How am I supposed to confront white supremacy and racism on the first day of school?

In less than one week, my new groups of 5th graders will be heading through our classroom door. I love the start of the school year. It is filled with such anticipation, mixed with anxiousness, mixed with uncertainty, mixed with excitement. I love the possibility of a new school year, I love the way we, as a new classroom community, start to try to figure each other out as soon as we walk through the door. I love the way that we reach out, form connections and start to figure out the kind of classroom that we are going to be.

It is one of my favorite times of year.

And yet. This year. I am entering into the school year with a heavy heart. This world of ours. The ways we have failed to fix it and the ways we continue to mess it up. It is all weighing so heavily on so many of us. And it is my own privilege that has previously kept these feelings from me and it is my own privilege that makes this current state of being feel like something new, when, in fact, it is something as old as the country I call my home.

Like many other educators, I have promised to do better. I have spent time reading and educating myself and trying to figure out how I can discuss this world with my students. I have spent time trying to figure out how I can teach in a way that does not just promote kindness, but that actively works to dismantle the racist structures and systems that school has continued to promote for so long.

Because we have so much work to do. And, to be honest, there is no one that I would rather be engaged in this work with than a new group of kids. Kids give me so much hope because they are so willing to identify the things that are wrong and they are even more willing to look for ways to make those things right, or at least a bit more right. They are willing to engage in difficult conversations. They are willing to make themselves vulnerable. They are willing to admit they do not know it all. They are willing to struggle with difficult concepts in an attempt to understand the injustices that we can help them to see. In short, they give me hope. So I am looking forward to getting back to my students, because I know that they will be willing to join in me in this work.

And this work. It is on so many of our minds as we head back into the new school year. I have never heard so many educators engaged in so many conversations about race and racism and bias and identity. It is horrific that it has taken us this long, but I find myself now standing with more educators ready to do better than ever before.

And yet. There is a lot of uncertainty here. A lot of white educators, we have a lot to catch up on. We are woefully behind and ignorant on the very things that we now know that we need to help our students to understand. And that is a very uncomfortable feeling. Not as uncomfortable, might I add, as those who have been living and breathing and struggling with the consequences of white supremacy and racism for their entire lives, but for those of us whose privilege has kept us at a comfortable distance from discomfort, we are having a hard time adjusting. And sometimes that adjustment, it forces us to turn away. It pushes us back towards silence. Towards complacency.

But if we really mean what we say, if we really promise to do better and commit to social justice, then we have to find a way to lean into the discomfort and move forward. And do better.

But as we wrestle with these issues, we also find ourselves at the start of a new school year. For all of us, there is always an uncertainty about what has happened in our students lives over the summer. And this year, even more so. We do not know what our students will walk into our rooms knowing or not knowing. We do not know what our students will walk into our room having experienced personally or alongside their families. There is so much we do not yet know about our new students.

And so many of us are left asking: “How am I supposed to confront white supremacy and racism on the first day of school?”

This is the question that has been plaguing me for many nights and I have come to this space to try to make some sense of it all.

Here is where I land. We might not be ready to confront white supremacy and racism head on during the first week of school. But that does not mean that we do nothing. What we must do, instead, is start to build the foundation that will allow us to do that work in the days and weeks and months to come. And here are some ways that I hope to do that.

On the first day of the school year, I want my students to walk into our classroom for the very first time and feel a sense of calm. A shelter from this storm of a world that we have made for them. I want every single child to feel safe and to know that he or she or they belong here. If I were to ask my fifth grade students, on day one, to engage in conversations about racism and white supremacy, I would not be giving them a fair chance. Things would probably go poorly. There would be misunderstandings and hurt feelings and someone would probably walk away scared for the year to come.

Now let me be clear, this does NOT mean that I do not believe these conversations should be taking place in fifth grade. They should. And ultimately, in our classroom, they will.

But what I am trying to say is that we cannot expect to change the world on the first day of the school year. We cannot ask our students to have courageous conversations before we have made them feel as if this is a safe place to do so.

So what can we do? Where can we start? What can we do in our first minutes, hours and days of the school year that will allow us to create a place where we can confront white supremacy and racism with our students?

Here are some of things that have felt important to me:

From the minute my students walk through the door, I want to show them that the stories of white people are not the only stories valued, given worth and made visible in our classroom. To do this, every picture book that I read in the first week of school will have a person of color as a main character. This does NOT mean that I will only be reading books ABOUT race, this means that I will no longer allow the stories of white people and white characters to be the ones that my students see the most. We will read books like Jabari Jumps and One Word From Sophia and Come On, Rain and Mr. Lincoln’s Way. We will look at stories from the website Human of New York and we will look at stories that come from Iraq and Pakistan and Sudan and Brazil and Uganda. We will see that there are humans all over this world, some look like we do, some don’t, some live like we do, and some don’t, but we all have stories and those stories all have value and worth and in our classroom we will broaden our understanding of the world by valuing all stories.

From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are loved and accepted for exactly who they are. Because this much I know, children who know what it is like to be loved for who they are, have a much easier time loving others for exactly who they are. I will work hard to ensure that students’ various needs and wants are heard and I will do my best to meet those needs and wants. I will do this by asking for their input from the very first day. They will have choice in what they sit on or in, they will have choice in who they sit by, they will choice in how our first day will unfold. I do not pretend that allowing kids to choose where they will solve the problems of this world, but letting kids know that I understand they are all different and unique individuals will start to convince them that I see them for who they are and that who they are is loved and accepted here.

From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that I will work to get to KNOW who they are instead of making ASSUMPTIONS about who they are. Because this will model for them the way that they can work to overcome their own biases and assumptions by listening for and accepting as truth the stories that other people tell about themselves.  I will ask questions about their lives outside of school, about their families, about their traditions and about their homes instead of assuming that these are things that I already understand. I will also make sure to listen, very carefully, as they start to tell me about their lives. I will listen, very carefully, as they pronounce their names. First names and last names. And I will ask them to repeat their names, first names and last names, so that I am certain that I am saying them correctly and I will be hyper vigilant to assure that their classmates are saying them correctly as well.  Because a child’s name is the very first piece of their identity that they actively choose to share with me and by showing them that I value this piece of who they are enough to make sure that I get it right, I am modeling the importance of truly getting to know another human.

From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that their voices carry power.  Helping students believe that their words matter and that their thoughts and ideas matter, starts on day one and I truly believe that convincing our kids that they have things that are worth saying, helps them to learn to say much more important things. So from the first day, my students’ voices will craft our classroom vision statement, and I will ask them to lend their voices by telling their own stories so that we can begin to share these stories with the world in order to help the world better understand their lives.

From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are a part of a community. Because a student who feels connected to a community that is built on love, will be less likely to feel the need to seek out a community that is built on hate.  So from the first day, I will ask my students to work together. I will ask them to make things. Together. I will not allow them to choose to make something on their own. And I will promise to not swoop in the second there is a disagreement, because I want them to know that communities can disagree AND still find ways to work together. So there will be Lego building challenges and design challenges and STEM challenges where people with different ideas will need to come together in order to make one thing. There might be tension and there might be arguing and we will start to find our way through it all. Because I want my students to know that there will be tough moments in our classroom, we will not shy away from that which might make us uncomfortable, and we will come out on the other side stronger and better.

From the minute my students walk through the door, I will share myself with them. I will share my own stories. I will tell them who I am. I will tell them about my wife and my daughter and my, many, many pets. I will also tell them about my struggles, about my strengths and the things that scare me. Because if they do not see me as human and as imperfect, then they will never be willing to share their imperfections with me. And it is in our imperfections where we have the best chance of beginning to grow.

