I wrote this reflection for Education Week after the horrific events in Parkland, Fl. I wrote it because, yes, it is a scary time to be a teacher AND I have never felt luckier to be a teacher. What a privilege it is. Feel free to check out the post HERE:
One of the greatest changes that I have made in my own fifth grade classroom came when I stopped looking at writing as a skill that I needed to teach my students and instead refocused on writing as a tool to empower my students. For example, instead of simply teaching students how to write good stories from their own lives, I began to look for ways that I could empower students to use writing as a way to show the world who they are by the stories that they choose to tell to the world. The shift not only raised the level of engagement, but it also helped my students to see real purpose in their writing and to better master the writing skills being taught because they were more eager to incorporate these skills into the meaningful and purposeful work that they were doing through their own writing.
And so, when we began our opinion writing unit a few weeks ago, I knew that I needed to begin by helping my students to see opinion writing as a tool that empowered them to fight for the changes that they wanted to see in the world. Too often, students talk about opinion writing in a way that feels completely detached from their own lives. They speak of the prompts that they have been assigned, the positions that they have been forced to take and defend, the articles that they were told to read that became the basis of a piece of writing centering an opinion that did not originate from any lived experience, but rather from a teacher’s need to collect evidence, in a standardized fashion, of the writing skills that a child possessed. In an attempt to “level the playing field” and “give every child the same background knowledge” about a topic, we have removed all evidence of the passion that can exist behind a piece of opinion writing. And thus, our students are left with only the belief that writing is something you do because it is an assignment and not because you care deeply enough that you are compelled to write in order to demand a change.
And that is what I wanted to help my students to rediscover. The passion behind their writing. The act of writing because you have something that you are compelled to say. The process of writing in order to have your voice heard about an issue that you feel deeply about. And here is the thing. Who am I to decide what issues students will feel passionately about? And how will that help them in the world beyond our classroom?
So as we began to dig into our work as writer of opinions, I decided to begin in a place that is worthy of our time: the change that we want to see in our world. Because these kids are FILLED with ideas and wishes about what they would like to change. These kids are filled with passionate opinions. And yet, why is it that when faced with the task of writing their own opinions, they are quick to say, “I have nothing to write about.” I think that it is mostly our fault. We have made them feel as if their opinions are not worthy of writing about. We have made them feel as if the only opinions that will make great writing topics are the ones that are assigned by a teacher or the ones that are based on an article that they have been given to read. These beings that are filled to the brim with passionate opinions have been made to feel as if those opinions are the kinds of opinions that they should write about.
So I wanted to begin by helping them to rediscover all of the changes that they want to see in their own world and in our greater world and then use those desires for change to motivate them to write.
As with most other forms of writing, the best way I knew how to help students to see the purpose of writing was to bring in mentor texts that showed the many purposes for writing beyond the walls of a classroom. So our unit began with time for exploration. I put together file folders filled with examples of writing that was motivated by a desire to see a change occur in the world. THIS DOCUMENT CONTAINS THE DIFFERENT PIECES OF WRITING THAT EACH GROUP WAS GIVEN. For several days, students worked together in groups to analyze these pieces of writing. HERE IS THE DOCUMENT THEY USED TO THINK ABOUT THE PIECES OF WRITING.
And then after a few days of seeing how writing can be used to ask for change, we then started to think about the changes that WE would like to see in our worlds. And I asked them to think about their worlds in three different ways. I asked them to think about their lives at home, their lives at school and also the world beyond their own lives at home and at school. Because here is the thing. Yes. I want all students to learn to write in order to demand change in big ways. To demand the kind of change that makes our world a better place. But just because that is what I want, it does not mean that it is what they are all ready for. Ultimately, I want my students to know that their voices deserve to be heard and that one way that they can be heard is through writing. However, some of my students will need to learn that first by writing about topics that are close to home. And then they can work their way up to writing about more global topics.
So I give them that choice.
I know that by the end of our unit, all students will have experience writing about complex social issues, because this writing unit will eventually merge with the inquiry circle work that we are doing. (You can read about last year’s inquiry circle work starting in THIS BLOG POST). So, for now, I want to give each child a chance to experience what it feels like to really write about something that is truly meaningful to them. Even if that means that a handful of students are writing to their parents to ask for a new puppy. If that feels meaningful, then I want them to experience that. And truth be told, last year SEVERAL new puppies were added to several families because of their children’s opinion writing. No joke. Talk about seeing the power of your writing.
So, when it is time to start brainstorming, THIS IS THE FORM that I model using and then ask my students to use. And I give my students lots of time to just talk about the changes that they would like to see at home, at school and in the world beyond home and school. And, my goodness, can you hear their passions come to life. Rarely do the writing discussions in my classroom feel as energized as when I allowed my students space to talk about the things that they would like to see changed in the world.
And once that passion was released, then we simply had to channel it into good writing. And that is what we would work on next. I will be back soon to write about our next steps of this work.
It is dizzying to look back on this past year. Truly. When I reach back to this time last year, it feels so far away. In so many ways this past calendar year has exhausted me and in so many other ways it has energized me. These are the moments I am most grateful for this little blog. Because within the confines of my tiny corner of the internet, I have stored a year’s worth of emotion and reflection and good, good work done by children.
So for this last blog post of the year, I simply want to gather here the most read blog posts from this past year. I have reread each one as I rediscovered it and I have been moved by all that they hold. So here we go. A year in blog posts:
This post describes how we used our memoir unit in order to learn how to learn from the stories that other people tell. And, more importantly, how the unjust systems of power that we are a part of allow some stories to be heard more than others and how, as readers, we can work to fix this by seeking out and amplifying those stories that have, too often, gone unheard.
This post details the final weeks of our inquiry circle work during our last school year. At the end of this long post is the story of one of my all time very favorite moments of teaching.
This post actually describes the work that we did at this time last school year when students chose topics for their inquiry circle work. The post describes one of my strongest beliefs that inquiry allows us to dig deep into tough issues without the fear of others saying we are pushing our political beliefs on our students.
This post describes our work with the idea of stories as mirrors and windows and a description of how Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops’s work informed the work we do in class. The end of the post describes how my students looked through our own classroom library in order to find books that allowed them to see themselves reflected in some way. It also laid the groundwork for our discussions on how some groups of people have traditionally had a much easier time seeing themselves reflected in the books they read than other groups.
This post includes the text from my section of the amazing NCTE session I was lucky enough to be a part of. It was an absolute highlight of my professional life.
This post describes the work we did last school year in order to learn how to combat biased news and our own limited understanding of tough topics by turning what we think we know into questions that drive us to seek out more information.
