Courageous Conversations

Today, it was hard for me not to have hope for this world.

For the past two weeks, my students and I have been engaged in an inquiry into the lives of others with a particular focus on race, assumptions, stereotypes and bias.  If you are interested, you can read about the start of our work HERE and the continuation of our work HERE.

After spending several days digging into some incredible resources, I knew that I wanted my students to have time to discuss their new understandings and the questions that they still had.  I wanted my students to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to learn from each other and to reach new thinking together. Not only did I want this for my students, but I knew that this was what they needed. To learn and to grow in regards to issues as difficult as race, we humans need to engage in conversation. We need to talk. We need to listen.

But these things do not come easily. For adults, talking about race is a challenge. And now, I wanted to release my students into small-group, student-led conversations. And I was scared. I had watched my students wrestle with incredibly challenging questions over our past two weeks of work.  I had seen them learn to ask better questions and follow those questions towards better understanding.

And yet, I had also heard how much they still did not understand. I also heard how much they still needed guidance and explanation. I also heard how much they still spoke from a place of privilege and misunderstanding. And I was scared of what would happen when I was not right next to them, when I could not jump right in, when I could not fix the things I wanted to fix right away.

Luckily, I was not in this alone. Not only did I have my students there with me. But I also had the wisdom of others. This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending the single most powerful conference session that I have ever attended.  At ILA, the brilliant Cornelius Minor led a session focusing on how to have difficult conversations about race with your students in the classroom. To be in that room was to witness brilliance. I do not think that one person left that room without having been changed in some way. I wish I could put into words the work that was done that day, but I truly have no words.

Not only did Cornelius model for us how to have difficult conversations with our students, but he managed to create a safe space within minutes where people shared and listened and learned in a way that I have not before experienced. I learned so much that day. As a teacher. As a human.

And so today, several months after this session, I carried Cornelius’s words and the words of everyone who so bravely shared their truths that day, into my classroom.

One of the things that I learned that day was the power of giving people time to think, to collect their thoughts, to reflect before beginning a conversation. I also learned that we must be deliberate in how we help kids to listen and not just to talk. So I began by asking my students to prepare for their discussions today.

We started by looking at the notes that my students had been collected over the past two weeks.  Each student had been using THIS DOCUMENT to collect their thinking about the seven big questions that they had asked after watching our first video.  After looking over their answers and their questions, I modeled how I sorted my own answers and questions into questions that I was not able to answer and wanted to discuss, questions I found answers to but wanted to hear the perspectives of others and thoughts that I wanted to make sure to share with my group in today’s discussion.  I then asked my students to do the same. I gave them THIS DOCUMENT to help them to begin to sort through their many thoughts and questions.  I gave them a few silent minutes to think and sort and prepare.

Something else that I learned from Cornelius’s session was the power of starting small. In the size of the group and also in the length of the initial discussion. So I begin by putting the kids into pairs. I told the pairs that I wanted them to start with a question. I told them that their first discussion would only last for three minutes. I told them that as they were discussing, I would walk around and write down the powerful questions that I heard them discussing. I told them that I would make sure they were okay with me sharing their question before I put it up on the board. And then I sent them off to discuss.

And it was amazing. There was not a single pair of students who was not focused on the task at hand. Pairs were listening to each other. They were building off of each other’s thinking. Not a moment was wasted. These kids had so much to say.

After three minutes, I asked the kids to stop and think about what they heard from their partner. I asked them to think not about what they wanted to say next, but instead to think about what they heard from their partner. And then the partners joined another pair and became a group of four. This time, they had six minutes to discuss.

Again, I walked around. I listened it. I asked permission to share questions with the class by writing them up on the board.

After six minutes, I asked the kids to combine one more time so that we had groups of eight. Before they started, I asked them to again think about what they had heard others say. And then I let them go again, this time for twelve minutes.

Here is what it looked like in my classroom this afternoon:



And the conversations. They were amazing. The questions. They were so good. These kids were so willing to push their thinking, they were so willing to speak even if they weren’t exactly sure of the right way to say what they wanted to say. They were not afraid to ask questions. They were not afraid to make themselves vulnerable by admitting what they did not know and understand. They were not afraid to challenge each other. There were disagreements, but they did not turn into arguments. There were moments where they talked over each other or at each other and there were also moments where they were listening not just with their ears, but with their hearts.

We have so much to learn from kids.

The conversations were far from perfect. There were comments made that still made me cringe. There were moments I had to walk away. There were moments I had to interrupt and intervene.  But I kept reminding myself. They are ten. This is the first time many of them have engaged in conversations of race. It isn’t always going to be pretty. In fact, most times it is going to be pretty messy. Pretty ugly.

But if I let that stop me. If I let that stop us. We would have missed so much.

Just look at the questions that my students discussed today:


Today my students learned that it is okay to talk about race. That it is necessary. That it is the only hope we have of making anything better. Today my students learned that sometimes, often times, you will say something hurtful even when you don’t mean to and that all you can do then is apologize and then do better next time. Today my students learned that staying silent is dangerous and that through tough conversations we can learn and grow and change the way we think about this world. Today my students learned how much they are truly capable of.

And I learned those lessons too.

I learned so much from my students today.

But most of all, I learned this. As teachers, our fear can stop us from doing a lot of important things. Things that have the potential to make the world a better place. I think about what would happen if everyone in this country spent time when they were kids discussing race and assumptions and implicit bias. If everyone took a chance to share their understandings and their misunderstandings. To listen and learn and grow and admit what they do not know and do not understand. What would happen to this country if we all had these conversations more often? I have to imagine we would live in a kinder, more just, more fair kind of world. And yet, so often we do not have these conversations with our students because we are sacred. Because we aren’t sure if we really know how.

But then.

Look at what can happen when we do have these conversations. Look at how we can grow and learn and change and watch our students become better human beings right before our eyes.

It is so worth the risk. So worth the fear.

And when we do it together. When we lean on each other. When we share what we have done. What has worked. What has not worked. The work itself becomes so much easier.

Because Cornelius may not have been there in my classroom with me today, but his words were. His ideas were. His strength was. And we can continue to do that for each other. But we have to start and we have to share and we have to trust that our students are going to lead us somewhere so hopeful.





Creating the Curriculum They Need: Using Inquiry to Have Tough Conversations

A few weeks ago, my students and I began a powerful discussion on race. You can read about the beginning of our discussion HERE.

We had been studying memoirs in both reading and writing and we had just started working on questioning as readers.  To me, none of these skills or genres or strategies are important in isolation and they really only seem to have meaning for our students when we can pull them all together in order to help students create new meaning and new understandings about our world.

So while I knew I wanted to teach students how to question while reading memoirs, I knew that I had to do more than that. I had to find a way to show students that when we hear the story of just one person, we can craft questions that can lead us to seek out information that can bring us to an understanding far beyond just one person’s life. We can use one person’s story to spark questions that lead us to seek out more stories and more information in order to better understand the world around us.  We must be careful not to let one person’s story define an entire group of people. Instead, I wanted my students to learn how to hear a story, ask questions, allow those questions to guide them towards more stories so that they can put together the stories of several different people in order to begin to formulate understandings that help them to empathize with people whose lives may be vastly different than their own.

These were lofty goals. Goals that easily tied into the standards and the learning targets that are a part of our fifth grade curriculum. However, these goals also went far beyond what was written within our curriculum. And so the hardest work for me was to find the resources and teaching strategies that could help my students and I to meet these goals. So it was tempting to plan the whole thing out from the beginning. To carefully align each lesson with a Common Core standard, to plan out each step along the road that we would take, to plan out a sequence that would allow us to start small and build each small skill step-by-step. But the problem with that, with all of that planning, is that it does not leave space for the students and the direction that they want to take.

So instead, I walked into our work armed only with my knowledge of the work that I wanted my students to do in our classroom that would match the work that I wanted my students to do in the world outside of our classroom in order to make the world a better place.  And here is what that allowed me to do:

I was able to follow where my students lead. And where our students lead us is almost always a good place to end up.

In this way, I am starting with my students and not with the standards. However, because I knew what goals I wanted to meet, I felt confident that our work could easily be tied back to the standards and learning targets that I need to teach.

Another benefit of doing our work this way is that the work is guided by the students, not by my own personal beliefs. One of the things that makes it so difficult to have tough conversations in our classrooms is the fear that people will accuse of us of pushing our own beliefs on our students.  What I have found is that if we bring in material that sparks questions for our students and then we design our learning around the questions that students themselves are asking, then we are better able to ensure that we are not just pushing our own ideas on our students, but we are teaching our students to read the world around them and create their own ideas and understandings.

And so, I chose our first video.

And then I let the kids take it from there. As we watched our first video, I had the kids collect questions for a variety of purposes. That work was described in the last post I wrote. From there, the kids met in groups to go over their questions and write down the questions that they thought would be the most interesting ones to follow and the ones that they believed would lead them to some form of a better understanding.  Here is the result of that work:


After gathering all of our questions, we worked to categorize and group our questions based on similar topics. After moving our questions around and combining them into larger questions, we were left with seven BIG questions that the kids were left wondering about after watching our first video.

I created THIS DOCUMENT with our seven questions. We would use this document over the next few days in order to attempt to gain more understanding and keep track of the learning we were doing as we listened to more stories and read more information.

Based on the questions that my students were left with, I then went in search of resources that might help them to answer their questions. Again, this allowed my students to guide the learning even though at this point in the year, they were not ready to go out and seek out the answers to their questions on their own. Knowing that my students did not have a lot of experience with inquiry learning and knowing that the questions they were most interested in would be somewhat tricky to find answers to in a form that was accessible to my 5th grade students, I knew that our first work with inquiry was going to have to be more controlled than it will be by the end of the year.  In many ways, this first work with inquiry will serve as a model for the further, more student-led and directed inquiry work that my students will be engaged in later on in the school year.

So with my students questions in mind, I went out to search for resources.

The first resource we looked at was Clint Smith’s amazing TED Talk titled, “How to Raise A Black Son in America.” Before beginning, I had the kids review the questions we were hoping to answer. I handed out the text of Clint Smith’s talk and then we watched the video all the way through. After watching it once, we watched it again, but this time I stopped the video when students asked me to. As we watched for the second time, students wrote down answers, or pieces of answers, they gained as they listened to Clint’s talk. The kids were incredibly moved by the TED talk and their question charts started to fill up with answers and further questions.

Next, we watched Mellody Hobson’s TED talk titled, “Color Blind or Color Brave?” We followed a similar process, though only watched this talk once since it is considerably longer.

Finally, we looked at an essay from This I Believe.

Throughout our work with each of these resources, we talked about how the stories of other people could help us to begin to answer our questions. I modeled by own question answering and I also modeled how new questions were sparked as old questions gained answers.  In addition, we talked about how new information often forces us to rethink what we thought we knew and change the answers that we believed we understood.  As we continued this work, the students continued to add to their documents.

After all of this work, I knew that my students needed some time to explore some resources on their own. I looked at which questions we were beginning to answer and which questions we needed more information to help us answer. Based on that, I put together a large list of resources that I knew my 5th grade students would be able to navigate independently in order to attempt to further answer our seven big questions.


And this is where we currently find ourselves. My students will continue to explore these resources on their own and then engage in small group discussions to help them begin to synthesize the understandings and answers they have reached based on our work.

This work is far from perfect. This work is also exhausting. I wish that there was a program for us to follow that would lead us to the same results. But no such program can exist because it needs to be crafted around the needs of the students sitting with me.  Together we are reaching towards greater understanding. Together we are attempting to wrestle with difficult questions. We might not ever be able to fully answer our questions perfectly, but what we are learning in the process is invaluable.

What we are learning is how to listen to the stories of other people. What we are learning is how to ask questions and determine which questions will lead us to further learning and use our questions to push us forward in gathering additional information to enhance what we know and understand. What we are learning is how to put together not just a single story, but the stories of many in order to better understand the lives of other people. What we are learning is how to ask questions instead of dismissing experiences that do not match what we have experienced in our own lives. What we are learning is how to deal with difficult issues in a way that is respectful. What we are learning is how to build empathy for others. What we are learning is that we can never fully know what it is like to live the life of another person, but by listening with an open mind and open heart we can sit with other people and learn from them as they share with us the gift of their stories.

