And Then Teaching Our Students That The Biases And Stereotypes That We Hold Affect How We Understand What We Read

My students and I spent several weeks looking at how the things we read, and the images that we are surrounded by, affect the biases and stereotypes that we hold. I wrote extensively about that work in THIS PREVIOUS BLOG POST.

After we had established that what we read affects the biases and stereotypes that we hold, I also wanted my students to see that the biases and stereotypes that we hold affect how we understand what we read. I wanted to find a way to show my students that we all bring biases into the texts that we read. And often we, as readers and as humans, are blind to the fact that these biases cause us to read through a lens of our own limited experiences. And this lens, this narrow way of thinking, can actually change the way that we understand a text.

I wanted my students to know this, because I wanted them to stop being so passive, as I have been for too long, in this process. I believe that when we are unaware of how our own biases limit our understanding of what we read, then we are powerless to do anything to change that. However, when we are able to see the limits of our own lenses, then we are able to actively work to push beyond them.

But this idea, it is so hard to pin down. It is so hard to make it all visible. Because so many of us have been raised in a “color doesn’t matter” or “we are all the same inside” kind of world, we lack the experience of seeing that color DOES in fact matter and that while, yes, we are all the same inside, who we are on the outside has a huge impact on how we move through and experience this world. It is hard to see the things that have been staring us in the face for so long, yet have continued to go unexplored out of fear of saying the wrong thing.

So I needed a way to help my students to see how these ways of thinking, these biases we all hold, how they can stop us from fully understanding a text or an idea or another human being or a moment in history.

All of this was unfolding as my fifth grade students were immersed in dress rehearsals for our school musical. The title of this year’s musical was “Go West.” And, as one might expect, the musical told a rather one-sided version of our country’s westward expansion. I sat in several rehearsals and cringed when the Native American character stood next to a Pioneer Man character and spoke of how they worked together side-by-side. And I was so torn. I knew that this script was telling an inaccurate version of history. AND I also was at a loss about what to do about it.

For the past few weeks, my students and I had been learning about how the things that we read can work to either reinforce our stereotypes or push us beyond them. We talked about how important it was to actively work to choose texts that push us beyond the stereotypes we hold. We talked about the importance of choosing not to read the texts that will reinforce the negative and shallow stereotypes that so many of us grow up surrounded by.  And yet here we were, living and breathing this play did everything we just learned to be harmful.

So what do we do?

And that’s when I realized. These harmful representations, they are out there. They are everywhere. As much as I try to ensure that they are no longer found in my classroom library, I cannot control what books they will encounter out in the world beyond our classroom.  Our kids are going to come into contact with harmful representations. Often. I might not be able to protect them from these representations, but I can work to prepare them to deal with them. I can help them to recognize them. I can teach them the processes I hope that they will go through in order to fight against the harmful representations and the historically inaccurate and the horrifically one sided versions of the truth that they will find themselves confronted with. That is something I can do.

So that is what we did.

I began by talking with our incredible music teacher and let her know my concerns. She shared every single one of them. I let her know what I was planning to do. She was grateful for the better understanding that it would lead us to.

So I started by actually photocopying a page from the musical script. The page that contained that inaccurate scene showing everyone working together side by side.  Here is the text: IMG_8666

I asked my students to sit together with me and I displayed this text under the document camera. They were excited to see a page from their script up on our board. I reminded them that we had been talking about and learning about how our biases form and I shared with them that I wanted to take a few days to look at how those biases affect what we understand about a text.

So I told them we would start with a text we knew well. I read the text out loud.  I told them that IF I had been taught, as many students are, that American history is the story of people working together in order to make our country stronger, then I would enter into this text in one way.  So let’s say that was my bias, because of what I had been taught. I then reread the text out loud and stopped to mark down some of the thinking that I might have, if I read this text with that bias in mind.  Here is a bit of what that looked like: FullSizeRender 5

But then I said, that often times, what we have been taught only gives us one side of an issue.  Often, our own limited experiences and perspectives, leave a lot out of our understanding. So I then told them that one of the BEST things that we can do to expand our understanding, is to pull in other resources, especially resources that give us another perspective.

I then handed out two additional texts to my students.

Both of these texts shared Native American perspectives on Westward Expansion. One was an informational text that described the Trail of Tears and one was from Teaching Tolerance and it described how Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe had to fight to keep the government from stealing their land.  I read these texts out loud to my students and I told them that as I gained additional perspectives, I noticed that my thinking and my biases were starting to change. I was not starting to think in a new way. Now, I was thinking that American history seems to be more the story of people in power taking advantage of those without power in order to grow their own wealth and land.  This new understanding made me see the text from the musical in a very different way.  FullSizeRender

I then handed out copies of the text from the musical script to each student. I asked them to reread the text, now knowing what they know from the other sources we looked at, and I asked them to write down the thoughts they now had as they read this text.  Here is a sample of the amazing thinking they captured:

I then asked them to share some of the things that they wrote down. The conversations were amazing. Simply amazing. Many of them spoke about how they had read this piece of text SO many times and didn’t really ever stop to think about what was NOT being said.

We also talked about why something like a musical written for young children might chose to leave out many of the horrific tragedies that were a part of this period of time. We discussed our own responsibilities as readers to ensure that we are getting more than what we began to call the majority narrative.  My kids had so much incredible thinking to share.

I tried to capture our conversation in this anchor chart: IMG_8607

But I knew we needed to keep going. This was just one example.

Our final reading unit of the year combines the comprehension skill of determining importance with a study of informational texts and historical fiction and a study of the Civil Rights Movement. It is an incredible unit of study and provided the perfect context for our continued learning.

So I decided to connect our work with bias with our study of the Civil Rights Movement. And I knew the perfect place to start. The place where we all start and the place where far too many of us end, with Martin Luther King Jr. The point that I wanted to make is that many of us believe we know what there is to know about the Civil Rights Movement, when in fact what we have been taught and what we have learned on our own, far too often only scratch the same narrow piece of the surface. In my mind, nothing embodies that more than what so many of my students think they know about Martin Luther King Jr.

So I put together THIS TEXT SET ON MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.. It begins with a very brief biography on Martin Luther King Jr., one that I believe matches much of what my students already know about him.  I began by asking my students to read the first biography and then write down the things they already knew about Martin Luther King Jr. We took some time to share. Many of my students shared similar knowledge including that he believed in peaceful protests, that he gave the I Have a Dream Speech, that he believed in equal rights, that he fought for equal rights for black people, etc.

I told the students that we would now look at four short excerpts from other texts, ones that were not necessarily written just for kids or for the purpose of being used in schools. I asked them to start marking any information that changed or challenged what they thought they knew about Martin Luther King Jr. I asked them to underline any parts of the texts that we were going to read that showed them this man in a different way, that deepened their understanding of who he was.

And then we started to read.

My plan was to read all four texts back-to-back, then give the kids time to write and then open things up for a discussion. However after we read the first texts, the kids were begging to talk to each other. So we talked. And there was SO much to say.  The fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was being described as angry. The fact that he was targeted by the FBI. These were things that my students had never read before.

And then we read the second text. And then the third. And then the fourth. And with each new text came so much conversation. And then I asked them to write. To write about what they learned. To write about what they came to understand. And more importantly, to write about what they now understood our responsibility as readers would be as we worked to read and learn about the Civil Rights Movement.

I was in awe as my students shared with me their ideas on how we could read to learn about a moment in history in a better, more accurate, way. I tried to capture all of their suggestions and ideas on these charts:

And then, as we looked back over the ideas that we captured here, we decided that these would be the ideas and beliefs that would guide us as we worked to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. We now understood, and saw with our own eyes, how much can remain hidden under the surface. We now understood, and saw with our own eyes, how our limited knowledge and biases can stop us from fully understanding a moment in history or a person who has become a hero. And we also now understood, and saw with our own eyes, how much can be gained by not allowing ourselves to stop after the first thing that we read, but instead working to push beyond the majority narrative and the simplified version of history. We had seen what is so often hidden from us and we had also seen the power that we have to go and seek those hidden stories out.

Today I Heard A Hero Speak

Today Representative John Lewis was speaking at the school where my sister works as a social worker.  I took the morning off of work and went along with my sister to hear Representative Lewis speak to a group of middle school and high school students.

This man. He. Is. Inspiration. Embodied.

He and the illustrator of the March trilogy were at the school to talk about their books and their lives and the world that we live in.

Representative Lewis began by telling his story. The incredible story of his life. He spoke of the world he grew up in, the fight that he became a part of and the love that he continues to hold in his heart.

And then he spoke right to the kids. And he told them to have hope. He told them to carry love instead of hate. And then he said words that continue to sit so strongly with me. He told us all, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, say something and not be quiet.”

I walked away with those words still at the very front of my mind because, though he was speaking to the kids at that moment, it reminded me so very much of our job as teachers.

Whenever I talk with others about the social justice work that I try to do with my students, of the books that we sometimes read, of the conversations that we sometimes have, of the discussions of race and gender and gender identity and racism and Islamaphobia and on and on, the very first question that people often ask is, “What about the parents who get angry? What do you tell them?”

