Aya Academy of Excellence

Connect Four: A Critical Thinking Game

Here’s a cool way to get learners to think critically about concepts or historical events.  I call it Connect Four, after the game, because the learner will explain how four seemingly disparate items are connected to one another.  I first came up with idea when teaching sixth grade social studies as a means of helping students review for an assessment.  All you do is provide a list of four items and the learner provides a connecting fact which links them together.

Connect Four

For example, Bessie Coleman and Josephine Baker traveled to France to further their individual careers because segregation in the United States prohibited their professional advancement.

Josephine Baker and Lena Horne were famed entertainers who refused to play before segregated audiences.

Rustin Bayard played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement and was a co-organizer of the March on Washington of 1963 of which Lena Horne and Josephine Baker both attended.

Connect Four is a conversation starter and enables the participants to consider concepts in a substantive context.


How to Reach Black Boys: Scribe vs Champion

20/20 Tapestry Curriculum  African American History

20/20 Tapestry Curriculum
African American History

On Tuesday evenings, there is an intriguing Twitter chat centered on the education of today’s youth. The discussion is similar to those populated by many educator driven online dialogues – achievement, parent engagement and school resources – have been given a spotlight. However, these chats are slightly different because they are committed to unraveling the challenges which have been griping the urban communities. How does street violence, the influence of media and incarceration impact the social maturation and academic development of the African American learner? Digging deeper, how do we reach black Boys who are growing up in a culture that can on one hand emasculate them and then at the same time hyper-sexualize them? The messages within the music and movies they watch are heavily imbued with symbols of machismo…aka sawgger. When reared in single family homes, they are appointed ‘the man of the house’ at very young ages. And yet, as they engage in society outside of their familial and peer spheres, such as schools and other public places, they are ‘boys.’

How Do We Reach Black Boys?

Stephanie Hunte and her first middle school class.

Several years ago, I heard a radio news announcement in which a former student was being sought for attempted rape. I froze. I knew this young man when he was no older than 12 years of age and now at the age of 17, his life was spiraling out of control. Or was it? Perhaps, that trajectory started long before that news announcement and had been occurring when he sat in our sixth grade class. As a classroom educator, what is our role in connecting our black boys to their best selves and to ensure that their future paths are not relegated to attaining the most swagger and continuing a cycle of poverty and crime? I believe that if we continue to believe that schools serve the purpose of just training our children academically, we will continue to lose the fight. Our young black men are seeking to find self-validation and purpose and we have the ability to do that if look beyond just teaching to the test and checking off the standards on our list. By imparting culturally relevant curriculum, our young men have touch points to assist in their development.

My question, if our young men have to choose, which theme would they identify with most – The Champion, an athlete dedicated to sports; or The Scribe, a writer who uses words and lyrics to express their thoughts? We are looking for people to weigh in on social media. Leave a comment on our Facebook page and share your thoughts.

When Angela Speaks…

When Angela Speaks...

Someone needs to do a study on why there are so many males, often jocks, who comprise the social studies departments in this country. And within that study, it would be intriguing to read how their world view impresses upon the learner the historical record of our nation and world. While I was growing up, all of my social studies teachers were male. I loved to hear their accounts of the movers and shakers of the past…all interspersed with recollections of last Sunday’s big game. But to the ‘victors go the spoils.’ Those who hold the position of telling the history of society have the ability to shape that history based on their personal perspective.

While at the craft store Michael’s after church this afternoon, my daughter showed me a magazine and asked, “Who are they?’ The front cover was an image of the Beatles from the 1960s. Quite a bit of pop culture and history dissipates from one generation to the next. If we are not careful, significant people and events will fade from memory as well.

None of my social studies teachers taught lessons or provided activities based on the contributions of black Americans…or Latino Americans…or Asian Americans. That learning came later, independently. For families who want to instill a sense of legacy within their children, relying solely on the school’s curriculum may not be the most effective recourse. So how can families impart culturally relevant teaching at home and within their community? Here are a few ideas:

1. There are some cultures which invest in half day academic and cultural studies learning. Muslim families, Asian families and those following the Catholic and Jewish faiths, send their children to classes to learn the language and practices of their culture. Find or form classes with like-minded families.

