Saturday, March 6, 2021

10 Thoughts for Teachers Resuming In-Person Teaching

History teachers sometimes go off on these flights of fancy, thinking about what it would have been like at various times in history. There were some books about 15 years ago titled “I Wish I’d Been There”…and renowned historians are like "I wish I had seen wAsHiNgToN cRoSsiNg tHe DeLaWaRe" because...we're nerds. 

Looking ahead 100 years, I’m imagining my posterity as very handsome and beautiful history teachers looking at 2020-21 and…are they thinking “I wish I’d been there?” Helllll no. Here in Utah, we had the pandemic, but we also had an earthquake, we had a storm with hurricane-force winds, then there's the election, there's an insurrection, my dog got hit by a damn car -- I try to be optimistic, but these are very difficult times. (Lucky made a swift recovery)

Last March 13 is the day the world changed for us here in Utah. The pandemic had already been closing schools in other states, and even though we had only had a handful of cases to that point, we went ahead and shut down for in-person learning. After a week to reorient ourselves and learn how to do (waves hands vaguely) this, we were back to trying to teach kids. Part of it was exciting, part of it was terrifying, all of it was overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

Fast-Forward to August. Our state and school district was going back to in-person learning. Parents and students in my district could continue to do distance learning, but the majority were coming back face-to-face. Utah was averaging 350-400 new cases per day. We didn't know what to expect, but teachers had exactly zero input into how we were going to be doing this. Fridays were going to be distance learning (and teachers figuring out WTF we were doing) days. Ultimately I had about 150 in-person students and 75 remote students, who I was also responsible for teaching. I was completely overwhelmed and under-equipped and had no training on Zoom or Loom or anything else. I hated my job for the first time in 17 years. I was failing every single day, and feeling like my own health and the health of my family members was in jeopardy because of my job. Utah peaked at about 5,000 new cases per day, with 20% positivity rates, we've had more than 100 cases just in my school, more than 1,000 in the district. 

All of that is for context. I know many of my teacher friends across the country are just now resuming face-to-face instruction, for the first time in a year or more. And there's a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of resentment. I feel all of that. I'm hoping this post will help allay some of those anxieties, and if nothing else, will help you feel like you're not alone. With alllll of that said, here are my "10 Thoughts for Teachers Resuming In-Person Teaching." It's adapted from a virtual conference keynote in November, but hopefully it will help. 

1. It's not okay. None of this is okay. None of this is normal. When someone says "How are you doing?" you don't need to respond with "I'm doing great, I'm swell, I'm operating within normal parameters." You can say "this is really effing hard." (In Utah "effing" is as far as we're allowed to go) It's not okay, and it's okay to feel those feelings.

2. We're still here, and we will get through this. Those of you that have been doing distance learning for the last year, you've gotten through this far, and fought hard and worked harder and suffered your own crises throughout. If you can get through all of that, you're strong enough to get through the last few months. 

3. Try something new – of all school years, this is the year where we’re all first year teachers again. Last spring and summer, I learned what Zoom was, I participated in Zoom workshops and classes, but it wasn’t until October that my school said “hey, you’re using Zoom now.” …without training, without teaching our students, without any warning. It wasn't the best month. But with the mindset that we’re all trying something new, and it’s okay to misstep, we’ll get through this. I'm used to teaching with LEGO and graphic novels and hands-on strategies, and I'm not I can’t do all that I want to do. It’s not that kind of year. But I can try something new. 

4. Ask for help – colleagues – admin – counselors – students – parents …even though it might often feel like it, we’re not in this alone. I’m fortunate to have a great PLC that I know I can ask anything to and not need to be embarrassed about not knowing how to do it. We have team members who are in their first year of teaching, and some of us…a bit longer. If you don’t have those colleagues in the building, you can cultivate those relationships elsewhere – Twitter, Facebook groups, other platforms. There are people willing to both commiserate and share their own ideas. Let them help you. 

5. Forgive yourself for not making it the best year ever. When this all started, I remember thinking “oh wow, I’ll end up with so much free time if the schools close, what will I do with all of that free time? I’M GOING TO WORK ON ME! I’ll start running again, I’ll work on personal projects, I’ll write three more books!" I wasn’t thinking “I bet I can watch all six seasons of Schitts Creek in 4 Days if I really apply myself” I wasn’t thinking “I bet I can cut my own hair” …I feel like this will always be the school year with an asterisk next to it. You may be getting other messages from principals, from parents, from the community, but your colleagues understand. This is my 17th year teaching, and it’s the first year I’ve ever considered quitting. It’s the first year I’ve ever considered changing districts, it’s the first year I’ve ever considered moving out of the state. I never thought I’d feel this way, but…2020. Teachers I’ve known and respected for years, teachers I know are incredible educators are feeling like “I’m not proud of what I’m doing.” If you’re trying to do what you’ve done every year…you’re going to be frustrated. 

6. Simplify – start with the relationship with students. That's the core of what we do. Social Emotional Learning has become something of a catchphrase, but I feel like it's always how I've taught. Focus on your students feeling safe and supported, then teach them skills, then teach them content. If it's something they can Google, let them Google it. You're not watering down, you're simplifying. There are times of crisis when school doesn't matter as much as the community of your classroom, and that's now. 

7. Do something completely selfish and then call it "Self-Care." Like, November 1st I bought a Sesame Street LEGO Set. Okay, full disclosure, I bought TWO. Because I needed that to get me through my pandemic days. And no matter what Certain Republican Governors think, this pandemic ain't over. 

8. Do something completely for someone else. There was an episode of Friends where Joey was telling Phoebe there's no such thing as a completely selfless act, but you can sure try. And hey, if I lived my life according to Friends, I'd still have Chandler's Season 1 Hair and Sweater Vests. 

9. Have empathy. Most teachers I know have a great ability to be empathetic (I just typed "apathetic," but caught myself). We see the struggles our students go through and we try to help them succeed despite those struggles. This year I have about 1/3 of my students I've never seen in person. The students who are in my classroom, most of their faces is hidden beneath their masks. The shy ones use it as cover to be even more introverted, but all of them still want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to be reached. In every assignment I try to find something that connects to their lives in 2021. The thing is, kids that are here in person this year--they want to be there. I haven't had a single fight over masks with kids, I haven't had a single kid push back against social distancing. They want to feel that community. As much as this pandemic has been confusing and difficult for me as an adult, it's crushing some of our kids. Try to find some empathy for your admins too -- they're also lifting heavy loads well beyond anything they ever signed on for. I know one of our five admins has become the "Covid Czar" for our school, in charge of parent notification and contact tracing and quarantines. It was his full-time job for most of fall and winter. I don't know how he got through it. (seven of you just said "alcohol" out loud, but remember...Utah...)

10. Wear a mask. Uh...that's it. 

(if you're still reading this, you might like MY BOOK Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics) I made it this far without self-promotion, but hey. Side hustles gotta hustle. I'm available for conferences and keynotes and like, things. Stuff. Junk. Buy ten copies for your school. I'm mostly partially joking. And partially not. Daddy needs a new LEGO set. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Hands-on Ideas for Teaching Your Own Kids at Home

Many of us are suddenly in a position that's frankly terrifying -- not fears of global pandemic, not quarantine itself, but becoming the teachers of our own children. 

If you're a parent, not a classroom teacher, you may feel overwhelmed. If you are a classroom teacher, but suddenly you're required to be teaching your own 227 students online at the same time you're overseeing your own offspring, you may feel similarly overwhelmed. Ultimately, as something-something-High-School-Musical, we're all in this together. Meaning...we're all trapped in the same home together and we've got to pull together and make the best of it.

I want to emphasize something here. This post is NOT trying to get you to buy ANYTHING. Yes, I wrote a book, yes, it's amazing, yes, it's available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. BUT, I'm not going to pimp my book in the midst of a global pandemic. Every single thing that I'm going to share in this post is something you can do without buying my attractive-and-yellow book. So...that's out of the way.

Over the last four years I've shared a lot of ideas with teachers and parents about how to use toys, games, and comics in the classroom. This post is going to be a one-stop (NOT shop)(I said I wasn't going to do that) place for the best of those ideas...OR the best of the ideas that I think would be easy for parents and teachers to use at home with stuff they may have around the house. Play-Doh, sidewalk chalk, LEGO...much of it hands-on, and much of it coming from a place of "design thinking." There are free templates, free ideas, I was going to say "free willy," but that could imply other things and I'm too busy being socially distant (and awkward!) to get arrested today.

 I'll split these "best of" blog posts up into three categories: HANDS-ON, DESIGN THINKING, and...durrr...OTHER STUFF.


This is where I think you could have the most impact with your kids. A lot of teachers are being directed to do all of their teaching online, which is a great way to deliver some content. Being parked in front of a screen for too many hours in a day is stultifying to us as adults, it's hard on kids too. So here are some things that could break that up for our pups.

Play-Doh (click on that, it will take you to the entire blog post)
A lot of teachers use Play-Doh in the classroom; you can use it to have students demonstrate their understanding of academic vocabulary, you can use it to have them represent abstract ideas, you can use it as wallpaper cleaner, which was Play-Doh's original use, and now you know that.

The key with Play-Doh for me is having the kid explain what they've sculpted to you. It isn't the quality of the sculpture that tells you what's happening inside their head, it's...them telling you what's happening inside their head. We only know a lightbulb represents a good idea because someone told us that once. Make sure you give them the time to explain what they've sculped.

