To My New Students In The Fall Of 2020

To My New Students In The Fall Of 2020,

Hi. Welcome. I am so very glad that you are here.

We have certainly all lived through quite a lot this summer.  So many things have been swirling around us.  A global pandemic. Cries for justice and equity and Black Lives Matter. Debates on what our very school year should look like.

You have probably taken in a whole lot of things and you are carrying those things into this school year and into our learning space and those things are probably feeling really heavy.  And so today, I want us to begin to build a space we can collectively hold the weight of all of the things that we are carrying and find some relief in carrying those things now together. As a community. And so I want to say to you again, “Hi. Welcome. I am so very glad that you are here.”

And before we get started, I want to tell you a few things.

First of all, I want you to know that I, too, am walking into this school year carrying the weight of a lot of the things the world has thrown at us over these past few months. This summer, I have found myself time and time again disappointed and angry with many of the adults around me and the decisions that they have been making. I have been angry because a lot of times it has felt as if those decisions that were being made were based on the needs of only those with the most power and privilege and that those decisions have not always led to the best conditions for all of our children to live and learn in. And that makes me angry. And so I have pushed back and I have questioned and I have raised my voice because that is what I would want you to do. And while some might say that this makes me unprofessional, I believe that fighting for the very best conditions for all our children to live and learn in is the very definition of what it should mean to be a teacher.

So, now, I want to tell you that it is okay to be angry.  It is okay to be sad. It is okay to be scared. It is okay to carry all of those things with you into this school year. You might hear some adults around you tell you that you need to be positive.  That you need to have a good attitude.  I have heard those things too. And, yes, those things can be important. But those things are not everything. And if those things come at the cost of you feeling invalidated for being upset, then those things are not what you need to hear. Adults sometimes tell you to be positive, because they are uncomfortable with your discomfort. Because they love you so much and they want you to be happy and they want you to feel good, so they sometimes forget to let you feel the pain that makes so much sense in this moment.

But the truth is that just like me, you might be carrying some of the anger and sadness and disappointment of this summer into this school year and I want you to know that it is okay. There is space for all of that here.  There is space for us to feel those things and those things can actually serve as the strong foundation on which we can build a successful community. Because building community happens when we are allowed to be honest about who we are and what we are feeling. When we feel like our emotions are valid simply because they are our honest responses to what we are living through. When we feel as if we are being heard and being seen for exactly who we are and not the versions of us that would make others feel more comfortable. When we are able to be our full and authentic selves, that is when we will find the strength that we need to make it through this moment. That is when we will begin to figure out who we are as a community. That is what I want for us this year.  And that starts today.

And while there are already people writing books on how to be a good teacher in this moment, I want to be really honest with you. I have no idea how exactly to do this all. I have nothing fully figured out yet.  I do not yet know how best to teach you because I have not even gotten to know you yet.

But I can tell you this.  We are going to figure this out together. No matter what we are carrying into this school year, I can tell you that I am going to find a way to get to know you all, to love you all and to meet you all exactly where you are, wherever that might be, and we will move forward together no matter what format our school year will take.  I might not know exactly how we will do that yet, but I can promise you that it will happen. Because that is what it means to me to be a teacher.  That is what it has always meant.

So while I will continue to be angry when I see decision makers ignoring the voices of entire groups of people, I will also be loving each and every one of you and working alongside of you to move us forward together as a community. There is space for both. And I want you to see that and know that and understand that part of loving a place is pushing for that place to be better and to do better. And that we can feel our anger and disappointment and sadness and still have space to feel all the other things too.

Because this year, we will also feel joy. We will feel the joy that comes along with creating something new together. We will feel the joy that comes along with sharing our stories and hearing the stories that other people have to tell. We will feel the joy that comes along with learning new things and understanding the world around us and finding our own ways to work to make that world a better place.

So as we start to walk together into this uncertain school year, I am going to say it just one more time so that it is absolutely clear.

Hi. Welcome. I am so glad that you are here.

Now, let’s get started.

 

 

 

 

Beyond The Statements: Doing the Work To Create More Anti-Racist School Districts

It seems that every time we white folks suddenly wake up to the racism and white supremacy that has been around us for our entire lives, there is one question that gets asked over and over again, “Well what are we supposed to do?” I believe that this question comes from a desire for concrete actions that will lead to immediate results. Well, we know those actions do not exist. We cannot possibly fix over 400 years of oppression in a single moment. However, what we can do is use this moment to propel us towards the kinds of actions that will lead to the types of changes that can work to prevent moments like this one from occurring again and again indefinitely. But we often do not know where to begin.

