We, humans, we adjust to awful things and sometimes even find small bits of light in them

I haven’t been able to write much lately. This moment has felt too consuming for that. But tonight. Tonight there are things weighing heavily on my mind and I needed a space to put them. So I have come here to rest some of those thoughts, to share that weight with anyone who is willing to carry some of it along with me.  I can’t offer you inspiration tonight or some way to make your way through all the madness or ideas on how to make any of this eLearning or eTeaching or eSurviving more manageable. What I can offer you are my thoughts. So here they are in all their mess.

So there are things that exist in this world that are unjust. That are terrible creations of oppressive systems and I believe that we, especially those of us who have benefitted from those systems, have an urgent responsibility to fight to change those things. Those are things we should never accept.

And then there are other things. Things that happen to us. Things that are awful. Things that might be caused by other people’s bad decisions and actions, but that we cannot do much about. Those are things that I am thinking of tonight. The awful things that happen to us.

And here is what I have learned about those things: We, humans, we are capable of adjusting to awful things and sometimes even finding small bits of light in them.

Almost exactly one year ago to the day, my wife cheated on me and left me. I don’t bring this up to ask for pity or to stir up drama or to show myself as some sort of pillar of strength. None of those things are helpful. I say that because one year ago, almost to the day, I was changed. And I learned some things. And not by choice. It came on suddenly. It was not the result of years of an unhappy marriage. It did not happen after months of endless fighting. To me, it came out of nowhere and I was left unprepared.

In the days and weeks and months after she left, I found myself in a puddle of tears more often than not. I had the most incredible people around me, carrying me through, but none of it felt like it was ever going to be okay. I was wrecked. I was betrayed. I was hurt and I was left shattered and in pieces.  When I go back now and read the words that I wrote then, I remember the reality that existed for me. This complete and utter disbelief that I was ever going to be okay.

And then, something started to happen. Things did not get less awful, but I started to adjust to them.  I wrapped myself and my love, around my kid and we started to adjust to this new life that we did not choose.  We drew strength from each other, we drew strength from the amazing people that surrounded us, we drew strength from within ourselves that we did not know existed.  And we kept moving forward. Because we had no choice. And slowly, over many months, we started to adjust.

And I want to be clear. Things were still awful. And in so many ways they still are. But we started to adjust to the awful. We started to mold ourselves around it. We found new ways of being, we found new ways of living, we found new ways of loving each other that allowed us to get up each morning and make it through the day.

And then. Then something else started to occur. After my former-wife first left, I reached out to a friend (such a wise friend) who had gone through a similar situation with her former wife and she told me something that has guided me forward every since. She said that she could now see her the gifts in the betrayal of her former wife. Her ex-wife’s betrayal had been a gift.  When she first spoke those words to me, I thought that perhaps they were nice for her, perhaps they were even true for her, but they could not be true for me.

But in this past year, and through a whole lot of therapy and a whole lot of painful self-reflection, I have reached a point where I, too, can see the gifts in my former wife’s betrayal. Because now I can look back on our relationship, from a distance, and see it for what it really was. How it was about me giving up who I was in order to meet someone else’s needs. How it was about a toxic kind of love where I was expected to make myself small in order for someone else to feel big. How it became necessary for me to distance myself from the people who had been supports to me in my life so that someone else could feel more important. These were truths that I did not see. These were sacrifices that I had made for a decade that, in the end, cost me a big piece of who I was, or who I could have been, in order to try to appease someone who ended up leaving me in the end anyway.

And when she did leave. I was free from all of that. In the first weeks and months and parts of a year after she left, I could not have seen it. But her departure allowed me to find myself again. Or to start to, anyway. In her betrayal, there lay so many gifts.

This past week when I texted a friend (a friend who knows this road well, a friend who was brought into my life because of the shared experience of being left, a friend whose presence is yet one more gift in all of this) and I told her that I was pretty sure that day was the one year anniversary of when my former wife began her new relationship, she told me to celebrate the day. She told me to celebrate myself. She told me to look at the day as the day that I started to reclaim who I was. The day when I was set free.

And that. That is the bit of light. I am not saying that there is a silver lining. I am not saying that things happen for a reason. Because so much of that feels dismissive and does not honor the very real and very heavy pain that also exits. But I am saying, that I have learned to adjust to the awful. I have managed to find these bits of light. I still have nights where I drink glasses of wine by myself on my couch and cry myself to sleep. But I also have so many moments when I truly feel like I am okay. And I am grateful for the life that I now have and the me that I can see myself becoming. I have adjusted to this new life. I have accepted the truth within it. I keep moving forward and I can see the bits of light.

And all of that, right now, in this moment that the world is experiencing, all of that feels really important. Because things now are awful. The world is in a terrifying space. As educators we are struggling. Our students are struggling. Our families are struggling. It is all just so awful. And it does not appear as if things are going to get less awful any time soon. In fact, it appears as if it might just get worse.

But here is what I know and here is what I have come here to share: We, humans, we are capable of adjusting to awful things and sometimes even finding small bits of light within them.

So here we are in this moment. We all seem to be searching for a way to make things less awful, but I think that might be the wrong approach. I think that maybe, instead, we accept that this is awful and we allow ourselves time to adjust. We allow ourselves time to recalibrate. We allow ourselves time to find a path forward. We are kind to each other, we are kind to ourselves, and we allow ourselves time and space to breathe and trust that we are going to adjust to the awful around us. We remember what we know about children. We remember what we know about ourselves. We remember what we know about teaching and learning and we use that to guide us through this all.

And who knows, maybe we will be able to find the small bits of light in this moment as well. Knowing that this moment is terrifying and that lives are at stake and that our unjust systems have been highlighted in a myriad of ways, maybe there will also be some small bits of light in all of this. And those are what we will cling too and what we hold on to and those will be what will move us forward.

So, hang in there, everyone. We have all been asked to do an impossible thing. It is awful and terrible and we are all feeling the affects of it in an indescribable way. But I believe we will adjust. I believe that we will find our way through it all. And I believe that maybe, just maybe, we will be able to find those small bits of light in all of this darkness.



If I Can’t Opt My Kid Out of the Homophobia She Will Experience, You Shouldn’t Be Able to Opt Your Kid Out of Reading Books with LGBTQ Characters

So there is this thing that we, as educators, have allowed to happen. This thing that we have decided is okay. This idea that we should allow parents to opt their kids out of reading or listening to books with LGBTQ characters in our schools and classrooms. We have offered this as an option. We have tolerated it as acceptable. We have said we will read these books, but if you have a problem with them then you can opt your child out of hearing or reading them. And I think it is something we need to stop.

I believe that parents who ask for the opportunity to opt their children out of reading books with LGBTQ characters, do so because they believe that they are protecting their own children. Protecting them from something the parents do not believe they are ready for, protecting them from something they do not agree with, or protecting them from something that they believe will do them some kind of harm. However, there is no proof that reading or listening to books that have LGBTQ people or characters in them will cause any kind of harm.

In fact, I have seen with my own eyes the way that children respond to books that have any kind of people in them that they might not have encountered before. And it is, far more often than not, a beautiful thing to watch. Kids ask questions, they listen to answers, they seek additional information and they take in that which makes sense to them. And they are better off because of it. They have a greater understanding of the world because of it. They are better equipped to encounter more people in this world from a place of empathy and understanding because of it.  It is a gift. And yet, we allow students to be opted out of these experiences. These experiences that can make the world a better place because of the fears of parents and educators, fears that are not based on proof.

But here is what we do have proof of.  Many of our LGBTQ youth are at risk. They are at risk of depression and anxiety and bullying and harassment and suicide. They are at risk of being exposed to homophobia and transphobia and a heteronormative world that can feel overwhelmingly against them. And we cannot opt them out of these experiences. That choice does not exist. It doesn’t matter that they are not ready for these experiences. It does not matter that these experiences will do so much more than make them slightly uncomfortable. It does not matter that these things can kill them. We cannot opt them out. Right now, in this world that we are living in, these things are inevitable. They are a truth that our children are facing.

In fact, my daughter was only three the first time she had to deal with a kid on the playground telling her that she couldn’t have two moms. I watched from a distance with tears welling in my eyes, wishing with all that I had in me that I could somehow opt her out of this experience. But I couldn’t. And there would be more after that. Times when I wanted to just wrap her up and sweep her away from this sometimes-cruel world. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. We can’t hide from that. So I had to teach her to walk through it. I had to marvel at her resilience and her strength as she dealt with it. As she continues to deal with it. As she always will.

Because the truth is, I know that I cannot erase hatred and bigotry and homophobia and transphobia from this world instantaneously. I know that my own daughter and my own students and kids around the world are facing those evil forces every single day. There is no opting out of that.

But here is what we can do. We can counter that hate with positive representations of LGBTQ people and communities in our classrooms and in our schools. We can make sure that for every ounce of hate our students might be hearing, they are hearing even more love and acceptance and they are being shown that they are worthy by the fact that we are bringing their full identities and selves into our classrooms through books and curriculum. And we know, we have proof, that this makes a difference. 

But it works so much better if no one is allowed to opt out.

Because it is not just our Queer youth who benefit from these books being in our classrooms. All of our students gain an opportunity to better understand the world, to see the humans that they share this world with represented on the pages of the books they are being read and the books they are being given. When they read books with LGBTQ characters, they are being given a chance to learn how to develop empathy and how to understand lives that might be different than their own. They are being given a chance to figure things out with characters in a book before, perhaps, they are given the opportunity to engage with LGBTQ people in the actual world. So when they do, then, encounter people who are a part of the LGBTQ community, they do so with kindness and compassion and understanding. And we should not take that chance away from any child.

Because that is how we make the world a better place. We allow all students to see themselves reflected in positive ways and we allow all students a chance to develop empathy and understanding about others by seeing others reflected in positive ways. But  it only works if we all opt in. And that is what I am asking for us to do.

And believe me. I get that it is not that easy. That we cannot just say no. I get it. But I do want us to push back. To ask questions. To ask, “What does that really look like?” Should your child be asked to leave the room any time we read a book with an LGBTQ character? What if we are reading a chapter book out loud, over time, with an LGBTQ character? Do they leave the room every day for months? What happens when a child spontaneously asks a question about someone who is transgender? Do we stop and ask your child to leave the room? And what happens when your child is in a classroom with another child or a teacher who is transgender or gay or a lesbian or Queer? How do you opt out of that? Does your child leave the room every time that other child or that educator wants to speak about who they are? About their identity? What does this opting out really look like? What kind of harm will that cause?

Because it is easy to say yes. To make the parent happy. To make the problem go away. To feel like we are still doing the right thing. But I am asking us to think about what this opting out really means. Because if we do. If we really sit with what that looks like, I do not think it is as simple as it might seem. And it shouldn’t be. Because lives are at stake. And there is just no opting out of that.

Photo Credit: John Nakamura Remy



Teaching Personal Narratives as a Way to Explore Identity and Our Lived Experiences

Framing Our Personal Narrative Unit 

Every year, we begin our fifth grade writing year by writing personal narratives. For years, I walked my students through this unit without much purpose. Because I did not understand the purpose of writing narratives, I was not able to help my students to see much purpose in our writing beyond that we were learning to be better writers. I had a vague sense that writing narratives would help my students to write with more detail and description that could later be transferred to other types of writing, but beyond that, there wasn’t much.

And then, several years ago, I began to crave more authenticity in the work that I was doing with students. I knew that my students craved this authenticity as well. And, as is always the case, I knew that before I helped my students to see purpose, I needed to look inward and find the purpose for myself. I needed to work on myself, before I began to work on my students. So, I looked for mentor texts. What were the stories I wanted to read? What did I gain from these stories? What were the stories I wanted to write? What did I gain from telling these stories?

So I began to read. And I began to write. I realized that the stories I wanted to read were the stories that made me feel connected to the experiences of others. I wanted to connect to people whose stories were similar to my own and I wanted to learn from the stories of other people whose lived experiences were vastly different from my own. I wanted to learn about this world through the stories that other people were willing to share. And I realized that the stories I needed to tell were the stories that allowed me to show others who I really was. The stories I wanted to share were the stories that would grow people’s understanding of who I am, what my lived experiences were, what those experiences had taught me and what I wanted other people to know.  And it was this that finally helped me to see how stories could help us to explore identity. They could help us to explore the identities of others and how those identities shaped the lived experiences of the writers. And I began to see how writing our stories allowed us to explore our own identities and allowed us to share who we are with the world.

Once I gained this understanding for myself. Then I was able to begin to reshape my unit as an exploration of identity, so that we could tell our stories in order to shape how the world saw us and to share the lessons we have learned through our lived experiences with others. That is the concept that now guides my work with my fifth grade writers.

So how do we do that?

The first thing that I share with my students is the framing of our first integrated reading and writing unit, which is our Inquiry Into Story. Here is the chart I use to guide that introduction: IMG_0935

Then, I ask my students to think about and share all the ways that people share their stories with others. Here were both of my classes’ responses from this year:

And then, we start to look to our mentor texts. These mentor texts guide our inquiry work as we work together to think about the stories writers tell, what these stories reveal about the writers and lessons/realizations from their own lives are writers trying to share with us as readers. We begin every year, by using mentor texts from the The Humans of New York website. This is a wonderful place to begin because the stories are short and varied and engaging and speak to so many beautiful humans that we share this world with. Each year, I provide my students with a list of stories that are accessible and manageable for my fifth graders. This year, this is THE LIST OF STORIES that they had to choose from. And THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS that we work through in order to think deeply about those stories. I model one example for the students in the first few days of the school year and then the students have time to explore other stories and answer the same set of questions as I walk around to confer.  After having time to read and think and write and discuss, I ask students to answer THESE REFLECTION QUESTIONS which then guide our discussion centered around why people choose to tell the stories that they tell. I chart the ideas that we come to and this begins to set the purpose for our writing unit.

This work all takes place at the same time as we are beginning to explore the concept of identity through our reading work. That work can be found in THIS BLOG POST.

At this point, we really dig into the idea that the stories we tell can shape how the world sees us. That there are a lot of people who will try to tell stories ABOUT us, but these stories do not always show the world the parts of us that we want the world to see and understand. By reclaiming our own stories, by choosing the stories we want to tell, we can choose to shape how the world sees us and understands our lives. And that is a powerful reason to write.

Finding Our Stories 

So this is where we begin. Before I ever ask my students to brainstorm story ideas, I begin by asking them the following question, “What do you want the world to know about you?” At this point, my students have already done work (inspired by the brilliant Sara Ahmed and her powerful book Be The Change) around identity and creating identity webs and the identity bags that I wrote about in THIS BLOG POST. So we begin by tying this question to that work and then I model some of the things that I would want others to know about me if they were to really understand who I am and understand my life.  It is important to me that I model for my students some of the tougher things that I want people to know about me. I want kids to feel safe sharing all parts of who they are in our classroom and I know that in order to do that, I need to make myself vulnerable first. So, as I list things that I want them to know, I make sure to think out loud about how some things are harder to share than others and that we might not all be ready to share the tougher parts of ourselves, but if and when we are, writing is a way that we can do that.

And we start to chart the kinds of things that we might want people to know about us and we begin lists in our notebooks of the specific things that we want the world to know about who we are:

And then we start to think about how we all have stories from our lives that we could tell in order to help people to see what we want them to know about us. And then, again, we go to our mentor texts.  For each of the mentor texts we read, we think about what the story is about and what this story shows us about the reader. This year, we began with My Papi Has a Motorcycle and Dreamers. Both of these stories share moments from the writers’ lives and both of them have powerful author’s notes that give us further insight into why the writers chose to tell these stories. So they both make excellent mentor texts that carry us through our unit.  IMG_0976

Once we have looked at a few mentor texts together, then my students are ready to begin thinking about the stories they could tell that reveal what they want their readers to know about them. And as soon as they have a few ideas, I get them writing. I used to wait weeks before I had the kids get on the computers and begin drafting. But, I realized that by the time they finally started writing, they had often lost all momentum for their stories. So now, I start them drafting WAY before they are really ready to write great stories. And that is okay. I just want them writing. And when they finish one story (which for some kids is after ten minutes of writing) they just start writing the next. And at first, they are not great. But that is okay. They are writing. And they can ALWAYS come back to their drafts as we move through the unit and learn more about what memoir writers do. But getting them writing early allows them to build up a volume of work and it allows them to always have a story going in which they can put our new writing lessons into use right away. It also eliminates the awful situation that used to occur in my room when the kids finished writing a story and waited in a long, long, long line next to wherever I was trying to confer with writers so that I could “check” their story for them. Which often really meant they thought they needed to wait for me to “fix stuff” before they could move on.

Now, my kids are writing and when they finish, they know that they can either go back and add in the new writing strategies they have learned or simply begin their next piece. And I am able to really confer with writers as they are in the process of writing and deliver individualized instruction when they are still in the midst of their stories. At the very end of our unit, the kids select the ONE story that they feel provides the best evidence of what they have learned how to do as a writer and that is the story they take through a more formal editing and revising process (but that is a blog post for another day!).

So now they are writing. And they know that the stories that they are writing can do more than tell about what has HAPPENED in a moment, but they can also reveal the things that they want the world to understand about them. But here is the thing, if I want them to write for that purpose, then I have to really show them HOW writers do that. I can’t just tell them that the stories we tell can do more than tell what happens in a moment, I have to give them specific strategies that allow them to tell stories in that way. So that is where our learning heads next. If anyone is still reading this, I will be amazed and impressed, but I will also just keep going because that is how my brain works.  But be prepared, this is going to be a REALLY long blog post.

The Writing Strategies That Allow Us To Make Our Narrative More Powerful


So we begin with our mentor texts. We go back to the writing that we read and start to look at how the writers reveal the truths about who they are to us. And we start to notice that there are two types of details that are being shared by our writers. The writers use some details to describe what is happening in the moment, but they use other types of details to reveal their thoughts and emotions as they go through these moments. Each of these types of details helps us, the readers, to understand something different.

And so we notice and name these types of details so that my students will be more likely to use them in their own writing. And for this, I go back to lessons that come straight from Barry Lane’s brilliant book After The End. He calls these types of details SNAPSHOTS and THOUGHTSHOTS. Here is the chart that I use with my students to explain these types of details and the purposes they serve: IMG_1102

We look closely at our mentor texts. This year, I typed out sections from My Papi Has a Motorcycle and we used two different colored markers in order to see the difference between the SNAPSHOTS and THOUGHTSHOTS that the writer used and how she wove these details together.  HERE ARE THE SHEETS we used to do that.

And then it was time for us to try this work. I began by modeling. This year, I told my students the story of the time my daughter rode a jet ski for the first time. I created a t-chart in my writer’s notebook with SNAPSHOTS on one side and THOUGHTSHOTS on the other. I thought out loud about a moment in my story where I could share snapshots to reveal what was happening and thoughtshots to reveal something about myself that I wanted the world to know (in this case, the idea that Millie teaches me how to be brave). So I did this work and then asked my students to think about their own stories. It could be the story they were currently working on, one they already finished or one that they wanted to write. I asked them to think of a moment within that story, use snapshots to write what was happening and then thoughtshots to write their thoughts and emotions.

And I will be honest. At first, it is painful. The kids don’t always trust that this practice is worthwhile. Many of them have never been forced to try a new writing strategy in this way. Many of them are unsure of how to proceed. And that is okay. That is part of the learning. What I’ve learned is that it only takes one or two. One or two kids who are bold enough to try and then one or two kids who are bold enough to share. And when kids here how this stuff works (and every, single year, it really does work) then they are willing to give it a go and almost ALL of their writing starts to improve instantly.

Because they are given something really concrete that will make their writing better. SO often we tell them to add more detail, add more description, but we don’t always show them specifically how to do it. And they want to do it, they want to make us happy, they want to grow, but they don’t always know how. Giving them these concrete writing strategies really does amazing things for their writing.

So after we do quite a bit of sharing, they go off to write. Many of them keep their writer’s notebooks out next to them and type in the work they did that day right into the stories they are writing. And as I confer that day, and in the days to come, this is what I focus on. Where could you use more snapshots? Where could you use more thoughtshots? How might these make your writing better? And the writing really starts to grow.

The next strategy that we look at also comes from Barry Lane’s book (I am telling you, just get the book! It’s all kinds of great). This next strategy is to explode important moments. Every year, I notice that my students give equal amounts of time in their writing to every event that they are describing. They know that they are supposed to write with “more detail,” but they have missed the understanding that the detail should be given to the parts that matter most. So that is what we look at next.

For this work, we share a new mentor text. We read Lois Lowry’s Crow Call and then look at what parts of the story she speeds through (as Barry Lane calls it, where does the writer “shrink a century) and where does she explode a moment. Once we identify a few parts where she explodes the moment, we take those parts and look at how exactly she has done that and why she might have chosen this moment. What does this moment reveal for the reader? Here ARE THE SHEETS we used this year to do that. The kids realize that the writer in this story chose to explode the moments that reveal something about the relationship between the girl and her father since this is a story that is really about that relationship. They notice that she explodes these moments by adding in snapshots and thoughts, by using sensory detail, by describing the setting and by breaking up large actions into smaller actions.

So again, I then model thinking out loud about what I want to reveal to my reader. In my jet ski story, I want to reveal that Millie makes me brave by doing the things that scare me. I thought about that in order to reveal this to my readers, I need to explode the moment when I am experiencing fear and the moment when Millie bravely gets on the jet ski and rides away. So then I think out loud about how I will do that using the strategies that we saw Lois Lowry using in Crow Call and write in my notebook in front of my students.  And then, it is their turn.

By this time, my students are a little bit more trusting and I can notice a shift in their willingness to give these strategies a try. And so they do. And again, amazing things result. And then they go and write. Again. And again, the writing strategies are what I focus my conferring on. This allows me to not get bogged down with the “fixing” with trying to “fix” any child’s writing. Instead, I am able to just teach. I am able to refer back to the writing strategies that we have learned and help them find places within their own writing where they can use these strategies for a purpose.

At this point, their stories are really coming along. They are writing less like lists and more like stories that allow the reader to feel as if they are there. They are moving from summarizing to storytelling. But, often, they are still missing that deeper meaning. Often their stories are stuck as stories of what happened and are not going deeper than that. It is in those moments that I realize that they are simply telling stories, because they do not really know what these stories are about.

So it is time to learn about finding the heart of a story.  When my students write narratives, they have a clear understanding of what will happen in their stories. But they don’t always know what that story might REALLY be about. So they need some help in identifying the deeper meaning. This year, I used the absolutely gorgeous and powerful and pretty-much-perfect book The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad. After reading this powerful story of a girl’s first day wearing hijab to school, we talked about what the story was about and what the story was REALLY about. This is the chart that captured our conversation:

After this conversation, we identified the questions that we could ask ourselves that would help us identify the heart of our own stories. And then I modeled answering these questions and then asked the students to answer them about a story that they were working to write. Here is what that work looked like:

And again, as the students shared, I could almost hear them growing as writers. They gained clarity in what they were really writing about and they were able to think about ways that they could convey that to their readers. And then they went to write. And again, as I conferred, this was where my focus was. What is your story REALLY about? How are you showing that to your readers? How could you find even more ways to show that to your readers?

At this point, so many of the kids are growing as writers in ways I don’t think they even realized. As I confer with kids at this point in the unit, I notice so much less list-like writing. And when there is that writing, we now have so many ways to help them move beyond it. It is also at this point in the writing that many students are running out of things they want to write about. So I know that it is time for a slight shift as we finish up our unit.

Writing To Teach Others What We Know

In the final weeks of our writing unit, I share with students that sometimes, we write stories to tell our readers about who we are. And sometimes, we write stories in order to share with others what we have learned or realized from our own lived experiences. In this way, we are able to take our own stories and give them meaning and use for our readers. And we can do this by weaving in reflection to our personal narratives. We can take a moment from our own lives and use it to help someone else.

For this part of the unit, I use several short stories from the collection of stories, Guys Write for Guys Read. I also use the beautiful Sandra Cisneros story, “Eleven”. For each of the stories, we look at what the story is about and then we also look at what the writer learned or realized in the moment. And then we highlight where, in each story, the writer used reflection in order to share with the readers what they learned or realized in the moment being described. Here is the chart I use to help my students understand what reflection is and how writers might use it: IMG_1260

And here is some of the work that we did highlighting where writers included reflection in the stories we read together:


After looking at these three stories and identifying what happened in the moment and what the writer learned or realized ON THIS CHART, I modeled thinking out loud about moments from my own life that taught me something or that changed me in some way or that helped me to realized something about myself, about someone else or about the world. I wrote about the moment on one side of a chart and wrote about what I learned or realized in that moment on the other side of the chart. And then I asked the kids to do the same work in their notebooks. I asked them to think either about a story they already wrote, that they could add reflection to or another moment from their lives that they could add reflection to. I gave them time to talk and share and soon everyone had new ideas.

And once they had some ideas, we thought a little bit about structure. We drew models of how the writers of our mentor texts structured their stories with reflection and story and then we thought about how we might structure our own. This is the chart that helped us to track that: IMG_1495

And then, yet again, we were off and writing. Some kids went back to old stories and found places to weave in reflection. As I conferred with writers, it was amazing to see how willing kids were to go back and revise in this way. We didn’t even call it revision, it was just the kind of revision that made sense for the kids to do. Other kids started brand new stories and worked to weave in reflection as they crafted the stories from scratch. And other kids, just had nothing left to write about. And that was something I totally understood. So I gave them time to talk and think and learn from each other and pretty soon, almost all kids had come over that hump and were able to find ways to keep writing. And those who needed more time, took the time that they needed and got advice from other writers and soon even they were working on their final pieces.

And so this is where we ended up. We started in a place where our stories taught the world who we were and we ended in a place where who we were and what we have lived through could teach the world lessons that might benefit others. Our personal narratives now have purpose. There is a reason for the stories that we write. Knowing this purpose, seeing this meaning, makes the unit so much more than just another small moment story. And for me, and for the writers I work with every day, that feels like something huge.

Weaving Inquiry Into Independent Reading: Using Student-Written Reading Goals to Develop Metacognition AND A Love of Reading

The Struggle For Both

For years, as a fifth grade teacher, I felt like I had to choose between helping kids develop a pure love of reading or helping kids develop skills of metacognition during our independent reading time. I knew that the research showed that when kids notice their own thinking, when they are metacognitive, then they were growing as readers. I also knew that there was nothing that provoked more whining and complaining from my fifth graders than being asked to stop and write as they read or to do longer pieces of writing about the reading that they were doing. So there were years I stopped the metacognition piece completely and just let kids read without asking them to notice or track their thinking in any ways. And then I would feel guilty. So the next year, I would swing the other way and double down and ask for kids to write down a certain number of thoughts as they read or fill our year with book clubs where there were strict guidelines of what they had to bring to each book club meeting in terms of the thinking they were writing down. And neither solution felt right. Neither solution felt like the whole of what I really wanted.

One of the things that I believe most strongly is that our job as teachers of reading is to help students develop a love of reading. And to do this, I truly believe that we need to let kids read the things that THEY want to read instead of limiting them to reading the things that WE think are “good” enough. That means that if kids want to read graphic novels, I want them to read graphic novels. If kids want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, then I want them to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid. If kids want to read every Harry Potter book for a fourth time, then I want them to read every Harry Potter book for a fourth time. This reading choice is imperative in helping them form the kind of reading identity that will be sustained outside of the classroom. Letting them figure out who they are as readers without me dictating what they should read is the only way that they will be able to exist as readers without me dictating that they should read. So whatever work I would ask my students to do as readers needed to allow for that kind of choice. And the problem was that too often, the work I was asking them to do was only possible in the “right” kinds of books. But I knew there had to be a way that I could do both. That I could allow them to read the books that they loved while also guiding them to do the kind of work that I knew (and research showed) would help them grow as readers. I just couldn’t figure out what that work might look like.

And then I had the absolute pleasure and privilege of becoming a Heinemann Fellow and we were asked to take on action research. And my action research centered around this very idea of how to help students become the metacognitive readers I wanted them to be while not killing their love of reading in the process. And in the years since then, I have continued to wrestle with this idea and work on a process that has finally allowed me to feel good about the work my students and I are doing in our quest to grow our love of reading and our skills as readers all at the same time. So I thought I would take some time to try and describe the work that we do as it currently stands.

It Comes Down to Inquiry (as it so often does)

When my students are really resistant to something I am asking them to do in the classroom, if I stop and reflect on why, it is almost always because they are too far from the center of the work. What I am asking them to do is not meaningful to them, it does not feel driven by their own thoughts and curiosity. In short, I usually need to find a way to weave more inquiry into the work. In my mind, inquiry is the closest that I have ever come, in my classroom, to mimicking the natural desire to learn that so freely exists in my students when they are outside of the classroom. It places them at the center of their learning and the motivation to learn does not need to be faked because they really want to know and understand something about the world.

So, when it came time to make a better process for our reading work, I knew that I needed to find a way to bring in more inquiry. How could I move my students closer to the center of the work that I was asking them to do?

It seemed the easy answer was to begin the entire process by asking them what they were already thinking about. And then build the work that I asked them to do from there.  Too often, the work that I was asking my students to do during independent reading was based on a standard or our current learning targets or what I thought they needed to be doing. But what if I approached the work from the other direction? From the direction that began with the student’s own thinking and then worked in our standards and learning targets and other comprehension strategies? And so that is where I now begin. And it all starts with our reading conferences.

A New Purpose For Reading Conferences

For many years, I used reading conferences as a way to check-in with my readers and as a way to “hold them accountable” for the reading that I was asking them do. Sometimes, we would problem solve together, but, if I am being honest, a lot of times my conferences were simply a way to make sure they were reading, to make sure they were thinking about their reading, to make sure they were understanding their reading. And while these are all noble intentions, I grew to loathe reading conferences and do whatever I could think of to avoid them. They felt as meaningless and purposeless to me as they felt to my students.

But then I switched my thinking about these reading conference.  Instead of trying to hold my students accountable (whatever that really meant), I began to use my reading conferences as an opportunity to help students realize the brilliant thinking they were already doing and then use that thinking in order to create a reading goal of what they were going to pay attention to as they continued to read.

The idea for these reading goals came to me as I was reading a book for a book club that I was a part of. I noticed that the main character in the book that I was reading would describe her emotions for other characters in one way and then she would act in a way that revealed that she really felt very differently about that character. So I decided that I would start marking all the places in the text where I saw this happen. As I did that, I began to better understand this character and developed a theory about why this was happening.  When I came to my book club meeting, I was so excited to talk about my thinking with the rest of the group and because I had marked the text, I had plenty of places to point to as I talked about my theory. This made the reading exciting and it gave me real purpose in tracking my thinking and looking for text evidence. THIS was what I wanted for my students.

So I developed a way of doing a reading conference that would allow me to help students notice the thinking that THEY were excited about and then set a goal to help them continue to pay attention to that thinking as they read through the text and also help them to create a way to keep track of that thinking using a concrete system that would stay with them when I walked away.

If anyone is interested THIS IS THE FORM that I now use when I am doing a reading conference with my students. It changes every year, several times a year, based on what I realize my students need from me and what I need to make sure to provide to them. But this is the form in it’s current state.

When I sit down with a student, the first thing I always ask them is, “What have you noticed as you are reading?” I have found this question to be better than asking them what they are thinking and better than asking them to begin with a summary. For me, this question helps me get to the heart of what they are already doing and thinking about as quickly as possible. And of course, sometimes they respond with, “Nothing.” In that case, I make my questions a bit more specific, “What have you noticed about your characters?” or “What have you noticed about what the writer is doing?” And if it still does not get a response, I follow up with, “Okay, I am going to leave you to read for a little bit longer and I am going to just ask you to pay attention to what you are noticing and then I will be back to check in again. How long do you think you might need to do that?” And then I check back in. Most often, this is enough to get a conversation going.

One other thing that is great about this question is that it can be asked no matter WHAT THE KID IS READING. When kids are reading graphic novels, they are noticing things. When kids are reading Captain Underpants, they are noticing things. When kids are reading books written in verse, they are noticing things. The noticing is not limited to the right kind of books and so there is no pressure to try to force kids to read something that I determine to be the right kind of book. Instead, I am asking them to read what they love and to pay attention to what they notice within those books that they love.

As students share what they have noticed, my job is to really listen and notice the different kinds of thinking that they are doing. Often, kids (and teachers) don’t realize that they are already doing much of the work that we want them to do. Our job is to help them notice that thinking and name it so that they will be more likely to do it again. So as the students talk, I am writing down the different types of thinking that they are already doing so that we can use those thoughts to set a reading goal.

Here are what a few completed conference forms look like:


Using The Students’ Own Thinking To Create A Goal For Future Reading

Once the student has talked through what they are noticing, I then share with them some of the things that I heard them say. So if they noticed that the mom in the book seems to be making really bad choices and that the daughter is getting really upset, I might say to them, “So I notice that you are thinking about the relationship between your characters and noticing how one character’s choices are affecting another character.” Or if they noticed that the main character keeps getting into trouble but that trouble isn’t stopping the character from being bad, I might say, “So I notice that you are thinking about how a character’s actions are impacting that character.” I am taking the thinking they are already doing and I am pushing it forward just a little bit.

After sharing a few of the thoughts that I noticed, I then ask the student if any of those thoughts might work to create a reading goal of what they might pay attention to next. At the start of the year, most kids have no idea how to take what they noticed and use it to craft a reading goal. So at the start of the year, I often share a few possible ideas for reading goals (all based in thinking they are already doing) and ask the students which goal might work best for them. This is a process that many students internalize as the year goes on and take more responsibility for by the end of the school year.

So, for example, I might say to the student who was noticing the mom’s bad choices, “Maybe you want to pay attention to the choices that the mom makes, how those choices impact her daughter and why you think she made the choice that she did.” For the student who was noticing the boy who got into trouble, I might say, “Maybe you want to pay attention to the actions of the boy, the effect these actions had, and how you think these effects changed the boy and his behaviors.” I often give the kids two or three options for possible goals and ask them which goal they think would work best.

A System To Gather Text Evidence

Once students have chosen a reading goal that they think will work for them, we think about how they might create a system that will allow them to gather text evidence in connection with this goal. I don’t call it text evidence, I simply ask them to think about how they will keep track of what they are noticing. Usually, this involves some form of a chart that will provide space for them to keep track of what they notice in the text AND what they notice in their own thinking. Some kids choose to create this chart in their reading notebooks and other kids choose to use a Google Document. Whichever feels easier for them and less intrusive to their reading is where they end up collecting their text evidence.

The beauty of giving the kids a tool like this before I walk away is that it provides a clear and concrete structure for the kids on how they can continue to pay attention to one line of thinking throughout an entire text. Too often, we ask kids to do some really abstract thinking that they do not fully understand and then we are surprised when they don’t continue that thinking after we walk away. By giving the kids a chart to use that is designed around what THEY want to pay attention to, we are leaving a scaffold behind after we have moved on to the next student. And, if we craft it correctly, that scaffold can push the students towards deeper thinking while remaining connected to the thinking that a student is already doing and is already interested in.