Another thing I would do is have six different sculpting prompts for things they would sculpt -- three about a particular topic they're studying in school, two about your family or their class, and one that's completely random, like...what's the craziest pet they could ever own. After you have the six ideas, have them roll a die to see what they get to sculpt. Introducing that bit of random luck ramps up the excitement.

The OTHER thing I'd recommend (with many of these strategies) is do them alongside your kids. Some of these are good "go away and do this, I'm busy"...others are not.

PEZ Dispensers as a Writing Prompt
Yes, PEZ Dispensers. And if you don't have any, they are things you can get for like a dollar at most gas stations, which are still open because they're "essential." Plus if you crush the tiny disgusting candy, it makes a great sourdough starter. probably doesn't. But I'd like to see someone try.

Little Green Army Men (or toy plastic dinosaurs)(of course they're toys, they're not actual dinosaurs)(probably?)

Sidewalk Chalk
I'm in Northern Utah, and it snowed yesterday, and the idea of using sidewalk chalk but not being able to actually use it is irritating me right this minute. But if you HAVE some, and some sunshine, here are some ideas for how to use it. Including just sending someone a nice message in a socially distant and responsible way in a time of WTF is happening in 2020 anyway.

LEGO - there's not a separate blog post for LEGO, because that's what much of my book is about, but I'll give you some ideas here.

LEGO is a personal passion of mine, and even though I'll never be on a Master Builder program, I do alright. The thing is, you don't need to be a Master Builder to learn a lot, and teach a lot, using those Danish plastic bricks. If you have access to Hulu, the Master Builder episodes are on there, and their building challenges are a good template for what you can do with your kids.

My recommendations for LEGO are much the same as with Play-Doh above: have a mix of abstract and concrete building prompts, and have them explain what they've built to you. I'll often have students choose 20 pieces at random before I tell them what they're going to build, as a way to force them out of their mental box that they need to have the right pieces to build something right...this works well as a warm-up for what they're going to be building.

Have them build a biome that has all of the proper elements (landform, plant, animal, water, human-environment interaction), have them build a farm, or a space station, or an ideal school. There are an infinite number of prompts you can use, the key is having them explain it all. Depending on the pieces they have available, and the skill of the builder, what they build may appear a jumbled mess to us as adults...but most kids place every brick with intention. They know why they built it the way they did, we just need to ask.

Since this crisis started, LEGO's official Twitter account has been posting daily building prompts that would be great for kids to do at home. That's a great place to start. Some recent ones:

Any building prompt you can use with LEGO, you can also use with Minecraft -- which is virtually an endless bucket of LEGO, just all on a screen. I love building in Minecraft, but I always play it in the "peaceful" mode, because I don't want Creepers blowing up my beautiful creations. Yes, I'm weak.


One of my favorite things to do with students is tap into their creativity by giving them some templates, and letting them come up with ways to demonstrate their understanding. I have blog posts about some of them:

Funko Pop as Biography -- as an alternative or a supplement to a history biography report, a book report, or other writing assignments. Essentially, they get the toy template, and design the characters and accessories that would accompany that character. It's become a favorite activity for students (and teachers, and parents) across the country. 

I have similar templates for:

...most of those template pages have examples of student work on them that can help you see what kids do with them--there's also a Gallery of Student Work that has a lot of them grouped together.

The other templates that have been very popular are sports uniforms -- kids design uniforms based on a historic event, book, or...well, pretty much anything. The full blog post is here.

Some examples featuring the Great Depression New Deal program WPA, Hamlet, and the Mongol Empire:


I bring a lot of pop culture into my classroom when I can...and sometimes when I can't. Some of my most popular blog posts about pop culture include:

...there are also many other educators, authors, and artists who are sharing projects daily that will give your kids (and adults who just need to do something...different...) something to do that's offline and creative and engaging. Some of my favorites are people I follow on Twitter:

John Spencer - he's on Twitter and has a YouTube channel with self-animated videos that focus on many aspects of education. Some would be good for us as teachers to review, some for parents who are coping with some of these issues for the first time, and some introduce writing prompts that are great for students. Some recent writing prompts from his Twitter feed:

Each of these tweets has an accompanying short video that introduces the prompt and some challenges to extend the thinking and writing. Love the prompts, love his ideas about education and project-based learning. 

Jarrett Lerner is a children's book author and artist who has series Enginerds and Geeger the Robot; I know him best from his Twitter feed. He's always been interactive with kids and teachers and parents, sharing writing and drawing prompts. His website has most of those archived, and they're a great way to help kids extend their learning and fuel their imagination. Check them out at .

Jed Dearybury is a South Carolina educator and author who has been sharing the power of play for years; since this crisis started he's upped his game. He has daily readalouds on his Facebook page, and shares almost daily crafts that he's doing on his Twitter feed. A very upbeat guy, he's a great source for ideas and positivity at a time we all need it. 

Aaaaand...that's it. There are so many great opportunities to be had. But also a lot of anxiety and frustration. With the school year being cut short in some states, and still-in-session-but-not-in-classrooms for many others, you'll need a lot of new edu-tricks in your bag. Hopefully these ideas help.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Graphic Novel Review: Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice

BECOMING RBG: RUTH BADER GINSBURG'S JOURNEY TO JUSTICE Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 208 pages, 2019.

"RBG" has become an icon for twenty-first century Americans. Aside from FDR and JFK, I can't think of many other three-initialed Americans who have the instant name recognition that this celebrity Supreme Court Justice has achieved. You're not there yet, AOC. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been on the Supreme Court since the Clinton administration, but it's only been in the last decade or so that her reputation and celebrity has grown to the point that there are t-shirts, mugs, action figures, and, well, comic books.

BECOMING RBG: RUTH BADER GINSBURG'S JOURNEY TO JUSTICE is a new graphic novel that delivers her life story with excitement and significance, while explaining how the world was different for women before and after her impact on American society. The book is written by Debbie Levy, who wrote the 2016 picture book I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK. I read I Dissent a few years ago, and honestly, that was about all I knew about Justice Ginsburg. And that I should be a fan of her, and that I'm dreading the day she won't be on the Supreme Court anymore, and she goes to the gym every day, and is in an ongoing battle with cancer that she's just staying ahead of. I was hoping Becoming RBG would give me more context for why there were t-shirts and mugs and action figures. And hey, it did.

Becoming RBG does a good job of balancing Ruth's personal life with her professional one -- how she was able to take the cards she'd been dealt as a Jewish woman and overcome the barriers that are still in place in the twenty-first century, but must have felt insurmountable in the 1950s. A thread running throughout the book is the voice of Ruth's mother, who she lost to cancer about the time that Ruth graduated from high school. In the graphic novel, the spirit/ghost of Celia Amster Bader appears with a barely-visible arm around Ruth's shoulder, giving her advice, reminding her of things like "A lady reacts calmly, without anger"...but also sharing moments of pride and accomplishment with Ruth throughout her life.

We read how the support of her husband, who seems to become a kind of stay-at-home-dad for much of their marriage, being the one taking on traditionally female roles like cooking and cleaning, freed up Ruth to pursue her education and legal career. I'm sure those relationships happened in the 1950s, but again, they seem relatively rare by today's standards, let alone decades ago.

About halfway through the book, we see Ruth's steps towards the Supreme Court, as she realized that women were facing real discrimination, similar to the Jim Crow laws that were being replaced with more equitable ones across the country. Page 124 has Ruth pondering "How have people been putting up with such arbitrary distinctions? How have I been putting up with them?" in the midst of quotes from Supreme Court Justices like Berger's "Land, like woman, was meant to be possessed," and "Woman has always been dependent upon man" from a 1908 Supreme Court opinion. RBG embarks on cases that will end gender discrimination, and teaches some of the first law classes about the topic.

Becoming RBG illustrates how the federal court system works, and the role of the Supreme Court. It would be useful for government classes to see how legal precedents help codify laws, and how more abstract ideas like "sex role pigeonholing" need concrete cases to be able to come before the court. Being a graphic novel helps with some of the more complicated aspects of this story--for many students Ruth's personal story will be the hook that brings them to the Supreme Court cases themselves -- Reed v. Reed, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Frontiero v. Richardson, Kahn v. Shevin. Even as a US History-teachin' adult, I find these cases can be confusing and (sorry) boring without some kind of hook. Her connection to the cases becomes a powerful one.

By the end of the book, we have RBG as we know her today -- a powerful voice on the Supreme Court, as powerful for her dissenting opinions as for her advocacy of her vision of justice. She advocates for the Constitution as a "living document" that is flexible enough to accommodate twenty-first century needs. It emphasizes her friendship with those that disagree with her, most notably Antonin Scalia -- that she enjoys the intellectual argument with those who are ideologically opposed to her, although it seems there would be few who would be up to that challenge.

Author Debbie Levy includes a substantial appendix, including an epilogue, a timeline, and an extensive bibliography including books, articles, and video interviews. She also makes clear which parts of the book are actual quotes from Ginsburg, and which are paraphrased, by giving twelve pages of footnotes detailing where the quotes in various chapters came from.
I was impressed with the book as a biography of a historically (and...current event-ally?) significant woman and role model. I also enjoyed it as a reader of graphic novels. The sometimes cartoony style doesn't ever undermine the importance of RBG, and sometimes softens her edges in a way that can help readers appreciate the main character. I don't necessarily enjoy teaching civics and government, and the judicial branch can be the hardest to make relevant to students. Becoming RBG does so in a way that's more recent than Marbury v. Madison and other "historic" cases, and in a way that will be easier for students to swallow. I know the judicial system better, and RBG better, for having read it.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