And from the minute my students walk through the door, there will be joy. Because if we do not have a foundation of joy in our classroom, then it will be hard to tackle the harder stuff. If we cannot stand on joy, then it will be harder for us to understand our responsibility to fight for those who have too many barriers to joy. Standing on the strength of our shared joy, we will be better able to tackle the things that are devoid of joy, the things that keep us awake at night, the things that cause us to doubt our own sense of hope.

And none of these things, by themselves, are particularly revolutionary. But what they create is a strong foundation. A foundation that will support us through the difficult work that we are going to do this year. Because as so many others have said, and much more intelligently than me, we have some very difficult work to do this year. And we are going to need to do it together and trust in each other and make ourselves vulnerable in front of each other and maybe we are not ready to do on day one, but the things that we are ready to do on day one will set the tone for the year and prepare us for what will come.

 

I Hope We Will Remember

There were a lot of promises made this summer. It seems that each time our country was faced with another example of the injustice we are willing to tolerate, many educators, though still not enough, made promises to do better.

This summer, educator conferences, for the first time since I have been watching, finally seemed to be elevating and amplifying the voices of those who have been doing the hard social justice work day after day in classrooms and schools, but who had been silenced for far too long. It prompted long over-due conversations and forced many educators, though still not enough, to stop and think about the silencing they were allowing and promoting in their own classrooms. And educators made promises to do better.

This summer, we watched another police officer receive a not guilty verdict for the murder of a black man that was live streamed across the internet.  Again a police officer walked away and an entire community was left in pain when once again confronted by a justice system that feels anything but just. It forced many educators, though still not enough, to think about the ways that we deal with justice and punishments and discipline in our own classrooms and how, so often, it feels anything but just. And educators made promises to do better.

This summer, the transgender military ban hit so many of us so hard right in the middle of our hearts. With the attempted erasure of an entire group of people from the military, many educators. though still not enough, were forced to think about the erasure of this same group of people from their own classrooms. And educators made promises to do better.

This summer, we watched an apologetic and regretful response from a police department after a black police officer shot and killed a white woman that was heartbreakingly different than the typical dismissive, defensive and dehumanizing response that we are used to seeing when a white police officer shoots and kills a black man or woman.  And many educators, though still not enough, were forced to think about the ways that we unfairly and unjustly respond differently to students and families in our schools because of their race or culture or language or country of origin. And educators made promises to do better.

This summer, we saw portions of the immigration ban go into effect, we saw families deal with threats of being ripped apart because people who have lived in this country for years now faced deportation, we saw children and parents rounded up on their way to school or to prom and many educators, though still not enough, were forced to think about who felt welcome not just in this country, but in their own classrooms. And educators made promises to do better.

This summer, we have seen a lot of injustice and so many of us, though still not enough, have made commitments to do better. We have made commitments to social justice. We have made commitments  and promises to teach in a better way, that will do better for more students, that will do better for this world.

And what I am hoping for now is that we will remember these promises.

I hope we will remember them when we are confronted by and overwhelmed with all of the content that we are supposed to teach.

I hope we will remember them when we get that first parent phone call questioning a text we read or a statement we made or a conversation that we had in class.

I hope we will remember them when our colleagues ask us how we are supposed to find time to teach “all of this” when we already have so much on our plates.

I hope we will remember them when our children don’t say the perfect things at first because no one has ever trusted them with these kinds of conversations before.

I hope we will remember them when start to feel the discomfort of not knowing the exact right words to use or the exact right things to say.

I hope we will remember them when conversations don’t go as planned and no resolutions are reached.

I hope we will remember them when we are questioned by administrators because what we are doing makes people uncomfortable.

Because this work, these promises, this commitment to social justice. It. Is. Hard. What is easy is to react to crisis with promises to do better. What is easy is to sit behind your computer and write about how you are going to do better. What is hard is the actual doing of that work. Because it is messy and uncomfortable and there never, ever, seem to be the exact right words.

