Giving The Writing Process Back to Our Students (Part 3): Revision

This is the last part of a three part blog post on how I worked to give the writing process back to my students throughout the course of our fiction writing unit. You can read about our fiction writing unit in PART 1. And you can write about how my students selected their own mentor text, analyzed that text for new writing strategies, applied those strategies to their own writing and taught each other about what they learned in PART 2. All of that work, brought us to our final phase of our writing unit. Revision, editing and self-assessing.

Our fiction writing unit had to end. Truthfully, the students were ready for it to end. It had run its course and I wanted to come back from winter break and start fresh with our persuasive writing unit. Now this does not mean that everyone was finished with their fiction stories. Some of my students had bit off quite lofty writing projects and I did not want them to rush through the ending of these stories. So I told my students that whether they had finished three fiction stories or had not yet finished one, they would select ONE piece that they believed in and work to revise, edit, self-assess and turn in that piece of writing for me to assess.  It did not have to be finished, but it had to have show evidence of all phases of the writing process.

Because of the structure of our literacy studio, the students always have time to work on writing projects of their own choosing. So even though we will begin to study the craft of persuasive writing when we return from winter break, they will still have time to return to their fiction writing during our independent work time.

Now I know that many of my students revise as they write. We talk about this often. I see evidence of it often. My writing conferences focus on it often. But I still find value in spending some set aside time to discuss revision and editing.

As I mentioned in part 1 of this blog post, one of my biggest goals during this writing unit is to put some of the ownership of the writing process back onto my students. No where does this feel more important than in the phases of revising and editing. At the start of our year together, many of my students have no idea how to make their writing better until they find comments that were left for them by teachers suggesting or requiring them to make changes. They see revision as a process where the teacher tells them what they need to do and then they go off and do it.

The problem with this process is that I did not see it transferring. The things that I used to ask my students to change in one piece of writing would remain unchanged in their next piece of writing. The places where I suggested that the reader might need more information would return again in their next piece of writing. So I wanted to find a way to have my students complete some revision on their own BEFORE I collected the best draft of their writing.

So a few years ago, I decided that I would have my students use a revision checklist to help them revise their writing BEFORE they turned it into me. One of the reasons for this is that I realized that my most important work in helping my students grow as writers, took place DURING the writing process, not when it was over. When I had students turn in their writing, in their minds, they were often done with that writing. When I turned that writing back with comments and suggestions on that writing, they would fix what I told them to fix, and that piece of writing would get better, but they were not growing as writers. If, however, I was able to catch them DURING the writing, through daily conferring, then I was able to help them to grow as writers AS they made that piece of writing better.

So then, what became more important than a final round of comments written on my students’ papers telling them what to fix, was instead teaching them a PROCESS through which they could take another look at their own writing and find ways to use what they already knew to improve that piece of writing. So that is what I have tried to do.

I have explained our revision checklist before, and the process remains much the same. However, this time, I made sure to add space to our revision checklist for students to honor the writing lessons they learned from their own mentor texts and from the lessons taught by their classmates.

In the past, our revision checklists are co-constructed by simply listing together all of the writing lessons that I have taught throughout a writing unit.  The students then use this list of writing strategies to look at their own writing. I often set a minimum number of changes that they need to make in their writing, but then give them the freedom to find the places in their writing that need more work and then select a writing strategy to use in that specific place in their writing that will make their writing better. In this way, I am forcing them to re-look at their writing, but they have control over the changes that they believe need to be made.

For this unit, we did go through the process of listing all of the writing lessons that I had taught. That list became the second page of our revision checklist. The first page was pretty much empty. It included space for the students to list the writing strategies they discovered in their own mentor texts, that they might use to revise their writing, and it also included space for them to write down each of the writing strategies that they learned from their classmates.

This is what our revision checklist looked like.

And here are two revision checklists from two different students:

I also discussed with each of my two classes, what number of changes they felt was reasonable to make to a single piece of writing at this point in their writing process. My morning class suggested 4 and my afternoon class suggested 3. While I HATE setting minimums, I know that for some students it is still necessary. So I also made sure to talk about AND MODEL the process that I use for revision.

I showed the students how I read through my own writing and listened for the writer’s voice that said, “There is something more you could do here,” or “You could make this better!” Once I heard that voice, then I went to my checklist and ran down the entire list of strategies that I had available to me in order to find one that might work there. I continued to do that all the way through my writing. In this way, I was not worrying about a specific number of changes, but rather, I was looking at my writing as a whole and trying to do as much as I could to make it better.

As with everything, different kids went to different lengths with this process. Some kids found three places to make changes and then stopped. Other kids went all the way through their writing. Either way, the kids were practicing a process that I knew would benefit them for far more pieces of writing than just this one.

One of the things that I loved the most about working with my students on this process, was hearing the conversations that students were having with each other. Many times, I overheard students go back to the kids who had taught them about different writing strategies and ask them their opinion and advice about how they would apply that strategy. I heard kids excitedly sharing with the kids who had been their teachers, how their writing lesson helped them to make their writing better. I saw as many students checking off writing strategies from the first page of their checklist as they did on the second page.

It was powerful.

After teaching them this process, I also shared with them an editing checklist. The editing checklist contains all of the spelling, grammar and punctuation mini-lessons that we have had so far this year through our writing work. These are things I have taught them to do, that we have looked to mentor texts to learn how to do and so now I expect them to have these things in their writing. Here is our EDITING CHECKLIST FOR FICTION WRITING.

As students began to finish up with their revising and editing, I showed them the final step in our writing process. Self-assessment.

Assessment is one more area that I find my students are completely dependent on me. They have a hard time knowing if their writing is showing progress or not. They often bring pieces of writing to me and ask me, “Can you check this?” or “Is this good?” I find that they lack the skills to look at a piece of their own writing and determine, without an adult, if they have done good work or not. This is another thing that I believe we can change. I want them to know how to look at a piece of their own writing and see the evidence of how they have grown as writers. Of what they have learned how to do.

So after each writing unit, I use the list of writing strategies that they created for our revision checklist and again type it up, but this time on a chart. This time, I also left spaces for writing strategies students learned on their own from their mentor texts or from their classmates. Here is our SELF-ASSESSMENT FOR OUR FICTION WRITING UNIT. SELF-ASSESSMENT FOR OUR FICTION WRITING UNIT. 

When the students are ready to turn in their best draft to me, I ask them to first take time to self-assess their writing. To do this, they assign a color to each of the writing strategies that they have used in their writing. They then go back to their writing and underline specific words and sentences and paragraphs that show evidence that they have used this writing strategy in their writing.  in this way, the kids are able to see a colorful representation of all the writing strategies they have learned to use.

Here are two pieces of writing that students color-coded to show their use of writing strategies:


When they finally turn their writing in to me, I also ask them for a blank copy so that I can then assess their writing on my own. Because the truth is, my assessment is important. I need to know what they have learned to do, but, in my opinion, it will never be as important of their own assessment of themselves as writers. The ability to look at their own writing and see what they have learned how to do, that is going to motivate them in ways my assessment never will.

By the time my students turned their fiction stories in, I believe that they felt incredible pride and complete ownership over their writing. Finding as many places as I could to give the writing process back over to my students was an incredibly worthwhile effort. Because I want my students to be able to write without me. I want to teach them what they need to know in order not to need me anymore. And with this unit, I truly feel like I took big steps towards that goal.

And in the end, these fiction stories, they belong so completely to my students. And to me, that is a sign that I have helped to create writers who will write far beyond the walls of my classroom.

Giving the Writing Process Back to Our Students (Part 2): Teaching Students To Find Their Own Mentor Texts

I just finished writing the first part of this little series. It describes the beginning of our work in our fiction writing unit and how I discovered the power of handing the writing process back over to our students.  If you are interested, you can find it HERE.

Once I saw how powerful it was to have students analyze pieces of fiction writing in order to find their own ways of using details, I wanted to help give them a process through which they would be able to find their own fiction mentor texts, analyze those texts, discover new writing strategies and then apply those strategies to their own writing. I knew that in the end I wanted them to teach the strategies they discovered to their classmates.

So before asking them to go through this process on their own, I had to stop and really think about the process that I go through when I am selecting mentor texts. How could I make this thinking visible for my students so that they could become more independent writers. I wanted them to know a process that they could continue to use without me, so that they could continue to grow as writers no matter where they were.

So I thought about what I do when I am trying to do a new kind of writing. For example, when a coworker asked me to write a letter of recommendation, the first thing that I did was to look for examples of other people’s letters of recommendation. I then read those examples as a writer and tried to name what the writers were doing. Then I tried to apply those strategies to my own letter.

This is what I needed to teach my students to do.

So I created this chart:


Now that I had solidified the process for myself, it was time to walk my students through it.

So I began, as I always do, by explaining the work we would be doing, explaining the brilliance that I saw in their work that they had just finished, and then acknowledging that what we were about to do would be tough work, but work that would push them so far as writers.

And then we jumped in. I first shared with them an incredibly powerful book that I know we will come back to many times. I told them that I chose this book book because when I first read it, I was blown away by the writing. There were parts that I had to stop and reread because the writer had done such powerful work. I told them that those were all signs that this could be a mentor text for me.

I then shared the book with them. The book was Bird by Zetta Elliott (which, if you have not yet read, you must, because it is simply amazing). The book is really heavy and intense and also beautifully written. So I told them that I had to read the book once to appreciate the power of the story and then a second time to think more carefully about what the writer did.

And then I sent them to go and explore all of the fiction picture books that we have in our classroom library (which is a lot!). I wanted them to focus on picture book because I wanted them to have a short piece of text that they would not be overwhelmed by. I told them to read like writers today. To listen for that little voice that says, “Wow! This writing is amazing!” I told them that when they heard that writer voice within them, they would know that the book they were reading could be a mentor text for them. I asked them to mark the cover of those books with a sticky note with their name on it. That is all they needed to worry about on day 1.

So they set off. All around the room the kids tucked themselves into comfortable spaces and searched for their own mentor texts. It was quite a beautiful sight!img_4111

And by the end of our work time, every single child had found a mentor text (or two!).

So the next day, I returned to the book Bird. And this time I showed them that the book had been filled with post-it notes. I told them that I took the book home with me the night before and went through the book again. This time, I stuck a post-it note next to each chunk of writing that really called out to me. I asked myself, “Where do I see this writer doing something that makes the writing better and that I can do in my own writing?” Those were the places I marked. Once I had marked several places, I then went back to each post-it note and tried to put into words WHAT the writer was doing. I tried to name the writing strategy that I saw. I shared several examples of my post-it notes with my students. Here are some of the examples:

I told my students that today, they would be going back to the mentor texts they had selected the day before. Today they would go through their mentor texts again, this time armed with a pad of post-it notes. They would go through the process that I had gone through and they would discover their own writing strategies in their own mentor texts.

Again, this was difficult work. I knew that. I supported my students by conferring during their work time and by sharing the successes that I noticed with the entire class. At the end of the day, I looked through the work that my students had done and while a few students had found AMAZING strategies, there were also a lot of students who missed the idea. Which makes sense.  This is hard. Here were a few strategies they discovered:

This was one of those moments that I was tempted to just give up. Maybe share one of the few good examples and then go back to taking control. But I knew there was too much good here to quit. So instead, I thought about what was missing from the strategies my students found. I realized that they had marked AMAZING pieces of writing. The trouble they had was putting into words what the writer was doing. Which, again, makes sense because they had never been asked to do this work before. And this work is hard. So I decided that the next day, I would help them to revise their strategies.

The next day I shared with them what I had noticed and said that I had a few questions that I thought we could ask ourselves about each of our strategies to figure out which strategies we needed more work on.


I shared with them the questions, had them go back to their strategies and asked for some brave volunteers to share some strategies that they maybe needed to revise. A few kids were willing and we revised the wording of a few strategies all together.

I then gave the kids time to work on revising their strategies and asked them to share some strategies that they thought would work for writers. Here are the incredible strategies they came up with in both of my classes:

So now we had our strategies. The next step was to try and apply these strategies to our own writing. So again, I went back to the text Bird and I went through each strategy that I had labeled. I shared my thinking as I worked to select one strategy that I knew I could immediately apply to my own fiction writing. I chose a strategy, pulled up my writing in front of the class, and had them watch as I changed my own writing in some way because of the writing strategy that I had seen in my mentor text. I then shared THIS FORM with my students and showed them how I used it in order to keep track of the work I was doing. We would be keeping track of this work because we would eventually be using it to teach a writing lesson to our classmates.

And then I sent the kids off to work. They were to first select a writing strategy from their own mentor text and then go into their own fiction writing and find at least one place where they would be able to use this writing strategy. I asked them to mark each place in their writing with a comment in GoogleDocs so they would be able to find these places again easily.  Again, I conferred with students as they worked and was amazed, yet again, by how quickly my students were owning these strategies. There was just such a difference between when I taught a new strategy and when these kids discovered a new strategy on their own.

The next day, I shared with my kids that they would each be teaching their writing strategies to a small group of classmates. The idea was that they would be teaching new strategies to their classmates that their classmates would be able to use as they revised their fiction stories.

In order to teach these lessons effectively, I asked each child to create some type of visual to use as they taught their lessons. This could be an anchor chart, a smaller poster, a hand out or a Google Slides Presentation. I did not care what they made, I just wanted it to help them show a small group of students what their strategy was and how other writers could use it. I shared an example that I had made. It had my strategy listed, the lines in my mentor text that used that strategy, the lines in my OWN writing that used that strategy and some suggestions on how and when other writers could use that strategy. I also suggested (but did not require) that kids think of some way for their small group of students to practice using the strategy.

And then the kids set off to create their own visuals. They were fantastic. All of them. Truly. I was really impressed with the work they had done.

And then finally, it was time to teach. Last year, I had used an Ed-Camp model to have my students teach each other new writing strategies (though it was not done in such a deliberate way as this year). I knew how successful it was and so I wanted to use this method again. Basically, each day, three new volunteers offer to teach a session. They tell us what strategy they will be teaching and what their group members will need to bring to the lesson. As they go off and set-up, the rest of the class signs-up for the lesson they think will be most helpful to them as writers. In order to ensure that each session will have an even number of students sign-up, I create only enough spots to evenly distribute the class amongst the three groups. Once one session is filled up, students need to pick another session. Here are two examples of our sign-up sheets:

And then for the next five days, my students took over teaching new writing strategies. Some lessons were short and others were long. When the groups were done, they just moved right into their writing time. Each time they went to another session, they added the writing strategy to their REVISION CHECKLIST. You can find a copy of our revision checklist HERE. The first page was filled in by each individual student and the second page is a list of all the writing strategy lessons I taught to the kids.  This way, they were able to keep track of all the strategies that they were learning and would be able to choose to apply these strategies to their own writing when they were ready to revise. They never were required to apply a strategy, it just became one more option in a list of possible writing strategies they could use to make their writing better. (I will explain more about the revision checklist in the next post).

The lessons that the students taught were amazing. The kids were all incredibly engaged. The teaching was brilliant and I was simply blown away by these kids.

Here is just one example of a lesson that a student taught and then the short piece of writing that she had her group do together in order to practice the writing strategy that she was teaching:


And again I was impressed at how quickly kids began not only apply their OWN strategies to their writing, but also at how quickly kids began to apply EACH OTHER’S strategies to their writing. It was so powerful to watch as kids ran their computers over to their classmates just to show them how they were using what they had taught them.  It was really powerful to witness.

Sometimes, we become so focused on what we need to teach our students, the skills, the strategies, all the minutia, that we forget that one day they are going to know how to learn without us. And I think that our greatest hope in helping them to do that is to teach them the process that allow them to be independent learners. We cannot simply say that we want them to be life-long learners, we have to actually help them to do that. We have to teach them the processes that will allow them to do carry on their learning whether we are standing there next to them or not.

Watching my students teach these lessons, I felt so confident that this learning was not going to end when they walk out of my door at the end of the school year. This was learning that they could carry with them and use to help them continue to grow as writers as long as they had books near by to serve as mentors.

In the next post, I will talk about how we used these writing strategies and the idea of becoming more independent in our writing as we revised and self-assessed our pieces of fiction writing.

Giving the Writing Process Back to Our Students (Part 1): The Beginning of Our Fiction Writing Unit

We just wrapped up an epic fiction writing unit. I have an entire blog post planned in my mind about the importance of teaching students to write fiction, on giving students time to write fiction on the importance of balancing nonfiction and fiction writing more evenly in our writing curriculums. But, I will save that for another day. Because one of the things that I tried to focus on most during this writing unit, was finding ways to give the writing process back to my students.

I have often written about the disturbing trend that I have noticed in my fifth grade writers. By the time they come to me in fifth grade, they are completely dependent on me as their teacher. They seek my approval for everything before they trust themselves to know if something is good or not. They might be able to get through a piece of writing on their own, but they then wait for me to tell them where they need to go back and make something better. Not only do they look to me to point out the places where they can do more in their writing, they also wait for me to tell them exactly what to do in order to make their writing better.

And yes, they are ten and eleven, of course they need me still to help them grow as writers. But I am starting to believe that by simply telling them what they need to fix, I am actually not helping them to grow as writers at all. Instead, I am helping them to make that one piece of writing better, but when it comes to the next piece of writing, they will still need me just as much as they did before.

Now I know that in the world outside of school, writers have editors. I understand that and I have wrestled with that. But last year a brilliant friend, who also happens to be an editor, explained to me that his job as an editor is to worry about the final product more than about helping someone to grow as a writer. As a teacher, his job is to worry more about helping someone to grow as a writer than to worry about the final product. And this makes so much sense to me.

So because fiction writing is so naturally motivating to young kids, and because that leads to such an incredible energy in our writing community, I thought that this was the perfect writing unit to begin to hand over some of the power of the writing process to my students.

As we began our fiction writing unit, I took the kids through the things that they needed to learn in order to get their stories going. I chose the lessons, I selected the mentor texts to teach those lessons and I was in charge of finding ways to help the students practice applying those lessons to their own writing.  Here are some of the things that we focused on:

After these basic lessons, we began a study of how writers use details. I shared with my students that too often we, as teachers, tell kids to add more detail to their stories, but we don’t often enough stop to think about where those details should go and what purpose those details should serve.

So again, I pulled out some mentor texts and helped my students to see that sometimes writers use details to introduce an important character, sometimes writers use details to reveal something important about a setting, to highlight a turning point, to emphasize a moment of high emotion or to set a mood in the story. For these lessons, I shared picture books and copies of pages from novels. I showed my students the places in the text that writers used details for these purposes and then I asked students to use their notebooks to practice how they might use details in these ways in their own stories.

And all of this, it was completely led by me. And certainly my students were learning. I saw them thinking more deeply about the fiction they were writing, I saw them grappling with how they could make their stories better, I watched them dig deeper into the worlds they were creating. But still, they looked to me as the source of the information on how to make their writing better.

So many weeks into our fiction writing unit, I typed out and photocopied the text of the book Pete and Pickles. I read the text to the class and then I modeled for the students how I looked back into the text in order to find parts where the writer used details for a purpose. I underlined the lines where the writer used details and then I tried to name the purpose, in the margins, of how the writer was using those details.

I then had the kids work in pairs or small groups to go into the text and look for new ways that the writer of Pete and Pickles used details. I asked them to underline the parts and try to put into words, what the writer was using details to do in the writing.  I had asked them to code the text and keep track of the new ways they were finding that writers might use details.  HERE is the sheet that I asked them to use to keep track of their newly discovered strategies.

I was nervous about how this would go. It was still fairly early in the year, my students still looked to me to guide them through the writing process. They had not yet worked with analyzing texts on their own to discover new writing strategies. But, as is usually the case, I should not have worried.

The students quickly became engaged in their work and they discovered the strategies that I hoped they would discover. And then, the very best part is that they discovered ways that the writer used details that I never would have discovered on my own.  After they finished working, we came back together and shared the strategies that we found and I was simply blown away by what they had come up with.

Students noticed that the writer used details to show us something important about the relationship between characters, to show us that time was passing, to help us feel empathy for a character, to help us show more than one side to a character, to help us understand the changing emotions of a character and many other brilliant ways that the writer used details.

As I was conferring that day, I realized something fascinating.  As I walked around and talked to writers, focusing on how they were using details in their own writing, I realized that the kids were using the strategies that they themselves had discovered in the piece of writing we looked at. They were using these strategies way more often and way more willingly than they had previously used the strategies that I had taught them.

My students owned these writing strategies. Because they themselves had discovered these ways of using details, these strategies were much more integrated into their writing selves. They were therefore much more willing and likely to use them.

This was huge.

This was something I needed to capitalize on. Instead of sitting passively while I brought mentor texts to them and tried to fill their writer’s toolboxes with strategies, I needed to find a way to make my students a part of that process. I needed to teach them the processes through which they could become better writers on their own. I would, of course, be there to guide them through the process and teach them the things that they might not be able to discover on their own, but if I did not start teaching them how to grow as writers without me, then I knew they had no hope of continuing to grow as writers outside of the walls of our schools.

In the next post, I will describe how as a class, we worked to learn how to find our own mentor texts, how to analyze them for writing strategies, how to apply these writing strategies to our own writing and how to teach these strategies to other writers in our classroom community.

What It Feels Like To Be Gay Today

Before Tuesday, November 8th, being a lesbian was just one piece of who I was. At any given moment, if someone stopped me and asked me to define who I was, I might have started by saying that I am a teacher. I might have started by saying that I am a mom. I might have started by saying that I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a writer, a reader or someone who is cranky when I do not get enough sleep.

But the world changed for me on Tuesday, November 8th. Or more accurately, it began to change on Wednesday, November 9th.

In the early hours of Wednesday, I started to feel differently about who I am. I felt like suddenly, I was being defined by just one thing. Suddenly, the fact that I am a lesbian started to feel like it was defining who I was. I had never felt my gayness, my other-ness, so acutely. As I set off into the world on Wednesday, the fact that I was not a part of the majority felt shockingly and glaringly obvious. Maybe not to others, but to me.

To me, I felt like I was a target. To me, I felt like I was unsafe. To me, I felt like I was under attack.

Discovering (or maybe knowing all along, but finally seeing it out in the open) that half of the country is okay electing a man who ran on a platform of hate, is okay with electing a vice president who created one of the most anti-LGBT sets of laws for his state, is okay with wanting change so badly that they do not care about the millions of people who will put at risk when this change is put into affect, discovering all of that has a way of making those of us who are at risk feel unsafe.

For those of you who have not talked to a gay person since Wednesday morning or to those of you who have not, yourself, felt like a victim or a target, or to those of you who know and love people who are gay but have been struggling to understand what it might feel like, let me tell you a little bit of what I have been thinking about and feeling since Wednesday.

On Wednesday, I drove to home after work. I drove to my house. The house we have lived in and loved in for the past six years. The house that is located in a very diverse neighborhood and is surrounded by lovely neighbors who have never been anything other than neighborly. I parked in front of my house before I walked over to pick my daughter up from her school around the corner. As I pulled up to my house, as I parked, I looked carefully for signs of anti-gay graffiti. I had spent much of my ride home worried that I would find some kind of awful words left for us on our home. I had made a plan in my head already about how I was going to remove any hateful messages before my three-year-old daughter had a chance to see them. Every single time I have pulled up to my house since then, I have checked the house for vandalism.

On Wednesday, we heard from friends who were scrambling to find an affordable lawyer in order to complete a second-parent adoption for children that had always belonged to both of the moms in the family but had only been physically born to one of them. Feeling uncertain about how our rights might change, those of us in the LGBT community are feeling the need to take legal protections to ensure that our families are not ripped apart. That our families are protected.

On Thursday, we heard that those who are trans are also scrambling, trying to find the fastest way to complete paperwork that would allow them to change the gender on official documents before this is no longer an option.

On Friday, I began to worry that the way we felt this past spring as we drove across the sate of North Carolina (a feeling that I describe HERE) was soon going to be the way that we felt in our own state and in every state across the country. On Friday afternoon, my wife and I honestly had a discussion about what we would do if we were ever with our daughter and we were refused service because of the fact that we are gay. This is something we are planning for.

This morning, my wife sat at the end of our bed in tears because she was sharing about how scared she is to even walk into the women’s bathroom anymore. My wife, who fits more physical appearance stereotypes of a gay woman, had to tell me that she was afraid to take our daughter into the bathroom by herself in public right now. After reading stories of those who have faced anti-LGBT harassment in the days since the election, this fear felt more real than ever.

And on all of the days since the election, I have been too afraid to share these thoughts and truths with most of the people who love me because I know that their instinct will be to reassure me. To tell me everything is going to be okay. To tell me that our neighborhood is safe, to tell me that we are safe, to tell me that no one can change the status of our family.

But those reassurances, they have a way of making me feel worse.

To reassure me feels like a dismissal of my fears that feel very, very real to me. Because the truth is that the world has changed. Hate has just won. Those who hate feel as if they were just granted permission to allow that hate to spew into the world unchecked. We see it in the rise of hate-fueled attacks. The world feels different to those of us who are an “other” and the difference feels so scary. That fear is real.

So while none of my neighbors might harbor any hatred for me and for my family, I do not know what this new atmosphere of hate is going to bring our way. So when I pull up to my house and I look for signs of graffiti, I am not overreacting. I am reacting to the reality that we are now living in. At least that is how it feels to me. And when people tell me not to worry, it just does not help. I am worried. I have reason to worry. I do not need you to rush me out of my worry because it is uncomfortable for you or because you do not understand it.

Our rights, they are so fragile, they still feel so new. We made so much progress, so quickly, that we all still remember what it feels like to have fewer rights, to legally not be protected in the ways that other people are. We remember that feeling and we remember that fear. We remember that lack of equality. It is all too fresh, too raw, too scary to think about going back to living that way. And yet, here we are.

So to have people reassure me that I have nothing to worry about, that just doesn’t help. Often, these are the same people who tried to reassure me that Donald Trump would never get elected in the first place.

When people send me articles, written by lawyers, that tell me that I do not need to worry about the Supreme Court reversing the marriage equality act, I do not feel reassured. Just weeks ago, I was reading articles that people sent me, written by experts, that told me that I did not need to worry about Trump and Pence actually winning the presidential election. So excuse me if I do not feel comforted by experts. Everything that has happened in the last few days has made me feel as if I can never be too certain of my safety. Of my equality.

So what DO I want? If I am not looking for reassurance, if I am not looking to be told I have nothing to worry about, if I am not looking to be told we are going to be okay, what, then, am I looking for? Here is what brings me comfort:

When those I love reach out to me and ask me how I am doing. That brings me comfort.

When I am too far into my own fear and anxiety to reach back, knowing that people are thinking of me and will continue reaching out, that brings me comfort.

When people ask how I am doing and are willing to sit and listen to the truth of my answer, no matter how much discomfort it might bring, that brings me comfort.

When people hear my fears and acknowledge that there is cause for fear, that brings me comfort.

When people tell me that they know my rights are under attack and they tell me that they are going to be there to help me fight for them, that brings me comfort.

When people tell me that if and when someone comes towards my family with hate, they will be there to stand next to me and stand up with me, that brings me comfort.

When people do more than tell me they will stand with me in the face of hate, but instead look to their own families and their own classrooms and find ways to raise children with less hate in their hearts, that brings me comfort.

Walking into a home or a classroom and seeing books that have LGBT characters and LGBT families, that brings me comfort.

Hearing parents and teachers using the words gay and lesbian and transgender so that those words become more normal than words of hate, that brings me comfort.

Instead of hearing people ask me, “What can we do?” having people tell me, “Here’s what I have done because of what you have shared with me,” that brings me comfort.

And more than anything, being a part of the fight to help protect all of those who are at-risk and fearful right now, that brings me an immense amount of comfort.

Because there are so many people right now who are feeling what I am feeling, or much, much worse. And being able to listen to their stories, to acknowledge their fears, to lean in to the discomfort that their reality brings us all, that is one of the most powerful things that any of us can do.

And right now, I am not quite ready to fight. I will be. But right now, my fear, my anxiety, and my depression are winning out. They won’t win forever. But for now, they are. So I am relying on the rest of you for a little bit. I will be back out there fighting for what is right, but right now I need to be here, curled up in my hole for just a while longer.

I need to feel this grief now because, ultimately, it is what will motivate me to fight like hell to make this world better. I cannot be rushed through this sadness now, because later it is what will propel me to do the hard work within myself, within my classroom and within my own family. I need to feel the full weight of this injustice now because in a few more days it is what is going to spur me into further action.

Because as scared as I feel right now, I know that there are so many young LGBT people living in this country that are feeling all of this and much, much more. And if we do not start soon to make this world better for them and for everyone else who is feeling vulnerable right now, we are going to be in danger of losing so many beautiful and important lives.

And for them. For all of those people out there who are in their own holes of despair, we all have a lot of work to do. So for now, we can wear our safety pins, we can write our words of outrage, but soon we must pull ourselves out of our stupor and start taking actions to dramatically change the way this country thinks. Because that is where the real work will begin.

Do Not Come Looking Here For Hope. Not Today.

This will not be a hopeful post. I have very little hope in my heart today.

Others have written beautifully hopeful and inspiring posts today. Others have spoken about the honor that we have as teachers. About the power that we have to shape how our children see our world. The power we have to change the way future voters vote. Others have written about what we can say to our students. Others have written powerful messages filled with hope looking forward to how we can do better.

I encourage you to read those other posts. You will find hope there.

But if you are looking for a hopeful and inspiring message, please do not read these words here because they will not be filled with hope. This writing is for me. This writing is to put down the things that are too heavy for me to carry around today. This writing will have very little hope because today I have lost quite a bit of the hope that I normally carry around with me.

I know that I will find it again. I know that I will find it in the children that I teach, in the child that I am lucky enough to raise, in the family that I am a part of, in the people who surround me, in the goodness that surrounds me.

But not today.

Today I woke up in a country that I am now afraid to be a part of. Today I woke up and lost the last shred of hope that I was holding on to when my wife and I went to sleep last night both crying tears until we couldn’t hold our eyes open anymore. Today I woke up in a world that I am afraid of.

Today I do not want to be reassured. Today I do not want to hear that we will be okay. Today I do not want to be rushed out of my sadness and past my discomfort. I believe that pushing away the reality of the discomfort of recognizing the hate that exists in this world is a large part of the problem that got us here in the first place. We are so quick to reassure, to say that the world isn’t that bad, to scream so loudly about how love is going to win.

But it didn’t win.

It didn’t win last night.

Hate won.

A hate that has always been there. A hate that those of us who have ever felt marganalized have tried to tell you all about. A hate that so many of us have been told does not exist. A hate we have been told has been shrinking. A hate that we spoke of only to be reassured about how much better things have gotten. A hate that perhaps has been kept hidden away, but a hate that I fear is now going to come rushing out into the open. A hate that will target people like me, people like my family, people like all of those in this country who know what it is like to feel like an other.

And this hate is about to be legally sanctified. In ways I believe we cannot even imagine quite yet.

And maybe this is some kind of price that we are paying for the progress we have made these past few years. All this forward movement, perhaps it was too much for those who hate us. Perhaps all these rights we were gaining, the closer we were coming to equality, it made people desperate to find a way to stop it.

But in some ways, that makes all of this so much harder to accept. Because for the past few years, I have felt safe. I have felt like we were going to be okay. I have felt like it was okay to raise a child in this world because no longer would she live in a world where being a part of a family with two moms was going to be seen as any different than any other family. And now all of that seems lost. And I understand people will tell me that it isn’t lost. That the kind of progress we have made is not just going to go away. That we are safe. That we are lucky.

But today I will have a very hard time believing that. Today I do not feel safe. Today I do not feel protected. Today I am scared. I am scared for me. I am scared for my wife. I am scared for my daughter. I am scared for all of the other people who I share a country with who woke up today feeling the kind of uncertainty that makes it difficult to even function.

And the people who want to tell me that everything is going to be okay, they are the same people who tried to tell me that Trump would never be elected. And yet here we are.

Today we see what this country is really made of. And I will not lay down and accept that. Eventually, this will motivate me to gear back up and fight like hell to make this country better somehow.

But I will be honest. Today. Today I just want to withdraw. To hide away with my wife and my daughter. To give up for just a little bit because this load is just too hard to carry.  So for today that is what I will do. And soon, we will pick back up the fight. But please understand that today, for some of us, we have no fight left in us. It will come back. So will the hope. But for just a moment, there are some of us who just need to sit here in our disappointment, in our hopelessness and in our grief.

So that is where you will find me today.


Teaching Students to Push Beyond the Single Story Often Told

We have just completed our MASSIVE first reading/writing unit, an inquiry into story.  This unit took us from the start of the school year until nearly the end of October.  The unit had us studying the stories of others as readers and sharing our own stories with the world as writers.  I have written about the work we have done as readers throughout the first parts of our unit in THIS POST and THIS POST and THIS POST. The final part of our work with this unit was all focused on teaching students to push beyond the single story often told.

We began this part of our work by reading Josh Funk’s book Dear DragonThis was an idea given by the brilliant Pernille Ripp and it worked perfectly as a way to launch our discussion. We began by thinking about what this book had to do with the discussions we had been having on race and assumptions. The kids quickly realized that the boy and the dragon in this picture book both carried assumptions about each other. In the book, they get to know each other through letters first, without knowing that the boy is a boy and the dragon is a dragon. Getting to know each other first, allowed them to hear each other’s stories without their own assumptions getting in the way.  We talked about how we each carry around images of other people and the images we carry in our heads impact how we interact with people. One of the best ways to combat these, often stereotypical images, is to listen to each others stories.

This conversation launched us into our study of the single stories we often carry of others. We began our work by watching the absolutely brilliant TED TALK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Because my students are fifth graders and their attention span can be limited, we watched selections of this brilliant talk.  Whenever we watch a TED talk, I always provide the kids with a printed transcript of the talk so that they can follow along and refer back to the speaker’s words when we are doing further work. Here is the transcript of the parts of the video that I showed my students.  (I cut and pasted together only the parts that we watched): modified-single-story-transcript

After viewing this powerful talk, I asked my students what they thought Chimamanda meant by a single story and how these single stories formed in the minds of people.  It was amazing to hear what they took away from the video. I think that sometimes I still underestimate what fifth graders understand about our world. Then, I hear a discussion like the ones my classes about this TED talk and I am reminded by how much they truly do understand and how much they are able to share about that understanding. They constantly amaze me and when I remember to give them the chance, they often restore my hope in this world.

One of the things that I found to be most powerful is how the language of, “the single stories we are told” really allowed my students to be honest and vulnerable about the biases they carry. Just like with adults, it is hard to get students to admit that they have biases.  Many of these kids have grown up hearing, “Skin color doesn’t matter,” and “I don’t see color. I only see people.” So to get them to push beyond that can be challenging. (Here is what I wrote about that previously.)

However, when we frame this discussion as one that attempts to analyze the single stories we have been told, we see ourselves as a part of a system that perpetuates bias instead of as bad people who judge others. This makes a difference. This allows us to speak more openly and honestly. This allows us to do the work of breaking down those stories we have been told as we learn to push beyond them to gain more complete understandings of other people.  This is something my students taught me through this work and not something I understood when we first began.

After watching this TED talk, we moved on to looking at how these single stories form and examples of these single stories that exist in the world. I wanted to model this first before allowing my students to do some exploring on their own.  So I began with a group of people that are most often incredibly misunderstood by my students. Native Americans.

I began by doing a simple Google image search of Native Americans. Here is what came up: GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH FOR NATIVE AMERICANS

Somewhat shocking.

Using THIS DOCUMENT, the results of the Google image search, and their own ideas about Native Americans, my students and I began to document in writing the single story that is often told about Native Americans. This brought up many of the damaging stereotypes that we have been told about Native Americans.  We discussed these and realized how we had all grown up hearing about Native American people in just one way. And so once we realized that, we worked together to craft questions that would help us to push beyond that single story and search for a more complete understanding of Native American people.

We talked about that once we had our questions, we needed to search for multiple resources that would help us to answer some of our questions and give us more than one way to view an entire group of people.  One of the things that many of my students asked about after viewing the Google image search was about how Native Americans in TODAY’S world live since so many of the images that came up showed Native Americans from a long time ago. Students also asked about the relationship today between Native Americans and the United States government.

With these questions in mind, I brought in additional resources, that I thought might help us to push beyond the single story we often carry about Native Americans.  We began by looking at Tweets that I had collected together on TweetDeck from the hashtag that became popular this summer, #NotYourNativeStereotype. This amazing hashtag involved people who are Native American Tweeting pictures of themselves with descriptions of who they are in order to combat the very narrow and damaging stereotypes of Native people.  As a class, we looked at many of these Tweets and wrote about the additional understanding they gave us of who Native American people really are.  We wrote down our observations on the form that we began with the Google image search.

One of the most powerful parts of this discussion was the idea of how differently a story is told when it is told BY the person living the story. This was an example where Native people were telling their own stories instead of having stories told about them.  This gave us an opportunity to reflect on how important it is to seek out stories told by the people living them instead of only relying on stories told ABOUT the lives of others.

After looking at the Tweets, we read an article on the current pipeline protest. Newsela had a great article on the protest.  As we read this article, I had the students practice marking the places in the article where their thinking changed, grew or deepened in some way. In the white spaces on the articles, I had them write down the ways their thinking changed. After reading the article, I had the kids look back at what they had written down in the white spaces and synthesize that into longer writing on their forms that explained what they now understood about people who are Native American living in today’s world.

Finally, we thought about some ways that we could share with others what we had learned in order to help people push beyond the single stories that they held of Native Americans.

After going through all of this work together, as a model, I now wanted students to practice this kind of work on their own. In order to do this, I knew that I needed to provide resources that highlighted the single story often told and then resources that provided a deeper, more complete understanding of a group of people or a place.

So I handed out another blank copy of the form we had worked on together with our look into the lives of people who are Native American.  I then told the kids that they would be working today on looking into another group of people or a place. This time they would be working on their own, doing the same kind of work that we had done all together.

On the first day, I gave them a list of resources that ONLY highlighted the single story often told about a group of people. I gave them time to explore all of the resources and then asked them to look more carefully at one place or group of people that they wanted to think more deeply about.  Here is the first list of resources we used: RESOURCES SHOWING SINGLE STORIES

After looking at the resources, I had them fill out their forms for the one group of people they were going to look more closely at. I had them write about the single story often shown and craft questions to help them think more deeply about the group of people or place they were looking into.

The next day, I provided a second list of resources. These were resources I had been gathering since this summer. While I knew I wanted my students to have choice in the group of people they were studying, I knew that they did not yet know enough about researching to tackle the entire internet in order to learn more about a group of people. So I have been curating resources since this summer. I was actually so excited to finally begin using them with kids.  I made sure to pull a variety of resources and types of resources. I wanted the kids to have things to read in words and also read in images and videos. I think that all of these different types of reading are so important in this work because so many of the images we carry of others come through pictures and videos.

So on the second day, I asked them to go back to the forms they had been filling out. Remember which group of people or place they had been looking at, review the single stories they wrote about and review the questions they had asked. On the second day, they were asked to explore the additional resources provided and write about their growing, changing and deepening understandings.  Here is the list of resources I provided in order to help them push BEYOND the single story often told: RESOURCES TO PUSH BEYOND THE SINGLE STORY OFTEN TOLD.

After two days of exploring these new resources, I had the kids get into groups to share their understandings. As I walked around and listened in, I was amazed to hear the things that the kids were saying. Of course, they did not FULLY understand any group of people. Of course, they still held misconceptions. Of course, they still said things that made me cringe. But the difference was, they were now leaving space for the possibility that the images they had been carrying around were dangerously incomplete. The difference was that they now were saying things that showed me that they understood the need to dig deeper and not settle on simply believing what they had been told when they were little. The difference was that now they shared how looking at multiple resources could enhance their understanding. The difference was that now they understood that they have a responsibility to dig deeper, to ask questions, to not accept one narrative, to seek out people telling their own stories. And that is no small thing.

The next day, I had the kids get into groups and create some simple action plans of how they could continue this work out in the world outside of school. I asked them to create webs that showed ways that they could push beyond the single story often told. Again, what they came up with was amazing.

Here are some of their webs:

After taking a walk around the room and looking at everyone else’s work, I had the kids share with me what they noticed in each of the group’s work. Based on what was shared, we created this chart to hang up in our room to remind us of how we can continue this work outside of the classroom:


This, for me, was one of the most important anchor charts that I have ever crafted with students. In these four concrete steps, lay the power to change the way students read their world and the way they, and I, interacted with other people.

After finishing this chart, I stepped back and honestly thought about what a different world we might live in if more of us, more often, practiced doing exactly what my students had learned how to do. What a different election this might be. What a different state our country might be in. What a different humanity we might be a part of.

At the end of this all. All of this work. We returned to the four questions that guided our inquiry from the very beginning. We looked back on our very first anchor chart:


I wanted to see how we had done, answering the questions that we started with. And so, each child completed THIS REFLECTION. I asked each child to answer our four guiding questions in order to provide evidence of what they had learned to do as readers and as human beings.  Here are just a few of the responses they gave:

Their responses were beautiful. As with everything, not everyone got what I hoped they would get. Not every walked away with the understandings I was hoping from. But reading through their responses, it was clear to me that everyone walked away with something. Everyone walked away with some better understanding of how to read the world around them and how to push beyond the images that we carry with us.  Their responses filled me with hope.

Hope that we do have the power to shift the world we live in. Hope that we have the incredible honor of helping shape the way that our students see the world around them. Hope that we can start to change what our students accept as truth and teach them to question in order to see things in more than one way. And if I have this hope, if I can hold on to that, then I can find the needed strength to wake up each day and face a world that can seem so overwhelmingly cruel and unjust. And that makes me feel really lucky to be a teacher. And to do this work.

And when I look back on all of this work, on the last nine weeks we have spent engaged in all of this, there were of course moments when I felt like we needed to move on. There were skills to be covered, there were strategies to practice, there were complex texts to read. But then, I think about what my students gained. The empathy they have built, the understanding they have gained about their own biases and how to push beyond them, their ability to do better than we have done in the past in terms of questioning the way things are and finding a more complete version of the truth.

And what I realize is that I do not have to sacrifice one for the other. I do not have to give up on our curriculum in order to help my students learn to make the world a better place. In fact, our curriculum is just that, a way to help our students learn to make the world a better place. Or at least it should be.  There is a way to do both. To focus on skills and help students use them in a way that has real meaning and purpose. It isn’t always clear at first, but if we start with what we believe our students need to know in order to change our world and then figure out a way to use the skills we need to teach in order to help them do that work, then we are all going to end up in such a better place.

Courageous Conversations

Today, it was hard for me not to have hope for this world.

For the past two weeks, my students and I have been engaged in an inquiry into the lives of others with a particular focus on race, assumptions, stereotypes and bias.  If you are interested, you can read about the start of our work HERE and the continuation of our work HERE.

After spending several days digging into some incredible resources, I knew that I wanted my students to have time to discuss their new understandings and the questions that they still had.  I wanted my students to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to learn from each other and to reach new thinking together. Not only did I want this for my students, but I knew that this was what they needed. To learn and to grow in regards to issues as difficult as race, we humans need to engage in conversation. We need to talk. We need to listen.

But these things do not come easily. For adults, talking about race is a challenge. And now, I wanted to release my students into small-group, student-led conversations. And I was scared. I had watched my students wrestle with incredibly challenging questions over our past two weeks of work.  I had seen them learn to ask better questions and follow those questions towards better understanding.

And yet, I had also heard how much they still did not understand. I also heard how much they still needed guidance and explanation. I also heard how much they still spoke from a place of privilege and misunderstanding. And I was scared of what would happen when I was not right next to them, when I could not jump right in, when I could not fix the things I wanted to fix right away.

Luckily, I was not in this alone. Not only did I have my students there with me. But I also had the wisdom of others. This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending the single most powerful conference session that I have ever attended.  At ILA, the brilliant Cornelius Minor led a session focusing on how to have difficult conversations about race with your students in the classroom. To be in that room was to witness brilliance. I do not think that one person left that room without having been changed in some way. I wish I could put into words the work that was done that day, but I truly have no words.

Not only did Cornelius model for us how to have difficult conversations with our students, but he managed to create a safe space within minutes where people shared and listened and learned in a way that I have not before experienced. I learned so much that day. As a teacher. As a human.

And so today, several months after this session, I carried Cornelius’s words and the words of everyone who so bravely shared their truths that day, into my classroom.

One of the things that I learned that day was the power of giving people time to think, to collect their thoughts, to reflect before beginning a conversation. I also learned that we must be deliberate in how we help kids to listen and not just to talk. So I began by asking my students to prepare for their discussions today.

We started by looking at the notes that my students had been collected over the past two weeks.  Each student had been using THIS DOCUMENT to collect their thinking about the seven big questions that they had asked after watching our first video.  After looking over their answers and their questions, I modeled how I sorted my own answers and questions into questions that I was not able to answer and wanted to discuss, questions I found answers to but wanted to hear the perspectives of others and thoughts that I wanted to make sure to share with my group in today’s discussion.  I then asked my students to do the same. I gave them THIS DOCUMENT to help them to begin to sort through their many thoughts and questions.  I gave them a few silent minutes to think and sort and prepare.

Something else that I learned from Cornelius’s session was the power of starting small. In the size of the group and also in the length of the initial discussion. So I begin by putting the kids into pairs. I told the pairs that I wanted them to start with a question. I told them that their first discussion would only last for three minutes. I told them that as they were discussing, I would walk around and write down the powerful questions that I heard them discussing. I told them that I would make sure they were okay with me sharing their question before I put it up on the board. And then I sent them off to discuss.

And it was amazing. There was not a single pair of students who was not focused on the task at hand. Pairs were listening to each other. They were building off of each other’s thinking. Not a moment was wasted. These kids had so much to say.

After three minutes, I asked the kids to stop and think about what they heard from their partner. I asked them to think not about what they wanted to say next, but instead to think about what they heard from their partner. And then the partners joined another pair and became a group of four. This time, they had six minutes to discuss.

Again, I walked around. I listened it. I asked permission to share questions with the class by writing them up on the board.

After six minutes, I asked the kids to combine one more time so that we had groups of eight. Before they started, I asked them to again think about what they had heard others say. And then I let them go again, this time for twelve minutes.

Here is what it looked like in my classroom this afternoon:



And the conversations. They were amazing. The questions. They were so good. These kids were so willing to push their thinking, they were so willing to speak even if they weren’t exactly sure of the right way to say what they wanted to say. They were not afraid to ask questions. They were not afraid to make themselves vulnerable by admitting what they did not know and understand. They were not afraid to challenge each other. There were disagreements, but they did not turn into arguments. There were moments where they talked over each other or at each other and there were also moments where they were listening not just with their ears, but with their hearts.

We have so much to learn from kids.

The conversations were far from perfect. There were comments made that still made me cringe. There were moments I had to walk away. There were moments I had to interrupt and intervene.  But I kept reminding myself. They are ten. This is the first time many of them have engaged in conversations of race. It isn’t always going to be pretty. In fact, most times it is going to be pretty messy. Pretty ugly.

But if I let that stop me. If I let that stop us. We would have missed so much.

Just look at the questions that my students discussed today:


Today my students learned that it is okay to talk about race. That it is necessary. That it is the only hope we have of making anything better. Today my students learned that sometimes, often times, you will say something hurtful even when you don’t mean to and that all you can do then is apologize and then do better next time. Today my students learned that staying silent is dangerous and that through tough conversations we can learn and grow and change the way we think about this world. Today my students learned how much they are truly capable of.

And I learned those lessons too.

I learned so much from my students today.

But most of all, I learned this. As teachers, our fear can stop us from doing a lot of important things. Things that have the potential to make the world a better place. I think about what would happen if everyone in this country spent time when they were kids discussing race and assumptions and implicit bias. If everyone took a chance to share their understandings and their misunderstandings. To listen and learn and grow and admit what they do not know and do not understand. What would happen to this country if we all had these conversations more often? I have to imagine we would live in a kinder, more just, more fair kind of world. And yet, so often we do not have these conversations with our students because we are sacred. Because we aren’t sure if we really know how.

But then.

Look at what can happen when we do have these conversations. Look at how we can grow and learn and change and watch our students become better human beings right before our eyes.

It is so worth the risk. So worth the fear.

And when we do it together. When we lean on each other. When we share what we have done. What has worked. What has not worked. The work itself becomes so much easier.

Because Cornelius may not have been there in my classroom with me today, but his words were. His ideas were. His strength was. And we can continue to do that for each other. But we have to start and we have to share and we have to trust that our students are going to lead us somewhere so hopeful.




Creating the Curriculum They Need: Using Inquiry to Have Tough Conversations

A few weeks ago, my students and I began a powerful discussion on race. You can read about the beginning of our discussion HERE.

We had been studying memoirs in both reading and writing and we had just started working on questioning as readers.  To me, none of these skills or genres or strategies are important in isolation and they really only seem to have meaning for our students when we can pull them all together in order to help students create new meaning and new understandings about our world.

So while I knew I wanted to teach students how to question while reading memoirs, I knew that I had to do more than that. I had to find a way to show students that when we hear the story of just one person, we can craft questions that can lead us to seek out information that can bring us to an understanding far beyond just one person’s life. We can use one person’s story to spark questions that lead us to seek out more stories and more information in order to better understand the world around us.  We must be careful not to let one person’s story define an entire group of people. Instead, I wanted my students to learn how to hear a story, ask questions, allow those questions to guide them towards more stories so that they can put together the stories of several different people in order to begin to formulate understandings that help them to empathize with people whose lives may be vastly different than their own.

These were lofty goals. Goals that easily tied into the standards and the learning targets that are a part of our fifth grade curriculum. However, these goals also went far beyond what was written within our curriculum. And so the hardest work for me was to find the resources and teaching strategies that could help my students and I to meet these goals. So it was tempting to plan the whole thing out from the beginning. To carefully align each lesson with a Common Core standard, to plan out each step along the road that we would take, to plan out a sequence that would allow us to start small and build each small skill step-by-step. But the problem with that, with all of that planning, is that it does not leave space for the students and the direction that they want to take.

So instead, I walked into our work armed only with my knowledge of the work that I wanted my students to do in our classroom that would match the work that I wanted my students to do in the world outside of our classroom in order to make the world a better place.  And here is what that allowed me to do:

I was able to follow where my students lead. And where our students lead us is almost always a good place to end up.

In this way, I am starting with my students and not with the standards. However, because I knew what goals I wanted to meet, I felt confident that our work could easily be tied back to the standards and learning targets that I need to teach.

Another benefit of doing our work this way is that the work is guided by the students, not by my own personal beliefs. One of the things that makes it so difficult to have tough conversations in our classrooms is the fear that people will accuse of us of pushing our own beliefs on our students.  What I have found is that if we bring in material that sparks questions for our students and then we design our learning around the questions that students themselves are asking, then we are better able to ensure that we are not just pushing our own ideas on our students, but we are teaching our students to read the world around them and create their own ideas and understandings.

And so, I chose our first video.

And then I let the kids take it from there. As we watched our first video, I had the kids collect questions for a variety of purposes. That work was described in the last post I wrote. From there, the kids met in groups to go over their questions and write down the questions that they thought would be the most interesting ones to follow and the ones that they believed would lead them to some form of a better understanding.  Here is the result of that work:


After gathering all of our questions, we worked to categorize and group our questions based on similar topics. After moving our questions around and combining them into larger questions, we were left with seven BIG questions that the kids were left wondering about after watching our first video.

I created THIS DOCUMENT with our seven questions. We would use this document over the next few days in order to attempt to gain more understanding and keep track of the learning we were doing as we listened to more stories and read more information.

Based on the questions that my students were left with, I then went in search of resources that might help them to answer their questions. Again, this allowed my students to guide the learning even though at this point in the year, they were not ready to go out and seek out the answers to their questions on their own. Knowing that my students did not have a lot of experience with inquiry learning and knowing that the questions they were most interested in would be somewhat tricky to find answers to in a form that was accessible to my 5th grade students, I knew that our first work with inquiry was going to have to be more controlled than it will be by the end of the year.  In many ways, this first work with inquiry will serve as a model for the further, more student-led and directed inquiry work that my students will be engaged in later on in the school year.

So with my students questions in mind, I went out to search for resources.

The first resource we looked at was Clint Smith’s amazing TED Talk titled, “How to Raise A Black Son in America.” Before beginning, I had the kids review the questions we were hoping to answer. I handed out the text of Clint Smith’s talk and then we watched the video all the way through. After watching it once, we watched it again, but this time I stopped the video when students asked me to. As we watched for the second time, students wrote down answers, or pieces of answers, they gained as they listened to Clint’s talk. The kids were incredibly moved by the TED talk and their question charts started to fill up with answers and further questions.

Next, we watched Mellody Hobson’s TED talk titled, “Color Blind or Color Brave?” We followed a similar process, though only watched this talk once since it is considerably longer.

Finally, we looked at an essay from This I Believe.

Throughout our work with each of these resources, we talked about how the stories of other people could help us to begin to answer our questions. I modeled by own question answering and I also modeled how new questions were sparked as old questions gained answers.  In addition, we talked about how new information often forces us to rethink what we thought we knew and change the answers that we believed we understood.  As we continued this work, the students continued to add to their documents.

After all of this work, I knew that my students needed some time to explore some resources on their own. I looked at which questions we were beginning to answer and which questions we needed more information to help us answer. Based on that, I put together a large list of resources that I knew my 5th grade students would be able to navigate independently in order to attempt to further answer our seven big questions.


And this is where we currently find ourselves. My students will continue to explore these resources on their own and then engage in small group discussions to help them begin to synthesize the understandings and answers they have reached based on our work.

This work is far from perfect. This work is also exhausting. I wish that there was a program for us to follow that would lead us to the same results. But no such program can exist because it needs to be crafted around the needs of the students sitting with me.  Together we are reaching towards greater understanding. Together we are attempting to wrestle with difficult questions. We might not ever be able to fully answer our questions perfectly, but what we are learning in the process is invaluable.

What we are learning is how to listen to the stories of other people. What we are learning is how to ask questions and determine which questions will lead us to further learning and use our questions to push us forward in gathering additional information to enhance what we know and understand. What we are learning is how to put together not just a single story, but the stories of many in order to better understand the lives of other people. What we are learning is how to ask questions instead of dismissing experiences that do not match what we have experienced in our own lives. What we are learning is how to deal with difficult issues in a way that is respectful. What we are learning is how to build empathy for others. What we are learning is that we can never fully know what it is like to live the life of another person, but by listening with an open mind and open heart we can sit with other people and learn from them as they share with us the gift of their stories.

This learning. It is powerful. And I feel so lucky to get to be a part of it.



Every So Often You Can Almost Hear the World Changing Just a Little Bit

It is late (okay, it’s 9 o’clock, but to me that might as well be midnight). I am exhausted but I worry if that I go to sleep without capturing the incredible moments in my classroom today, I will regret it.  So I am essentially copying and pasting an email I just sent explaining a few moments from my day into this blog post. Hopefully, I will make it all sound better later, but for now I just want to make sure that I capture these moments of hope before they drift too far away.


These humans that we get to teach. They are simply incredible. And this week, they have been the one of the few things that made me believe that there is any hope for this messed up world of ours.

So here was our work today.

We have been engaged in a study of using stories from other people’s lives as both mirrors and windows. We started by talking about stories and books as mirrors and used this to begin to build our community of readers. We learned a lot about each other and we learned a lot about the power of books to make us feel less alone in the world.

We then shifted our focus to using the stories of others as windows into lives that are different than our own as a way of better understanding our world and the perspectives of others.  Along with this, I am trying to work in our reading unit on questioning. So we have been looking at the many purposes for questioning. Yes, we can question to clarify and seek out needed additional information, but we can also question to seek out multiple perspectives, search for voices that are not being heard, to look critically at information for bias and accuracy and authenticity, and to engage in discussion with others.  (Here is a sheet we have been using to track questions that we can use for these different purposes: QUESTIONING CAN HELP US TO…)

So it is was in this context that we looked at a powerful video today. Before watching the video I shared with students that when we listen to the stories of others whose lives and experiences are different than our own, it is easy to dismiss those stories because they are not what we have experienced. Unfortunately, many adults model this. When someone speaks of something we, ourselves, have not experienced, we often react dismissively and believe that their experience is somehow less valid than their own.

What I want my students to start to learn to do instead, what I want all of us to start to learn to do, is listen to the stories of others and use those stories and those words to better understand the lives of others and ask questions that will lead us to seek information that will help us to better understand another person’s story and perspective instead of dismissing it. In this way, we can use questioning not just to be a better reader, but to help ourselves grow into better people by seeking to understand the stories of others by gaining more information and knowledge instead of dismissing someone’s experience because it does not match our own.

That was our lead up. Then we watched this incredible that was shared with me sometime last year:

We watched it once all the way through. Then I handed out this sheet to help guide our thinking:

Then we watched the video slowly and I stopped to model when I heard words that deepened my understanding and when I heard words that lead me to questions.

As we worked on tracking our thinking, we stopped for conversation.

At first the kids conversation was fairly shallow and terribly cliche. Their words were based in a lot of “colorblind” thinking. A lot of, “You should not judge a person by how they look.” I worried we were stuck there. So I kept modeling. A lot of, “Hearing this child’s words made me think…” I also made sure to share how I have been discovering my own many biases. This does not mean that I am a bad person, but it means I have grown up surrounded by images and messages that lead me to believe things about entire groups of people that are simply not true.  I kept sharing this kind of thinking and my students continued to also push their own thinking through questioning.

And then there was one of the most powerful moments I have ever had as a teacher. A girl began speaking. She was referring to the part of the video where one of the black boys talks about being afraid of walking down the street and being stopped by a police officer. My student started to say, “A kid doesn’t need to be worried…” and then she literally stopped mid-sentence because I think she knew that she was about to dismiss a person’s story because it wasn’t her own experience. She realized she was about to say that this kid did not need to be worried or should not be worried about simply walking down the street. And then she tried again. She said, “I mean, no one should…I mean he doesn’t…” And then she just sort of looked at me. And I responded, “Are you maybe trying to say that no child should have to have had the experiences that would lead him to be fearful of walking down the street? Are you maybe wondering what has happened to that child in the past that leads him to have to worry about this?” And she simply said, “Yes.”

And from that moment, our conversation changed.

The kids became braver and more willing to question. We discussed the difference between thinking about how we wish the world was (one where skin color doesn’t matter) and recognizing the way the world actually is (a person’s skin color determines so much of the way people experience life in this country). We discussed how we might not mean harm by our words, but that they can cause harm nonetheless and we need to accept ownership of that. We discussed that many of us do have expectations when we see a person. We think we know what a person will sound like or how a person will act. We have these expectations because of the images we have grown up seeing. We have them and we have to acknowledge them and work to break them down.

One girl nearly brought me to tears when she said, “What I am wondering is if I have ever said anything that has made someone feel bad about who they are, what they look like or where they come from.” I was truly left speechless.  If only more adults would be willing to reach a place of being able to ask this question. If only more adults had the chance to listen to the words of our students.

Eventually, I had to pause our conversation. Time in our day was running out. We kept our notes and will continue our conversation. Tomorrow, I am going to chart the questions they are left with and allow those questions to guide our next phase of work and inquiry.

I cannot tell you what today did for me. What it did for my heart and soul. I am sure there were a million other things I should have and could have said and yet the words of my students and their willingness to grow and think and be challenged, that was so perfect.

Every so often, it’s almost as if we can hear our world changing within the words and actions of our students. Clearly, this one conversation is no where near enough. But I believe that something important was started today.

So often we are left paralyzed with fear when we think of beginning difficult conversations with our students. So often we worry we don’t have enough answers, that we will say the wrong thing, that we aren’t qualified enough, that we will offend someone, that there will be pushback, we are afraid of a million other things. But there are human beings, so many human beings, that right this moment are afraid to walk down the street without getting hurt or beat up or shot or killed. And so our fear, our fear that pales in comparison to that kind of fear, it can not be what stops us.

Instead we have to allow our fear to serve as a signal that we are about to do something of incredible importance and consequence. We have to allow our fear to drive us to learn more and do better and connect with others who are already doing the work so that we are better equipped to do our own work with our own students.

We have to allow our fear to drive us to do better. Because doing nothing, that perpetuates the problems that our killing too many. Allowing students to grow up without these conversations on race, that is allowing our students to grow up to be the people who continue to do the killing, who continue to ignore the problems that exist, who continue to stop our country from being better.

So today. For just a moment. I think I heard our world changing. And I am incredibly grateful to my students for making me believe again that we can do something to change the world. We just have to get started and then keep on working.

The Best of Both Worlds: Honoring Student Voice While Also Covering the Curriculum in a Literacy Classroom

This year, my school district has made a commitment to try to move ourselves towards Ellin Keene’s vision of a Literacy Studio.  The idea behind Literacy Studio, as I understand it, is that we provide a more connected way of teaching and learning when it comes to reading and writing. Instead of teaching each of the two subjects in isolation, we look for ways to make the connection between the two more obvious for our students. In addition to that goal, there are also the goals of empowering students to make choices that help them to grow as readers and writers, engaging students in authentic work that is both meaningful and purposeful, and providing flexible time that our students need to accomplish all that they need and want to accomplish. Ellin describes her ideas of literacy studio in her book To Understand.  If you are curious, there is also a great handout on the Heinemann website that you can see HERE.

From the minute that I heard this description, I loved everything about the idea of literacy studio. The emphasis on authentic work. The belief in engagement over compliance. The connections between reading and writing. All of it sounded so good.

But I had no idea how to make it work.

Like so many things, I loved the ideas behind literacy studio but was unclear about how to actually carry them out in my own classroom without ignoring the realities of the curriculum that I am required to teach. And more than that, I was unsure how to provide this level of choice while still making sure that my students were also learning the things that I believe are important. No fifth grader, on his or her own, might ever choose to study the lives of other people through the stories that they share. However, I believe, with my entire heart, that this is important work. I want to guide students through that work. I want to use that important work to work in the objectives, targets and standards that I am supposed to be teaching in fifth grade.

How do I do all that I want and need to do with my students AND continue to do work that is student-driven and allows students to be the ones making the decisions about what and how they learn?

This is a struggle that is not new. The balance between student-directed learning and the realities of our standards driven world have been one of my greatest obstacles in the journey that I have been on to try to empower my students and give them more control and ownership over their own learning.

In the past few years, I have found ways to make our work more authentic and to offer more choice so that our learning is more student driven. In our inquiry circle unit, the students had complete control over the topics. When we wrote our informational picture books, my students were in charge of selecting and analyzing their own mentor texts. During that same unit, the students took over and taught lessons on the writing strategies they had discovered to small groups of students who felt they could benefit from those strategies. The goals that my students work on during independent reading are focused on their self-selected texts and are driven by student interest.

In many ways, I have found ways to work student interests and student choice into our literacy curriculum. And yet, I still felt as if I was always letting the curriculum drive my instruction. And I longed for space to allow my students to drive my instruction instead. Really drive my instruction. Not just work their interests into what we HAD to do, but really allow them to tell me what THEY had to do in order to grow as readers and writers.

It seemed like literacy studio could offer me and my students that space, but I wasn’t sure how to do both what I wanted to do and what I felt I needed to do.

Enter my brilliant literacy coach.

One afternoon last week, maybe it was Monday (it seems so far away already), my students and I were getting ready for the independent writing time that always follows our writing mini-lesson.  I told the kids their task for the day was to go back to the memoirs they were writing and look for places that they could weave in the writing strategies we had been practicing.  For some reason, on that day, hands went up and students began to ask if they could do other things during this time instead. Some wanted to work on a blog post. Some wanted to read. Others wanted to write a fiction story. And my answer to all of them was no. And it just didn’t sit well with me.

Isn’t this what we were supposed to be doing? Isn’t this what the vision was? Children happily selecting reading and writing tasks that were meaningful to them. Why then did I feel like I needed to say no?

So the kids went off to work on their memoirs. And we did good work. And then they headed off to thirty minutes of Spanish.  And I texted my literacy coach and told her I needed to talk to her about literacy studio. So she came in and in the next thirty minutes we tried to figure out just what was going on.

I told her that what I didn’t want to loose was the immediacy of the writing lesson we just had. The kids had been really engaged as we looked at how memoir writers, Lois Lowry in this case, can reveal the deeper meaning of a story by showing a character’s emotions through their actions. We did some great work analyzing our mentor text (Crow Call). We had some great discussions. And then I wanted them to go and write. Because while my fifth graders might not choose to write true stories from their lives on their own, I truly believe in empowering students to shape the way they are seen by others by learning to masterfully craft and write stories from their own lives. And when we learn a new writing strategy, I want them to be able to apply it right away to the genre of writing that we are studying.


I also want to capitalize on any enthusiasm that my students have for literacy that comes from their internal desire and need to read and write. If they WANT to write blog posts, that is what I want them to write. If they WANT to finish reading the book they are currently enthralled by, that is what I want them to read. If they WANT to write an entire novel, that is what I want them to write.

I needed my literacy coach to help me figure out how to do both.

And she did. She asked me what-if I looked at our writing time as an extension of my mini-lesson. What if I taught a lesson and then gave them a chance to apply in both writing and in reading. Then, I could take the time that I usually set aside for self-selected independent reading and instead turned that into independent work time. The mini-lesson and time for application (in both reading and writing) could be focused around class goals. Goals that were dictated by our curriculum AND by the things that I truly believe my students need to know in order to be empowered to create positive change in the world through reading and writing. Then, during independent work time, the goals would be individual goals that were dictated by what my students felt would help them learn to be better readers and writers.

And with that, everything began to come into focus.

That was what I needed. I needed to restructure my time.

So at the end of the day that day, I sat and came up with a new plan for our time. I started with the two days each week that I am lucky enough to have two full hours for literacy.  Here is how I planned to use that time:


The next day, I went over with my students what I thought we might try. I asked for their feedback and they were absolutely thrilled by the idea. I told them that I would make sure to keep my lessons under 20 minutes and they needed to make sure that they kept their application times focused and productive. Here are some other things that we went over:

The goal of everything that we do is to grow as readers and writers. If that isn’t happening, then we need to make adjustments.

Some times, I will need to take a bit more time, but I will always let them know why and always find a way to make up that time to them.

The application of our reading strategy will usually occur with a text or set of texts that I have selected. This is different than the goal work they will be doing during their independent reading time when they are in charge of selecting the text. This will help to ensure that I am still able to expose students to a wide variety of texts and levels of texts.

Sometimes our reading application time will be whole group, especially if I am reading a text out loud to them and then asking them to apply a strategy we are working on. Sometimes this work will be small group or in pairs or individual.

The independent work time is their time to choose their task. However, they must be reading and writing in a way that is helping them to grow as readers and writers. This independent work time needs to involve students engaged in authentic reading or writing (no center activities, no vocabulary worksheets, no spelling packets).

This independent work time will also be driven by the given expectations and deadlines that will be established for my classroom. For example, when we are nearing an end of our memoir unit, students will need to have at least one draft ready to revise and edit and submit as an assessment. In addition, every three weeks students are expected to “write long” about their reading. This means that they need to be tracking their thinking through a text often enough to be able to write about their reading. If students need to use independent work time to accomplish these things, then they will have to make that choice.

Students will also be asked to keep track of the choices they are making and the specific goals they are working on. Students will be responsible for making sure that they maintain a balance between reading and writing. If we notice a student go too long without spending time reading, we will have conversations on how we can help them get back in the habit of reading in class.

Independent work time is still instruction time. I will be constantly conferring with students during all of our application and independent work times. During this conferring time, I will still be teaching and asking students to provide evidence that they are learning. Even if a child has chosen to write a blog post one day, if I need to check-in about a reading goal, I will ask that student to stop his or her choice for a few minutes to meet with me one-on-one or with a small group.

Even knowing all of those things, my students were extremely eager to try the new structure out. I will tell you, during that first day, all of our work time was more focused. It was incredible. It worked so well, that I decided to try an adapted version of the schedule, with fewer minutes of independent work time, the next day since we had less time together to spend on literacy. I loved the independent work time SO much that I decided to use it every day last week and will continue to offer this structure (in some way) each day this coming week.

Throughout the week, I made adjustments to the way I take and keep conferring notes. I know carry around one clipboard that has class lists for both of my fifth grade classes. Each time I confer with a student, no matter what part of the literacy studio we are in, I simply mark down what we are discussing. R for reading. A for writing in the assigned genre. B for blogging. And F for free writing.

On that clipboard, I carry three different conferring forms PLUS blank lined paper so that I can find a form that will work for any kind of conference that I am having.

HERE is the reading form I am currently using.

HERE is the writing form I am currently using for assigned genre writing.

And HERE is the form I made for independent work time IF the student is not working on reading or assigned genre writing.

When I sit down with a student, I take note of what they are doing and then pull the form that I think will work best. When I am finished, I put the form in either the reading or writing binder that I have that is split up with one section for each student. In this way, I am able to always use a form that works for the conference that I am having AND I am also able to quickly look back at post conferences that I have had with students to check in on how they are doing with their goals.

My students will also be starting to write down their specific goals and I will be working on finding ways to help them also keep track of evidence that proves they are meeting these goals.

There is certainly a lot to still be figured out. However, I have not been this excited about a new structure for my classroom in a very long time. I will keep you updated as we continue to learn and work within the literacy studio structure, but for now I am thrilled simply with the possibilities.