March Madness and More Basketball in the Classroom

We're smack in the middle of the college and NBA basketball seasons, and a lot of us wish our teams were doing better. With March Madness and the NBA playoffs around the corner, a lot of our kids are going to be excited about basketball over the next month or two. And if there's one thing I love, it's taking what kids are into and turning it against them, educationwise. But in a fun, delightful way. Here are three ways to use basketball in your classroom this spring:


I don't watch a whole lot of sports. Shocking, I know. Part of it may be that growing up in Salt Lake City, we didn't have Major League Baseball, we didn't have an NFL team...but we did have the Utah Jazz. Like every team, they've had new uniforms every few years, so that Nike can make a buck and so we can complain about how the New Uniforms Aren't As Good As The Old Ones. Because we're human, and we have an internet.

Last winter though, something entirely different happened -- Nike decided to put out some City Jerseys. Every NBA team got the chance to reimagine their uniforms in a tribute to the city that they're in. For some, it was about the geography of their community: the Brooklyn Nets are still black with white lettering, but there was a subtle pattern in the black mimicking the lines of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Washington Wizards had the Washington Monument built into the script of their team name, with a marble pattern on the sides of the jersey. Other teams paid tribute to the team history itself: the new Lakers jersey had a black snakeskin pattern, giving props to Kobe's "Black Mamba" nickname. The Celtics jersey had a pattern reminiscent of their parquet court. The Utah Jazz (I'll get more to the awkwardness of that team name in a bit) wanted to do something that represents not Salt Lake City (where the team plays), but the entire state of Utah. So we ended up with sandstone-inspired jerseys, complete with a rocky cliff built into one side. At first glance I hated them, but they're growing on me.

The teams put together videos explaining their design choices, and reflecting on the history of their community, team, and culture. Being a longtime Utah resident, the one for my own team was a tearjerker.

The jerseys have inspired a lot of controversy, and every possible sports blogger has their take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of each of them. And no one agrees on much, except that the Philadelphia 76ers probably win with their parchment-colored, old-timey cursive jerseys that remind us of the Declaration of Independence. I mean, for reals.

I wrote the paragraphs above last winter, with the 2017-2018 jerseys -- this season (2018-2019) several teams have come out with even more newerer ones, and you can see those here. Some of my favorites -- Oklahoma City Thunder paying tribute to their Native American history, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors drawing on their Chinese heritage, the Bulls have the Chicago city flag, and the Minnesota Timberwolves to Prince. Yeah. Prince.

What if we had students design their own jerseys to represent their communities? Would they want to stick with something subtle, or go more outrageous? Would they pay tribute to an individual player? To their state? To their neighborhood? And why would they make those choices? I love watching students go through the design process, and seeing what they put of themselves into their products. A few examples I showed the students:

Genghis Khan/Mongol Empire

Design elements include "fur lined" armhole-not-sleeves-I-don't-know-what-those-are-even-called, a stylized Genghis Khan, horses and yurts, a globe representing world domination, and some of Khan's 600+ wives-and-consorts.

This uniform is based on "Hamlet," because you can do these with Not Social Studies content too. So you've got the giant "H" for Hamlet, Yorick's skull, and knives and swords and poison for the various ways people die in the play. The red and white represent blood and the Danish flag, and the teardrop shapes at the bottom of the shorts are both drops of blood and meant to mimic the puffy pant-things of the Elizabethan era.

And then their own work, based on the New Deal of the 1930s -- we talked about what the New Deal program was, learned something about eight of the most important ones, and then they chose one of the eight to focus on. If you're using a strategy like this, it typically works best when there are several different things that are all related to choose from. As with most "fun" strategies (HEY BUY MY BOOK FOR LOTS MORE STRATEGIES), it's also great to use with content that might not be as interesting to students as a way to hook them. I mean I think the Great Depression and New Deal are incredibly engaging on their own, but uhhhh that's why I became a history teacher.  The teachers down the hall from me are trying this with "forms of government" this week. But here are some of my kids' New Deal jerseys:

As with other design strategies, it's important to have students be able to explain why they made the choices they did. There's often more thinking happening than is evident to me as the dumb adult, so whether it's through writing, or verbally, or in a presentation pitching the design to others, make sure that's in the mix somewhere.

Here's a link to a Word version of the template (easy to edit yay) or a PDF if you're satisfied with this one. Aaaand to the very short and simple PowerPoint that I used to introduce the activity.

UPDATE 2/11/19 -- At the request of several teachers in the Twitterverse, here are additional templates for football, soccer, baseball, and hockey. 

 Jersey Templates


I'm a fan of using the bracket system to put competing ideas against each other. It's exciting to see who gets eliminated, who stays in the race. My weird friends even have a Muppet Madness tournament every March. In the classroom,kids get to advocate for their own side to win, and as in March Madness, soon your class will devolve into a betting pool that will have children auctioning their mother's pearls for a piece of the action. Just what you always wanted.