And to do this work, you have to rethink everything you know about the way that you teach. You have to seek out the voices of others who know more and do more than you do. You have to admit that you have not been doing enough. You have to take the time to learn to do better and plan to do better. And you cannot expect others to do the work for you. And as the brilliant Dr. Dana Stachowiak said in one of the most powerful blog posts I have read this summer, we cannot wait for a crisis in order to commit to the work of social justice.

And there is not a whole lot of glory in this work. Not a whole lot of people say thank you for it.

But what you do end up with, is something much better than glory. You end up being a part of a classroom community that is doing the work that is going to one day change this world. You get to stand hand in hand with kids and lean into discomfort in a way that makes all of you stronger and better and more qualified to fight the good fight.  But you have to remember the promises that you are making and take them into the school year with you.

So in this moment, in these precious days before the next school year starts, I suggest that you find some time to sit with the feelings of injustice that you have felt this summer. And then write down the ways that you actually want to do better in your own schools and classrooms. Write them down just for yourself or write them down in a blog post and share them with the world. What are you going to do better this year? What do you need to teach your children so that they can go out and change the world? Write them down so that you can look at them later and find ways to weave them into your daily instruction. When the deadlines are approaching, when the grades are due to be submitted, when the parents are calling, when the administrators are questioning, write them down so that you can look back and remember why you are committing to this work and what, exactly, you are committing to do.

I plan to do this myself and I will share my list in an upcoming blog post. I encourage you to share your lists as well. Online or with a coworker or with an administrator or even with your own students, somewhere so that you can hold yourself accountable. Because it is so easy to make promises on your computer, during the summer, but now we need to take those promises and turn them into the hard work that will actually change our world.

 

 

 

 

 

A Letter To My Students At The End Of A Tough Year In This World

Dearest Students and Families,

This year has been a hard one. You and I have been surrounded by a lot of tough news stories and a lot of tough realities to face. The world around us has seemed a bit more cruel this year and a bit more difficult to find the good in. There were some days when it seemed as if the hate was winning, as if love was having a harder and harder time winning.

And those were the days, those were the moments, when I was most grateful to walk into our classroom and to be surrounded by you.  Because just when the world had done its best to convince me that there was more darkness than light, you all showed me that it was, in fact, quite the opposite. You all, time and time again, restored my hope in this world and allowed me to continue to believe that people were inherently good.

This year, you have been my light.

Every time you have been willing to grapple with tough questions and search for tough answers, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we no longer just accept things as they always have been.

Every time you engaged in discussion about what we can learn from listening to the stories that other people share, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we use technology to truly connect us to other human beings instead of using it to tear them down.

Every time you were willing to confront your own assumptions and challenge them in order to push beyond them, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we accept that we all have biases and then work to move ourselves to a place where they do not affect the way we treat others.

Every time you have challenged yourselves to read a book that is about a character or a person who does not look like you or live like you, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we are empathetic to all people and not only those who are just like us.

Every time you have used your words and your writing to ask for change in order to create a better place for us all to live, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where people no longer sit quietly while there are wrongs to make right.

Every time you have discussed an issue that adults have said is too controversial or too confusing for children to understand, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we stop seeing human lives as controversial and start seeing them simply as people.

Every time you have been willing to question instead of just accept the things that you are told, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we are no longer content to consume information without first critically evaluating it.

Every time you have been able to recognize that voices are not being heard and then go out of your way to uncover those hidden voices, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we are no longer content to be complicit in the silencing of those who have been pushed to the margins for too long.

Every time you have been willing to make yourselves vulnerable in order to grow, you have given me hope that this world can become a place where we no longer feel the need to proclaim that we know it all and we are instead willing to listen to those who know much more than we do in order to reach a better place of understanding.

And every single time you have spoken up in outrage at an injustice that you have allowed yourselves to see in this world, you have given me hope that this world can be a place where we begin to raise our collective voices in order to demand a more just and more equitable way to live.

So as the year draws to a close, please know that I am grateful for how much you have all grown as readers and as writers. That is of the utmost importance to me. But I am far more grateful for all of the hope that you have given me for this world of ours. Because I know that you will be the ones leading our world in the future and you have given me such comfort in knowing that our world is in good hands. And that is of the utmost importance to this world.

And while I am not quite ready to share you with this world, I am so eager for you to get out there and make it a better place. Together we have built a foundation for you to stand on as you continue to reach towards justice and reach towards goodness. Now it is up to you. And I have so much faith in what you all will do with this world.  And always know that I will be here waiting and watching you change the world.

With all my love,

Mrs. Lifshitz

On Technology

I have been thinking a lot about technology lately. And its role and place in our classrooms.

I believe that technology has the potential to make this world a better place to live in. I am not really talking about the technological advancements that have saved lives in terms of medical innovations, communication abilities, disaster relief possibilities etc. I am thinking about how technology has the potential to make us better people and to make this world a kinder, more just place to live.

I believe that technology is responsible for bringing people together. For starting revolutions. For building new communities for people who previously went without one. For allowing access to the stories of those whose lives were previously unknown to us. For capturing moments of gross injustice and making it impossible for the world to pretend that these moments do not exist. For allowing people to have their voices heard. For confronting the public with the truth when those in charge have tried to hide the truth from us. In so many ways, technology is allowing us to do more than we have ever done before.

And of course, with that advancement, with that growth, we see consequences. One of the most important things that I try to teach my students is that there is very rarely, if ever, growth without consequence. In order to gain something, something, most often, must be lost. If ever we are shown only the benefits or only the growth, we know that there is something we are not seeing and it is our responsibility to dig deeper. And, of course, this rings true with technology.

As technology has brought our world closer together, it has also provided opportunity for us to be meaner and crueler to one another. As much as it has made us think, it also has the potential to distract us and stop us from thinking. As things have become quick and easy, we have also become more willing to pull away from those things that require time and careful thought. Of course there are consequences.

But the thing about being honest about the consequences of technology is that, for me, at least, their mere existence does not take away from the good that technology can do for this world. And no where do I feel that is more true than in our classrooms.

Here are just some of the things that I have seen technology do for my own students:

Technology has allowed us to share our voices with the world. Technology has given us a way to do more than hang our work up in the hallways of our school. Technology has allowed us access to a global audience so that our work has more meaning and purpose.

Technology has allowed quieter students to have their voices heard by their classmates.  Technology has allowed those with brilliant ideas to share, who often struggle to find ways to share them out loud, to add their ideas in real time as we communicate with each other in new ways.

Technology has filled a void in children’s literature. The much researched and much documented lack of  stories from marginalized groups of people that exists in children’s literature made it difficult for me to bring stories into my classroom that accurately reflect the world that we live in. Technology has allowed us access to those stories and it has allowed us access to the stories of people who have been previously marginalized by this world being told by the actual people who are living them. This has been one of the greatest benefits that technology has given to us.

Technology has allowed us to bring the world into our classroom. Technology has allowed us access to the things that are going on in this world that I believe that my students need to know about and I have seen my students WANT to learn about. The events that unfold over minutes and hours and days can be learned about because of the access that technology provides us.  No longer do we need to wait for books to be published, we can watch the world unfold around us as we learn how to best learn about it all.

Technology has connected us to others who live outside of the borders of our town. Technology has allowed us to find communities where we feel like we belong even if we feel lonely amongst the people we see face-to-face every day. Technology has allowed students to find others with common interests and to connect with others who are living experiences that have previously left children feeling isolated and alone.

Technology has given independence to those students who used to have to rely on others to decode for them or scribe for them. Technology has provided us with a variety of ways to access texts and videos and has given students so many more ways to gain information on their own, without needing to rely on the accommodations provided by another adult.

Technology has allowed my students to create. To follow their passions. To become the experts. To do something new. To problem solve. To experiment. To fail and learn that it is okay to try again. These opportunities, and so many more, have been enhanced by the technology that has been brought into our classroom.

