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: http://www.wnyc.org/story/people-sometimes-think-im-supposed-talk-ghetto-whatever-kids-race/

We watched it once all the way through. Then I handed out this sheet to help guide our thinking:https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sDMSyksvcjWa1stkTMXHauPom-nVeWzEWt2snQv8XjQ/edit

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.




Sharing storiesis something we all can do

Sharing Stories Is Something We Can Do

Philando Castile.

Alton Sterling.

Two more names added to a list that is far too long. It’s length isn’t what troubles me the most. What troubles me the most is the fact that such a list exists. That is what breaks my heart and makes me want to scream and has had me crying in bursts for the past two days. There is a list of the number of people killed in this country by police officers.  A big list. A list that has the names of more black people than white people. Far more.

And each time a new name is added to this list, a new hashtag is started. Each time we again shake our heads and say we feel helpless and say that we don’t know what we are supposed to do to fix any of this.  Each time we have to listen to people tell us that racism ISN’T the issue here, that racism is not the reason this is happening, that racism is not what caused the death of these beautiful humans. We have to watch people we respect and admire say that if only these people would have done what they are supposed to do, then they would not be dead.

And then we ask, “What on earth are people supposed to do?” It’s been said so many times. It does not matter what people do. People are being shot and killed because of the fear that white people have of black people. White people who have guns and who have been shown time and time again that they have permission to kill black people and not get in trouble for it.  How is that not about racism?

Today my Facebook page is filled with people saying that they don’t know what to do. That they are angry and sad and heartbroken, but they don’t know what to do.  And, of course, none of us can do one thing, in one day, and make racism go away. It obviously doesn’t work like that.

But we who educate children, we have NO RIGHT to say that we don’t know what to do. Because we do. We might be scared to do it. We might be uncertain of how to do it. We might feel uncomfortable doing it. But we know what we can do.

We can do better. We can teach our children to do better. We can have conversations about race. We can share stories of others who have experienced racism. We can stop pretending that these are not our issues to discuss. Because we can sit around and wait for the politicians to fix things, but I sense that will lead us only to frustration. We can sit around and wait for the media to do a better job. We can sit around and wait for the publishing world to do a better job. We can sit around and wait for humans in general to do a better job.

Or. We, the educators of children, we can simply start to do a better job. Because as the country began to expose the obvious racism that exists here today, too many of our classrooms stayed silent on any issue of race. As protestors and activists bravely fought  in the streets of our country, too many of us stayed silent on any issue of race. Because as writers of color began to expose the many, complicated issues of race that infect our country and the people living in it, too many of the stories we shared with children left all of that out.

So today, I will stop saying that I do not know what to do and instead I will start to say what I do know how to do and that is to share the stories of others.  One simple thing that I can do is to read and listen to and seek out the stories of others who have experienced racism in this country and then share those with my students. Because if we do that, then our students will not grow up believing that race doesn’t matter or that there is not racism left here in America. Our students will not be the ones saying that none of this has to do with race. Because they will know. They will know because they will have learned from the stories of others.

So many people of color are generously making themselves vulnerable in order to share their stories so that they can be heard. So many people of color are shouting their heartbreaking stories into the world so that we will hear them and learn from them. So many people of color are willing to tell their darkest moments so that those of us who claim we didn’t know how bad it was can finally start to see the truth.

Those stories are a gift.

And sharing stories is something we all can do.

Here are some stories that I will begin with:

The story of #ITooAmHarvard

Traffic Stop from Story Corps

Your Stories of Racism from The Atlantic

Alton Sterling and Facts a blog post from Matthew R. Morris

Being 12: Kids Talk About Race

Color Blind or Color Brave? TED Talk from Melody Hobson

How to Raise a Black Son in America: TED Talk from Clint Smith

If you know of other stories, written or spoken, please share them with me in the comments below. The more stories we can share with our students, the more hope we can have that they are going to be the ones to do something to make the world a better place.




Please love more loudly

Please Love More Loudly

Today there was tragedy.

At least 50 people killed, over 50 more injured, while they danced and celebrated at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Today, as we grieve, there are familiar messages filling our walls on Facebook. Love conquers hate. Love is greater than hate. Love will win in the end.

Today, these messages feel shallow to me. I know that they are supposed to express support. I know that they are supposed to fill us with hope. But, today, for me, they just aren’t cutting it.

Today it feels like hate is winning.

And I know what everyone wants to say about that. I know. I get it.

But today, for this moment, it just isn’t enough. Not for me. Not right now.

Because today it feels like we might be using those cliches to allow us to sit back and wait for things to get better. I worry that we say that love will win out and that somehow excuses our silence.

But the problem is that hate is loud. It is violent and it is active and it is deafening. And our love and our support. It tends to be much more silent. Much more passive. And until we find a way to love more loudly, then hate is going to continue to gain the upper hand.

There are so many different discussions that need to be had in this country. Discussions on gun control. Discussions on mental health. Discussions on terrorism. But those discussions are not the ones that fill my mind today.

Today, for me, it is the hatred.

The hatred that was directed to members of my own community. The hatred that fueled these murders. The hatred that did not need to be inspired by some far away terrorist group because there is plenty of it running rampant in our own country. The hatred that is now being written into laws that exist in our very own states.

And yes, I do believe, with all of my heart, that love can destroy that kind of hate. But I am just not sure that we are loving loudly enough right now.

We are not loving loudly enough when we allow books with LGBT characters to be banned from our school libraries. We are not loving loudly enough when we allow laws to be written that deny equal rights to people who are LGBT. We are not loving loudly enough when we ignore hateful comments and hateful words because we do not know exactly how to confront them. We are not loving loudly enough when we refuse to change the pronouns we use because it upsets our sense of proper grammar. We are not loving loudly enough when we are not actively bringing in books to our classrooms that portray families of all kinds. We are not loving loudly enough when we do not speak up when parents tell us that they do not want their children in the classrooms of teachers who are gay. We are not loving loudly enough when we praise religious leaders even though they continue to spread the message that people who are LGBT are not acceptable and are sinful simply by being who they are.

Our love cannot be a silent love. Our support cannot be silent support. Because no matter how many laws have been passed. No matter what kind of marriage has become legal. We are still the targets of a terrible hatred.

So today, do not tell me that love will conquer hate. Instead, please show me that you will love more loudly. That you will speak up. That you will not stay silent.

Because today, I was afraid to walk to the park with my wife and daughter. Today, I was afraid to hold my wife’s hand. Today, I was so scared. For me. And for my wife. And most of all for my three-year-old daughter. And it was so tempting to stay holed up in our house. And to hide ourselves away from a world that can be so hateful. But my wife and I, we have already done that. We have had our years spent hiding. We will not do that anymore. And I will never let my daughter know the terrible feeling of thinking that the only safe thing to do is to hide who you are. I will not allow her to know what that feels like.

So we walked outside. I held my wife’s hand. My daughter pushed her doll in her stroller. And we walked together hoping that others will start to love more loudly. And then, and only then, will we really get to say that love will conquer hate.