Empathy Is Not Political: NCTE Presentation on Creating Inclusive Classrooms

This past weekend, I had the absolute privilege to join other brilliant educators to talk at NCTE about creating more inclusive classrooms, with a focus on creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students and families. It feels like this message is needed in this world and so I want to share my portion of the presentation.

I will be forever grateful to Courtney Farrell for bringing together Lauren Brown, Justin Dolci, Julia Pledl, Jamaica Ross, Tiana Silvas and myself for this powerful presentation. I am so honored to be in this work alongside of you all.

Here is what I had to say…

Slide 1

If you were to ask me when I came out, I could tell you I was 25 and in the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino when I came out to my best friend. Or, I could tell you that it was a year later, when I was 26 and crying over my salad in a restaurant when I came out to my mom.  Or, I could tell you that it was three years after that, when I was 29 and had gotten engaged and finally decided to come out to my first group of students. Or, I could tell you that it was three months ago, at the age of 37, when I once again came out on the first day of school to this year’s group of students. And all of that would be true. Because coming out, doesn’t really ever stop. And when you are a teacher, every new group of students, every new school year brings a new need to come out all over again.

And so, on the first day of school I come out. Every year. Every year, towards the end of our first day together, I share my “All About Me” bag with my students and I pull out a picture of my family.

Slide 2

This year I used this one. And I introduce my family. My wife, my daughter. I share who I am. Who we are. I do it on day one so that my students can see me, all of me, from the beginning. I do it so that I can control the information and not live in fear of the first time a student asks me a question about my life outside of school. I do it so that when I am sharing stories from my life that might make good moments to write about, I do not have to wonder if I should edit out the gay from my life. And I also do it in order to begin to build a safe space where my students know that all of who we are is welcome here.  

Slide 3

And from that day I, I can become one of two things. I can either become the teacher who will talk about the lives of people within the LGBTQ community in my classroom because I am the gay teacher. Or, I can become the teacher who talks about the lives of people within the LGBTQ community in my classroom because I am a teacher and that is simply what we do here. I do not decide which one I will be.I will do this work no matter what.  I do not decide how others will see me. That, is up to the other, straight, teachers around me. Either I will be alone in this work or I will have co-conspirators. And that is what I am here today asking you all to be.

Because none of this is really about me. It is about the students we are teaching and the spaces which we are creating in which they are supposed to live and learn. And right now, for too many of our students, our classrooms are not safe spaces. According to research from GLSEN: • 59.5% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 44.6% because of their gender expression, and 35.0% because of their gender. Almost all of LGBTQ students (98.5%) heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) at school; 70.0% heard these remarks often or frequently, and 91.8% reported that they felt distressed because of this language. Only 19.8% of LGBTQ students were taught positive representations about LGBTQ people, history, or events in their schools; 18.4% had been taught negative content about LGBTQ topics.

Slide 4

And we have the power to change that. We have the power not only to bring into our classrooms books that center the lives of LGBTQ people, but we also have the power to bring our students into the work of confronting the biases we carry of the LGBTQ community, of understanding oppression and our role in breaking down the systems that perpetuate that oppression. We can create safe spaces for all students to be themselves and we can bring our students into the work alongside of us and raise humans who will go out into the world as fellow co-conspirators.  

And I know that there are the things that stop us. That give us pause before digging into this work. I know these things, because I feel them too. I know the fear of reading a book with a family with two moms and then the next day walking into the classroom and seeing the red light on your phone blinking and knowing that someone has called to complain or question. I know those fears and I know that you have them too and I am telling you to lean into them and more forward. I know the heat that you might take. But, I need you to take the heat because our students are being consumed by the flames. And our collective willingness to take the heat can protect some of our most vulnerable students from being completely consumed by the fire.

Slide 5

So when you decide to build a more inclusive classroom and when parents approach you, and they will, make no mistake about it, when they ask you why you are bringing in the lives of those who they are trying to protect their children from. When they ask you why you are forcing their child to confront biases that they do not believe they have. When they ask you why you are pushing your agenda. When they ask you why you are bringing in stories that are not “appropriate” for their children. When they ask you why you are bringing politics in the classroom. You remember these words:

Slide 6

Our job is to teach our students the power of reading. And one of the greatest powers of reading is that it can teach us about the world that we live in and the people that we share this world with. Our job is to teach our students to build empathy through reading and EMPATHY IS NOT POLITICAL. Growing understandings of the lives of others through reading their stories and allowing them to disrupt our biases is not political. It is at the very core of the job that we have been given to do.  

So how do you start?

Here is one simple idea that I have used in my classroom.

SLide 7

You can start by helping your students to see the biases that live within them. Biases that adults are too often too unwilling to acknowledge.  The beauty of children is that they are much more willing to admit that the biased world they are living in has formed biases within them that need to be broken down.  They simply need our help in seeing those biases. One simple way to do this is to ask your students to draw a family. Ask them to do this without any context or explanation or mention of bias. Simply ask them to draw a family. Not their own family, but a family.

After students have drawn pictures of families, ask them to enter data into a simple Google form about who was in those families that they drew. And then look at the data together. And ask them what they notice. What do our drawings have in common? What are our drawings missing? What kinds of families are present in our drawings? What kinds of families are missing from our drawings? What does this tell us about the image we hold of a family? Where do you think that image comes from?

Slide 8

And then step back and listen to the brilliance of our children because they will see the bias here and they will want to correct it. Because our children bend towards justice. They want to do this work. So let them ask their questions and then give them time to answer those questions. Give them time and give them space and give them resources and give them guidance.

And when they start to wonder why we carry these messages and biases, then show them the books they are surrounded by. And model for them how we can look at books critically. How we can determine if a book reinforces a stereotype or pushes us beyond them.  And then how we can choose to select the books that push us beyond our biases. And how we can choose to suggest those books to others. 

This past year, my students and I analyzed books within our own classroom library. We sorted them into books that reinforced stereotypes and books that pushed us beyond stereotypes. And then we decided to create a resource to help other educators to find books that could push them and their students beyond their biases as well. We used Flipgrid to film short video clips recommending books that pushed us beyond our stereotypes. Here are two of the videos we created: 

Kids Talking About: A Family Is A Family Is A Family 

Kids Talking About: Worm Loves Worm 

Watching these kids engaged in this work, gives me so much hope. Not only does this work make our classroom a safer place for everyone to be, it gives me hope that these kids will now go out into this world and read differently and think differently and live differently in order to create safer spaces far beyond the walls of our classroom.  

Using Stories to Spark Inquiry and Teach a Process of Critical Reading

In my last blog post, I wrote about our work as readers in our first reading unit, “Inquiry Into Story.” In that post, I explained how my students and I began to explore the ideas of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop as we learned how the stories we read can serve as both mirrors and windows.  At the end of the post, I explained the work that we had done with several short stories, where my students and I worked to notice where we could see ourselves in stories that were windows for us, where we learned something new that helped us to better understand someone else’s life or the world, and the questions that we were left with.

We talked about how the writer will often give the reader information that they need in order to better understand someone else’s life. As readers, we need to work to notice that information and think about what it helps us to better understand.  However, one of the things that I want my students to learn how to do as readers is to notice when the writer has NOT given them enough information in order to answer the questions that they might have. I want them to notice when a concept is introduced or information is shared that they are NOT fully understanding or grasping. I want them to not only recognize when they have lingering questions, but also know a process that they can use that can help them to answer those questions responsibly in order to leave them with a better understanding of a text, a person’s life and the world.

I do not want my students to sit passively by or simply walk away from a text with misunderstandings and half-answers to their questions. I want my students to be able to interact critically with a text and notice what questions are left unanswered, what concepts are left misunderstood and then, even more importantly, know a process that can help them to fill in that understanding with facts and information. Because otherwise, students will fill in what they don’t know with false information and assumptions, with what they have overheard adults say or from information gathered from pieces of conversations amongst classmates. Otherwise, students will take what they don’t fully understand and use it to try to understand our world in a way that can lead to harmful misunderstandings, stereotypes and bias. And so, I want to take the stories that we read together and show my students how they can be launching points for inquiry. And then, I want to leave them with a process that they can use in the world outside of school, with a variety of different types of texts in order to read more critically and find the kinds of information that will truly help them to better understand the world around them.

The process that we have been going through in order to read more critically follows the same steps in a variety of types of texts. Those steps include: observe, interpret, question, seek additional resources and information, and then revise/synthesize.  Once we understand this process, it is one that we can repeat in a variety of types of text. In this work we are applying this process to stories.

Here is the start of how we are doing that work in fifth grade.

A few weeks ago, we started with the picture book Stepping Stones, written by Margriet Ruurs and illustrated with artwork by Nizar Ali Badr. I chose this book because it deals with the concept of Syrian refugees, which is a topic that I believe my students carry a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions and bias about. In addition, it is a topic that deals with our current world in a way that requires my students to build a bigger understanding of the context of this book in order to fully understand the book and also the world. It is also a topic that I believe our students need to know about if they are going to grow up to vote for people who will make decisions that will affect the lives of Syrian refugees and refugees from other places. So this work that we are doing, it can start with ANY book, but these are some of the considerations that led me to this particular book.

So the first step in this process for critical reading is to OBSERVE. In this case, the first thing that I wanted them to observe was what information was given to us in the book in order to help us understand the text, the person’s life and the world. Then, we would move forward to observe what information we were missing so that we could identify the places where we needed to ask questions.

So, as we did our first reading of the book, I simply asked my students to pay attention to the story and the gorgeous illustrations. When we finished, I gave them a few minutes to talk about what information we were given that helped us to understand the text, this person’s life and the world. I then provided each student with a typed out version of the text of Stepping Stones. As I reread the text to the students, I asked them to mark places in the text where the author gave us information that helped us to better understand the life being described in this story or information that helped us to understand the world we live in. When students had gotten through the text a second time, I asked them to look back and share the information they marked with the people around them.

This was where we started to INTERPRET what we observed. We looked at what we were given in the text and then I asked the students to talk to those around them about what they understood about the book and the life of the family that was being described. And then, as a class, we talked about what this story helped us to understand about the life of this one family, about refugees in general, and about the world that we are living in. We pointed to the specific information that helped us to understand the lives of other people and then also the specific information that helped us to better understand our world.

So we had OBSERVED what we were told, we INTERPRETED what this information helped us to understand and now it was time to QUESTION that information in order to push us towards additional information that would expand our understanding.

On the second day, I handed out another typed up copy of the text and read through the book a third time. This time, I asked them to put down a question mark in any place where they noticed that they were left with a question. Unlike the day before, today I asked them to look for places where we did NOT have enough information in order to fully understand what was being said. I asked them to look critically at the text in order to identify places where they needed more information than they currently had in order to understand what was happening in the text, in this family’s lives or in the world. I modeled how I found one of these places within the first few pages of the book and then asked my students to continue looking for their own places within the rest of the book.

When we finished reading, I asked them to go back to the places where they put question marks and this time, write out, in the margin, the specific question that they were left with.  I then asked them to turn to a few people near them and share some of their questions.

On the next day, we used a Google document to gather all of the questions that we had as we read through the book for the second time. This document and this document show the work that we did. At this point, I needed to do some work with my students to help them navigate the immense number of questions that they were left with. I told my students that it was unreasonable to think that they would take time to seek out answers to every single one of those questions in order to help them to understand this text. So we had to do some work with the questions we were left with. Since we are doing this work early on in the year, a lot of our learning needs to revolve around the kinds of questions that we are using to move us forward into inquiry. As the year goes on, my students will get better at asking big questions, but since our year together is just starting, the heavy lifting work for this round of using this process comes at the start, where we are learning to ask better and bigger questions. Because we are spending a lot of time learning in the QUESTION phase of this process, I will take away some of the stress on the other phases of the process we are using to read critically.

So after creating a giant list of questions, the first thing that we did was to look through our list of questions and sort them into the questions that were important in helping to grow our understanding and the questions that we could probably save for later. I modeled my thinking about a few of our questions and then had the students use the first three pages of THIS CHART in order to continue sorting the questions we had asked.

Once the students had some time to work together on sorting our questions, I asked them to share with me the questions that they felt were most important to answer. We were still left with a fairly large list. I copied the important questions onto the final page of THIS CHART and then shared with the kids that I thought we could probably combine several of their important questions and come up with a few BIG guiding questions that could lead us into inquiry. For example, I shared with them that I noticed that many of their questions had to do with what life was like for people in Syria before the war started. So I went through our list and started cutting questions that had to with life before the war and put them all into one box in the final chart. Then next to that box, I modeled how I could combine those questions into the big question, “What was life like in Syria before the war started?” I then asked the kids to work in small groups in order to find other questions that were related and group them together in the final chart. Then, they were asked to come up with one big question that could be used instead.

After giving the kids some time to do this work, I asked them to share what big questions they were left with. As a class, we agreed on six guiding questions that would lead us into our next phase of inquiry.  We reviewed the process that we went through to get to these questions and I shared with my students how sometimes our questions can seem overwhelming, like there is no possible way we could ever answer them all, so we walk away and don’t even bother trying. However, usually, we can look back at the questions that we have asked, sort them and then combine them and then we are often left with a much more manageable number of questions to work with.

This then, guided us into our next phase of our critical reading process, GATHERING ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND INFORMATION. I want my students to know that often our questions become useless, if we do not use them to lead us to additional resources that can give us enough information to answer them. But, because it is still early in our school year and I have not done lessons with students on finding reliable sources, I wanted to guide this inquiry work by curating a list of resources for them to use. This is one way that I can make up for the time that we put into the previous phase of our critical reading process (asking questions).

So, I looked at the questions we were left with, I thought about what printed resources I had in my classroom and then I sought out additional digital resources that I felt comfortable having the kids use.  One of the things that I want to make sure that we work on in 5th grade is expanding our definition of what a text is. The truth is that our students are navigate a world much different than the one I grew up in. They are taking in information in so many ways and yet in school we are only teaching them to navigate a very narrowly defined concept of text. Our students get really good at reading responsibly written words printed on paper. They are getting better at learning to navigate written text on a device. But there are so many ways our students take in information and I believe we have a responsibility to teach them to read all of these texts in a responsible and critical way. For that reason, when I gathered resources for my students to use in this guided inquiry, I made sure to bring in not just printed texts, but digital ones as well. Those digital sources needed to include written words and also images and videos. With these ideas in mind, I set out to create a list of resources that my students could use to attempt to answer our six BIG questions.

Before introducing the list of resources to my students, I first gave them THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT and put each of our big questions into one of the charts on our document.  This is where my students would gather their new learning from the additional resources they would be gathering. Having this chart gave us the opportunity to discuss two key ideas.

First of all, I wanted to make sure my students gained practice gathering specific evidence from the texts they were exploring in order to answer our big questions. This would help to guarantee that students are connected their answers to actual facts and information found in these resources and not on the half-truths and semi-accurate facts that they thought they knew.

Second of all, the note taking chart leaves space for students to gather information from MULTIPLE sources in order to help them answer a single big question. I wanted my students to start to understand that questions that are big and complex cannot be answered with information from a single source. This is something we will build on throughout the year and I wanted to make sure that we began that discussion with this first guided inquiry.

So after sharing this document with my students, I handed them one common text to start with. As we read through this text together, I modeled how I first reminded myself of the six big questions we were trying to answer and then as I read, I stopped any time I found new information that helped me to answer one of those questions. I modeled adding that information to my chart and asked the students to do the same. After we practiced this process with a printed text, we also practiced as we looked at a single image.  I modeled the different ways that we can look for information in these different sources.

After showing the students this process, I finally introduced them to our list of resources. At this point, I felt confident releases the kids to explore these resources on their own, reminding them that they would need to keep track of the information they were finding that helped them to answer one of our big questions. As students began to work, my job was to confer with students individually to help guide them towards resources and help them to track what they were learning on their note taking guide. As I conferred with readers, I was able to continue to instruct them on how to gather information and facts from whatever type of source they happened to be looking at.

And this is where we currently find ourselves. In the next days, I will ask students to focus in on a single question and ensure that they have facts from multiple resources that will help them to answer their chosen question. And then eventually, together, we will practice putting all of our new information in order to compose a written answer to that question in order to share our new knowledge and understanding with others.

And when all of that is done, we will return to our original picture book. We will read Stepping Stones yet again and talk about what we are able to understand now, after walking through this entire process, that we did not understand when we first encountered this book. And in that conversation, we will see the revision of our understanding. My students will see how their understanding of a text, of a story, grew as they stopped to observe, interpret, question, gather additional resources and information and revise/synthesize.

And when this process starts to live inside of my students, this is work that I have faith they will start to do in the world outside of our classroom. And as we apply this process to different types of texts and to different types of reading, we will focus on different phases and in different ways. But the process will remain the same and my hope is that these experiences will start to change the way my students read and the way my students understand the world they live in. And that gives me incredible hope for all of us.





Using Stories as Mirrors and Windows: Exploring the Work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop with Fifth Graders

IMG_9315For the past few years, I have started my literacy studio year with a unit on Inquiry Into Story. For the first part of the school year, my students and I study story, both nonfiction and fiction, both as readers and as writers. We begin our unit by looking at Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work on books as mirrors and windows.

As in past years, we began with an overall discussion of how the books we read can act as both mirrors and windows. After a brief introduction, I ask my students to think about the books that they have read that have served as both. I am always blown away by how many titles they can come up with and the powerful discussion that always ensues.


We then begin to take a close look at how we can use stories as mirrors. I ask my students to think about how books can help us to feel less alone in the world.

This year, after our first discussion, I shared the incredible and gorgeous and powerful picture book by Jacquline Woodson, The Day You Begin. If you have not yet read this picture book, please fix that immediately. This is truly one of the most beautiful picture books that I have ever read.

I shared this book and stopped to tell students how I saw myself reflected in the book and how seeing myself helped me as a reader and as a human being. After sharing my thinking, my students and I brainstormed all the ways readers can see themselves in the stories they read and the different ways this can help us. Here are the charts where I summarized what we came up with:

With this in mind, my students then looked at a variety of other short texts and practiced thinking about how they could see themselves in a variety of ways in these texts and thinking, writing and talking about how seeing themselves helped them.

Our final work with this idea had the students looking through the picture books in our classroom library, looking for books where they could see themselves reflected and writing about how this helped them. I was blown away, as I am every year, at what my students found and how bravely they were willing to share.

This work also gave as a chance to introduce the idea that some groups of people traditionally have had an easier time seeing themselves reflected in the books that are in their classrooms than other groups of people. This is a concept we will spend much more time exploring later on in the year, but I am always grateful to have the chance to bring this idea up early on in the school year.

One of the things that I love most about the work we do with stories as mirrors is that it gives my fifth graders practice slowing down and being reflective about what they are reading. I am not asking them to understand WHAT is happening in their books. I do not want them thinking about the plot. Instead, I am asking them to look at their books in a different way in order to see themselves within them. I am asking them to slow down in order to think more deeply about themselves as readers and how they are interacting with the texts in front of them.

I notice that each year, the slowing down seems to get more difficult. I look at the fast-paced world that these kids are living in and I get why it feels uncomfortable to move slowly. In fact, some days it feels downright painful. But the beauty of this work is that by slowing down, we are able to uncover so much more about our texts. This is the groundwork for the critical reading that we will do throughout our fifth grade year together and it is amazing to watch it develop, even as my students resist it. The difficulty they have, the discomfort they feel, it is not a sign to me that I need to turn away, but rather a sign that I need to lean in, together with my students, and help them to see their texts in a new way.

Once we have spent a few weeks looking at stories as mirrors, we are ready to move on to looking at stories as windows. One of the things that I notice about my students as readers is that they are REALLY good at reading texts where the main characters remind them of themselves. Even if they do not share all aspects of a character’s identity, if the characters life seems similar to their own, they are able to navigate the text easily. However, my students have a harder time understanding and sticking with texts where the characters and the character’s lives are vastly different than their own. They struggle to read texts that take place in other countries, they struggle to read texts where the main character’s culture is vastly different than their own. Many of my students have the privilege of existing within the cultures, identities and families that children’s books have traditionally been written about.  They have never struggled to find themselves in the texts around them. They have been grossly overrepresented in the books that they have read. And I truly believe this has caused deficits in their abilities to tackle texts that center lives that feel different to them.

When I think about this struggle, that many of them experience with books, I realize that this struggle is not limited to the stories they read. Those who have lived their lives being overrepresented, do not always have the skills built up to be able to understand the lives of others. So, if I can provide them with stories and provide them with strategies to better learn about others through the stories they tell, then just maybe I can also arm them with the skills and strategies that they will need to better listen to the people they share this world with and better understand other people as well. That is my hope at least.

So as we move into our work using stories as windows, I am always thinking about how they might be able to apply the skills and strategies that we are learning beyond our classroom, beyond the texts that they are given and out into the world as they encounter all sorts of people who have all sorts of stories to share.

And that is where we began.

Since we had spent so much time practicing seeing ourselves in the stories that we read, I wanted to start there. We talked about the first step in understanding someone else’s story is really listening. Sometimes, when we listen or read the words that another person is telling us, we might see ourselves reflected within that story. Sometimes this can happen in unexpected ways. Seeing ourselves in the stories people tell can help up to build empathy and understanding. But it is not enough.

We also need to listen to the new information that a person is telling us through their story. The information that is not something we know or have experienced. We have to see this information as the person’s truth. Even when it is different from what we know about the world. When think of how we see ourselves in a person’s story AND we listen to the new information that a person is giving us through their story, then we are working towards better understanding.

But there will also be parts of a person’s story that will leave us with questions. Our job then is to notice those moments and seek out additional information instead of attempting to fill in the answers to those questions purely based on assumptions or misinformation.

So when we are reading stories from other people’s lives or when we are listening to people tell their own stories, we need to be aware of all three types of thinking that might be going on.  Here are the charts that I used to summarize this conversation:


And then we dug into our first text. This past summer, I read the book Hope Nation. It is a brilliant collection of stories, from a wide variety of humans, all speaking about lessons of hope in a world that can feel so unhopeful. While I would not quite give this book to my fifth graders to tackle independently, when I was thinking about what texts to use for this work, I knew that there were stories from this book that would work perfectly.

So we began with a short story by Marie Lu that is titled, “Surviving.” As with all of the work we do, I began with modeling. I started reading the text and stopped to code the text in places where I was able to see myself, places where I learned something new about the writer’s life or about the world and places where I was left with a question.  This is what that looked like: 77viKEANR52PvVoNmiRYGg

After modeling this note taking for part of the story, I continued to read the story out loud, but then asked my students to take over coding the text.

When we had gotten to through the whole text, I asked students to look back and reflect on the notes that they had taken. And then I asked them to answer these three questions:

  1. What did this story help you to understand about the writer’s life?
  2. What did this story help you to understand about the world?
  3. What questions does this story leave you with that could lead you to more information and understanding?

After giving the students some time to reflect in writing, I then put the kids together into groups. We took one question at a time and I asked the students to share and discuss their answers as a group. After a few minutes, I gave each group one post-it note and asked them to try to synthesize their conversations in answer to each question. We collected our post-it notes on a class chart:

As the kids worked in their groups, I worked my way from group to group and conducted some guided reading lessons to help students tie their understandings back to the text and then to also help them to push their understandings beyond the text. It was amazing to hear how these kids were starting to talk about texts and it was even more amazing to hear how these kids were starting to talk about what we can learn about the world by listening to the stories that people are willing to tell from their own lives.

This work is not easy. There are many students who sat quietly (or not so quietly) during these discussions. Perhaps they weren’t quite ready yet to tackle this work, perhaps they still need time to develop the skills that will help them to access this deeper thinking, but they were there and they heard the conversations and they found ways to contribute and I have so much faith that even those who were not ready to share their thinking, were walking away changed by this work.

In the days that followed, I had my students practice these skills in other stories and with other picture books. And then finally, we returned to another story from Hope Nation, this one written by Christina Diaz Gonzales, titled, “Baseball Pasta.” And I used this story as an assessment. I read the story to the kids, they coded the text and then answered the three questions we had been working with.

What this assessment gave me was indeed information about what they had learned to do as readers, how they had learned to think deeply about a text, how they were able to tie their understanding to specific pieces of evidence in the text and how they were able to transfer their understanding beyond the text.

But it also gave me something else, it gave me a glimpse into how hopeful our future can be. If we are willing to take the time to teach our students how to read in a different way, how to truly listen and learn from the stories that people are telling us, then we have a hope of raising students who are better able to understand the lives of people whose lives might be vastly different than their own. And what a difference that would make. Because every day I watch the news and I see a lack of understanding, an inability to really listen to the stories that others are telling and screaming and shouting and hoping will be heard and understood. And I like to envision a world where we do a better job of listening, a better job of understanding and a better job of seeing the people we share this world with and the stories they are sharing.

Who Will We Raise?

A man, Senator Jeff Flake, steps into an elevator on his way to join a hearing which will help to decide if another man, Brett Kavanugh, who has allegedly taken part in an act of sexual assault will rise to become a member of the highest court in our country. Two women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, stop Senator Jeff Flake. They share their stories. They remind him of the meaning of justice. They force him to confront what so many in this country were feeling. In the end, it was not enough to stop Senator Jeff Flake from voting to confirm this alleged sexual assailant. But it was enough to give him pause. And it was enough to allow so many women in this country, for just one moment, to feel as if their voices were being heard.

And I couldn’t help but ask myself, in my classroom, who is it that I am helping to raise? Am I raising the man who would go on to allow another privileged, yet unqualified, man to step into a position that only nine people in this country hold at any given time? Or am I raising those two women? The women who would bravely share their stories and make sure their voices were heard to demand justice no matter who tried to stop them? Did the learning and the teaching that took place in my classroom last week lead my students towards being another Jeff Flake? Or did it lead my students towards becoming more like Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher?

Elsewhere. Two friends, Fabiola Velasquez and Isabel Nava Marin, are speaking to each other in the aisle of a store. Another woman, Linda Dwire, walks up to these two women and begins to harass them, telling them that if they are in America, they should be speaking English. And then a fourth woman, Kamira Trent, walks up to the scene and forcefully demands that Linda Dwire leaves the two friends alone. She threatens to call the police and she walks Linda Dwire away from the other women. In the end, Linda Dwire, was arrested. She will probably not change her views or the way she speaks to people, but, again, for a moment she was given pause. And many people in this country saw what it means to be an ally.

And yet again, I found myself asking, in my classroom, who is it that I am helping to raise? Am I raising the woman who had no problem harassing two complete strangers simply because of the language that they spoke and because it was different than her own? Or am I raising the other woman, the one who saw someone mistreating people and stepped in and stepped up in order to try to stop it? Did the learning and the teaching that took place in my classroom last week lead my students towards becoming another Linda Dwire? Or did it lead my students towards becoming more like Kamira Trent?

And then just a few days ago, all of Chicago held its collective breath as we waited to hear the verdict in the Laquan McDonald case.  And after hearing the much hoped for guilty verdicts read, I listened to the words of William Calloway.  And as he spoke, we again saw two men. One man, Jason Van Dyke, pulled up to a scene where a 17 year old child, Laquan McDonald, was walking away from police officers, towards a chain-link fence, carrying a knife. After spending mere moments on the scene, Jason Van Dyke unloaded 16 shots into the body of Laquan McDonald. And the story might have gone unheard, as too many of these stories do, if not for the work of another man, William Calloway. Calloway would not allow this injustice to go unnoticed. He used his voice, he rallied his community, he pushed for the dash cam footage to be released to the public. And in the end, Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.  The video footage that William Calloway fought to have released, it will not fix America, but that footage, for this one moment, might just have been the thing this racist country needed to see in order to take pause and for one moment see that something is terribly wrong in the way that black people are treated by the police.

And yet again, I found myself asking, in my classroom, who is it that I am helping to raise? Am I raising the man who allowed his own biases, his own inability to see the full humanity in a person who he saw as different than himself, to lead him to the kind of irrational fear that made it possible for him to fire 16 bullets into the body of a boy who was walking away from him, surrounded by police officers, towards a fence, armed with a three-inch knife? Or am I raising the man who saw injustice and fought to have it uncovered no matter how many people stood in his way? Did the learning and the teaching that took place in my classroom last week lead my students towards becoming another Jason Van Dyke? Or did it lead my students towards becoming more like William Calloway?

I ask these questions because I know the truth. The truth is that every single choice that I make in my classroom is helping to raise a human who will go out into this world and change it in some way. The truth is that what I do with my students every single day is helping to raise those who will change our world to bring it closer to justice or it will help to raise those who will change our world to bring it further away from the justice we say we all seek. The truth is that there is no neutral. We are either helping to raise more Jeff Flakes, Linda Dwires, and Jason Van Dykes or we are helping to raise more Ana Maria Archilas, Maria Gallaghers, Kamira Trents, and William Calloways. And the truth is that for far too long, what we have done in classrooms across this country has helped to raise the people who are perpetuating injustice, not the ones who have been bringing us closer to justice.

And as this world continues to spin in a manner that is leaving so many of us dizzy and sick and wishing we could just get off this ride for a little bit, we have to stop and take pause and look inward and think about what it is we are teaching and who it is that we are raising. Because this is what I know.

Ana Maria Archilas and Maria Gallagher, somewhere learned the power of sharing their own life stories. Somewhere they learned that the stories we tell matter and the way we tell them matters. Somewhere they learned the importance of literally holding open doors that other people try to close in your face when you have something important that needs to be said. Somewhere they saw that the stories that we tell about our own lives have the power to transform others and help them to understand who we are and the lives that we live. Somewhere they learned to use their own voices in a way that will make others think. Our classrooms can be the places where more people learn those lessons.

And Kamira Trent, somewhere she learned that other people’s lives and other people’s languages are beautiful and worthy even if they are different than your own. Somewhere she learned how to learn about the beauty of another culture instead of simply wishing that it was more like your own. Somewhere she learned to recognize injustice and understood her role in stopping it. Somewhere she learned a way to stand up for someone else, someone you might not know, but who needs you to step in and step up. Somewhere she learned that speaking kindly to others is not always the right approach to take. Somewhere she learned how to push back against someone who was harassing other people. Somewhere she learned that she doesn’t always need to calm down and self-regulate, but that it is just as important to know when your anger is righteous and use that anger to help others. Our classrooms can be the places where more people learn those lessons.

And William Calloway, somewhere he learned that you do not have to just let those in power define the narrative that is going to be told. Somewhere he learned how to recognize the systemic racism that exists in this country and ways in which he could help to disrupt and break down the systems that perpetuate racism. Somewhere he learned the power of asking the right questions and the ways that you can demand answers. Somewhere he learned a process of inquiry that would get him and his community closer to the truth. Somewhere he learned how to dig deep into an issue in order to better understand it. Somewhere he learned that it is not best to accept the status quo. Somewhere he learned how not to feel powerless. Somewhere he learned how to teach others how to collectively push back against authority when that authority is not moving towards justice but rather running away from it. Our classrooms can be the places where more people learn those lessons.

But in order for that to happen. In order for our classrooms to be those spaces, we need to design the kind of learning that teaches THESE lessons and not the far more dangerous ones that we have taught for far too long. We need to move away from teaching blind compliance. We need to move away from teaching a history of our country that depends solely on the narrative of white men in America. We need to move away from teaching the value of only one language and one culture. We need to move away from lessons that teach our students that only one type of life is worthy enough to be brought into our classrooms through the books that we read and the curriculum that we cover. We have to stop pretending that this job is not political and start realizing that we have a world to save and good humans to raise.

And I have so much faith that we can do that. Because I look at William Calloway and I look at Kamira Trent and I look at Ana Maria Archilas and Maria Gallagher and I see what humans can become and I see what true bravery looks like. And who doesn’t want to have a hand in raising that kind of a human who walks through the world with that kind of bravery? But I also know that we have to work harder. I also know that we have to be braver. I also know that we have so much more work to do.

So as we walk into this next week, lets think about the teaching and learning that will take place in our classrooms and lets all ask ourselves what kind of humans that teaching and learning will raise.

Someone, somewhere…

Across this country, there are kids who are getting excited to head back to school. But, also, someone, somewhere is spending these last days before school starts worrying about the things to come.

Someone, somewhere, is worried about walking into a classroom and feeling like they do not quite belong.

Someone, somewhere, is worried about having to share a picture of her family, when her family does not look like everyone else’s because she has two moms.

Someone, somewhere, is worried about being asked to make a choice between a boys’ bathroom pass and a girls’ bathroom pass, when the choice he wants to make does not match what his teachers and peers might assume.

Someone, somewhere, is worried about asking her teacher to call her by a different name and a different set of pronouns than the ones that have been indicated on her student information sheet.

Someone, somewhere, is worried that if she asks her teachers to use a different set of pronouns when talking about her, then those teachers will contact home and her parents will react with anger and she will no longer be safe.

Someone, somewhere, is worried about the moment when he has to put on a uniform that is assigned to the girls, when everything inside of him feels wrong about it.

Someone, somewhere, is worried about having to fill out yet another form that does not fit his family because it has one line designated for “father” and another line designated for “mother”.  

Someone, somewhere, is worried about what she is going to do when the first event geared towards fathers and their children comes around and she does not have a father to go with.

Someone, somewhere, is worried that he will go another year without a single teacher saying the word that feels like who he is unless it is to tell another a child not to use that word as an insult.

And someone, somewhere, is worried that once again, she will hear that who she is, her own identity, is controversial, or not appropriate for this age of children, or requires a permission slip before it can be read about and discussed.  

There are children walking through our classroom doors who carry these worries, and so many others, along with the weight of their school supplies and backpacks.  And we cannot instantly remove all of these worries. We cannot change the cruelty of the world. But there is so much that we can do to let them know that here, in these spaces, they are safe. They are welcomed. They are valued. They are enough. They are loved for exactly who they are.

So as you finish setting up your classrooms. As you painstakingly work to get everything looking just right. Here are a few things that you can do to help these children know that this is a space made with them in mind:

Make sure that the books that have representations of different families are visible from the first moment that children walk in the door. I promise you, kids, and their families, will notice when there are families that look like theirs already on display, so that their family will not seem like an “other” or something vastly different.

Get rid of the boys’ bathroom pass and girls’ bathroom pass and simply create two bathroom passes. If possible, let kids know of any single stall, gender-neutral bathroom options that they have access to. Try to avoid making rules like only one boy and only one girl are allowed out of the room at a time. Try trusting the kids and if there are specific students who prove that they should not be out of the room at the same time, make that a conversation with those specific students.

Do not use separate colors to write girls’ names and boys’ names in. Instead use just one color, or randomly alternate the colors that you are using.

Do not split the class by gender. If you need to have an easy way to split the class in two, use evens and odds (if they have class numbers) or assign half the class to be one category and half the class to be another (half will be “winter” and half will be “summer” and use those designations when needed).

Try to avoid saying things like, “Only two boys and two girls at each table,” or, “Since a boy just had a turn, please pick a girl next,” or, “All the girls can go first and then the boys.”

When sending home forms to be filled out, check the language that is used. Ask yourself, “Who might feel left out because of this form?” “Who will this form exclude?” “Who will this wording not work for?” And then make changes so that the language is as inclusive as possible.  Instead of leaving one space for “mother” and one space for “father”, try leaving an open space and asking families to list, “Family members or caregivers” and then asking them to specify each person’s relationship to the student.

When planning school events, do not limit them to mothers and sons or fathers and daughters. Do not gear activities only for fathers or only for mothers. Instead, create family experiences or students and those who care for them. Always ask yourself, “Will anyone not feel like this event is for them because of the way that it is listed?”

In the first weeks, read books that have characters who are gay or transgender or lesbian. Read books with different families. You don’t have to make the read aloud about being a member of the LGBT community, but it will let students know that these are humans who are welcome in this space, these are humans who are seen and valued here.

Hang a safe space sticker somewhere in your classroom or in your school. Again, I promise you that families and students who need them will notice them (I always do and I always feel instantly more relaxed).

If you are having students fill out information sheets about themselves, include a space for them to list their preferred pronouns. If students have questions about what this means, you can answer them easily enough by saying something along the lines of, “Pronouns are words that people use, instead of people’s names, if they are saying something about that person. Examples of pronouns are he, she, him, her, his, hers, they and them. Sometimes, people guess correctly about which pronouns they should use when talking about a person, but sometimes they don’t know the correct pronouns and it can make a person feel bad. Each person should be able to select the pronouns that feel right for them and that is why I am asking you right from the start.”

Allow students to introduce themselves before you call their names from a list. Let students know that they should introduce themselves using the names that they want to be called in this classroom. Don’t worry too much about kids taking advantage of this. Sure, someone will try something silly, but it will be pretty obvious and it probably won’t last very long either. Those moments of silliness are worth it, if it allows another child, who feels stuck with the name that they were given, the opportunity to easily let a teacher know that the name that is listed, is not the name that feels right to who they really are.

These things. They can be so small. But they can also make a great difference. For children who walk through every day feeling as if the entire world is made in a way that does not honor who they are, these changes can make it feel as if they have finally walked into a space where they are safe and included and accepted. And while these changes will not fix the world or solve all of the problems these children will face, it can make them feel as if they have reached a place where a few things might be just a little bit easier. And a little bit easier is sometimes all we need in order to be able to be our best selves and do our best learning and growing.


On Compliance: Shifting the Narrative From Day 1

I just finished reading the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby. I cannot remember the last time I was so moved and impacted by a book about education. I mean, this book is about much more than education, but I read it primarily as an educator. I was drawn to the book by Val Brown and her Clear The Air conversations. What I found within the pages of this book, however, was more than I every could have expected.

One of the central themes of this book is how our schools thrive on compliance. How we demand it from our students. How we value compliance, conformity and blind-willingness to obey. And those who refuse. Those who will not change who they are in order to fit our demands, they become our troublemakers. And once they are identified as troublemakers, they are isolated and excluded in a myriad of ways. As teachers, we attempt to make these troublemakers invisible, to remove the problem so that our “good” students can thrive without interruption. And as we employ a wide variety of techniques to attempt to make these troublemakers invisible, they rise up and find more creative and more extreme strategies in order to attempt to be seen and heard and recognized in some way.

There is no way for me to do justice to this book in one blog post. All I can tell you is that it is a must read. I know that throughout the coming school year, I will be changed in yet unseen ways by the words that I have read in this book and I am eager to discuss those changes and my thinking with others.

For now, however, I am left with thoughts beginning to brew about how I can do better for my students. How I can start to work to make school work better for my students. And I am left, for today, with thoughts about the conversations that we will have on the very first day of school about rules.

For years, I have opted to skip the work of creating a list of rules with my students. Even when I had the students themselves come up with the rules, they were clearly only regurgitating the same list of rules that they had known since they first arrived in a shared learning space. For the past few years, instead, we have worked together in order to create a list of characteristics that describes the kind of classroom that they want to be a part of and the kind of teachers that might help them to learn best. We discussed that during the year, they would come to school every day and try their hardest to live up to the descriptions of the kind of classroom they want to be a part of and I would try my hardest to live up to the description of the kind of teacher that might help them to learn best. And I still think that this is important work and it is work that we will find time to do.

However, I do not want this to be our first conversation this year. Because it leaves out something important that I know that I need to teach my students and that I was reminded of while reading Troublemakers. 

One of the things that I loved most about the book is that Shalaby shows us what is possible when we stop simply looking at a child’s behavior as a problem to be solved with the right punishment or reward, but instead look at what we can learn about the toxicity of our own schools from the problems that it is causing in our children. In the chapter that describes one of the students, Sean, we see a problem of questioning authority that has become extreme and often times disruptive and even harmful to other students.

Many attempts are made to correct this behavior, but what Shalaby helps us to envision instead is a way for us to learn about the changes that WE can make in our classrooms instead. She writes, “Knowing when and how to challenge authority is a skill worth teaching and learning. Understanding the power of organized, collective dispute — as an alternative to vulnerable, individual dispute — is also a lesson worth teaching and learning. Questioning is a habit we should cultivate in young people not because of its value to any particular individual, but because it makes for an undoubtedly healthier and more robust democracy. Democracy requires dispute.”

I am particularly moved by this discussion of compliance because for the past few years, I have wrestled with our schools over-dependence on compliance. Perhaps this has come from watching my own child, who is a bit non-compliant in nature, enter into the school system and quickly learn that school is a place where a kid like herself does not easily fit. And it makes me worry about her future with school and it makes me worry about the message our schools are sending to students about who belongs in our classrooms and who belongs on the fringe of our classrooms, never fully feeling like school is a place for them.

And in a larger way, I worry that our over-dependence on compliance for our country’s children has led us to a world where many adults value compliance over justice.  I have watched as compliance has led this world to commit horrific acts in the name of holding others accountable for laws, without ever stopping to question if those laws are unfair or unjust.  And this is playing out, in this moment, in the must heart wrenching of ways.

We watch on our televisions as children are ripped away from their parents because their parents have dared to dream of a better and safer life and have fled horrific circumstances in other countries in order to make it to our country in the hopes of finding safety. And it is a real argument that people give where they say, “But they are breaking the law. If they didn’t want their children taken away then they shouldn’t have broken the laws. They should have come here legally.” People say this without stopping to question if the laws are fair, if the systems are just, they simply point to their noncompliance and claim that it is not the punishment that is problematic, but the noncompliance.

And the thing is, I have watched and listened as educators have argued against this logic. They have pushed back on the valuing of compliance over justice, they have fought against this without stopping for one second to realize how we are replicating this very same injustice in our schools and in our classrooms. We are raising our students to put compliance above justice, to follow blindly without asking if what they are following is fair or just. We are raising the humans that perpetuate these conditions.

But we do not have to. We can change that narrative. We can start to use our students’ noncompliance, not as a reason to punish, but as an opportunity to learn. To learn what we need to fix. I am not suggesting that we take away rules, I am not advocating for a free-for-all, but what I am suggesting is that we take our students natural desire to push boundaries and to question authority and we teach them to do those things in a productive way that will bring us closer to equity and justice.

So this year, I plan to do that from day one. This year, I plan to spend time on rules on the first day of school (something I have previously purposely NOT done). But here is how I am thinking of framing our conversation:

I will ask the students to put themselves into groups of 2 (or 3 if needed). Once settled, I want to start with this first question:

What is a rule? (I will tell them that I am looking for a definition, not examples).

After crafting a definition we can all agree with. I will ask students to turn back to their partner(s) and then I will ask the next question:

Should you follow rules? Why or why not?

After a moment, I will ask them the next question:

Should you follow every rule? Why or why not?

At this point, I will ask each pair to stand up and find another pair so that we will have groups of 4 or 5. Once settled, I will ask them to share with their new groups what they had discussed in their first pair or group of three. Then after they have had some time to share, I will continue with the next question that they can discuss in their new groups of 4 or 5:

Should you follow every rule even if you feel the rule treats you unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

Should you follow every rule even if you feel the rule treats other people unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

Is it worth getting into trouble for not following a rule that you feel treats you unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

Is it worth getting into trouble for not following a rule that you feel treats other people unfairly? Why or why not?

And then:

When is it safe to not follow a rule that you feel treats you or other people unfairly? When it is NOT safe to not follow a rule that treats you or other people unfairly?

(***I want to put in a note about privilege here. I know that there are consequences for students who do not comply with rules. And I know that those consequences are unjustly different for different groups of students. And I feel a responsibility to acknowledge that with my students. So I will do that on this first day and I will do that again and again throughout the course of the year as we wrestle with these ideas together. Because I want my students with privilege to know that there are consequences that won’t be given to them as harshly or as quickly and that that gives them the opportunity to use that privilege to fight against unjust laws, even when they don’t directly affect them, in a ways that those who lack that privilege might not be able to do. We might not get there on day one, but we will get there.)

Again, at this point, I will ask each group of 4 or 5 to stand up and find another group of 4 or 5 so that, at this point, we will probably form into two large groups within our one class. I will ask the larger groups to share a bit of the conversations they had in their previous groups. After there has been time to share, I will move on to the next question:

What can you do if you are told by someone in power to follow a rule that you feel treats you or other people unfairly?

And then:

What can you do if you get into trouble for not following a rule that you believe treats you or other people unfairly?

And now, I will ask the whole class to come back together. I will ask students to share some of the things that came up in their discussions that feel important. And then I will ask the students one final question:

How should we handle rules in this classroom?

And then we will go from there. I do not know where that will lead us. I do not know where that will take us. It might not work at all, but it is a risk that I am willing to take. Because if nothing else, it will plant the seeds of a conversation that I believe will need to take place throughout the course of the year. Because I do not want my students to think that there are no rules, but even more importantly, I do not want them to think that they are powerless against the rules that will exist. That understanding will not happen within one lesson, that understanding needs to be built across time and across a trusted space. But I believe that how we start our year together, how we use our first moments as a classroom community, that impact will be felt across the year. And I want to be intentional and thoughtful about the impact that I will make.





Rethinking Research Part #3: Using Student Research to Create Positive Change in the World Through Writing

In the first post in this series, I discussed how my students and I began our inquiry circle work by selecting current social issues to study and the beginning by acknowledging our own biases towards these topics. In the second post in this series, I discussed how my students and I learned to use research as a tool for critical literacy and also as an assessment of what they were learning how to do. And now, in this post, I would like to some time to talk about what we did with all of the research that we had done in order to make this work really meaningful, not just to us, but to the world.

After weeks of research, my students had started not only to better understand the topics they had chosen to study, but they started to really care about these topics. As I guided them to narrow their focus and select a lens through which to look at their topics that really mattered to them, I noticed that they were developing empathy for the people they were learning about and they were also developing strong beliefs about what changes needed to be made in the world in order to create positive change in the world in regards to the topics that they were studying.

In the last blog post in this series, I talked about how I introduced to my students the idea of how we, as readers and researchers, often move from understanding, to feeling and believing and then finally to action.  IMG_5542

As my students were researching, they used THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT to begin to track their developing beliefs.

And after a while, it was time to gather these beliefs into one claim statement. As I discussed earlier, I used to do this process in the reverse order. I would have my students start with a claim and then find research in order to support that claim. I discussed this in depth in the first post of this series. But now, I wait until my students have done a large amount of research before I ask them to state their claims. Because I want these claims to be based on what they have learned and not just based on what they think they know.

So after weeks of research, I finally introduce THIS CLAIM ORGANIZER to my students. My students have done their research in groups, but I let them know that it is more than okay for them to have reached different claims within their groups. So if part of the group has developed one belief about their topic and the other has developed a totally different belief, that is just fine. This is part of making sure that I am not telling my students WHAT to think, but rather HOW to think for themselves based on the research that they have done.

I start by explain what a claim really is.   I use THIS DOCUMENT to help me to do that. And then, I pull up ALL of my own research notes so far and think out loud for them about my own possible claims. I make sure to include both my understanding of the problem AND what I think can be done in order to help solve this problem. This year, I studied DACA as a model topic and this MY EXAMPLE OF HOW I FILLED OUT THE CLAIM ORGANIZER. It is important to note that on the first day, all I modeled was the top section. I talked out loud as I reflected on my research and tried to synthesize what I understood about the problem I studied and what I believed about what action needed to occur. I wrote this claim statement in the top of the organizer and then broke it up into the parts that I needed to support with research.

After showing this to my students, I sent them off to work and talk in their own groups. Now this is a really tough skill, so I told my students that I was there to help them. My small group work for the next few days was coming around to each inquiry circle group, talking with them about their research and helping them to draft their claims. This is not work that I expect my 5th graders to do on their own quite yet, so I made sure to heavily support each group.

As I began to help groups craft statements, I stopped and called the whole class over to look at them as a way to provide even more models. Sometimes, when I came to a group, they already had a claim statement and just needed my help to refine it and figure out what parts they needed to support with research.  Here are some examples of the claim statements that my students ended up with:

One of the most powerful parts of this work is helping my students to craft claim statements, even when I do not agree with what they are saying.  But, because we are tying all of our claims back to research, it was possible for me to help my students make sure that what they were saying was based on facts.

This came to light with the group that was studying the anthem protests within the NFL. After weeks of research, the group reached the belief that NFL players should not kneel during the national anthem. This is a belief that I disagree with in a passionate way. So how was I going to help this group? I simply asked them to tell me WHY they believed this. And part of their argument, was indeed based on research. They told me that they learned that having players kneel had led to disagreements and fighting and also inspired younger players to kneel and get into trouble themselves. Okay. That was all true. I do not believe that those are reasons that players shouldn’t kneel, but I was willing to accept that these parts of their claim could be supported by research.

And then, one of the students in the group told me that the players were kneeling to protest unfair treatment of black people in this country and this student then said that there was not unfair treatment of black people in this country. Now, my first instinct was to begin yelling about how wrong that was. But I took a deep breath and I asked her instead, “Do you have research to support that part of your claim? Do you have research that proves that there is no unfair treatment of black people today in our country?” She thought for a moment and then said, “No.” And I replied, “Then you cannot say that is true.” And then I went on to share with her some of the research that I had that proved that there is INDEED continued unfair treatment of black people in this country. And I told her that it was okay to have a claim that I didn’t agree with, as long as each part could be supported by research.

In this moment, I was not telling these students what to think. They kept a claim that I did not agree with. However, what I was teaching them was something more important, that they have to base their claims on actual facts and research. This is something that my students struggle with. And so I made sure to make this a part of our learning.

The next day, after all of our inquiry circle groups had crafted claim statements, I went back to my own example and showed them how I was going to pull from my research in order to support each part of the claim I had crafted. And if I didn’t have enough research to support a specific part, then I would have to go out and search some more to find the research that I needed.  And then I asked groups to go back and do this work with their own claims. And again, I spent my time going around to each group and helping them to use their research to support their claims.  Again, this is hard work for fifth graders, but I was in awe of how well they were able to do the work.

Once we had our claim organizers completed, it was time to figure out what we were going to do with all of this research. In the past, the final product of weeks worth of research, was a product created only for me, their teacher, or possibly to share with their classmates. This was fine, but I always felt like there could be more.

So now, I talked with my students about what we could do with all of the research that we had gathered that could work to create positive change in the world BEYOND our classroom. To often, our students’ research stops at the walls of our classrooms. The problem with this is that our students miss an opportunity to see that our learning can lead us to action. Our learning should lead us to action. Our work should matter in the world and not just as an assignment. Because when my students leave my classroom, I want them to know that they have the power to create change. It is not enough for me that they know that they have the power to complete assignments that I give them, I want them to know that when they see a problem in the world, they should do the work to learn about that problem and then use that learning to demand change.

So this is the work that we now do with the research we have gathered. I started by sharing this chart with my students: IMG_5986

I shared with my students that the claims they had crafted would lead them to figure out what kind of writing they wanted to do. They needed to think about who they wanted to reach and how it was best to reach that audience. And then, in order to inspire them a bit more, I shared with them some examples of how other kids their age were using writing to create change in the world. THIS DOCUMENT contains the examples that I shared with them. I wanted my students to see that there were kids out there in the world doing this work and making real change. And they were not doing it because a teacher told them to, they were doing it because they cared and they were passionate and they believed that their voices could make a difference. So as my students listened to and learned from kids like Mari Copeny and Marley Dias and Jazz Jennings, they were beginning to think about their own pieces of writing.

I then shared with them THIS WRITING PLANNER and MY OWN EXAMPLE OF A COMPLETED WRITING PLAN. At this point, I do want to mention that while my students were engaged in our inquiry circle unit as readers, they were also working on a persuasive writing unit as writers. The start of that work is described IN THIS BLOG POST. As they were learning how, as readers, to learn about a problem, they were also learning, as writers, about how to use writing to demand change. The two units came together in this final work. The beauty of that is that I did not have to spend time teaching them HOW to write a piece of persuasive writing at this point, because we had already spent many weeks learning about that. This is the benefit of using a LITERACY STUDIO approach that ties reading and writing together.

So with their writing plans complete, they students began writing. Many wrote letters to members of congress, one of the LGBT groups wrote to Betsy Devos asking her to do more to help LGBT kids within schools, the anthem protest group wrote to coaches of NFL teams, two groups wrote op-eds that we sent to the local newspaper and two groups wrote blog posts that we shared the link for on our class Twitter account. No matter what the students wrote, I made sure that we worked together to send their writing out into the world.

For some groups, that meant that I helped them learn how to find out who their representatives were and how to find their addresses. For other groups, that meant that I taught them how to address an envelope (a skill that surprisingly few of my students possess). And for other groups, that meant that I helped them to find existing hashtags in order to share their writing as a part of a larger conversation.

And our writing went out into the world. Our voices went out into the world. And they carried with them all of the learning that my students had done over the past few weeks. And, more importantly, our pieces of writing also carried with them a new belief that my students had that their voices mattered in the world. This work was not done for me or for a grade, this work was done because this is how you create change. That is what my students now understood. They now knew a process that they could use long after they left the walls of our classroom. They knew how to follow a social issue that interested them in order to learn more and to develop beliefs and then to take those beliefs and that knowledge and use them to ask for change.

They did more than just turn in a paper for a grade. In fact, not one student worried about what grade they would get. Because something much more incredible happened. They saw their writing go out into the world. And then, a few weeks later, they started to get responses. Not every group, but many of them. They received letters back from government officials. They saw that their voices were being added to larger conversations. And they were moved by that.  That mattered to them in a way that a grade never could.

And while this was the end of our inquiry circle unit, I knew that the impact of the work that we had done together would last much longer. Not only did it give my students a renewed sense of power and agency, but it gave me a renewed sense of hope. Because it is so easy to lose hope in today’s world. But when we can find ways to help our students to learn processes through which they can go out and use reading and writing to make this world a better place, that gives me so much hope. These kids and what they are capable of, that gives me so much hope. And be rethinking how we teach our students to research and what we ask them to do with that research, I think we can all find a little bit of hope.


Rethinking Research Part #2 (Finally)–Using Student Research as Assessment and a Tool For Critical Literacy

I warn you now, this might be my longest blog post ever (which is saying a lot). If anyone actually makes it through this thing, I am going to be really impressed!

Many months ago, I wrote a blog post explaining the very beginning stages of our inquiry circle research. In that post, I discussed how my students chose topics that were of interest to them. The parameters that I gave them were that they needed to choose a current social issue that they wanted to learn more about in order to develop a belief about the issue and take some action to create positive action connected to that issue in the world outside of the classroom. Once their topics were chosen, I asked them to identify their current knowledge AND work to identify potential biases they were carrying about that topic. I wrote about that entire process in the last blog post.

Now that several months have gone by and I am just now finding time to get back into the swing of writing here, I wanted to continue the series of Rethinking Research. In this post, I want to take some time to think about how we can rethink the research process that we ask our students to go through so that we can use the process itself as a form of assessment and also as a way to teach our students a process of critical literacy that they can walk through on their own in the world outside of our classroom.

When I set out to plan the work that we would do in our inquiry circle unit, I thought about our Common Core Standards, I thought about our district reading and writing units and learning targets, I thought about Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards, and I also thought a lot about how I WISH that people in this world would go about learning about the complex situations that we are living in. From all of these places, a list of learning targets was born. I shared these in the previous post, but here they are again: img_5554

I written a lot about how important I feel that it is to take the literacy curriculum that we are required to bring to our students and wrap that work in something bigger, something more meaningful, something that can change the world. I’ve started to call this a type of revolutionary reading and writing. So I have worked to weave as many reading and writing skills into our inquiry circle work and raise the level of that work by also working in social justice standards and the skills that I wish people out in our world had.

But within all of that, I am still responsible for assessing my students. At times, these goals seem unwilling to coexist. The idea of meeting the common core, making sure that I assess my students’ meeting of the common core and also doing the kind of work that makes me believe that I am preparing my students to use reading and writing to make this world a better place. For many years, it felt as if these things could not occur simultaneously.

And then recently, I have shifted my thinking. I have seen that once I have identified my learning targets, assessment REALLY becomes simply collected evidence that shows that students are meeting these learning targets. We get so caught up sometimes with the world “assessment.” It feels so dirty. But if we can pull ourselves away for a moment, from the big business of standardized testing, if we can pull ourselves away from the noise and the nonsense, and look at assessment as simply collecting evidence from student work to show us how our students are doing or not doing what we want them to do, then it is suddenly possible to see how all of the things that we want to do can occur at the same time. We do not need a separate task, a final product, a manufactured scenario in order to gather evidence of student learning. That evidence can be gathered within the work itself.

This requires two things. 1) A specific knowledge of what you want students to be able to do and 2) A space for students to provide you the evidence over time of how they are learning to do those things.  And the beauty of this is that ALL of this can be wrapped into meaningful work. So as I am working to teach my students how to responsibly learn about complex social issues while considering multiple perspectives and centering the voices of those directly affected, I can also be gathering evidence of how they are learning to do the things that they will be assessed on in our district’s report card.

So how does that all happen?

Well, once my students have chosen topics and worked to identify the biases they might hold about these topics, it is time to dig in to their research. And as soon as this research begins, I work to collect evidence of what they are learning how to do.

The first learning targets that I introduce are:

I can synthesize new information WITHIN one single text in order to grow my understanding of a complex topic.

I can recognize how specific information affects my understanding of a topic.

If these are the things that I want my students to be able to do, I need to first model for them how to do them and then guide them through the work of doing these things themselves.

So, each year, I chose a topic that is currently being talked about in the media and that none of my student groups have chosen. This year, that topic was DACA. Now I know that there are teachers who struggle with teaching topics like DACA because there is this pervasive belief that we somehow are supposed to keep politics out of our classroom. First of all, we have NEVER kept politics out of our classrooms. Every book that we choose to read or not read, every textbook we choose to purchase or not purchase, every topic we discuss or refuse to discuss, it is all political.

I do not know where this supposed line of political or not political is supposed to be drawn, but what I do know is that I owe my fifth graders an opportunity to learn HOW to learn about a topic as complex as DACA. I owe them the opportunity to teach them how to wade through the noise of the media and understand the issue underneath. I do not want to teach them WHAT to think, but I do feel a heavy responsibility to teach them HOW to think. How to think for themselves. Independently of their parents, independently of their peers, independently of the headlines that are screaming for their attention. So that is what I do.  And I can do this by teaching them a process through which they can look critically at the media they are consuming in order to reach a more accurate understanding of a complex issue.

I took the topic of DACA. I began with a single article. A news article that I took from Newsela. Might I just stop for a moment here and mention how Newsela has revolutionized the work of inquiry. It has provided this incredible source of articles dealing with current social issues that are accessible for all of our students. I am incredibly grateful for the resources they give to this world.

Before I began reading the article to my students. I introduced the idea of synthesis (which is one they have heard in many previous grades) and explained how it might look as we work to understand a complex social issue.  I told them that as I read, I would be looking for the pieces of information that had some affect on my understanding. Using the chart pictured below, I went through some of the ways that pieces of information might affect my understanding.


After going through this chart together, I projected the article on the board for all of us to look at together.  Since all of the research that my students would be doing with this project is digital, I wanted to make sure that I modeled how I would research with a digital article. So I began to read out loud. And any time I encountered a piece of information that affected my thinking, I stopped and shared out loud my thinking. I then highlighted the piece of the text that led to my thinking and copied it onto THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT. (I will come back to this document in a moment as it is an incredibly important piece of evidence that I use in order to assess my students).

I pasted the lines from the text into the first column of the chart on the top of this document. In the second column, I modeled how I could track how it affected my understanding of the issue and then finally, in the third column, I coded HOW this information affected my understanding.  We ignored the rest of the note -taking document on this first day and only focused on the first chart.

As you can imagine, this work caused me to move slowly through the article I was looking at. I told my students that this was exactly what I hoped would happen. When my students research online, they tend to read less carefully. When they are reading articles online, as opposed to on paper in front of them, they often do not make it to the end of the article. I believe that there are a different set of skills that we need to teach our students when they read articles on line and this work provides the perfect opportunity to do that.

On that first day, I probably only got through two or three paragraphs of the first article. And that is okay. Because it was then time for my students to try this work for themselves and to begin to collect evidence of how they were able to meet these first learning targets.

So after some modeling, I told my students that it was there to turn to try. They each had their own NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that I assigned to them through Google Classroom.  And on this first day, I told them only to worry about the section of the note-taking document that I modeled for them, the chart at the top of the note taking document. They were not yet responsible for doing any of the sections that I did not model for them yet.

And for this first day, I found articles for the students to use. Though this work is inquiry and though part of our work would be locating sources, the first weeks of our work were really focused on the skills of HOW to read and synthesize. In order to make that manageable, I curated resources for each of our inquiry circle groups. I built a Padlet for each group and began to put resources there for the students to use. Since I began with online articles, that is what I first posted to the Padlets. I put two or three articles on each group’s Padlet and allowed students to choose from those. Here is an example of one of the group’s Padlets, but please know that this is from the END STAGES of our research when the students took over the gathering of resources.

So I then sent the kids off to work. I sent them off to work knowing that many of them were not ready, but also knowing that the best chance that I had to teach them what they needed was when they were actually IN the work and I could guide them through that work. So as the kids went to their articles and began taking their notes, I used my time to confer with students and notice patterns and step in to guide and teach and instruct. And while all of this was going on, I was also able to gather evidence of what my students were able to do.

And then on the next day, I modeled again. And the kids kept working. And if they finished one article, I asked them to choose a second article to work on. They created a new, blank note taking document and continued to gather evidence of how they were meeting the learning targets we had been working on. And I continued to confer and pull together small groups and work to push their learning forward. I talked not about WHAT they were reading and thinking, but HOW they were reading and thinking. I did not push them to believe one thing over another, but I pushed them to notice what they were reading and how it affected what they were thinking and understanding.

And on the day after that, we looked at the next section of the note taking document which dealt with how we synthesize at the END of a text. And so I introduced the chart below and then modeled for my students how I could document my end of text synthesis in writing. And then after I modeled this, I told my students that when they reached the end of their first article, I now expected them to do this work. And if kids had already finished articles and moved on to a second article, I asked them to go back and try to complete that section. And again, I worked to confer and pull small groups and instruct while my students themselves were doing the work.


And then after that, we started to focus on some new learning targets.

I can use questions to seek out information to better understand a problem/issue instead of making assumptions.

I can recognize when voices are missing and seek out sources that amplify and highlight those voices.

For these learning targets, we looked at the final sections on the note taking document.  Again, I modeled how I kept track of whose voices where heard in the articles I read and also pushed myself to think out loud about who might be affected but was NOT having their voices heard in the articles and we began to talk about where we might seek out these voices.

At this stage of the research, I was still supplying all of the articles and I made sure to pull articles that contained a variety of perspectives and also a variety of directions that the students’ research could head. We talked about how the first days of research can feel directionless and scattered, but how those are the days that will help them to pick a direction and an angle and a lens through which they want to dive deeper into their topics.

And after about a week of focusing on synthesizing within just online articles, we started to look at how we could do this work with other types of media.  Here are the charts that I used for that work: IMG_5546IMG_5545IMG_5544

Each time I introduced a new chart, I also modeled using that specific type of media source. And then, I added options of that specific type of media source to their group Padlets to allow them to practice. They were asked to use the same note taking document as they practiced these skills across a variety of types of media. And I continued to confer and pull small groups to guide them through this work.

This work took us through several weeks of class time, probably three weeks in total. And during these stages, yes, the work of curating resources was intense. I spent many nights gathering resources that each group might be able to use, but it was important to me that they have quality, reliable resources at this stage of the work so that they could focus on learning the skills of how to research without having to worry yet about gathering resources themselves.

After several weeks, it was time to focus on a new learning target.

I can synthesis information from MULTIPLE sources to help me understand complex issues from multiple perspectives.

And so, I pulled my students together and modeled for them how I could take information from ALL of the sources I had looked at so far and begin to reflect on my overall understanding that I gained from each source AND the overall understanding that these sources led to about my topic in general.

And again, I needed to provide my students with the space to show me how they were abel to do this. And so, I asked them to use THIS DOCUMENT to synthesize ACROSS the multiple sources they had looked at. And after modeling how to use this document, I sent them off to fill out the document for themselves. They each received a copy through Google Classroom and as they worked, I continued to come around and confer.

The next day, they met with their groups and shared their current understandings and then went back to their documents to fill in the final section of this document which provided evidence on how they were able to synthesize the perspectives being shared by the other people in their group.

After all of this work, they were finally able to make a plan with their groups on how they wanted to move forward with their research. It was at this phase that I told them that I was going to hand off the gathering of sources to them.  At this point we entered what I liked to call, “Phase Two” of our research. Now that they knew a bit more about their topics, they were ready to select a direction that they wanted to head. As a group they might all head in the same direction or they might all veer in different directions. I was okay with whatever worked for them. To figure that out, they met with their groups and filled out a plan for their research. THIS IS THE PLAN THAT THEY FILLED OUT.

At this point, my incredible librarian, Monica, stepped in to guide my students in how to seek out the resources they would need. She covered how students needed to be aware of accuracy, bias, and currency when they were searching for sources. She covered bias in different types of media outlets. She taught them how to use our online databases. She taught them how to perform more efficient google searches. And she did this all AS my students were engaged in the work. These were not isolated lessons, these were lessons that my students needed in the moment to do the work that they were engaged in. I could not be more grateful to have her as a partner in this work and my students have benefitted so much from her expertise.

As they started to gather their own sources, I no longer needed them to use the extensive note taking document from our first phase. Those note-taking documents had served their purposes. I had more than enough evidence of the how they had met our learning targets. And so I provided them with a second NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that better reflected these phase of our research.  This was the one document my students would use for the rest of their work and the rest of their research.

After our lessons in the library on how to find reliable resources that represented a variety of perspectives, our final set of lessons focused on how my students would finally be ready to start to form their own belief, stance and claim about the topics they were studying. Here is the chart that I used to begin to introduce that idea: IMG_5542

In this final phase of our research, right before we are ready to think about how we will use what we have learned to take action through writing, we spend time learning about how we form beliefs. And, more importantly, how we tie those beliefs back to the research that we have done.

So at this point, I am indeed modeling how I form my own personal beliefs for my students and I recognize that will make some teacher uncomfortable. But here is the think, I am connecting all of this back to the research that I have done. I do a lot of modeling of how I notice patterns in what I researched, how I agreed with some opinions shared and disagreed with others, how I noticed the statistics that made me feel something, how I picked up on the research that angered me, and then I pulled all of those things together in order to form a belief based on fact and not simply on sensational headlines. And I will tell you that no one seemed to complain. Because I was tying it back to the research I had done in front of my students, because this was the work that I was asked my students to engage in, what they saw this was NOT as a way to preach my beliefs, but rather as a process through which I was teaching them to identify THEIR OWN beliefs.

And then, I asked them to go off and do this work for themselves or with members of their groups. And I asked them to document this work as it was taking place on their phase two note taking documents. And I think that is really important. As they watched me model this process, they saw how I was reaching my own beliefs, and then I asked them to do the work for themselves so that they could reach their own beliefs based on the research they had done.

And the process they were using, the process I was teaching them, was one they could use again and again in order to do this work without me. In order to read critically out in the world so that they could do better and be better than many of the models that they have in this world we are living in.

By the time all of this work was done, by the time they were ready for the action phase, I also had gathered an incredible amount of evidence of how they were doing in terms of learning targets. Maybe one day I will have a rubric to use in order to score their research notes, but maybe not (to be honest). Our district uses a 1,2,3,4 standards based-grading system. And what I tell my students is that if I see evidence on their note taking documents that they have done all that we have learned how to do, then that is a 3 for the learning targets we have covered. if I see evidence that they are able to do these things, then that is a 3. If they are going beyond what I have showed them how to do on these note taking documents, then that is a 4. If they are close to doing the things that we have learned to do, that is a 2 and if they are giving me almost no evidence that they are able to do the things we have learned to do that is a 1.

It is by no means a perfect system, but what it does allow me to do is to use the actual research as an assessment. I do not need to now create something separate, something detached from the meaningful work that we are doing, something that serves no purpose out in the world. I can simply gather evidence from the students’ own work. Work that matters to them because it matters in this world. That is the kind of assessment that I can live with.

If you have made it this far, let me tell you how incredibly impressed I am. I probably should have split this behemoth into multiple blog posts, but here we are (or at least here I am).  In my final blog post of this Rethinking Research series, I will go through the work that we actually did with all of this research in order to attempt to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom.


In Need of a Rest

Today is a quiet morning. My school year ended yesterday. This morning I walked my almost-kindergartner daughter to school. And now I am sitting here at home. Drinking coffee. Surrounded by pets. And there is quiet.

This summer, I am search of more quiet.

This year has exhausted me. It was such a good year. The kids I was lucky enough to learn alongside were such wonderful human beings. They were my constant rays of hope. But the world outside of my classroom. It has exhausted me this year. In many ways, this has been a year of fighting.

I have fought within my own school to create more inclusive spaces. I have fought against those who claimed I had an agenda that was overshadowing the needs of my students, I have fought against those who claimed there were no problems to solve.

I have fought with those beyond my own school. I have fought against those who claimed that I was causing trouble by pushing back against a world that alienates children and families who don’t fit into the stereotypical mold of a mother-father headed family.

And I have fought against the world in general. I have worked alongside my brilliant students to help arm them with tools to notice and fight against injustice they see in the world. We have fought against those who claim this work is not for fifth graders. We have fought against those who claim that we are not ready to do this work.

And through it all, I have fought for my own little family. For us to be able to hold on to the rights that we have gained. I have fought for us to be seen. To be allowed to just be. To be able to walk through this world without fear of being treated differently. I have fought for my five year old to be able to live in a world where she does not need to explain that her family and her two moms are a family just like everyone else.

And in many ways, I am grateful for the fight. Because I should be fighting. I think that if we are not angry, we are probably not really aware of what is happening around us. I think that if we are not fighting for something, we are probably not really paying attention. And, also, I am sitting in a place of incredible privilege and if I am not using that privilege to fight, then I am as much of a part of the problem as anyone else who remains silent. So I am glad that I am fighting.

And, also, I am tired. And looking forward to a break. I want to remember what it is I am fighting for. I want to find the joy in the quiet and simple moments. And so I look forward to this summer in order to do just that. Because we teachers should not be judged by what we do during our summers. Instead, we need to be judged by what we do with our students. By the work that we choose to engage in with our students. By the ways we run our classrooms. By the way we love our students. How we spend our summers should simply allow us to do all of that in a better way. And for different people, that means different things. And at different times, that means different things.

Some summers I have felt the need to get ready. To prepare. To arm myself with what I would need to enter into the next school year ready to do good work. But this summer. I instead feel the need to find the quiet. Find the peace. And that is what I hope to do.

So as I search for quiet this summer, I also hope to get caught up on this space here. On my tiny corner of the internet. Because there is work we have done this year, that I have simply not had the energy to write about and I want to share that work and I want to share the hope my students have brought me. So I will focus on that. On sharing what we have done. Because there has been so much good work this year. Amidst all the fighting, and all the sadness of this world, my students have been my hope. And I am eager to share all of that here.

Happy summer everyone.



I Do Not Fit Easily Into This World

I do not fit easily into this world. My family does not fit easily into this world.

I remember the first time I felt the sting of how uneasily my family would fit.

My wife and I had brought our daughter home from the adoption agency not three days earlier and we were scheduled for our first doctor’s appointment for her. My wife and I were both still off of work, so we went together, with our 1-month old daughter, to the appointment. After being called into the doctor’s office, we sat down and the nurse began filling out the computerized forms for our daughter. After asking for my name, she then asked for my wife’s name to add to the form. After a few seconds of typing, she looked at the screen, somewhat puzzled. “Hmmm,” she said. “The computer isn’t going to let me put more than one name in the box for mother. Well, one of you is going to have to be the father.”

This was the first moment that we felt the pain of not fitting easily into this world as a family. Though, some might argue that we actually felt it pretty strongly when we had to travel across the country in order to get married because we were not legally allowed to in our own home state at the time.

Then, a few weeks later, we were starting to look for a daycare facility for our daughter for when I went back to work. When we chose the place we loved the most, we were given a packet of forms to fill out. Page after page we had to cross out the word father and rewrite the word mother a second time.

Months later, we received our first, of many, gifts that was intended to be for Father’s Day. It had the word “father” crossed out and the word “mother” written in.

Months after that, we were sent our daughter’s reissued birth certificate (which is a practice I am greatly uncomfortable with in general) and not only had they erased the names of her birth parents, but there I was listed in the spot for “father.”

Years later, for the first time, of many, I heard my three year old daughter have to explain her family to a little boy on the playground before they ran off to play together because he had never heard of a family that didn’t have a dad before.

A year after that, we received our first flyer, of several, for a Daddy-Daughter dance and had to hide it quickly before our daughter saw the princesses splashed across the page and we had to tell her that we weren’t going to be going to this because it wasn’t made for families like ours.

This past year, for the first time, my daughter cried on Father’s Day as she realized that this entire holiday didn’t really fit with who we were. As we tried to celebrate her grandfather and the other men in her life, as we tried to convince her that we did really fit into this space in June, she remained unconvinced as she saw evidence just one more time of the ways we don’t fit easily into this world. And when I took to Facebook in order to simply say that I was thinking of all of those who did not fit comfortably into the Father’s Day holiday, I was told to stop making this day political and ruining a special day for all of those who do wish to simply celebrate fathers.

And over and over and over again, this world provides us with reminders that we are the “other,” that we are different, that we are not the target audience for so many of the events of this world.  And there is a particular sting, an extra hurt, when the moments that remind us that we are the other are created by the schools our children attend. Because then it is not just we, the adults, who do not feel as if these spaces are meant for us, but our children are made to feel as if the places where they spend the majority of their days are creating spaces and events that are not meant for them either. We do not have to seek these opportunities out in order to feel sadness about them, we are surrounded by them.

Our decision is not in whether we see them or not. Our decision lays only in whether or not we speak up about them. Every single time we are presented with another moment that reminds us of the heteronormative world that we live in, we have to decide if it is worth saying something. Because when we do, when we speak up, we know what we will face. We know that there will be those who hear our concerns and tell us that we are too emotional, that we are only thinking about ourselves, that this isn’t about us, that we should feel lucky with how much progress has been made, that this isn’t the right time, that acknowledging fathers does not mean that we are discounting mothers, that we shouldn’t hate men, that we ruining things for other people. We know there will be those who see us as angry lesbians, as men-haters, as those who want to lash out against traditional family structures and destroy any join that those traditional families have. We know that this is what we will face, because this is what we always have faced.

These are the things that run through our minds every time we decide to speak up. So it does not come easily. It is not a decision we make lightly. Because the truth is, we walk around every single day feeling as if the world does not fit us and we are desperate in our attempt to keep that feeling away from our children.

And let me be clear, I do not expect the world to conform to me and my family. Because that would mean it would be leaving out anyone who does not look like us. And that is the opposite of what I hope for this world. I would never ask that more people feel the alienation that families like mine so often feel.

So what do I expect? What is my hope when I do choose to push back and to speak up?

I want us to be more aware.

I want us to be more aware that the way we market things, the way we frame things, the language we use, the images we show, they all send a message about who has space here and who is welcome here. They also send a message about who does not have space here and who is not welcome here.  

I want us to be more aware that families do not look just one way. They never have. And that when we fall back on traditional assumptions that all families have a mom and a dad, then we are unintentionally leaving out anyone who does not fit that mold. And when the people feeling left out, are the same people who have already been made to feel left out of every other space they’ve encountered, then this can have harmful and dangerous effects.

I want us to be more aware that when we target activities to only one, narrowly-defined gender, making events just for moms or just for dads, especially when those events are made for parents and their children, then we are leaving children out who do not have that mom or dad or do not have that mom or dad available in that moment or who do not come from a family structure that matches the mom and dad mold in any way. It does not matter if we are doing this intentionally or not, the fact is that there is a child who is feeling as if this event is not meant for them.

And I am not asking that we never target events to certain groups of parents or certain groups of people. I am asking that we have a good reason for it when we do and that we make sure that we are being as inclusive as we can be.

If we are holding an event to help families who are recent immigrants go through forms that are not written in their native language, it certainly makes sense to target that event to those who might not have had time yet in this country to master the english language. That is a target group that makes sense because those who do not need the assistance would be taking away resources from those who do.

If we are running a support group for families who are experiencing a specific struggle, like sickness or death or the trauma of racism, then it makes sense to target the group to those families because they deserve a safe space to talk with others who understand what they are going through and having those present who do not understand the struggle might take away from the feeling of safety within the group.

But if we are having a dance. If we are having a dinner. If we are having an event where children are building things with adults. And if we are hoping to bring out family members to these various events, why do those family members have to be a certain gender? What does that distinction matter in this case? If we are trying to build strong adult support for children within a community, why would you ever want to limit that adult support by gender, especially when that understanding of gender is binary and limiting and leaves people feeling unseen? What benefit does that bring? If it doesn’t matter, if there is no reason to limit the focus, then why should? And if there is a reason, if it really does matter, then that is something to think about.

Because I know it is easy to read this and think, “Well, doesn’t that mean she thinks that we should not have programs that work to bring more girls, specifically, into STEM activities? Doesn’t that mean that she thinks that we should not have college scholarships specifically focused on black students?” And no. That is not what I am saying at all.

What I am saying is that we have to be thoughtful about these choices and look at those who have historically been KEPT OUT of opportunities because of systems and laws that were deliberately put into place in order to keep them out. When that is the case, then yes we have a responsibility to help groups of people who have traditionally been oppressed in order to overcome that oppression.  

But that is just not the case with a daddy-daughter dance. That is not the case with a BBQ targeted only to Dads. Those events are simply taking oppressive stereotypes and reinforcing them while also leaving out any family who does not have a dad as a part of it.

And I am also not suggesting, though some will think that I am, that we continue be okay with the fact that some dads feel as if they are not important in a school community. I would never ask that we ignore dads simply because not every family has them. What I am asking is that we stop and think more thoughtfully about why dads have traditionally not felt included in the school community.

There have been no laws stopping men from being a part of the school world. Instead, it is narrow thinking and dangerous stereotypes that have kept some men from being a part of the school community or feeling recognized by the school community. Thinking that causes us, as teachers, to immediately reach for mom’s phone number instead of dad’s. Thinking that causes us, as teachers, to email only mom, and not dad, when we have a question about home. And if this is the thinking that has made dads feel excluded (which, by the way, is only one narrow and privileged explanation for a lack of male adults who participate in school activities) then let’s change that thinking.

Let’s ask educators to engage in work that helps us to recognize and acknowledge our own biases and find ways to actively push ourselves beyond them.  Let’s ask educators to work to create truly inclusive school spaces and classrooms that do not reinforce narrow and harmful stereotypes about gender and families. Let’s work as educators to get to know our students and their families so that we can better reach out to all families and invite them into the work that we are doing, whether that invitation leads families further into our buildings or simply further into the lives of our students.

I believe that we can do all of this and that it can strengthen the communities we have in our building and the communities that our buildings are a part of. I believe we can do this by being more inclusive and not less inclusive. I believe we can do this by creating events and opportunities where all families and all family members feel welcome. And I believe that the only way to REALLY do that well, is to continue to listen when people share their own experiences and perspectives with us. This is how we build the empathy that is needed in order to build experiences that make everyone feel welcome, even when their experiences lay outside of our own.

So as for me, I will continue to share my experiences. I will continue to share what makes my family feel included and what makes us feel as if we don’t belong. And I will take whatever comes our way in the hopes that I can protect my own daughter, and other kids, from some of it. Because I believe that is how change happens and I have been lucky enough to see some tremendous changes that have happened simply because someone was brave enough to say, this isn’t working for me and others have been brave enough to listen and say, “I had no idea that this would make people feel included, let’s work together to think about how we can change it.” Because it is not that there are stories that are going untold, it is that they are being told and those in power are not stopping to hear them. And that is something that we all have the power to change.