April 9 — 5:08 pm, 2012

Using the Notebook in the classroom

As part of our series on teachers and their lessons, this guest blog post is from Andrew Biros, who recently used the Notebook as the foundation for an extensive unit on social justice at University City High School.

As my students were preparing for a meeting with Mayor Michael Nutter, the Notebook published its edition on dropouts, which fit perfectly with the planned discussion with the mayor about community violence, dropouts, and economic mobility. Using the article "No diploma, no job" as a curricular resource, students drafted fact-based questions for Mayor Nutter concerning the issues they care most about.

My role as a social-justice educator is to instill in my students a sense of empowerment and to help them understand ways for them to access power. It is paramount that students understand that their voices matter and that if they want to make change in their community, they need to make sure that their voices are heard by those who can assist in working toward that change.

With this frame, I developed an inquiry-based unit focused on linking Philadelphia’s homicide rate, education attainment, and economic mobility. The article "No diploma, no job" played a central role in helping students understand education attainment and economic mobility. The multimedia elements from the story were paramount in differentiating for students the varying facets of these issues. Through an inquiry stance, students engaged and reflected on the story’s images, text, graphs, and audio interviews.

Walking through the lesson: Introducing the story

Before reading the article, I projected the image of Monica Reyes onto the SMART Board, and explained to my students that the photo was from an article written about opportunity and the prospect of dropping out of high school. My students then analyzed the image in order to answer:

Why did the newspaper editors choose this image? What message are they trying to convey? What can we learn about the article, solely from the image?

Then I presented my students with the accompanying graphs from the article and told them to analyze each graph and to describe three social science facts that each graph established.

Walking through the lesson: Listening to student voice

The next day, we listened to the radio piece from the story. I asked students to write down two things that stuck out and one question about the piece. Responses displayed a wonderful array of thoughtfulness, all of which came out in our dialogical conversation after students spent time writing and reflecting.

Many students were initially surprised to hear the voice of a young girl that was much like their own. Most students empathized with Monica Reyes – while others seemed puzzled over why, even after so many struggles, she would drop out of school. I believe my students heard a story about challenges that are not too dissimilar to their own realities. Moreover, many students wanted to know more about Reyes’ current situation.

Walking through the lesson: Reading and responding to the text

I distributed the article to each student in groups of four, along with a group research activity. I told students to read the article together, and as a group, to choose five sets of social science data embedded within the article. The only prerequisite was that the data needed to be facts the group believed and facts that they thought if more people within our community knew and understood, it would lead to a safer and more prosperous community.

I compiled the group’s identified data and created a lesson aimed at generating fact-based social science questions that my students could ask Mayor Nutter. After scaffolding an example, I continued to remind my students that their voice is all the stronger when they demonstrate learned knowledge regarding a topic they care about: "Access knowledge, access power."

Each student crafted three questions. I then took those questions and turned them back on the students once more. I instructed the students to choose two of their classmate’s questions and answer it with a writing exercise as if they were the mayor of Philadelphia tackling these questions. Also, I required students to incorporate four additional social science facts from the unit’s previously covered material. I was astounded by my students’ ability to fluidly identify and work with the harbingers of violence, education, and opportunity, and to then come up with thoughtful solutions.

Walking through the lesson: Talking with the mayor

When it came time to meet with Mayor Nutter, my students were aptly prepared to engage with these controversial issues, and they asked eloquent questions supported by data found in the Notebook article. With a shared understanding of my students’ knowledge, Mayor Nutter asked for their thoughts and ideas about tackling these issues. An inquiry-stance lesson, paired with the Notebook’s coverage of a dilemma that hinders opportunity for our city’s young people, successfully prepared my students to articulate a shared vision for building a stronger, more prosperous community.

Andrew Biros is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He will graduate in May with an M.S.Ed. in secondary teacher education. Biros also holds an M.Sc. in public policy from University College London, where he wrote his dissertation on Pennsylvania public education reform.

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