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.