As I work with the student to craft a way to keep track of what they notice as they continue to read, I also make sure to work in my teaching point. This is when I think about all of the learning targets and standards that I want my students to understand by the end of their fifth grade year and I think about how I can weave just one of those standards or skills into the reading goal that we have just set. This sounds harder to do than it really is. Because the truth is, once you know the standards and know your learning targets well, it is fairly easy to blend them into the work that our students are already doing. By thinking of the skills and standards simply as things that good readers do, it is easier to work them into a teaching point connected with these reading goals. For example, one of the things my fifth graders work on is synthesis. Putting together pieces of information in order to grow their understanding. So, if I am setting a reading goal with a student to notice the choices that the mom in the book makes and how it affects her child, I might say something like, “As you learn more about this character and about her choices, you will be able to put that information together in order to better understand this one character and the relationship between her and her child.” Then I might model an example. And there is the teaching. Often times, I can work this teaching point right into the chart that my students and I create.

Here are what some of those charts look like:

Depending on my reader, we might fill in an example together so that I can leave behind one example for them to look back on. Other students do not need this as much. But either way, when I walk away, I know that I am leaving behind a structure for my students to use in order to continue to think about one line of inquiry throughout the rest of their text and also a structure that will continue to push them to think deeply about text evidence while I move on to work with other students.

Reflecting Back on Our Thinking: Writing About Reading 

I don’t believe that any of this would really work, if I did not ask my students to use the notes that they took as they were reading. Part of what motivates my students to continue to add to their thinking after I walk away is that they know they will need to use those notes for some greater purpose. And I am VERY honest with my students about the purpose for writing about their reading.

In our classroom, the vast majority of the writing that we do is for an authentic purpose and an authentic audience. We write memoirs in order to show others who we are and to teach them lessons we have learned from our own experiences, we write pieces of persuasive writing to those who have the power to make the changes we want to see in the world and we write informational texts in order to reveal previously hidden or left out information that can help others to see the world more accurately. And for years, I tried to lie to my students that they were writing about their reading for an authentic audience that existed beyond the classroom. Now, yes, people write about what they are reading for authentic purposes outside of the classroom. I know that people write book reviews and write about books they are reading in book clubs, but that isn’t REALLY the kind of writing about reading that I wanted my students to do.

But, again, I also knew that writing about their reading would help them. I knew it would help them to do literary analysis further along in school. I knew it would help them to push their thinking about their reading as they were forced to wrestle with ideas in writing. I knew it would help them to learn how to support their claims with text support. I knew that it would help them to learn how to write about reading in a way that they will be asked to do on standardized assessments that are an unfortunate reality in our world. And, most importantly, I knew that it would help me to more accurately assess what my students were learning how to do as readers and it would give me the concrete evidence that I needed in order to share with others what each student was able to do.

So that is when I realized that I did not need to make up some greater purpose for the writing about reading that I was asking my students to do. Instead, I needed to be honest with them. I needed to be transparent. And so now, I am clear from the very beginning that every three-four weeks, I will ask my students to complete a piece of writing about their reading and their reading goals. They will be asked to write about one reading goal and the thinking they have done in connection with that goal. When they write, they might be in the middle of the book they will write about or it might be a book that they have already finished. But I am very clear on why they are writing. This is NOT writing that is for an authentic audience that exists beyond our classroom. This is writing that is being done in order to push their own thinking as readers by asking them to look back on the notes that they have taken while reading and reflect on what those notes have helped them to better understand. AND this is writing that is for me. This is their assessment. Their writing provides me with evidence of what they have learned how to do as readers and that is evidence that I need in order to know what they have learned, where they are ready to go and how to share that information through report cards and with their families and other teachers. It seems that when my students are able to clearly understand why they are doing this kind of writing, then they are much more willing to do it without complaining.

So after my students have their reading goals up and running, I then share with them an example of my own writing, using the notes that I have taken as I read. Every year, I make sure to write a new piece of writing about my own reading so that they can see that this is work I am doing as well. This year, I was reading the beautiful book, My Jasper June while I took notes connected to my own reading goal and then used those notes to write about my goal and what it helped me to understand.  Here are what my notes looked like:


I then shared with my students how I took those notes and wrote about them in a way that pushed my thinking.  If you are interested, HERE IS THE WRITING ABOUT READING THAT I DID AND SHARED WITH MY STUDENTS. 

After reading this piece of writing together, as a class, we think about what was included in this piece of writing. I chart our ideas and then create a checklist that shares the major parts of a reading blog post. Each year, the checklist looks fairly similar.

After that, I introduce the rubric that I use in order to assess their pieces of writing. Each year, I have one rubric that I use for the first part of the year with my fifth graders and then midway through the year, I increase the expectations and create a second version of the rubric to use for the second part of the year. This is because I always see such tremendous growth in my students’ writing that before too long, many students are exceeding the first set of expectations.

Here are the two rubrics (and checklists) that I use with my fifth graders:



Each year, I make adjustments to the wording of this rubric. What I love about creating my own rubric, as opposed to using an assessment tool created to go along with a program or purchased set of resources, is that I can make whatever adjustments feel necessary in order for the rubric to really be a tool that guides my students’ thinking and learning. I am not held back by the specific lessons that are included in a purchased program or the language that is attached to whoever is making money off of me using their rubric. Instead, I can really think about what I want my students to be able to do and adjust the language on the rubric to help guide them there.

Included at each level of the rubric is a link to a student-written example of writing about reading at that level. I know that kids are often overwhelmed when I share my own writing about reading, so I have found that it is helpful for the kids to be able to see what a student-written example looks like at each level of the rubric. I am surprised, year after year, how often the kids open these examples and use them as mentor texts while they craft their own writing about reading.

As I said, I ask the students to complete a piece of writing about reading every three-four weeks. This provides them enough time to develop their thinking across a text between their pieces of writing. Some students will finish two or three books in this time and will write about the goal that led them to the most thinking. Other kids, will be in the same book across two assigned pieces of writing about reading. Those students will write about the same book two different times and will even sometimes still have the same reading goal. What will change, however, are the examples that they share and the reflection that they are able to do when they look back at those examples and write about what they were able to better understand.

When the student submit their writing, I highlight the level on the rubric that I believe matches the evidence the students have provided of their thinking about their books and goals in their piece of writing. I also leave written comments on every piece of writing explaining what I notice they were doing and how they might go even farther for their next piece of writing. Once I have returned their pieces of writing, I start the three week or four week count again for when the next piece of writing is due.

I also make sure to pull two or three student examples to share with the rest of the class each time a piece of writing about reading is due. I ask these students for permission to use their writing to teach the rest of the class about what I hope to see from their work. In the days after their writing about reading is returned, I use these student-written mentor texts to teach targeted mini-lessons in the kinds of thinking, reading and writing that I am hoping that all students will start to do. This is one of the most motivating pieces of instruction throughout the entire year. When kids can see what their classmates are doing, they can better envision themselves doing it as well and I often notice a change in the next round of submitted writing.

This process, of noticing our thinking, setting reading goals, gathering evidence to show progress towards these goals and then looking back and reflecting through writing on what these goals helped us to better understand, sustains us throughout the entire year. It gives me an incredible amount of meaningful data of what my students are able to do as readers (and as writers). It provides me with a beautiful view of the growth that my students make as readers throughout the year. And, most importantly, it has made our writing about reading feel so much more meaningful and so much more centered around the students themselves.

I cannot imagine that anyone is still reading this behemoth of a blog post, but I am happy to have all of this written down in one place. If there is anything that ties together the work that we do during independent reading in my classroom, it is this process. This process has allowed me to truly find a way to honor all of the choices that I want my students to make as readers while they are in my classroom while also honoring the work that I need them to do as readers while they are with me in order to ensure that they grow and develop new skills as readers and thinkers. It certainly is not a perfect process and each year this process grows and changes but it has created a space for me and for my students to develop our love of reading and our skills as reader all at the same time. And that is no small thing.





Sharing Our Identities: Identity Bag Assignment

Well, this is it. The start of a new year. My students come on Wednesday and I cannot wait to meet them all and start the hard work of getting to know them and building our classroom community.

This year, I want to make sure to carve out time at the start of the year to do the important work of thinking about our own identities, getting to know the identities of each other and beginning to form our identity as a class.  This is always work that I have done with my students in subtle ways, but as I learn more, I realize how important it is to start our focus on identity from day one in the classroom. And I realize that there are small shifts that I can make in the first few days in order to bring that work to the forefront of our learning.

So here is how I hope to begin our work:

This year, the first book that we will read together will be the beautiful picture book The Day You Begin by the ever-brilliant Jacqueline Woodson. Again, this is a book that I used last year as well, but this year, we will use it to help us to think about our own identities. To start, I will be using the lessons on identity webs that are so brilliantly written by Sara Ahmed in her book, Being The Change by Sara Ahmed (seriously, if you have not read this book, you must). fullsizeoutput_7e3c

I will begin by using this form to guide a discussion about identity. I want to give a space for students to think and write on their own before I ask them to share with each other out loud because I want to honor that we are just getting to know each other and that not everyone will feel ready to share their thinking on day one in front of the entire class.

So I will begin by asking kids to think and write about what they understand about the word identity.  After giving them time to think, we will share and come up with a definition we all feel good about. Then, after modeling, I will ask them to brainstorm a list of the things that might make up a person’s identity.  Again, I will give them time to think and write and then to share and we will build a chart of the kinds of things that might be a part of a person’s identity.


After that, I will introduce the book and explain to the kids that this book talks about several kids and that we will be looking at the way the author describes two of these kids in order to start to think about what we know about their identities.  As I read, I will stop to model what I notice and then give them time and space to add their own ideas. When we are done reading, we will share what we noticed about the character’s identities.

I will then explain that while we might be able to know some things about a person’s identity, we are each in charge of defining who we are and there are many parts of a person’s identity that we might not know just from looking at them. I will also talk about how we share our identities with people in ways that feel comfortable to us and that as we get to know each other better, we might become more comfortable sharing more of our identities with others. But for today, we are going to do some work thinking about our own identities and sharing the parts of our identities that we want others to know about.

This will transition us into our work with identity webs.  Again, this work is brilliantly explained in Being the Change and I will be following Sara’s wisdom. I will begin by modeling the creation of my own identity web. This will give me a chance to share some of who I am with the kids and also to model the vulnerability that it requires to share our identities with others. After doing some modeling, I will then invite the kids to begin to create their own identity webs. As they work, I will take time to confer with students so that I can get to know them through their identity webs and also to look for those who might just not be ready for this work yet.

After the kids have had time to work on their webs, I will give them a chance to share with each other the parts of their identity webs that they feel comfortable sharing. I will ask them to be on the look out for connections that they can make it others through their identity webs. This work, again, is so wonderfully explained by Sara in her book and I highly recommend reading it there.

From here, I will introduce the kids’ first homework assignment of the year: to create an IDENTITY BAG. In the past, I have had kids create an “All About Me” bag and asked them to bring in items that help us to get to know them. This year, I wanted to make a small change in order to have this assignment build on our work with identity. So instead of creating “All About Me” bags this year, my students will be creating “Identity Bags.” The idea will be that they will fill their bags with items that help them to share their identities with the class in a way that they feel comfortable.

I thought about the parts of my own identity that I want to share with my students that might not be captured in a traditional “All About Me” bag. For example, I want my students to know that I am gay. it is important to me that they are aware of this from the start because it is a big part of who I am. In the past, I was able to do this by sharing a picture of my family. My wife and I and my daughter. As I shared at the end of the last school year, my wife and I are now separated. This makes it harder to share this piece of myself with my students in a concrete way.  But, still, it is an important part of my identity as a human, as a mom and as a teacher. So, by shifting the focus to an identity bag, I will be able to include a rainbow flag that will still give me a chance to share this part of who I am with my students. And that is what I want for my kids as well. I want to give them space to share all parts of who they are, to let them know that all parts of their identity will be celebrated here in this space. And I am hoping this assignment will lay that foundation.

If you are at all interested, this is the write up that I will hand out to explain the assignment.  

After explaining the assignment, I will then share my own identity bag with my students. Again, I believe it is imperative to allow myself to be vulnerable in sharing my identity with my students if I am going to ask them to do the same. So I will allow my students to share in my identity in the same way I hope they will allow me to share in theirs.

Over the first few days of school, we will learn about our own identities and we will learn about the identities of our classmates. This will set their groundwork for our learning which will help us to see how our identities impact how we see the world around us and how we experience the world around us. It will put into place a language that we will refer back to as we start to think about how reading and writing can help us to share our identities with others and can also help us to learn about the identities of the wide variety of humans that we share this world with. Our work as readers and writers will be wrapped in our identities and how they affect us and gaining a more solid understanding of who we all are will allow us to do that work more effectively.

So these plans, they are not perfect. There will certainly be changes that will need to occur, but I am so excited to get into this work, to dig in deeply right from the start and to begin to create the classroom community that will sustain us throughout the course of this school year.


Helping Students to See the Beauty in a Place Like Baltimore


Originally, I had post this blog post describing the work that I have done with my students. Because I am lucky enough to know Val Brown and she is kind enough and generous and patient enough to always help others to be better for kids, she reached out to me with a few questions and concerns about the way this work was described and done.  Because of her, I was able to see what I had not seen before. My own limited perspectives and biases made it so that I was allowing harm to be done to students in my classroom. And that is on me. That is my responsibility to fix.  I do not want to remove the original post, because I think this is how we learn. We share and we listen and then we do better and I want the tracks of that learning to remain visible. So I am adding a few paragraphs here at the start and then will leave the original post below so that others can see the changes.  I have marked where the original post begins.

So in the work described, I am using photographs of Baltimore in order to help students confront the biases they might hold of a place like Baltimore and then push beyond those biases using additional images. There are few problems with the way that I handled this work. I began the work with images of Baltimore that might reinforce the biases my students already hold. I gave them time to list what they saw and then write about the potential messages that those images might send about a place like Baltimore. The problem was that I then gave them time and space to share those harmful and hurtful messages out loud within our classroom. I was not thinking about how that would feel to those students who loved a place like Baltimore. And though, later in the lesson, we talked about how those were incomplete misconceptions that were damaging and dangerous, I know that there are children who only would have heard the hateful messages themselves.

And so, I need to do better. One of the changes that I can make to this work is to allow students time to think and write, but not share those statements out loud. And another change that I can make is to change the order in which I share the images. Instead of starting with a set of images that simply shows the negative stereotypes, I now plan to share images that reinforce AND push beyond at the same time. I will show an image of Baltimore that might show a run-down building AT THE SAME TIME as I show an image of Baltimore that contains love and joy and community. I will not ask the students to think about the negative stereotypes, instead I will ask them what is missing from the first image that is present in the second and I will ask them to focus on what is present in BOTH images.

As Val so brilliantly reminded me in our discussion, “The reason that Black Baltimore is not viewed beautiful is not because it isn’t. It’s because of whatever is going on in the people looking at it.” So after asking these new questions, I will shift the conversation that direction. I want to help my students, who are mostly white and completely suburban and mostly live within a high socio-economic status, I want to help them to see that the reason they carry these misconceptions is because they are a part of a system that given them a misunderstanding that they must work to overcome. And I want to help them to see what THEY ARE MISSING that is causing them to misunderstand the world. So we will talk about what they were not seeing in the images and why they were missing those things and how they can work, out in the world beyond our classroom, in order to see those things more accurately and clearly.  

In addition, towards the end of my original post I wrote:

By ending the post in this way, I took away from the incredible work that marginalized families are doing within their homes and out-of-school spaces in order to prepare their children for a world that is unjust and for systems that are unfair. As educators, our responsibility is to LEARN from those around us who have been doing this work before us and to bring that work to those who have not yet done it. That is the work that I hope to be able to do in my classroom.

So because of those around me, I will be able to do this work better. I will be able to make the changes that my students deserve. I am forever indebted to those around me who are constantly helping me to be better when they have no obligation to, but because they care so deeply about children, they give of themselves time and time again. I will continue to post about changes as they occur and I am eager to see where these changes lead us this year.

******ORIGINAL POST BEGINS HERE******************

So our president was at it again. This time, he was tweeting terrible things about a beautiful place, Baltimore. And as I sat reading his words and the words that came in response, I could not help but think about our students and how our classrooms might not be places where we can stop them from hearing inaccurate statements from those who are in positions of power, but they CERTAINLY can be places where we teach our students processes that they can use to push back against those inaccurate, incomplete and racist statements so that they can see the beauty that lives in a place like Baltimore.

And this made me think about some of the work that we have done in our classroom that I shared recently when I was presenting at the Scholastic Reading Summit in Greenwich, CT. (For those who are interested, you can CLICK HERE to see the entire presentation that I shared.) But for this post, I want to focus specifically on some work we did critically reading the beautiful photographs in Devin Allen’s book A Beautiful Ghetto, which is Allen’s love letter to the city he grew up in and continues to live in.


Our students see so many images as they move through this world. Everywhere they look, they are bombarded by images. These images play a large role in shaping how our students see and understand the world. Unfortunately, many of the images that they see carry strongly biased messages. And far too often, our students consume these images without much thought at all and certainly with little critical analysis. As I often say, we cannot protect our students from seeing these images, but we can arm them with tools to help them to be more aware of the biased messages these images spread so that they can recognize the inaccurate, incomplete and harmful messages being spread and push beyond them in a way that allows them to better understand the world they are living in.

Images provide a perfect entry point into the critical reading process because they are so accessible for so many students. But we have to help our students to view these images in a way that allows them to gain a more complete understanding of a person, group of people or a place.

I was able to introduce my students to such a process using the images found within Devin Allen’s book.  Allen’s book is a collection of his photographs of Baltimore. Allen became well-known across the country during the uprising in Baltimore that took place after Freddy Grey’s murder. Allen became frustrated with the way that outside reporters were representing his city and so he took his camera into the streets of Baltimore and began photographing the event of the uprising. One of his photographs ended up on the cover of TIME magazine. He then collected his own photographs and put them together into this book in order to show the world the Baltimore that he knew. These photographs provide an opportunity to rich analysis and critical reading.

I began by gathering my students close to me so that we could examine some of Allen’s photographs together. I gave them a bit of the background of Baltimore, of Allen himself and of the uprisings that took place. Since my school is located outside of Chicago, I shared the comparison between Baltimore and the South Side of Chicago. My students are only miles away from the South Side of Chicago, but our upper-middle class, mostly white community is also an entire world away. So I knew that many of the misconceptions that our country has of Baltimore would be similar to many of the misconceptions that my own students have to the South Side of Chicago. And this was what I wanted to help them push beyond.


I began by sharing some of the photographs of Baltimore in Allen’s book that I knew would match the images that my students held of areas that would be considered, “bad parts of town.” I wanted to help them to highlight their own misconceptions, by looking at images that reinforced the “single story” that they carried with them already. By this point, we had already listened to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk titled, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and we had started to explore the meaning of that term through the texts that we were reading.  (To read more about that work, you can read THIS BLOG POST).

So I showed my students the following three pictures and asked them to look at them closely:


We then used THIS FORM in order to document our thinking as we walked through this process. Once we had walked through this process together, my students would then use this same form in order to explore images that told stories of other places, people or groups of people.

While looking at these first three images, I asked my student to fill out the top box of the form. I asked them to simply list what they were seeing in these pictures. We were starting with observations, the first step in the critical reading process that I teach my students throughout the year, across of variety of types of texts.  After giving them time to write, I asked students to list what they wrote down. Many students wrote about the boarded up buildings, the empty streets, the dying plants, the garbage, etc.

Then, I asked my students to interpret what messages these images might send about the place being shown. This is a really safe way to help my students to think about bias. I am not asking them to share the biases that they personally hold (though so many of my students end up sharing their own biases by the end anyway). Instead, I am asking them to really observe an image and then interpret what biased messages these images might be sending to people viewing them.  Some of the things my students said were:

“We think of “bad” areas in terms of run down things and not the people who live there.”

“There is no happiness in a place that is poor.” 

“The people living in a place like this don’t care enough to fix it.” 

I was careful to reinforce that these are NOT true statements, but rather MISCONCEPTIONS that people might hold after viewing just these images.  The next step is then to ask my students to write down the questions that this leaves them with. My students, especially when they are new to this work, come up with a wide variety of questions. Some of those questions are not that helpful, like, “How do people get those wooden boards to stay up?” But when we keep pushing and modeling, we also get to questions such as:

Why are some places like this and other places wouldn’t ever be? 

Are there also good parts about places considered to be ghettos?

These are the questions that we really stop and talk about and think about how we might begin to find answers to.  One of the things that we talk about is that in order to find answers to the questions we are left with, we must seek out additional resources and additional information. This is when I first introduce the idea of the importance of pulling additional resources that share information that is given by people who actually live in a specific place, or know a specific person or are a part of a specific group of people. After mentioning this, I read the author’s note that is a part of this book and we talked about Allen’s frustration with the way people from OUTSIDE of Baltimore were portraying the city.  We talk about the difference in how Allen might portray the city because he lived there for much of his life.

And then I share with my students other photographs from Allen’s book. This time, I make sure to show them images that I know will push them beyond the misconceptions they might be carrying. Again, I asked them to use THIS FORM to list the new things that they were seeing in these additional images and what these new images were helping them to understand about Baltimore.

These were the additional images we looked at: Ghetto5Ghetto6Ghetto 7

After giving them time to write, I asked them to share some of their observation. This time, students talked about seeing things such as: playgrounds, people laughing, people smiling, joy, families, kids playing, etc.

After sharing their new observations, I asked them to return to the last section of the form and to synthesize all that they had seen and all that they had talked about and to revise what they now understood about Baltimore. Here are some of the things that they shared:

“So much depends on where a photographer points his camera. When we see a picture, we are only seeing what is in that one shot. There is so much we are missing. Depending on where a person puts the camera, our idea of a place can be totally wrong.” 

“It’s not that the first pictures didn’t show what was there in Baltimore, it was important to show those parts. But, it isn’t ALL that’s there. But I feel like we usually only see those kinds of pictures. I wonder if we would be less afraid of certain areas if we saw more pictures like the second set.” 

“I feel like pictures are not always telling us the whole truth and if we aren’t careful and doing this kind of stuff, we will get the wrong idea about a lot of stuff.” 

And then after sharing these powerful new understandings, we took some time to capture some of the questions that we might be able to ask ourselves in order to help us push beyond the “single story” that Adichie described in her TED talk.  Here is the chart that captured those questions: Questions to push beyond single stories

In many ways, this powerful work was just the beginning, the foundation, of the work that we would continue for the rest of our school year and the work that I hope my students will continue to do in the world beyond our classroom. Because long after these Tweets about Baltimore leave the news and even long after this president has left office (hopefully sooner rather than later!) there will always be people saying things that will paint beautiful places and beautiful people in ugly ways. As educators, we might be powerless to stop our students from hearing those ugly things, but we are not powerless when it comes to how our students will digest those ugly things, how they will accept them or how they will push back against them. That is something we can give them. That is something that we can teach them, so that they will be able to see the beauty in a place like Baltimore and the beauty in any other space that people with power and privilege may try to destroy.

Confronting Bias with Fifth Graders: Using the Draw-A-Scientist Experiment and the Covers of Picture Books To Help Students Recognize the Biases They Hold

Every year, after Spring break, I begin our final literacy unit of the year. The unit is titled, “Uncovering Hidden Information, Sharing it With Others.” The focus of this unit is to look at how our understanding of the world is shaped by the information that we are presented with in the world around us and then to think about how the information that we choose to share with others has an affect on how they see and understand the world.  As readers, we look at how the information that we take in affects our understanding of the world and how we can choose to take in information in a different way in order to gain a more accurate and complete understanding. As writers, we then think about how we can choose to privilege the kinds of information that have historically been left out, or ignored, or silenced by other writers. By doing this, we can actually use writing in order to help others to gain a more accurate understanding of the world.

I love this unit because it gives us one final opportunity to widen our definition of what it means to read and what it means to write and also look at the incredible power that these processes hold. During the last weeks of the school year, this unit gives us one more chance to really dig into the ways that my students can go out into the world beyond our classroom and continue the work that we started together in order to work towards a better and more just world.

Much of this work depends on my students understanding that what they have been told in the past and the messages that they have been subjected to since they were first born, have had an impact on the way they understand, or more accurately, MISunderstand the world around them. In order for this unit to work, I have to first help my students to recognize that they DO misunderstand the world around them. I need them to see that they carry inaccurate messages about the world and the people living within it, even if they believe that they don’t. In other words, I need my fifth grade students to recognize their own biases so that they can work to confront and dismantle them.  This is a task that is difficult for most adults to do and I need my fifth graders to do it.

I have written several posts in the past about the way that we do this work, but I wanted to take some time now to write about how we did this work this year.  Much of what we did this year was similar to work I’ve done in the past but I like to take time each year to write about this work anyway because it allows me to look back and reflect and do better for the next year.

One of the things that I know to be true with kids (and with grown-up, too) is that I can tell them all sorts of things, but if I am not able to find a way to have them really see those things for themselves, then they are not meaningful and they will not truly impact the way they think and act in the future. Any time that I can help kids to discover a truth instead of telling them that truth myself, the learning that takes place is much more powerful. For that reason, I often look for ways to make abstract concepts more concrete and visible for my students. There is all sorts of research that supports this concept, but what matters most to me is that I can see the difference in the ways my own students respond to the learning.

So, in order to help kids to “see” their own biases, to see their own misconceptions about entire groups of people, I lead them through two different exercises before ever revealing to them that we are doing work with bias at all. I begin by telling my students that we are starting our final unit of the year which will focus on using clues in the world around us to make inferences and then also provided clues to others in order to help them to infer truths about the world. This is true. But not the whole truth. I do not yet tell them that the clues we are surrounded by in our current world often lead us to inaccurate inferences that are weighed down by bias, racism, sexism, etc. That will all come later.

Draw-A-Scientist (Plus More)

The first thing that I hand out is based on a well-known experiment often referred to as, “Draw A Scientist.” I first read about this experiment and the results over time in THIS ARTICLE from The Atlantic. It provides a nice description of the experiment and what the results often reveal about gender stereotypes in children. The idea behind this experiment is that children’s drawings can reveal truths about the images that they hold and the way that they see the world. So when kids are asked to draw a scientist, and the majority of children draw a man, we can start to understand the way children view a scientist and who is most likely to be a scientist.  When I first read this article, I was fascinated and could not wait to try this with my own students. Since then, I have added to this idea in order to give us more data to look at together.

So on day one of our unit, I hand out THIS FORM to my students.

IMG_2447 2

I tell them to draw these four images in whatever order they want and to make sure that they include detailed enough drawings in order for other people to guess which picture is showing which person or group of people. I tell them that we will be looking at these images later in order to guess which box contained which person or group of people. And then I don’t allow questions, I don’t provide any further explanation or direction, I just let them draw.  When the drawings are complete, I then collect them and hold on to them until we are done with the next part of our work.

Here are a few samples from my students:

In my classroom, once I have collected these drawings, we move on to looking at picture book covers and matching them to summaries in order to reveal biases in a different way.  I will explain that work later in this post, but I want to share the rest of this activity first. The reason that I stop after collecting the drawings is because at this point, most of my students still do not realize that we are doing work with bias. I find that as soon as they figure out what we are doing, they change the answers that they might give to the work with matching book covers with summaries and the activity is not as powerful. So, if you are planning to do both activities, I recommend stopping here, doing the picture book activity and then coming back to analyze the drawings. But, once you are ready to move on, here is the work that we did.

The next day, I handed my students drawings back to them. I asked them to use their drawings in order to respond to the questions on THIS GOOGLE FORM. The google form asks the kids to look at their drawings and record the genders that they used and the people that were included in their drawings. Once they have answered these questions, I have them close their computers and we look at the responses all together. What is great about collecting the data this way is that we end up talking about CLASS TRENDS and not the answers of individual students. What this allows us to do is to think about the messages that we collectively hold about groups of people in a way that does not single out any one student. I have found that this creates a safe space for students to be willing to wrestle with the ideas of bias in a much more honest way. The truth is that kids ALWAYS end up sharing brave truths that make them extremely vulnerable, but I know that those truths are difficult and cannot be forced out into the open.

So, I project the responses in graph form onto the whiteboard and I simply ask the kids to start to share what they notice. Here is a collection of what those results looked like this year in one of my classes.  This year, I had a totally even split between male and female drawings for the scientist picture. So the kids were more interested in talking about the nurse drawings, which showed a majority of female drawings.  I asked the kids to talk about why they think this might be. We started with comments about how there are simply more female nurses in the world. Kids shared that most often when they have nurses, they are female. And then, as always happens, there is one comment that pivots the whole conversation. This year, one student shared that she actually always has a male nurse when she goes to her regular doctor, but when she went to draw her picture, she actually drew a female. She said that she thinks that this is because on tv and in movies, nurses are always female. And this is all it took.  Before I knew it, the comments kids were making started to dig a lot deeper into the idea of biases and stereotypes. That led some kids to start to focus on the data of the family drawings.  Again, the kids talked about how they noticed that almost every picture drawn included one mom and one dad. Then, they began to talk about how even though they KNOW that not all families look the same and they would be able to tell you that, when they were asked to draw a family, they still all drew very similar looking families.  At this point, the kids were really off on their conversations. They had so much thinking that I was worried we were going to lose some of it. So I stopped our whole class discussion for the day.

Matching Picture Book Covers to Summaries

The work that we did this year with matching picture books to summaries is similar to work that we have done and I have written about often in the past. So, feel free to look back at THIS BLOG POST or THIS BLOG POST to find out more about what we did.  Here is a quick over view of how the work went this year.

After I collect the students’ drawings for the Draw A Scientist experiment, I have them grab their computers and meet me over in front of the whiteboard. I tell them that while in our first bit of work, they were creating the images that would help us to think about how we use clues to infer, in this activity, they would be using the clues in the images provided on the covers of picture books in order to help them think about how we infer what a book might be about.

I tell them that I am going to hold up two picture books. I have covered up everything but the images of the people on the front of the books. Then, I will provide them with two summaries and they will be asked to guess which summary goes with which picture book. I tell them that when we are done, we will look at how we guessed AS A CLASS and then talk about what clues helped us to make our guesses before I tell them which book goes with which summary. And with that we begin.

From there, the kids go to THIS GOOGLE FORM. I then proceed to hold us two books at a time. This is what the sets of books look like:


As I hold us the two books, the kids make their guesses on the Google Form and then I move on to the next set. At this point, there is no discussion and the students answer on their own. When we get through all five sets of books, I ask the kids to close their computers.

And then, I project our results on the white board. HERE IS WHAT THE RESULTS LOOKED LIKE IN ONE OF MY CLASSES THIS YEAR. 

We look at one set of books at a time and before I tell the kids which book matches which summary I ask them the following question, “Who would be willing to tell me what clues you used on the cover of these books in order to help you make your guess?” And the students begin to talk about how they made their guesses.

This year, the first two sets were guessed fairly accurately and so the discussion did not lead to any powerful insights. However, then we got to the third set of books. As a reminder, these were the books and these were the results:

So again, I asked my students who would be willing to share what clues they used to help them make their guesses. And here are some of the things that my mostly-white students shared: Students shared the girl on the book 6 cover looked lonely and seemed “different” and might have been made fun of like in “other books they’ve read.” They mentioned skin color and how they have often read books that show black children being treated unfairly because of skin color.

And then I told them that most of them had guessed incorrectly. When I told them that book 5 was actually about a girl who moves from Italy and speaks no English and is made fun of, they were really shocked. It led us to a conversation on why we might assume that a child with black skin was more likely to be considered, “different” and why we would assume the book would deal with the child being made fun of. We talked about books they’ve read in the past and how limited they are. 

At this point, several students started to see what this work was really all about. So then we moved on to looking at our next set of books and our next set of data on the results:

With this set, kids spoke about how they immediately assumed book 7 took place in a country in Africa, that the people on the cover were poor and that it therefore dealt with sadness and struggle. Some students started to willingly admit they knew they were wrong. One student brought up our work earlier in the year with the idea of a “single story” and how many of us were probably making our guesses based on the single stories we carried. 

Then, finally we look at our final set of books and data:

At this point, most kids realized that every single one of them answered this set incorrectly.  Before I told them they were all wrong, they shared that they guessed book 10 was about a struggle for equal rights because the people on the cover were black. One child shared that he didn’t even see how happy they all looked when he first saw the cover. When I told them they were all wrong, we talked about how while, yes, the struggle for civil rights for Black Americans is a huge and important moment in history, not every book with black characters is about that struggle. And while Black people were engaged in that fight for civil rights, there were white people who were the ones benefitting from that unfair system and we do not often think about their role.

This is where we ended our conversation. The next day, we returned to the drawings that we had made in our Draw-A-Scientist (Plus More) experiment. As described above, I handed back at their drawings, I had them use the google form explained above to gather data on who they draw in each picture and then we looked at the results together and began our whole group discussion.

On day three, I knew that my kids had SO MUCH to say about our work so far and this year, I wanted to make sure to provide them time to really look at the data in small groups. One of the things that I have noticed in our whole class discussion is how much time is taken up by the same voices. To try to work on fixing this, I was much more deliberate about allowing time for individual reflection and small group thinking to help more voices to be heard.

So, on day three, I printed out ALL of the data from this experiment PLUS the results from the picture book cover experiment (which I will describe in a moment) and I asked the kids to first work on their own to look at the data that they found more interesting and then work in small groups in order to do some NOTICE/THINK/WONDER work. I asked them to USE THIS FORM in order to record some of the observations they noticed about the data, what those observations made them think and what those observations made them wonder. I modeled this for them and then sent them off to work.  Here is what the modeling looked like:

Once they had a few minutes to work on their own, I had them gather in small groups and share what they had recorded and add to their thinking. Finally, I brought them all together to share what they had written down and to continue growing their thinking. As they spoke, I tried to gather some of the things they were wondering about on chart paper. They had amazing thinking to share, but I knew that the questions they were left with would be what guided the next step of our work, so that is what I tried to capture. Here are some of the things that they shared:


As always, I was amazed by the level of discussion that my students were willing to engage in. Unlike adults, my fifth grade students are willing to accept that they carry biases and that those biases lead them to inaccurate thinking and understandings about the world. When we frame these conversations around the idea that the world they are living in is sending them biased messages and racist messages and sexist messages, they are willing to look more closely at that world in order to understand where these ideas of coming from. They are eager to understand how this happens, so that they can stop it from happening. They want more control over their own thinking and so they are willing to engage in the necessary work even when that means they must confront their own thinking in a way that can be painful and difficult.

Doing this work with kids is so powerful because it gives me hope that we can help them to do better than we have done. Once they come to believe that they are carrying biases and stereotypes, they are so eager to learn how to fight against them. And that is the work that this world so desperately needs.

Teaching Kids To See What Isn’t There: Learning to Read Critically About History

One of the phrases that people most like to share with me is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And yes, I suppose that is true. But I also think that it can become a convenient excuse for our own ignorance. If the, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” becomes an endpoint, then it allows us to continue to live our lives in willful ignorance, with a warped perception of our world based solely on our own limited experiences and knowledge. I wish instead that we would shift our focus and instead be as willing to say, “There is so much that I do not know and it is my responsibility to go and seek that information out.” I know that it is not quite as catchy, it’s a bit more of a mouthful, and it certainly requires much more work on our part, but I believe it is a shift that can start to repair some real damage in this world.

It is with this shift in mind, that I entered into our final literacy unit of the school year this past May with my fifth graders. The first part of our unit focused on helping students to confront their own biases. That work can be read about in THIS POST from two years ago. One of the most important parts of this first work is helping students to see that when we are subjected to narrow sets of information about entire groups of people that are repeated to us over and over again, they can form stereotyped ideas that we carry around with us about those groups of people. These are what start to form our biases and these biases lead us to inaccurate and harmful beliefs. Once students saw how limited information can lead to misunderstandings about people, we then shifted our focus to look at how our biases can lead us to misunderstandings about texts as well, specifically when we are looking at texts about history.

There are several reasons that we focus specifically on history. One is a matter of covering curriculum (never a great reason to do things, but a necessary one). For fifth grade, the Civil Rights Movement is a part of our social studies curriculum. Because of time and the never-ending and often-lost battle of attempting to get it all in, we have always covered the Civil Rights Movement through our literacy curriculum. And beyond that, I think that when we read about history, we need a specific set of skills as readers. Too often, our students read about history only to absorb the specific content, without learning a process through which they can walk on their own in order to learn about moments in time in a responsible way. By focusing on teaching how to read about history, specifically, we are able to ensure that our students are learning how to read in a way that gives them a more accurate understanding of history.

And lastly, so much of what our children are given when they are young (and also when they are older) in order to learn about history is just wrong. Things are missing, truths are ignored, voices are silenced. But, like people always say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And if we stop there, if we allow that to be the phrase that guides us, then we will continue to deny the truths in our history that could actually help us to better understand our world today in a way that could lead to real change. And we will become complicit in allowing our students to grow up with misunderstandings about our world and our history.

So we tackle how to read history and we look at it through the lens of how to uncover hidden and neglected information in order to help us overcome our biases and misconceptions about history.


Part of what I am always trying to do with my students is to find a concrete way for them to really see the kinds of problems that I want to help them to overcome through reading and writing in a different way.  It would be easy for me to tell my kids that they have misconceptions about history because of the way they have been reading and learning, but it is much more powerful if I can find a way to really show them those misconceptions.

So, this year, I wanted to do that using a single figure who I believe all of my students carry extremely limited understanding of and strong misconceptions about: Martin Luther King, Jr. For many of my fifth grade students, when they enter into our Civil Rights Movement study, the only knowledge they carry is around Martin Luther King, Jr. And much of that knowledge is wrong or extremely watered down. Again, I could tell them this, but I believe it is much more powerful if I am able to show them. And since our unit on reading about history centers on the Civil Rights Movement, this seemed like a perfect entry point.

After reminding the kids what we learned about how biased messages form in our brains about groups of people when we are giving the same set of narrow and limited information over and over again, I told the kids that the same thing can happen about moments in time in our history.

I then shared with the kids a VERY simplified, and also very typical, biography about Martin Luther King, Jr. to read. You can find the text that we used HERE. After reading the text together, I asked the kids to answer the following question in writing, “After reading this brief biography and knowing everything you already know about Martin Luther King Jr., think about what you understand about who he is. What is your CURRENT understanding of who Martin Luther King Jr. was? What do you know about him?” I gave the kids a few minutes to write and then asked students to read their answers out loud. As I listened to their answers, I started to chart the words and phrases that I heard come up in their answers over and over again. Our chart started to fill with words and phrases such as, “activist, peaceful, fought racism, African American, black, nonviolent, inspiration, disliked by some whites, hero, speeches, I Have a Dream, marches, etc.” The words and phrases reflected what I expected was the understanding that most of my students had about MLK. A watered down and overly simplistic understanding of the complex human that MLK was and a complete unawareness of the very complicated and upsetting relationship that our country’s government and many of our country’s citizens had with this man who is now seen as a hero.

So now that we had an idea of what we understood about MLK, I wanted to show them just how much they were missing. So I carefully curated a text set that included four short excerpts that showed parts of MLK’s life that were missing from my student’s current understanding. This is the text set that we used (It begins on page two of this document): A More Complete Understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.   

Over the net two days, my students and I worked through these short, but complex, texts together. I read the texts out loud and I asked my students to underline or highlight any information that they found new or surprising. After each text, I asked them to stop and share what they had underlined. As we worked through the texts and shared the new understandings that we were gaining, I went back to the charts we had made with the lists of words and phrases that reflected our understanding of MLK. As our understanding grew, I used a different color marker to add NEW words and phrases that explained what we were coming to understand about MLK. Here are the two charts from my two classes that show the progression of our growing understandings.


After reading the additional texts, I again asked the kids to reflect in writing. I asked them the three questions that are on the last page of THIS TEXT SET DOCUMENT. We talked about how limited our understanding of MLK had been. We connected it back to this previous work that we had done in confronting our own biases about groups of people.  When we were given the same, limited, information of what a “girl” is or what a “boy” is over and over again, that information shaped what we believed a girl and boy really were in a way that was far from accurate. In the same way, when we have been fed the same, limited, information about who Martin Luther King Jr. was over and over again, that information shaped who we believed Martin Luther King Jr was in a way that was far from accurate.

The kids quickly came to realize that they had been given an overly-simplified version of a very complex man. And, because kids are wise and desperate to know full truths, they quickly expressed anger that so much truth had been kept from them. We began to talk about how adults often doubt what children can handle, that they want to try to protect them from things that are messy and complicated and real. And as one of my brilliant students said this year, “Really, they say they are trying to protect us, but really they are just kind of lying to us.”

This then led us to a discussion about history and text books and the voices that are privileged and those who have traditionally been ignored.  And we talked about why adults might leave the harder to understand stuff out of history and the stuff that makes our history and our country look less than good. We talked about the story we have been told about our treatment of Native Americans and how the story is often told in a way that leaves out the parts that show the truth about the awful ways our country treated this entire group of people. We talked about how when we are not given the whole truth about history, we cannot fully understand where we are today. And we all decided that we wanted to do better, as readers and as learners, in order to gain that more complete truth.  As a class we talked about how it is our OWN responsibility to seek out the truth when we read about history and we cannot simply accept that what we are being given is enough.

So we then made a list. A list of the things that we thought we might be able to do in order to help us notice when something we are given feels incomplete and also a list of things that we can always make sure to do to help us better ensure that we are getting an accurate understanding about history. Here is what that list looked like: D6ABlcBWkAAm5Af-1

So with this list in mind, we moved further into our study of the Civil Rights Movement and as we read, we continued to look back at this list to ensure that we were learning to read about history in a way that gave us a better shot at gaining a complete and accurate understanding.

And the beauty of this work is that the kids are so open to it. They are so very willing to admit that the way that they had been reading and learning up until now wasn’t working, it was flawed, it was problematic and they wanted to do better. And so as we learned the content we needed to learn, as we learned about this very important moment in American history, we were also learning something bigger. We were learning a process, a way of reading, that they could use in their lives outside of our classroom walls in order to better learn about their own history and the history of the world we live in. And that, is an incredibly powerful kind of learning to be lucky enough to be a part of.

It is this work that I believe will move us. I believe it will move us from being a world where we simply accept that, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” to a world where we are truly willing to say, “There is so much that I do not know and it is my responsibility to go and seek that information out.”



I can’t really ever remember feeling quite so broken before. In fact, I don’t think that I ever realized how whole I had been until I felt it all fall apart. Until there were only pieces remaining, I had not realized how full it had all felt only moments before.

I am sorry if you are here looking for lesson plans, looking for ideas on how to end the school year strong, on how to carry on conversations of justice and equity through the final days of the school year. I have none of those words to give to you today. I have very little left to give to anyone at the moment.

In fact, probably, I should write nothing. This is not really the space for me to fall apart. Not in this way. It’s probably not professional. Not the right place for it. But it is the space that I have. It is the space that I can still claim as my own, as familiar, when so much around me no longer feels like my life.  

But if you are not here looking for that, I completely understand. Feel free to check back in a few months. When I start to breathe again.

So where am I?

I suppose I should start by reassuring you all that I am healthy.  My daughter is healthy. We are fine. We will be fine. But my marriage. It is not fine. It has ended. It was sudden and unexpected and not something I ever saw coming or anything that I wanted. And while the details don’t belong here, the next time you see me, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the story that I am still trying to convince myself is real.  The story that I now take on as my own. As my life. As where I am and how I have been broken.

I suppose there isn’t much more to say. I just felt the need to leave a note here and let you all know that I will be back. I keep hearing the brilliant words of comedian Hannah Gadsby from her powerful show, “Nanette,” when she says, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” And those words fill me with such hope for a day far from this current day. Because for now, there is no rebuilding. For now, I am trying to simply allow myself to fall completely apart. And then slowly, one day, I will start to rebuild.

And I will tell you this. In all of this. Gratitude exists.

I am so grateful for the humans who surround me. Because I may no longer have the love from the one person I thought would be there forever, but in its place, so many other kinds of love have revealed themselves to me in the most beautiful of ways. These people, people who have always been there right by my side, have stepped up in the most incredible ways. My family and my work friends and my neighborhood friends and my high school friends and my college friends and the friends I have found here who are scattered across the country. People have shown themselves to be these fierce senders of love and I cannot tell you the difference that it has made. Because as of late, it has been easy to think of myself as rather unlovable and people have found ways to show me, in the most remarkable of ways, that all of us are worthy of love. And often, the places that that love comes from are unexpected, but so, so, so good.  

And there is also such gratitude for the work that we do. This job has saved me in countless ways over these past few weeks. Even now, during this crazy time of the school year, when patience is short and energy from the children is at an all time, this work continues to save me. Because when I start to doubt my own worth and the value that I bring to this world, I need to look no further than the work that my students and I are doing and it is such good and hopeful and important work that I know that I serve a real purpose. I know that there is goodness in what I do and in who I am. Because my kids remind me of that every day. The work we do reminds me of that every day. And that brings a deep sense of gratitude.

So I hope that one day soon, I will be back here writing about the work. About the work that we have done and the work that we so desperately need to keep doing. I hope that one day soon, I can care about others and about the world and about justice and about equity in the way that I used to. But for now, I need to care about myself and care about my kid and allow myself to simply be wrapped up in all the love that we are surrounded by.

So hang in there, friends, as we walk through these final days of the school year.  We are so close and the summer will be necessary to rest and recharge and for all of us to find ways to rebuild. Some of us, will just need a little bit more rebuilding than others.  

Helping Students Recognize The Role of Emotional Response in Research

For a long time, I thought about research as the gathering of facts. I taught my students about research as a process of gathering facts. For a long time, I thought that emotions and a student’s emotional response to research and to reading played a very little role in the research process. And then, the election of 2016 came around and my understanding of what it meant to research, what it means to delve into a topic deeply and attempt to come out on the other side with greater understanding, all changed.

Last year, I wrote a three-part series about how I was working to rethink research in my classroom and how I was working to bring my students along with me through that process.  If you are interested, you can click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of that series.  This year we are, again, engaged in this work of rethinking research as my students and I take on our inquiry circle project (which is what those three blog posts are all about). As mentioned in my Rethinking Research series, this work is based off of the incredible book, Comprehension and Collaboration, written by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  I have taken their concept and used it to guide my students through the inquiry process as they study self-selected, complex social issues by learning about those issues through multiple media sources.

This past summer, I helped to write the reading and writing curriculum for all of the fifth grades across my district.  And I made sure that our inquiry circle work was a part of our curriculum. So now, every fifth grade classroom in our district is engaged in this work.  This is wonderful.  This also invites questions and push back. One of the questions that I wrestled with this year is when teachers and parents asked, “Why do our young children have to tackle such difficult, and sometimes frightening topics?” It is a good question. It is one I am glad that people are asking because it invites dialogue and it invites reflection. Though our students are able to select their own topics, they often choose topics that are tough. However, one of the best parts of inquiry is watching how excellent students are at self-differentiating. The children who cannot handle the tougher topics, often know that about themselves and often choose to take on a topic like technology or pesticides. However, if we are going to have many of our students tackling the tougher topics, we had better be prepared to explain why.  And so, I sat with the question myself for a long time.

Why does it matter that we tackle the tough topics in fifth grade? Why can’t we do this same work with easier topics that still invite multiple perspectives. Topics like homework or cell-phones.  Why don’t these topics feel like enough? As I sat with these questions, I slowly started to realize that what was missing from these topics was the emotion, the heat that often arises from the conversations around tougher topics.  I know that parents and teachers want to protect our kids from feeling the heaviness of the world around them. I find that this is especially true of parents and teachers who work primarily with kids who live in privilege.  Our world. It is heavy. And those of us who are wrapped in privilege, often use that privilege as a way to isolate us from the rough and raw emotions that so many people in this world feel on a daily basis without a choice in the matter.  But this emotion. If we stop our children from experiencing it, then we are stealing from them a chance to learn how to recognize their own emotions and understand what those emotions might mean and the impact those emotions might have on their understanding of the world. If we do not dig into topics that will make our students feel something, then we cannot teach them ways to deal with those emotions and how they affect their understanding of what they are hearing and reading and learning.  And so they, like many of us, will grow up completely unaware of how their own emotions affect their reading and their understanding of the world and they will be the ones who are easily manipulated by the media and by others who use their own emotions to stop them from reaching full understanding.

So it is with that idea that we walk into this work. We walk into this work in order to arm our students with the skills that they will need to do better than we have done as adults.  Often times, teachers ask me where I get ideas for the lessons that I teach to my students. Many times, the answer is that I am inspired by those around me who have done this work long before me. But, also, I gain the ideas of what I want to teach my students by looking around the world and thinking about what I wish we, as adults, did better.  I think about what I wish the grown-ups around me were better able to do and then I think about how I might break those skills down and teach them to children so that they can do better.

And right now, when I look around the world, I wish that adults understood our own emotions better. When we read a headline and we automatically feel anger, we don’t always realize how quickly our brains shut down and we become incapable of reading on in order to understand.  When we hear a criticism about a group of people with which we identify, we often become defensive and render ourselves incapable of sitting with the discomfort that comes from knowing that we have done harm and that we can do better.  When we see an image, we feel sadness but we we allow that sadness to overwhelm us and stop us from looking beyond that single image and to the systems and laws and policies that allowed that image to come into existence in the first place. These emotions, could be used to help us to do better, but not if we are not aware of what they might mean and how we can “check” ourselves in order to ensure that our own emotions don’t get in the way of our understanding. This is what I wish we, as adults, could do better and so this is what I wanted to try to teach to my students.

And so…enter our inquiry circle work.  I will not spend time here detailing a how-to-run-inquiry-circles because that work can all be found in the three blog posts from last year that I linked at the start of this post. But, what I do want to share are the conversations that I added this year on how we can recognize our emotions as we research and “check” those emotions to ensure that they do not get in the way of our own understanding.

So in the second phase of our inquiry circle work, students have narrowed down their larger topics and are now finding their own resources that help them to build their understandings of those narrowed down topics. So, if a group was studying LGBTQ rights, in the second phase a student might have chosen to focus on transgender youth in schools. At this point in the work, they still have not formulated a specific claim, rather they are focused on gathering multiple sources that shed light on multiple perspectives connected to their topics that help them to understand their narrowed focus overall. So this happened to be the perfect time to introduce the idea of how our emotions impact us as readers, especially when we are reading to learn about complex issues.

The first chart that I shared with the students was this one:


Our first conversation centered around the idea that when we started learning about our topics, we were really just learning facts and these facts led us to what we know about our topics. But then, as we worked to notice the facts we were seeing and allow those facts to lead us to questions that helped us to notice whose voices we were hearing and whose voices were being left out, we let those questions guide us towards more sources that allowed us to see more perspectives. This pushed us past simply knowing facts and guided us towards understanding our topics. Now, we were at a point that we are able to deepen our understanding so that we can form beliefs and opinions that are based on more than just what our parents have said, that are based on more than the simple snippets found in sound bytes and headlines, but the kinds of opinions and beliefs that are based on real information from multiple perspectives.  Eventually, it will be these opinions and beliefs that will move us to action.

One of the ways that we can start to ensure that our beliefs and opinions are tied to actual facts and valid information is to constantly check our own emotional responses to what we are reading. This was our conversation on the first day of these phase of work.  At this point, my students were all knee-deep into their own research about their topics. So with those ideas in mind, I sent my students off to their own research and asked them to pay attention to some of the emotions that they were experiencing as they worked. We started a class list to brainstorm some of the emotions we noticed. As I conferred with students that day, I asked questions to try and find out what kinds of emotions they had been experiencing in this work so far. THIS IS THE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that my students are using in this phase of research, so we were able to look back at their notes together and talk about the emotions they had written about.  I added to our class list of emotions as students mentioned them to me.

At the end of that day, I took list of emotions from both of my classes and grouped them together until I was left with five big emotions that I thought we could explore together. Each day, we would tackle one of those emotions, talk about why we might be feeling each emotion as we did this work and ways that we could “check” those emotions to ensure that they did not get in the way of our understanding of our topic. Here are the two charts that I made that guided our conversations for the next five days:


You can clearly see the major points that we tackled on the charts above. I made these charts as I guide for myself, but what is missing from them are the incredible contributions of my students. Our conversations were so rich that I did not have time to capture their thinking in words on a chart. But here are some of the things we discussed:

Anger: This was probably our longest conversation as my students and I started to talk about the physical signs that we notice when we read something that we do not agree with. We talked about how we feel it in the pace of our heart, in the ways we are holding our hands, in the pace of our breath, in the “hot” feeling we get when someone is talking and we disagree with the first thing they say and then are unable to hear anything beyond that. We talked about how often times we get angry simply because of who is doing the speaking. Many students talked about how they see their parents react when a politician is shown on the tv, before the politician has even started to speak. I shared my own habits with anger and how it quickly disables my ability to hear. We also talked about how there is another kind of anger, the kind of anger that is a response to real injustice. We talked about how we can tell the difference between the two types of anger. How anger that stems only from disagreement can be a sign that we need to calm down, but anger that comes from the recognition of injustice, instead requires us to use that action to learn more or to do more.  We talked about being aware of which type of anger we were feeling with our research.

Sadness: This was a big one for the topics my students were tackling. These are all self-selected topics, so students tend to chose the kinds of topics that they feel ready to take on. But one of the things that came up in our conversation about sadness is that sometimes feeling heavy sadness when researching can be a sign that they need to step away and take a break. One student, who was in an inquiry circle group studying North Korea, told me about being brought to tears while listening to a woman who escaped from North Korea tell her story about what it was like to live there. The student shared how sad he felt and how overwhelmed he became by the story and how he had to pause the story, take a walk and then come back and finish. While I whole-heartedly believe that our students are ready for this work, I, too often, forget to teach the importance of self-care to students when doing this work. These are skills I wish I had learned and I was grateful that they came up in this conversation. We also talked about how sometimes, sadness can be a reaction to one single story or image, but if we sit in our sadness, it can actually limit us and stop us from pushing farther in order to understand the context of that one story and how it was allowed to happen. We talked about the single images of refugee children, the young boy whose body washed up on shore and the other young boy, pulled from the rubble and covered in white ash. These images made us sad. But if we stopped there, we would never understand how these images came to be. If we let ourselves become consumed by the sadness, we wouldn’t be able to work to understand the systems that allowed these sadnesses to occur and then we would be powerless to try to change them.

Defensive: This was a really tough one for my students. I teach many students who fall into multiple categories of privilege. Many come from white, wealthy, American-born families. And so, in this work, the work of understanding current social issues, they are often confronted with statements about groups that they find themselves a part of and the difficulties those groups have created for other, marginalized groups.  So there is a lot of defensiveness and also shame that comes up. My job is to walk the kids through that. One of the ways I can do that is to help them understand that these are not personal attacks, these are attacks on unjust systems. Systems that, yes, we are a part of. Systems that, yes, sometimes we have benefitted from. But the attacks on the systems are not attacks on us. I want them to see that difference. Because one leads people to shut down and defend and the other can lead people to learn more and work to change those systems. I was amazed at the way my students were willing to wrestle with this idea. In one of my classes, the three white boys who were studying racism in America stepped up as real leaders as they talked about the guilt they felt in learning about the systemic racism that exists in our country, but that instead of feeling personally attacked, it made them instead think about what changes they could help to make. It was a really powerful conversation to be a part of.

Fear: This conversation was probably the one that most resonated with the current events unfolding around us.  I began the conversation by talking about how the group that was studying gun violence in America began their learning focused on school shootings because that is what felt scariest to them. It was what they felt most connected to. However, as they did their research, they realized that their fear was tied not to the problem that was the largest, but the problem that felt like it would most likely affect them. In this case, their own fear, limited the scope of their understanding of the problem of gun violence. As they did more research, they learned that the biggest problems in this country around guns involve suicide and homicide, not mass shootings. Once they saw past their own fears, they were better able to work to understand the problem overall. This was where we started, but then the conversations in both of my classes turned as the students started to talk about how fear can also be used to manipulate people by exaggerating a specific problem or making something seem like a problem when it might not be. This conversation then turned towards the recent conversation about illegal immigrants and the groups who were studying this topic talked about how the facts that they had found did not support the fear that was being spread about the danger that illegal immigrants posed to the country.  It was amazing to watch fifth graders really analyze how fear was being used as a way to convince people of a solution to a problem that potentially might not even exist.

Hopeful: The last emotion we focused on was hope. I talked about how important it is to find hope in this work. I shared with them that for me, hope often comes from seeing the young people who are becoming involved in the fight for justice or from looking at the people who have spent their entire lifetimes engaged in this fight. But I also wanted the kids to be careful of hope. So we talked about how when we felt hopeful, we needed to make sure that the people who were most directly affected by a problem were also the ones benefitting from a potential solution and, more importantly, that their voices were being heard and centered when it came time to determining a solution. We talked about the desire to send things like teddy bears after a school shooting. This feels hopeful. It makes many of us feel good, but is this really what is most hopeful to those involved and is this an action that will result in larger change? If not, we want to be careful and keep looking for more.

Each day, when we discussed a specific emotion, that is what I focused my conferences on as the students were working. As they continued to take notes, I continued to push them to identify what they were feeling about what they read and how those emotions were influencing their understanding and their developing beliefs. We referred to the charts often as we thought about next steps to help us “check” our emotions and not allow them to limit our understandings.

After two weeks of this work, I asked the students to USE THIS DOCUMENT in order to synthesize their current understanding. I asked them to think about everything they had read in this phase of research and then do some reflecting on their current beliefs. What do they currently believe to be the biggest problem and what is that based on. And what do they currently believe to be some steps that might be taken to work to solve that problem and what is that based on. This synthesis will then guide us into our action phase of this work where they will work with their groups to use writing in order to ask for change from those who are most likely able to create it.

And so this is my why. This is what I come back to when people wonder why I ask my students to tackle these difficult topics. It is not just because these topics are engaging and self-selected and important, it is because these topics allow us to practice the kinds of skills that are lacking so very much in the world around us. And I truly believe that if more people were able to acknowledge the role their own emotions play in their understanding of the issues that divide us, then we would be much more capable of finding our way back together in a way that allows for more justice, more compassion, more change in the right direction. And so we lean in to this work and we continue to grapple with the emotions that we feel and along the way, it is my deepest hope, that we may inch ever closer towards a better understanding of our world and of each other.