This learning. It is powerful. And I feel so lucky to get to be a part of it.




Every So Often You Can Almost Hear the World Changing Just a Little Bit

It is late (okay, it’s 9 o’clock, but to me that might as well be midnight). I am exhausted but I worry if that I go to sleep without capturing the incredible moments in my classroom today, I will regret it.  So I am essentially copying and pasting an email I just sent explaining a few moments from my day into this blog post. Hopefully, I will make it all sound better later, but for now I just want to make sure that I capture these moments of hope before they drift too far away.


These humans that we get to teach. They are simply incredible. And this week, they have been the one of the few things that made me believe that there is any hope for this messed up world of ours.

So here was our work today.

We have been engaged in a study of using stories from other people’s lives as both mirrors and windows. We started by talking about stories and books as mirrors and used this to begin to build our community of readers. We learned a lot about each other and we learned a lot about the power of books to make us feel less alone in the world.

We then shifted our focus to using the stories of others as windows into lives that are different than our own as a way of better understanding our world and the perspectives of others.  Along with this, I am trying to work in our reading unit on questioning. So we have been looking at the many purposes for questioning. Yes, we can question to clarify and seek out needed additional information, but we can also question to seek out multiple perspectives, search for voices that are not being heard, to look critically at information for bias and accuracy and authenticity, and to engage in discussion with others.  (Here is a sheet we have been using to track questions that we can use for these different purposes: QUESTIONING CAN HELP US TO…)

So it is was in this context that we looked at a powerful video today. Before watching the video I shared with students that when we listen to the stories of others whose lives and experiences are different than our own, it is easy to dismiss those stories because they are not what we have experienced. Unfortunately, many adults model this. When someone speaks of something we, ourselves, have not experienced, we often react dismissively and believe that their experience is somehow less valid than their own.

What I want my students to start to learn to do instead, what I want all of us to start to learn to do, is listen to the stories of others and use those stories and those words to better understand the lives of others and ask questions that will lead us to seek information that will help us to better understand another person’s story and perspective instead of dismissing it. In this way, we can use questioning not just to be a better reader, but to help ourselves grow into better people by seeking to understand the stories of others by gaining more information and knowledge instead of dismissing someone’s experience because it does not match our own.

That was our lead up. Then we watched this incredible that was shared with me sometime last year:

We watched it once all the way through. Then I handed out this sheet to help guide our thinking:

Then we watched the video slowly and I stopped to model when I heard words that deepened my understanding and when I heard words that lead me to questions.

As we worked on tracking our thinking, we stopped for conversation.

At first the kids conversation was fairly shallow and terribly cliche. Their words were based in a lot of “colorblind” thinking. A lot of, “You should not judge a person by how they look.” I worried we were stuck there. So I kept modeling. A lot of, “Hearing this child’s words made me think…” I also made sure to share how I have been discovering my own many biases. This does not mean that I am a bad person, but it means I have grown up surrounded by images and messages that lead me to believe things about entire groups of people that are simply not true.  I kept sharing this kind of thinking and my students continued to also push their own thinking through questioning.

And then there was one of the most powerful moments I have ever had as a teacher. A girl began speaking. She was referring to the part of the video where one of the black boys talks about being afraid of walking down the street and being stopped by a police officer. My student started to say, “A kid doesn’t need to be worried…” and then she literally stopped mid-sentence because I think she knew that she was about to dismiss a person’s story because it wasn’t her own experience. She realized she was about to say that this kid did not need to be worried or should not be worried about simply walking down the street. And then she tried again. She said, “I mean, no one should…I mean he doesn’t…” And then she just sort of looked at me. And I responded, “Are you maybe trying to say that no child should have to have had the experiences that would lead him to be fearful of walking down the street? Are you maybe wondering what has happened to that child in the past that leads him to have to worry about this?” And she simply said, “Yes.”

And from that moment, our conversation changed.

The kids became braver and more willing to question. We discussed the difference between thinking about how we wish the world was (one where skin color doesn’t matter) and recognizing the way the world actually is (a person’s skin color determines so much of the way people experience life in this country). We discussed how we might not mean harm by our words, but that they can cause harm nonetheless and we need to accept ownership of that. We discussed that many of us do have expectations when we see a person. We think we know what a person will sound like or how a person will act. We have these expectations because of the images we have grown up seeing. We have them and we have to acknowledge them and work to break them down.

One girl nearly brought me to tears when she said, “What I am wondering is if I have ever said anything that has made someone feel bad about who they are, what they look like or where they come from.” I was truly left speechless.  If only more adults would be willing to reach a place of being able to ask this question. If only more adults had the chance to listen to the words of our students.

Eventually, I had to pause our conversation. Time in our day was running out. We kept our notes and will continue our conversation. Tomorrow, I am going to chart the questions they are left with and allow those questions to guide our next phase of work and inquiry.

I cannot tell you what today did for me. What it did for my heart and soul. I am sure there were a million other things I should have and could have said and yet the words of my students and their willingness to grow and think and be challenged, that was so perfect.

Every so often, it’s almost as if we can hear our world changing within the words and actions of our students. Clearly, this one conversation is no where near enough. But I believe that something important was started today.

So often we are left paralyzed with fear when we think of beginning difficult conversations with our students. So often we worry we don’t have enough answers, that we will say the wrong thing, that we aren’t qualified enough, that we will offend someone, that there will be pushback, we are afraid of a million other things. But there are human beings, so many human beings, that right this moment are afraid to walk down the street without getting hurt or beat up or shot or killed. And so our fear, our fear that pales in comparison to that kind of fear, it can not be what stops us.

Instead we have to allow our fear to serve as a signal that we are about to do something of incredible importance and consequence. We have to allow our fear to drive us to learn more and do better and connect with others who are already doing the work so that we are better equipped to do our own work with our own students.

We have to allow our fear to drive us to do better. Because doing nothing, that perpetuates the problems that our killing too many. Allowing students to grow up without these conversations on race, that is allowing our students to grow up to be the people who continue to do the killing, who continue to ignore the problems that exist, who continue to stop our country from being better.

So today. For just a moment. I think I heard our world changing. And I am incredibly grateful to my students for making me believe again that we can do something to change the world. We just have to get started and then keep on working.


