elective final project

I have never done this before. Typically, final projects in my History class require extensive writing. For example, my freshman write a textbook at the end of their course. This time though, I wanted to try something different. These seniors had selected to take my elective on Genocide and War Crimes. As you can imagine this is a “heavy” course. Examining mass murder and violence is a complex and challenging program of study. All term the students read extensively, wrote prolifically, and questioned the events earnestly.  Now I wanted them to have to demonstrate their understanding through a project that required them to have a vision and a purpose.  Could they make a high degree of connection between project guidelines and their knowledge and perception of genocide in which they illustrate their craftsmanship and originality?  I took my previous projects on design thinking as inspiration as I sat and crafted the prompt (below): design thinking I & design thinking II.

The prompt:

Create: Please create a work of visual art (conceptual art?) that communicates your ideas about what you have learned about Genocide & War Crimes and how this knowledge can benefit the world.

Your visual art must meet these requirements:

  • There must be at least 3-5 teachings in your visual art.

  • No symbols

  • No words

  • No cliches

    • no peace, love,  dripping blood, etc

    • no sad kids, or famous images of perpetrators, or famous images of violence

Requirements for presentation:

  • 5-7 minutes

  • Your process:

    • Why did you choose to portray Genocide in this manner?

    • How does this piece of visual art teach others about Genocide?

    • Needless to say, each teaching must reflect sophistication and deep intellectual thought.

A few of the products I received:

Project 1: Photography by EW. Depiction of the Armenia genocide using a pomegranate (fruit of Armenia)

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 11.27.42 AM Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 11.28.01 AM Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 11.28.21 AM Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 11.28.38 AM

Project 2:  Cambodian Genocide by NHS.

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 8.04.15 PM

Project 3: Darkness Descending by AF.

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 8.05.13 PMProject 4: Wood Sculpture by LL. Distressed wood forced and hammered into place.

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 8.04.58 PM Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 8.04.44 PM Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 8.04.30 PM

These projects and the presentation of their teachings on genocide really impressed me. If you are interested in the teachings that accompany each of the projects, please don’t hesitate to ask!

poetry month and processing the boston marathon bombing

April is national poetry month. I have dabbled in poetry from time to time but have not produced anything that gave me pause. Thankfully, my school honors the month each year by exposing our little community to live poetry readings by local poets. A part of the school for four years, I have come to expect the month littered with poet visitors sharing their conceptual stories of self, community, work, life, etc. with us during our Tuesday Forums. It is actually one of my favorite traditions, as it allows me to be creatively jealous of these individuals’ abilities to weave a tapestry of images with their provocative word choices. It was surprising then to walk into the morning meeting and see a group of seniors on stage and not an acclaimed poet.  The students were introduced as a Senior Elective on “Poetry in the Air.” Curious about their work, I settled into the meeting.  Each student approached the microphone in front of the entire school community and confidently spoke their poem with passion, interest, and earnestness. A few of them were funny including one on raccoons, one comparing a lover to kitchen gadgets and a series of haikus on the importance of Lululemon to the school’s fashion.  Yet, overwhelmingly the poems were focused on the theme of the “world come undone.” In these poems, students wrestled with their complex feelings about security, loss, power, control, violence, pain and suffering. Not expressing typical teenage angst, these poems spoke to the world they find themselves in, a world devastated by terror.

The last student to present was SW. She approached the microphone and nonchalantly stated, “I wrote this last night.”  I was skeptical of the poem following this omission. When, she started it became clear that she wrote this poem last night because she was grappling with and processing as best as anyone could the recent Boston Marathon Bombings. On a typical day, teaching is a challenging and rewarding profession. There is a rythme to an average day and a normal classroom by the time Spring arrives. It is this rythme that creates comfort and community while reviewing, questioning, and crafting understanding on the various topics discussed. Yet, after an event such as the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt and capture being a teacher is tough. Aren’t I suppose to have the answers?  When asked: What year was the constitution signed? How did the Khmer Rouge come to power? Why did the United States overthrow Mossadegh of Iran? I can answer these questions. I have the primary sources, quotes, stats, maps, videos, and knowledge to tackle these inquiries.  But, why did Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother attack the city of Boston, use bombs to target bystanders, kill police officer Sean Collier, hold the city of Boston hostage while hiding out in Watertown…I have no answers, no clue, and nothing but my own personal sadness, fears, and questions.

Today, we sit as a community, we sit as Bostonians, and we are patient with one another while we each process, cope, and question the events. Being a teacher at this time is heart-wrenching as I imagine a future for these students that is riddled with violence and terror. But, then I am reminded of the humanity and strengthen that Boston demonstrated despite the terror and I am hopeful that these kids can continue to infuse love, hope, and kindness into an aching city…and world. So back to SW.  She started her poem and I was speechless. Poignant, powerful, complex, tangible, frustrating, beautiful, and resonating. SW’s poem has haunted me since hearing it at 10:05AM.

The Land Of Things Come Undone by SW

Boom. Boom. Goes the finish line

And I’m on the road

Driving towards the only home I know

And I’m calm

Scroll goes the social media

And I’m home

Clinging to the smells I hold so deeply

The smells that linger on my clothes

Intertwined dog hairs and Momma’s home cooked meals

I’m waiting for panic to set in, but like the trains underground, my mind won’t let itself venture

Click goes the Television

Blurred shots from panicked video men at the scene

Anger sets in as I pick up the shoes which lie, sporadically strewn across the road

as if a bomb hit Foot Locker

and I remember the girl who I will never see at the dance studio again

her legs torn – almost to the point of amputation

and I’m coming undone

But wait..

Static sadness rushes through my veins

And I’m coming undone

Days filled with “i’m glad you’re okay” and “how you holdin up”

But it’s not over

And I’m waiting

Lying awake in my bed I can feel the tension as it boils, entering my heart’s different ventricles I hear it

Soft but sturdy,

Loud but bearable


And I’m coming undone

Blood stirring, heart spinning I count

One, Two, Thr- Sirens

Brain expanding, pins dropping

And it speaks again


and I’m down the stairs, calm and swiftly

Click goes the television

And the chase is on

Clinging to my father’s steady beating

As shots fire blocks away

I murmur the words I never thought I would hear myself say

I don’t feel safe here..

But the search is on and I’m still beating

The search is on and I’m not the only one scared

I must remain calm

Rise and shine and the photos are up

Rise and Shine and the spa music has halted abruptly

Leading me to answer the only other noise that I can bear

Ring, Ring

“I know him”

Buzz Buzz

“He’s my friend”

Click Click

“He’s one of us”

Scroll goes the social media

Killer on the loose Everyone stay inside

But I don’t feel unsafe

Because he’s one of us.. isn’t he?

And my mind is expanding

Neurons are connecting and I realize we can’t be one in the same

But we are Cambridge

We are open minded hipsters and bad mouthing “real talk” rappers

We are Ethiopians, Brazilians, Japanese, Chinese, and yes, Muslims..

And here I am stuck wondering if he’s at his best friends- three houses down from mine

And if so, what is he thinking?

Are you thinking about Ms. Davis and how she always told you you had a bright future?

Are you thinking about last saturday?

How your friends dapped you up and said peace out for the last time

Pondering the words that were ingrained in your mind from the past 4 years

Diversity. Opportunity. Respect.

Are you thinking about izzy’s jamaican patties?

The way your mouth watered as your teeth bit into the after school treat

Lockdown is lifted and I’m still not petrified


my brother was friends with him

And my neighbor had sleepovers with him

And my crushes played video games with him

So he must be one of us..

And I’m coming undone

Bang Bang goes the gun

And I’m back inside

Click goes the television

And there’s his face

Staring at me as if I should have known all along

And I’m torn

Torn between the person we knew from our streets

and the person we now know on the screen

Lying there, bleeding and surrounded- I find myself praying they don’t shoot

Because more than the hatred,

more than the sadness, fury, and bewilderment I feel

I want to know why

And I’m coming undone

Off goes the siren

And I know he’s alive

He’s caught, were safe, and the mystery is over

And yet, as I take it all in,

I am finally unraveled- and the anxiety sets in

Heart pounding

I am left with the overwhelming urge to ask one question

Jahar, why would you do this to us?

doing debates

Two teacher posts within days of each other!?  I know this is not usually my style but David and I are eating left-overs right now so blogging about that is a little lacking.  Skye is coming over tomorrow for a new dish and should it be a yummy one, you can expect to hear about it soon.  Now back to the teaching post….

The history department is notorious for hosting debates in class.  Eleventh graders are pretty adept at them. Needing little prompting, they research, read, script, argue, counter-argue, and question. Two days later they are prepared to engage in a lively, researched, and thorough undertaking. Do they get bogged down in one cycling argument?  Yes, from time to time, they need to be reminded to move along, advance the debate. Yet, debates are an interesting way for the students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic by having to demonstrate the mental flexibility debates necessitate.

Freshman debates look and feel completely different.  Yesterday, in the middle of the debate on who was justified in fighting the French and Indian War, a student interrupts and asks, “Wait, what are we discussing? What is this debate about?”  Ah….time to stop the debate immediately, back pedal, and start from zero.  This happens often in ninth grade.  Two steps forward and one step back.

Loving lists, this class decided to make one to help them organize, focus, and target their debate topic and materials.

