Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Celebrating Banned Books Week, Sept. 25-Oct. 2nd, 2010

They banned that?! WHY? This is the comment that I received from students, colleagues, and friends when I taught a lesson on censorship as part of this year's Banned Books Week. It may be hard to believe, but even in this enlightened America, the Land of Free Speech, there are still many challenges to great literary works. When I say banned, I'm not talking about the marching band at football games. No, I'm talking about removing literature, film, art, and other media from publicly accessible libraries, museums, schools, and websites simply because some find their content offensive. 

We all need to remember that banning books has disastrous consequences. It denies an author a voice and risks cutting off the cry for help from oppression. It allows others to make choices, instead of allowing one to make decisions for oneself. It necessarily stifles the creative juices of genius, limiting our citizens to a mediocre, generally accepted existence. I don't mean to say that all censoring is bad. No, some is clearly needed to protect young children from sexually explicit material, and there are other instances where it's appropriate as well. Rather, I'm suggesting that we think twice before removing literature from our schools and libraries. What is offensive to one person may be totally acceptable to another. My students were amazed that Captain Underpants was a challenged book. They appreciated the goofy antics and the language of their peers (elementary school bathroom talk). My friends were amazed that the Harry Potter series was at the top of the list for challenged books when it has received such widespread acceptance and huge movie deals. I, too, was astonished that one of my favorite young adult novels by Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was banned from a Stockton, Missouri high school library this month even though it was adopted as a required summer read by a New Jersey high school. Nonetheless, if you take a look at the American Library Association's list of challenged and banned books, you'd be hard pressed not to find some novel that you have read.

So, take some time to celebrate our literary freedom. Read a great work, perhaps one that's been banned. Let others know that we don't take our freedom of speech for granted!

Here's a link to the ALA's list of the top 100 banned/challenged books for the last decade:

Here's a link to some lesson plans for Banned Books Week by

Here's a link to Sherman Alexie's book on

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fun and Games

Don't you wish you could play games all day? Many kids do, and now, for some, it's a reality. A New York school has incorporated game theory into their educational curriculum, and it has transformed how the students approach school. No longer a dreaded institution, the school is an eagerly awaited home for fun and games. Cloaked in the guise of games, however, is some very high-order thinking. Students work in teams to develop their own games, taking on roles as writers, directors, and costume designers. They must learn how all the components fit into the bigger whole, and they must work together to achieve a cohesive product. Further, this systems theory is applied to other standard subject matter as well. Students learn how fractions fit into the bigger picture, how sentences build the story, etc.

The application of systems theory is something we all can use in our classrooms. Students not only need to understand the workings of individual components, but in order to use them to their greatest advantage, they need to understand how the parts function in the bigger whole. They need both the big and little pictures in order to move fluidly through the working world. Sometimes, we get hung up on one concept or another, and we forget to include the relationship of this concept to overarching concepts, or even other disciplines. If we teach with a systems mentality, we can help our students understand the total picture, and they'll be ready to paint new vistas for themselves and others.

We just need to keep it fun!

Here's a video from The New York Times about the gaming school in New York:
New York Times Magazine

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Challenges for a Changing Curriculum

After reading a recent article by a Harvard economics professor, I realized that we have a long way to go to prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century. He advocated basic courses for students and adults such as introductory economics, psychology, and probability and statistics. His viewpoint is that in order to respond to the issues of today's economy, we must have a better understanding of the forces that influence it. New Jersey's recent addition of a financial literacy requirement is a good step in the right direction. Surely many of our country's home mortgage woes could have been avoided if we all were more informed consumers.

However, there are broader challenges on the horizon. Making sure that our future citizens are empowered to make informed decisions regarding their financial futures is great, but we need to think beyond individual sufficiency. We must prepare our students for the teamwork required of the global workforce. They must develop an awareness of and appreciation for different cultures in order to effectively interact with their global counterparts. The U.S. State Department has identified 10 critical languages for the future: Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. Many of our students may not even be able to locate where these languages are spoken, let alone have any appreciation for the cultures of these foreign language speakers. When one realizes that China and India have more honor students than America even has students, the need becomes more apparent. Moreover, India is a young country with over 50% of its population under the age of 25.

Our isolated approach to preparing American citizens must change if we are to empower our future leaders to move fluently in an economy where India and other growing countries play a greater role on the world stage. It is not enough to remotely study these other cultures. Our students must be able to interact with students of other cultures, thus broadening awareness on both sides of the divide. Sure, foreign exchange programs are great for this, but they serve a limited audience and are financially impractical. Rather, we educators must fully use the technology available to us. Setting up Skype conversations, furthering email contact, opening up global wikis, or perhaps even arranging for group projects across nations are a first step. The CIA World Fact Book provides comprehensive information about all aspects of different countries, and is a wonderful resource for both teachers and students. The door is wide open. It's our job to help our students cross the portal onto the world stage.

Here's the New York Times article from the Harvard professor:
A Course Load for the Game of Life

Here's a link to the U.S. State Dept.'s Critical Languages Program:
Critical Language Scholarship Program

Here's a link where you can explore the over 6,900 languages of the world:

Here's a link to the CIA World Factbook:
The World Factbook