And I think it is a fair question. I think it is important question. But I also think that it is one that should propel us forward instead of holding us back.

I wonder what John Lewis would have said if someone had asked him, “What about the people who you are making angry by trying to fight for change?” Listening to him today, I imagine he probably had an answer much more brilliant than mine. I don’t know exactly what it would be, but I do know this: the question alone, the worry alone, the anxiety over what others might say who disagreed with what he was doing, THAT was never enough to stop him.

And yet. I think it stops us sometimes. A lot of times. The fear of parents, the fear of other teachers, the fear of angry phone calls and emails. I think that sometimes those things stop us before we even have a chance to get started.

Because here is the thing. There is no possible way for me to ensure that parents will not call and be upset by something that I have done in the classroom. There is no possible way for me to ensure that every book that I put into my classroom library will make every family happy. There is no possible way for me to ensure that every conversation that we have in the classroom will make every family happy.

But. That cannot stop me from doing what I believe is best for our kids and then working ALONGSIDE the parents in order to ensure that every child feels comfortable with the work that we are doing.

So, what do I say to the parents who express concern? The truth is that at first I don’t say much. I listen. I work to understand. And then I often explain what led to my decision to do what we did and I work hard to make sure that that answer ALWAYS starts with the kids. The work we do is often in response to comments made by the students themselves. The work we do is always at a level that works for the students in my classroom.

The conversations that we have, they can bring discomfort. Discomfort is what helps us grow and pushes us beyond what we have always done and always known. But it is unfair of me to expect that parents who are not present in the classroom during this discomfort can possibly always understand what led to it and that we walk through the discomfort together as a classroom community. And that we come through it, on the other side, into something incredible and hopeful and beautiful. It is my job to help parents and families and administrators to see that.

And sometimes they won’t. And that is okay. Sometimes I have to be okay knowing that there are people who disagree with me. Who disagree with the work that we do. I have to work hard to take their ideas and thoughts and concerns and use them to grow my own understanding and to always do better for the students who sit there alongside of me.  There will be people who disagree with me. And that is uncomfortable. But the discomfort alone cannot stop us.

Because my discomfort. It is so small compared to what was described to me today by Representative John Lewis. He spoke of being grateful that he was able to give a bit of blood during the Selma march in order to help to change the world.

He was grateful to be able to give a bit of blood.

Think about that. The power of that. The power of that one man. And then think about our own task. The work that we can do in our own classrooms with our own students. The work that we can do together.

So know that the objections will come. Be prepared for them. Above anything else, let the families of your students know that you love those kids with your whole heart. First, leave them with no doubt that your primary concern will always be the well-being of your students. Then, dig in. Get used to feeling uncomfortable. Be prepared to have difficult conversations, in the classroom and with families and coworkers and administrators. Seek solace and comfort in others who are doing the work.

And always, always, always think of those who have come before us. Who have put themselves in much greater danger, in much more difficult positions, all in the hope of helping to make the world a better place.

And then keep going.

And keep in mind the words of this great legend and hero, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, say something and not be quiet.”

 

Teaching Our Students That What We Read Affects The Biases and Stereotypes We Hold

After working to help my students to confront their own biases, we decided to dig a little bit deeper into where these biases come from. In our previous lesson, we came to an understanding that ALL people carry biases.  Having biases, we discussed, does not make you a bad person. It makes you human. It is the result of being surrounded by biased images from the time you are a small child. It is refusing to confront these biases, to accept that they are a part of the way that you think, that becomes problematic. And if this is true, which my students and I truly believe that it is, then it is important to understand where these biases comes from. Where do these stereotypes originate? How do they become so strong?

If we can start to answer these questions, if we can begin to interrupt these biases and stereotypes as they form, then we have a better chance of changing our patterns of thinking so that we are not so influenced by the stereotypes and biases that we hold.  I truly believe that the reason that our biases and stereotypes have so much power over our thinking and our actions is because most of us have never stopped to really examine them and where they come from.

We have grown up being told that color doesn’t matter and that we are all the same inside and this has stopped us from having actual conversations, difficult conversations, that can help us to see that we DO see color and religion and sexual orientation and those things DO matter and they DO affect how we see others. And they shouldn’t. And we all can wish that they didn’t. But the only way to actually give our own biases and stereotypes less power over us is to confront them and examine them and work to disrupt our patterns of thinking that lead to them having so much power.

And so, within my own classroom, I want to work to do just that. With my students. So that together we can better understand where our biases and stereotypes come from. And maybe, just maybe, that understanding can lead to a change in our thinking.

So after our work with the images on the covers of picture books, here was the thinking that we were left with:IMG_7960

And so after our initial conversations, we were left with the question, “Where do our biases come from?”

The first place that I wanted my students to look was at the advertising and marketing that they are surrounded by.  So I asked the kids to look more closely at the Pottery Barn Kids website.  I asked them to specifically look at what they saw on the pages for GIRLS ROOMS and BOYS ROOMS. I asked them to write down what they actually saw and what messages might be sent by what they actually saw on this page. They kept track of their observations and interpretations on THIS FORM.

After spending time looking at the Pottery Barn Kids website and writing down what they noticed, we came back together to share their thinking. The conversations were so powerful. They were so energized. They were so passionate. They were so hopeful.

My students brought up much more than just that they saw pink in many girls rooms and blue in many boys rooms. They noticed all the science themed rooms were in the boys sections. They noticed the limited range of interests represented in the girls rooms. They brought up how it was starting to be more okay for “boy” things to be marketed towards girls, but still not okay for “girl” things to be marketed towards boys.  They noticed that while Pottery Barn was clearly trying to do better in terms of how gendered their selection is, they still have a long way to go.

And then once we started looking closely at these messages, then my students began to share the many places that send us images that add to our biases and stereotypes. And so we started to chart other answers to our question: IMG_3910 2

After looking at all of these places, we then started to look more closely at how the things that we read add to our biases and stereotypes. And so we began with the stories that we had been hearing the longest, fairy tales. We would do a close reading of a fairy tale in order to really see the gendered messages that were being sent in these stories. We used the close reading rituals outlines by Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman in Falling in Love With Close Reading. I saw them present two years ago when they were in Chicago and I am forever grateful for the brilliant close reading procedures they shared on that day and in their book.

I began by reading a traditional version of the story “Sleeping Beauty.” The first time through, I just asked the kids to notice the difference between how male characters were described versus female characters. We shared our observations at the end.

Then, I read the story a second time. This time, I asked the kids to bring two different colored markers. Each time they saw a word that described a male character or what a male character was doing, I asked them to underline that word in one color. I asked the kids to underline, in a different color, all of the words that described the female characters or what they were doing. They did this underlining throughout the entire story.

At the end, i asked the kids to create a two-column chart with the word MALE at the top of one column and FEMALE at the top of another. Now, I recognize that these binary labels are problematic, however for the sake of looking at the characters portrayed in this fairy tale, they seemed appropriate.  I asked the kids to go back into the story and find all the words that they had underlined and then to list them under the heading they matched with. I did this work on a large chart while my students each made individual charts.

Once my students had their words listed, I asked them to then begin to sort them into categories. For example, they noticed there were many words on both sides that listed actions and so we decided to box all of those in one color. Then we made a category for physical descriptions, emotions and internal descriptions. Each category got a color and we put the words into boxes with those colors in order to help us see patterns that were developing. Here is what our large class chart looked like: IMG_8470 2

Putting these words into boxes allowed patterns to emerge that my students would not have noticed otherwise. We have talked often about how seeing just one word, just one time, is not usually enough to create biases and stereotypes in our minds. However, when we see the same things over and over again, they start to create patterns of thinking for us and that becomes problematic. So this step, it was important.

From here, I modeled for my students how we could make observations about what we saw and then interpret those observations to think about the potential messages they might send to the readers and listeners of fairy tales.  IMG_8485 2

After modeling this for my students, I asked them to use THIS FORM to make their own observations and interpretations. After taking time to write on their own, we came together in small groups, and then in one large group, to share our thinking. And again, it was incredible.

For example, one student shared how he noticed that the emotions that were associated with male characters were often angry while the emotions associated with female characters were more likely to be sad. This led us to a powerful discussion as to why boys think they are not supposed to cry and while girls are often seen as problematic when they express anger.

And from here we ended up discussing what responsibility writers have to push beyond the stereotypes they might be surrounded by. Do writers have a responsibility to reflect the world around them or to imagine a better world that could be in the future? Do writers write what they know, even when what they know are problematic stereotypes? What is the importance of writers writing about the groups that they, themselves, are a part of? It was amazing to see my students engaging in the very discussions that are hotly debated in many spaces in the world of children’s literature.

After that day of sharing, I attempted to track some of the conversations that we had: IMG_8475 2

And so, what we ended up realizing is that books have incredible power. They can reinforce the stereotypes that we hold, but they can also help to push us beyond them.  And that led us to wonder about the books in our own classroom library.

In past years, I have had my students analyze the covers of the books in our classroom library in order to determine how our books represented or misrepresented different groups of people. That work was powerful and it was important and it led me to make important changes in the books I kept in my classroom library. It was a really important place to start.

