Thursday, September 15, 2016

Is it an izzit day? by Elizabeth Harris

What do you read when you have no books and a high-school classroom full of struggling readers?

Nearly a decade ago I had to answer that very question as I began a new chapter in my career – teaching English and Academic Literacy at MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Texas. During the interview process, my principal challenged me both professionally and personally. She explained that my classes would be full of students who need a teacher to see beyond their well-documented disabilities and challenges. Enthusiasm for what you are teaching and respect for the students must be displayed every day. You must believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves. Can you do that while teaching students who are struggling or resistant learners?

Challenge accepted.

The first week of school brought another challenge that I had not anticipated. My classroom was nearly empty. A few desks and small tables were scattered amidst four white walls, but there was not a single book in the classroom. No books, no bookshelves, not even a filing cabinet.

My search for high-interest, expository texts or current event-based materials began immediately.

During this time, I discovered I was thrilled to find an organization dedicated to providing quality teaching materials. Although the emphasis of the materials is primarily in the economic or government and business realm, the topics readily lend themselves to cross-curricular learning experiences.

In my Academic Literacy classroom, From Poop to Profits becomes a lesson about problem solving, innovation, and overcoming obstacles.

Bee the Change becomes a lesson about learning to take risks in the face of hardship, and the importance of being committed to follow through in order to effect change for your family and community.

Paradox of Progress becomes a lesson about facing change. When is change good? When is technology enough? Or too much? Who decides?

The Singing Revolution becomes a lesson about individual acts of heroism, the power of choice, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Each engaging video depicts real people facing real challenges and demonstrates the importance of perseverance and individual choice. My students cheer whenever they see the icon. “Is it an izzit day?” is a favorite question.

Whether teaching my struggling readers, students with learning disabilities, or second language learners, provides excellent educational resources for teachers that can easily be adapted to teaching any level of secondary students. Teacher guides coupled with quality films and documentaries depicting real world situations provide students with authentic learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom walls. In my classroom, videos frequently serve as springboards for student-driven, inquiry-based research projects. This type of learning promotes critical thinking, problem solving, and higher level processing as well as collaboration.

Several years ago after reading a current event article from titled “Kidneys for Sale”, even my most apathetic student had an opinion. We paired this with a similar article and then viewed a segment of the video from the Drew Carey Project: Vol. 1. My students were engaged and did not stop talking about this topic even as we were ready to move on. So, I changed my lesson plans. Students continued generating meaningful questions and talking with their parents outside of class – about organ donors and organ transplants.

Their momentum carried us from learning about how to become an organ donor to learning which other organs can be successfully transplanted. As students questioned, we expanded our research. The culminating effect that year is that students began to learn why some people need organ donations. And they wanted to do something to help. One young lady challenged her family to begin eating more vegetables and become healthier so that they won’t need organ transplants. Others decided to raise awareness about how to become an organ donor.

Momentum continued and one final project brought all of my classes together in a collaborative effort. Students’ inquiry-based research led them to learn about several diseases such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). When students read an article about a young boy with DMD and learned it is a fatal childhood disease that affects boys, they wanted to do something. Their ideas flowed.

Students planned, developed, and carried out several events on campus and in the community to raise $1,500.00 dollars toward research for finding a cure. Through a grant proposal, students published a calendar outlining their journey and continuing efforts to raise awareness for their cause. Calendars were sent to principals, counselors, and librarians at each middle school and high school campus in our district.

Instead of focusing on their own challenges, this project provided a platform for students to realize their potential and celebrate their ability to impact the world around them. Participation at this level is empowering.

Curriculums may change and textbooks will come and go, but current event updates and educational videos remain a constant in my classroom because they provide opportunities for students to grow and learn together