The Best of Both Worlds: Honoring Student Voice While Also Covering the Curriculum in a Literacy Classroom

This year, my school district has made a commitment to try to move ourselves towards Ellin Keene’s vision of a Literacy Studio.  The idea behind Literacy Studio, as I understand it, is that we provide a more connected way of teaching and learning when it comes to reading and writing. Instead of teaching each of the two subjects in isolation, we look for ways to make the connection between the two more obvious for our students. In addition to that goal, there are also the goals of empowering students to make choices that help them to grow as readers and writers, engaging students in authentic work that is both meaningful and purposeful, and providing flexible time that our students need to accomplish all that they need and want to accomplish. Ellin describes her ideas of literacy studio in her book To Understand.  If you are curious, there is also a great handout on the Heinemann website that you can see HERE.

From the minute that I heard this description, I loved everything about the idea of literacy studio. The emphasis on authentic work. The belief in engagement over compliance. The connections between reading and writing. All of it sounded so good.

But I had no idea how to make it work.

Like so many things, I loved the ideas behind literacy studio but was unclear about how to actually carry them out in my own classroom without ignoring the realities of the curriculum that I am required to teach. And more than that, I was unsure how to provide this level of choice while still making sure that my students were also learning the things that I believe are important. No fifth grader, on his or her own, might ever choose to study the lives of other people through the stories that they share. However, I believe, with my entire heart, that this is important work. I want to guide students through that work. I want to use that important work to work in the objectives, targets and standards that I am supposed to be teaching in fifth grade.

How do I do all that I want and need to do with my students AND continue to do work that is student-driven and allows students to be the ones making the decisions about what and how they learn?

This is a struggle that is not new. The balance between student-directed learning and the realities of our standards driven world have been one of my greatest obstacles in the journey that I have been on to try to empower my students and give them more control and ownership over their own learning.

In the past few years, I have found ways to make our work more authentic and to offer more choice so that our learning is more student driven. In our inquiry circle unit, the students had complete control over the topics. When we wrote our informational picture books, my students were in charge of selecting and analyzing their own mentor texts. During that same unit, the students took over and taught lessons on the writing strategies they had discovered to small groups of students who felt they could benefit from those strategies. The goals that my students work on during independent reading are focused on their self-selected texts and are driven by student interest.

In many ways, I have found ways to work student interests and student choice into our literacy curriculum. And yet, I still felt as if I was always letting the curriculum drive my instruction. And I longed for space to allow my students to drive my instruction instead. Really drive my instruction. Not just work their interests into what we HAD to do, but really allow them to tell me what THEY had to do in order to grow as readers and writers.

It seemed like literacy studio could offer me and my students that space, but I wasn’t sure how to do both what I wanted to do and what I felt I needed to do.

Enter my brilliant literacy coach.

One afternoon last week, maybe it was Monday (it seems so far away already), my students and I were getting ready for the independent writing time that always follows our writing mini-lesson.  I told the kids their task for the day was to go back to the memoirs they were writing and look for places that they could weave in the writing strategies we had been practicing.  For some reason, on that day, hands went up and students began to ask if they could do other things during this time instead. Some wanted to work on a blog post. Some wanted to read. Others wanted to write a fiction story. And my answer to all of them was no. And it just didn’t sit well with me.

Isn’t this what we were supposed to be doing? Isn’t this what the vision was? Children happily selecting reading and writing tasks that were meaningful to them. Why then did I feel like I needed to say no?

So the kids went off to work on their memoirs. And we did good work. And then they headed off to thirty minutes of Spanish.  And I texted my literacy coach and told her I needed to talk to her about literacy studio. So she came in and in the next thirty minutes we tried to figure out just what was going on.

I told her that what I didn’t want to loose was the immediacy of the writing lesson we just had. The kids had been really engaged as we looked at how memoir writers, Lois Lowry in this case, can reveal the deeper meaning of a story by showing a character’s emotions through their actions. We did some great work analyzing our mentor text (Crow Call). We had some great discussions. And then I wanted them to go and write. Because while my fifth graders might not choose to write true stories from their lives on their own, I truly believe in empowering students to shape the way they are seen by others by learning to masterfully craft and write stories from their own lives. And when we learn a new writing strategy, I want them to be able to apply it right away to the genre of writing that we are studying.


I also want to capitalize on any enthusiasm that my students have for literacy that comes from their internal desire and need to read and write. If they WANT to write blog posts, that is what I want them to write. If they WANT to finish reading the book they are currently enthralled by, that is what I want them to read. If they WANT to write an entire novel, that is what I want them to write.

I needed my literacy coach to help me figure out how to do both.

And she did. She asked me what-if I looked at our writing time as an extension of my mini-lesson. What if I taught a lesson and then gave them a chance to apply in both writing and in reading. Then, I could take the time that I usually set aside for self-selected independent reading and instead turned that into independent work time. The mini-lesson and time for application (in both reading and writing) could be focused around class goals. Goals that were dictated by our curriculum AND by the things that I truly believe my students need to know in order to be empowered to create positive change in the world through reading and writing. Then, during independent work time, the goals would be individual goals that were dictated by what my students felt would help them learn to be better readers and writers.

And with that, everything began to come into focus.

That was what I needed. I needed to restructure my time.

So at the end of the day that day, I sat and came up with a new plan for our time. I started with the two days each week that I am lucky enough to have two full hours for literacy.  Here is how I planned to use that time:


The next day, I went over with my students what I thought we might try. I asked for their feedback and they were absolutely thrilled by the idea. I told them that I would make sure to keep my lessons under 20 minutes and they needed to make sure that they kept their application times focused and productive. Here are some other things that we went over:

The goal of everything that we do is to grow as readers and writers. If that isn’t happening, then we need to make adjustments.

Some times, I will need to take a bit more time, but I will always let them know why and always find a way to make up that time to them.

The application of our reading strategy will usually occur with a text or set of texts that I have selected. This is different than the goal work they will be doing during their independent reading time when they are in charge of selecting the text. This will help to ensure that I am still able to expose students to a wide variety of texts and levels of texts.

Sometimes our reading application time will be whole group, especially if I am reading a text out loud to them and then asking them to apply a strategy we are working on. Sometimes this work will be small group or in pairs or individual.

The independent work time is their time to choose their task. However, they must be reading and writing in a way that is helping them to grow as readers and writers. This independent work time needs to involve students engaged in authentic reading or writing (no center activities, no vocabulary worksheets, no spelling packets).

This independent work time will also be driven by the given expectations and deadlines that will be established for my classroom. For example, when we are nearing an end of our memoir unit, students will need to have at least one draft ready to revise and edit and submit as an assessment. In addition, every three weeks students are expected to “write long” about their reading. This means that they need to be tracking their thinking through a text often enough to be able to write about their reading. If students need to use independent work time to accomplish these things, then they will have to make that choice.

Students will also be asked to keep track of the choices they are making and the specific goals they are working on. Students will be responsible for making sure that they maintain a balance between reading and writing. If we notice a student go too long without spending time reading, we will have conversations on how we can help them get back in the habit of reading in class.

Independent work time is still instruction time. I will be constantly conferring with students during all of our application and independent work times. During this conferring time, I will still be teaching and asking students to provide evidence that they are learning. Even if a child has chosen to write a blog post one day, if I need to check-in about a reading goal, I will ask that student to stop his or her choice for a few minutes to meet with me one-on-one or with a small group.

Even knowing all of those things, my students were extremely eager to try the new structure out. I will tell you, during that first day, all of our work time was more focused. It was incredible. It worked so well, that I decided to try an adapted version of the schedule, with fewer minutes of independent work time, the next day since we had less time together to spend on literacy. I loved the independent work time SO much that I decided to use it every day last week and will continue to offer this structure (in some way) each day this coming week.

Throughout the week, I made adjustments to the way I take and keep conferring notes. I know carry around one clipboard that has class lists for both of my fifth grade classes. Each time I confer with a student, no matter what part of the literacy studio we are in, I simply mark down what we are discussing. R for reading. A for writing in the assigned genre. B for blogging. And F for free writing.

On that clipboard, I carry three different conferring forms PLUS blank lined paper so that I can find a form that will work for any kind of conference that I am having.

HERE is the reading form I am currently using.

HERE is the writing form I am currently using for assigned genre writing.

And HERE is the form I made for independent work time IF the student is not working on reading or assigned genre writing.

When I sit down with a student, I take note of what they are doing and then pull the form that I think will work best. When I am finished, I put the form in either the reading or writing binder that I have that is split up with one section for each student. In this way, I am able to always use a form that works for the conference that I am having AND I am also able to quickly look back at post conferences that I have had with students to check in on how they are doing with their goals.

My students will also be starting to write down their specific goals and I will be working on finding ways to help them also keep track of evidence that proves they are meeting these goals.

There is certainly a lot to still be figured out. However, I have not been this excited about a new structure for my classroom in a very long time. I will keep you updated as we continue to learn and work within the literacy studio structure, but for now I am thrilled simply with the possibilities.



Before We Start to Change the World

I have been consumed with doubt about my first day of school (which is tomorrow). This doubt feels heavier to me than the doubt of years past. This doubt feels consuming. It has dampened my usual excitement for the start of the school year.

Most years, I worry that I will not be good enough. Most years, I worry that my first days of school will not set the exact right tone. Most years, I worry that my kids won’t be excited about the work we have ahead of us. Most years, I worry that every child will not feel seen, will not feel heard, will not feel loved for who they are within the first few days of the school year.

But this year. It is even more than that.

This summer has been heavy. To be honest, part of me never quite healed after hearing about the mass shooting in Orlando and then about the continued killing of young, black men and women by police officers. These stories changed me. Made the world seem more cruel. Made our situation seem more desperate somehow.

And that has made the weight of our work seem so heavy. And so huge. And so important.

And I think that underneath that weight, I have crumbled a little bit. Because our job seems more important to me than ever and I also feel more inadequate than ever do the work that is required. There is so much in this world that needs fixing and I feel a desperation to help my students learn how to fix it.

But what I have been trying to remind myself is that we can not set out to change the world on day one. Because changing the world is scary. It is hard. It requires risk and vulnerability and the belief that we are in this together. And we do not feel that and we are not ready for that right from the start.

Before we start to change the world, first we must grow love and community within the walls of our classroom.

Before we start to change the world, we must trust those around us to stand by us and with us as we carry the heavy things that we are likely to uncover as we look critically at the world around us.

Before we start to change the world, we must feel as if we are worthy enough, capable enough, smart enough to do the difficult work ahead of us.

Before we start to change the world, we must know that there is goodness and kindness and laughter left that make this world worth saving.

Before we start to listen to and learn from the stories of those around the world, we first need to learn to listen to and learn from each other and our own stories.

Before we take on the pain in the world, we must first experience joy together.

Before we tackle the injustice and inequity that surround us, we must first believe that in this classroom we will work every day to ensure equity and justice for everyone learning here.

Before we learn to ask whose voices are not being heard in our world, we must first believe that in this classroom everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice will be respected.

Before we fight against hate and intolerance, we must first know that love and acceptance exist here.

And these things take time.

So tonight. I will breathe. I will remember that we must learn to love and trust each other first and then we can get busy changing the world. One school year is not a long time, but it gives us many days within which to do the work that we need to do. So these days, these first days of the school year, we need to take care of ourselves first. We need to build the foundation that will sustain us through the challenging work that lies ahead. We need to ensure that each child feels loved. And then, and only then, can we begin to change the world.


What do youmean there is no reading log-

What do you mean there is no reading log? Helping parents understand how to foster a love of reading without a reading log

When I first tell my students that there will be no reading log, no signature required to prove that you have read, no specified number of minutes that you must read, no punishment for not reading one night, they cheer.

When I first tell my students’ parents these same things, there is often a puzzled look.

Don’t get me wrong, in my experience, most parents feel the same way that their children feel about reading logs. But at the same time, by fifth grade, many parents have come to believe that a reading log is the only way to make reading a daily part of a child’s life outside of school. When parents sign a notebook or sign a reading log, they feel as if they are taking concrete steps towards ensuring that their child is reading. When parents set a timer and leave their child with a book, they believe that they are doing what will work in order to ensure that their child becomes or remains a life long reader.

However, as I have expressed many times, I do not believe that a reading log really does these things. Even when it might make us feel as if it is.

For parents, finding out that there will be no reading log can feel as if I am taking away the only took that they had that made sure that their child was reading outside of school. For the past few years, since I have given up on reading logs and given up on requiring a signature to prove that students have read each night and given up setting a specific number of minutes that a child must read at home, I have had a hard time sharing all of my beliefs with parents. And it has left parents feeling confused and powerless in helping their child to live a successful reading life outside of school.

So this year, in an attempt to better communicate my beliefs with parents, I have prepared THIS HANDOUT that I sent home with parents today at our “Meet the Teacher” gathering. I will have this handout ready to give to parents again at open house.

I was wrong to take away the one tool that parents knew without giving them something to replace it with. What I have created for parents is far from perfect and is really just a starting point, but it is something that I think parents deserve. I look forward to hearing comments from others so that I can continue to add to, change and revise this document.

If you’d like to take a look at what I have shared with parents, feel free to take a look:


Let Them Know Love

Let Them Know Love

Every summer, as the new school years creeps closer, I start to think about all that my students have experienced over the summer. I am always aware that not everything that may have taken place since my students last left the halls of our school, will have been positive.  Every summer, children struggle. Every summer, children must navigate through a different schedule with different routines. And while summer is so joyous, I am always aware that for some students, it is not pure joy.

But this year. As summer starts to slip away and my excitement for a new school year starts to take its place, I am more aware than ever of what my students, what all of our students, may have experienced over these past few months.

As classrooms across the country begin to fill back in with children and teachers and learning and growing, I think about what our students have seen over these past few months.  What they have been witness to this particular summer. How it will have hurt them. How it will have scared them. How it will have scarred them. Because, this summer, our students have seen some of the worst that this world has to offer and for some of them it has hit way too close to home.  Some of them have seen some of the things that have happened to some of the people who are, in many ways, just like them.  Just like our students.

Some of our students will have seen a massive amount of people shot and killed inside of a nightclub for loving the way that our students love.

Some of our students will have seen men and women shot and killed by police officers for living inside of skin that looks like our students’ skin.

Some of our students will have heard politicians stand up and say that others are not welcome here in this country because they pray the way that our students pray.

Some of our students will have read that people in this country want to build a wall to keep people out who have come from places that are exactly the same as the places our students have come from.

As they walk back into our schools and into our hallways and into our classrooms and into our lives, some of our students are bringing back with them far more than anxious start-of-the-school-year jitters.  Some of our students are bringing back with them a deep sense of feeling unsafe and unloved by our country and the people in it.

So we have a big job to do, teachers.

We must let them know love.

It is more important this year than ever before. We must greet them not only with open arms and a big smile, but with an open heart and an open mind to who they are and all that they are bringing in with them. We must let our biggest job this year be to let them know love.

Perhaps it must be more important than making sure that they do every single assignment in the exact way we want them to do it. Perhaps it must be more important than making sure that they memorize the dates and facts that we want them to memorize. Perhaps it must be more important than making sure that they stop talking the second that we tell them to.

Perhaps our biggest job this fall and this year is to let them know love. To let them know that they are loved. To let them know that they have this love no matter what. No matter who they are or what they do. Let them know that in our classrooms, in our schools, they will be loved.  Because when they know love, that is when they are best able to learn. When they feel worthy, that is when they are best able to push themselves. When they feel safe, that is when they are most willing to take the necessary academic risks that will move them forward.

So when they start to walk in this year, make time to listen to them. Make sure that in between labeling school supplies and doing icebreakers and going over rules and expectations, make sure that there is time to listen to what our students have to tell us. Listen to their stories. Listen to what they have been witness to. Listen to them as if their lives depend on it. Because they might.

Because if we are to truly let them know love, then we must start by listening to them. By knowing them. And then showing them our love. And then we can start to love them in a way that will not erase the hate that they might have heard and that they might have known, but that will, at least, ensure them that there is love here in this world too.

And as we let them know our love, we must also let ourselves know their love. We must allow ourselves to be loved by them. We must give ourselves time to slow down and feel their love. Because it has been hard to be away from students this summer. This summer, with all of its hate and with all of its potential hopelessness. This is a summer we needed our students.  We needed them to remind us, just as we hope to remind them, that there is goodness in this world. There there is love here in this world too. And we are so lucky to be going back into classrooms that we can fill with love. It is a special job and we are so lucky to be doing it.




Pushing Beyond the Single Story — Part 2

In my last blog post, I shared some thoughts that I had on starting our year off with an inquiry into story.  Here, I want to pick up where I believe the heart of our unit will begin.

With looking at the single stories often told about a group of people and then looking to see what other parts of the story are out there that we have a responsibility to continue looking for.

I want to begin by modeling for my students. As I mentioned before, as a part of this work, I need to include the objectives for our units on memoir and on questioning.  So to do this, I want to model for more students how one person’s memoir or one person’s story can be a window into the lives of other people. However, if we do not question and do not allow our questions to guide us toward further learning, then we can NEVER know a person or group of people’s complete story simply by reading one memoir. We also can NEVER know a person or group of people’s complete story by listening to the narrative that is most often given to us by the media.

Before the inquiry part of this work begins. I want to share with my students a few examples of the single stories that are often told about a group of people and then show my students how we can search for other layers to the story and other sides to the story and how we have a responsibility to synthesize multiple pieces of information from multiple sources before claiming that we understand anything about a person or a group of people.

To do that, I am going to help my students to take a look at a group of people. Together we will think about the single story or narrative that is often told about this group of people, search for pieces of text and media that support this narrative and then, ask questions together to help us see who is telling this story, whose voice is not being heard, what is being shown and what is being left out of this story. We will then learn how to follow these questions in order to find the other side to the story or additional layers to the story that are not included in the narrative that is most often told.

Until I meet my students, until I know what interests them, until I hear what they want to talk about, I am not sure what group of people I will use to model this work for my students.  For that reason, I have spent time putting together a few resources that I might be able to use for a variety of groups of people.  No matter what group we end up looking at, I will be happy to have the other resources on hand for when the students then choose their own group of people to look into. These are resources that I will be able to provide to groups that are struggling to find direction.

For each group, I will first list a resource that feeds into the narrative that I believe is most often told or shown about a group of people. After that, I will list a resource or multiple resources that show a different side to this story:

Sports Players:

SINGLE STORY OFTEN SHOWN: Sports players as arrogant, selfish and caring only about money and material possessions.  

Google Search of Sports Stars Images:


Basketball players helping to stop violence in Chicago:

WNBA players wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts in protest:

South Side of Chicago:

SINGLE STORY OFTEN SHOWN: A place of extreme violence and danger and not much else.

Infographic on violence in Chicago:

First pictures in Gallery: Life on Chicago’s South Side:


This is Us Op-Ed Written by 5th Grade Students on the South Side of Chicago:


SINGLE STORY OFTEN SHOWN: People coming to a new country and asking for the country to help them.

Cost of refugees to America:


Video of refugees leaving Syria:

Blog post “I am a refugee” by the incredible Rusul Alrubail:

Documentary of a girl in a refugee camp who found courage while living there:

Muslim Women:

SINGLE STORY OFTEN SHOWN: Women in hijab who do not have a voice.

Muslim women in media infographic:

Google search for muslim women:


Muslim woman in the olympics:

Muslim women shown by 9 artists:

People with Disabilities:

SINGLE STORY OFTEN SHOWN: People we should help so that they can have moments of success.   

Helping a boy with a disability score a touchdown:


Trailer for 2016 paraolympics:

Open letter to Ann Coulter from a man with Down Syndrome:

So once we work together to dig deeper into the story of group of people, then I will hand it over to the students. This part of the plan comes completely from work done and shared with me by Shawna Coppola (I told you she was a genius and so very generous).

The students will work either on their own or with others to look deeper into the story of a person or a group of people. They will think about the single story that is often told about this group of people and find resources that support that story. They will then document the questions that they are left thinking about that can push them towards discovering deeper layers to the story most often told.  Those questions will guide them to discover more resources, to learn more, to think more deeply, to understand more about the group of people they are looking into.

After they discover more to their story they will choose a way to share what they have learned with others. In this way, they will be helping the world to understand more about a group of people that, perhaps, has been misunderstood.

With everything going on in this world, I think that my students need this. With all of the media that my students are surrounded by for nearly ever waking hour of their lives, I think that my students need this. If we ever hope to live in a better kinder world, I think that my students need this work. And I am so excited to join them in this inquiry and to see what we discover.

Too often we feel limited by the standards and objectives and units that we need to teach. Too often we allow this to stop us from doing the work that has the potential to truly make this world a better place. It is my hope that this work will allow us to do both of those things at once. We will learn how to learn more completely about groups of people who are often misrepresented by the media and at the same time we will learn the skills and strategies that are a part of our curriculum. By combining these goals we will have an authentic purpose and meaningful work within which we can practice applying the skills and strategies that we need to know. And I cannot imagine anything better.



Pushing Beyond the Single Story — Part 1

In my last post, I wrote about some thoughts that I had about my first reading and writing units of the school year and how to merge the two into an inquiry into story.

Since then, I have had the absolute privilege of being able to discuss and think out loud with several brilliant educators.

Shawna Coppola, she is a genius. And she lives and breathes inquiry and has been incredibly gracious in sharing with me the ideas that she had her colleagues had when they led their students in an inquiry into the danger of a single story last year. In so many ways, she is the inspiration for this work that I hope to accomplish and I am grateful for the ideas that she has shared with me. Please know that many of the things that I will share have originated with her and the work she did with her students last year. I will be forever grateful for everything that I’ve learned from Shawna and for all that she does for kids.

It was Shawna who first shared with me the idea of using the TED talk The Danger of a Single Story to launch an inquiry study into a single story and the many other layers that truly exist of a person or group of people’s story. I love the idea so much and am excited to use the ideas with my own students.

So here is what I have planned so far. It’s not much. And it will change, but I want to make sure that I capture my thoughts now so that in the rush of the start of the school year, I do not lose sight of what I hope to accomplish with my students.

Beginning to look at the idea of a person’s story:

I want to start somewhere not too serious. I want to remember that it is the start of the school year and my students have not yet formed a community. They have not yet gained each other’s trust. They have not yet decided if they can really trust me or not. We have not made the safe space yet that we will need to do our work.

So I am thinking that we will start with Taylor Swift. Or Katy Perry. I am thinking that we will look at one of their Instagram accounts (all together so that I can make sure we don’t spend our time getting lost in not so great comments). Based on the pictures that we are seeing, I want to begin to talk about what story is being told.  What are we seeing? What are we learning about this person’s story? What is being shown? What is NOT being shown? How true is this story? How is this person choosing to portray their own life story to the world?

I am guessing that while this conversation will start off in a more shallow place, I am hoping that it will lead to something deeper and eventually to the idea that there is often more to a story of a person’s life than what we see at first.

From there, I think we will look at Cale Atkinson’s Explorers of the Wild picture book. I love this picture book so much for many reasons. The first of is that I just adore Cale Atkinson, his work and his art. To the Sea is perhaps my favorite picture book of last year.  But the other reason that I love Explorers of the Wild is that it’s seemingly simple story carries so much weight and can lead to so much discussion.

When a bear and a boy meet in the wild, they each have an image in their heads of what the other one is really like. These images, at first, lead to fear and mistrust. However, when they get to know each other, they realize that the story that they had been told, was not the true or complete story at all. I think that this beautiful picture book has the power to lead many readers to think about the stories that we all carry in our own heads and how those stories affect the way that we view others and the way that we interact with people in this world. I think it also can guide us toward discussion of how important it is to push past the single story that we have of others.

From there, I want to go to some real stories, of real people. Kristen Picone, who is one of the kindest, most generous, most passionate educators I know and who will be angry at me for even mentioning her name, gave me the brilliant idea of using the Humans of New York stories to begin to think about how people tell their own stories.  I am thinking that I will find enough compelling, yet simple, stories to break the kids into pairs or small groups and give each group a person’s story to read. Together we will think about some of the following questions:

What did I/we learn about this person?

What did this person’s story help me to learn about the world?

How did this person’s story change my thinking in some way?

