Thursday, September 4, 2014

"The Story of Jane and Bobby" (Wednesday PD @ Behrman Charter)

Welcome back!

ACSA, Behrman's charter operator, has designed this school year with "1/2-day Wednesdays" so teachers can focus on professional learning communities and multidisciplinary collaboration.  Yesterday was the first of these sessions and I was asked to present a lesson for a small group of teachers on a relevant topic of my choosing.  A large portion of our school's conversations about how to increase "rigor" in the classroom returns to the need for our teachers and students to ask and answer higher-level questions (Level 3 and 4 Questions on the Depth of Knowledge wheel). Since I absolutely love the study and application of critical-thinking lessons (going back to my critical thinking skills-focused lessons as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China), I decided to present "The Story of Jane and Bobby" (learned from the USPCV staff in China) with a Behrman/arts-integration twist.  I entitled the presentation "Extracting Culture and Student-generated Questions through Visual Storytelling." This lesson could easily be adapted for a late-elementary through high school classroom, but yesterday, it was just for teachers.  Since I blog with the  "eloquence in brevity" motto, on this, I will just give you some highlights, but please e-mail me @ if you would like to fill in the missing pieces:

I started with a series of quotes and asked the teachers to identify one or two that resonated with them.  Think, Pair, Share.
Then, I told a story orally and visually (this is the part with MANY important details that I will not mention here, but again, reach out to me if you are interested). In a nutshell, the story involves 4 characters interacting in compromising situations that deal with love, money, opportunism, and sacrifice. I interrupted my story 3 times to have my audience ask clarifying questions (crucial!) and make decisions based on the details I provided and their prior, personal experiences and beliefs.  

Then the teachers were asked to rank the characters in the story from the most virtuous to the least virtuous based on the characters' decisions and possible motivations.  As you can see from the picture above, teachers had a wide range of verdicts (tally marks).

After discussing our unique supporting evidence for our answers and framing the lesson by returning to the quotations' relevance to each character, I presented some student examples of my use of visual storytelling from last year (using our reading of "The Lady, or the Tiger?") and picked the teachers brains for additional story elements that might satisfy subject-specific questioning (e.g. How could I incorporate more science-specific questions into this story?).

These are fantastic examples:

All in all, the teachers exercised their phenomenal debate skills by not only generating clarifying questions for me in order to make the best decisions but also questioned each other (just as we must train students to generate relevant questions/criticism for each other in the classroom). As a Louisiana A+ school with partnerships with KIDsmART and Young Audiences, the incorporation of art  - in this case, visual interpretations of characters and their scenarios - allows students to see the story, and with me telling it orally, they advance their skills in the art of note taking.  Lastly, since this specific session was designed for my fellow colleagues, we were able to interact and collectively deconstruct a problem all while taking stock in others' opinions and beliefs to propose a proper, agreeable solution - an task we must fulfill by designing creative lessons for/with our students in the 21st century classroom.  I firmly believe the purpose of professional development for teachers is not simply to highlight material applicable for students, but to exercise the actual minds of teachers (or, "lesson architects") in creative and critical ways so they themselves can be prepared to challenge students with rigorous questions and tasks.  Yesterday, we dug deep, and I believe this lesson will be an inspiring model for teachers to create equally challenging lessons (with deep, lingering questions) no matter the grade or subject area. 

My best,

Mr. Razem

Friday, August 22, 2014

How is our school like...a banana!? Model Lesson

Welcome back:

The building that houses Behrman Charter School is approximately 83 years old. In New Orleans, we are one of the oldest still-in-use school buildings.  All around the city, new, shiny school buildings are popping up, slick with modern, Eco-friendly designs. Yet, these new buildings lack the few characteristics that make Behrman special.  We have a huge auditorium (not a "cafetorium," but an actual auditorium and a cafeteria) and a gym, albeit old and smelly, exclusively for our student-athletes.  We find pride in making the most out of the classrooms with termite damage, windows that don't open, and leaky plumbing and air-conditioning systems. Behrman Charter's building has a deep, historic personality, and I've always been curious in its changes throughout the decades.  So curious that I decided to use our school's exterior physical changes as inspiration for a model lesson for our school's first and second grade students.

We started with a banana. What?! Yes! "What color is this banana?" I asked the class.  "Yellow!" they yelled! "Yellow, yes, but is it only yellow? What other colors do you see? Why is this banana a different color than that banana?"
After we established an understanding about changing bananas through strategic, student-centered questioning (What are some other things that change?  How are you different today than you were yesterday? Last week? Last year? Gimme specifics!), we put their visual and communication skills to the test by selecting 10 student volunteers. I created 8 banana peel "stages" using crayons and construction paper (see below) ranging from dark green to black with brown spots.  I also included a picture of a tree with green bananas with the number "1" and another picture with tiny black dots labeled "seeds" with the number "10". 