This post describes my own struggles to feel as if I am “enough” as a teacher and the way I was able to reconcile my feelings of inadequacy last year.
This post describes the work we did last school year as we analyzed texts in order to see how they had the power to either reinforce or push us beyond the biases and stereotypes we hold about people in this world.
This post describes how we used the images on the covers of picture books in order to reveal our own biases so that we could begin to confront them, understand how they were formed and then work to break them down.
This post was written just days before the start of this current school year and in many ways it still carries the tone of the school year thus far. Rereading it reminded me of the important work we do every day.
And one that did not make the cut of being one of the most read posts, but the one I think is most important for me to carry into this coming year…
And there you go. A year in blog posts. This year has been tough and exhausting and, at times, it has been difficult to remain hopeful. But in many ways, this year only served to show us all what we always have been here in this country. And now that we are clearer about who we are and who we have been, we are better able to rise up and fight to turn ourselves into a better version of all of that. So it is with eager anticipation that I walk into the year 2018. I am ready to join hands with my students, lock arms with fellow educators, and work to make this world a better place.
A warning: this post will be a mess. Because my thoughts are a mess. Because sometimes when anger and frustration take over, my words just need to come out and I cannot worry about their coherence. And so, here we go.
We work in the service of children.
We do not work in the interest of preserving the comfort of adults.
This past year, over and over again, I have heard story after story about teachers who have been told to wait. I join those teachers, as I have been told to wait as well. When we push to confront issues of equity or push to make our classrooms more inclusive or demand that others work to make their classrooms more inclusive or work to bring out difficult conversations that we know will move us forward towards teaching in more just spaces and in more just ways, we have been told to wait.
Wait for board policies to be written.
Wait for parents to be on board.
Wait for a committee to form.
Wait for that committee to craft a vision statement.
Wait for us to let the parents know what we plan to do.
Wait to ask for permission from adults.
And every time I have been told to wait, and every time I hear the stories of others who have been told to wait, I question what it is we are really waiting for.
And then, quickly, I realize the answer. We are waiting for adults to be ready. We are waiting for adults to be comfortable.
But we know how that story goes. Adults, at least those whose comfort we are so worried about protecting, those adults will never be ready. It will never be the right time. It will never be the right moment. Because the truth is that we have missed the right moment. We have missed the right time. We are now so far past when we should have been doing this work that we have absolutely no right to wait any longer.
Because what happens to our children while we wait?
As our schools continue to operate as oppressive systems where not all children feel safe, where not all children feel valued, where not all children have equal access to the learning that we are trying to do. As we continue to perpetuate these systems, what happens to our children?
I’ll tell you what happens. Children continue to suffer. They continue to feel as if they have to hide a piece of who they are in order to make the adults around them more comfortable. They continue to feel as if who they are is not appropriate for the classroom, that it should come with some kind of a permission slip, that other children need parent permission before they know that people like them exist. They continue to be denied the opportunity to see people just like them reflected in the books that they read and the curriculum they are taught. They continue to be forced into boxes that do not feel as if they were ever made to fit them. They continue to have to make choices between options that only make them feel worse. They continue to feel as if it is their job to make those around them comfortable, even if that means denying their own identity and stuffing the very best pieces of themselves far down inside.
And not only that. It is not only the children whose identities are not valued by our educational system who are suffering. Those who are a part of the groups privileged enough to have always been seen by our schools, they are suffering too. They are being denied a chance to learn about the people who exist in this world and it leaves them ill-equipped to interact with those people with compassion and empathy. And so they are turning out to be cruel. They are being denied a chance to learn about the inequity and imbalance of power that has existed in this country since its inception so that they are left with no knowledge of the systems that have given them privilege and they are left with feelings of entitlement and an inability to work to fix the systems they are a part of. They are suffering too.
And our world. Our whole is suffering while we wait for the adults to feel ready. While we wait to make certain adults more comfortable.
And in the mean time. Children continue to take their own lives because they do not feel seen by our world. Children continue to leave our school systems and are left to fend for themselves in this world. Children continue to rail against the systems that oppress them and end up in jail because of it. Why does that all of that make people feel comfortable? Why are we okay with that? Why does that not send us running towards change?
It is the fear. I understand that. We fear that parents won’t understand what we are doing. We fear that administrators won’t support us. We fear that families will complain.
But we have been here before. We know how to move forward in spite of the fear that parents won’t understand. In a million different ways we have moved forward before.
In small ways. Yes. But in ways that can teach us something about the path forward.
Think about something as small as inventive spelling. When our schools began to support the use of a child’s inventive spelling, we saw the power of that decision. We saw that it opened up the world of writing for children. We saw that they wrote more, that they developed stronger writing identities, that they moved along the developmental path of writing much more quickly when they were not held back by the spelling. We saw the power of that work and so we moved forward into it before many of the adults around us were ready. And parents were terrified. They imagined that their children would never learn how to spell. There were phone calls and meetings and conferences. And there was confusion and questions and anger.
And yet. We moved forward because we knew it was right. We moved forward because we saw what this work could do for our children. We did not wait for all of the adults to be ready. Because we knew that this was good for kids.
And I know that this work is much scarier than that.
But, in the same ways, with perhaps a bit more bravery, we can move forward with this work too. With the work of creating more inclusive classrooms. With the work of helping students see the racist and homophobic and transphobic and Islamaphobic systems that they are a part of. We can move forward. Because we know that it is good for our children. We know that it is good for this world. We have seen the power of this work and we can move forward and trust that we can help the adults around us to see the power of this work as well, even before they think they are ready.
We can tell them about the power of this work. We can tell them the evidence we have seen. We can tell them that we have seen children able to learn more successfully when who they are is acknowledged in our schools and in our classrooms. We can tell them about how we have seen children wrestle with tough topics and end up in places of compassion and empathy. We can tell them that introducing our students to characters of all kinds in books gives them an opportunity to learn to ask questions respectfully so that they are more prepared to respectfully encounter people of all kinds in this world. We can tell them how they have learned to disagree respectfully. We can tell them how they have learned to identify bias and work to move beyond it. We can tell them how they have learned to question what they read. We can tell them how they have learned to ask whose voices are not being heard and then work to seek those voices out. We can tell them about the communities that we are able to build and sustain. About the work that we are able to help our students do.
We can make them believe that they are ready by showing them that their children have always been ready.
We do not have to wait until the adults arrive at comfort. We can meet them where they are, in their state of discomfort, and we can guide them forward by letting the students and their work lead the way.