2. Living literature. Some home-school families approach the learning of history and culture through reading novels and biographies. Create a reading list with the help of your local librarian that is thematic or chronological.

3. Multimedia. This approach is similar to living literature, except that it uses music, theatrical films and documentaries in lieu of books.

4. Dialogue. Engage people in conversation who have accounts of historical experiences.

Building historical memory aids in bridging understanding between generations and cultures, sexes. It assists with helping society in getting a pulse check to ascertain how we got were we are today based on the circumstances and people of the past. There are times when I get dismayed that the younger generation carries themselves in a fashion that does not honor the struggle of the past. However, it is difficult to hold them accountable to a history they are unaware of and therefore cannot appreciate.

Building Community Through Family Engagement

Building Community Through Family Engagement

I heart Malcolm Gladwell. His latest book, David and Goliath, is perched beneath my bed atop a short stack of other “Can’t Wait to Devour These Too’ selections. Between a full caseload in school, two children and a wayward dog, nightly reading has been pushed far back on he to-do list. So, when I can, I read articles and essays.

A few weeks ago, I read an article on Malcolm’s (we are so on first name basis…;o)…) website. His family, like mine are transplants from another country and he found that their Caribbean roots, at least for the first generation created an economic and professional inroads. Perception and work ethic intertwined to place them at the front lines of hiring and positioned them to acquire financial stability. There is a lot of good nuggets to gnash on within this piece, however, one critical point that was impressed upon me was the impact of community norms on individual success. We used a quote from Malcolm, apart from this essay, for our 20/20 Tapestry curriculum because it is evident that to transform circumstances, attitudes and minds, it is necessary to build environments which continuously affirm that thinking. We included it within the Tapestry of the Scholar featuring W.E.B. Dubois, a former Atlanta University professor who was a founding member of the NAACP.

The larger lesson, a single person can make great change. However, substantive transformation is dependent on providing environments which feed and nurture people’s capacity to grow. So, teachers within the school environment cannot be the only point of contact propelling young minds toward scholarship. Within the community, young people need their families, peers and community members to engage them in academic activities and dialogue as well to assist in their development. An academic community space in which young learners can participate in science, math and language development is a necessity to eradicate the pervasive low achievement experienced amongst students who reside in neighborhoods with low achieving schools.

Send Me Back Saturday: Launching Community Programming


Redefine Start. These sage words were spoken to me a few years ago in response to how I was approaching serving youth and families. To me, I could not, prior to that conversation, see how to provide academic services without a brick and mortar location. Thereafter, my thinking changed and Aya began to takeoff because we began offering workshops in partnership with local libraries and afterschool programs.

The image above was taken two years ago during our first community-based literacy workshop series. Here are a few insights regarding working with and behalf of communities.

1. Focus. Have a clear and cogent objective. Initially, our organization took a Pinky and the Brain approach – we wanted to take over the world…in a good way. But it is impossible to serve every need. Therefore, go deep and not wide in regard to what you would like to focus on with your services.

2. Teamwork. Get a great team. Create a matrix which defines your strengths and identifies your gaps. Band together with others who can provide support in areas where you have gaps. I’ve been blessed with great collaborators who provide our organization with assets I have yet to develop. There is no shame in not excelling in everything. Just take note of what Tom Collins’ Good to Great proffers: Get the Right People on the Bus.

3. Midgetize. Start small. Work out the kinks. Expand. Last year, we launched our first camp….it was nearly 3 years in the planning…and it was worth the wait. This year we are expanding to serve three times the number of learners. By starting small, we had less constraints, including budget and recruitment of learners and personnel. This provided opportunities to reflect on instructional practices and operational strategies.

4. Dream. Feel free to delve into your creativity. Mentally walk through best case scenarios. When working with marginalized communities it is easy to listen to the apathy and entertain others’ frustrations. Let the ‘its never been done before’ roll off your back and open up to possibilities. This aids in becoming a problem solver and a change agent.

