It was sixth-grade orientation. New lockers, new teachers and new friends. But as I was preparing to lead this orientation, I wanted to take time to honor what wasn’t new—all the experiences my students brought with them. My solution? Paper airplanes.
I gave out paper and asked the students to list people and things that were important to them in elementary school. To help them think broadly, I gave lots of prompts as they made their lists:
● Friends they were close to, whether or not they’re still close now
● Teachers who made a difference
● Significant activities, such as athletics or arts
● Places that mattered to them
● Topics they learned about that were particularly interesting
● Important skills or processes they learned
● Things they cared about, like a favorite toy or well-worn article of clothing
● Books that had an impact
● Memories they want to hold onto
After the students had time to make satisfying lists, we folded our papers into airplanes, with the words on the inside so they could be kept private. Some students were already expert plane-makers, and others had no idea what to do. I had no idea either, but I’d printed the steps off the internet and guided those who needed help. (Everyone got through the activity with their eyes intact!)
But before we flew our planes, we sat in a circle. I said, “Imagine that this plane represents your life. On board are the important experiences you’ve had so far. Even though new things might become important as you go through middle school, no one can take away the experiences that are important to you right now.” I looked around the circle. The students were with me. “So, what might happen when we all fly our planes at the same time?”
“They might crash into each other,” a student said.
“Yes. In life, we’re going about our business, and other people are going about theirs, and sometimes we have conflicts. Two people reach for the last doughnut, try out for the lead role in a play or try to get the same friend’s attention. What else could happen when we all fly our planes?”
Another student said, “It might just…” and she acted out a crash landing with sound effects.
“Yep. We sometimes try things and fail miserably.”
Another student motioned to the fluorescent light fixtures and said, “The plane might get stuck.”
“Yes. In life, we sometimes get stuck and need help getting out of those situations. What else could happen?
“Couldn’t the plane fly exactly where you want it to go?”
“Of course! Sometimes things go the way we planned them. Maybe because we folded our planes really well, we got help or we just got lucky. What else could happen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe someone tries to make the plane go really far, but it ends up making some cool loop-dee-loop.”
“Yes! Sometimes what we end up doing isn’t what we expected or planned, but it’s really cool! There are so many ways to make a flight successful.”
Then, on the count of three, we all flew our planes at the same time: We sped and looped and crashed them. Then I asked the students to find someone else’s plane and bring it back to their seats. How did it feel to have another person’s plane? The responses were all similar. Weird. Uncomfortable. A big responsibility. I asked, “What might be some situations in sixth grade where someone else’s plane will be in your hands, so to speak?”
“When you’re working on a group project, you need to do your part or everyone gets a bad grade.”
“If your friend is upset.”
“Even something small, like if someone needs a pencil and you have an extra.”
“Or if someone asks you for help with their homework.”
They flew each other’s planes—more carefully this time—and found their own again. Finally, I asked them to consider how they want to fly their planes in middle school. Not where they wanted to fly; this wasn’t a goal-setting exercise. I was asking how they wanted to fly: “How do you want to approach your classes? How do you want to treat your friends? And your classmates who aren’t your friends? How do you want to treat your teachers? How do you want to treat yourself? How do you want to behave toward your families and communities?”
They wrote their responses on the wings of their planes because, while their experiences are on board, their values are how they want to fly. We went around the circle one last time so everyone could share.
“I want to take on challenges.”
“I want to act supportively toward my friends and classmates.”
“I’m going to take my academics and sports seriously.”
“Even if I fail, I’ll keep going.”
I collected the airplanes so I could return them later in the year and ask if the values the students wrote on the wings still feel salient. How have they stuck to their flight plans in middle school, and how have their flight plans changed? Questions like these can help them live by their own values in a variety of contexts—including school.
Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.
Two common themes are apparent when reviewing the American Library Association’s list of the top 10 most challenged books of 2015. The first is highlighted by such books as Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan and I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. These books and others on the list feature characters that represent the diversity of gender and sexuality beyond the privileged norms. Religion is another prominent subject in books on the list; challenged texts include the Holy Bible, Habibi by Craig Thompson and Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter.
Gender, sexuality and religion are social flashpoints, and so it’s no surprise that books that tackle these subjects have raised concerns. However, instead of shying away from such important aspects of humanity, it’s vital that students engage with challenging texts that can serve as mirrors of their own experiences and as windows into those of others.
In honor of Banned Books Week, below is a listing of just some of the readings around these topics in Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives for a Diverse America text anthology. It’s our hope that you will use these readings with your students to provide a more rigorous, relevant and engaging classroom experience. Happy reading!
Tip! To access the texts, you can log in to Perspectives and then click on the hyperlinks below. Doing so will pull up the readings in your browser. Or you can search for the titles in the advanced filter of the text anthology. (You must have completed your free registration to log in and see the anthology.)
Gender and Sexuality
- 10,000 Dresses (K-5)
- Antonio’s Card/La tarjeta de Antonio (K-5)
- Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is (6-8)
- Gender Trouble
- International Bill of Gender Rights (9-12)
- Parent Power: Raising Kate (6-8)
- A War on the Peaceful (K-5)
- The Burden of Being a Young American Muslim (6-8)
- Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport (9-12)
- My Illustrated History (6-8)
- My Name Was Hussein (K-5)
- What Is the Truth About American Muslims? (9-12)
Phillips is the
manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.
A recent piece in Politico Magazine unearthed the libertarian influence on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic book series Little House on the Prairie. This article highlights the various ways the series has been a pathway to debate and discussion of broader sociopolitical topics such as the merits of the free market. More important, the Politico piece implicitly acknowledges that, whether we’re discussing children’s literature, young adult literature, popular literature or classic literature (or anything in between), we cannot separate ideology from texts. Nor should we try, especially as teachers during a national election like the one unfolding in front of us.
Educators have a role in helping students understand how ideology influences the way people think about the world. Although I am an English teacher, I believe helping students come to better understand ideology is essential for all content areas. STEM fields, for example, are far from free of biases and ideological bents, despite popular opinion to the contrary. For instance, statistics teachers should help students understand how ideology helps influence survey questions and how embedding words such as family and patriotism into the universe of possible responses may cause ideology to sway the results.
I like to tell my students that ideology is the belief system that influences how people make sense of the world around them. In my ninth-grade class, we read several books that are frequent fliers on banned book lists, such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Banned book lists offer a good starting point for discussions about ideology. My students and I kick off by discussing what texts are commonly on these lists—and which aren’t—and what issues cause a book to be banned and why. Some students always point out that topics like sex and violence result in books being banned. However, reading Shakespeare complicates that equation.
My students are always surprised by the innuendos and juvenile humor in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “But this is Shakespeare!” some of them gasp. This reaction leads into conversations about why the play is rarely banned. Arguably, Romeo and Juliet deals with as many controversial topics as Alexie’s and Satrapi’s texts. The difference? Shakespeare is a “classic” writer.
I unpack with my students the ideology behind the term classic. Does it mean old? Somewhat. We then brainstorm what so-called classic texts students are familiar with in order to find common themes among them. Are these texts written by Europeans? Largely, but there are some American writers. Are they all written by males? Not all of them, but certainly women’s representation is lacking. How many authors of color appear on classic lists? Not too many. What about LGBTQ writers? Almost nonexistent. So why is Shakespeare’s coverage of controversial topics OK, but not Alexie’s or Satrapi’s? With this conversation, students come to see the ideological forces behind the banning of books.
All curriculum is political. After all, schools are funded by taxpayers and thus tied to the electorate, if only loosely. And all educational decisions are driven by ideology, whether we’re aware of our own ideological foundations or not. If we do not teach students how to understand and address ideology as part of their meaning-making capacities, then we risk allowing them to be socialized into the dominant, hegemonic belief systems that marginalize segments of our population. That is not healthy for our democracy. Helping students understand how ideology influences decisions allows them to be more thoughtful and engaged participants in society. That should be our goal.
Miller teaches ninth-grade English language arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.
The Atlantic: “The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-student counselor ratio of 250:1. According to the most recent data, only three states meet that recommendation.”
Chalkbeat: “Experts say integrated classrooms provide a value to children of every background, enabling kids to learn how to interact with people who are different and serving as an equalizer at a time when kids who are poor and black or Hispanic are more likely to attend a school with perpetually low test scores that might not be getting the resources it needs.”
The Conversation: “The question is, could we encourage children to become sympathetic toward others? And could children learn the best way to help keeping in mind the unique circumstances of others?”
Education Week: “How should schools handle the tension between a collective act of patriotism and their students’ acts of personal expression?”
Medium: “Every parent of a Black child sending their child to school this morning (too many mornings, in fact) is grappling with how much they should discuss with their child about what is happening in the United States.”
Medium: “Systemic racism founded America, has maintained America, and still maintains America all at the cost of obstructing black people from equitable or even equal access to resources.”
Mother Jones: “How does a kid wind up in jail for an unmade bed?”
The New York Times: “I asked my daughter why she said she wanted to be whiter than she is, reminding her that some of her favorite role models, from gymnastics to music, also had brown skin.”
Practical Theory: “One of the reasons that I think it’s so important that I speak out on issues of racial injustice isn’t just because I teach students of color, it’s also because I teach white students.”
Public Radio International: “In 2016, things aren’t magically better. Hate crimes against Muslims or those mistakenly perceived as Muslim are still more than double what they were before 9/11.”
U.S. News and World Report: “Students from kindergarten through sixth grade will lose their hot lunch but be allowed to charge a cold sandwich, fruit and milk to their meal accounts if their parents owe more than $25. Older students get no lunch at all if their parents owe more than $25.”
The Washington Post: “For schoolchildren, touring the Mall’s newest museum will be an educational journey through the historical lens of black life in America. It also will mean helping students better understand the atrocities committed during the era of slavery and the lynchings in the Jim Crow South.”
The Washington Post: “While giving considerable lip service to the plight of poor children and children of color, we have not backed-up our rhetoric with our actions.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
One way to get in the Mix It Up spirit before Mix It Up at Lunch Day is with…mixers! Confused? Don’t be.
Teaching Tolerance offers dozens of free online resources to use in the classroom during the weeks leading up to your Mix It Up event. We call them “mixers.” These lessons are available for all grade levels, and they cover a variety of subjects. AND they can deepen the impact of your event by getting students excited about Mix and accustomed to sharing.
Mixers are also a great way to help raise awareness about divisions and boundaries that might be present at your school. Check out this sampling:
It’s About Me: Students introduce themselves using a photo or object that is important to them. (Grades 1-12)
Human Scavenger Hunt: Students get to know each other while searching for their partners. (Grades PreK-5)
Fact or Fiction?: Students must guess whether statements about their group members are true or false. (Grades 6-12)
Want another reason to practice mixing it up? Your school’s event could be the subject of a Mix It Up video! We’re sending professional videographers to three schools on Mix It Up at Lunch Day. (The event does not have to be held on October 25, but it does have to be held before winter break.) Tell us by September 30 why your school’s event deserves to be filmed and featured, and you could appear in a short Teaching Tolerance film produced to promote Mix. Remember: We’re looking for creativity and FUN!
Mix It Up at Lunch Day is October 25!
Do you have any questions about Mix It Up? We want to answer them. Any ideas or other thoughts? We want to hear them. Contact us on Facebook or Twitter (use #MixLunch!), or browse these FREE Mix It Up resources.