Things to do for a debate (according to my freshmen):

  1. Research:  What is the debate question asking you in your own words? Check with your team that they agree.  Research your topic.  Find concrete evidence and examples that support your argument.
  2. Offense: The best offensive is a strong defensive.  Research the opposition’s points and craft counter-arguments and questions.
  3. Logic: Use logic to have your points build off of one another… establish a “flow” of ideas and talking points.
  4. Don’t get personal: Try to avoid “I statements” if the debate is not a personal one, i.e. if you are debating about different sides of the American Revolution try to remember to be an objective historian.
  5. Stay focused: Stick to the topic. Get your points out and if you notice the conversation looping around and around the same point prepare a transition, “That is a good point, but I would like to raise a new one….”
  6. Listen: When you are not talking, don’t interrupt, and listen to what the opposition is saying so you are able to address them directly, thoughtfully, and well.
  7. Debates are most often lost rather an won: Ahh…I love this point and often write this on the board prior to a debate.
  8. Be respectful to your teammates and the opposition: no eye rolling and watch the body language.
  9. Tweak your argument in the debate as your process through the materials and answer counter-arguments….don’t just totally switch arguments in the middle….rather finesse it!
  10. Have some fun, laugh a little, keep it light.  Debates should be enjoyable, refreshing, and an opportunity for you to showcase all of your pre-planning.

Using their homemade debate guide, I grade this one and look forward to the next debate…and to their debates in the eleventh grade most of all.

guerrilla education

Education is buzzing with design thinking.  What this is can be difficult to define. Giving an elevator pitch on this style of teaching would be like trying to hit a moving target. Some educators describe design thinking as Project Based Learning, Challenged Based Learning, and/or Problem Based Learning. When I think of these words, I immediately envision ice cream.  The base ingredients of all ice creams include cream and sugar. As one branches into differing flavors and textures that suit the individual’s palette and desire more ingredients are tossed in delicately.  In the end, regardless of these additives, at its core it is still ice cream. Similarly, these education buzz words evoke a variety of responses as each is a shade different from the next, but each is still “ice cream.” The best way I can articulate this type of learning is to note that at the core each seeks to create an environment that values experiential learning and student ownership of their learning process. So while the approach may look differently if the starting point is Project Based Learning versus Design Thinking, the product may be quite similar as the student takes ownership over his or her creative process and attitude toward the assignment

This still is quite vague and will look different in each classroom. In my classroom this week I have attempted design thinking through an approach I will call guerrilla education. The word surprise or unexpected is a connotation for the word guerrilla.   After assigning this project, I have been surprised by their work and they are about to surprise the school with it. In attempting to wade into the waters of design thinking, I gave my students the following assignment:

Select:  An issue that a country faces
Do: Research on this issue
Brainstorm: Why is this issue significant? What are the possible solutions? What are the causes? What is already being done? What could be done? How can you create effective change? How can you reach the widest audience?  How do you inform people?
Create:  Either a product, policy, experience, or campaign that showcases/addresses this issue
Due: Friday or so…..

Their response has been overwhelmingly active.  Three of the projects seek to suddenly take hold of common and well trafficked lounge spaces at school in order to stage protests, host performative art, and engage students in activism. When I wrote these vague directions, I immediately thought this would blow up in my face as students asked for more specifics and cornered me into “telling them what to do.”  Instead, they brainstormed for an hour completely boxing me out of their exciting inspiration sessions. Given only peaks and glimpses into their early ideas, I was blown away by their creativity and interest. Of course, execution is a whole other beast.

I moved from group to group and asked them for a checklist and schedule for their projects and for them to list their targets.  Things are going smoothly right now and the project deadline is now this Thursday.  I am sure I will have an update then with what went wrong or could have been organized better; however, right now I find myself not holding the burden of the class at all.  The students have completely taken over their classroom experience and have used me as a sounding board and critic.  It is a very loose process which has felt scary each day but as someone who struggles to let go of the reins it is proving to be immensely rewarding…so far.

One group has selected to examine the Mexico-U.S. border control issues.  They are paying particular attention to young children who are brought over illegally into the U.S. and the Dream Act.  In order to raise awareness for these young children, they have made a video about the legal stakes these children face and while the video plays in the front entrance of the school, they have decided to sit silently behind fencing material in order to express the political, social, and economic limbo these individuals face once within the borders of the U.S.  A second group is examining the Ciudad Juárez where four hundred women have been killed.  These students have also created a video about the women, the city, and the response of the Mexican government.  While their awareness movie plays, they will be collecting over four hundred fingerprints in order to have students visualize the magnitude of this number.  The students will be taking hold of these public spaces on Thursday and surprising the student body not only with their work but with their message and creativity. I am truly looking forward to seeing the execution of these ideas and into rounding out my first attempt at curating creativity and guerrilla education in a History classroom.