Saturday, August 29, 2015

Purpose, Perspective & Mummifying Chickens

The issues raised in this blog are not specifically motivated by the policies within my own school or within my district. I write about many topics that are often related to discussions with educators who do not work in my school district. This blog in no way is intended to reflect solely on any specific leaders or my place of employment. 

Like most teachers, I am fired up to get back in my classroom. I keep seeing stories about going back to school (Funny back to school pep talks , Simple tips for a great start) and it makes me think about when I was a fearless teacher willing to try anything to engage my students in meaningful learning.

Looking back, mummifying those chickens in 2001 might be the best thing that happened for me as a classroom teacher. I discovered I had some unique "teaching tools" that I was unaware of at the time. 

Rolling my red cooler to the front of the classroom, I proclaimed to my underclassmen that it was time to really learn about the ancient Egyptian process of mummification. I decided that my world history class would benefit from a "hands-on" learning experience.

"There are enough chickens in this cooler for everyone to get involved in mummifying them over the next couple months," I said with a smile as I held a chicken above my head in my clenched right hand. "That nine-step mummification process you took notes on last class - well, we're going to do it and see how that whole thing works."

Now, picture one of those frozen chickens in the grocery store aisle being held up to the heavens by a baby-faced rookie teacher and you will understand the bewildered expression of my 14 and 15-year old students. Teachers know that that look when students are somewhere in the gray area of curious and extremely confused - that, "Has Mr. Gregory lost his mind?" look.

Yes, I had lost my mind. 

It was October of my second year teaching and I was still finding my way. My stubborn refusal to give in to to student boredom by watering down lessons or assigning menial tasks led me to the deli at my local grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. I strolled up to the counter and asked for a manager. The rest just sort of fell into place.

"Can you donate some expired chickens or turkeys for a classroom project?"

Turkeys were not an option with Thanksgiving coming up so a dozen expired chickens from the freezer were loaded into my car and we had enough so that each group of four students had a bird on the mummification table. Over the course of 7-8 weeks, we took time to oil, spice and wrap the birds. They hung from the ceiling of our classroom in between our rituals. (We adapted a process similar to this link) At the end of "our process" we buried them outside with caskets made in our high school wood shop. Inevitably, I run into some of my former students from those early years of my career and their memories are always the best among my former students. (Rumor is that a few kids tried to find the chicken mummies on the school grounds on the eve of their ten year class reunion)

My answer to their lack of engagement in world history class - and my own quite frankly - was to take away the option of boredom. This marked one of those turning points in my career when I decided it is up to me to take risks and trust my gut despite what might go wrong. In fact, once I got an idea in my head I did not waste time worrying about the potential fallout.

"Mr. Gregory, I am not touching a raw chicken," one girl claimed to the class. "There is no way!"

Some students agreed with her and made sure we all knew, claiming my idea was gross and ridiculous. "You want us to do what?" Others laughed and some probably feigned interest in order to avoid "academic" work.  I found out later many students thought I was joking or that I would turn away from my idea.

"You're serious - we are actually doing this?"

"We are, but Brittany raises a good point," I replied. "We need some gloves. Anyone's parents work in the food or medical industry?"

And with that, we began to plan together. Thank God those chickens were wrapped and frozen on the first day so we were able to ease into the idea and get that initial student buy-in before they thawed.

We spent a small part of most days invested in the ancient ritual of mummification. Quite honestly, it was a shared journey together and I clearly had not thought through all of the logistics beforehand. Students joined me in mapping out a plan that lasted a couple months and I think the whole "weirdness" of it all intrigued them. For me, it was energizing and refreshing to be so damn inexperienced and okay with being unsure of what I was doing. Unlike other challenges to that point, I embraced not knowing.

At this point in my career, I had the confidence teachers gain after surviving their first year of teaching. I had a middle school heart and a high school student roster. I was a rookie teacher trying desperately to make the most of teaching a subject that did not hold much interest for me personally. I broke out of the mold and followed my gut without much fear and without worrying about how it could be done. Bending some health code expectations and getting kids to believe this was a worthy idea made sense at the time. 