5. Serve. Help others. I sometimes volunteer more during the week then I do ‘work.’ That’s always been my heart. The universe does give back what you put in. Those I’ve assisted have looked out for our organization by including us in their other activities. Through a willingness to serve, others will provide support in unexpected wonderful ways. This process aids in building relationships which assists in the forward movement of your community initiatives.

Tools of the Trade: Story Chips


A few years ago, I stumbled across a lovely resource to spark discussion during literacy workshops.Story Chips and Discussion chips are an affordable teaching tool to encourage learners to share their thoughts in small and large group settings. Since learners can select their questions, they feel a degree of ownership during the discussion process.

The chips, which retail for less than $5 at teacher resource stores, can be made at home. The questions are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and therefore, they have several levels of thinking ranging from recall to analytical inquiry. In class, I would allow learners a chance to swap questions out from the chips bucket to ensure they selected questions they were comfortable responding to in front of a group. While reading Julia Alvarez’ Before We Were Free, each student was paired with a partner and answered the questions together. The partners were allowed to first discuss with their buddy their individual responses to create a consensus before sharing out to the larger group. As always, getting to the ‘right’ answer took a back seat to developing students’ ability to think critically and dialogue with peers.

To make your own, create questions in Microsoft word to fit into a text box the size of a 20 ounce bottle cap (Vitamin Water). Glue the questions onto the bottle cap and Voila, you’ve saved $5!

What I love most is that these chips can be used with any age learner and within any setting. Families can have these on hand
at their bedside table to use during bedtime reading.

Holler If You Here Me


This is a quick convergence of two thoughts regarding change.. First, art plays a critical role in shaping thought and inspiring change. (see Theory of Aesthetics) This summer, Kenny Leon, an alum of Clark Atlanta University, is developing a Broadway musical production with a slated opening for summer 2014. The prevailing themes of hope and friendship are set to the lyrics of artist Tupac Shakur. I am curious how Mr. Leon will present these themes in the context of Mr. Shakur’s work.

Prior to his passing, Mr. Shakur penned the following enduring lyrics in his song Changes:

“We gotta make a change.
It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat.
Let’s change the way we live.
And let’s change the way we treat each other.”

My second thought related to change was sparked by a two-hour video I watched this morning. While viewing a 2007 discussion on community mobilization presented by Angela Davis at the University of Oregon, I kept thinking of the students in a local afterschool program. These children are combatting pervasive issues of poverty, crime and abuse, simultaneously, while striving to learn academic skill sets to assist in their development into self-sustaining individuals. The community challenges the students are grappling with permeate the school walls and the internal culture is at times, chaotic, stressful and combative. The teachers are tired, the administration is on the verge of burn out and the children waver between apathy and momentary amusement. Ms. Davis could have been speaking directly to this school’s community when she stated,

“Students due not learn how to value knowledge, especially in black Hispanic and poor communities, instead they learn that going to school is being disciplined – prep school for prison.”

Within these walls, there is a lack of joy, a lack of inspiration and a lack of hope.

So in the midst of this culture, and while listening to Professor Davis’ thoughts on the role of self reflection and critical thinking in building structural changes for empowered communities, I created a quick interactive game for families or classes to play to assist young people with developing personal empowerment so that they can take charge of their own trajectories and to begin working collaboratively to better their own neighborhoods.

The game is called changes. Every time a participant answers in the affirmative, they move forward one space to demonstrate that this is a choice they have made or have a willingness to make. The goal is for them to connect to the thought that certain decisions will add value to their lives and will lead them to a more productive future. The participants can and should discuss their choices with each step they make. The statements can be added or modified to suit the needs of the learners. These statements are based on my personal view that self-sustainable and emotionally healthy individuals, think critically, do not operate within monolithic spheres, regard multiple viewpoints as opportunities for growth, embrace art, balance their intellectual and physical development, seek to support their local and global community, nurture their artistic skill sets and value their own voice.