Instead of writing something new up and saying look how handsome awesome I am, here are some of the ones I've found online that have some clear classroom implementation:

From the New York Times: Using Tournament Brackets to Debate Academic Questions  

From We Are Teachers: Book Bracket 

From Nuskool (really? come on.) : March Mathness: Using Probability to Creat the Perfect Bracket (taking away points for spelling it "Nuskool," but they make up for it with "Mathness.) 

From my friend/colleague/exemplar of historic costuming Mr. Barry: 20th Century President March Madness  (Spoilers, Teddy Roosevelt won. Badassery pays off.) 

From Sadlier: Vocabulary March Madness  

Cool ideas, and each is a relatively easy set-up for a long term project that kids will get excited about.


As a social studies teacher, one of the things that fascinates me about the NBA in particular are the names of the teams with specific geographic connotations. The Denver Nuggets, named after the gold and silver rushes; the Chicago Bulls, since it was the meat capital of the world; Boston Celtics for the Irish, New York Knicks for the "knickerbocker" pants worn by the Dutch in the area. What's even better, though, are the teams that started in one city with a geographic nickname that made sense, and then moved to a new city, but kept the same name. Which now makes...less sense. The Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis, where grizzlies haven't been seen...well, maybe ever. The Minneapolis Lakers moved from the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes to Los Angeles, Land of...they may have Land O' Lakes Margarine. I don't know. My favorite example of course is the aforementioned New Orleans Jazz, who moved to one of the non-jazziest places in the country, Salt Lake City, Utah. There's a great article on how the NBA teams got their names over at Mental Floss.

Major League Baseball and the NFL both have their own team names with history and some with quirks -- the Los Angeles Dodgers started out the Brooklyn (streetcar) Dodgers, for example.

Having the kids do research about where teams got their names and why is great, and would be a relatively easy reach for most students. Taking it a step further, how could you rename a local team to more accurately reflect the history of the community, or a different part of history? Salt Lake City's minor league baseball team is the Bees, because Utah is the Beehive State and blah blah, but other iterations of that team have been the Trappers and the Gulls, both based on other parts of Utah's history and state symbols. Having students come up with  new name for a sports franchise, and being able to support the reasons for that choice, would be an engaging way to get them doing research and writing during the basketballiest time of year.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Illegal

Graphic Novel: ILLEGAL. Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, Giovanni Rigano. 144 pages. 2018. Sourcebook Jabberwocky, publisher. 

My good friend and geography teachin' superstar Chris Heffernan recommended this book to me last month when he got to meet author Eoin Colfer at a book talk near his home in Illinoisville or something. I'm not the geography teacher, don't ask. There's been a wave of YA books and graphic novels using the global refugee crises as a setting to both tell emotional stories and inspire action, and it seemed like Illegal was going to be one of those books.

I don't know that I was prepared for just how emotional the book was going to be.

Illegal tells the story of Ebo, a boy from Ghana who's trying to get to a better life in Europe. He has an older brother, Kwame, and an older sister, Sisi. Sisi made the journey some time ago, leaving her brothers behind; Kwame left more recently, and Ebo is desperate to be reunited with him. The path Ebo needs to take will take him across two vast wastes--the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, each fraught with the possibility of death at any time.

Throughout the book, we see Ebo getting to take two steps forward, and then a step back. Sometimes several steps back. His perseverance through these incredibly harsh conditions is admirable, and he shows a strength that I honestly hope I'll never need to have. Along the way, Ebo is given assistance by strangers who become fast friends, but usually only after Ebo does something for them out of kindness or necessity. Using his wits, hard work, and a beautiful singing voice, he's able to keep going onto the next step of his journey.

The artwork by Giovanni Rigano is beautiful, although some of the images are hard to look at. Seeing the cruelty of humanity on one page, the vastness of the obstacles Ebo faces on others, you wonder how anyone can make these journeys at all. Was their life back home so bad that they'd take this risk? Is this their only hope?

The answer is often yes. With the conditions of war, poverty, disease, and political instability creating crises in multiple locations around the world on large scales, it seems like the refugees trying to find a safe harbor are more desperate and more numerous than ever. We (the United States) only take in a fraction of what we could, leaving "the problem" to be solved by countries closer to the crisis. Illegal makes these ideas clear, and being written and illustrated by an Irishman and Italian, the United States is never mentioned, but my feelings of responsibility were palpable.

The other recurring thought was about my students. Many of them have these same stories, either in their own life or in the lives of their parents or grandparents. Be sensitive to this when it comes to assignments that center on refugees and immigration; some of these kids are comfortable sharing these stories, for others there's a very real trauma that's still fresh, renewed when the topics come up. Don't treat them lightly.

This is a book everyone needs to read.


This is a great book to read within an immigration unit for a social studies class, or as part of a current events class of any kind where you're looking at modern day crises and attempts to fix them. I'd say this is most appopriate for grades five and up as far as the language goes, but the frightening themes may move it up a grade or two. Ideally, I'd teach it with two companion picture books: Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale and The Journey.

Pancho Rabbit softens the story of a boy traveling in his missing father's footsteps: Papa Rabbit went north a year ago, and the family hadn't heard from him since. Pancho enlists the help of a coyote (the nickname for these "helpers" getting people across the border, often through ruthless, mercenary means is coyote), and goes through many trials on his way. Definitely a US/Mexico border story, although as with Ebo's there are going to be similar themes throughout.


The Journey is a simpler, quieter story than either Illegal or Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. It's a family fleeing the Middle East after their father is taken from them, and they're heading to Europe. They get help along the way, but the obstacles are still great. Francesca Sanna's artwork is beautiful and makes the story almost lyrical, again, softening some of the true horrors this family faces along the way. Either of these would be fine for younger grades, and the three books together would engage different students for different reasons.

Bringing in real world stories, statistics and maps from the migration of displaced persons (refugees) around the world, both historic and modern, would help bring the point home -- that this is an ongoing crisis that impacts groups of people for various reasons. Race, religion, war, famine, poverty, government can be unbearably depressing. It's important to point out in each of these stories the protagonists are helped along the way by people trying to do good. These books can inspire us to step up and do the same.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Potential and Power of a New Classroom

This year I'm back in the classroom, for the first time in six years. You can read all about it here. I'm excited about it. It's where I belong. And then I saw my classroom. It's in a building that was formerly a junior high, and has been absorbed into a high school campus. The building I'm in was built in 1950, and is full of interesting spaces and/or smells. I came expecting a traditional classroom with 40-ish desks in neat little rows.What I got was this:

But uh...the panoramic fisheye version of it. When this building was a junior high, this was the band room. It has those risers built into the floor, and the steps are too narrow for desks of any kind. There are 44 chairs (turns out my largest class is 45), and the guy before me loved this setup because he taught public speaking and a film class. I've inherited the film class, and it's awesome...but the majority of my teaching schedule is a traditional US History class for juniors. Which 1) I've never taught before, and 2) the history classes I have taught have been with, you know, desks. 

That said, I Twitter-know and Instagram-know a lot of you who have adapted your classrooms with flexible seating and other options for your students that have worked well for you and your kids. So...maybe what's scary to me has some potential. My administration has been understanding of the unique space I've got, and has offered to buy whatever we need to make the space work for us. My district has some limits on things like bean bag chairs or other fabric-covered seating -- in between fire codes and potential hygiene issues, administration wants to avoid them. So while it would be ideal to look like the inside of Jeannie's Bottle, that's not going to happen. 

One of the first features I realized I wanted to find a way to use is the four small practice rooms. There's one on one side of the room, and three on the other. Each is about ten feet by ten feet. In this room's previous life, they were used as practice rooms for instruments, and one of them was used as the office for the teacher. I'm a believer in having students do collaborative work, so they've been repurposed as small meeting rooms where kids can go in groups of 4-6 and work on projects. There are windows, I can still see into them and know if they're on task or not, but they have a bit of privacy and a bit of independence. These guys are sixteen years old--they can handle it. I've also rebranded the rooms: one is a Star Wars-themed room "The Porg's Nest," one is Rick and Morty "Rick's Lab," one is Aquaman-themed "Atlantis," and the fourth is Black Panther's "Wakanda." There's some nerdy stuff in each room that helps establish the vibe I want, and so far the kids seem to dig it and pick up on that vibe too. Photos from this point on are what I've done with the room; you'll also see photos of the room and some of the activities we do on my new classroom Instagram feed

Another benefit of this new room is that, as a former band room, it has an enormous storage space. And...I need a lot. Play-Doh, LEGO, graphic takes up a bunch of space. And now that I'm moved in, I really appreciate that storage space. We're building a new high school in four years, and I'm pre-missing that storage space, and resenting the new shiny classroom I'll end up with.

I'm always a fan of sharing your passion with students, whatever that happens to be. So yeah, I have things about Muppets and LEGO and superheroes, and I have my Aquaman Shrine (because he is The Best)...a few teachers have said "aren't you afraid they're going to steal ____?" and truthfully, no. I'm not. If they love the thing enough to take it from me, I hope they get some joy out of it. And guilt. Sweet, sweet guilt.

I'm only in my second week with students, and while there are a few hiccups (some students would rather have a traditional desk when they're doing things like using Chromebooks or doing some kind of paper-based assignment), most of them seem happier with the differentness of the space. I have a set of clipboards they can use on their laps when they're taking paper notes, and when they're doing either independent or group work, I release them to use whatever space in the classroom is most comfortable for them. I've used LEGO with them already, which isn't really a lap-top activity (neither is Play-Doh), but we'll figure out how to do that together. I have a small LEGO wall that may expand over time; we'll see how much weight this first iteration can take before the 3M strips separate from the wall and I can do LEGO wall 2.0. 

