Author Chat with Malcolm Gladwell

Last week,  I was fortunate to experience one of the highs of my teaching career: my students participated in a live web chat with author Malcolm Gladwell.

As a part of our unit “Is the United States still a ‘Land of Opportunity?,'” my Humanities 10 students read Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.  We connected Gladwell’s concepts of deliberate practice, lucky opportunities, cultural legacy, family upbringing, and timing to the Industrial and Progressive Eras in U.S. History.  Students explored how titans of the early 1900s seized the “predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities” that show “success is not a random act.”

Students carried their understanding of success over to issues of today, especially in terms of economic mobility and racism/xenophobia.  They read current Articles of the Week which expanded this conversation, such Leonard Pitts’ “Miss America and Social Media’s Ignorant Bigotry” and my favorite New York TImes Room for Debate piece.

So, like most of our History units, they read, researched, debated, and wrote arguments, and, finally, to make their learning truly authentic, this time they got to interact directly with the author!

We had the “lucky opportunity” and solid “timing” to participate in this live web-chat hosted by Goodreads.

To put it simply, the students were totally geeked. I mean, when I shared the video chat invitation with my sophomores, one student–who was being totally genuine–actually shouted, “Are you serious? We get to talk to Malcolm Gladwell!”  What made the experience even cooler–if I can fangirl a bit here–was that Gladwell answered a number of my students’ direct questions, one being the very girl who had gushed about the chance to talk to him.

I often hear about other savvy teachers bringing authors in to chat with their students.  I admit that, until this experience, I was really nervous about the engagement of my students, flexibility of my colleagues, and investment of time and planning, but, in the end, it worked out so well that I’m definitely going to seek out opportunities like this in the future.

As a ELA conclusion to this unit, the students just began reading The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates They’re doing profound work connecting Gladwell’s ideas about success to Moore’s question of fate.

Would you believe that yesterday I had a kid ask me when we’d be chatting with the author? So, Mr. Moore, when are you free?  We’re ready when you are. 😉


Book Review: The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss

I wrote the following post, “Using Picture Books in the Secondary Classroom”,  for  The Booksource Banter. It was originally published in the September 2012 newsletter.

By fifteen and sixteen, most high-schoolers only remember Dr. Seuss for his hat-wearing cat and persistent Sam I Am. Most high school teachers probably imagine the same titles when someone suggests that they use “picture books” in the classroom. Even though picture books have been shown to be an effective way to build background knowledge, many secondary teachers are reluctant to introduce Kid Lit into their serious, standards-driven lessons. The thing is, there’s more to Dr. Seuss than mischief and rhyme. His work has inspired some of the most powerful argumentative and analytical writing that I’ve seen from my sophomore U.S. History classes.Reexamining picture books, like Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book, allows upper-level students safe grounds for deeply exploring the social undertones found in political parables. Any teacher would agree that “tyrannical fascism” and “nuclear tension” are not most students’ favorite topics of study. Moreover, arguing the appropriate response to global threat is an incredibly heavy subject matter for tenth grade. However, after a short and amusing read-aloud, my students had a base of knowledge to build from towards understanding the complex politics of WWII and the Cold War.

The Butter Battle Book, which you—like me—may have passed over in childhood, tells a silly parable about the ominous nuclear arms race of the Cold War. Dr. Seuss’ obvious allegory depicts the world of the Yooks and the Zooks, where a ridiculous conflict over buttering bread could lead to the possible destruction of the world with each military trying to one-up the other in terms of superior weaponry.Introducing these somewhat classic picture books was a surprisingly easy transition for both my high school students and for me. From there, they grew eager for more contemporary young adult picture books, like Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. As publishers continue to strengthen this growing genre, secondary teachers will have more and more opportunities to blend picture books into their complex curricula.

Erica Beaton is a sophomore Humanities teacher in the Tech 21 Academy at Ceder Springs High School in Cedar Springs, MI. She is currently reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein.