell you how many times I heard a child whisper to a classmate, “Ms. C. won’t take that like that” and I just smile because they’ve started to not only recognize weaknesses in their own writing, but also in the writing of their peers. That, my dear friends, is powerful.

Does this get tiresome as teacher? Yup. Do you consider accepting their work after six failed tries and one frustrated child? Yup. Don’t fall to temptation. The reward is SO worth it once they learn the techniques and apply them.

Improvement

Through modeling, I empower my young learners. Instead of just slapping failing grades onto dismal assignments, I let them explore writing as a guide for their own. As more and more time goes on, I watch them break away from the samples and start taking risks in their own writing. I notice that the students who had been motivated even before this paradigm shift are striving to accomplish even more now that they see that putting in the effort is being celebrated.

I no longer have students coming up to me to ask, “Is this good enough?”. Instead, they ask, “Did I place the comma in the right spot here for my evidence?”, “Is this the strongest piece of evidence for my topic?” or “Does this sound like a good transition to the next paragraph?”.

Guys, I teach middle schoolers. Let that sink in for a moment.

Maybe students aren’t just lazy, unmotivated and apathetic. Maybe they haven’t seen enough of what GREAT looks like. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to say, “No, that’s not good enough. Yet.”


How Students Who Grow Up In Trauma-Households Learn Differently

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Imagine that one time that you went to reach for your wallet and realized that it was no longer there. A blanket of cold dread pushed from your scalp to your toes, your heart rate increased, and you may have felt momentarily dizzy. This was your body’s quick reaction to intense stress. It may have only lasted for a few seconds until your body leveled off the stress hormone and you could think rationally about the whereabouts of your lost wallet.

Now, imagine having that flood of stress multiple times a day, every… single… day. Our students who grow up in trauma-households are experiencing this constant overload, whether that be from physical abuse, verbal arguments that are psychologically scarring, all the way to a parent withholding love from the child as a punishment. Eventually, the child learns unhealthy ways to cope with the trauma.

  1. Regression

If your student utilizes regression (learned helplessness), you may notice that when faced with difficult tasks or consequences for their actions, they revert to babyish actions. They may even speak in baby talk. This tends to happen with children who did not receive much physical touch nor loving care as a child. The student may have acted babyish when younger to frustrate a caretaker, forcing the caretaker to become physical with them and provide that physical touch (though not in a positive way).

How to teach these students: If you notice a student practicing regression, first and foremost, view them as the courageous soul that they are. Can you imagine having never experienced physical touch or care, and yet still being brave enough to seek it out? These types of students won’t just “grow up” if we toss that careless expression at them. They require our gentle, yet firm understanding as they eventually move through this stage in their life. We, as educators, cannot provide the physical touch they crave, yet we can provide a safe haven for them while they work through their past traumas. Gentle reminders of how the student should act may encourage them to begin acting as they should for their age level. They will slowly realize that they receive praise from adults when they act as they should, and not when they regress to childish actions.

Dramatic Reactions

Place yourself back to the time when you thought you had lost your wallet. That stress reaction that occurs is what we refer to as the “survival brain”. You cannot think rationally when your brain is in this state. Students who face trauma often are trapped in survival brain mode, and the slightest further stressor can either cause them to become angry, explode in tears, or want to flee (fight or flight). Something as small as a wrong look from a classmate could be enough to set off a dramatic reaction.

How to teach these students: Create a plan for these students in the case that their stressors become too much. Often, the reason these students explode dramatically is that they can’t handle everything at once and are unsure of what to do. By sitting down with them and setting up a solid plan during these moments, the student not only feels supported by an adult but has a safety net for situations that are overwhelming. This empowers the student as well as teaching them healthier coping mechanisms. The eventual goal is for the student to not need an adult to guide them when they are facing these extreme stressors, so having the student create their own coping plan is essential to further growth.

NOTE: Some students may try to escape their reality at school by overusing their coping method. Be sure to set very clear expectations that they follow their plan only when the student is overwhelmed to the point of being unable to cope.  

Disassociation

Some children learn how to basically shut down and disassociate from the negative situation. Their brain “zones out” until the terrible experience is over which, to an educator, can look like defiance and flat-out insubordination. The child may have developed this coping mechanism to the point where they are unable to speak once their brain shuts down, and may stare straight ahead until they are able to escape the potential threat.