But what I realized, what I have learned from listening to others, is that just having books that represent marginalized people in my classroom library is not enough. It is not enough to just ensure that there are characters of all races and religions and genders and gender identities on the covers of the books I own. I have to do more than just look at the covers, I need to start looking inside. I need to start analyzing HOW those characters are being portrayed. Are they being shown in multiple ways? Are they being shown in ways that reinforce commonly held stereotypes or are they working to push readers beyond those stereotypes?

So this is the question I posed to my students. This is the work we do this year.

I began by modeling my thinking as I read the book King and King, which is an incredible picture book about a prince whose mother is attempting to find him a princess to marry only to find out that it is another prince who ends up melting her son’s heart. I shared with my students that I was expecting the prince to fall in love with a princess because a commonly held stereotype is that all fairy tales include a prince and a princess. When the prince ended up marrying another prince, this challenged the commonly held stereotype by providing an alternative image and pushing my understandings.

We began this chart: IMG_8505

I then set my students off to examine the books in our classroom library. I gave them THIS FORM to use to analyze the books that they encountered. And they got right to work.

After having time to examine and analyze our books, here are the lists that we ended up with:

After doing this work, I challenged my students, and myself, to search for books that challenge our commonly held stereotypes. I challenged them, and myself, to search for books written by the people who are actually being represented in those books. I challenged my students, and myself, to look for and buy and read the books that actively work to fight against our commonly held stereotypes instead of reinforcing them.  I believe that if we start to do this, if we start to be more aware of the power of the books that we read, the better chance we have of fighting against the stereotypes and biases that held us hostage for so long.

This work, looking at how what we read affects our own biases, then led us to even more powerful work as we started to examine how our own biases affect our understanding of what we read. That work will be described in the next post.

The Not Thinking About It. That Is The Problem.

This is one of those posts that is purely selfish. I am not sure it will make much sense to anyone else. But there are things that are feeling too heavy and I need to put them down here for a bit.

So there is that phenomenon (I am sure it has some fancy name) where you start looking into buying a new car and as soon as you start digging into a certain type of car, you then start to see it everywhere. Even if you have never noticed this type of car before, all of a sudden, once you consider buying one, you start to see the car everywhere you go. And then once you own the car, once you have ridden in it, you start to notice it even more and more.

I think, in many ways, this is the same thing that happens once you begin to notice bias and the harmful effects of it.  Many of us have gone a long time not seeing the harmful bias that we are surrounded by. It was comfortable for us there. Never mind the fact that so many, those without that privilege to not see, were immensely suffering while we walked around in our ignorance.

And then, for those of us who have been lucky enough, someone much smarter than us, usually someone who has spent an entire lifetime being the victim of the harmful effects of bias, comes along and starts to point things out to us. The ways that this world perpetuates bias and stereotypes and making people feel like an “other.” And, at first, so many of us push back and will do anything to climb back into that bubble of ignorance. To not see. To not think about. To not notice what we are surrounded by. And many are able to get right back in and clamp down even tighter and stay there because it is more comfortable. They clamp down so tight that they become resentful of those who are desperately trying to point out the things that are problematic in our world. They call the people doing the pointing out angry and overreactive and pessimists. The pointing out bothers those who care more about their own comfort than about bettering this world.

But for others of us, once we see the bias that exists in this world, the racism and the sexism and the homophobia and Islamaphobia, once we see the signs of it, then we notice that it is everywhere. That it has always been everywhere. That it is our fault for not seeing it before. That it is our own privilege that has allowed us to not see it and not think about it. For us, it is like that car we are looking into. While somehow we never saw it before, now that we are digging into it, now that we are learning more about it, now we see it everywhere.

And for those of us who have ever been the ones to feel like the other, I think this awakening is a little bit more likely to happen. Once you have felt like an other in one way, it is a little bit more likely that you will be able to see the many things in this world that continue to send messages to people that make them also feel like an other in a different way.

For me, my own journey in examining the biases that I hold has also led me to take more notice of the biases that other people hold against me. As a lesbian, I know what it feels like to feel like the world is not quite made for me to exist in comfortably. Every single day, I worry that today is the day that my daughter will start to understand that feeling too. That this world is not quite made for our family to exist in comfortably. That we are not always seen. That we are not always going to feel included. That we are not always going to feel like we are being represented.

There are so many things, every single day, that project images of families that do not look like mine. And while we are so lucky, while we live in a community and she attends a school that goes OUT OF THEIR WAY to ensure that all sorts of people feel welcome and seen and valued, I know that this will not always be the case for her.

Not every place that she goes will think as carefully as her current school about the messages that they are sending. Especially when these places are run by people who have never felt marginalized in any way before.  Because not “having” to think about it. Not “having” to pay attention to it. That privilege is the problem. And it is such a hard problem to confront because so many people are fighting like hell to actively refuse to deal with it.

So I have started to think about my own role in all of this. About our role as educators in all of this. As teachers and administrators and social workers and as schools in general.

Because we send out a lot of messages. The things that hang on our walls. The books displayed in our libraries and classrooms. The speakers we invite into our schools. The notes and flyers that we send home. All of these things send strong messages. And I worry that we are not thinking carefully enough about the messages that we are choosing to send.

Too often when I am given a flyer to send home, I put it into the kids’ mailboxes without even stopping to look at it. But that choosing not to notice. That has become a problem.

What I send home, whether it is something that I have created or not, it sends a message and that message is coming from me and coming from our school. That message makes its way into my students’ homes and families. And rarely do I think carefully enough about what messages are being sent home.

What messages are we sending? Are we leaving people out? Are we reinforcing stereotypes? Are we unintentionally making people feel as if our school is not thinking about them? Are we making families or students feel unseen? Are we making families or students feel as if they do not belong here? As if this space is not made for them to exist in comfortably? Are we making assumptions that make others feel as if they do not fully belong here? As if who they are is not represented in our school?

I know that I, for one, do not always think carefully enough about any of these questions. And I need to make sure that I do. Because not only do our students deserve this, but they also need to see us model this thoughtfulness if we ever hope for them display this thoughtfulness themselves.  And showing them how to notice the bias that surrounds them is something that we all can do. And I believe that work will not only make our schools safer and more welcoming places, but it also has the chance to help our students go out and make this whole world a safer and more welcoming place.

So we have a responsibility to do better. To do more. When we see something problematic, it is not enough to just think, “Oh that is a bad idea!” We need to say something and point out the things that are problematic and actively work to change them. No matter how much those around us might choose to ignore, to not see, to not think about the problems with the biases we are creating, we have to keep standing up and saying something.

Because it cannot keep falling on the shoulders of those who themselves have been the victims of the unfair biases and stereotypes of this world. Those of us who have felt the harmful effects of these biases personally, we might have an easier time noticing problematic messages, but please trust me when I tell you that it is so much harder for us to be the ones continuously pointing them out. We will keep doing it. Because it matters to us and in many ways our lives depend on it, but we do not want to do it alone. It is all of our responsibilities to point out the problems that we see.

And once we start talking about it. Once we stop hiding behind the comfort of phrases like, “Who you love shouldn’t matter” and “I do not see color” and “I believe that all people are equal,” then we can start to do the harder work of coming out of our comfortable shells of ignorance in order to start noticing the problems we are surrounded by. And once we start thinking and talking about how things might be problematic, once we start thinking and talking about how even if something is not a problem for us, it might be a problem for someone else, once we start noticing the biases we are surrounded by, then we will keep on noticing and finally be able to work together to do something about it all.

Because the next time we send out something that offends someone or hurts someone or makes someone feel unseen, we can take the easy way out and say, “I never meant to offend anyone. I just never thought about it that way,” or we can start now and recognize that the not thinking about it that way, the not thinking about it through the lens of people whose lives might be different than your own, that is the problem.

 

 

Helping Students Confront and Examine Their Own Biases Using the Images on Covers of Picture Books

Several years ago, I would have said that I did not hold any biases. That I did not let my own biases impact the decisions that I made. That I was not affected by my own biases. Thankfully, my ignorance ended as I widened the circle of people that influenced my thinking.  You see, it is really hard to see how your own biases affect the way you interact with others when everyone around you looks just like you and lives just like you live and is from a similar place than you are from. When everyone you interact with on a daily basis is mostly just like you, it is really easy to think that you do not hold biases, when the truth is that you just don’t hold negative biases about people who look just like you.

But when you start to widen these social circles, when you start to at least read more and listen more to the stories of others who are not just like you, then you notice that your thinking is starting to change. And for me, when I realized that my thinking about entire groups of people was starting to change, THAT is when I first started to notice that I had been holding biases for a as long as I can remember and I was absolutely allowing them to impact the way that I interacted with the world.

And this confronting of our own biases, it can be so unsettling. It can make us question so much of who we thought we were. For so long I was raised to spout out how I would never judge a person based on how they looked. I was taught to say that color didn’t matter. I was led to believe that being colorblind somehow absolved me of having to do the hard work, the heartbreaking work, of really confronting my own biases and the biases of the world that we are a part of. And while this keeps us at a distance from discomfort, it really only digs us further into the hole of racism and prejudice and all that allows our world to continue along unchanged.

