Stories As Mirrors And Windows: Part 2 — Stories as Windows and Inquiry at the Start of the School Year

In my last blog post, I wrote about the work my students and I started as readers this year. Our first reading unit was a part of a larger Inquiry into Story that combined our first reading and writing learning targets.  As readers, we began our year by looking at stories as mirrors and windows, based off of the brilliant work by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.  The first part of our work is described HERE.

After we spent time building our reading community, building trust and looking at how we can see ourselves reflected in the texts we read by studying the stories that other people tell as mirrors, we switched our focus to look at the stories that other people tell as windows that give us glimpses into the lives of others and that allow us to grow our empathy and understanding for the people we share this world with.

We began by first building on the ideas that we ended with when we shared the books where we saw ourselves reflected. As I described at the end of my last blog post, my students and I began a conversation around the idea that some kids have an easier time than others seeing themselves reflected in the books that they read.  We talked about how groups of people have traditionally been left out of children’s literature and have had to fight for a long time, and continue to fight daily, to find themselves represented and represented accurately in books.

We began our study of stories as windows with a similar idea.  We talked about how having your own stories heard is a form of power. We discussed the groups of people who have had to fight to have their stories heard and believed and we talked about how this can lead to an unequal balance of power.  We also talked about one of the ways that we can work to correct that imbalance is to actively seek out the stories of those who have not been heard in the past and listen to those stories in a respectful way.

It was at this point that I knew we would heading in the right direction. One of my students raised his hand and said, “So, are you saying that by listening to the stories of other people, we are really helping to give people more power who haven’t had it before?” Yes.  As always, I was amazed at how quickly ten and eleven year olds are able to grasp these concepts and how eager they are to grapple with them.

The chart below anchored our discussion and tracked our thinking so we could refer back to it the next day.


The next we started to talk about how we could listen to the stories that other people tell in a way that would really allow us to learn from those stories.  Here is the chart I made after our discussion that would remind us of the brilliant ideas that my students had.  IMG_2584

With these ideas solidified, we were ready to begin practicing. I wanted to make sure that the first story that I chose to share with my students would be one that could easy us into some of these ideas and give us a chance to practice building empathy and understanding by listening to the words that a story was telling us.

So I decided to begin with the beautiful picture book, Stepping Stones, written by Margriet Ruurs. The book tells the story of a Syrian family who escapes Syria in search of a safe place to live. The first day, I simply read the picture book and asked the students to think about what this story can help us to better understand about the lives of other people. As usual, the kids’ comments were filled with brilliance and empathy and also many unanswered questions.

Their comments were also filled with evidence of misunderstandings and misconceptions. As always, when we begin these conversations, there are comments made that might make us, as educators, want to cringe. However, it is precisely these moments when I feel luckiest to get to do this work. Because over the next few weeks, I knew these cringe-worthy comments would lessen. I knew that we would learn to push our misunderstandings and misconceptions into questions and I knew that we would end up at a place that was so much better when we simply walked through this uncertainty together.

On the second day, I handed out a typed up copy of the text of Stepping Stones so that we could do a closer read of the text in order to start to document what we were able to understand and also the questions that we were left with.  One of my district reading units is on questioning. So I was able to wrap those learning targets into this work as we learned ways to ask questions that would better help us to understand complex social issues. Most of this teaching was done through my own modeling and by helping students craft questions from the things that they did not understand.

Once each student had a copy of the text, I began to go through the text on the document camera and think out loud about the parts of the text that helped me to understand something new about the lives of Syrian refugees, I marked these places in the text by underlining them. I also thought out loud about the places in the text that left me with questions or left me with something I thought might be true but didn’t really know for sure. Here, I simply placed a question mark.

After reading through a few paragraphs out loud to my students and modeling my own thinking, I then asked them to work with someone near them and to continue working through the rest of the text, marking it up in the same way.  As I walked around, I could tell that already my students were relying less on what they thought they knew and more on what the text said and the questions that it left them with.  This was already evidence of growth.

The next step was to take some of the pieces of text that we marked and write them down on a note taking sheet that would allow us to push our thinking further through writing. THIS IS THE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT THAT WE USED.  Again, I modeled for the students, taking the actual words that were in the text and using writing to push my thinking about what this helped me to understand about this person’s life, what this helped me to understand about the world and the questions that this left me with.

Again, after going through a few paragraphs of the text, I asked the students to continue the work on their own.

The next day, I asked students to get into groups and share the thinking that they wrote down. I asked them to first focus on sharing the understandings that this story gave them about this one person’s life and about the world. After spending time talking about their understandings, I asked them to now begin to collect the questions that they were left with. I asked them to write down the questions they had on post-it notes and I collected those post-it notes on two charts:

That night, I took the post-it notes and typed up a giant list of questions.  The next day, I handed each student THIS DOCUMENT to help us sort through all of these questions and combine them into some BIG questions that could lead us into a guided inquiry.

I took a few of the first questions and thought out-loud about whether each one was an important question in helping us to better understand the lives of Syrian refugees or if it was a question that could be saved until later. After modeling a few questions for the kids, I then put them into groups and asked them to continue sorting those questions.

Then, we came back together and started looking through our lists to look for questions that were asking similar things. In this way, we began to combine our questions to give us fewer questions that might lead us to deeper places. Again, I asked the kids to finish this work in small groups.

I then collected the students’ documents and further combined the questions until we were left with six big questions. THESE WERE OUR BIG QUESTIONS.

Once I shared these with the kids, we talked about how we might go about answering these questions. We talked about the different types of sources that might help us to answer these questions and I also introduced the idea that the first story we read was one that was written ABOUT Syrian refugees and not one that was told BY a Syrian refugee. This led us to the idea that when we were working to really understand the lives of other people, we had a responsibility to seek out stories that were told BY those people themselves and not just about a group of people by an outsider.  This was a concept we would build even further on later.

So the next day, I introduced a list of resources to the students. All of our resources were listed ON THIS RESOURCE DOCUMENT. We talked through the different types of resources, noticed the mix of print resources and digital resources and also the mix of resources that had Syrian refugees telling their own stories and resources that were written about Syrian refugees.

I then handed out THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that the students would be asked to use as they walked through this guided inquiry and tried to select resources that would help them to answer our big questions.

A quick note on inquiry at the start of the year. In the past few years, I have found out just how powerful inquiry can be and just how much of our reading curriculum can be covered through inquiry. However, I also have learned how difficult inquiry can be to do and to do well.  So at the start of the school year, our inquiry process is a very guided one. While all of these questions came from the students, they had a lot of help in crafting them and narrowing them down. And before I am ready to send my students off to collect their own resources, I want them to first practice selecting and using resources from a collection that I have curated.

As the year goes on, we will do more work in evaluating sources and becoming efficient at locating sources. We are not there yet. However, I also do not want to wait to release my students into inquiry until they have all of those skills in place. That is why, at the start of the year, I spend a lot of time gathering resources and giving them to my students to use. The idea is that no one student will use ALL of these resources, but they will start to develop the skills that they will need to select the best resources for them and for the questions they are trying to answer.

So on the first day with these resources, I selected a resource for us to look at together. We began with one of the Newsela articles. I read the article out loud and started to underline any information that I thought would help me answer one of our big questions.  I then placed the number of the question that the information helped me to answer next to the part of the text that I underlined. As I read, I also modeled how I was still noticing the questions that I was left with because the inquiry process is an ongoing one and I wanted my students to see the power of noticing and holding onto the questions that popped up.

When we finished the article, I transferred my thinking to my note taking document so that I could begin to collect information from multiple sources that helped me to answer these questions.

And then. I set my students off. They had the questions, they had the note taking document, and they a list of resources to use. And they had some beginnings of understanding of how they were supposed to tackle all of this. Over the next few days, as my students worked, I conferred. I met with students we talked about how to use video clips effectively, we talked about how we could notice when a source helped us to answer multiple questions and we talked about what kinds of sources would best help us answer what types of questions.

After a few days, I asked the kids to look at their notes and think about the ONE question that they cared the most about and felt like they were best able to answer at this point. I then put the kids into groups based on what question they selected. In these groups they shared understandings and they shared the resources that they used. After talking with their groups they had more time to simply focus on the one question that they wanted to answer. I shared with them that they needed to make sure that they had MORE THAN ONE source that helped them to answer the question they selected. This led us into a discussion of the importance of using multiple sources when trying to answer big questions.

At this point, it was clear that my students understanding was growing. It was clear that they were learning how to learn from the stories that other people told. And it was also clear that every one of my students was deepening their empathy and understanding towards Syrian refugees.

And now I needed a way to capture that and also to capture some evidence of how my students were doing in terms of our learning targets. So as a final bit of assessment, I asked my students to write out one full answer to the question that they had selected. When I do this work with my students, the kind of work that makes them better readers and also better human beings, I work hard to also wrap this work around the Common Core standards and my own district’s curriculum standards so that this work does not become separate, but rather a part of what we do every day.

So I knew that one of the things I could do was use this work to give my students an opportunity to show evidence that they were able to ask deep questions and use multiple sources to answer those questions.

To help them to do that, I took the one question that no one in either of my classes chose to answer and I used the resources I provided in order to take my own notes to answer that one question. I focused on question number 5. HERE ARE THE NOTES THAT I TOOK.

I shared these notes with my students and then I modeled for them how I was able to look back on these notes and pull out some big ideas. I modeled this for my students by color coding all of my notes to correspond to the big ideas that they discussed.

The question that I was answering was, “What is the journey like for refugees after they leave their homes?” The first big idea that I noticed was that several of the sources I looked at discussed how people leaving Syria had to leave most of their possessions behind and traveled with almost nothing. So I looked through, with the kids, all of the notes I took and highlighted in red all of the notes that talked about how refugees had to leave things behind.  I then noticed how many of the sources I looked at talked about how refugees had to move from place to place within Syria and many ended up staying in refugee camps. So I highlighted in yellow all the notes, from all of the sources that I looked at, that talked about moving from place to place and staying at refugee camps.  

I continued with this process until almost all of my notes were highlighted.  I then asked my students to go into their own notes and organize them in some way. Many of them chose to color code their notes as well. Here were what my notes looked like in the end:

Finally, on the next day, I modeled for my students how I looked at my notes and used them to begin writing an answer to my big question. I typed the start of the answer in front of them and modeled the way I shared my big understanding first and then supported that with multiple pieces of evidence from the text. Here is what that modeling looked like: IMG_3018

And then I sent the students to work.

And they worked hard.

This work really mattered to them.  Yes, I was teaching them the fairly boring skills of writing a constructed response to a question and using text evidence to support their answers. But they were doing that work in response to question that they crafted and about something that they cared about. They were working to better understand the life of another human being and the then wanted to share that understanding with others. We talked about how their understandings alone were not enough to convince someone else that they understood someone else’s life. In order to do that, they would have to be able to support what they were saying with evidence from the sources that they read.

And because that all made sense to them, my students were able to craft beautiful responses.  Our final step was to share our answers with other people in class who did not answer our same question. So our evidence of learning became tools for teaching someone else.

And on the last day of our work, we went back to the story that started it all. I reread the book Stepping Stones to my kids and we all sat in awe at how much more we were able to understand. As I said to my students after our second reading of this book, they now know a process through which they can come to better understand any person’s life. I told them that I was not suggesting that every time they read a picture book about someone else’s life that they then follow that up with three weeks of questioning and research and writing. However, I do ask them to now take the knowledge that they have and use it to better both in and out of school when they read a story from someone’s life that they do not fully understand.

Because I truly do believe that this is how we start to do better. We listen to each other’s stories and work to understand that which we cannot understand right away. This is how we start to heal this broken world and if we don’t teach our students a process through which to do that, then there isn’t much hope that they are going to figure it out on their own. But when we show them the power of asking questions and guide them through the process that they can use to answer those questions responsibly, then we are creating the kinds of humans who can go out into this world and make it a better place.

In my next blog post, I will write about how this work then led us to investigate the idea of the “danger of a single story” which, of course, originated with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant TED talk by that same name.



Stories as Mirrors and Windows: Part 1 — Stories as Mirrors

It is hard to imagine the start of our reading year without the brilliant work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and her explanation of books as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. If you aren’t familiar with her work, here is a quick clip of her explaining the concept which she first coined back in 1990. None of what follows would be happening, if I had not been exposed to her work and thinking.

At the start of the school year, I used to focus on helping the students make meaningful connections to the texts that they read. We focused not only on making connections, but also on articulating how these connections helped us as readers.  And then, as a teacher, I began to try to shift the work that I do in my classroom to be more authentic and to better match the work that humans do in the world outside of my classroom. I wanted the teaching of reading to be less about covering a checklist of skills and more about teaching them how to use reading and writing in order to make the world a better place.

And so I began to shift our focus on connecting as readers to, instead, thinking about how readers can use books as both mirrors and windows. In this way, we could focus not only on how making these connections helps us as readers, but also how it helps us as human beings.

After that first shift, I then made another shift as I wanted to combine our first reading and writing units into an Inquiry into Story. The thinking behind this can be found in THIS POST and THIS POST. So now, as we begin our school year together as readers, much of our work focuses on learning to better read the stories that other people tell from their own lives. We begin this work by thinking about how we can use true stories from people’s lives as both mirrors and windows.

***AS A SIDE NOTE: Last year, I created a new structure for our literacy work. As a district, we have been moving towards Ellin Keene’s brilliant idea of a Literacy Studio model. I described some of my thinking behind this in THIS POST from last year. This allows me to set aside a portion of our literacy time as independent work time. This is when students are choosing to either work on reading or writing. During this time, I am conferring and helping students set student-written reading goals and writing goals which they keep track of in their reading journals or in the writing they are doing.

At the start of the school year, all of my lessons on what we do as readers and the lessons that establish our routines of independent work, take place during this independent work time.  This time is dedicated to individual goals that students set for themselves. Then, the rest of our Literacy Studio time is set aside for us to work on class reading and writing goals. This is when we “cover” our curriculum. So the work that I am doing with kids on stories as mirrors and windows takes place during this time because I have been able to wrap our reading and writing learning targets into this work.  I thought this was important to explain so that people did not wonder how I had time to do all of this work! I am also lucky enough to work in a district that ensures two hours of literacy instruction each day. ***

So during the first weeks of school, during our literacy studio reading focus time, I introduced to my students our first reading and writing units by explaining how we would work on our Inquiry into Story. Here are the charts that I created to help them understand the work we would be doing. The learning targets are a combination of our district learning targets for our first reading and writing units, the common core standards and Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards.


Creating these charts was probably more for myself than for my students. When I do this work, it is important for me to make sure that I am balancing the things that I have to teach to cover curriculum with the things that I want to teach in order to remain hopeful that my students are going out into the world and using reading and writing to make this world a better place. Crafting these learning targets helps me to do that. It also helps me to know if I am being successful in teaching these skills because I have learning targets to guide me as I look for evidence in the students’ work that shows me they are meeting these targets.

So once I have introduced the BIG ideas to the kids, then we are able to get to work on some specifics. As writers, this takes us into a study of memoir writing. That is for a different post on a different day. But as readers, this work takes us into a study of how we can use the stories that other people tell from their own lives as both mirrors and windows.

We begin by thinking about what this concept means: IMG_2377

After spending some time talking about this concept and explaining that we would work as readers in order to think more deeply about how we saw ourselves reflected in the stories of others and then also how we could see into the lives of others through the stories that they tell, then we started to think about some books that we have read that allowed us to do both of these things. Here are some of the titles they discussed:


It was so powerful to hear them think back on the books that they had read and talk about how they have been both mirrors and windows for them.  I realized that this was the first conversation where I was really able to see my students pushing their own thinking. They were willing to think about texts in new ways and reflect back on their reading in a way that allowed them to see more than just the plot of the book. This was a first for us this year.

After our initial discussion, we started to look more closely at how we might use the stories of others as mirrors.  I asked the kids to think about a book that made them feel less alone in the world. I told them that these were often mirror books. I shared with them that I do not often see my own family reflected in books because more families in children’s books have a mom and a dad, but my own family was my daughter and her two moms. I told them that when I found a book that had a two-mom family, it made me feel less alone in the world.

I then began by modeling the thinking that might occur as we read through a book that is a mirror for us. This part of the work is always a little bit scary for me, but I figure that if I am going to ask my students to make themselves vulnerable and share how they see themselves in the texts that they read, then I had better be willing to do that myself. So the first book that I read to them is Patricia Polacco’s, In Our Mothers’ House. For those of you who have not read this book, it tells the story of a family with two moms and three adopted children. (An important note: The brilliant Dana Stachowiak speaks about the problematic and stereotyped representation of the lesbian moms in this book. This is something I continue to wrestle with. I agree with her one-hundred precent AND I still continue to use this book because it truly is one of the ONLY books in which I see my own family reflected in a way that feels genuine and authentic. And still, I believe it is incredibly important to make this note.)

As I read through In Our Mothers’ House, I stop and share with my students the many ways that I am able to see myself and my own life reflected in this book. And, more importantly, I stop to share with them how seeing myself reflected helps me as both a reader and as a human being. As I read and share, I ask my students to notice the ways that I am able to see myself AND the ways that this helps me as both a reader and as a human. After I finish reading and modeling my thinking, we come together to chart the ways that they noticed this helping me as both a reader and as a human being. Here are some of the ideas we came up with: IMG_2462

After making this chart together, we went back to a short story that we had used as a mentor text as we were learning how to write stories from our own lives. We used the story “Principals and Principles,” from the short story anthology Guys Write, Guys Read. We had first read this story in order to look at how writers can weave reflection into their writing in order to show readers what the writer learned or realized from a moment in their life. As readers, we were now going back into this text to look for ways that we could see ourselves reflected in the story.

I asked the kids to think about all of the ways that I saw myself in the story I read and then work to write down the ways they saw themselves in this new text.  The students wrote their ideas down on the margins of the story and then used this as the basis of some small group discussions. When they got into groups, I asked the students to share how they saw themselves and then also talk about how this helped them as a reader or as a human being.  I asked them to push each other by asking the question, “How did this help you as a reader or as a human being?”

As the students talked, I worked my way around the small groups in order to prompt deeper thinking and also to name the many different ways that I noticed them seeing themselves reflected in this story. After the small groups had finished, we came back together and created a large chart (one for each of my two classes) to capture ALL of the different ways we might see ourselves in the stories that we read. Here are the things my students came up with:


After brainstorming this list, it was time to send my students out into our classroom library in order to apply this new way of thinking. So the next day, I began our work by reading the kids the book Scaredy Squirrel. I told my students that I saw myself reflected in the book In Our Mothers’ House because the family in that book looked just like my own. But, I also saw myself in the book Scaredy Squirrel because I understand the squirrel’s love of routine and his fear of the unknown. This is something I recognize in myself and see reflected in this book.

After sharing these two very different ways of seeing myself reflected in two very different books, I explained to my students that today they would be heading into our bins of picture books in order to look for books where they saw themselves reflected in some way.  I asked them to think about the many different ways they could see themselves and look for books that might show themselves reflected in different ways. I then handed out THIS PACKET for them to keep track of what they found.

As students spread out with stacks of picture books, I made my way around the room to stop and chat with my readers. I asked them questions to help push their thinking. I asked them, “How do you see yourself in this book?” and then, “How does this help you better understand this book or how might it help you simply as a human being?”

It was so powerful to hear the students’ responses to these questions. I was so impressed with their willingness to be vulnerable and could hear the ways that many of their thinking was beginning to deepen. I also realized at this point how important it was for me to make sure that before I sent my students off into my classroom library, that I had worked to bring a wide variety of stories and lives into that library. For the past few years I have worked to gather stories that represent the wide variety of humans who we share this world with. During this activity, I was so grateful that these books were there because they allowed each of my students to find themselves in some way.

We then came back together the next day and I asked for people to share the things that they found, if they felt comfortable. What a powerful moment this was for each of my classes. More than any ice breaker could ever have done, this form of sharing began to solidify the community of readers and humans that we were just beginning to form. At this point, we had been together for several weeks of school and I was, again, in awe of how the students had started to trust each other and how willing they were to share with each other.

After I thanked them for being so brave and for sharing what they found, I introduced the idea that some people might have an easier time seeing their lives reflected in books made for children. I talked again about how hard it was for me to find books where my own family was reflected. We began to talk about why this might be and the problems that this showed us about the world of children’s literature and the world outside of children’s literature as well. These were just the very beginnings of a much larger and an extremely important conversations. But this work and these thoughts have started a conversation that we will continue to build on as we work our way through this school year. We will pick back up on this idea when we switch to focusing on stories as windows and how we have a responsibility to seek out the stories that are not always heard.

As this first part of our work together came to an end, I realized that important changes were starting to happen in our classroom. Changes that gave glimmers of goodness that I know will continue to grow throughout the year. It’s hard to see those glimmers of goodness sometimes in the first weeks of the school year because there are still so many things that the students do not yet know. However, when I step back and reflect on it, I realize that we are laying important groundwork for what is still to come. We are learning to think about reading as more than just a checklist of skills to be applied. We are starting to think about power and who has been given more of it and who has to fight to get it. We are starting to talk to each other and listen to each other. And most importantly, we are starting to build the community that we will need as we move forward together into the kind of work that will require trust, vulnerability and communication in the future.

In my next blog post, I will write about the work that we are now doing to learn how to use the stories that other people tell in order to learn about those whose lives might be vastly differently than our own.  This will be the work that we do in order to learn how to use stories as windows.



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

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

It is one of my favorite times of year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I Hope We Will Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

Dearest Students and Families,

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

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

This year, you have been my light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With all my love,

Mrs. Lifshitz

On Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

I worry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do?

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

So that is what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

I then handed out two additional texts to my students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we started to read.

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

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

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


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

Today I Heard A Hero Speak

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

This man. He. Is. Inspiration. Embodied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then keep going.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We began this chart: IMG_8505

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

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


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

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

The Not Thinking About It. That Is The Problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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