Each student group researched a part of the mummification process, the history of mummification and how the process fit into Egyptian culture. Each group taught the class about Egyptian royalty or some person that was mummified. We had to learn how the salt, spices and oils worked in the process so it turned into a quasi-science lesson and humanities all wrapped into our class (get the pun - wrapped). Sure, we listened to the Bangles, Walk Like an Egyptian  and we did the chicken dance a few days after the project ended. Most importantly, through the experience WE BUILT A LEARNING COMMUNITY. We got out of the book and as you would expect, students were mingling and sharing ideas as they hovered over their chicken carcasses. They asked great questions and brought in great information that we applied to our class. It was pretty magnificent to witness. The experience exceeded my expectations and was cited by students as their favorite class experience, barely beating out our one-act plays from Aesop's fables.  

So, this was all a masterfully designed plan that fit nicely into a predetermined unit of study, right?

No, not even close. And that is the point.

As a new teacher, there weren't really plans as much as there were ideas and what if's. I was consumed with the possibilities and trying to see what might work. I have to continually remind myself that sometimes the best classroom experiences happen by accident when there is a foundation for learning already in place. The part that was not an accident was my recognition that we were bored for far too long and that I had the ability to shake things up and make it better. And at the very least, I was committed to laughing my way through it. The chicken mummification experiment took on a life of its own and I squeezed every ounce of life out of my sense of humor in those first few years of teaching. My energy was welcomed by the staff and my genuine enthusiasm was valued by students. 

There were challenges that only an inexperienced and quirky teacher might miss though. After all, the classroom kind of smelled musty, but not offensive. The odor of chickens kept at room temperature was masked by the the smell of cinnamon, salt and all the other spices we had in class. At least that's what I kept telling myself so I remember it that way. We pulled together dealing with our new classroom environment and those hanging chickens were the source of a lot of conversations in and around Room 3-154. 

About three weeks into our mummification process the head of our Science Department peeked into my classroom, something that had never happened to that point. He heard what was going on I guess. When he opened the door, he saw an imperfect row of chickens hanging from fishline above the furnace register, dangling innocently with drip pans beneath. With the stern look he had mastered as an AP Physics teacher he said, "Ya know, there are airborne bacteria from those chickens all over this classroom."


Too late to do much at that point I remember thinking as I nodded back at him acknowledging I learned something new that day. I conjured up one of those purposefully unfinished responses like, "Oh, man" and then I carried on with my day without much care or concern. 

By then the mummy experiment had a re-defined purpose. It was uniting our class and bringing us  a little closer to our study of world history with some teamwork. One student brought in about 30 pounds of cinnamon and sugar that was swept up off the floor from a bakery. Other kids brought in vegetable and olive oil (important in the preservation process) and parents pitched in latex gloves, plastic table liners and cleaning supplies. We gained some needed momentum and it set us up for a successful school year. 

Learning could be fun, unpredictable and memorable it turned out.

The chicken mummy experiment comes to mind when I start a new school year. I try to recapture that exuberance that was so natural early on in my career. Recently when I read the Mind/Shift blog headlined, When Educators Make Space For Play and Passion, Students Develop Purpose I revisited a handful of other classroom experiences that also make me proud. There was the time we took a detour in class and worked on short films to enter in a statewide competition (we won first place!) or inviting my summer school students to bring their pets to class one day as part of a class activity. The summer school classes were the best for trying new ideas. I taught a class that was geared toward reconnecting students to their school experience and dealing with some tough personal issues. I had more than a few classes that used to visit a local assisted living home where we spent time singing, playing cards and walking to the park with residents.   