I wish I did not wait until I was in my mid-thirties before I finally confronted my own biases and began to move myself beyond them.

Now I hope that my students will not be allowed to wait as long as I waited. I want to help them confront their own biases now so that they can begin to do the hard work to move beyond them. Because the truth is that we ALL hold biases. All of us. We have all grown up and lived in a world that surrounds us with images. And often those images that we are inundated with tell us one single story (to borrow the brilliant words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) of an entire group of people. So if we are not careful, we can begin to believe this single story and our biases start to form around those stories.

I think these dangers are made even worse for those of us who have the disadvantage of living in areas where that lack diversity. Where many, many, many groups of people are not represented. Where everyone around us looks just one way. Then, if we are lazy about it (which I have been until recently) all that we have to fill in the gaps of our personal knowledge are the biased images that are thrown at us by the media and the books we read and the news we hear and the things we hear other people say.

I want to help my students to interrupt this way of thinking. I want to help my students to learn how to seek out diverse stories of diverse people. I want to help my students learn how to learn by listening to others, especially to others whose lives are vastly different than their own.

But before we do this work, I have to help my students to recognize their own biases. I have to help them to see the biases that they hold and recognize what an impact they have on the way that they interact with the world.

And so, last year, I began using the covers of picture books to help my students confront their own biases. This then led us to a study of how what we read impact our biases. I believe that when we can confront and understand our biases, we become more aware of them and then we are able to actively work to stop allowing them to hold as much power of our thoughts and actions.

When my students returned from spring break this past week, I told them that we would be starting a new unit in reading. We would be looking at how we use clues from texts in order to infer messages. I purposely left our work vague and I made sure not to mention anything about biases or stereotypes. I told them that we would begin with just the covers of picture books. I told them that we would not even be using the words on the covers, but just the images. I explained that I would be showing them the images on the covers of two picture books at a time. Then I would give them two summaries and their job would be to use the clues on the covers of the books to match the summaries with the books they believed they were describing.

Again, at first, I made sure not to mention anything at all about biases and stereotypes. This was important because I wanted my students to make decisions in a way that they would normally make decisions. Now when I paired the books together and when I wrote out the summaries, I purposely played on the biases that I believe my students hold. Not to trick them or to catch them using stereotypes, but instead to truly help them to see how their biases affect their decision making.

I also wanted to make this work fairly anonymous so that no one was getting called out individually. So I did not want kids just raising their hands. Instead, I used THIS GOOGLE FORM to have them look at the summaries while I held up the two picture books. What is great about Google Forms is that I can look at the responses as simple pie charts that give me the percentage of students who chose each book without listing out anyone’s name individually.

So after explaining to my students what we would be doing. I held up two picture books at a time.  I used construction paper to cover up any words on the book covers, so all they would be seeing were the images.  Here are pictures of the pairs of books:

 

If you are interested, HERE IS A LIST OF THE BOOK TITLES AND AUTHORS AND THE SUMMARIES I USED FOR EACH. 

As I held up each pair of books, all of my students had their own computers open to THE FOLLOWING GOOGLE FORM. As I held each pair of books up, I read the two summaries and the kids chose which book they believed matched the given summary. I asked the kids to do all of this without talking so that we were sure they were all making their own decisions.

Once we had gone through all of the books, I had the kids put away their computers and we looked at the responses.  Here are some screen shots of how our responses looked:

We started to go through the results one pair at a time. I learned a few things from last year and I learned that I needed to wait to tell my students the correct answers until AFTER we talked about what clues they used to make their guesses. So we started with the first set of books.

The first two sets of books actually surprised me. My students didn’t really allow biases to impact their decisions. In the first set, many students shared that they thought the characters in book 1 looked like they didn’t have a lot of money because their house looked like it wasn’t very nice. And for the second set of books, many of them said that they thought book 4 was about an artist, but not because it was a woman on the cover (which is what I thought would influence them), but because it was a painting and the other book was a photograph (my mistake there!).

At first, I thought maybe our work with the danger of a single story earlier in the year, had made a huge impact and this group of students was not as easily influenced by their own biases and stereotypes. And then we got to the third set of books.

Here again were the covers of book 5 and book 6: IMG_8114

And here were the results of how they voted (along with the summaries they were given):

Summary 5Summary 6

Before revealing which book was correct (in truth, almost everyone guessed this set wrong), I asked my students what clues from the cover led them to make their guesses. A lot of my students mentioned that the girl on the cover of book 6 looked lonelier (though both girls were alone on the cover). One student said, “I am not trying to be racist, but a lot of times the books that we read with African American characters are about those characters being made fun of or not treated nicely.” Now please remember. This child is 10. This student has been read books by her teachers that have led her to this assumption. And this student was not alone.

And then I told them that most of them had guessed wrong. And they were shocked. I didn’t say much at this point, but I said we would come back and talk about what led so many of us to guess incorrectly.

Then we moved on to the fourth set. Again, here were the books in this set: IMG_8115

And here were the results and the summaries the students were given: Summary 7Summary 8

Once again, most students guessed incorrectly. But before I revealed that they were mostly wrong, I again asked them to tell me what clues they used. And again, many students spoke about how the woman on the cover of book 7 looked sad (despite the fact that she is very clearly smiling).

And again, I told them that they were mostly wrong.

And then the whopper of the last set. Here are the covers:

IMG_8116

And here were the results and summaries: Summary 9Summary 10

By the time we arrived at the last set. I was amazed to see that the students were starting to ask if they could change their answer. They were starting to see what was going on. I knew that we were really getting somewhere when a student raised his hand before I revealed that everyone had gotten this one wrong and he said, “Can I change my answer? I first thought that book 10 was about the struggle for equal rights, but now I see that the people on the cover are all smiling. I don’t that book is really about struggle.”

And then I told them that I was wrong.

And then I asked them to think about what was going on here. Why were so many of us guessing wrong for the last three sets of books. And slowly a most incredible conversation started to unfold. I was so amazed by what they were saying, that I stopped to write down some of their comments. As they talked, I did start to offer in some of my own comments and I certainly helped to guide the conversation towards the idea of bias. But many of their ideas were completely unprompted. Here are some of the things that my kids said:

“This shows us how our own stereotypes get in our way.”

“I don’t know about anyone else, but I let my assumptions about the people on the covers of these books determine how I guessed what the book was about.”

“I guess what this is telling us is that you can’t make a judgment about one book, or one person, because of the stereotypes that you have about a whole group of people. You have to look at the individual book or the individual person in front of you.”

“The color of the person’s skin made us ignore the details, like the smile on the woman’s face.”

“We assumed that because someone lived in a poorer place, or a place that is not like where we live, any story about them must be about struggle and sadness.”

“When we read books, we assume that the characters are going to be caucasian and when they aren’t then we think they are going to be mistreated because of that.”

“I wonder what kids who were in first or second grade would say because they have fewer stereotypes than we do because they seen the images that we have seen for fewer years.”

And that is when I told them that our next reading unit, was indeed about how we used clues to infer messages, but that the messages that we would be looking at were not the lessons of a story or the message the author was TRYING to send. Instead, we would be looking at the unintended messages that we often receive from the things that we read and see and hear and listen to.

And my students were quiet for a minute. And then their amazing conversations started right back up.

Because here is the thing about kids. They are so brave. It is unbelievable. They are honest and brave and so willing to accept that they have biases. And this makes them the perfect human beings to do this work because while the adults around them might have wanted to argue against the fact that they could possibly hold biases that affect the decisions that they make, these kids were ready and willing to jump right in and find a way to deal with the biases that they now realized that they had.

And we talked a lot about how these biases alone, they do not make someone a bad person. They simply make us people who have grown up surrounded by biased images and stories. What becomes problematic, however is when we become unwilling to admit that we have biases and refuse to confront them in order to move beyond them.

But, we said, this is not what we were going to do. This was the beginning of us getting ready to confront our own biases and work to understand where they come from. Because I believe that once we are aware of our biases, we have more power to interrupt them and remove some of the power that they hold over our thoughts and actions.

I summarized that major points of discussion on this anchor chart: IMG_8119

And that final question. That will guide our work over the next few weeks.

The question itself inspires me. But it does not even come close to inspiring me as much as my students did during these conversations. I often sit in awe of my students and their bravery, but their willingness to accept responsibility for their own biases, I truly think that it gives all of us somethign to strive for.

Turning Our Learning Into Action (Inquiry Circles Weeks #8 and #9 and #10)

Per usual, this blog post is way too long. But I promise, there is a really amazing story at the end that will give you all hope for this world!

My students and I have been engaged in our inquiry circle work for two months now. It is amazing to me how much they have learned. Took back on all that we have done, feel free to visit these previous blog posts: WEEK 1, WEEK 2 and 3, WEEK 4 and 5, and WEEK 6 and 7.

By the time my students get to me in fifth grade, they are familiar with what often happens at the end of a project. They almost expect it. They think that what they are now supposed to do is take everything they have learned, put it into a slideshow and then eventually share it with the rest of the class.  For many projects, this kind of final sharing makes a whole lot of sense. Especially if your goal is to have students teach their classmates about what they have learned in order to ensure that all content standards have been covered.

However, this project had a different end goal. And to be honest, the kids, both this year and last year, struggled to understand what that might look like.  Since the beginning of our inquiry circle work, I told the kids that they were learning about social issues that exist in our world in order to take some kind of action that would create positive change in connection with the topic that they studied. This positive change needed to go beyond the walls of our classroom.

Now that we had spent two months learning about our topics. It was time to turn that learning into action.

Since this unit was also the ending of our persuasive writing unit, my requirement for their action was that one piece of what they chose to do needed to include writing. After they finished their written action, then they were free to take some other form of action that could add to the positive change they wanted to create.

By this point, each group had filled out THIS CLAIM ORGANIZER. This served as the basis for what kind of action they wanted to take. I asked each group to look at the claim statement that they had written and then based on that, think about some kind of change that they wanted to ask for. I used the following chart in order to help them to then think about how they might use writing to try to create this change: IMG_7699

The kids then got into their inquiry circle groups to talk about what change they wanted to make and how they wanted to make that change. Each group completed THIS ACTION PLAN to help them think through what they needed to do.

In order to help inspire the kids and give them some ideas to think about, I shared with them several video clips of kids taking real action out in the world. HERE IS THE LIST of video clips that I pulled from. The kids were incredibly inspired and talked about how seeing these examples helped them to see that kids really can affect change in the world. They also talked about how it was helpful to see that they were not trying to solve a problem all by themselves, but how they were hoping to create some small change that would become a part of the larger network of people who were working to fix the same problem.

Here is our class watching a video about the incredible Marley Dias and her work to begin the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign: IMG_7740

It was amazing to hear the conversations that were taking place. In many ways, this is the part of the learning that makes all of this work so very worthwhile because this is the part of the learning that teaches the students how to take action. Years ago, this was the piece of the learning that I often neglected. We would learn about problems, but we did not learn how to enact solutions.  And that is a shame because  while we have gotten really good at teaching kids how to become better readers and better writers, we have often neglected to then teach them how to use that reading and writing to go out in the world and create positive change.  So it was inspiring to watch them begin to do that work.

As the students began their writing, I realized that we needed to take some time to talk about how their pieces of writing would be structured. We had just finished a lengthy persuasive writing unit and so my students were familiar with the ways that writers support their claims. They had even used their own writing to teach others about how to support the claims they were making in their writing. So I knew my students knew how to write what they needed to write. But I wanted to take a minute to talk with them about how their pieces of writing might be structured.

I used these charts to help demonstrate how they are often taught how to structure their writing in one way when they are writing in school. But in all the mentor texts we looked at from outside of school, we know that there are so many ways to structure a piece of writing.

After sharing these charts, I gave each group THIS WRITING PLAN to fill out. This helped them to think about what they wanted to do in each section of their writing AND what research they would be able to use in order to support each section of their writing.  I modeled how I used this writing plan to plan out my own writing about the Muslim Ban. THIS IS THE EXAMPLE that I showed them that I had filled out.  The final piece that I modeled for the kids was to show them how I used transition words to weave my research into my writing.  THIS IS THE PACKET I created with the start of my own writing in order to help them to think about how they could use research in their own writing.

After that, I basically got out of the way. For the next week and a half, as we headed towards spring break, my students were busy and engaged in creating change. First through writing and then through other actions. I created two large charts that hung on our bulletin boards to keep track of the actions that each group chose to take.  As the weeks went on, the charts started to fill up and then began to get checked off as actions were taken and sent out into the world.  Here are the charts close-up: IMG_8005

Several groups wrote op-eds and we submitted them to our local newspapers. Other groups wrote blog posts and we shared the links on our class Twitter account (@MrsLifClass). Some groups wrote letters and mailed them to mayors and representatives and senators. One group wrote a petition and posted it on Change.org. One group put their writing on GoFundMe.com and started a fundraising campaign for children in foster care. We learned how to look up the offices and addresses of our members of congress, we learned how to address envelopes, we learned how to mail our writing to the local newspaper, we learned how to post and share digital petitions and we learned how to begin fundraising campaigns.

Once groups finished their writing, I had one group plan a presentation to give to the fourth grade classes on the injustice of equal pay. I had two groups put together videos that they shared on YouTube. I had one group plan and start a supply drive for a local animal shelter after studying animal cruelty. We learned how to make meetings with our principal, we learned how to create powerful videos, we learned how to present our learning to others who we do not know and we learned how to use social media to join in existing conversations about social issues.

And throughout all of this learning, there was an energy in the room. An energy besides the normal, week before a school break energy. This work was meaningful. It was powerful. It had an audience other than me and their classmates. This work was not to pretend to solve a pretend problem, this work was working towards actually solving real problems that exist in the world we live in. There is no work that I have ever been engaged in that can match that kind of energy.

And throughout all of this, my students were also providing me with an incredible amount of evidence of what they had learned how to do as readers and as writers.  In fact, in the last few days of our work, we worked together to create an assessment tool for all of us to use in order to determine which learning targets each person and each group had met and which ones that had not quite yet met.

I began by giving them the learning targets that had guided our work: IMG_7957

We then thought about where we would find evidence that might show that students had met each of these targets:

IMG_7992

And finally, the students worked together in groups to list out what I would be able to see in each piece of evidence that would let me know if they had met each learning target or not:

IMG_7995

For our final learning target, we decided that we needed to create a space for students to write what they learned about their topic to see if they were pulling their weight in the group learning. We also decided that we needed to build a list of behaviors that would show if everyone in the group was a productive group member. The students helped me to create questions to ask on the reflection AND a checklist of behaviors of group members for them to use to self-assess and to assess their group members.  In the end, we created THIS SELF-ASSESSMENT AND REFLECTION tool for the students to complete.

On the second to last day of our inquiry circle work, I handed back all of the evidence that they had turned in. I gave them time to complete the first two pages of the self-assessment and reflection on their own. Then, they got with their inquiry circle groups and looked through their work together. They placed an X by each descriptor that they could find evidence of in their work.  They then handed all of their work into me along with their self-assessment and reflection. I then used MY TEACHER ASSESSMENT tool to determine how well each child met the learning targets that we laid out at the start of the unit.

This process allowed me to do more than just believe that we were doing good work for the world. This process allowed me to also gain evidence of how well my students met reading and writing standards that they were being assessed on.  When we can look at the standards that we need to teach and find ways to wrap those standards in meaningful work that matches the kind of work that we want our students to do out in the world, then I believe we have created the most powerful learning experiences for our students.

On the very last day of our inquiry circle group, I put the kids into three large groups. Each group had representatives from every inquiry circle. Their job was to share what they had learned and talk about the action they had taken.

Perhaps the most powerful moment for me of all of the amazing work my kids did throughout this large project occurred within these group discussions. A boy from the refugee crisis group was sharing what he learned. One of the girls in his group asked the following question, “Do you think that could ever happen to us? Could we one day become refugees?” I held my breath as I watched this fifth grade boy struggle for an answer. I forced myself to wait a few more seconds than felt comfortable and right before I swooped in to ruin the whole thing he began to respond. “Of course,” he said. “It could happen to anyone. In any country.” The group was quiet for a second and then the same girl asked another question. “Well, what if people didn’t let us in when we needed help? What if they did to us what we are doing to refugees now?” Again this was quiet. And then another boy answered, “Well, I guess that is why it is so important for us to make sure that we help refugees today. Because one day we might be the ones who need help and we want to make sure that others give it to us. So we need to give it to them today.”

Honestly. There were tears in my eyes and I had to walk away for a minute. You hear so much hatred today. So much bickering and arguing and intolerance. And yet here were these ten and eleven year olds, thinking through something really big and arriving somewhere really big in their understanding. And in that moment, I knew without a doubt that these ten long weeks of work had been worth it. They had gained so much understanding. About the lives of others and about our role in those lives. They had walked through a process that had brought them towards empathy. A process that I believe they can now better walk through on their own in the world outside of school. And, once again, I found myself unbelievably hopeful for this world.

We Are Only One Tile in the Entire Mosaic of a Child’s Education

I spent most of last week feeling like I was not enough. Here we were in March and I found myself increasingly worried about the relationships that I had built with this year’s students. I worried that I did not know them well enough. I worried that we did not have enough fun together. I worried that they did not like me enough. I worried that they did not feel successful enough when they were in my room. I worried that they did not know that I was on their side. And I worried that I was loosing whatever touch that I once had to make every child in my classroom feel seen and accepted and loved for exactly who they are.

 

 

By Thursday afternoon, I had myself convinced that I should no longer be a classroom teacher. It was time to move on.

And, please know, I did not assume that any of this was because of the kids themselves. I had long ago figured out that whoever walks through my door each year, each day, is absolutely worthy of feeling like they are loved and accepted in our classroom. Is absolutely worthy of feeling like they have me on their side. Is absolutely worthy of feeling like a success.

No. This was not a problem with the kids. This was certainly a problem with me.

So then, I had to figure out what was going on. And I started to think about what was different in my room this year.

I am now a mom of a toddler. A four-year-old to be exact. A non-stop, never quiet, only-child, energetic, strong-willed four-year-old. I love her in a way I never knew I could love another person. And she also wears. me. out. So maybe that was it?

Maybe. But I didn’t think that was the whole story. That would be too easy to be the whole story. There was certainly nothing about that situation that was going to change any time soon. So it had to be something else as well.

And then another thought hit me. This year. Our work together. The work my students and I do each day. It has gotten heavier. This year. The heaviness of our work is greater because the heaviness of the world is greater.

In the past three years, the work that my students and I have engage in has changed. Changed and continued to change. Learning to be better readers and writers used to be our endpoint. Now, we work to become better readers and better writers so that we can work to make the world a better place. We take on the challenges of the world and we lock arms together and try to fight against them.

This work. It is heavy.

And this year, I feel that intensely. This year we have taken on conversations on race and privilege and power. This year we have taken on stereotypes and the danger of a single story. This year we have taken on current social issues like the immigration ban, police brutality and the refugee crisis. This year we have tried to make our way through the stories of the ever growing list of people who need the rest of us to stand up and fight alongside of them. This year we have looked at the world and not shied away from the things that are uncomfortable or unsettling or upsetting. We have stared those things right in the face and we have walked forward together.

And I am so proud of the work that we have done. I would have felt deep regret if we were not doing this work. I am so proud of the learning that we have done. Of the growing we have done. Of the learning how to fight that we have done. I am so proud of my students and the way they have faced these challenges head on.

And I also believe, with my whole heart, that making our work meaningful, in the world outside of our classroom, it changes what we do and brings our learning to a whole new level. Doing authentic work, work that matches what is being done in the world outside of our classroom, it creates such deep learning experiences and truly creates the life-long learners that we profess to always want our students to be. This work matters. And not just to me. It matters to my students. It increases engagements and lengthens the lasting effects of our learning.

And through all of this heavy lifting, we have also taken time to laugh. We have stopped to be silly. We have stopped to make towers out of straws and index cards. We have stopped to read picture books for no other reason than because they made us laugh.  We have done all of these things so that we can remember what we are fighting for.

But still. The work we have done. It is heavy.

And when I look back on the year that we have had so far, there may certainly have been less “fun” than there has been in the past. But I have to remember to look at what has filled its place.

This year we have learned how to learn about the struggles of others that might be too easy for us to ignore. This year we have learned how to learn about issues from multiple perspectives even when some of those perspectives are hard for us to stomach. This year we have learned how to raise our voices and demand change. This year we have learned not just to repeat what we have been told but to ask questions about what we are not certain of and then go out and seek information that will allow us to build our beliefs on a foundation of reliable information.

This has been our work this year. This has been our focus. And yes, that makes this year feel different, but different cannot always be a bad thing.  Different can simply be what is needed in a particular moment.

And while we have done this work, yes, other things have been lacking. I have done fewer whole-class book talks this year. I have spent less time cultivating the joy of reading that I know is so vital for our students. I have spent less time growing our reading and writing community in the same ways that I have in the past.

This year, these past few years, my guiding principles have centered around social justice. That has been the foundation of so much of the work that we do in our classroom. It has guided most every choice that I have made and it has determined the path that we have travelled on. This tendency to bend towards social justice and increasingly heavy work, it has forced us to bend away from other things that I know are vitally important for our kids.

But here is what the distance and space of a weekend away from work has allowed me to realize:

Each teacher a student has. We are only one tile in the entire mosaic of a child’s education.

So while my focus has been on social justice, I can trust that next year, each of my students will meet new teachers who have new focuses. While I have devoted time to some things at the expense of time on other things, next year, each of my students will meet new teachers who will spend new time in new ways.

Each one of us, we are guided by the things that we believe in and it is okay, in fact, it is a wonderful thing that we each believe in something slightly different. Because our students, they need so many things, far more things that any one of us could ever be or ever provide. We cannot, we should not, try to be every thing to every one. Because a child will not have just one teacher and that is a wonderful thing.

So now, it is Sunday evening. I no longer feel like I should be walking away from the classroom. In fact, I am more excited than ever to walk right back into my classroom and, hopefully, stay there for a very long time. And I can see my place more clearly, one tile in a much larger mosaic. And that makes me feel so much better.

And as I think about the week ahead, I stop and think about the week that just ended as well. And as I think about my students, I remember one student in particular who, as if she knew exactly what I needed to hear on Friday, looked up at me and said, “Is there some kind of award for teaching or something? Because I really think that you should get one.” And that helps me to remember that we ARE doing okay. We ARE building something special. And even if it does not feel like it in the chaos of every moment and every day, this heavy work, it does build strong relationships and it creates a place where we all feel like we are working on the exact same side.

 

 

 

Students Using Their Own Pieces of Writing As Mentor Texts to Teach Others About How to Support Claims

In our last writing unit, which happened to be a study of fiction writing, I had each of my students select a mentor text from our fiction picture book bins. They read and analyzed their self-selected mentor text in order to discover what strategies the writer of that book used in order to make the fiction writing more powerful. They then planned and taught lessons to small groups of students from our class in an EdCamp style writing-workshop. I wrote about that process in THIS BLOG POST.

The kids LOVED this work and as we were nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit, one of my students asked me if we could do the same thing with persuasive writing. Now, as those of you who have taught persuasive writing to kids know, there is a serious problem with the amount of authentic persuasive writing that is accessible to kids. Finding those pieces of writing and making sure kids understand them enough to be able to analyze what the writer is doing is a huge challenge. Unlike with fiction writing, I cannot just send kids off to discover their own persuasive writing mentor texts. I have no bins overflowing with persuasive writing that I could have the kids look through.

But I still wanted to give the kids a chance to analyze a text and use that mentor text to teach their classmates strategies that writers use to make their writing better.

And then it hit me. They could use their OWN writing as a mentor text. For several weeks, we had been looking together at persuasive mentor texts that I had provided the students.  As we worked through these texts together, we looked at ways that writers supported their claims in multiple ways. We looked at the many different ways that writers provide evidence to prove that what they are saying is true. Here are the charts that we created that tracked the strategies that we discovered:

I knew that my students had started to use many of these strategies, but I also knew that they each used them in a slightly different way. I knew that some kids had used strategies that we had NOT studied all together as a class. I knew that some kids were combining these strategies to support single claims in a more powerful way. And I also knew that each child used these strategies in a more nuanced way. This is what they could teach each other. The many ways they have used these strategies and others in order to support their claims in writing.

I wanted my students to look at their own writing as a teaching tool for others AND, even more importantly, I wanted them to start to look at each other’s writing as an opportunity to learn how to become better writers.

So I thought about what they would need to do in order to use their own writing to teach each other.  In our last writing unit, I had the kids create longer lessons where they figured out a way to have students practice applying the writing strategy that they were teaching. These lessons took quite some time, so I had the rest of the class sign-up to learn in a small group for a student who was teaching a strategy that they thought they might be able to use in their own fiction writing. All of that is explained HERE.

These lessons felt different. I thought that these strategies might be a bit harder for the kids to teach and I thought that they would also take a bit less time. I was not going to necessarily have the kids practice these strategies because it is hard to pretend to support a claim when it is not something you really are writing about. For all of these reasons, I decided to have these lessons be taught whole class. Each day a few students would volunteer to teach the whole class and we would keep track of all the writing lessons we were learning. These would become additional strategies that my students could use as they were revising their persuasive writing pieces.

So, I created THIS DOCUMENT to help guide my students through the process that they would need to do in order to prepare to teach their lesson. I also completed MY OWN EXAMPLE taken from a piece of writing that I did with my students in attempting to get a class set of Chromebooks from our PTO.

After sharing my own example with the students, I also shared this anchor chart in order to help them to start thinking about the many ways we can learn from each other’s writing and what kinds of things our own writing can teach to others.

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And then I had them set off to create their own lesson plans using their own persuasive writing as a mentor text. They worked on these lesson plans for two days and then on third day they were ready to begin teaching.

Before we had our first lesson, I wanted to make sure that I spent time talking with my students about the way that they would be listening to their classmates. Often, when we have students share their writing with the class, it is as a celebration or as a means of giving the writer suggestions. This was a very different purpose. What I have learned is that I often forget to teach my students HOW they are supposed to listen. What purpose is there for them to listen today?

For this work, the purpose in listening and in giving feedback was NOT to help the writer who was sharing. Our goal was not to celebrate what a writer did well (That is, of course, a piece of this, but not the main goal). Our goal was also not to offer suggestions for the writer. Today, and in the following few days, our goal in listening and in offering feedback was to help US, the audience, as writers to think about what we saw a writer doing and share how we might use that same writing strategy in our own writing.

I used this anchor chart to help explain that and provide some language that might be helpful in offering this type of feedback:

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Before our first student lesson, we went through this chart and then began our teaching. I was nervous. It was VERY possible that this would be a flop. I had conferred with many writers while they were creating their lesson plans and I knew that some writing lessons would be clearer than others. I knew that some students really struggled to analyzing what they were doing as a writer and others really struggled to help explain their strategy so that others could understand. But I still believed it was worth the risk.

And as we began. I knew that this was a risk worth taking.

Not only were the kids just BEAMING as they taught their lessons, but listening to the rest of the class offer feedback about what they saw other writers doing and how they thought they might be able to use these strategies in their own writing, that was just amazing. What I realized is that even when a student struggled to explain his or her or their writing strategy to the class, the class was able to pick things out that they saw the writer doing and often times, this added a whole new writing strategy into the lesson. Often the writers themselves did not see a strategy that they used, but the other kids listening certainly did and they were eager to point those out.

Here are some pictures of my brilliant students teaching their lessons and also some of the anchor charts that we created to document the lessons that were taught:

In the end, not every lesson was perfect. But I will tell you that every single student learned something through this process. Whether it was an audience member or as the person sharing his or her or their writing. So much was learned. And, more importantly, so much ownership was gained over this very difficult writing process. The kids saw their own writing differently and they also saw the writing of others differently. They felt empowered as teachers and as learners.

And there was one more side effect. One that I did not realize would occur. This process, it did wonders for our writing community. Because in order to do this work, the kids needed to make themselves vulnerable in so many ways. In the writing they shared and in the feedback they gave, there was so much vulnerability. And what I know about a community is that once you are willing to be vulnerable in front of each other, the bonds between everyone in the community become incredibly strengthened.

I could not be more proud of my students and the work that they have done here. And I am fairly certain that they were also pretty darn proud of themselves.

Discovering Our Beliefs Through Research (Inquiry Circles Weeks #6 and #7)

My students have been involved in their inquiry circle research for many weeks now. You can read about our first week of work in choosing our topics HERE, and you can read about our first phase of research where we focused on synthesizing new information from a variety of online sources HERE, and then you can read about our second phase of research where I handed control and ownership of the research over to my students HERE.

At this point in our work, my students have done a lot of work gathering research. They started with sources that I provided them until they knew enough to ask their own questions and follow their own direction in gathering more sources. After researching for a while on their own, it felt like they now knew enough to start to figure out what they actually believe about their topics.

Last year, I came to a big realization. Too often, as a teacher, I asked my students to write their claim or their thesis or their opinion BEFORE they had done any research. I asked them to craft a claim statement and then they used that claim to guide their research. They stated what they believed and then went out to search for research that supported those claims.

What I realized was that this practice was encouraging my students to ignore some research while favoring the research that supported what they thought they believed. They had no opportunity to shift and adapt and change their beliefs based on the research that they found. They believed at the start of their research EXACTLY what they believed at the end. They had just found others who agreed with them and ignored those who did not.

When I look at the mess that our world is in right now, I cannot help but wonder what role our own schooling played in all of this. I know that I was taught this way. State what you believe first and then go out and prove that you are right. So now, when we state what we believe, it is often only based on the information that we have read or seen or heard from others who already agree with us.

I know that I am terribly guilty of this. So I wanted to work to teach my students to do better.

So at the start of our inquiry circle research, I did not ask my students to make a claim. I did not ask them what they believed to be right and what they believed to be wrong. I asked them only what they thought they knew and what they still wanted to find out. As I explained in my second blog post about our inquiry circle research, I worked with my students to take the biases they already held and instead push them into a question that would lead them to more research. In all of this work, I hoped that they thinking would shift. I encouraged them to find sources that believed different things. I pushed them to look at multiple perspectives on a single issue. And I questioned them so that they were forced to think about the other side of things.

And through all of this. Through all of this digging and sorting and questioning and researching, they were starting to form beliefs. Beliefs based on the research they had done. Beliefs that many times were different than ones they held at the start of our work. Beliefs that were more nuanced, more reflective of the research they had done, more based in the work they had done to seek out multiple perspectives. These beliefs were evidence that they had grappled with complex issues and that they had researched from a wide variety of sources. These beliefs were based on information they had read, not merely based on what the adults around them had told them.

So now, they were ready to make their claims.

The first thing that we needed to do, was to understand what a claim statement really is. When I thought about what I wanted my students to craft, I really had to wrestle myself with the difference between an opinion, a fact and a claim. After looking around online, looking at the Common Core standards and thinking about what I wanted my students to be able to do in the world outside of my classroom, I settled on these beliefs about a claim statement:

It needed to a statement that expresses what YOU believe to be true BASED on the research that you have done.

It is not just a fact or a series of facts, but your interpretation of those facts because people can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in many different ways.

It should be a statement that could be argued. If everyone, or most everyone, around you would agree with you, then it isn’t really a claim statement.

It should be more than just an opinion, but an opinion that provides evidence that you have done research and that the information you have gathered has influenced and refined your opinion.

It should be evidence that you understand more about a topic or issue now than you did before you began researching or learning about that topic.

Once I understood this for myself, I needed to help my students understand what I wanted them to do.  I began with this anchor chart:

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After having a discussion based on this anchor chart, I warned my students that they would be asked to start brainstorming claim statements in the next few days. If they did not feel as if they had enough research at this point, then they needed to change something about the way they were researching so that they would be ready.

On a day when I was going to be out at a meeting, I left THIS packet for my sub to go through with my students.  I was hoping that these examples would help them to start thinking about their own possible claim statements.  I shared my own possible claim statements after doing some extensive research on the Immigration Ban.  I shared with my students some examples of possible claim statements AND some of examples of statements that were NOT claim statements.  This was all written out in the packet.

When I returned, I asked my students to think back on all the research that they had done up to this point. I asked them to look back at the notes that they had taken. I asked them to think about what they had come to believe about their topics based on the research they had done. And then I asked them to craft, on their own, a few possible claim statements that might synthesize their current understanding and their current beliefs on their topic.

Now, at this point, there were some students who had COMPLETELY blank looks on their faces. Some students had no notes to look back on. Some students suddenly realized that all that time they spent scrolling up and down a website, without actually reading and digesting very much information, maybe wasn’t the best use of their time. Some students read a lot, but still had no idea how to take all of that and form a concise statement about their beliefs.

All of that was okay.

Because this work is really hard. And I don’t expect the kids to get it right away. They are going to mess up. They are going to realize that they should have done things differently. AND because of all of that, they are going to realize how to fix things. Or they are going to figure out how to ask for help from their group members and from me.  It is why I believe it is so important that we do this work in a group.

After brainstorming a bit, I sent the kids off to do more research. Those who realized that they really needed to step it up, mostly went off and stepped it up. For others, my assistant teacher and I were there to help them step it up. Others needed to flail around a bit more. My conferences over those days really focused on helping students put into words what they had come to believe. I asked questions like, “What would you try to convince someone of about your topic?” or “Now that you have done all of this research, what do you believe to be true?”

One of the hardest conversations was to push some students past the obvious. This is harder with certain topics. For example, I have a group studying terrorism. I told them that a claim statement wouldn’t really be, “Terrorism is bad.” Because there are very few people in this world, other than terrorists themselves, who would ever argue with that statement. So with those students, I tried to ask questions like, “What do you now know about terrorism that other people might be surprised to find out?” or “What have you come to understand about terrorism that other people might not believe?” These questions were really powerful in helping students to discover new beliefs that they held BECAUSE of the research that they had done.

After a few days of conferring to help my students come to their INDIVIDUAL claim statements, I was ready to introduce my students to THIS claim organizer in order to help them begin to think about the claim statements that they wanted to make as a group and how they would support those claims with evidence.

I told them that now that they had their possible individual claim statements, they were going to meet with their inquiry circles and select one or two claim statements that they wanted to move forward with as a group. These claim statements would guide their writing and the action that they wanted to take to create positive change in the world outside of school.  They could choose to just use one person’s individual claim statement that seemed to be representative of the whole group’s thinking. Or they could choose to combine several individual claim statements into one, larger statement. Or they could choose to go two totally different directions if the group came to believe totally different things. But no matter what they chose to do as a group, they would need to work as a group in order to support that claim statement with specific and reliable evidence that they found throughout their research.

When I showed my two classes the claim organizer, I introduced it one section at a time. On the first day, I shared only the top box, where they were to craft their group’s claim statement or statements and then break that statement up into the parts that they would have to do support with research.

In order to help them to do this work, I shared with them THIS EXAMPLE OF MY OWN CLAIM ORGANIZER. On the first day, we only looked at what was written in the top box.  I talked through how I chose this claim statement and how I worked to break it apart into parts that I would need to support with research.

I then sent the kids off to work with their inquiry circle groups. Again, I knew this work would be hard, so I made sure to make it around to every group over the next two days. Some groups thought they were on the right track, and I just needed to help them solidify their claims when I met with them. Other groups really struggled and were extremely frustrated by the time I made it to meet with them. Again, all of that was okay. I knew that we would work through this process together. And again, the process was so much more important than where we ended up.

When I met with groups, we spent a lot of time trying out different ideas on our whiteboard tables before committing anything to the group’s document. We tried out many different versions of claim statements until we found one that everyone agreed to and then we worked to break that statement up into the parts that would each need to be supported. Only then, did the groups transfer these statements to their claim organizers. Each group created ONE Google document and shared it with every member of their inquiry circle group, so they were all able to be on the document at the same time in order to tweak the language we used and then work to find evidence to support that statement.

Here are some images of the claims that we crafted:

As I did this work with my students, I was in awe of how far they had come. It was amazing to me to listen to the conversations that my students were having. They had learned so much. And, please remember, our learning was not perfect. There were very real struggles in getting to this point and there was some students who were certainly leading their groups as others followed along. And, again, all of that was okay. Because look at where they were getting, together, as a group.

One of the things that I felt the proudest of, was how much the ideas held within these claim statements belonged solely to my students. These were not my ideas. These were ideas that my students reached based on their own research. They asked their own questions and they found their own answers and those answers led them to these beliefs.

And once we had these beliefs written down, then it was time to start working to support them fully with research.

So I returned to MY EXAMPLE OF A CLAIM ORGANIZER and this time we looked at the bottom sections of the document. This is where I worked to pull specific pieces of information, that I gathered from my own research, in order to prove why I believed my claim statement to be true and valid.

In the first column of the chart, I simply copied and pasted the links to specific articles, websites, videos and infographics that I believed proved specific parts of my claim statement to be true. In the second column, I quoted or summarized the parts of the source that I believed supported the specific part of the claim. Finally, in the third column, I used my own thinking and my own words to explain HOW the information in that source proved what I was trying to prove.

I summarized that process for my students with this anchor chart:

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Some groups chose to divide the parts of their claim statements amongst the members of their group. Each person in the group worked to support a different part. Other groups decided to all look back at their notes and paste in the information that they had in regards to ALL parts of the claim statement. Other groups came up with a mixture of those two ideas.

Either way, every group had a clear goal of what this final phase of their research should look like.  And again, I was there to support, mostly with questioning and also talking through what information was still needed in each group.

The work that my students are doing now will guide the final weeks of our inquiry circle work. Next week, we use these claim organizers to help each group figure out how they will take action through writing and through other means in order to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom in connection with the issue that they studied and researched.

This work, watching these fifth graders discover their own beliefs based on what they have learned through questioning, inquiry and research, it has been so good for my heart. Every so often, I like to stop and think about what this world could become if more of us took lessons from these kids and so many other kids like them. I think about how I was raised in a world that did not yet know how to deal with all of the information that we found ourselves surrounded by. I grew up in a time when our schools did not know how to prepare us for the onslaught of knowledge that we would have at our fingertips. So there are so many of us who just do not know what to do with it all. I like to think that these kids that we are all raising, they will be different.

It is my hope, and I have found much evidence to support this hope over the past few weeks in my own classroom, that our students today will grow up to do so much better than us tomorrow. They will base their ideas on facts and not on hearsay. They will come to their beliefs because of real evidence and not because they once overheard a snippet of a conversation somewhere. They will know how to take in multiple perspectives, especially those that are different than their own, and they will adapt and shift and deepen their own ideas because of those perspectives.

This is what I hope. And when I look at these kids and the work that I see them doing, I honestly believe that there are better things ahead for this world.

Phase Two Of Our Inquiry Circle Research: Synthesizing Across Multiple Texts (Inquiry Circles Weeks #4 and #5)

We are still knee-deep in our inquiry circle research. I wrote about the very start of our inquiry circle work, where we worked to choose our topics, HERE and then about the earliest part of our research, where we learned to synthesize new information from a variety of sources, HERE.

In the earliest part of our research, as we were focusing on the skills of synthesis, I provided my students with resources connected to their topics. When we learned how to read and synthesize information from a website, I added a website to their group Padlets. When we learned how to read and synthesize information from a video, I added a video to each of the their group Padlets. And the same for online articles and infographics. By the time this work was done, my students had read and took notes on several sources about their topics.

So before we were ready to move on the next phase of our research, I wanted each student to stop and check-in with themselves about how they were researching, synthesizing and, most importantly, understanding information on their topics.  In order to help them reflect, I had each student fill out THIS form that asked them to stop and synthesizing all of the information that they had read and understood at this point in their research.

Here is the anchor chart that I used to give them some ideas on how to synthesize information that they had gained from multiple sources:

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After modeling how I did this myself, using THIS EXAMPLE, I asked the students to begin filling in their own forms.

This was a really powerful opportunity for my students. Several of them realized that they understood WAY more about their topic than they had at the beginning, while other students realized that they understood almost NOTHING at this point. This was a signal to themselves, and to me, that they needed to change something about how they were researching. I had several honest conversations with kids about how they were choosing to use their time and how they were taking notes as they were researching and even about where they were choosing to sit while they researched.

After filling out their forms independently, I asked each inquiry circle to come together and share their current understandings about their topics. I asked them to listen to one another in a way that allowed them to synthesize new information from their fellow group members. After they spent time discussing, they went back to their original documents in order to add new understandings that they gained from listening to the other people in their groups. We talked about how their group members became additional sources of information. That information could then be synthesized into what they already understood about their topics. The students each turned in their completed forms to me so that I could use this as  evidence of how they were doing in terms of synthesizing new information.

At this point, we were ready to move on to phase 2 of their inquiry circle research. At this point, I would no longer be providing them with resources. Now, they needed to figure out how they wanted to focus their research and what direction they wanted to go as a group. In order to help them to do that, I asked them to get back with their inquiry circles and complete a RESEARCH PLAN. This research plan would serve as their guide as they headed off into the world of online research.

Luckily, my school is privileged to have a brilliant librarian. She has done AMAZING work with my students, since they were in kindergarten, in order to help them to learn how to research. This year, she added in several lessons on how to better evaluate online sources and how to deal with articles that appear to be news, but are not really. This work she has done with my students has made it possible for us to take on these tough issues and for me to trust that my students have the skills they need to deal with what they will encounter throughout this research process.

With their new research plans in hand, I explained the work that my students would be doing in phase 2 of their inquiry circle research. Here is the anchor chart that I used to help explain that process:

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At this point, I had to trust in my students. I knew that I had given them resources to build a solid foundation of understanding about their topics. I knew some of them had built a stronger foundation than others. I knew that some of them knew how to evaluate sources better than others. I knew that some of them knew how to synthesize new information better than others. And still, it was time to set them on their way to do their own research and then catch them when they felt lost and teach them the skills they needed WHILE they were doing the work.

In addition to finding their own sources, my students were now also in charge of finding their OWN way to take notes on what they were learning. I told them that the minimal requirement was that they were documents WHAT information came from WHAT specific source. I suggested that they would also help themselves to find a way to keep track of their continually growing understanding. I shared THIS POSSIBLE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT but also gave them the freedom to find their own way to document their learning.

And they were off.

And so was I. As my students researched, I spent my time having one-on-one reading conferences. Mostly asking my students questions to help them think through what they were trying to do. Questions like, “What are you trying to find out today?” or “How is this resource helping you to answer your question?” or “What are you learning about your topic that you did not know before you began your research?” or “What are you hoping to find out next?”

Along the way, I was also watching closely to catch the kids who were struggling to find their way. I often stepped in and asked a question that gave a student an opportunity to let me know that he or she or they needed help. “What are you trying to find out today?” Was often answered with, “I am not really sure.” And so then we looked back on their research plans or had a conversation and figured out what they really needed to know.

After their first day of phase 2 research, we met together to talk about the challenges they were finding with their online research. I asked each child to fill out THIS FORM, independently at first, and then discussing with another student or two.  I then asked them to keep this form out with them over the next few days and when they felt themselves feeling frustrated, I asked them to try to figure out what the challenge was that they were facing.

We then came together to share the challenges they had identified and then we worked together to brainstorm some ways to solve these challenges. I was amazed at the strategies that the kids came up with and noticed a big difference in how they were able to independently solve some of these challenges after this conversation. Here are two of the charts that we started to keep track of our discussion:

This phase of our research was, of course, more difficult than the first phase. In the first phase, I was in control of so much. I controlled what sources they read, I controlled how they took notes and I controlled the range of sources that they were exposed to. It was easier and, in some ways, it was a more guaranteed way to ensure that my students were learning the CONTENT that I wanted them to learn.

The problem with that is that what they were learning was completely dependent on me.  This learning was only successful if I was a large part of the process. If we really mean what we say, that we want to help our students to become life-long learners, then we have to start removing ourselves from the equation. But, still, that does NOT mean that we set back and do nothing. It is our job to teach our students the processes that they will need to go through in order to do the learning they need to do. It is our job to stand by their side and watch them carefully so that we know when to step in and guide them in a better direction. It is our job to be there to see their frustration and decide when they have struggled enough on their own and when to step in and help. It is our job to set them up for successful learning and guide them along the path towards that successful learning. But we simply cannot do this if we do not let them find their own way first.

So, yes, WHAT they are learning in terms of content connected to their chosen topics, is incredibly important. But, more important to me, is that they are learning a process that they feel ownership over that will allow them to do this work far after they leave me and our classroom.