Math is hard. Go online and practice for 30 minutes each night for the next 3 weeks.
Build a model of a bridge, robot or skeleton.
Join an afterschool club to learn something new.
Spend a Saturday afternoon each month volunteering to help others.
Organize others to clean up your school.
Read independently every day.
Read the newspaper or watch the news from multiple news outlets.
Have conversations with people who have different views then your own.
Read biographies about world and community leaders.
You are given $100 for a gift. Opt to save the money instead of spending it on new outfit.
Teacher assigns you detention for something you didn’t do. You speak to the teach after class to discuss your point of view.
You get 1 hour of computer time. You decide to go online and visit a virtual field trip site.
Keep a journal and jot down your thoughts.
Your closest friends cut classes. You distance yourself from them.
Create sketches, doodles, poems or lyrics in your free time.
Learn and Practice a second language.
Develop your own set rules to help you decide what is right and wrong.
Read affirmations daily.
Exercise or meditate daily.
Eat a large salad with a bottle of water instead of combo meal with a large soda.

My intended post on community mobilization and the role education plays in this effort will be forthcoming. Just had to share this and hope it helps those who work with empowering marginalized youth.

Imagination Stations: Setting Up Science Inquiry Stations

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Clanking of metal. Whirling of water down a drain. The sprouting of thistles through densely packed earth. Rays of light streaming through the panes of an arched window forming ripples of rainbows. The wonders of science are ever-present in our daily life and by closing textbooks and opening our eyes, our children can delve deeply into learning that is meaningful.

I recently crafted an after-school curriculum for a local Atlanta program seeking to raise the science and math thinking of their students. After combing through the Common Core Standards, I assembled a few dozen activities to pique children’s interests while aiding their understanding of life and earth science. Within the next year, our organization is seeking to establish a share space for families to engage in academic learning. This space, The Community Classroom, will have a robotics lab, art studio and a technology lab with supplies to explore, create, build and program. Here are a few of the activities our maker space will carry that families can participate in today with everyday objects they have at home.

General Notes:
Store and collect basic supplies in a closet or bookshelf space.
More unique items can be found in thrift stores, like Goodwill.
Use a file sharing system, like Google Docs, to store activity how-to sheets.

Imagination Station One: DNA Extraction

  • Strawberry
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Dish detergent
  • Salt
  • Zip-lock bag
  • Water
  • Measuring utensils
  • Beakers (Substitute a Plastic Toothbrush Holder)
  • Tweezers
  • Spoon


What to Do:

  1. Into a beaker, pour 2 drops of dish soap into 1/4 cup of water.
  2. Add 1/4 tsp of salt.
  3. Mix to form the extraction solution.
  4. Place 1 strawberry and the extraction solution into a plastic bag.
  5. Squeeze out the air from the bag and tightly seal it.
  6. Mash the strawberry and extraction solution.
  7. Open the bag and pour the mixture into a beaker.
  8. Add a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol to the solution.
  9. Using tweezers, remove the white, fluffy strings at the op of the mixture.
  10. You’re DONE!

The Science: Our DNA, a series of individualized codes, is the blueprint of body. Like the strawberry, our DNA can be extracted and scientists can study it to see a sequence of codes that are used o determine how our body develops, including how our hear grows and how our eyes are shaped.

Imagination Station Two: Cotton-ball Catapult
Craft Sticks
Large Markers
Masking Tape
Measuring Tape/Ruler

Cotton Ball

What to Do:

1. Attach a spoon to a craft sticks securely with a rubber band near the top end.

2. Using a rubber band, secure a second craft sticks to the opposite end of the first one to make the edges touch.

3. Slide a marker between both craft sticks.

4. Launch a series of cotton balls with the catapults.  Change the trajectory (height and distance of the path the object travels) by pressing down the spoon with varying degrees of softness or hardness.

5. Alter the location of the rubber bands to test whether this change alters the trajectory of the object.

6. Test your accuracy by propping masking tape upright to attempt launching the projectiles (thrown objects) through the center of the tape.

