I am privileged to be teaching seventh and eighth grade Language Arts, as well as science, at John S. Martinez Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut. Teaching in an urban setting is both rewarding and challenging, sometimes even sprinkled with a good deal of frustration. Many of the students at John S. Martinez come to school rich with heritage and a sense of community but often lack fundamental skills and a wide variety of life experiences. Demographically, my students fall into two dominant categories: Black and Hispanic, with one White student and two Islanders. Seven students are bilingual. Fortunately, attendance is not a major issue. As the Language Arts curriculum is heavily entrenched with social studies themes and issues, the postwar American era offers me a wealth of primary and secondary source material from which I can draw. My students are truly fascinated by stories from "back in the day", as they so often refer to it, and having materials that show them the complexities of this era will be invaluable to me as a teacher. Discovering materials that show the historical connections between then and now will enable me to help them fill in the gaps with rich materials from my youth. The students will observe first hand social comparisons that developed during this time and watch as technology advanced and changed the world. It will provide me with choice and allow me to reminisce about "the good old days". I know I will be vested but how do I get my students to do the same?
To be an effective teacher who engages her students requires the gathering and use of as much information as possible. Pedagogy, teaching methodology, abounds, but what is appropriate for
class? Awareness of their limited exposure to life outside the "hood", an understanding of the different types of intelligences and their implications for instruction as put forth by Gardner, an understanding of time management in terms of curriculum development and implementation, and the ability to align a curriculum to the state standards with the graduated questioning of Bloom's Taxonomy are but some of the tools necessary as I sit down to consider how to teach my students. Knowing who my students are as learners, knowing what skills are in place and which ones need introduction or work is also essential. Having hands on, creative activities that immerse students into the subject, where they feel part of something, coupled with the use of technology, is also paramount.
After planning a unit in great detail, a teacher experiences a sense of freedom in the classroom. Having a complete outline with exact lessons, stated standards to be covered, and creative exercises for enrichment, allows for a teacher's personality to be used as a wonderful teaching resource in the classroom. Everything is planned and organized. The teacher can relax. This often overlooked resource can turn a good teacher into a great one. Preparing a unit with such precision compels a teacher to take a close look at the complete picture while helping to avoid many mistakes that happen without such planning. It also focuses the teacher's attention on the needs of individual students in the class.
One of the glaring enigmas in today's educational climate, though, is the fact that our students live in a ten second, sound bite world. Getting my students to learn to read, to take time to read, and, finally, to enjoy reading with understanding poses a real dilemma and uneasiness. Since many of my students have not been read to at an early age or have not heard the English language spoken at home, how can I expect them to read novels or anything that I might assign? I believe the answer is to engage them in small steps. What better way to accomplish this then through the use of articles from the internet, individual chapters from a variety of sources as well as the newspaper. A newspaper is readily available in their lives and getting them actively involved in current reading will open the world to them exposing them to a myriad of issues from a variety of view points.
To this end, my unit will require that each student become a newspaper editor, reporter, and writer. It will result in each student choosing a specific year within the Postwar America timeframe and creating a special edition newspaper entitled, "The Year in Review, 19 __". My decision to have
student complete a specific year alleviates certain issues that often arise. "My partner is out and I can't work alone" or "I've done all the work yet he/she is getting as much credit as I am". These enabling excuses will be eliminated. Their finished newspaper will contain international, national, and local news, an editorial page, complete with letters to the editor, an editorial comment, and a political satire, relevant pictures, obituaries, weather, horoscopes, comics, a book review, fashion, weddings, sports, advertisements, special interest section, classifieds, financial section, and any other additions that the class lists as a result of a brainstorming session. My students will learn the layout skills necessary to create a "true to life and time" newspaper. Using
The Complete Newspaper Resource Book,
my students will investigate what a good newspaper contains, what kinds of articles appear on the front page, the criteria of a good newspaper article, and even complete a scavenger hunt. As the unit progresses, my class will develop an on-going journalistic vocabulary that is specific to understanding a newspaper. Knowing that an editorial article is written differently than a headline story and the responsibilities of each, I will bring the students to discover these differences by using the materials I hope to gather as I complete the seminar. Not knowing that facts differ from opinions is one of the weaknesses I have observed in working with this age group. Getting my students to appreciate what makes a story news worthy, what accuracy and appropriateness of headlines means, what is meant by unbiased reporting, and how the newspaper is divided up will be on our agenda. It is my hope that field trips to our local news centers can be arranged. The finished projects will, perhaps, be displayed throughout the school or in some other creative way, perhaps having an assembly where the entire school can go "back in time".
It is my hope that my students will not only develop writing skills for a variety of expository situations but they will also begin a dialogue on important issues dealing with social and political changes from 1945 to the present. Understanding how a wartime climate led to one of seeking individual prosperity, how the civil rights movement took hold and gained momentum, how women became discontented and sought refuge in the workplace, how the cold war with Russia spurred on technological advantages, how music went from the Andrew Sisters to Elvis and Rock and Roll, to The Beatles and now to rap and hip hop, will hopefully begin a discussion that will lead my students to search for more information thus improving not only their literacy and writing skills but also their understanding of important historical issues that shaped our world.