It Is Not “Just” About Bathrooms, But There Is So Much We Can Do To Make a Difference

It seems like every day we educators are waking up in a world where more and more of our students need increased protection and reassurances of safety and love and acceptance. It is like we are watching the world become more unsafe for our students, and for all of us, by the minute. And it is not just the executive orders alone or the rescinded guidelines alone or the people being appointed alone that is making this world unsafe, it is the near-constant stream of messages and words and intentions being spread that make our students feel as if who they are is not enough. As if who they are is not accepted in this world. As if being exactly who they are is not enough to make them worthy of being treated equally or justly or fairly.

This past Wednesday, President Trump and his administration rescinded the federal guidelines that protected transgender students and ensured that they be allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. These guidelines helped to ensure that transgender students across the country, no matter where they lived or how conservative or homophobic their schools and communities were, they were allowed to not only use the bathrooms in which they felt most comfortable, but also the bathrooms that were safest for them. These guidelines ensured that transgender students could be at school and focus on learning and not on figuring out where they would have to go to a bathroom that was “approved” for them to use. They were able to go to the bathroom just like everyone else. To live and to learn just like everyone else. And that was so important.

But these guidelines. They were about more than bathrooms.

And that is something that I deeply understand.

You see, in a seemingly unconnected news item, just days before these guidelines were rescinded, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University released a study that showed that the passage of laws that legalized same-sex marriage had an impact on the number of LGBT attempted suicides. As states passed same-sex marriage laws, the rates of attempted suicide by LGBT people living in those states dropped.

And that makes so much sense to me.

Before I first came out, I had many difficult moments. Moments, truthfully, where I considered taking my own life. This is the first time I am writing that here. But I think it is a truth that many LGBT people have faced at some point in their lives. These were moments where I did not know if I truly had the strength to go on living without being honest about who I was or the strength to come out and be honest about being who I was. There were days that it seemed easier to just be done with it all.

At that time, gay marriage was only legal in a handful of states. Less than five. But it was never that my desire to get married was so strong or so desperate that the thought of not being able to get married drove me to consider ending my own life.  It was never just about marriage. In fact, at that time, I figured I would never want to get married. The fact that it was against the law for me to get married had very little to do with my own considerations of whether life was worth living. It was never about marriage. It was about the world that I was living in. The country I was living in. The society I was living in. It did not accept me as worthy or equal if I wanted to live my life openly as who I was. The laws that stopped me from being able to get married were simply an indicator about how my country felt about me.

The laws simply told me how others saw me. How worthy of equality and acceptance and love they thought I was.How far my own government would go to protect me and my equal rights sent a strong message to me about how far my own neighbors and teachers and friends might go as well.  And the laws that existed sent a strong message that I was not worthy because of who I was.

And that was enough to make life seem not worth living. That was enough to make me doubt my own existence in this world and whether it was worthwhile.

And then as those laws started to change, so did the messages being sent to young lesbian and gay and bisexual human beings in this country. And it makes sense to me that more of them began to believe that life was worth living. Worth living exactly as they were. As the laws changed, so did our own perceptions of just how worthy we were. Not only did other people begin to change how they saw us. We began to change how we saw ourselves. And so, again, it makes so much sense to me that suicide rates began to drop as the laws that ensured our equality began to change.

So now I look at our precious and brave transgender youth today. And while I can NEVER begin to understand the struggle of being a person who is transgender, I can get a glimpse into what those laws and guidelines that offered protections meant to that community. And, sadly, I can begin to understand what affect the rescinding of those guidelines might have.

Because, as I know, it is about much more than just bathrooms. It is about seeing how far your own government is willing to go, and using that to tell you how far others might be willing to go, in order to ensure that you are safe. Safe living exactly as you are. Exactly as you are meant to be. It is about knowing that no matter where you are, you will be safe when you are in school. It is about know that you are accepted by the country that you are living in. It is about knowing that the country you live in sees you as worthy of being treated justly and equally. It is about knowing that you are worth fighting for and worth keeping safe.

Because these laws. These guidelines. They show you not only how your own country sees you, but they impact the very way that you see yourself. And having those protections and then having them taken away, that is the kind of hurt that goes straight to your heart.  That is the kind of hurt that can end lives.

But here is something else I learned when I was walking through my own darkest moments. Even when the laws seem to be against you and your humanity, the people who surround you can go a very long way to prove to you that you are worthy of being loved for exactly who you are. Because even when your own government is sending messages of intolerance and discrimination and potentially even of hate, the people around you can also send messages. Messages that help to combat all of that. Messages that make you feel like life is worth living.

So that is where we, as educators, step in. We have a powerful chance here. We are not powerless to fight this. The transgender community was just dealt a really awful blow. There are transgender children all across this country wondering about how safe they are really going to be in their schools. There are families of transgender children all across this country all wondering the exact same thing. How safe will their own children, their hearts, be while they are away from them at school? They are fearful.

And there are so many reasons for them to be fearful.

But we. We can be a reason for them to have hope. We can be a reason for them to feel reassured. We can be a reason that someone feels worthy. We can be a reason that someone feels they are worth fighting for. We can be a reason why someone decides that life really is worth living.

Because while the government has rescinded a very important set of guidelines, we as teachers and administrators, we are the ones who have the absolute privilege and honor of actually seeing these beautiful kids every single day and we are the ones who have the ability to rise above what our government has done and go out of our way to make these kids feel safe. Everywhere.

And we do not have to have transgender children in our classrooms in order for us to play a role in making sure that transgender children feel safe. Those of us who teach, we have the power to make sure that ALL children go out into this world and value the lives of transgender people. That all children understand what it means to be transgender, that it means to be human, that it means to be equal. We can say the word transgender in our classrooms. We can read the stories of people who are transgender. We can bring the voices of children and adults who are transgender to our students so that they can begin to know them. We can use the correct terminology. We can use the correct pronouns. We can ensure that our students know that people who are transgender are people just like they are. And that they are all worthy of love and acceptance and protection.

When our students hear us affirm the worthiness of others, they are more likely to affirm this worthiness as well.  When they hear us stand up and speak up for the rights of those who are transgender, our students will be more willing to stand up and speak up as well. While our students are getting messages from the government, they are also getting messages from us. And we have the power to choose what those messages will be. When we stay silent, we lose our chance to send a message of love and acceptance that can combat the messages of intolerance and hate that are pouring in from many other places.

And if we have the privilege of having transgender children in our classrooms and in our schools. Then our responsibility is even greater. Because we have the chance to impact a child’s life directly. We have the chance to help a child see that he/she/they is absolutely worthy of love for being exactly who they are. We have the chance to stand up and show a child what it means to defend another human being and to feel another human being defend you. We have the chance to read books to our classes that allow that child to see themselves reflected in the pages and images we are reading. We have the chance to go out of our way to make sure a child not only is safe, but feels safe, and never has to doubt his or her or their own safety or worthiness or right to be loved.

We have that power.

So as we work to expand our definition of what it means to be a teacher in these times, let us add our transgender youth onto our ever-growing list of people to make sure we value in our classrooms because the world outside of our classrooms is no longer guaranteed to show them that they are valued.  Let us make sure that we ask our own school boards what our policies are and then let us fight to ensure that with or without federal guidelines, that we are ensuring protection. Ask the tough questions. Demand the tough work.

And please. Do not take my word for it. Because I am an outsider. I do not know the life of a transgender person. I have no right to speak for anyone. Please. Read their own words. Read their own stories.

Here are some places to start:

An Open Letter To Adults From a Transgender Child

Parents of Transgender Children Request A Meeting With Trump and Devos

Our Bathroom Bullying Story

Gavin Grimm Takes His Fight To The Supreme Court

Dear Trans Kids: From a Trans Teacher

And once you’ve read these stories, here are some wonderful collections of resources to help you in your classrooms. These collections come from:

HRC

Teaching Tolerance

GLSEN

And after you have read, make sure that you act. Because our job is to protect children. All children. And we have so much power to be able to do that.

 

 

Turning Misinformation, Misunderstandings and Misconceptions into Questions That Drive Us Into Inquiry (Inquiry Circles Week #2 and #3)

This past week, my students taught me a lot as sifted through the events of the world around us and tried to make some sense out of them.  A few weeks ago, we began our work with our Inquiry Circle unit.

This week, our kids all had their topics and they were all in our groups.  My team of fifth grade teachers had selected our own topic, access to education for girls around the world, and we were planning to use that topic to model the kind of thinking and learning and acting that we wanted our students to do.

And then, last Friday, the Muslim Ban happened.  I, like much of the world, sat confused and frightened and disappointed and ashamed on my couch as I tried to read as much as I could about all that was taking place. Hoping to make some kind of sense out of something that just did not make sense to me.  As I sifted through articles and websites and videos and interview and facts and opinions, I suddenly realized that I had found myself right in the middle of my very own inquiry circle.

And as I moved through the weekend, I put my fragile understanding of what was going on together with my wife’s developing understanding, and my friends’ developing understanding and eventually with my coworkers developing understanding. And together we put together what we knew and what we believed and what we understood to try to come to some understanding of something that continued to baffle us all.

And that. Is what I want to teach my students to do. I actually want to teach them to do better than me.  Because I do what I believe most adults do. I seek out the sources that I know will agree with me and I read those to become informed. I do not always stop to notice whose perspective is being shown and whose is being left out. I do not always stop to think about if what I am reading is fact or opinion. I do not always take notice of the questions that are forming in my brain and hold on to them so that I can seek out additional information to help me to answer them. I certainly do not always notice when my own biases, misunderstandings and misinformation are affecting the way that I am reading a text or understanding an issue.

These behaviors. They stop me from always being able to understand an issue from all sides. And I know that they stop others as well.

And so I want to teach my students to do better.  I need to teach my students to do better. Right now, it is the greatest hope that I have of us ever being able to fix this mess that we are in.

So I decided to bring the story of the Muslim Ban into my classroom in order to model for my students how we can go about learning about complex issues when we are constantly being overwhelmed by biased information.  I do not want to hide these issues from my students. I do not want to hide the biased information from my students. I want to use our school curriculum in order to help them learn how to understand the curriculum that the world is giving us right now and in the future.

Two weeks ago, after we had chosen our inquiry circle topics, I began to model for my students how to synthesize information from a variety of sources. I modeled for them how to pull out pieces of information and facts as they read and to document how these facts added to their current understanding of the topics they were studying.  I used THIS DOCUMENT to help me model how to pull out facts and write about how they added to our understanding.

Here are some of the anchor charts we used to help us understand synthesis:

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At the end of a text, I modeled for my students how we could use the language of synthesis to help us pull away the big ideas from an entire text and then add those ideas into our current understanding of the issue that we were studying.  Here is the anchor chart I used to introduce some language to help them with this synthesis:

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After doing this work with online articles, we then repeated the same process with websites, videos and we will be doing infographics on Monday. Here are the charts that we used to talk about ways we are best able to read and synthesize information from each of those different sources:

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Luckily, on this past Monday, the first day we were returning to school after the Muslim Ban was ordered, we happened to be already engaged in doing this work. We were ready to talk about how to read and synthesize information from videos. And so it was an easy decision to switch from the topic that I had been modeling and instead model the work I wanted my students to do in their inquiry circle projects and out in the world while sharing with them the very real work that I was doing in trying to understand the events of the past few days.

So I shared with my students my own observations about how I was learning about the Muslim Ban. And then I introduced the idea of using videos in order to gather information. And then I modeled using four different videos, representing a variety of media outlets and perspectives, and I modeled how I worked to pull out the facts and track my growing understanding. HERE IS A LIST of the resources and a few notes on how I used them so far and the infographic that I plan to use this coming Monday.

Now here is the where my own real learning came in.  I planned to model my thinking. I planned to track my growing understanding. I planned to write down my own questions that I needed to find more information in order to answer. I planned to share this process that I wanted my students to learn while also giving them information on a current and important social issue.

What I did not plan for was just how eager my students would be to share their OWN thinking about this issue. I did not realize how much my students had already heard. I did not realize how many questions they came up with. I did not realize how many of their parents ideas they were carrying around with them.

But as children often do, they showed me right away how very wrong I had been. They had so much to share. And to be honest, I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I didn’t know the best way to respond to their comments. Not the ones I agreed with and certainly not the ones that I did not agree with.

And then something incredible happened. A student in my room started to share a statement. He began with the words, “Well, my father told me…” And then the student stopped. He paused. Thought for a moment. And then he said, “Well, actually, I don’t really know if it is true, so I am going to ask it as a question instead…” and then finished his statement as a question.

And in that moment. I realized.

That is what we needed to do. We needed to be able to identify the things that we only THOUGHT we knew. We needed to recognize that perhaps we had heard something and maybe we didn’t fully understand it or maybe we knew there was another way to see it or maybe we just knew we didn’t know enough. We had to learn to state these misconceptions, these potential biases, these misunderstandings, these pieces of misinformation, to state them and then learn to push them into questions that would drive us to further information that would help us to really learn and understand.

So that is what we did. We conitnued to move through the videos. We continued to pull out facts and use writing to track our understandings. And then, we would stop when we noticed ourselves saying anything that began with, “Well, I heard…” or “My mom said…” or “Another kid told me…” or something similar and we would work as a class to push that into a question instead. And then, in real time, we would do a search, evaluate the sources we were presented with and find information that would help us to better understand what we only thought we had already understood.

So for example, when a child stated, “My dad told me that refugees could be dangerous.” We worked as a class to push that into the question, “How many refugees that have entered the United States have caused harm to people here in America?” And then we set off to find sources that helped us to answer that question.  We then learned that since 9/11 there have been two documented cases of people who came into the United States as refugees who then actually carried out attacks on Americans. Two. And they were both from Somalia. We wrote down this fact and documented how it changed our understanding of the threat of refugees to us as Americans or to the safety of our country.

This work was amazing. By the end of the week, the kids were actually starting to catch themselves before they began a sentences with, “Well, I heard…” and more importantly, they were starting to ask questions and admit they needed more information. They were finding out what they needed to know and they were allowing their thinking to change.

And the best part was that at no point did I need to share my own opinions with the kids. At no point did I have to make anyone feel like they were wrong or their parents were wrong or that I was telling them what to think. All I had to do was to teach them how to recognize when they need more information. To teach them how to ask themselves, “How do I know that this is true?” and “How can I find out if this is true?” And then together we followed their questions and started to find answers.

And then they repeated this work with the topics that they had already chosen for their inquiry circles. Then they repeated this work on their own and with their groups. And I have to hope that one day, just maybe, they will go out into the world and repeat this process in order to make themselves more informated human beings.

And that. More than anything this past week. Has given me so much hope for this world.

Inquiry Fights Against the Notion that Kids Are Not Ready to Tackle Tough Issues and Difficult Conversations (Inquiry Circles Week #1)

As I have stated many times before, I believe that one of the most dangerous parts of society is the maintained silence on difficult issues. I believe that by not talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, by not speaking because we are worried about saying the wrong thing, of leaving things untouched because we are not exactly sure of the right thing to say, all of this is allowing the very worst parts of our society to continue on unchanged. I believe it is not hyperbole to state that this prolonged silence is killing us.  And no where do I believe that is more evident than in our classrooms.

For years, I kept who I was a secret because I was afraid that by telling my students that I was a lesbian would cause too many waves. I might make someone uncomfortable. I sacrificed my own well-being and wholeness as a human being because I was afraid of upsetting someone else. And perhaps because I have already fought that battle, because I have already walked through the worst that they could throw at me, perhaps that makes me more willing to continue to tackle tough topics with my students. Perhaps the fact that my very existence makes other uncomfortable gives me a perspective that makes me more willing than others to bring difficult conversations into my classroom.

Because I know the arguments, I know the fear, I know the discomfort as well as anyone else. I understand that we shy away from discussing race in our classroom because we are fearful of saying the wrong thing. Of someone getting upset. Of someone saying we are forcing our values onto our students. Of someone arguing that our kids are not ready for these discussions. I have heard all the arguments. I have been engaged in these discussions with parents of my students and with colleagues.

And yet, I know that these things cannot stop us from doing what we have to do to save this country we live in from destroying itself.

So we have to find a way. We have to find a way forward. We have to find a way to bring these conversations into our classroom when there are so many factors convincing us not to.

For me, one of the greatest solutions is inquiry.

Actually, I find that inquiry work is the solution to many problems, but the one I want to focus on today is how inquiry can help us to bring in difficult topics to our classrooms and help our students learn HOW to learn about topics that are seen from multiple perspectives and angles.

Last year, I detailed my first experience with inquiry circles as described by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels in their brilliant book Comprehension and Collaboration.  Our inquiry circles focus on issues of social justice. Problems that exist in our world that my students can learn more about and then allow their learning to lead them towards action.

What I love most about our work with inquiry is that it is completely guided by the students. The students select the topics that they want to study, the students ask the questions they want to find answers to, the students select and evaluate the sources they will use in order to answer these questions and the students take the action that they believe will make the most impact in the world outside of our classroom in connection with the issues that they have learned about.

This past week, we began our work with inquiry circles.

inquiry

After introducing the idea of inquiry circles and sharing the learning targets that we will be working towards, I told the kids that the topics that we will be studying will have to come from them.  I cannot know what they are interested in learning more about, but I will help them to discover those topics for themselves.

We had a wonderful discussion in one of my classes about how you know what you are passionate about. We talked about the way we hear something on the news or being discussed by others and we sometimes have that desire to listen longer, to linger over the conversation, that those feelings, that inkling that we need to know more to help us understand, those are often indicators of passion.  I realized that we need to help our students recognize what passion feels like. What it feels like to want to know more about a topic and be willing to do the hard work to get to that understanding. That is the work that I want to do in my classroom in hopes that it will start to mirror the work that my students will be willing to do in the world outside of our classroom.

In order to help my students to think of topics that they might want to learn more about, I put together THIS slide show of video clips, images, infographics and photo essays. I knew that if I wanted to spark topics that would drive passion and inquiry, I needed to provide my students with access to those topics. I could not hold back. I needed to take this opportunity to bring the world into my classroom in order to help my students learn to better deal with it.  At the same time, I needed to make sure that this slideshow would SPARK ideas and not limit them. So I modeled for the kids how I might view a video clip and write down ideas that I saw WITHIN the video, but I might also write down ideas that the video made me think of that were not actually shown.

We used THIS worksheet to help us keep track of the ideas that we were coming up with.  We then spent three days looking at this slide show, writing down ideas, meeting in groups to discuss our ideas and coming up with even more ideas. On the fourth day, it was time to start finding common interests.  We used THIS handout to help us do this. It details the process that we used, which is a process that comes right from the book Comprehension and Collaboration that I mentioned earlier.

And that is where we are currently.  What we have so far are two GIANT lists of topics. They have not yet been narrowed down. We will do that next week. But take a look at the topics that the kids want to learn more about:

Now, I know that one could look at these lists and say, “No way!” Some of those topics are way too intense for kids to learn about. But that is the beauty of inquiry.  These topics are coming from the kids themselves. This is what they want to know. These are the things that they want to grapple with. That they want to understand. And because inquiry is student-let by nature, they will learn about these issues in a way that is appropriate for them. They will ask about the things that are just beyond their level of understanding and they will seek out information that will guide them towards that better understanding. They will ask about the things that they are ready to learn about. We, as adults, cannot stand in their way.

What I have learned from my work with inquiry is that students are excellent at self-differentiating. They select the topics that work for them. They choose the topics that they are ready for. They know what they are ready to know. It is amazing and wonderful and we just need to get out of their way sometimes.

So when people tell me that fifth graders are too young to have difficult conversations, too young to tackle the problems of the grown-up world, I will continue to point them to the above charts. To show them that our kids are ready to learn about the problems of this world because with their whole hearts they believe that they will be able to help fix them. As adults we have a choice. We can either continue to pretend that our kids are not ready to meet these issue head on OR we can help them learn how to learn about these issues so that they can understand them from more than their own perspective.  I cannot help but wonder what different place our country might be in today if this was work that had been done in school when I was younger. What if instead of spending so much time hiding problems of the world from us, adults had recognized that we were ready and taught us how to examine tough issues using multiple sources and seeking out unheard voices.  Where would we be today?

And more hopefully, where might we end up in the future if we start teaching kids these skills today?

They are showing us they are ready. It is up to us to follow them into the work.

Writing Assessment as Celebration

In the last days of winter break, I immersed myself in my students’ fiction writing. These were pieces of writing that my students had been working on for two months. These were pieces of writing that carried within them the very best that my students had to offer as writers. These were pieces of writing that written and rewritten and carried the weight of my students’ growth as writers.

And these were pieces of writing that were in danger of being reduced to the markings of my red pen (or whatever color pen we have switched to in order to try to solve the problem of the anxiety that the red pen evokes.) Because in the past, that was the final step of the writing process. Whatever work had been done, was not quite good enough, until it was turned in and “fixed” by the red pen. And I would like to stop to argue that the color of the pen is not at all what matters. Give it time and our students will learn to fear green pens, purple pens, whatever color pens you are writing in. They will even come to fear comments left on Google Docs or audio comments left on devices. Unless we change the message and the timing of those marks or messages or comments.

As I sat with these stacks of papers. I felt the familiar dread that I believe we all feel when we are about to dive, head first, into a large stack of student writing. And I don’t think it is just the many pages of not-so-perfect kid writing that causes these feelings of dread. I think that it is our-sometimes unbearable belief that we must “fix” this pile of writing. And when it is that need to fix that motivates us, I believe this is when we can get into trouble.

Now, please don’t misunderstand, this does NOT mean that I do not think we should help students grow as writers. It just means that I do not believe that our assessment of student writing is the time for us to focus on helping students grow as writers. I know that sounds wrong. I get it. But I have felt something shift, as I have shifted my purpose in assessment. I now enter into the assessment phase of the writing process with my students with a focus on celebration. Assessment as celebration. Now, as I dive into that stack of student writing at the end of a writing unit, I have one goal in mind, celebrate, along with my students, what they have learned to do as writers.

This, for me, has changed everything.

You see, my students and I have countless opportunities to help us grow as writers THROUGHOUT the writing units we are engaged in. Every mini-lesson, every mentor text, every teacher-student conference, every meeting with their writing groups, these are all opportunities to grow as writers. These are all chances to find ways to not only make a piece of writing better, but chances to make themselves better writers as well.  During the writing process, during planning, during drafting, during revision, these are the times for feedback that focuses on the goal of growing the students as writers. This feedback can come in the form of red pen or green pen or blue pen or audio comments or comments left on GoogleDocs. These comments will grow them as writers. These comments matter most as the students are writing. While they are IN the work.

But assessment. That, for me and for my students, is a time to look BACK on the work. And when we look at assessment as celebration, I believe that it becomes more meaningful for all of us. As a teacher, it helps me to see what worked and what didn’t. For the students, it helps them to notice and name all the ways that they grown and it solidifies their identities as writers.

So how do I do this? It is actually really easy and way less time-consuming than what I used to force myself to do.

The first people to assess my students’ writing are my students themselves. I have explained this in previous posts, but here is how it works again. Each student pulls out their best draft of all the pieces of writing they completed during that unit.  Together, we build a list of writing strategies that we have learned throughout the unit. I put these together in a chart and leave space for additional writing strategies that the students have learned on their own through their mentor text analysis or from the lessons taught to them by their peers.  For each of these strategies, the students assign a color. They then go into their best drafts and look for evidence that they have used each strategy. They underline or highlight that writing in the color assigned to the strategy being used.  This can be done on GoogleDocs or on a physical copy of the writing. The students choose what works best for them. Here are some pictures of what that looks like:

In case you are interested, HERE is the self-assessment for our memoir/personal narrative unit.  And HERE is the self-assessment for our fiction writing unit.

I have the students turn their color-coded copy and a clean copy for me to assess.

And that is where I step in.  As I sit and work through each of the students’ pieces of writing, I feel no need to fix. I don’t even feel a need for the feedback that I provide to give them specific things to work on. I have done that already. This feedback is purely celebration. Let me mine these pieces of writing for evidence of what you have learned to do as a writer. Let us celebrate that together.

And that is exactly what I do.

With my students’ fiction writing, I spent two days reading through their writing and underlining evidence of the writing strategies they had learned to use. I underline to point those out and then write down the strategy being used in the margins. And this work. It is so much more meaningful. And what I hand back to the students is a celebration. The markings on their papers are the evidence of how hard they have worked, what they have learned to do, and NOT evidence of everywhere that they did not quite do enough. Here is what that looks like:

I have already changed the form a bit. Since most students ended up only turning in one long piece of writing, instead of multiple shorter pieces, like they did with their memoir writing, I took off the column to write which piece of writing I found the strategy used in. If you are interested, HERE is the newer version of the form I used.

And the information I am left with. It tells me so much. It tells me how effective my teaching was. Which strategies did my students understand well enough to use on their own? Which strategies that I taught were actually helpful to my students as writers? Which students are able to transfer our mini-lessons and conferences into their own writing? Which students do I need to support in a different way as we move forward as writers? All of this becomes the focus on my assessment.

And the kids. Every single one of them saw evidence of what they had learned to do as a writer. Every single one of them saw evidence that, as their teacher, what I wanted to focus on was what they had done well. What they had learned to do. How they had grown as writers. And that. That is a true celebration.

Heading into 2017 Noticing Action

Last year, I wrote about my intention to head into the year 2016 noticing images of kindness.  Little did I know that as the year wore on, there would be fewer and fewer of these images to notice.

And so I find myself here again, at thIS moment ripe with anticipation. The space between the ending of one year and the beginning of another. The space where everything seems possible and nothing seems possible all at the same time.

And this year, all I can manage to think about is how much work we have to do. How much we need 2017 to be different than 2016. How much we need 2017 to be different than all years that came before and allowed 2016 to be what it was. How much every single one of us has to do in order to begin to heal and fix this world.

And so this year. I head into 2017 choosing to notice action.

This need to notice action began as I sat in the depths of my despair after the election.  As I sat in my own fear of what this election would mean for me and for my family, for my students and for my own daughter.  I sat in that place for several weeks until I realized that I needed to pull myself out of it somehow. Not just for myself and my family and for those around me, but for all of those who needed me to get up and fight because there were so many fights to be fought. So I knew I needed to pull myself out, but I had no idea how.

And then, with perfect timing and brilliant coincidence, came NCTE. I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where the theme of the conference happened to be Faces of Advocacy. I spent three days hearing the stories of those people who were bravely and boldly doing the work. Making our world better through their work with students. And they inspired me. Their action moved me.

And on the very last day of the conference, I had the absolute pleasure of traveling with one of the kindest people I have ever met to The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. And for two hours we walked through and read the stories of people who had done the work. Had done the work while finding themselves in circumstances that were much more trying and much more dangerous than my own current circumstances.  These brave humans saw all the bad that was around them and they saw the dangers and they saw the consequences and they chose to act. They chose to do the work. And because of them our world got better. It wasn’t fixed, but it got better. People’s lives got better. And they inspired me. Their action moved me.

And that is what pulled me out of the deepest of my sadness about our world. I selfishly comforted myself with the actions of others. I found myself craving stories of people taking action. I took solace in the work and the action of others and I promised myself to notice action.

As we move into 2017, that is what I choose to notice. I will notice those who take action and, more importantly, I will work every single day to be someone who myself takes more action and attempts to teach my students to be ones who choose to take action. I believe that more than anything in this coming year, action is what is needed.

Because in the weeks since the election, I have noticed a disturbing trend. As we move further away from the election, many people, especially those of us insulated by the bubble wrap of privilege, have distanced ourselves from the action we vowed to take in the days after the election. Perhaps we continue to shake our heads, perhaps we continue to ask how this could have happened, perhaps we continue to talk about how awful it all is, but we seem already to have lost our promise to do better. We seem too eager to leave 2016 behind and pretend that it was just a bad year. When, in reality, it was more like the year when some of us realized way too late just how many bad years there have been in which too many people have simply turned their heads and done nothing until we found ourselves in our current mess with little understanding of how we got here and the role we played in all of it.

And while I am just as eager as the next person to be done with this awful year, I do not want to leave it behind. Instead, I want to make sure that it pushes me forward. That it motivates me. That it continues to force me into discomfort in order to push through and end up some place better. Because the work that we have to do, it will be uncomfortable. Because the work we have to do, it will be hard and it will be uncertain and we will have no idea how to begin and yet, we must begin anyway.

Because this work, it is EVERYONE’S work to do. And we, as educators, we are playing a role in all of this whether we think we are or not. We are choosing what role we play when we choose to take action or when we choose to stay silent. Because when we choose to do nothing, when we choose to say that the problems of this country are not our problems, when we choose to say that these problems do not affect our kids and our schools, then we are playing a role. The role we are playing when we choose to do nothing is that we choose to allow the injustice of the world to continue.

If you believe that your students do not feel unsafe so there is nothing that you have to do, then you are first of all probably wrong and second of all, you are choosing to raise children who will go out into the world and one day potentially make others feel unsafe. Because you have chosen to stay silent, because you have chosen inaction, you are robbing your students of the chance to be engaged in uncomfortable conversations that can bring them to some place better so that they can go out and make the world better. And without these chances for conversations, our systems will not change. The systems that allowed Donald Trump to be elected president, that disenfranchised voters, that created conditions that made hate seem like the best option, those systems will not change. And their impact will reach way farther than Donald Trump ever will.

So we must recognize our role. We must recognize the systems we are a part of and find ways to use them to take action and create change. Because no matter what platform you have, there is a way to use it to do better. There is a way to use the systems that we are a part of to take action, to speak up, even if you believe that is not the function of the system you are a part of. Even if that is not what you created your platform to do, we all need to find ways to speak up anyway.

And it cannot just be online. We must begin to demand change in the face-to-face systems that we are a part of. For me, this year will bring a commitment to speak up more. To speak up in my own school and in my own district. To move beyond doing the work just in my own classroom and to begin instead to ask other adults to do more.  To ask for more action. To ask for more conversation. To ask for professional development in anti-bias education, to ask for opportunities for us as a staff to have difficult conversations, to hear people say that we do not need that here and then to continue to push for it anyway. Because within the pushing, I believe that I will find allies and with those allies I believe that we can make change.

So as the hours of 2016 run out, I pledge to take more action. To have more difficult conversations. To ask more people to join me in those conversations. I pledge to do the work with my students but also to reach out and ask to do the work with other adults who surround me so that we can begin to change the systems that we are a part of. And while I will continue to crave the stories of others who have taken or are taking action, I also hope to create my own stories of action. I hope to write the stories of my students and my colleagues and my school and my district and the action that we will create together in the year to come.

 

 

 

Mock Caldecott: Allowing Access to Our Reading Community for ALL Readers

Sometimes, the stretch of time in a fifth grade classroom (or any classroom I would imagine) between the end of Thanksgiving Break and the start of Winter Break can be a bit challenging.  Motivation to do work can be low, frustrations can be high. Patience between students and between teachers and students is also running low. Here in Chicago, this stretch of time just so happens to coincide with the start of the worst that winter has to offer. Below zero temperatures make it difficult to get outside and we find ourselves in darkness for much of our days.

All of this added together, PLUS the anticipation of the two-week break can make be tough.

And so we, as teachers, have two options. Well, we probably have a lot more than two options, but these are the two that I go between. We give up. Know that we will get nothing done. Or, we to find work that is incredibly engaging and that students can lose themselves in no matter who they are. We make it impossible for them to fall into the trap that comes around this time of year.

For me, I have found exactly that kind of work in the form of our mock Caldecott unit. Last year was the first year that I participated in the mock Caldecott unit and I was so very happy that I did. I spent a lot of time reading about the amazing work that others had done in their Mock Caldecott units and I was so inspired by it all. And so, with the support of other brilliant educators,  I decided to give it a go. You can read about our work last year HERE.

Last year, I was simply BLOWN AWAY by the brilliance of my students around this work. The level of discussions that my students had around the picture books that were contenders for our Mock Caldecott Award was incredible. The way they analyzed the illustrations and discussed each book against the Caldecott criteria was beyond impressive. But what struck me the most where all the voices that I was hearing. Voices that normally remained silent during group work, voices that were often absent from our whole-class discussions about books.

Because the truth is, it is now edging ever closer to the middle of the school year and there are still students who have not found their way into our classroom reading community. I would love to say that every single child in my room has found or re-found a love of reading. I would love to say that every single child in my room feels a strong connection to books and knows who he/she/they is as a reader.  I would love to say that when we, as a class, discuss books that every single child is engaged in the conversation and feels equal access into our reading community.

But that is simply not the truth.

Perhaps in other fifth grade classrooms that IS the truth at this point in the year and I will continue to push myself and learn and listen in order to one day be able to create such an environment. But for now, this is where we are. That is the truth of who we are.

And that is where our Mock Caldecott unit makes a real difference.  In this unit, we look at the criteria that matches (as closely as possible) the real criteria that the Caldecott committee uses in order to select the winning book each year. We study closely ten (actually, it turned into 11 this year) picture books and their illustrations. The children work in small groups to analyze and score each book, discussing in their groups what they notice, taking notes on the scores they are giving to each book and providing evidence to support those scores. In the end, they rank the books in order of which ones they believe most closely meet the Caldecott criteria. And then we vote on a winner.

Through this work, we talk about the difference between discussion/debate and argument. We talk about how to build on an idea so that, as a group, you can reach new thinking. We learn how to support our claims with evidence from the text. And we talk and talk and talk about books.

It is this talking about books that brings out the voices not always heard in our classroom. Because the entry point into these discussions are the illustrations, there are no barriers into the conversation. It does not matter how fluently one reads, it does not matter how quickly you make your way through the words on the page, it does not matter how deeply you are able to comprehend a complex texts. The illustrations are the center of these discussions and they bring out so many thoughts from so many different perspectives from so many different readers. And for some students, it is the first time that they experience the feeling of passionately discussing a book, of passionately defending a book that you love, the feeling of being a reader.

Too often, too many kids, don’t know what this feels like. They might go through the motions, they might read the number of minutes that they are required to read, they might answer the questions they are assigned and put together the craft projects that they are told to do, but they do not know that feeling of standing in defense of a book you love, of feeing connected to others through the love or hate of a book, of finding your place in a reading community. Mock Caldecott allows us to help so many students to know these feelings.  Some for the very first time.

So what does our unit actually involve?

Here is a brief (well as brief as I can actually make anything) run-down of what we did:

This unit took place across four school weeks. While that is technically 20 days, there were certainly several days where we did not get to work on our Caldecott work. There were days lost to the winter sing, to rehearsal for the winter sing, to winter parties and to a bonus day off of school on the Friday before winter break. Here is what we worked on during that time.

Day 1: Introduction of the Caldecott — On our first day, I asked the kids who was familiar with the Caldecott award. Few were. Then when I pulled out some books that had the award sticker on them, many of them mentioned how they always wondered what that meant. I explained how the Caldecott selection process worked and then told them that we would be choosing our own Mock Caldecott award winners. We spent time together looking at this Caldecott Website and discussing the terms and criteria.

After reading through some of the grown-up language, I introduced the kids to the kid-friendly language that we would be using as our criteria.  Here is our kid-friendly criteria. I tried to align the criteria we would use as closely to the real criteria as I could. However, I did take a bit of a departure in the areas that seemed to most confuse my students last year. I found far less confusion this year and am happier with the criteria we used.

Day 2: Looking at past winners — Like I did last year, I asked my incredible librarian to help me pull as many past Caldecott winners as we could. I left the library with several HUGE stacks of former award winners and honor winners. On the second day, I simply gave the kids time to look through past winners and take notes on what they noticed about the illustrations. They were able to choose to do this work alone, with a partner or in a group of three.  This is the form they used to record their observations.

Day 3, 4, 5 and 6: Introducing OUR mock Caldecott contenders– After looking at some past winners, we then spent time getting to know the books we would be choosing from.  Here is the list of books that we worked withimg_4001

These books were chosen by my after reading many other people’s opinions and ensuring that I had as much diversity represented as possible in terms of content and authors and illustrators.  I wanted to make sure that before my students did any analyzing at all of the illustrations, that they had a chance to simply enjoy the incredible stories that these books told. So I spent time simply reading these books out loud to my students and having short conversations about their initial thoughts on the books.

Day 7: Starting to Think About Our Conversations: After getting to know our contenders, I wanted the kids to start thinking about how they would be talking about these books. Last year, I asked my AMAZING art teacher to let me video tape her talking about the illustrations in some picture books and going through some of the artistic terms that the kids might be using. She agreed and I know have these videos to use as a way to help my students think more like artists and notice things that artists might notice.

The first thing we did was go back to the Caldecott winner from two years ago, Beekle.  I read the book to the kids again (they had already heard it, but I wanted them to listen and look closely at the illustrations). After reading the book, I had them turn and talk about what they noticed in the illustrations. There was some nice conversation, but much of it lacked the depth that I knew they would need to do this Caldecott work.  After their initial conversations, I had them watch THIS VIDEO of my art teacher talking about Beekle.  I then asked them to again turn and talk, but this time to talk about the difference between their observations and Mrs. Hamm’s (our art teacher’s) observations.  They all realized they could go a lot deeper with what they noticed.  (There are two other videos my amazing art teacher made, but we did not have time this year to watch them. You can find all three videos here.)

Day 8: How We Can Take Notes to Support Our Claims — Now that the kids knew our books, knew the criteria we would be using and knew about the kinds of conversations we would be having, it was time to talk about how they would be taking notes about each book so that they would be able to make better decisions about the books and convince others to vote on the books they wanted to win.  To do this, I began by introducing our evaluation form.  You can find a copy of it HERE.

I told the kids that we would practice using this form in two ways before they actually began taking notes. On the first day, I told the kids that I would read them a book that was not on our list for the Mock Caldecott, but was a book I knew was on other people’s lists. I would read them the book, we would discuss it and I would then model using the form for them.

We began with the book School’s First Day of School. I read them the book once. Then I flipped through the illustrations a second time. Then I flipped through the illustrations a third time and asked the kids to share what they noticed about the illustrations.  After that, I finally turned to our form. I began to talk about the criteria one at a time and showed the kids how I wrote down specific examples and reasons to support the score that I was thinking about. For example, when I talked about an outstanding use of artistic medium, I wrote down that the pictures were so simple, but conveyed so much emotion. I then wrote an EX with a circle around it and shared that this meant I was about to write down a specific example. I then noted that the final picture with the janitor sitting on the roof of the school was an example of how the simple drawings conveyed strong emotion. I did this for each criteria and then went back and circled numbers based on the notes I had taken. We noticed what a long process this was and how important it was to take notes that supported the claim of what number we were circling.

Day 9: Their Turn to Try: After watching my example, it was time for the kids to try it. So I handed out their evaluation packets that simply contained 11 of THESE evaluation sheets.   I told them that today I would be reading them another book that was not on our list, but was a contender for the real Caldecott. Today, it was their turn to practice taking notes and scoring the book. I then read them the book The Secret Subway. I read through the book and asked them to just listen to the story. Then, I flipped through the illustrations and asked them to just notice in their own minds. Then, I flipped through again and asked them to talk in small groups about what they noticed. Finally, I asked them to work in those same small groups to discuss each piece of our criteria and work to take notes that would support their thinking. During this time, I made sure to walk around and help students put their thinking into words to write down on their evaluation sheets. Then, I asked them to individually score the book. Finally, we all shared our scores and discussed the notes we took.

I have to tell you that the kids LOVED this book so much that they asked if we could include it in our list for the Mock Caldecott. Of course! So our list of ten, then became a list of 11.

Day 10: The Work Begins: Finally, it was time to get to work. I split both of my classes up into groups of three or four. These would be their analysis groups. They would be in the same groups each day and each day they would be given two books to look through closely, analyze and score.  Before the kids got started, I handed out and went through the process that we would be using. Here is the typed up process I handed out to the kids.

After going through the process, I read off the groups and handed out the first books and the kids got to work. From the beginning, it was amazing to hear their discussions. Again, they were all so excited and I already heard a shift in the way they were talking about the illustrations. On that first day, I realized that we needed to do some work talking about the difference between discussing and arguing. And so…

Day 11: Before the kids went off to analyze their second set of books, I share some of my observations from the day before. I shared that while I wanted them to discuss and debate the illustrations and the criteria, I wanted them to try to stay away from arguing. I asked them what they thought the difference was between arguing and debating or discussing.  Each class shared some incredible thinking, that I actually think our whole world could benefit from right now. After charting each classes’ responses, I combined their thinking into one chart:

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After sharing their ideas, I asked them to think about these differences as they worked in their groups again today. And then they headed off to work.  I did notice a change in the way they were talking to each other, but still worried that they were not actually listening to each other and building off of each other’s ideas in a way that would lead the group to new thinking. And so…

Day 12: Before looking at their third set of books, I asked the kids to share with me ways they could build off of an idea in order to promote the kind of discussion and debate that we had talked about the day before. Again, they had incredible thoughts to share. Here are the charts that we created:

Before heading off to work, I asked them to really work on patiently listening (a term I recently learned and promptly stole from the brilliant Matt Kay). I also asked them to work on building on the ideas that were shared instead of just moving on to the next idea. And then they got to work. As I walked around, I made sure to notice and name every time I saw a group building on an idea that was shared. Often, I stopped the whole class and shared these observations.  Now that our conversations were improving, I wanted to turn our attention to how we were taking notes and supporting the claims that we were making. And so…

Day 13: Before looking at our fourth set of books, I asked the kids to pull out and look at their note taking sheets. I told them I wanted to make sure that we were taking the kind of notes that would really allow us to support the claims we were making as we circled numbers AND that we were documenting the kind of evidence that would help us convince others later to vote for the books we wanted to win.  Right before this unit, we worked together in a science fiction unit where our main task was to look at science fiction writing as a way for writer’s to provide social commentary on the world they were living in when they wrote.  We looked at short stories and tried to answer the question, “What is this writer trying to say about the world they are living in?” For each answer we gave, we worked to find evidence to support our claims. We learned that evidence could be a quote or a specific example or a summary of a part of the story. I told the kids that with our Caldecott work, we also needed to use evidence to support our claims, but that our evidence would look a bit different. I asked the kids to share with us all the KINDS of notes that they were taking and the WAYS they were supporting their claims. I wrote down what they shared. Here are the notes I took from each class:

And here is the chart I created from these later:

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Before sending the kids off to work, I asked them to pay attention to the kinds of notes they were taking because tomorrow we would be sharing pages of their notes to learn from. And then they headed off to work.

Day 15: Our Final Day of Analysis: Before sending the kids off to work on our final day of analysis, I asked for some volunteers to put their notes up under the document camera and share with us their thinking about what they wrote down. We had several kids volunteer and it led to some incredible discussions. Here is one of my favorite sets of examples shared by one of my fifth grade students:

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I reminded the kids that they would need these notes as they worked to defend their top choices and asked them to think about the examples we saw today and how they could work to take the kinds of notes that would help them to convince others to love the books that they most loved.

And then the kids got to work.

Day 16: Now that the kids had analyzed all eleven books, it was time to start ranking them. I asked the kids to get back out their note taking sheets and look through all eleven books. I then had them rank the books from 1-11 in terms of how they felt they met the Caldecott criteria. They recorded their ranked lists on THIS FORM. I asked them to spend at least ten minutes working on this list. After ten minutes, I took one person from each small group and created larger groups. I then had them share their lists and begin to try to convince others of their top choices. These were by far the most heated discussions. They were so incredibly passionate about their top choices. They were defending with such heart and they were also using the notes they had taken to support the claims they were making. It was incredible.

Day 17: Making posters and voting: OUR FINAL DAY!!! Our final day happened to also be the day before winter break. My morning class did not have time to create the posters, but my afternoon class did and really enjoyed the work. Here is the poster assignment I gave the kids.  In both classes, I gave each student one final minute to defend their top choice. I told them to try to use as many pieces of evidence as they could in their one minute. Again, it was so powerful to hear the way they all talked about their top choices.

After hearing everyone’s ideas, it was finally time to vote. Here is the ballot that we used.  The kids voted for their first, second and third place choices. When I counted up the votes, I gave three points for a first place vote, two points for a second place vote and one point for a third place vote.

It was nearing the end of the day, on the day before winter break, when we finally announced our winners and honor winners. And still, the room was silent in both classrooms as they awaited the results. And here the results were:

A.M. Class:

First Place — They All Saw a Cat (by a LANDSLIDE)

Second Place — Maybe Something Beautiful

Third Place — The StoryTeller

P.M. Class:

First Place — AN EXACT TIE: They All Saw a Cat and Ada’s Violin

Second Place — The Secret Subway

Third Place — Maybe Something Beautiful

And with that, we headed off to winter break. The work was incredible. The engagement levels were incredibly high. The discussions that the kids had just warmed my heart. And watching those kids on that last day before winter break passionately defending the books they had come to love. That was something that will stay with me for a very long time.

If anyone actually makes it through this unreasonably long post, I will reward you with some images of my kids hard at work:

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:

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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.

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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.