Sharing and Preserving a Survivor’s Story

January 14, 2015 is a day I hope my students will never forget. We were so privileged to have Max Michelson, a survivor of the Riga ghetto in Latvia, and several satellite camps of Buchenwald. For over an hour my ordinarily fidgety and chatty WP_20150114_10_31_34_Progroup of 95 twelve and thirteen year olds sat on the floor and listened to Max share his incredible and heart-wrenching story. They did not move. Not a single whisper or fidget was witnessed. Like me, my students were in awe.

Perhaps it is amplified because I lost my grandmother this past summer, but I have such an admiration and deep respect for the elderly. Max arrived to our school on this bitterly cold morning, driving himself in his car, and walking into the building in his puffy green jacket. When asked if he wanted to take the elevator or the stairs, his friend that came along with him suggested that he should probably choose the elevator. He looked at me and said, “If I keep taking the elevator, I won’t make it to 92.” It was indicative of the attitude that has allowed a man that has been through pure hell, to be driving his own car and willing to take the stairs at the age of 90.

Teaching the Holocaust to 12 year olds is a challenging task. Finding that “right” balance between teaching the reality and shielding young kids from horrific images, is a struggle. Max’s presentation was more powerful than I could have imagined. In just a little over an hour Max articulated more to my students than any other book or movie could have.  He shared how swiftly his parents were stolen from him, and the moment, upon seeing an infant’s dead body in the forest, he realized the Nazi agenda. He did this without invoking fear, but by sharing his story in a candid and forthright fashion that my students could process.

One of the questions that is asked repeatedly each time that I teach the Holocaust to students is when imprisoned in ghettos, how much did Jews know of their eventual fate? Max described his own process of realization of what was to come. He shared the story of his father insisting on bringing his mother’s clothes after she “disappeared” and they were forced to move into the ghetto, and then his father’s slow acceptance that she would not return and therefore not bringing her warm clothes when they moved to a different area of the ghetto.  Listening, I could feel the hope evaporate from Max’s father. I have heard and read countless testimony that have similar progression, but hearing it directly from Max broke my heart all over again.

Reflecting on the experience of hearing Max’s testimony, throughout his testimony I found myself thinking that hearing Max speak was such a privilege. He shared how his survival was not due to his will, but rather being lucky stating, “Survival was a matter of luck, chance and circumstance.” He also beautifully shared with the students how important respect is. “We must respect life, all life and the dignity of every person. You might not like them, but you must respect them…shared humanity must be respected and considered.”  I only hope that my students were able to absorb even a fraction of this wisdom from Max.

Hearing the story directly from a man who survived the horror…I do wonder if the students recognize the privilege. I hope that one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, my students will recognize the power of the memories Max shared with us, and how essential it is that we continue to share Max’s story long after he is no longer able.

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Thinking, Struggling and Pride

After a few solid weeks of school we have finally hit our rhythm. Expectations and routines are established and learning is in full step. Tomorrow we will begin our study of Europe and the many ways that the themes of geography interact to create the rich history and present day life of the cultures, countries and people of Europe. As I reflect on our first month and our study of foundational concepts of geography, here are a couple of thoughts about our journey thus far.

Kids need to learn to struggle to discover ideas.

The second week of class I created an activity that asked students to explore the atlas and different map types. There were short reading passages to support the information and provide some reinforcement of the key facts I needed them to consider as they formed ideas, and this chart, which I created to help students organize their information and ideas. Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 8.13.21 PM The third column stymied the bulk of my students.  “What you do you mean ‘why is this map important’ Socko?”  I modeled the first row using vegetation maps and rephrased it by asking the students why someone would look at a vegetation map. Asked the question four times that day and got the same answer, “…so I would know where to go to buy corn.”  Instead of giving in and just giving them the answer I paused, disagreed, and challenged them to find an answer that had nothing to do with a farm stand or a fruit salad. Several minutes, and ample grumbles later, a few ideas started churning. By the end of the activity most students were able to tell me why an economic activity map alludes to more than just trade in an area. Connections were being made and thinking and reasoning were happening. This is not an example of a very exciting lesson plan, but rather an example of the critical nature of letting kids struggle with their thinking. I could easily have given them the answer, or given them a reading that provided the answer, but what would this have done for them?

My students have learned that simple questions, or tough questions attached to the highlighted answer,  just won’t happen in my classroom. “Think-abouts” are common activities. I provide a question and challenge my students to think about, then write about, what their ideas might be. I always tell them that the questions are hard, and that the effort is the only requirement. Over the course of a few weeks I have fewer students shutting down, and an increasing number of students that don’t bat an eye at all, they just start thinking and writing.  They are learning to struggle with their ideas. Hopefully by the end of the school year they will understand that this struggle is actually the learning.

Kids are motivated by pride, not grades.