I shuffled the papers and gave each student-volunteer a random banana peel stage. "Talk to each other.  I want you to put yourself in the right place so the rest of the class can see the color change from '1' to '10.' You will need to use your eyes, your voices, your feet, and your knowledge about changing bananas! GO!"

 After the students started moving, the class gave the 10 students their thumbs-up or thumbs-down if they thought they were correct or incorrect.  Finally, the class found success! Round of applause!

But now the tricky part: "Class, now we are going to try something a little bit different, but you need to keep what you learned about changing bananas in your brains, because we are coming back to it at the very end! Do you understand?" "YES!" "Okay, cool, now take a look at this picture!"
"What is this? Is a new or old picture? How can you tell it's old? Now take a look at this picture!" 
 "What is this? Is a new or old picture? How can you tell it's new?  How are these pictures the same?  How are they different?"
Students came up the the board and circled the similarities in red and the differences in green.  I told them the first picture was from 1948 and the second, 2014, last week. We talked about trees, cars, lampposts, sidewalks, and windows. Then, the big question:

"How is our school building, Behrman Charter, 
like a banana?"

Students' minds began churning.  One student said the shape of our building is curved like a banana, much to my delight because I had never thought about this answer, prompting me to pull up the GoogleMaps image after class:
But then the intended discovery was made; things change, they grow, they deteriorate, they grow new parts when the old parts die, the world around them changes, but a banana is a banana regardless of what it looks like, and our school is our school, no matter if Obama is president...or Harry S. Truman!  The funniest answer, however, was a student's response that Behrman's building used to be a delicious green/yellow banana, but now, its a stinky, old brown banana (see picture below).  After noticing that the windows in the 1948 photo are the SAME WINDOWS my students struggle to open in 2014, I couldn't help by think, "That's the greatest answer I've ever heard." But after talking about the characteristics of the old and new photographs, this flip-flop of past and the present in comparison to old and new bananas is quite remarkable for a 2nd grader!
This lesson was geared towards the 1st and 2nd graders at Behrman Charter, but this could easily be advanced for older children; one idea I hope to experiment with is providing the students with a skeleton of the school's exterior and asking them to create what they think the school will look like in the NEXT 50 years:

They will need to think about futuristic cars, street lighting, new or existing trees, and the building's overall architecture.  Creation, after weighing all the ins and outs, is the name of the game.

BIG-UPS to Ms. Dorr and Ms. Laurent for allowing me to model this lesson for them and their fabulous students!

My best,

Mr. Razem

Monday, August 11, 2014

The 2014-2015 School Year BEGINS!

Welcome back!

I can't think of a better way to start the year than with modeling some ARTS INTEGRATION activities/warm-ups for the entire Behrman faculty alongside some of my amazing former 6th graders!  ENJOY!

 More soon!

My best,

Mr. Razem

Thursday, June 5, 2014

My Quest for National Board Certification: The most rewarding year of my teaching career

Welcome back:

Summer break has started for most of New Orleans' schools, but that doesn't mean teachers aren't reflecting on the year that was. As the title of this post states, I am confident in saying that this past school year was the most rewarding stretch of teaching thus far in my career.
Why? I could go on and on about how my heavy investment in arts integration as a KidSmart Teacher-Leader, the successes of the debate team and chess club, the laughs I shared with the 1st and 6th graders during Mandarin Chinese lessons, or how my specific ELA students scored one of the highest "Basic or above" percentages on the iLEAP out of all open-enrollment schools in New Orleans (Also, this link), but in actuality, the most rewarding part of the year was the high(er) standards that motivated me to create, document, process, and reflect on the lessons I planned and executed with my students. These standards are those created by the National Board Professional Teaching Standards.  I learned about National Board Certification from a teacher friend who attended SUNY Fredonia with me during my undergraduate/graduate work in education, and I felt up for the challenge.  And oh, what a challenge it was!

In an article from The Advocate from January, 2013, Charles Lussier reports:
"Just 54 teachers in Louisiana achieved certification in 2012 from a well-regarded national teaching organization, a fifth as many teachers as when the program was at its peak in this state.
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards announced the results Monday. The totals are down from 102 in 2011 and 148 in 2010."
Why is there a pattern of decline of NBC teachers in Louisiana?  I would argue we need more NBC teachers than ever in a state that is consistently placed towards the bottom of the US's state education rankings. In a recent blog post from Geneviève DeBose on the NBPTS website, she writes about her desire to: "1) increase the number of NBCTs in high-need schools, and 2) train NBCTs to become instructional leaders in high-need schools." This post gave me extra motivation to complete my teaching portfolio - consisting of 4 entries assessing my work with students' reading/writing, whole-group discussion, small-group instruction, and documenting my accomplishments with parents and the community - and study hard for the rapid-fire computer-based assessment of my content knowledge and understanding of advanced teaching pedagogy. In hope of fulfilling Ms. DeBose's second goal, I will serve as a Teacher Coach during the next school year as to help my colleagues learn new strategies on how to bridge arts integration and the Common Core Standards. 