Because I am sick of waiting. I am sick of others being okay with waiting. We have waited for far too long. So long, that this past week, I had to watch as my own government heard arguments about whether people like me deserve the right to be served by businesses and business owners who claim that their religion prevents them from accepting that I am a human being worthy of service. And as I have watched that story unfold, again, our children are watching it unfold as well. And if that is the only story they are hearing, if that kind of hatred is not tempered in our schools by stories of acceptance and inclusion and positive representation, then we can no longer act surprised when hatred wins the white house. We can no longer claim we don’t know how this could have happened. Us. Us and our waiting is how this has happened.
And if we wait until everyone is ready for change. Then change is never going to come.
This past weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of attending NCTE in St. Louis. I also had the absolute honor of being a part of a powerful presentation with incredible humans. Each one of us shared our personal story and then shared how we have been able to connect that personal story to our work as educators in order to do better for our students and for our teaching.
What our presentation reminded me is that there is such power in sharing our voices and our stories and our selves. Our whole selves. And I have not been doing a very good job of that on this blog this year. I have continued to share my work in my classroom, but I have quieted my voice as a gay educator. I suppose there have been many reasons. Perhaps because the world feels less safe. Perhaps because my own school has felt less safe. Perhaps just because I have been tired.
But this weekend reminded me of the power of sharing my voice. It reminded me that sharing our own stories not only helps others and helps our students, but sharing our own stories also helps us. To grow. To live fully. To be whole in this world.
So with that in mind, here is the story that I shared on Sunday…
I want to tell you a story.
This story takes place in 2012.
This story is about my wife, Carla, and I on our honeymoon in California. On the last night of our honeymoon, we checked into a bed and breakfast in Half Moon Bay, about 30 minutes outside of San Francisco. The next morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast and we saw two other people already standing in the dining room waiting to eat. After a moment, the woman walked over and said good morning and introduced herself and her husband.
I responded with a smile and then she looked at Carla and looked back at me and I will never forget the words that she uttered. “So”, she said, “are you traveling just you and your son?” There was a moment or two of silence as I tried to figure out what she could possibly mean. There were no children anywhere in the room. In fact, there were no other people in the room, at all, besides this woman and her husband and Carla and me. And with all that information in mind, it finally started to dawn on me. She thought Carla was my son.
How could this be? I wondered. How could she look at my wife and I and reasonably jump to the conclusion that we were mother and son? It didn’t make any sense to me.
Somehow. The moment passed. We moved on. But the moment didn’t really pass. It stuck with me for months. And for months I wondered how it could have happened. Until one day, I found myself again thinking about that moment and I suddenly remembered something I had learned back in undergrad. I remembered what the famous child psychologist, Jean Piaget, had to say about the way children acquire new language and understand new concepts.
What he found was that when children encounter something new, they try to match it with something that they already know. Piaget called the things that we already know, our schema. When children are not able to find something in their schema that matches the new thing they are encountering, they may try to match it with something that is close. This is called assimilation. So, for example, when a child sees a cow for the first time, she might not know the word and may try to match that new thing (in this case the cow) with something in her schema that is close. Something else that might be large, have four legs, and a tail. She might refer to this new thing as a horse because it is the closest thing that she has in her schema to a cow.
Now at this point in the story, it might sound like I am trying to equate my wife and I to horses and cows, but I am not.
What I do think, however, is that Piaget’s theories help to explain how this woman could have gotten my wife and I so very wrong.
I believe that when she saw us, she knew, somehow we were family. Maybe it was the way we stood or the way we spoke or the way we looked at each other. But the kind of family that we were, didn’t match any of the schemas she carried with her about family. We didn’t look like any of the images of family that she had ever been exposed to and had stored in her mind. So she tried, without realizing it, to match us to the closest schema that she could find. And the closest thing that she could come up with was mother and son.
Perhaps, this woman, who probably meant no ill intent, had such a narrow understanding of family and we just did not fit into it. So in a desperate attempt to match us to what she already knew, she ended up erasing who we really were. And she tried to shove us into her existing schema so that she felt comfortable, so that she experienced what Piaget referred to as equilibrium.
And then I also thought about all that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told us in her brilliant TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” about how we are limited by the single stories that we are told about entire groups of people and about how we broaden our understanding of the world by broadening the range of the stories that we are exposed to.
And that led me to wonder. What would have happened if this same woman, maybe when she was a child in somebody’s classroom somewhere, had been shown a wider variety of images of what family meant? What if she had heard a wider variety of stories that helped her to understand the many ways that people could be a family? If she had carried a wider variety of images around with her in her schema would she have had an easier time seeing us for who we really were?
And if this wider variety of stories would have made a difference in how she interacted with us is it possible that a wider variety of stories can also make a difference in the way our own students go out into this world and interact with other humans?
I believe the answer to this is yes. I believe that it is not only possible, but that it is necessary for us, as teachers, to change the way our students interact with other humans by bringing a wide variety of stories about a wide variety of people into our classrooms. I believe that it is necessary that our students grow up knowing so many more stories than this one woman knew. And not just about gay people or about family. They need to hear a variety of stories about all of the people that we share this world with.
Because if there is any hope for this world, it lies in the hands of our students. And we need to arm them with the stories that will fight against the stereotyped messages that they are surrounded by. We need to arm them with the stories told by the people themselves who are living them. So let’s bring them more stories.
More stories about people who are Native.
More stories about people with disabilities.
More stories of people who are Muslim.
More stories of people who are Black.
And if we can do this. If we can bring in more stories and if we can create wider definitions of who people and groups of people are then our students will have such a variety of images stored in their minds and in their understandings that they will no longer be able to meet a human being and see them as only just one thing. They will no longer need to erase the person standing in front of them in order to shove that person into the narrow definitions that they carry inside. Instead, they will have to look at the human standing in front of them and see them, simply, for who they are.
And that is the kind of world that I want my own kid to grow up in. Because that is how this story ends.
Now my family looks like this. Now our daughter, Millie, is at the very center of our story. And every day I try desperately to make this world a better place so that she doesn’t have to grow up in a world where people carry narrow definitions of family that do not have space for her or for us.
It is the reason why every year, I come out all over again to a new group of students as I show them pictures of my wife and my daughter on the very first day of school. Every year, I still get nervous. Every year, I still wait for the phone to ring and for a parent to complain. But every year, I share my story with my students because that is just one more story for them to know. That is just one more step in fixing this very broken world that we are living in.
Before I even start this post, let me just stop and give thanks to the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” provided a pivotal turning point for me as an educator and as a human and continues to act as such for my students each year. All of the work that is described here was inspired by her work and her words and her wisdom. I know that as of late, there have been problematic comments made by Adichie towards the transgender community. I struggle with those comments. I disagree with them and I am still wrestling with how to make peace with that (as a side note, I found THIS ARTICLE really helpful in coming to terms with it all).