What it comes down to is that the kids are more flexible, more resilient, than I am. Things that I thought would be a difficulty for them, or for me, just haven't been. In the first few days, I told them "the principal says if this room doesn't work for us, we can move to a regular classroom," and they were unanimous in wanting to stay with this one. I do think the setup, and especially the proximity of the students to each other, makes them a bit more chatty...but they also know that in any given class period, they'll be released from those seats to do other things. 

As I put more of myself into my room, it became more my space, a happier place for me to be in every day, and hopefully a memorable and happy and effective space for my students. Room 630 will be different from the other rooms in the school. It turns out that's the way I want it, and more importantly, the way the kids want it.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

LEGO Set of the Month: BrickHeadz Go Brick Me!

Last year LEGO introduced a new kind of building toy aimed at kid and adult collectors: BrickHeadz. BrickHeadz can be seen as a brick-built cousin to the enormously popular Funko Pop! figures (see my post about using Funko Pop! in the classroom here), in that they have big ol' noggins and creepy dead eyes, and they're just damn cute. Can I say damn in here?

Another part of the appeal of LEGO BrickHeadz is that they're releasing them in pretty much every license that LEGO has:

...that's just in the first two years. Knowing LEGO and how much of my wallet they want, they're just getting started.

Each BrickHeadz figure has the same internal structure, with variations in the outside details. Aw, just like us! Seeing that they were on to something, and that the point of LEGO is really to experiment creatively with your own spin on their original models, LEGO just came out with a set called "BrickHeadz Go Brick Me!" And that's my LEGO Set of the Month this month. Details for how to be entered to win it are below. This is a set you want.

The Go Brick Me! set has everything you need to build a BrickHeadz figure of yourself. Different skin tones, hair colors, clothing pieces, accessories, decals -- there's a rainbow of colors and shapes that you can use to get as close to a BrickHeadz version of you that you can make.

The instruction manual that comes with the set is kind of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" format -- if you want to see how to make different hairstyles, turn to page 19. You need a dress, page 28. A beard, page 33. I build a lot with LEGO (a lot), but this particular style of building was new to me. I've built a few Justice Leaguers, but I wasn't confident in my BrickHeadz selfie skillz. It took some trial and error, but with the booklet and the pieces, I was able to come up with something that's reasonably Quinnish:

I stuck with the colors that came with the set, otherwise I may have given myself a yellow shirt -- as it is, they had an anchor that seemed suitably piratey for the shirt, and the little yellow brick I'm holding could either be a copy of PLAY LIKE A  PIRATE: ENGAGE STUDENTS WITH TOYS, GAMES, AND COMICS or my Rubber Duckie, or...hey this works: a LEGO.

Despite minor things, I think it's a passable likeness. My hair's not necessarily orange. Kind of dirty blond/brown/red/grey/white/bald. So orange was as close as we could get.

Got some bald in there tho. :/

If nothing else, building yourself as a BrickHeadz figure lets you be alongside some of your favorite characters -- I finally get to be a Super Friend!

The set includes everything you need to make two different BrickHeadz, although if you've got the same skin tone and hair color as your second figure, you'll have to get creative. It's back to school time, I wanted to do something fun. It's a great set, with 708 colorful pieces that can be used to supplement any classroom LEGO set.

My friend Ryan Read, always up for engaging kids with LEGO and Perler Beads and other pixelated goodness, even created a template that can be used for kids to design a BrickHeadz figure on paper:


I knew you were wondering. There are three ways to enter:

1. Comment on this post. You do that below at the very end of this post. Lower...lower...there.

2. Subscribe to the monthly Play Like a PIRATE newsletter. It comes out once a month, with ideas for the classroom, a graphic novel review, and a review and chance to win the new LEGO Set of the Month. No spamming (beyond once a month), no selling your emails to anyone. I don't even know who I would sell them to. It may be worth investigating.

3. Follow @jedikermit on Twitter and retweet this tweet. If you're not on The Twitter, you really should be. Sign up just for this entry. And follow me. So worth it. You can follow the #PlayLAP hashtag to see what other people are doing with Play Like a PIRATE. A book you should totally buy.

So you can enter up to three times. Don't try and cheat. Teachers always know.

Some fine print: the LEGO Set of the Month will only be available to U.S. residents. Even though I love everyone on the planet, international shipping is beyond my reach. The drawing for the August LEGO Set of the Month will be at 8 PM MST on Wednesday, August 8. The drawing will be taken from all eligible entries with a random generator. So hopefully you win. Yeah, you.

Subscribe to the Play Like a PIRATE Newsletter!

* indicates required
Email Format