The Mind/Shift blog features Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner. He and I agree that unless the US education system helps students gain the skills listed below then we will struggle to graduate innovative thinkers who ultimately grow jobs. The skills he lists for our students to be successful lifelong learners turn out to be some of the same ones that organically happened in our classroom all those years back. Students (and teachers I would argue) need to learn how to:
  1. Formulate good questions
  2. Communicate in groups and lead by influence
  3. Be agile and adaptable
  4. Take initiative and be entrepreneurial
  5. Develop effective written and oral communication skills
  6. Access and analyze information
  7. Be creative and imaginative
Perspective based on a career spent learning

Every year when we report back to school, I am reminded that the classroom experiences and the way kids feel become the meaningful impressions in a life spent learning. 

As a teacher, I feel fortunate to have a clear beginning and end every year. I get to hit the reset button every August. I get time to reflect and I make it a priority to get my energy and attitude in balance to kick off each school year. Some of the best colleagues and school leaders have helped me see the big picture more clearly and for that I am grateful. 

Most teachers are enthused about starting a new school year and we should be excited. While things change within and outside our schools buildings in regard to policy shifts and new expectations, the common denominator that remains most important continues to be students. This doesn't make the challenges go away, but it does shift my perspective back into place when I get off my game. While I obviously believe that we ought to advocate for what is in the best interest of students, I continue to believe that being focused on students has to be where my advocacy begins. 

Teachers are experts and we do our best to plug our individual strengths into the classroom experience. My expertise in teaching has been my ability to lead a positive classroom, encourage supportive relationships, gain trust and set high expectations. The chicken mummy lesson was one of my first in recognizing my unique "teaching tools" that can be used to help students learn. Anyone who knew me a decade ago would also say that I had a lot of growing and improving ahead of me, but it was that growth early on that shaped my purpose. 

I try to remain mindful of my purpose. 

My purpose. 

Not the purpose that others define for me, but mine. The purpose that I nourish, keeping my students front and center. This constant has helped me cope with unexpected teaching assignments and teacher evaluations that I felt were incomplete. This purpose I have continues to evolve and it probably took five years of teaching for my professed ideals and my on-the-job-training to align. 

My confidence as a teacher grew as one by one students followed in line with chickens in caskets hoisted above their heads and walking through our school's main hallway and out the back doors for the burial. Even today, I know when I manage to get a group of junior students to sing The Bill of Rights Song to our office staff and classes full of their peers, we have succeeded in making student engagement a priority. I am at my best when I make it a point to smile more often and appreciate student laughter.

On the flip side, having some wonderful experiences to draw from and some remarkable young people in my classroom has helped me become more aware when I fail to use my strengths to help our class. Down days and being off are part of the game and navigating those times takes patience and honest self-evaluation. It is a bit easier to cope with when I sometimes begrudgingly shift my attitude to the possibilities, something that was so natural to me back when I was desperate. 

Occasionally I miss that unbridled enthusiasm and naivety that came with my youth, but then I remind myself that since my rookie days I have amassed so many more "teaching tools" and experiences that can help students. There have been times in my career where I have had to re-learn how to laugh more easily because the newness kind of wore off. 

Now, I have a firm stance and purpose that I understand better and I try to keep learning from from the 2001 version of myself. I would not change a thing from my teaching career that has included seven different classrooms, eight different preps (classes) and a handful of wacky experiments because my experience has been deeply fulfilling.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. He has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011 and he loves to travel. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Off The Streets And Onto The Syllabus: Baltimore and The Freddie Gray Course

Detroit, Mich. By Nick Gregory
I teach American Government and American Legal Systems and this NPR story (4 minutes) hits on increased student demand for education related to current issues. The class is intended to help law students understand the recent Baltimore riots and other urban challenges within a broader context. 

In the interview University of Maryland Law Professor Michael Greenberger provides a rationale for the class. This seems like the type of class that could help people see the big picture and begin to ask serious questions about the why and how of the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement and many other topics. Challenges with crime, policing, housing, employment and policies that encourage segregation are not topics unique to Baltimore. 

For more insight on these topics, I highly recommend,  The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue. This book sparked my intellectual curiosity about Detroit and served as a great source of inspiration in my story-telling about Detroit. (Link: My Detroit Photo Essays published on-line )

As an avid Detroit enthusiast, I wish I had been offered the opportunity to enroll in a college class about The Motor City when I was at Michigan State University or Eastern Michigan University. I grew up in the mitten and I never learned about Detroit beyond the automobile. When I discovered in 2005 this "untold Detroit history" I was amazed at how much was left out of my education as an undergrad preparing for my secondary teaching certification in social studies. 