For now, I continue to be inspired by her words and remain in awe of the affect they have on my fifth grade students.
As I wrote in my LAST BLOG POST, we have been studying at how we can learn from the stories that other people tell. We have been learning how to listen to the stories of other and use those stories to spark questions that we can seek answers to in order to gain a better and deeper understanding about the world around us. We first did this work with the picture book Stepping Stones which led us into a three week guided inquiry on Syrian refugees.
Since we had grown a much deeper understanding of Syrian refugees, I wanted to build on that work and show my students that understanding one refugee, from one country, still only gives us an extremely limited and narrow glimpse into the lives of refugees overall.
So I brought back out the story Stepping Stones and then also brought out the picture book Two White Rabbits. Two White Rabbits tells the story of a father and daughter who are leaving, what we are lead to believe, Mexico or a country in Central America and are traveling north towards the United States. The author’s note gives additional information on refugees from this area.
After reading this book to my students, I introduced them to the phrase, “The danger of a single story.” I told them that these words were not mine, but words that we would work to understand over the next few days. I asked them to think about what those words might mean and how our knowledge of Syrian refugees might actually be problematic as we attempt to understand refugees from another part of the world. Here are the charts that we made that tracked the brilliant thinking that my students shared:
The next day, we watched parts of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story.” Whenever we watch TED talks in class, I always print out the transcript so that we can go back into the text later as we discuss the speech. HERE IS THE MODIFIED transcript that I handed to my students. It only includes the sections that we watched.
After watching the TED talk, which my students absolutely loved and were fascinated by, we went back to our charts and talked further about what we understood the danger of a single story to be and mean. Again, their comments were inspiring and hopeful and showed a real growth in their thinking.
After talking about the idea of single stories, it was time to take a look at some actual examples. So we began by taking a closer look at the single story often told about Native American people. I wanted to first give students a visual to represent the single story that is often told about an entire group of people. So we began with a Google image search. Several years ago, I was introduced to the idea of using Google image searches in order to reveal misconceptions and biases that are often associated with terms that we search. In many ways, these image searches can reveal to us the single stories that our society holds of a variety of people and places. So I typed Native Americans into our Google image search and displayed the results for my students to look at.
As they viewed the results, I asked them to use THIS FORM in order to write down what they noticed as they looked at this representation of the single story often told about Native people. I then asked them to share their observations. Some of the observations that my students made were that almost every image looked like it was from a long time ago, the clothing they saw looked very different from the clothing that they see around them today, they noticed the presence of feathers and headdresses in almost every image, they noticed that all of the images included people who looked sad or serious and they also noticed that many of the images included weapons.
After talking a bit about how these images revealed a single story, I shared that we could use questions in order to push ourselves to think more deeply about what we are seeing and, more importantly, what we might NOT be seeing. We have been working on asking better questions and understanding the different purposes of questions, so this idea fit in with the work we had been doing as readers. We looked at how questions can help us to uncover stories we might not see or hear otherwise. We then looked at the kinds of questions that might help us to push beyond the single stories we are presented with:
After thinking about these ideas, I asked my students to go back to their notes and think of some questions we could ask that might help us to push beyond this single story. Again, we took time to share their questions. This was one of those moments, when I had to stop myself from visibly cringing. Because some of their questions, they revealed what a terrible job our school system has done teaching these kids about the people they share this world with. But these questions, they were also a sign of how brave and willing these kids were to learn more and realize how much they did not know. Some of their questions were hard to hear. Questions such as, “Do Native American people still exist today?” and “Did Native American people live anywhere else other than in teepees?” and “How has our country treated Native American people in the past?” Again, the questions are hard to hear. And NOT because there is anything at all that these incredible kids were doing wrong, but rather because they reveal our own failures as adults and as a society.
So I listened to their questions and I thanked them so much for asking them and I told them that in the next few days, we would look at additional resources in order to try to help us to answer some of these questions and grow our understanding.
The next day, we came together again and I asked my students to pull back out the notes they took yesterday and to look them over once again. We thought back to the single image that we saw reflected in the images we saw yesterday and then we began to think about who was telling the story in those images. I suggested that many of those images were images that were telling the story of Native Americans by people who were outside of that group of people. The images told a story ABOUT Native Americans and not necessarily BY Native Americans.
I asked my students to think about how kids were describe themselves and how a group of adults might describe kids. I asked them to think about which might be more accurate, which might be more positive and which might carry more of a single story. My students quickly identified that the adults (especially those who did not know them and love them) would tell a much different, much less accurate, story about who fifth graders were.
In this same way, I suggested, when stories are told ABOUT groups of people, especially groups of people who have traditionally been denied power in our society, those stories tend to be overly simplistic, inaccurate and often negative.
One of the easiest ways that we can push beyond the single story is to seek out stories told BY people who are part of the group of people that you are trying to learn about. I brought up the Own Voices movement and the push to find writers who can write about their own lives and experiences instead of relying on white authors to do that work.
And then, I wanted to help my students to see this idea in real life. So, I shared a collection of Tweets that I had gathered, that used the #NotYourNativeStereotype hashtag in order to share stories and images of Native Americans telling their own stories in order to prove that they were not a stereotype. I scrolled through the collection I had created and again, I asked my students to use the second page of THIS FORM in order to write down what they were seeing.
As they started to share what they noticed, I realized how quickly they were forming new understandings of Native American people simply by looking at images shared from Native American people themselves. As they spoke of what they noticed, I could almost hear the “us” and “them” beginning to fade away. Instead, we began to speak about humans. Humans with a culture. Humans with a presence in today’s world. Humans with something to teach my students.
After looking at those Tweets, we added in another resource. We then watched THIS short video from Teen Vogue that has Native American girls sharing the truth about common misconceptions about Native Americans. Again, after watching, I asked the students to capture, in writing, what they were now able to see that they had missed before.
Again, we shared our thinking and, again, I was in awe of how thoughtful my students were being as we did this work.
After walking through this whole process as we thought about a group of people, I wanted to walk through the process again, but this time using a place.
Several weeks ago, I saw a post about a book called A Beautiful Ghetto. The book was a collection of photographs taken by Devin Allen, a photographer who became well-known for the pictures he took during the protests in Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray. As soon as I was able to glimpse the images, I knew this was a book that I needed to share with my students. When the book arrived, I sat in awe of the images and spent a full hour by myself looking at the pictures. Not all of the pictures were ones that my students would be ready to discuss, but I knew that these photographs and the story of the man who took them would push our thinking around the idea of the danger of a single story.