Many schools and school districts begin with statements. In fact, yesterday, I sent out a thread of Tweets asking school leaders to just begin there. To not remain silent. But once a statement is made, there is a danger of feeling as if that is enough. When statements are made and no action is taken to back those statements up, our words are empty. So once a statement is made, then action must follow and that is where we often feel lost and so we give up and then nothing ever changes.  And so, I have spent some time over the last few days pulling together some resources that I can share with my own district as we look for actions that we can take in our journey towards becoming a more anti-racist school district.  And I thought that maybe those actions could be helpful to others as well.

Let me begin by acknowledging that I am a white educator. I teach in a district that is mostly made up of other white educators. The students and families in my district are mostly white. Because of the privilege our whiteness gives us, and because of the white supremacy that exists, many of us in my district have NOT done much work to understand our own identities and the role our race plays in shaping our lives and our experiences in our school system. This reality has shaped the actions that I feel we need to take. The actions that I am suggesting are geared towards districts that are similar to my own because that is what I know. I recognize that these same actions would NOT be places to start for every district. But I want to offer these suggestions for those who might need a place to begin in places that are similar to my own.

In addition, I want to point out that the very FIRST action that I am suggesting is that districts pay for professional development and consulting that will guide districts through necessary equity work and anti-bias and anti-racist training. I suggest that when hiring people, the focus is placed on seeking out organizations that are led by Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. Every suggestion that I make after that comes from what I have learned over the past few years by listening to and learning from Black educators, Indigenous educators and other educators of color. I have learned because there are others that share generously and are, too often, not compensated for their work. They are the ones that should be guiding our work as districts. They are the ones who should be getting paid for their work. I share these suggestions of action because they have helped me to move forward and I hope that they might help others as well, but if districts want to really dig into this work, we need to be guided by those who know more than we do and whose lived experiences give them the perspective to know what is not working within our schools and districts.  That is not something I can provide.

What I can provide is what I have learned from others, what has worked for me in my own journey and what I want to see from my own district. And so, I offer those suggestions here in the form of 7 actions that we can take as schools and school districts as we attempt to create the kinds of change that will last beyond this one moment and will lead to real and long-lasting change in creating more anti-racist school districts.

ACTION 1: Commit to providing our district with anti-bias and anti-racist professional development and consulting led by organizations that center and are led by people who are Black, Indigenous and other People of Color. Before we guide our students in anti-racist work, we must do this work ourselves. You have the power to bring us the opportunities that we need to do that work. A wonderful place to begin in order to find this type of professional development is with Teaching Tolerance: https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/request-a-training

ACTION 2: As you hire someone from outside of our district to help us grow, you can also begin to help us grow from within. We need books that will help us to better understand race and racism and the ways racism impacts our schools. We need practice in having conversations on race and racism with each other so that we can do better having conversations on race and racism with our students. You can allow for that by purchasing a text for us to read as a staff and providing us with an opportunity to discuss that text. Here are a few titles that might work: 

    1. So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo
    2. Black Appetite. White Food. by Jamila Lyiscott
    3. We Want to do More Than Survive by Bettina Love
    4. Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay
    5. How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
    6. Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn Singleton

ACTION 3: As we grow our own anti-racist skills, and as we grow our ability to talk to each other about race and racism, then you can help us to talk with our students about race by purchasing books written for children, by Black authors, that center Black joy and Black lives and Black history and books for our classrooms that explicitly discuss whiteness and racism and white supremacy. Here are a few to start with: 

Picture Books 

Hey Black Child 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy 

M is for Melanin

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness 

Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice 

Middle Grade Chapter Books

This Book is Anti-Racist

Clean Getaway 

The Parker Inheritance 

Ghost Boys

Black Brother, Black Brother

Piecing Me Together

There are so many other titles, but sometimes long lists can be overwhelming. But use those lists and help us to get those books into our classroom. As you do that, you can provide us with opportunities to evaluate the books that we are using in our classrooms so that we, as educators, can get better at reading all books more critically. This will allow us to ensure that we are choosing to bring books to our students that do not perpetuate harmful stereotypes, misrepresentations and erasures. I have put together a tool based on the work of Teaching Tolerance and Social Justice Books that can help us to do that work. That tool can be found here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1joub6JP0mF3BBAjETNCMLuyI_vwxr7nRNERP2VTjI9M/edit

ACTION 4: Form committees of grade levels teams to critically evaluate our curriculum. We can look at what is being taught across each grade level and begin to ask questions such as: Whose voices are being heard? Whose voices are being centered? Whose voices are being marginalized? Whose voices are being left out? You can provide opportunities for us to work together to evaluate our current curriculum through this lens and then when we find the voices that have been left out and marginalized, you can give us time to make the curricular changes that bring those voices into the center. Give us opportunities to do this work in regards to the history we teach, the texts that we read, the cultures that we study, etc. Have grade levels identify just one unit that feels problematic and then work together to ensure more voices, more stories, more perspectives are presented within that unit. Let teachers feel the difference in a more inclusive and anti-racist curriculum within just one unit and then allow that feeling to motivate us towards making more change. Give us time and compensation to create those changes. 

ACTION 5: Provide us with a structure to look at our data. We have so much data that can help us to get a better picture of who we are helping and who we are failing as a district.  We need to look at the numbers of students from specific groups in order to see who is over-represented and who is under-represented in areas such as special education, gifted and talented programs and discipline referrals. And when we can identify specific groups whom we are failing, then we need to ask ourselves HOW are our policies, programs and procedures are standing in the way or creating barriers for all students to have equal access to success. As a district, those are then changes that we need to make in order to remove those barriers for our students.  Cornelius Minor brilliantly explains how we can do this work in his book We Got This. 

ACTION 6: Examine our hiring process. The task of increasing the diversity of our staff is not an easy one, but we must begin that work if we truly want to become more anti-racist. So we need to examine and make changes in our hiring practices. We can start to do that by asking questions such as: What is the diversity of our staff? What is the diversity of the people who are applying for jobs in our district? Who is passing our screeners? Who is not passing our screeners? Where are we recruiting teachers from? Where are we getting our student teachers from? What are we doing to actively recruit more diverse teacher candidates? Who are we hiring? Who are we not hiring? Who are we retaining? Who are we not retaining? How are we supporting teachers once they are in our district? Digging into these questions will likely illuminate a place for us to start and then we can look to others who know more than we do in order to create more equitable hiring practices. 

ACTION 7: We must commit to teaching our students to be anti-racist. Through all of this action, we also need to ask ourselves, “How are we explicitly teaching our students to be anti-racist?” One way we can do this is by critically evaluating our social-emotional curriculum. We need to make sure that we have lessons that go beyond teaching students to just, “be kind” and go beyond teaching our students how to be better students. We must teach students about their own identities and about the identities of others so that our students can learn that it is not that “color does not matter,” but that they can, instead, come to understand that a person’s skin color is one important facet of a person’s identity that shapes the way that person experiences the world. There are extremely powerful lessons within Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being The Change that can help us to do this work. We also need to make sure that we have lessons that teach students how to recognize and interrupt racist incidents if and when they see them occur. Again, Teaching Tolerance provides incredible resources for this within their Speak Up! curriculum.  As a district, we need to ensure that these kinds of lessons are being taught to our students so that they have the skills that they will need to be anti-racist in a world that is still racist.  

Clearly, there are many more actions that can and should be taken, but I also believe that we need to be realistic in where we choose to start. And what I know is that we have to start somewhere. It will be too easy to let this moment pass and to continue to believe that this is not work that needs to be done here. But this work is vital. I believe that it will save lives. And while we cannot fix all of the world’s problems in this moment, we can use this moment to make a commitment to action. 

I look forward to joining you in this work and for doing better for our students together.  

 

To White Educators: We Must Remember Our Anger When Anger Feels Less Comfortable

I write this post, speaking directly to my fellow white educators.

Over the past few days, I have seen many white educators express anger. Anger about racism, anger about the murder of innocent Black humans at the hands of the police, anger about our president. There has been so much anger.

And while I am grateful that people are raising their voices, I worry that these voices are being raised by white people right now because right now anger feels comfortable for as white people. It feels comfortable to express anger when murder is captured on video and goes viral. It feels comfortable to express anger when the country feels that anger along with you and expresses it vocally and across every social media platform that exists. It feels comfortable to express anger when you are expressing it alongside of athletes and CEOs and even alongside of Taylor Swift. Right now, expressing anger feels comfortable.

And we white people, we are so comfortable with being comfortable.

But what I know is this. Murder at the hands of a police officer, does not come from no where. There are so many things to be angry about that lead to the existence of the many racist systems that allow for incidents like the ones with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Racism does not begin with murder. Murder is the result of a combination of the many racist systems that our country is built upon. And our school system is one of those racist systems. And we educators, we make up that racist school system.  And, we white educators have traditionally been terrible at expressing our anger about that.

So now that you might be feeling this anger, I ask that you hold on to it. Remember it when it feels less comfortable to express anger.  Because when there isn’t a current viral murder to get angry about, there is still so much work to be done. It is the work that we can do that can prevent the murders from happening. Not in one day, not in one year, not, perhaps even in one decade, but we have more power then we realize, we just have to learn to see it and use it.  And that comes from the long, hard, slow work that begins within us.  It begins with learning about the racist systems we perpetuate, about seeing the ways we allow for white supremacy in our schools and then for speaking up when those racist systems are at play.

And in those moments, it won’t feel comfortable. It is not comfortable to be the singular voice raising issues of race and equity when all those around you remain silent. Right now, it is easy because there is a collective yell going out. But it is harder to be the single voice amongst the silence.  But, for us white folks, this is our work. We cannot continue to stay silent. We cannot continue to leave this work on the shoulders of Black educators who are already bearing the weight of our racism. If we mean what we say when we ask, “What can we do?” Then we need to do something, even, and especially, when it doesn’t feel as comfortable.

So remember your anger.

Remember your anger when you are sitting in a meeting writing curriculum and you see your coworkers focused on a narrow, biased, white-washed version of history and of voices to teach to students.

Remember your anger when you are writing policies on behavior and consequences and you see that the behaviors being privileged are only those that match white social norms.

Remember your anger when you witness a coworker responding more harshly to the behavior of a Black student than they would to the same behavior coming from a white student.

Remember your anger when a Black educator speaks out against racism and you see white educators bristle and whisper that this issue is not about race.

Remember your anger when you are interviewing candidates for open positions and you are only presented with white candidates.
Remember your anger when a reading list is being built and you know that there are not enough Black voices represented in the texts being selected and an argument breaks out on the necessity of Shakespeare.

Remember your anger when a colleague suggests that hanging a Black Lives Matter sign in your classroom is controversial and suggests that you should take it down.

Remember your anger when, yet again, coworkers insist on celebrating Dr. Seuss Day when you know that Dr. Seuss’s racism has been shown in countless ways.

Remember your anger when you are sitting in yet another meeting where decisions are being made about children based solely on the standardized testing data that you know is biased and does not reflect the whole child that is being discussed.

Remember your anger when you see the data that shows you that your Black students are over represented in special ed and under represented in gifted and talented programs.

Because in these moments, that is when you need this anger. Allow this anger to give you the courage to speak up. Speak up even when those around you will roll their eyes. Speak up even when people tell you this is not about race. Speak up even when people say, “There she goes again,” or “We don’t need this conversation in OUR district.”  Speak up when it is NOT comfortable.

Because that is when our kids need us. We don’t prevent murders by expressing our anger AFTER they occur. We prevent murders by disrupting the systems we are a part of that create the murderers and create those who perpetuate the systems that allow for the murders. And if that is feeling comfortable, then you are doing something wrong.  Because you don’t get to ask, “What can I do?” If you are only willing to do the work that feels safe and comfortable.

For many of us, our school years are ending or are already over.  August is a long way away. This August, in particular, feels a million miles away because there is so much we do not know. And that means, that the anger that we are feeling today, it is going to feel so far away by the time we go back to school. So we have to hold on to it now. We have to use it to motivate us to read all the books that all the lists are telling us to read and we have to start looking NOW for the ways we can use our position in our own system to create change. That is the work. And it is only going to happen if we are willing to remember our anger and be willing to express it when anger feels a whole lot less comfortable.

The Teachers Are Breaking

This week, I felt the powerful effects as my administrators made the choice to stand by their teachers. I felt the effects as my administrators heard that we, the teachers, were breaking and chose to reach out and work to understand what we were living and then used that understanding to motivate them to take bold actions to step in and help us to hold the fragile breaking pieces together. 

And I will tell you this. Their decision. Their choices to help us, they did not make a single one of us think, okay, now we don’t have to work so hard. Instead, they made us all feel a great sense of relief that allowed us to recommit ourselves to working harder than ever to best support our students and their needs. But we are now able to do it in a way that does not sacrifice us or our families quite as much.  

But not every educator is so lucky. In fact, too many are not. And so, for them, I write this post. Because I believe that when we share our stories, we can work to help others understand us. In fact, one of the very first lessons that I teach my fifth grade students each year is that writing our stories, sharing our stories, gives us the power to help shape and define how others see us. And right now, I think that the world needs to see that the teachers are breaking.  

Last week, I sat in a virtual faculty meeting and watched my coworkers, my fellow teachers, cry as we came together to discuss ways to navigate this new world of online teaching. We spoke of the work that we were already doing and the added work that still needed to be done. And I watched as my fellow teachers began to reveal the cracks that we had all been trying so desperately to cover up. 

Because for many of us, we do not want to complain. Because for many of us, we love our work and we love our students and we are grateful for the privilege of being a teacher.  And we also know too well, how quickly this world can shift. How we, as a country, seem to only operate in one of two dangerous and harmful extremes when it comes to teachers. We seem to swing between the narratives of “teachers are heroes” and “teachers are not doing nearly enough and we demand more!” 

Now I want to stop here. Before I say anything else. Because I know that already someone is reading this and thinking, “Those teachers should just be grateful that they have a job, when so many others are not as lucky.”

And I get that. I really do. This is an awful time for the world. 

But here is the thing. Systems that take advantage of their workers are often allowed to continue taking advantage of their workers because they convince those workers and others that they should just be grateful that they have a job. And I believe that we have reached a point in all this awfulness, that teachers need to start pushing back as we are pushed to, and beyond, our limits.  

Because if we continue to push teachers past their limits, then teachers cannot think critically about what we are doing for our students. When we are forced to operate in pure survival mode, then I believe there is a much greater potential that we will do harm to our students. And when we, as teachers, start to break, there is no way that we can fully be there for our students. And that’s why now is the time for us to share our stories. 

Because the teachers. We are breaking.

I have watched it happen over the past few weeks as teachers have shared, online and in person, their frustrations and desperation and cries of, “This is not sustainable!”

I think that all teachers are at their breaking points. We have all been asked to do an impossible thing. An impossible thing on top of all the other impossible things that the world of education demands from us. And many of those who were in tears at my faculty meeting are those of us who are trying to teach other people’s children while also trying not to neglect our own children who are supposed to be learning in our homes. And it is a losing battle.

I have a daughter. She is seven. She is the absolute light of my life. And while I try to be there for other people’s children, I am very surely failing my own. My daughter goes between my house and my ex-wife’s house. She is with me four out of five days during the school week. When she is with me, it is just her and me. There is no other adult. There are no siblings. It is just the two of us. I have pretty much fully given up on her eLearning, though I try to work in as much reading and writing and math as I can to the things that we do throughout the day. At this point, I have seen her very fragile academic skills regress and I have had to give myself permission for that to be okay. I have to trust that one day, she will learn what she needs to learn, even if that day is not today. Because today, we are just trying to survive.

I am committed to getting her through this crisis and I am also committed to getting my students through this crisis. But to do that, I have had to make adjustments. For me, here is what that looks like: After I put my daughter to bed, I begin another three hours of school work. I look through student work, I provide feedback, I answer emails, I answer questions from students. I am often up until 11 or 12 at night doing the work that will support my students and their families the next day.

And on the two days that my daughter is not with me, I spend almost every single minute of those days preparing instruction for the week ahead.  I attempt to take a curriculum that was built for conversations and face-to-face interactions and I attempt to transfer that onto an online forum. I create smaller versions of the charts that would hang in my classroom and I photograph them to share with my students. I create slideshows that model for my students the work that I am asking them to do that week. I record lesson after lesson after lesson in an attempt to provide my students with the instruction that will support them and move them forward in the way that I believe is best for them.  I spend hours recording the read alouds that I will post throughout the week because I believe that if anything can hold our community together while we are physically apart, it is a shared reading experience. I do all of this ahead of time because I have realized that it is the only way that I can manage this all and manage my own child as well.

And during the week, when my students need me, I find a way to be there. I have set up ways for us to check in with each other every day, I look through the work they are doing as they are doing it and I leave comments and feedback to make them feel seen and also to support them in moving forward in their work. I have created multiple platforms for them to use to stay connected to each other and I have found ways to let them know that I am connecting with them there as well. I am emailing with students and their families constantly. I am on the phone with parents when they need me. I have set up sessions with students who need extra support. I have set up one class meeting every week where we just check in and chat and look at each other’s pets. Often, my daughter joins us on these calls (and often that is the most stressful part of our week). I have set up an additional time during the week when students can Zoom with me if they have specific questions about their work that they need help with. And I have worked all of this around my own child and the schedule that we have.

It has been so much. But I found a way to make it work. I am exhausted. I am at the very edge of what I can manage. But I am making it work. Other teachers have found their own ways to make it work. One teacher spoke at our meeting about getting up at 5 am to get her work done before her own children woke up and before her husband, an essential worker, had to leave for the day. It is an awful way to live and an awful way to teach, but we are making it work. We have found a way to do it.

And that is good enough. 

Until we are told by the world that it isn’t enough.

That is why we are crying. Because so many of us are giving so much. We have been taking away time from our own families to be there for our students and their families. We are doing it not because it is all mandated, not because we have been told we have to do all these things, we are doing it because we love our kids. Our students and our own children at home. That love has pushed us to do more and to give more and for many of us there just isn’t another option.

And then yet somehow, we are made to feel, by the world, that it is still not enough.  

Sometimes that feeling comes from the media as article after article details the problems with the way teachers are teaching. Other times, that feeling comes from worried parents. Parents who are seeing their own children struggling, who are worried that schools are not doing enough to help them. Parents who go to Facebook or other social media outlets and begin to discuss. 

So through the media and social media people’s problems with educators are broadcast and other people want to fix them. And I get that sometimes it seems like these are easy problems to fix. Asking one more small thing of teachers shouldn’t be a big deal. Right?

Except the weight of those decisions are not always felt by the people who make them. Instead, oftentimes, they are felt intensely by those of us who are already standing on the very edge of what we are able to do and then are being asked to do just a little bit more. But that little bit more, comes on top of all the other work that we are already figuring out how to do. And suddenly, it feels impossible. A small ask, feels like a huge demand. And that is why there are tears. Because we are standing on the edge already and just one more thing has the capability of pushing us right over that edge.

Too often in education, mandates are made as quick reactions to complex problems. They often are attempts to quickly stop a problem before we even take the time to investigate that problem and how it is affecting our students and what variety of ways there might be to fix any needs that are not being met. 

Because if the conversation really centers around children, then we would start not with a mandate, but by, instead, asking questions like, “How are you allowing your students to feel a part of a community? How are you working to meet the needs of your students and their families? How are you checking in on your students mental health and well-being? How are you being there for your students?” And then we can have a conversation. We can work together, as a team of parents and teachers and students and administrators to think about the myriad of ways that we can support our students. We can honor the fact that our students are all different and we are all different and there is no one right way to do all of this.

But all of this is hard. All of this is messy. It seems easier, sometimes, to just make one, consistent rule and demand that everyone follow it.

But what I have learned is this, complex problems cannot be solved by simple rules and mandates. Difficult problems that seem to be solved simply have not really been solved at all. And I have never faced a teaching problem more difficult than the one we are currently in, so to think that there is any one easy answer or one way of doing things that is going to fix the problems that our students are facing, that seems impossible to me. 

Instead, what I think we need is to take a breath. To take a pause. To have difficult conversations. To listen to the realities that we are all living in. To hear the stories of others. Because, ultimately, I think that is what has helped my own district. We stopped. We listened to the stories of students and of parents and of teachers and of administrators and we used those stories to gain better understanding. And from a place of  better understanding, we are able to make better decisions. And when we lack understanding, we stop and reach out and ask for more stories. 

And I guess that is why I am writing this.  Because maybe someone will read it and it will help them to reach a little bit better of an understanding. 

Maybe there is a teacher who will read this who will feel a little bit less alone and maybe a little bit more seen.

Maybe there is a parent who will read this who will decide to reach out to their child’s teacher with concerns and to share their family’s story first with the teacher before turning to social media.

Maybe there is an administrator who will read this who was about to ask one more thing of their teachers and will instead decide to ask, “What are you already doing to support your students? How can I help you to do that?”

And maybe not. Maybe this was just for me. Because I needed it all to be said. And that will be good enough, too.

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

RUBRIC FOR WRITING ABOUT READING AT THE START OF THE YEAR (Student Samples Included)

RUBRIC FOR WRITING ABOUT READING AT THE END OF THE YEAR (Student Samples Included)

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.

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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

IMPORTANT NOTE: PLEASE READ BEFORE CONTINUING WITH THIS BLOG POST

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.

BeautifulGhetto!

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.

BeautifulGhetto2

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.