The Science: The Concept of Variability checks the degree of change for a set of data (in this case, the number of launches).  Learners should track how each change they make impacts the results.

Imagination Station Three: Lego Re-Loaded
Bags of Legos, Duplo or Standard Size
Index Cards

Lego Bundle

What To Do: On separate index cards, write the following Lego challenges to design each over time –

1. Tallest Tower – Within the next 60 seconds, create a Lego structure that is as tall as possible.

2. Vessel – Create an object that can hold something within the room you are in during your build.

3. Bridge – Develop a structure which connects to areas in the room you are in during your build.

4. Dream House – Design a futuristic home with at least two rooms and an outdoor space.

5. Go Green – Create a tool which can be used to harness energy.

6. Lego Logo – Re-create a famous logo or symbol.

7. Vehicle – Design a means that can transport people by land, sea or air.

8. Mutation – Design a structure that can transform into a living animal or plant.

9. Ecosystem – Build a habitat for an animal or plant to live.

10. Monument – Re-create a famous structure.

The Science – Building requires the participant to use problem solving skills and imagination. While creating structures, learners will employ engineering principles, including stability. Learners will employ the engineering design process to assist in employing their critical and innovative thinking.

Engineering Design Process

Books For Fun – Graphic Novels (Comic Books) have a fun, storytelling platform which appeals to both boys and girls.  Decoding Genes with Max Axiom by Amber J. Keyser is a good read for kids interested in learning more about DNA and genetics.

Decoding Genes Book

Hands-on learning is a platform to develop thinking skills through involvement.  The maker space movement, often spearheaded by public libraries and schools, is a noteworthy trend that empowers learners, both young and old, to develop new skill sets.  Our Community Classroom seeks to do just that by equipping families to learn collaboratively.  In an upcoming post, we will add  a few more of our proposed Community Classroom imagination stations families can try at home and will discuss how to align inquiry stations with a standards-based curriculum.

The Change Agent: Sojourner Truth

Alfre Woodard recites Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman speech.
When Ms. Truth, an enslaved American woman, walked into her freedom and away from the fetters of her captors, she considered going back, out of fear of the unknown. She was running away from abuse. She was running from the mental torment of being separated from her beloved family members. She was running away from the relentless field work that tied her ancestors into socio-economic shackles.

Ms. Truth, an abolitionist, preacher and advocate for gender equality, became a celebrated speaker whose tenacious spirit and firebrand deliver brought her legions of respected followers. The magnitude of her Ain’t I Woman speech, which juxtaposed racial and gender inequalities, still resonates today as we continue to grapple with civil rights issues for marginalized communities.

Aya Academy of Excellence salutes Sojourner Truth, our 20/20 Tapestry Change Agent.

Falling in Love with Paris: An Exodus Story


When I was a pre-teen, I had aspirations of attending college in Canada because I figured it would be a stepping stone to living in Paris. My eldest is taking French now and it feels like déjà by.  Although she’s pretty studious, she has a deep longing for attending school abroad. – either in Japan or in France, and thus devoted countless hours studying second languages.  While preparing our curriculum I saw the emergence of numerous patterns, one of which was the seeking of refuge abroard so that the artist, aviator or doctor would have an opportunity to learn their craft and live their purpose in a less racially charged society.  This was true for Dr. James McCune Smith who traveled to Glasglow, Scotland to attain his medical degree, as well as, Bessie Coleman and Josepbine Baker who both traveled to France to get closer to their dreams.

Josephine Baker’s escapades are vibrantly captured in Jonah Winter’s Jazz Age Josephine by illustrator Marjorie Priceman.  The sing-song passages evoke a musical tone as the story is read aloud, especially during the portionso devoted to tackling the racial discrimination which spurred Ms. Baker’s exodus from the United States. 


This is title is part of our Reading List for the 20/20 curriculum for the lesson on the Celebrity, which illuminates how some African American stars have utilized their fame and influence to further philanthropic endeavors.

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