I began by sharing a bit of the story of Devin Allen. I shared that he grew up in Baltimore and that when the city was protesting the death of Freddie Gray, he realized that the city he knew and loved was being shown in a way that did not match what he, himself, knew about Baltimore. So he started taking pictures. He wanted to show that there was more to the protests than what was being shown in the media and he also wanted to show that there was more to Baltimore than what most people understood. So, his book, A Beautiful Ghetto was his way of telling his own story and the story of the place he called home.
I began by sharing the page where Devin Allen explains his own understanding of the term “ghetto” and “uprising.”
Then, I gathered my students close and shared with them some photographs of Baltimore than might reinforce or match the single story that many of us carry of areas that are considered to be the ghetto. For my students, we also talked about the south side of Chicago and the single story many of us in the northwest suburbs of Chicago carry of the south side.
As I showed these images to my students, we again returned to THIS FORM, in order to write down what we noticed and thought about the single story often told about Baltimore. Here are some of the images we looked at:
I asked the students to share what the noticed and we talked about how we often think about “bad” areas of a city and we don’t usually think about the people, but rather the things that are run down and abandoned. We carry these single stories with us because those are the stories that we have been told. And, those are the ONLY stories that we have been told. I made sure to point out that Devin Allen did choose to include these images because they are INDEED a part of Baltimore and he wanted his readers to know that. But they are not the ONLY parts of Baltimore.
So after this discussion, we looked at a few more of Devin Allen’s photographs and we wrote down what else we noticed and what new understandings we reached. Here are some of the photographs that we looked at:
And as we began our discussion, I was amazed at the understandings that we were reaching. We started to talk about how THESE images exist in the SAME SPACE as the images that we first looked at. These images are not somewhere else, not in a different area, they both exist together. The difference comes in what Devin Allen chose to photograph. Where we choose to point the camera, when we choose to take the picture, what lens we are looking through, all of that matters in how others view a story.
We started to talk about how those we entered into a place like Baltimore, just to take pictures for others to see, they might choose to take pictures of the most shocking and disturbing images because that is what they saw and thought others would be drawn to look at. But when a photographer is truly FROM a place, when the place being photographed is his home, then he understands that there is more to reveal to the audience. Then he knows the joy of a place, then he knows the places and the people that make that place a home for others and then he can choose to take pictures of that other side of a place.
These decisions, they matter. They affect how we, the audience, comes to know and understand a place, or even a group of people. Again, we came back to the importance of own voices and the importance of seeking our the kinds of resources that can push us beyond the single story we are often told.
This conversation was probably one of our most powerful. I was in awe of my students and I was left so hopeful for this world. It was one of those moments when I felt so lucky to be a teacher, when I felt so lucky to be able to do this work.
After walking through this whole process twice, of pushing beyond the single story told to us, first of an entire group of people and second of a place, I knew it was time to release this work to my students. Their work would be what I would collect as evidence of how they were able to notice single stories, ask questions to move us beyond those single stories and use additional resources in order to understand multiple perspectives on a group of people or a place.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, our inquiry at this point in the year, remains guided. I am teaching them the process through which to walk when looking into something more closely. At this point, I am still providing them with resources. As we move through the year, we will work to learn how to gather resources ourselves, but at this point, I want to keep our work moving along by focusing on learning well FROM those resources.
So I asked my students to use THIS DOCUMENT WITH GATHERED RESOURCES in order to think about the single story of a group of people or a place. They were asked to look at each of the resources and then select one group of people or place that they would like to think more about. The first resources were those that I thought might reinforce or point out the single story that is often told about groups of people or places. On the first day, I asked them to use THIS FORM again in order to write down what they noticed and what they thought about the single story told about this group of people. They were then asked to write down questions that might help them move beyond these single stories.
The next day, I shared THIS DOCUMENT WITH ADDITIONAL RESOURCES and asked students to return to the group of people or place that they thought about yesterday. Today, they would be looking at resources that I believed would push them to think beyond the single stories they saw yesterday. Again, this would be evidence of how they were able to deepen their thinking and understanding as they looked at a variety of resources.
As the students worked, I was able to go around and confer and also celebrate how our thinking had deepened. It is not that we are in a perfect place of understanding, but we have come so far from where we started. These are skills that we will continue to build on, but this work has done such wonders for my heart and for my sense of hope.
I remain amazed at what is possible when you help children to look at the world in a different way. Several times throughout this work, my students asked me why I was considering this work part of our reading work. My response was simple. Reading is how we take in information and when we take in information without thinking carefully and critically about it, we end up understanding the world in a less accurate way. To be better readers of this world, we need to think about the information we are taking in, through words, through images, through the media that surrounds us. When we are more aware of the messages we are receiving, then we have more power over them. And that is THE most important kind of reading work that I can think of.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the work my students and I started as readers this year. Our first reading unit was a part of a larger Inquiry into Story that combined our first reading and writing learning targets. As readers, we began our year by looking at stories as mirrors and windows, based off of the brilliant work by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. The first part of our work is described HERE.
After we spent time building our reading community, building trust and looking at how we can see ourselves reflected in the texts we read by studying the stories that other people tell as mirrors, we switched our focus to look at the stories that other people tell as windows that give us glimpses into the lives of others and that allow us to grow our empathy and understanding for the people we share this world with.
We began by first building on the ideas that we ended with when we shared the books where we saw ourselves reflected. As I described at the end of my last blog post, my students and I began a conversation around the idea that some kids have an easier time than others seeing themselves reflected in the books that they read. We talked about how groups of people have traditionally been left out of children’s literature and have had to fight for a long time, and continue to fight daily, to find themselves represented and represented accurately in books.
We began our study of stories as windows with a similar idea. We talked about how having your own stories heard is a form of power. We discussed the groups of people who have had to fight to have their stories heard and believed and we talked about how this can lead to an unequal balance of power. We also talked about one of the ways that we can work to correct that imbalance is to actively seek out the stories of those who have not been heard in the past and listen to those stories in a respectful way.
It was at this point that I knew we would heading in the right direction. One of my students raised his hand and said, “So, are you saying that by listening to the stories of other people, we are really helping to give people more power who haven’t had it before?” Yes. As always, I was amazed at how quickly ten and eleven year olds are able to grasp these concepts and how eager they are to grapple with them.
The chart below anchored our discussion and tracked our thinking so we could refer back to it the next day.
The next we started to talk about how we could listen to the stories that other people tell in a way that would really allow us to learn from those stories. Here is the chart I made after our discussion that would remind us of the brilliant ideas that my students had.
With these ideas solidified, we were ready to begin practicing. I wanted to make sure that the first story that I chose to share with my students would be one that could easy us into some of these ideas and give us a chance to practice building empathy and understanding by listening to the words that a story was telling us.
So I decided to begin with the beautiful picture book, Stepping Stones, written by Margriet Ruurs. The book tells the story of a Syrian family who escapes Syria in search of a safe place to live. The first day, I simply read the picture book and asked the students to think about what this story can help us to better understand about the lives of other people. As usual, the kids’ comments were filled with brilliance and empathy and also many unanswered questions.
Their comments were also filled with evidence of misunderstandings and misconceptions. As always, when we begin these conversations, there are comments made that might make us, as educators, want to cringe. However, it is precisely these moments when I feel luckiest to get to do this work. Because over the next few weeks, I knew these cringe-worthy comments would lessen. I knew that we would learn to push our misunderstandings and misconceptions into questions and I knew that we would end up at a place that was so much better when we simply walked through this uncertainty together.
On the second day, I handed out a typed up copy of the text of Stepping Stones so that we could do a closer read of the text in order to start to document what we were able to understand and also the questions that we were left with. One of my district reading units is on questioning. So I was able to wrap those learning targets into this work as we learned ways to ask questions that would better help us to understand complex social issues. Most of this teaching was done through my own modeling and by helping students craft questions from the things that they did not understand.
Once each student had a copy of the text, I began to go through the text on the document camera and think out loud about the parts of the text that helped me to understand something new about the lives of Syrian refugees, I marked these places in the text by underlining them. I also thought out loud about the places in the text that left me with questions or left me with something I thought might be true but didn’t really know for sure. Here, I simply placed a question mark.
After reading through a few paragraphs out loud to my students and modeling my own thinking, I then asked them to work with someone near them and to continue working through the rest of the text, marking it up in the same way. As I walked around, I could tell that already my students were relying less on what they thought they knew and more on what the text said and the questions that it left them with. This was already evidence of growth.
The next step was to take some of the pieces of text that we marked and write them down on a note taking sheet that would allow us to push our thinking further through writing. THIS IS THE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT THAT WE USED. Again, I modeled for the students, taking the actual words that were in the text and using writing to push my thinking about what this helped me to understand about this person’s life, what this helped me to understand about the world and the questions that this left me with.
Again, after going through a few paragraphs of the text, I asked the students to continue the work on their own.
The next day, I asked students to get into groups and share the thinking that they wrote down. I asked them to first focus on sharing the understandings that this story gave them about this one person’s life and about the world. After spending time talking about their understandings, I asked them to now begin to collect the questions that they were left with. I asked them to write down the questions they had on post-it notes and I collected those post-it notes on two charts:
That night, I took the post-it notes and typed up a giant list of questions. The next day, I handed each student THIS DOCUMENT to help us sort through all of these questions and combine them into some BIG questions that could lead us into a guided inquiry.
I took a few of the first questions and thought out-loud about whether each one was an important question in helping us to better understand the lives of Syrian refugees or if it was a question that could be saved until later. After modeling a few questions for the kids, I then put them into groups and asked them to continue sorting those questions.
Then, we came back together and started looking through our lists to look for questions that were asking similar things. In this way, we began to combine our questions to give us fewer questions that might lead us to deeper places. Again, I asked the kids to finish this work in small groups.
I then collected the students’ documents and further combined the questions until we were left with six big questions. THESE WERE OUR BIG QUESTIONS.
Once I shared these with the kids, we talked about how we might go about answering these questions. We talked about the different types of sources that might help us to answer these questions and I also introduced the idea that the first story we read was one that was written ABOUT Syrian refugees and not one that was told BY a Syrian refugee. This led us to the idea that when we were working to really understand the lives of other people, we had a responsibility to seek out stories that were told BY those people themselves and not just about a group of people by an outsider. This was a concept we would build even further on later.
So the next day, I introduced a list of resources to the students. All of our resources were listed ON THIS RESOURCE DOCUMENT. We talked through the different types of resources, noticed the mix of print resources and digital resources and also the mix of resources that had Syrian refugees telling their own stories and resources that were written about Syrian refugees.
I then handed out THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that the students would be asked to use as they walked through this guided inquiry and tried to select resources that would help them to answer our big questions.
A quick note on inquiry at the start of the year. In the past few years, I have found out just how powerful inquiry can be and just how much of our reading curriculum can be covered through inquiry. However, I also have learned how difficult inquiry can be to do and to do well. So at the start of the school year, our inquiry process is a very guided one. While all of these questions came from the students, they had a lot of help in crafting them and narrowing them down. And before I am ready to send my students off to collect their own resources, I want them to first practice selecting and using resources from a collection that I have curated.
As the year goes on, we will do more work in evaluating sources and becoming efficient at locating sources. We are not there yet. However, I also do not want to wait to release my students into inquiry until they have all of those skills in place. That is why, at the start of the year, I spend a lot of time gathering resources and giving them to my students to use. The idea is that no one student will use ALL of these resources, but they will start to develop the skills that they will need to select the best resources for them and for the questions they are trying to answer.
So on the first day with these resources, I selected a resource for us to look at together. We began with one of the Newsela articles. I read the article out loud and started to underline any information that I thought would help me answer one of our big questions. I then placed the number of the question that the information helped me to answer next to the part of the text that I underlined. As I read, I also modeled how I was still noticing the questions that I was left with because the inquiry process is an ongoing one and I wanted my students to see the power of noticing and holding onto the questions that popped up.
When we finished the article, I transferred my thinking to my note taking document so that I could begin to collect information from multiple sources that helped me to answer these questions.
And then. I set my students off. They had the questions, they had the note taking document, and they a list of resources to use. And they had some beginnings of understanding of how they were supposed to tackle all of this. Over the next few days, as my students worked, I conferred. I met with students we talked about how to use video clips effectively, we talked about how we could notice when a source helped us to answer multiple questions and we talked about what kinds of sources would best help us answer what types of questions.
After a few days, I asked the kids to look at their notes and think about the ONE question that they cared the most about and felt like they were best able to answer at this point. I then put the kids into groups based on what question they selected. In these groups they shared understandings and they shared the resources that they used. After talking with their groups they had more time to simply focus on the one question that they wanted to answer. I shared with them that they needed to make sure that they had MORE THAN ONE source that helped them to answer the question they selected. This led us into a discussion of the importance of using multiple sources when trying to answer big questions.
At this point, it was clear that my students understanding was growing. It was clear that they were learning how to learn from the stories that other people told. And it was also clear that every one of my students was deepening their empathy and understanding towards Syrian refugees.
And now I needed a way to capture that and also to capture some evidence of how my students were doing in terms of our learning targets. So as a final bit of assessment, I asked my students to write out one full answer to the question that they had selected. When I do this work with my students, the kind of work that makes them better readers and also better human beings, I work hard to also wrap this work around the Common Core standards and my own district’s curriculum standards so that this work does not become separate, but rather a part of what we do every day.
So I knew that one of the things I could do was use this work to give my students an opportunity to show evidence that they were able to ask deep questions and use multiple sources to answer those questions.
To help them to do that, I took the one question that no one in either of my classes chose to answer and I used the resources I provided in order to take my own notes to answer that one question. I focused on question number 5. HERE ARE THE NOTES THAT I TOOK.
I shared these notes with my students and then I modeled for them how I was able to look back on these notes and pull out some big ideas. I modeled this for my students by color coding all of my notes to correspond to the big ideas that they discussed.
The question that I was answering was, “What is the journey like for refugees after they leave their homes?” The first big idea that I noticed was that several of the sources I looked at discussed how people leaving Syria had to leave most of their possessions behind and traveled with almost nothing. So I looked through, with the kids, all of the notes I took and highlighted in red all of the notes that talked about how refugees had to leave things behind. I then noticed how many of the sources I looked at talked about how refugees had to move from place to place within Syria and many ended up staying in refugee camps. So I highlighted in yellow all the notes, from all of the sources that I looked at, that talked about moving from place to place and staying at refugee camps.
I continued with this process until almost all of my notes were highlighted. I then asked my students to go into their own notes and organize them in some way. Many of them chose to color code their notes as well. Here were what my notes looked like in the end:
Finally, on the next day, I modeled for my students how I looked at my notes and used them to begin writing an answer to my big question. I typed the start of the answer in front of them and modeled the way I shared my big understanding first and then supported that with multiple pieces of evidence from the text. Here is what that modeling looked like:
And then I sent the students to work.
And they worked hard.
This work really mattered to them. Yes, I was teaching them the fairly boring skills of writing a constructed response to a question and using text evidence to support their answers. But they were doing that work in response to question that they crafted and about something that they cared about. They were working to better understand the life of another human being and the then wanted to share that understanding with others. We talked about how their understandings alone were not enough to convince someone else that they understood someone else’s life. In order to do that, they would have to be able to support what they were saying with evidence from the sources that they read.
And because that all made sense to them, my students were able to craft beautiful responses. Our final step was to share our answers with other people in class who did not answer our same question. So our evidence of learning became tools for teaching someone else.
And on the last day of our work, we went back to the story that started it all. I reread the book Stepping Stones to my kids and we all sat in awe at how much more we were able to understand. As I said to my students after our second reading of this book, they now know a process through which they can come to better understand any person’s life. I told them that I was not suggesting that every time they read a picture book about someone else’s life that they then follow that up with three weeks of questioning and research and writing. However, I do ask them to now take the knowledge that they have and use it to better both in and out of school when they read a story from someone’s life that they do not fully understand.
Because I truly do believe that this is how we start to do better. We listen to each other’s stories and work to understand that which we cannot understand right away. This is how we start to heal this broken world and if we don’t teach our students a process through which to do that, then there isn’t much hope that they are going to figure it out on their own. But when we show them the power of asking questions and guide them through the process that they can use to answer those questions responsibly, then we are creating the kinds of humans who can go out into this world and make it a better place.
In my next blog post, I will write about how this work then led us to investigate the idea of the “danger of a single story” which, of course, originated with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant TED talk by that same name.
It is hard to imagine the start of our reading year without the brilliant work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and her explanation of books as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. If you aren’t familiar with her work, here is a quick clip of her explaining the concept which she first coined back in 1990. None of what follows would be happening, if I had not been exposed to her work and thinking.
At the start of the school year, I used to focus on helping the students make meaningful connections to the texts that they read. We focused not only on making connections, but also on articulating how these connections helped us as readers. And then, as a teacher, I began to try to shift the work that I do in my classroom to be more authentic and to better match the work that humans do in the world outside of my classroom. I wanted the teaching of reading to be less about covering a checklist of skills and more about teaching them how to use reading and writing in order to make the world a better place.
And so I began to shift our focus on connecting as readers to, instead, thinking about how readers can use books as both mirrors and windows. In this way, we could focus not only on how making these connections helps us as readers, but also how it helps us as human beings.
After that first shift, I then made another shift as I wanted to combine our first reading and writing units into an Inquiry into Story. The thinking behind this can be found in THIS POST and THIS POST. So now, as we begin our school year together as readers, much of our work focuses on learning to better read the stories that other people tell from their own lives. We begin this work by thinking about how we can use true stories from people’s lives as both mirrors and windows.
***AS A SIDE NOTE: Last year, I created a new structure for our literacy work. As a district, we have been moving towards Ellin Keene’s brilliant idea of a Literacy Studio model. I described some of my thinking behind this in THIS POST from last year. This allows me to set aside a portion of our literacy time as independent work time. This is when students are choosing to either work on reading or writing. During this time, I am conferring and helping students set student-written reading goals and writing goals which they keep track of in their reading journals or in the writing they are doing.
At the start of the school year, all of my lessons on what we do as readers and the lessons that establish our routines of independent work, take place during this independent work time. This time is dedicated to individual goals that students set for themselves. Then, the rest of our Literacy Studio time is set aside for us to work on class reading and writing goals. This is when we “cover” our curriculum. So the work that I am doing with kids on stories as mirrors and windows takes place during this time because I have been able to wrap our reading and writing learning targets into this work. I thought this was important to explain so that people did not wonder how I had time to do all of this work! I am also lucky enough to work in a district that ensures two hours of literacy instruction each day. ***
So during the first weeks of school, during our literacy studio reading focus time, I introduced to my students our first reading and writing units by explaining how we would work on our Inquiry into Story. Here are the charts that I created to help them understand the work we would be doing. The learning targets are a combination of our district learning targets for our first reading and writing units, the common core standards and Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards.
Creating these charts was probably more for myself than for my students. When I do this work, it is important for me to make sure that I am balancing the things that I have to teach to cover curriculum with the things that I want to teach in order to remain hopeful that my students are going out into the world and using reading and writing to make this world a better place. Crafting these learning targets helps me to do that. It also helps me to know if I am being successful in teaching these skills because I have learning targets to guide me as I look for evidence in the students’ work that shows me they are meeting these targets.
So once I have introduced the BIG ideas to the kids, then we are able to get to work on some specifics. As writers, this takes us into a study of memoir writing. That is for a different post on a different day. But as readers, this work takes us into a study of how we can use the stories that other people tell from their own lives as both mirrors and windows.
We begin by thinking about what this concept means:
After spending some time talking about this concept and explaining that we would work as readers in order to think more deeply about how we saw ourselves reflected in the stories of others and then also how we could see into the lives of others through the stories that they tell, then we started to think about some books that we have read that allowed us to do both of these things. Here are some of the titles they discussed:
It was so powerful to hear them think back on the books that they had read and talk about how they have been both mirrors and windows for them. I realized that this was the first conversation where I was really able to see my students pushing their own thinking. They were willing to think about texts in new ways and reflect back on their reading in a way that allowed them to see more than just the plot of the book. This was a first for us this year.
After our initial discussion, we started to look more closely at how we might use the stories of others as mirrors. I asked the kids to think about a book that made them feel less alone in the world. I told them that these were often mirror books. I shared with them that I do not often see my own family reflected in books because more families in children’s books have a mom and a dad, but my own family was my daughter and her two moms. I told them that when I found a book that had a two-mom family, it made me feel less alone in the world.
I then began by modeling the thinking that might occur as we read through a book that is a mirror for us. This part of the work is always a little bit scary for me, but I figure that if I am going to ask my students to make themselves vulnerable and share how they see themselves in the texts that they read, then I had better be willing to do that myself. So the first book that I read to them is Patricia Polacco’s, In Our Mothers’ House. For those of you who have not read this book, it tells the story of a family with two moms and three adopted children. (An important note: The brilliant Dana Stachowiak speaks about the problematic and stereotyped representation of the lesbian moms in this book. This is something I continue to wrestle with. I agree with her one-hundred precent AND I still continue to use this book because it truly is one of the ONLY books in which I see my own family reflected in a way that feels genuine and authentic. And still, I believe it is incredibly important to make this note.)
As I read through In Our Mothers’ House, I stop and share with my students the many ways that I am able to see myself and my own life reflected in this book. And, more importantly, I stop to share with them how seeing myself reflected helps me as both a reader and as a human being. As I read and share, I ask my students to notice the ways that I am able to see myself AND the ways that this helps me as both a reader and as a human. After I finish reading and modeling my thinking, we come together to chart the ways that they noticed this helping me as both a reader and as a human being. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:
After making this chart together, we went back to a short story that we had used as a mentor text as we were learning how to write stories from our own lives. We used the story “Principals and Principles,” from the short story anthology Guys Write, Guys Read. We had first read this story in order to look at how writers can weave reflection into their writing in order to show readers what the writer learned or realized from a moment in their life. As readers, we were now going back into this text to look for ways that we could see ourselves reflected in the story.
I asked the kids to think about all of the ways that I saw myself in the story I read and then work to write down the ways they saw themselves in this new text. The students wrote their ideas down on the margins of the story and then used this as the basis of some small group discussions. When they got into groups, I asked the students to share how they saw themselves and then also talk about how this helped them as a reader or as a human being. I asked them to push each other by asking the question, “How did this help you as a reader or as a human being?”
As the students talked, I worked my way around the small groups in order to prompt deeper thinking and also to name the many different ways that I noticed them seeing themselves reflected in this story. After the small groups had finished, we came back together and created a large chart (one for each of my two classes) to capture ALL of the different ways we might see ourselves in the stories that we read. Here are the things my students came up with:
After brainstorming this list, it was time to send my students out into our classroom library in order to apply this new way of thinking. So the next day, I began our work by reading the kids the book Scaredy Squirrel. I told my students that I saw myself reflected in the book In Our Mothers’ House because the family in that book looked just like my own. But, I also saw myself in the book Scaredy Squirrel because I understand the squirrel’s love of routine and his fear of the unknown. This is something I recognize in myself and see reflected in this book.
After sharing these two very different ways of seeing myself reflected in two very different books, I explained to my students that today they would be heading into our bins of picture books in order to look for books where they saw themselves reflected in some way. I asked them to think about the many different ways they could see themselves and look for books that might show themselves reflected in different ways. I then handed out THIS PACKET for them to keep track of what they found.
As students spread out with stacks of picture books, I made my way around the room to stop and chat with my readers. I asked them questions to help push their thinking. I asked them, “How do you see yourself in this book?” and then, “How does this help you better understand this book or how might it help you simply as a human being?”
It was so powerful to hear the students’ responses to these questions. I was so impressed with their willingness to be vulnerable and could hear the ways that many of their thinking was beginning to deepen. I also realized at this point how important it was for me to make sure that before I sent my students off into my classroom library, that I had worked to bring a wide variety of stories and lives into that library. For the past few years I have worked to gather stories that represent the wide variety of humans who we share this world with. During this activity, I was so grateful that these books were there because they allowed each of my students to find themselves in some way.
We then came back together the next day and I asked for people to share the things that they found, if they felt comfortable. What a powerful moment this was for each of my classes. More than any ice breaker could ever have done, this form of sharing began to solidify the community of readers and humans that we were just beginning to form. At this point, we had been together for several weeks of school and I was, again, in awe of how the students had started to trust each other and how willing they were to share with each other.
After I thanked them for being so brave and for sharing what they found, I introduced the idea that some people might have an easier time seeing their lives reflected in books made for children. I talked again about how hard it was for me to find books where my own family was reflected. We began to talk about why this might be and the problems that this showed us about the world of children’s literature and the world outside of children’s literature as well. These were just the very beginnings of a much larger and an extremely important conversations. But this work and these thoughts have started a conversation that we will continue to build on as we work our way through this school year. We will pick back up on this idea when we switch to focusing on stories as windows and how we have a responsibility to seek out the stories that are not always heard.
As this first part of our work together came to an end, I realized that important changes were starting to happen in our classroom. Changes that gave glimmers of goodness that I know will continue to grow throughout the year. It’s hard to see those glimmers of goodness sometimes in the first weeks of the school year because there are still so many things that the students do not yet know. However, when I step back and reflect on it, I realize that we are laying important groundwork for what is still to come. We are learning to think about reading as more than just a checklist of skills to be applied. We are starting to think about power and who has been given more of it and who has to fight to get it. We are starting to talk to each other and listen to each other. And most importantly, we are starting to build the community that we will need as we move forward together into the kind of work that will require trust, vulnerability and communication in the future.
In my next blog post, I will write about the work that we are now doing to learn how to use the stories that other people tell in order to learn about those whose lives might be vastly differently than our own. This will be the work that we do in order to learn how to use stories as windows.
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.
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.