We have created a grading culture. I get it. I was the type A, competitive student from the minute that the letters started going on my report card. I looked forward to report card day! As I consider how my class could shift to being something larger than a letter grade, I constructed the “Wall of Awesome” in my classroom. I told students that only work that was their best work would be considered awesome and find its way to the wall.

Our first potential “wall-worthy” assignment was based on National Geographic’s 7 Billion video. After watching the video students identified the main points of the video. I then challenged them to research these facts and find supporting data. For instance, one of the facts shared was that at the time of the video’s production, 38% of the people on earth lack adequate sanitation. I asked students to find more information and detail about this fact. Working with our fantastic librarian, and guiding them on their research skills, students found incredible facts. They then were asked to represent their findings on one slide. The only parameters were to choose a strong fact, make it look nice, and cite their sources (including crediting sources for images). I then told them that all students received full credit if they completed the project, and that those that were extra awesome would earn additional credit. Every student completed the project. Even better, every kid took it back and redid their work when I told them it was not extra awesome and potentially not wall-worthy.  I know that I am fortunate not to be teaching a high school class where the letter grade is high stakes, but as I see it, I am teaching kids that they are all capable of the elusive A. I am teaching kids to have pride in their work. I am teaching kids that having pride in their work and putting forth a best effort is awesome. Surely this will have as much impact, if not more, than directly teaching them the perils of letter grades. And look at my Wall of Awesome!

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And we are off!

Wednesday marked the 5th day of my role as a 7th Grade Social Studies teacher. After some quality inspiration from my colleagues at #BLC13 in July (see these fantastic videos from Alas Media), some EdCamp inspiration, a little swashbuckling swagger from my favorite pirate, Dave Burgess, and sheer excitement about returning to the classroom as a social studies teacher, I was determined to kick off my year on the right note. I am excited about how it went…I hope my students feel the same way.

A few things I did to start the year:

Welcome my students.

Although it seems like a millennium ago, some of my favorite memories in education are from my first three years of teaching 8th grade American History at the Carroll School in Lincoln, MA. Overwhelming, exhausting and challenging are all words that can describe those years, but despite that I loved every second in the classroom with those kids. I still keep in touch with many of them, and can’t help but bubble with pride when I hear of their successes in life. Above all else, teaching is about kids. Over the past few years I have found myself wondering why some teachers stay in the field when it is clear that they don’t enjoy their students. Well, this is not the case for me. I was extremely excited to meet my students on 8/28 and I was not disappointed. Of course there are the quirky few that I know will challenge my patience, and the handful of shy students who were reticent to share much, but they are mine and I am excited to explore and learn with them this year.

Set expectations for success.

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.41.33 AMI recognize that it is important to be clear with students how to be successful at the start of course, but I have often questioned if this should be  synonymous with a discussion about the percentage breakdown of each grading opportunity that they will see throughout the course of the year. If you set the expectation that success in the class is mastering the grading system, what message does that send to the students? Instead I focused my discussions of success in my class on the behaviors I want to see in my classroom, and the attitude I expect each of them to possess. Sadly by 7th grade the kids are programmed to focus on the grade. I set the expectation that each student in my class was capable of this elusive “A” if they worked hard enough to get it. And most importantly, I shared with them all that my expectation was that they would ALL earn A’s, and that I would do my best to help them achieve it, regardless of whether they are the “smartest” kid in the class or not. I am not certain if this slight shift will create the change in attitude in my class that I hope, but I am fairly confident that it’s better that handing out a list of percentages and a prescribed checklist to follow to secure the grade.

Eliminate the bore…for me and for them.

When I first started teaching a colleague told me that the best gauge for engagement was to check my own level of boredom. Odds are that if I am bored, so are they. He was so right and I think about this every day I teach. The beginning of the year is so important to set the tone for the year, but I am not a believer this is done by being strict and dictatorial. I want students to see how excited I am about being in class with them, and engage them in activities that inspire them to learn. The first few days of school are about building routine, but this doesn’t mean the routine has to be boring.

WP_20130828_024Taking a page out of Dave Burgess’ book, rather than having them fill out a survey about themselves, or asking them to write anything at all for that matter, I asked them to imagine that they were the recently deceased king or queen of a fictitious land.  The students were then asked to construct a monument for themselves of out playdoh The details I learned about my students’ interest and personalities were immense, and I set the tone from the very beginning that in Room 204 we will create.

WP_20130829_001We discussed the ideal class environment Notosh style with a very shortened spin through a design thinking exercise. And then because it is a World Geography course, and these kids need to understand the world we live in, I took a break from original plans and reworked them to include a discussion of Syria. Students read this article from the Washington Post and shared facts they learned in small groups. Overheard from one group, “My brother read this with his class high school. She must think we are smart…”

Yes, yes I do. And I believe you should all love to learn as much as I do. And away we go on our global expedition! Looking forward to a great year. Follow us on Twitter! @WMSRoom204