And here is where I want to bring in some writing.  We begin the year with personal narratives and I want the kids to see that there are many ways to tell our stories. Using the Humans of New York stories as mentor texts, I am going to ask the kids to compose their own stories of them selves. I will ask them to think about what they want others to know about them, how they want to be seen, what about their lives is important for others to know. And they will use these thoughts to compose their own stories. This will be something that we put together on our walls or on our virtual walls to share with each other and to begin to build our community.

And then from there, I believe that our real work will begin. I think that here is where I will introduce the TED Talk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that will introduce the concept to my students of the Danger of a Single Story. We will spend some time discussing the single stories that we believe to be true and even the single stories that are told about us.

This is where our writing work will break off as my students think about what others believe about them and what they believe about themselves.  They will then spend some time thinking of the stories that they can tell that will prove or disprove those things to be true as they begin to take ownership over how they are telling their own life stories. They will eventually then choose how to share one or more of these stories with the world.

And then our reading work will branch off as we study how images, videos and texts create single stories for us of people or of groups of people.  We will then begin to study how we can ask questions in order to push beyond these single stories. We will look at how we need to synthesize more than one version of a story in order to piece together a more complete story of a person or of a group of people.


More on this, plus some resources that I hope to use in my next blog post.

You can find the SECOND part of this blog post HERE.

Working to Change the Narrative- An Inquiry Into Story

Working to Change the Narrative: An Inquiry Into Story

When I first made the decision to tell my students that I am gay, part of what motivated me was a desire to change the narrative that my students had of people who were gay. For some of my students, the only things they had heard about gay people were the stereotypes they had been fed by television and movies.  For other students, the only things they knew were the awful things they were told by others who were fearful or intolerant or ignorant.

So when I made the decision to come out to my students, my hope was that when my students thought of someone who was gay, they would not think about some caricature or television character or some stereotype or about something awful that someone once described to them. Instead, they would think about their fifth grade teacher. They would think about the teacher who loved them and was (mostly) patient with them and who maybe even helped them to learn something about themselves and this world we live in. I wanted to change the narrative.  I wanted to add to the story that they knew about people who are gay.

As teachers, we make choices all the time about which stories we bring into our classrooms and which stories we leave out of our classrooms.  We choose which stories to read all together and which stories to quietly leave in a corner of our classroom libraries. We make choices about which stories are given voice and space in our classrooms and which ones are silenced. That is a lot of power and I think we need to start to do more with it.

With all that is going on in this world, with all of the hate, with all of the violence, I have been thinking so much recently about stories. The stories we know. The stories we don’t know. The ones that are told. The ones that are hidden. The sensational ones that are fed to us by all sorts of media because they are the ones that will make someone money. And the quieter stories that are often kept hidden for fear that they will not bring viewers or clicks or dollars.

I have been thinking about the stories that play in our heads when we walk down the streets. When we encounter a person. When we encounter a person and immediately try to place them in a preexisting box that we know and are comfortable with because we know a certain story about the kind of person who fits in that box and that makes us feel like we know the actual person.  And somehow we are comforted by that kind of knowing.

But that kind of knowing is killing us.

Deciding that we know a person because of the stories we have been told. The stories that are far too often, far too incomplete.  We make judgements based on what we think we know. We make decisions based on who we think a person is. We take actions based on the stories that we believe we understand.

And for too many people, the stories that we think we know are inadequate and they are dangerous.

So when I return to my classroom in the fall, we will begin our year with an inquiry into story. I do not have it all planned yet and I know that I won’t be able to have it all planned until I am sitting there with my students.  But I know that it is where I need to begin.

I want to help my students to change the incomplete narratives that so many of them have for so many people in this world. My students are not an extremely diverse group when it comes to races and religions and ethnicities. So much of the knowledge that they have about people in this world comes not from their own experiences, but from the stories that they have been told by others. And I believe that we can work to change the limited narratives that they hold about others. The ones that can be damaging. We can work to dig deeper into the stories of others and to learn to ask questions of the stories that we think we know in order to gain a more full, a more complex, a more complete understanding of someone’s story.

I want to have my students look at stories that are told in which they can see themselves reflected. To think about how the stories of others can be our mirrors and how seeing ourselves within these stories can help us feel less alone in this world.

And then I want them to look at the stories of others in which they cannot see themselves, but through which they can see into the lives of others. I want to help them to use these  stories as windows to look into the lives of others and learn about the lives of others. But I do not want to stop there. I want to help them to learn to ask questions that will lead them to further inquiry in order to uncover the more complete stories that are waiting to be told.

I hope the examine stories that are told in many different ways. Stories that are captured in photographs, in photo essays, in projects like Humans of New York, or StoryCorps, stories that are told through Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and stories told through memoirs and short stories and picture books and blog posts. I want them to read these stories and learn to ask questions that will help them to understand more than simply what they are given or what they find when they do a single Google search. I want them to learn to want to know more than what is nestled in the first story that they read.

We will watch The Danger of a Single Story and work to understand the powerful words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so that we go do better than just stopping at a single story. We will choose stories that we want to learn more about and we will push ourselves to change our existing narratives.

And at the same time, I want to help my students to take control of the narrative that is being told about them. I want them to think about the following questions:

What do others believe about you?

What do you believe about yourself?

And then I want them to take time to think about the stories that they can tell from their own lives in order to disprove or to prove that those things are or are not true. I want us to learn from the mentor texts that we will study as we read the stories of others and I want them to learn that they, too, have stories to share with the world. And I want them to find ways to tell these stories that make sense to them. Perhaps it will be through written word, perhaps through digital story telling, perhaps through a speech or through a picture books. But they must find a way to take control of the narrative being told about who they are.

There is a lot that I am not sure of right now. But I know that this is where I need to go with my students.  I know that there is work to be done. I know that we have the power to change some of the destructive narratives that have been kept alive for far too long in this country. I am not sure how to do it, but as I just read today in this article with the brilliant Chris Lehmann who runs the Science Leadership Academy, “Inquiry means living in the soup. Inquiry means living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.”

So I am uncomfortable with all that I do not know and I am also incredibly excited at the work that lies ahead.  Should you have any ideas that can help my students and I along our way, please feel free to leave them below.