And yet.

I worry.

I worry about what happens when we lead with the devices. And I worry that we are willing to do that too often. When we put the devices first and then ask the learning to follow. When we replace deep and critical thinking with flashy apps that are not much more than fun.

Because while technology has the power to be fun, I want the learning in my classroom to be more than that.

Too often, when we think engaging, we think of fun. And, yes, of course, that needs to be a part of what we do. But when I think about when my students are most deeply engaged in their work, it has NOTHING to do with the device that is in front of them. And it is always more than just fun.

My students are most engaged in their work when they are grappling with things that matter. They are most engaged in their work when they are confronted by problems and are left searching for solutions. They are most engaged in their work when they are learning to recognize the injustice that exists in this world and when they come to believe with their entire being that they have the power to do better and to be better.

And, yes, we often rely on technology to help us to do this work. But the work comes first. What I want for my students, my goals for their learning, what I want them to know how to go out and do in the world outside of our classroom, that is what I need to know first. And then, and only then, can we search out the technology and the tools that we need to do that learning.

I do not want to be handed a device and then later figure out what I can do with it.

I do not want to be shown four different apps that provide me and my students with flashier ways to do what we are already able to do.

I do not want a device that has the ability to do one million and five new things when what I want more than anything is simply a way to bring the world in and our voices out.

I do not want to limit our creativity to what we can do with a fancy new device. Instead I want my students to know the power of choosing the right tool for the right task. Sometimes, yes, that tool will be an electronic device, but it might also be a marker or a cardboard box or a can of paint or a poster.

And let me be clear, I am all for change, I am all for learning new things, I am all for following my students and seeing all that they can figure out how to do, I just want to make sure that before all of that, our purpose is clear. That our goals are established. That the learning comes first and that the device is merely another tool that can help us to achieve that learning and meet that purpose.

Because what I know is this. If we spend more time developing plans for the devices that our students are using and less time developing the minds of the humans that are sitting behind those devices, then this world is in big trouble.

If we do not worry first about developing a sense of empathy in our students, then they will  be more likely to use their technology to destroy communities instead of building them.

If we do not worry first about teaching students to think critically about the information that they are being given, then they will believe everything they read and their minds will be more likely to be weakened instead of strengthened.

If we do not worry first about helping students see the responsibility that we all have to be kind to one another and take care of one another, then they will see their devices as a way to hurt instead of heal.

If we do not worry first about teaching students to search and demand to hear voices that are missing from stories being told, then our students will use their devices to perpetuate inaccurate versions of the truth of our world.

And if we do not worry first about teaching students to listen to those who are begging to be heard, then our students will use their devices to amplify their own voices while silencing those around them.

There are so many things that technology can help us to do, but it can not ever replace our ability to think. And so we need to start there with our students. With their ways of thinking. We need to teach them to do that which will make our world a better place and there are so many ways that technology can help us and them to do that. But we have to start in the right place. We have to start with our students first and layer in the technology that allows them to do their best and be their best.

Because there will always be a cool new device. There will always be a cool new app. There will always be something better and faster and capable of doing more. And in order to ensure that our students will grow up to know how to use those new things for good, we need to teach them to do good in this world first and then worry about the tools that will help them to go out there and do just that.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do?

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

So that is what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

I then handed out two additional texts to my students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we started to read.

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

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

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

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

Today I Heard A Hero Speak

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

This man. He. Is. Inspiration. Embodied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then keep going.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We began this chart: IMG_8505

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

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

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

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

The Not Thinking About It. That Is The Problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8112IMG_8114IMG_8115IMG_8116

 

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

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

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

Summary 5Summary 6Summary 7Summary 8Summary 9Summary 10Summary 3Summary 1Summary 2Summary 4

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

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

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

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

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

Summary 5Summary 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8116

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

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

And then I told them that I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7992

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

IMG_7995

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

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

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

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

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

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