How to teach these students: If a child shuts down, there is only one action to take – send them out of the room to the guidance counselor or another adult equally as soothing. The child cannot be allowed to sit in class and not complete the tasks that you have set forth, but becoming frustrated and trying to force them to work will create a hostile environment for the child. They need you to be calm, patient and understanding at all times, even when they’ve shut down. As time goes on, you may work with the guidance counselor and the student so that the student can build up more and more trust in you. They may get to a level of trust with you where gentle coaxing during class could bring them out of their “zone out” to join their classmates. As the student ages, they should be working to come out of their disassociation on their own without an adult’s help.

 

Ultimately, wonderful teacher, these students need a caring heart and an understanding ear as they work through the traumas of their past and present lives. Their thoughts may frequently return to the trauma they are afraid will be waiting for them at home. Be gentle when reminding them to get back on task. Remember that you probably can’t save the child from experiencing the trauma, but you can be the warm smile they see each and every day they come to school, the kind tutor who guides them through their schoolwork, and the encouraging voice that helps them to recognize their own unique talents… maybe for the first time in their life.

 


Contraction Surgery

Written by: Katrina Cavagna

Are your students having trouble identifying where to place the apostrophe inside of their contractions? Are they just not “getting” contractions in general? Are you looking for something extremely fun that may actually stick in their minds for more than one class period? Try Contraction Surgery!

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Contraction handout students completed after the lesson.

 

So I have to admit, I had way more fun with this lesson than I ever imagined was possible. I bought a low-end pair of nurse’s scrubs, $5.00 stethoscope and colorful band-aids from Amazon, then borrowed latex gloves from the school cafeteria and masks from the nurse! In total, I spent about $30.00 for this lesson that I’ll be able to use again, and again, and again…

 

Intrigued? Here’s the scoop on how to pull this lesson off!

First, print off a bunch of words that can be made into contractions. Don’t want to create your own? Download the printable here. Cut each word group out into strips. Then, on easel paper, write in large letters “Contraction Surgery” (hopefully your handwriting is better than mine!). Display the easel paper at the front of the room either on an easel stand or on the whiteboard.

Desk Arrangements

I arranged my desks into groups of four. I want my students to have more practice collaborating on in-class activities. This lesson could be done individually. It’s entirely up to you and the needs of your specific students. You know best! At each group of desks or desk, place the same number of bandaids as there will be “patients” or groups of words that the students will be making into contractions.

Props

If you want to make the lesson really fun and engaging for the kids, have each student put on a pair of latex gloves (check for allergies!) and a mask as they enter the room. With my groups of four, I had the students choose one of their groupmates to be the doctor, and that student was the only one to get completely dressed up (saving some class time). The other members of the group were assistants to the doctor.

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On display when the students entered the room!

Introducing… Doctor Teacher!

I informed the class that I had had an occupation change overnight, and that I had received many new patients in the ER. I needed their help to perform multiple surgeries to save patients’ lives. They giggled a bit, some were in awe of my costume, and others were eager to get going. We went over what contractions were on the board (this was a 7th grade group, so they had had prior experience with contractions).

Let the incisions begin…

I then passed out a strip of words for each student. Each student was in charge of placing the “incision” with their scissors in the correct place to create the contraction. They had to problem solve together to determine what letters needed to be taken out during the surgery. Then, they had to open up their colorful band-aid and determine where the apostrophe should be placed in order to “stitch the patient” back up. Only the designated doctor of each group could perform the final surgery, but they needed their assistant to help them place the band-aid on the easel paper at the front of the room.

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These were some messy surgeries! However, the hands-on approach of this lesson allowed students struggling with the apostrophe placement in a contraction. Winning! 

Clean up the “body parts”…

What a BLAST! The kids were talking about this lesson for days afterward, and the Contractions practice worksheet I gave them afterward really highlighted which students were going to need one-on-one instruction on this topic. In total, the lesson lasted twenty minutes and we had time to read from our favorite class novel!

Don’t have time to make the materials for this lesson? Get them from my TeachersPayTeachers store here.


Apathy: How To Approach The Student Who Doesn’t Try

As teachers we’ve had every sort of difficult student pass through our doorway and place themselves in our seats for the lessons that we put our blood, sweat and tears in to creating. We’ve had our fair share of grumblers, vocal complainers, smile-and-nod-but-never-do-work-kids, quiet resistors, and everything in between. As difficult as those students can be, they are nothing compared to the apathetic student.
The apathetic student feels like they have nothing to lose. They don’t fear not passing (or so it seems), and so they show up to class late with no pass nor any logical excuse. Being overly kind doesn’t elicit any sort of motivation to complete your classwork. Being stern or getting tough just causes them to shut down even more. They don’t complete work and have no explanation for why aside from a small shrug. Detentions don’t hinder them since they’ll merely attend and stare at the wall for the entire time. They tend to lose critical handouts, don’t have materials needed for class, and no matter how much you fret and pull your hair out to help them, they just don’t care about being successful in school.
If you are picturing a student’s face right now, here are some tips on how to cope with the apathy.

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

  • First and foremost, you need to take a step back from the student. If you have been pouring your emotional energy into this child every day, showing that you care and practically doing a song and dance to get their attention… Stop. Now. When it comes to an apathetic student, the issue does not lie with you. You, dear teacher, are going above and beyond for this child already. Please quit telling yourself the lie that if you just keep showing this child how much you care about them, that they’ll miraculously start to want to succeed in school. It is not your responsibility to convince a student to complete schoolwork. Remember – the amount of energy the student puts into the work should be equal to the amount of emotional energy you invest in the student for that assignment. Let’s say that a little louder for the people in the back.
  • Stop Coddling. No more cutting the student slack when they show up to class late. No more extensions on homework assignments, or additional lectures for why an education matters. This student has shown that, currently, they are choosing to not do as instructed. If this were a defiant child, you would write them up after refusing to do work. Handle this situation similarly. If the apathetic student shrugs when asked where their work is, nod that you understood and move forward with the consequences that are normal in your classroom. The student will immediately see that you no longer are going to bend over backward to get them to work, and they are now facing the full consequences of their choice.
  • Stay neutral in tone and body language. During this part of the process, it is important that you ALWAYS stay neutral with the student. Begging for the student to start completing work weakens your authority. Yelling at the student for not completing their work causes you to lose your calm control of the class, the apathetic student stops listening, and your blood pressure is now sky-high. By staying neutral you are signaling to all students that, “I place an expectation. I expect them to be followed. If you do not follow instructions as asked, then this is your consequence.” The student no longer gets an emotional response from you, and is left with only negative consequences for their actions.
  • If you haven’t already, contact home. Sometimes you will get support from home. Sometimes you will get accused of being a poor educator instead. Either way, you need to attempt to contact home about the issues in class. A phone call is a more personal way of communicating with parents about the issues with their child. Some parents have no clue that their child is struggling in school, and may be willing to offer support in the form of consequences at home for poor behavior in school. I would always recommend following up a phone call home with an email to the parents as well, that details what was discussed on the phone, and outlines the possible solutions that were talked about. This provides a written form of evidence that you have been attempting to help the student, in case the student does fail for the quarter (or the year) and a parent tries to call the school to blame you. Better safe than sorry.
  • Discreetly find out if the apathetic student has interests. Most apathetic students try to act like nothing interests them, even outside of school. Either by asking their friends or during the phone call to their parents, try to figure out some things that pique the student’s interest. While your entire class can’t revolve around one student’s interests, you can incorporate something every so often… and just maybe they’ll get involved despite themselves.
  • Give them a fresh start. Everyday. Yes, I know they’re frustrating. Yes, I know you’re tired. Yet, every single day, show back up for them. Greet them as you would any other student. Wipe the slate clean and start again. Always be optimistic when you ask them for their homework. Even if you know they still don’t have it done. Maybe the reason they have become so apathetic is that no one has ever believed in them before. Maybe your undying optimism will inspire them to get one homework assignment done.
  • If they complete an assignment, treat them as you would ANY other student. Do not make a big deal over the student completing the work. It was the expectation that they do the work. If you don’t jump up and down for Suzy who always turns in her work, then don’t jump for the apathetic student. Do not reward their past poor behavior with ecstatic celebrations now that they have decided to start following directions. Instead, leave encouraging notes when you correct their work. Smile when you hand back the assignment and congratulate them quietly on how hard they worked. The student may begin to see the benefit of completing work, and meeting classroom expectations. It may take a while, but you may be able to slowly coax them out of their apathy to join their classmates.
  • Accept that they may fail. Yikes. I know, this one hurts. I’m not sure why we teachers care more about a student’s grades than the student themselves, but we do. In the case of an apathetic student, we have to accept the grim reality that if the above tips don’t bring forth any change in the student, that they may have to be allowed to fail that quarter. This is the old-fashioned “tough love” that many of us faced as children. While this is a hard pill for us to swallow, some apathetic students have been pushed along from grade level to grade level so many times that they have never faced FAILING. Sometimes, failing a quarter (or even the full school year) is enough to get the student to start attempting to complete work and starting to care about the future of their academics.