When I walked out of the testing center on May 29th, I felt so fulfilled. I worked incredibly hard with my students this year and was lucky to have the support of my colleagues and administration as I slowly but surely chipped away at this rigorous task.  Thank you!

After my students completed their iLEAP test in April, I sent this tweet to @NBPTS in appreciation for everything their standards did for me:

I won't find out my scores for another few months, but I hope my portfolio accurately reflects how much I learned with my students this past school year. Teachers always want to get better at their craft, and NBPTS gave me one of the best professional development opportunities imaginable. Sharing the same goal as Ms. DeBose, I hope my process inspires other teachers in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans, to gear up, have a good stretch, and begin the climb to the top of the teaching mountain.

My best,

Friday, May 23, 2014

Short scenes from Hatchet using Dramatic ARTS INTEGRATION!

Welcome back!

Summer is here!  But before we depart for 2 months of Louisiana humidity, here are some short Hatchet scenes we filmed using dramatic arts integration! (Excuse the shoddy "Blogger" uploads; the YouTube page was having some technical difficulties.) How do we promote engagement, deepen comprehension, and utilize all intelligences? ARTS INTEGRATION!

The Skunk Attack Scene! (Using random props found around the classroom!)

The next three scenes we worked on the idea that Brian evolved from a submissive presence to a dominant force in the wild as he learned his role in a greater natural system.  The first clip is of Brian's interaction with a bear and her cub, in which he immediately backs up submissively. 

Next, he encounters a pack of wolves, showing less fear by nodding to them in acknowledgment. 

Finally, he finds himself "in the wild," and by establishing himself (aka "surviving") he emits his dominance. The "clap!" significances the mental shift Brian feels as he becomes one with his surroundings!

More soon!

My best,

Mr. Razem

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Arts Integration with Visual Arts for Gary Paulsen's Hatchet and more!

Welcome back!


As the school year concludes, we have have been utilizing more and more arts integration lessons to make our lessons burst at the seams with student creativity! We are reading another great novel - Gary Paulsen's Hatchet - and channeled our inner Navy Seal and Michelangelo for some neat, relevant activities:

First, I blew the students minds with this video clip and asked them to define "camouflage":

In Hatchet,

Brian experiences many trials in the Candaian wilderness. He must adapt, or blend in, to this new, sometimes hostile world, and that means he must become one with the wild.  Then, I showed the students these four pictures and we analyzed each environment's colors and textures. 

Then we talked about pixels in photographs (I zooooooomed in on a picture and we analyzed the individual squares), and how the our own military uses a form of camouflage that's composed of tiny pixels to build a much greater, more strategic pattern of colors that helps soldiers disappear into their surroundings.  So I asked the students to select one of these four settings and create a pixel camouflage for it.  Here are some great examples:


 This lesson demonstrated my students' ability to bridge literary and art concepts, assisting them in visualizing the descriptive passages from Hatchet, bringing Brian's situation to life.

Also, we looked at pictures of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and brainstormed the challenge Michelangelo had to deal with when he painted the immortal "God Adam Touch" painting:

I asked, "Do you think you could create art like him....while laying on your back?!"

So we we tried:
Their assignment was to write their favorite scene from Chapters 1-6 from Hatchet.  Check it out!

 The students LOVED this.  One student even asked, "Can we do our homework like this?" Changing students' perspectives continues to promote engagement and creative thinking.  

Always thinking outside the box in 6th grade ELA! 

More soon,

Mr. Razem

Monday, April 28, 2014

Final Debate of the Year!

Welcome back!
Our fourth and final debate took place this past Saturday at Tulane University.  We fielded an all 6th grade team this round: --Jeremiah B, Kiya W, Aalyah B, and Aria D--and they did a phenomenal job!  Because we only had four, they formed themselves into two teams of two and were asked by debate organizers to "take in" debaters from two other schools in order to form two teams of three.  Joining Aria and Jeremiah was a talented young 7th grader from Lusher Charter School, and joining Kiya and Aalyah was 6th grader Michael, son of Mrs. Cherie G. of Behrman Charter!  The results were great--our individual teams each earned a record of 3 wins and 1 loss, and came in 5th and 7th place, and Behrman as a school came in 3rd place out of all 12 schools in attendance!  Aalyah B came in 14th place out of all debaters, as calculated by individual speaker points throughout the day. 
The four topics the students debated were 1) Social media does more harm than good; 2) College education should be free; 3) Advertising does more harm than good; and 4) Cigarettes should be illegal. 
Special thanks to the teachers, administration, and parents who supported the debate team this year!  The students all learned a lot and continue to improve with each competition. 
Thanks again,
Mr. Razem