To learn more, check these links: 

Detroit, A History of Segregation in the format of a photo essay (read the captions): Split Photo Essay about Detroit by Nick Gregory      

The Arc of Justice By Kevin Boyle.  A Must Read for anyone serious about Detroit History

Friday, August 21, 2015

Teaching how symbols have undeniable power

Dan Wasserman authored this political cartoon published in the Boston Globe  on June 18, 2015.  
Wasserman posted it on his Twitter under the heading , “Charleston shooting backdrop.”
An Aug. 19 story in the International Business Times by Aaron Morrison addressed how school districts are grappling with whether or not to ban students from displaying the Confederate flag on campus and it made me think back to a lesson in my classroom that dealt with the same topic. The only problem was that my lesson on this very spirited topic was dull and lifeless.

Last spring my social studies classroom began to heat up after we dove into the Bill of Rights and applied Constitutional principles to everyday issues. My junior and senior students came to life when we talked about dress codes, social media and the First Amendment, but their lack of enthusiasm about the symbolism of the Confederate flag surprised me. Their tepid interest in contemplating whether the symbol of Dixie was appropriate for state and local governments to display makes more sense now. A lot has happened since May when we addressed symbolism in class. 

Just this week the Charleston County School District in S.C. banned Confederate flag apparel on all school campuses effective this school year. All of this is in light of the controversy that erupted in June after a 21-year-old white man shot and killed nine black parishioners at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Confederate flag as a symbol of hate became the focal point in a national conversation about race. The accused man Dylann Roof has since been indicted on 33 federal counts, including hate crime charges. The horrific mass murder led to a national movement and the eventual removal of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina state capital grounds.

The scenario we had worked on in class became a fully charged debate gripping the nation. Coupled with the protests and myriad of issues playing out in Ferguson and Baltimore, many students seemed to lose interest in tackling bigotry and racism by the end of the school year. It was as if we had tired of dealing with race in class. Looking back, it seems strange to me that we were tired of dealing with racism in class while bigotry and prejudice continued to rear its ugliness in subtle and overt ways for Black Americans everyday. (See: Jon Stewart Race/Off piece about this topic. The last couple of minutes sum it up nicely.)

Back to the Confederate flag and symbolism.

On one hand I was disgusted that it took a bloodbath soaked in hate to start start a national discussion about the Confederate flag. For decades in the South the bars and stars have been politically brushed aside as though the symbolism was no worse than the flag of a rival SEC football team. How come it took our nation so long to realize how powerful this oppressive symbol had been for decades?  

On the other hand, we witnessed some remarkable acts of courage this summer (Bree Newsome who climbed the flagpole to remove the flag comes to mind) and the power of political momentum. I stood in awe reminded that a collective voice can change the narrative in the United States. Everyday citizens can push the discourse and stir politicians to act accordingly. Americans could finally see that political action can result from public outcry and demands for justice.

The claim from supporters of the Dixie symbol who hid behind the notion that the symbol represented, heritage not hate had stalled the national conversation. Now we could no longer ignore the fact that the flag's heritage has roots as a symbol of opposition to the United States Civil Rights Movement and school integration (An account of this from NPR). The heritage in question is one many believe is toxic to the United States of America.

The power of symbols on the human psyche was on full display after the mass killing and we owe it to students to be honest and guide them so they can discern meaning for themselves about why symbols matter. Hate, like love, comes in many forms and we cannot afford to discount the power of symbols to intimidate and express malice. I am personally grateful for the lesson and wish it had not come at such a devastating expense.

Just weeks before the murder, my students were more interested in school dress codes and free speech issues than discussing intolerance, racism and social justice. Discussing the power of symbols was met with the type of luke-warm response I was used to when we talked about the Connecticut Plan. 

It makes sense to me now as I reflect on the school year. 

The disconnect and my job as a teacher

The notion that a symbol can stir nausea and unleash fear was hard to understand when it had not touched most of my students’ lives directly. Sure, it was difficult for them to wrap their heads around such a sensitive topic in May, sandwiched between prom and graduation day. I am not blaming my students and I do not want to imply that this is a reflection of a weak-minded generation of kids. In fact, their lack of interest in the power of symbols and living up to the Constitutional values we profess has more to do with how I constructed the lesson than anything else. The failure was mine, not theirs. That's the real lesson for me.

Photo By Nick Gregory
I am excited to execute the lesson better this school year and I have already mapped out my strategy. I will bring the relevance of symbols into sharper focus the next time around. 

Ours was a discussion of history rather than modern-day racism. We talked about swastikas, burning crosses and the Confederate flag and we we dove into how they have been used to intimidate and cause harm to others. However, we failed to make a vital connection to how bigotry and hate still exists in society today. With the 2016 presidential election creeping up, students need to contend with all of this in order to be a part of a better America. 

Looking back at our conversations in class, I can now see there was a disconnect spanning geography, race and time.

Geographically, I failed to realize that many people assume that Jim Crow resided only in the South and the false notion that racism in the Midwest is nearly extinct. We need to look no further than Detroit or our own hometowns to see that this is not true. It is quite another challenge to help bridge that gap for students. We can start with challenges closer to home and there are many situations spanning the time since my students were born. (Remember Floyd Dent who was beaten by an Inkster, Mich. police officer or the mystery behind the death of black teenager Eric McGinnis in Benton Harbor, Mich.) Students have endured racist jokes or heard stereotypes and using those personal experiences dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of intolerance in our own lives can provide for a more connected learning experience. Helping students make that vital connection is my job.

Most of my students are white (roughly 95%) and I recognize there is a great deal of diversity among them in aspects besides race, but the next time we approach these topics I will use literature and other forms of expression (song lyrics, poems, published material and other media) to provide a living breathing context offered from valuable perspectives. I have already found several sources this summer and after learning from conversations with other teachers spanning different races and backgrounds, I am confident I will do a better job. My students care about others, but it was quite another thing for me to try and help them understand how a symbol can evoke such strong feelings when in fact most of them had never felt hatred spewed onto them because of their race, religion or heritage. I have not had this experience either and so it becomes my responsibility to learn from the experiences of others. We have to bridge that gap in order to recognize the problem and deal with the reality. Finding meaningful ways to help students learn about that which is different and to gain a deeper sense of empathy is my job.

We have to flush out the details and recognize that diversity of views, backgrounds and opinions exists within different genders and races. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to how we should unpack controversial topics in class. Students need to know that these topics are not simple or easy to navigate, but that doesn’t mean we should fail to address them all together. This should be a continuing conversation with the goal of working toward a better world. Embracing these conversations and encouraging respectful dialogue is my job.   

The events over the course of the last year in relation to police brutality and the US criminal justice failings are placed at the feet of our students with layers of history, symbolic meaning and various frames of reference. We bring to our learning all sorts of biases and messages from family and media. It is critical to be honest about that fact and try to make sense of it with a listening ear and respect for humanity. This too is part of my charge as a teacher.

I want my students to be more prepared for post-high school experiences (college, military, career) by starting these conversations now so they can share in the outcomes we create locally and nationally. I want to help students responsibly analyze tough issues and confront these topics in a safe classroom space. We can’t expect a better world if we have a generation of students only aware of struggle based on their own experiences and perceptions. Preparing students to seek understanding and embrace diversity as they enter life after school is my job.

It is time to turn up the expectations and have valuable conversations, meaningful lessons and honest revelations related to social justice issues. Moving forward means finding common ground and figuring out our honest disagreements by coming together. After all, this is my job as a social studies educator and I am honored to have the privilege to do it.

(Feel free to contact me and offer suggestions or feedback. I am happy to share my specific ideas as well.)

Additional Resources for teaching and learning about this topic: