Confronting Bias with Fifth Graders: Using the Draw-A-Scientist Experiment and the Covers of Picture Books To Help Students Recognize the Biases They Hold

Every year, after Spring break, I begin our final literacy unit of the year. The unit is titled, “Uncovering Hidden Information, Sharing it With Others.” The focus of this unit is to look at how our understanding of the world is shaped by the information that we are presented with in the world around us and then to think about how the information that we choose to share with others has an affect on how they see and understand the world.  As readers, we look at how the information that we take in affects our understanding of the world and how we can choose to take in information in a different way in order to gain a more accurate and complete understanding. As writers, we then think about how we can choose to privilege the kinds of information that have historically been left out, or ignored, or silenced by other writers. By doing this, we can actually use writing in order to help others to gain a more accurate understanding of the world.

I love this unit because it gives us one final opportunity to widen our definition of what it means to read and what it means to write and also look at the incredible power that these processes hold. During the last weeks of the school year, this unit gives us one more chance to really dig into the ways that my students can go out into the world beyond our classroom and continue the work that we started together in order to work towards a better and more just world.

Much of this work depends on my students understanding that what they have been told in the past and the messages that they have been subjected to since they were first born, have had an impact on the way they understand, or more accurately, MISunderstand the world around them. In order for this unit to work, I have to first help my students to recognize that they DO misunderstand the world around them. I need them to see that they carry inaccurate messages about the world and the people living within it, even if they believe that they don’t. In other words, I need my fifth grade students to recognize their own biases so that they can work to confront and dismantle them.  This is a task that is difficult for most adults to do and I need my fifth graders to do it.

I have written several posts in the past about the way that we do this work, but I wanted to take some time now to write about how we did this work this year.  Much of what we did this year was similar to work I’ve done in the past but I like to take time each year to write about this work anyway because it allows me to look back and reflect and do better for the next year.

One of the things that I know to be true with kids (and with grown-up, too) is that I can tell them all sorts of things, but if I am not able to find a way to have them really see those things for themselves, then they are not meaningful and they will not truly impact the way they think and act in the future. Any time that I can help kids to discover a truth instead of telling them that truth myself, the learning that takes place is much more powerful. For that reason, I often look for ways to make abstract concepts more concrete and visible for my students. There is all sorts of research that supports this concept, but what matters most to me is that I can see the difference in the ways my own students respond to the learning.

So, in order to help kids to “see” their own biases, to see their own misconceptions about entire groups of people, I lead them through two different exercises before ever revealing to them that we are doing work with bias at all. I begin by telling my students that we are starting our final unit of the year which will focus on using clues in the world around us to make inferences and then also provided clues to others in order to help them to infer truths about the world. This is true. But not the whole truth. I do not yet tell them that the clues we are surrounded by in our current world often lead us to inaccurate inferences that are weighed down by bias, racism, sexism, etc. That will all come later.

Draw-A-Scientist (Plus More)

The first thing that I hand out is based on a well-known experiment often referred to as, “Draw A Scientist.” I first read about this experiment and the results over time in THIS ARTICLE from The Atlantic. It provides a nice description of the experiment and what the results often reveal about gender stereotypes in children. The idea behind this experiment is that children’s drawings can reveal truths about the images that they hold and the way that they see the world. So when kids are asked to draw a scientist, and the majority of children draw a man, we can start to understand the way children view a scientist and who is most likely to be a scientist.  When I first read this article, I was fascinated and could not wait to try this with my own students. Since then, I have added to this idea in order to give us more data to look at together.

So on day one of our unit, I hand out THIS FORM to my students.

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I tell them to draw these four images in whatever order they want and to make sure that they include detailed enough drawings in order for other people to guess which picture is showing which person or group of people. I tell them that we will be looking at these images later in order to guess which box contained which person or group of people. And then I don’t allow questions, I don’t provide any further explanation or direction, I just let them draw.  When the drawings are complete, I then collect them and hold on to them until we are done with the next part of our work.

Here are a few samples from my students:

In my classroom, once I have collected these drawings, we move on to looking at picture book covers and matching them to summaries in order to reveal biases in a different way.  I will explain that work later in this post, but I want to share the rest of this activity first. The reason that I stop after collecting the drawings is because at this point, most of my students still do not realize that we are doing work with bias. I find that as soon as they figure out what we are doing, they change the answers that they might give to the work with matching book covers with summaries and the activity is not as powerful. So, if you are planning to do both activities, I recommend stopping here, doing the picture book activity and then coming back to analyze the drawings. But, once you are ready to move on, here is the work that we did.

The next day, I handed my students drawings back to them. I asked them to use their drawings in order to respond to the questions on THIS GOOGLE FORM. The google form asks the kids to look at their drawings and record the genders that they used and the people that were included in their drawings. Once they have answered these questions, I have them close their computers and we look at the responses all together. What is great about collecting the data this way is that we end up talking about CLASS TRENDS and not the answers of individual students. What this allows us to do is to think about the messages that we collectively hold about groups of people in a way that does not single out any one student. I have found that this creates a safe space for students to be willing to wrestle with the ideas of bias in a much more honest way. The truth is that kids ALWAYS end up sharing brave truths that make them extremely vulnerable, but I know that those truths are difficult and cannot be forced out into the open.

So, I project the responses in graph form onto the whiteboard and I simply ask the kids to start to share what they notice. Here is a collection of what those results looked like this year in one of my classes.  This year, I had a totally even split between male and female drawings for the scientist picture. So the kids were more interested in talking about the nurse drawings, which showed a majority of female drawings.  I asked the kids to talk about why they think this might be. We started with comments about how there are simply more female nurses in the world. Kids shared that most often when they have nurses, they are female. And then, as always happens, there is one comment that pivots the whole conversation. This year, one student shared that she actually always has a male nurse when she goes to her regular doctor, but when she went to draw her picture, she actually drew a female. She said that she thinks that this is because on tv and in movies, nurses are always female. And this is all it took.  Before I knew it, the comments kids were making started to dig a lot deeper into the idea of biases and stereotypes. That led some kids to start to focus on the data of the family drawings.  Again, the kids talked about how they noticed that almost every picture drawn included one mom and one dad. Then, they began to talk about how even though they KNOW that not all families look the same and they would be able to tell you that, when they were asked to draw a family, they still all drew very similar looking families.  At this point, the kids were really off on their conversations. They had so much thinking that I was worried we were going to lose some of it. So I stopped our whole class discussion for the day.

Matching Picture Book Covers to Summaries

The work that we did this year with matching picture books to summaries is similar to work that we have done and I have written about often in the past. So, feel free to look back at THIS BLOG POST or THIS BLOG POST to find out more about what we did.  Here is a quick over view of how the work went this year.

After I collect the students’ drawings for the Draw A Scientist experiment, I have them grab their computers and meet me over in front of the whiteboard. I tell them that while in our first bit of work, they were creating the images that would help us to think about how we use clues to infer, in this activity, they would be using the clues in the images provided on the covers of picture books in order to help them think about how we infer what a book might be about.

I tell them that I am going to hold up two picture books. I have covered up everything but the images of the people on the front of the books. Then, I will provide them with two summaries and they will be asked to guess which summary goes with which picture book. I tell them that when we are done, we will look at how we guessed AS A CLASS and then talk about what clues helped us to make our guesses before I tell them which book goes with which summary. And with that we begin.

From there, the kids go to THIS GOOGLE FORM. I then proceed to hold us two books at a time. This is what the sets of books look like:


As I hold us the two books, the kids make their guesses on the Google Form and then I move on to the next set. At this point, there is no discussion and the students answer on their own. When we get through all five sets of books, I ask the kids to close their computers.

And then, I project our results on the white board. HERE IS WHAT THE RESULTS LOOKED LIKE IN ONE OF MY CLASSES THIS YEAR. 

We look at one set of books at a time and before I tell the kids which book matches which summary I ask them the following question, “Who would be willing to tell me what clues you used on the cover of these books in order to help you make your guess?” And the students begin to talk about how they made their guesses.

This year, the first two sets were guessed fairly accurately and so the discussion did not lead to any powerful insights. However, then we got to the third set of books. As a reminder, these were the books and these were the results:

So again, I asked my students who would be willing to share what clues they used to help them make their guesses. And here are some of the things that my mostly-white students shared: Students shared the girl on the book 6 cover looked lonely and seemed “different” and might have been made fun of like in “other books they’ve read.” They mentioned skin color and how they have often read books that show black children being treated unfairly because of skin color.

And then I told them that most of them had guessed incorrectly. When I told them that book 5 was actually about a girl who moves from Italy and speaks no English and is made fun of, they were really shocked. It led us to a conversation on why we might assume that a child with black skin was more likely to be considered, “different” and why we would assume the book would deal with the child being made fun of. We talked about books they’ve read in the past and how limited they are. 

At this point, several students started to see what this work was really all about. So then we moved on to looking at our next set of books and our next set of data on the results:

With this set, kids spoke about how they immediately assumed book 7 took place in a country in Africa, that the people on the cover were poor and that it therefore dealt with sadness and struggle. Some students started to willingly admit they knew they were wrong. One student brought up our work earlier in the year with the idea of a “single story” and how many of us were probably making our guesses based on the single stories we carried. 

Then, finally we look at our final set of books and data:

At this point, most kids realized that every single one of them answered this set incorrectly.  Before I told them they were all wrong, they shared that they guessed book 10 was about a struggle for equal rights because the people on the cover were black. One child shared that he didn’t even see how happy they all looked when he first saw the cover. When I told them they were all wrong, we talked about how while, yes, the struggle for civil rights for Black Americans is a huge and important moment in history, not every book with black characters is about that struggle. And while Black people were engaged in that fight for civil rights, there were white people who were the ones benefitting from that unfair system and we do not often think about their role.

This is where we ended our conversation. The next day, we returned to the drawings that we had made in our Draw-A-Scientist (Plus More) experiment. As described above, I handed back at their drawings, I had them use the google form explained above to gather data on who they draw in each picture and then we looked at the results together and began our whole group discussion.

On day three, I knew that my kids had SO MUCH to say about our work so far and this year, I wanted to make sure to provide them time to really look at the data in small groups. One of the things that I have noticed in our whole class discussion is how much time is taken up by the same voices. To try to work on fixing this, I was much more deliberate about allowing time for individual reflection and small group thinking to help more voices to be heard.

So, on day three, I printed out ALL of the data from this experiment PLUS the results from the picture book cover experiment (which I will describe in a moment) and I asked the kids to first work on their own to look at the data that they found more interesting and then work in small groups in order to do some NOTICE/THINK/WONDER work. I asked them to USE THIS FORM in order to record some of the observations they noticed about the data, what those observations made them think and what those observations made them wonder. I modeled this for them and then sent them off to work.  Here is what the modeling looked like:

Once they had a few minutes to work on their own, I had them gather in small groups and share what they had recorded and add to their thinking. Finally, I brought them all together to share what they had written down and to continue growing their thinking. As they spoke, I tried to gather some of the things they were wondering about on chart paper. They had amazing thinking to share, but I knew that the questions they were left with would be what guided the next step of our work, so that is what I tried to capture. Here are some of the things that they shared:


As always, I was amazed by the level of discussion that my students were willing to engage in. Unlike adults, my fifth grade students are willing to accept that they carry biases and that those biases lead them to inaccurate thinking and understandings about the world. When we frame these conversations around the idea that the world they are living in is sending them biased messages and racist messages and sexist messages, they are willing to look more closely at that world in order to understand where these ideas of coming from. They are eager to understand how this happens, so that they can stop it from happening. They want more control over their own thinking and so they are willing to engage in the necessary work even when that means they must confront their own thinking in a way that can be painful and difficult.

Doing this work with kids is so powerful because it gives me hope that we can help them to do better than we have done. Once they come to believe that they are carrying biases and stereotypes, they are so eager to learn how to fight against them. And that is the work that this world so desperately needs.

Teaching Kids To See What Isn’t There: Learning to Read Critically About History

One of the phrases that people most like to share with me is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And yes, I suppose that is true. But I also think that it can become a convenient excuse for our own ignorance. If the, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” becomes an endpoint, then it allows us to continue to live our lives in willful ignorance, with a warped perception of our world based solely on our own limited experiences and knowledge. I wish instead that we would shift our focus and instead be as willing to say, “There is so much that I do not know and it is my responsibility to go and seek that information out.” I know that it is not quite as catchy, it’s a bit more of a mouthful, and it certainly requires much more work on our part, but I believe it is a shift that can start to repair some real damage in this world.

It is with this shift in mind, that I entered into our final literacy unit of the school year this past May with my fifth graders. The first part of our unit focused on helping students to confront their own biases. That work can be read about in THIS POST from two years ago. One of the most important parts of this first work is helping students to see that when we are subjected to narrow sets of information about entire groups of people that are repeated to us over and over again, they can form stereotyped ideas that we carry around with us about those groups of people. These are what start to form our biases and these biases lead us to inaccurate and harmful beliefs. Once students saw how limited information can lead to misunderstandings about people, we then shifted our focus to look at how our biases can lead us to misunderstandings about texts as well, specifically when we are looking at texts about history.

There are several reasons that we focus specifically on history. One is a matter of covering curriculum (never a great reason to do things, but a necessary one). For fifth grade, the Civil Rights Movement is a part of our social studies curriculum. Because of time and the never-ending and often-lost battle of attempting to get it all in, we have always covered the Civil Rights Movement through our literacy curriculum. And beyond that, I think that when we read about history, we need a specific set of skills as readers. Too often, our students read about history only to absorb the specific content, without learning a process through which they can walk on their own in order to learn about moments in time in a responsible way. By focusing on teaching how to read about history, specifically, we are able to ensure that our students are learning how to read in a way that gives them a more accurate understanding of history.

And lastly, so much of what our children are given when they are young (and also when they are older) in order to learn about history is just wrong. Things are missing, truths are ignored, voices are silenced. But, like people always say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And if we stop there, if we allow that to be the phrase that guides us, then we will continue to deny the truths in our history that could actually help us to better understand our world today in a way that could lead to real change. And we will become complicit in allowing our students to grow up with misunderstandings about our world and our history.

So we tackle how to read history and we look at it through the lens of how to uncover hidden and neglected information in order to help us overcome our biases and misconceptions about history.


Part of what I am always trying to do with my students is to find a concrete way for them to really see the kinds of problems that I want to help them to overcome through reading and writing in a different way.  It would be easy for me to tell my kids that they have misconceptions about history because of the way they have been reading and learning, but it is much more powerful if I can find a way to really show them those misconceptions.

So, this year, I wanted to do that using a single figure who I believe all of my students carry extremely limited understanding of and strong misconceptions about: Martin Luther King, Jr. For many of my fifth grade students, when they enter into our Civil Rights Movement study, the only knowledge they carry is around Martin Luther King, Jr. And much of that knowledge is wrong or extremely watered down. Again, I could tell them this, but I believe it is much more powerful if I am able to show them. And since our unit on reading about history centers on the Civil Rights Movement, this seemed like a perfect entry point.

After reminding the kids what we learned about how biased messages form in our brains about groups of people when we are giving the same set of narrow and limited information over and over again, I told the kids that the same thing can happen about moments in time in our history.

I then shared with the kids a VERY simplified, and also very typical, biography about Martin Luther King, Jr. to read. You can find the text that we used HERE. After reading the text together, I asked the kids to answer the following question in writing, “After reading this brief biography and knowing everything you already know about Martin Luther King Jr., think about what you understand about who he is. What is your CURRENT understanding of who Martin Luther King Jr. was? What do you know about him?” I gave the kids a few minutes to write and then asked students to read their answers out loud. As I listened to their answers, I started to chart the words and phrases that I heard come up in their answers over and over again. Our chart started to fill with words and phrases such as, “activist, peaceful, fought racism, African American, black, nonviolent, inspiration, disliked by some whites, hero, speeches, I Have a Dream, marches, etc.” The words and phrases reflected what I expected was the understanding that most of my students had about MLK. A watered down and overly simplistic understanding of the complex human that MLK was and a complete unawareness of the very complicated and upsetting relationship that our country’s government and many of our country’s citizens had with this man who is now seen as a hero.

So now that we had an idea of what we understood about MLK, I wanted to show them just how much they were missing. So I carefully curated a text set that included four short excerpts that showed parts of MLK’s life that were missing from my student’s current understanding. This is the text set that we used (It begins on page two of this document): A More Complete Understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.   

Over the net two days, my students and I worked through these short, but complex, texts together. I read the texts out loud and I asked my students to underline or highlight any information that they found new or surprising. After each text, I asked them to stop and share what they had underlined. As we worked through the texts and shared the new understandings that we were gaining, I went back to the charts we had made with the lists of words and phrases that reflected our understanding of MLK. As our understanding grew, I used a different color marker to add NEW words and phrases that explained what we were coming to understand about MLK. Here are the two charts from my two classes that show the progression of our growing understandings.


After reading the additional texts, I again asked the kids to reflect in writing. I asked them the three questions that are on the last page of THIS TEXT SET DOCUMENT. We talked about how limited our understanding of MLK had been. We connected it back to this previous work that we had done in confronting our own biases about groups of people.  When we were given the same, limited, information of what a “girl” is or what a “boy” is over and over again, that information shaped what we believed a girl and boy really were in a way that was far from accurate. In the same way, when we have been fed the same, limited, information about who Martin Luther King Jr. was over and over again, that information shaped who we believed Martin Luther King Jr was in a way that was far from accurate.

The kids quickly came to realize that they had been given an overly-simplified version of a very complex man. And, because kids are wise and desperate to know full truths, they quickly expressed anger that so much truth had been kept from them. We began to talk about how adults often doubt what children can handle, that they want to try to protect them from things that are messy and complicated and real. And as one of my brilliant students said this year, “Really, they say they are trying to protect us, but really they are just kind of lying to us.”

This then led us to a discussion about history and text books and the voices that are privileged and those who have traditionally been ignored.  And we talked about why adults might leave the harder to understand stuff out of history and the stuff that makes our history and our country look less than good. We talked about the story we have been told about our treatment of Native Americans and how the story is often told in a way that leaves out the parts that show the truth about the awful ways our country treated this entire group of people. We talked about how when we are not given the whole truth about history, we cannot fully understand where we are today. And we all decided that we wanted to do better, as readers and as learners, in order to gain that more complete truth.  As a class we talked about how it is our OWN responsibility to seek out the truth when we read about history and we cannot simply accept that what we are being given is enough.

So we then made a list. A list of the things that we thought we might be able to do in order to help us notice when something we are given feels incomplete and also a list of things that we can always make sure to do to help us better ensure that we are getting an accurate understanding about history. Here is what that list looked like: D6ABlcBWkAAm5Af-1

So with this list in mind, we moved further into our study of the Civil Rights Movement and as we read, we continued to look back at this list to ensure that we were learning to read about history in a way that gave us a better shot at gaining a complete and accurate understanding.

And the beauty of this work is that the kids are so open to it. They are so very willing to admit that the way that they had been reading and learning up until now wasn’t working, it was flawed, it was problematic and they wanted to do better. And so as we learned the content we needed to learn, as we learned about this very important moment in American history, we were also learning something bigger. We were learning a process, a way of reading, that they could use in their lives outside of our classroom walls in order to better learn about their own history and the history of the world we live in. And that, is an incredibly powerful kind of learning to be lucky enough to be a part of.

It is this work that I believe will move us. I believe it will move us from being a world where we simply accept that, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” to a world where we are truly willing to say, “There is so much that I do not know and it is my responsibility to go and seek that information out.”



I can’t really ever remember feeling quite so broken before. In fact, I don’t think that I ever realized how whole I had been until I felt it all fall apart. Until there were only pieces remaining, I had not realized how full it had all felt only moments before.

I am sorry if you are here looking for lesson plans, looking for ideas on how to end the school year strong, on how to carry on conversations of justice and equity through the final days of the school year. I have none of those words to give to you today. I have very little left to give to anyone at the moment.

In fact, probably, I should write nothing. This is not really the space for me to fall apart. Not in this way. It’s probably not professional. Not the right place for it. But it is the space that I have. It is the space that I can still claim as my own, as familiar, when so much around me no longer feels like my life.  

But if you are not here looking for that, I completely understand. Feel free to check back in a few months. When I start to breathe again.

So where am I?

I suppose I should start by reassuring you all that I am healthy.  My daughter is healthy. We are fine. We will be fine. But my marriage. It is not fine. It has ended. It was sudden and unexpected and not something I ever saw coming or anything that I wanted. And while the details don’t belong here, the next time you see me, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the story that I am still trying to convince myself is real.  The story that I now take on as my own. As my life. As where I am and how I have been broken.

I suppose there isn’t much more to say. I just felt the need to leave a note here and let you all know that I will be back. I keep hearing the brilliant words of comedian Hannah Gadsby from her powerful show, “Nanette,” when she says, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” And those words fill me with such hope for a day far from this current day. Because for now, there is no rebuilding. For now, I am trying to simply allow myself to fall completely apart. And then slowly, one day, I will start to rebuild.

And I will tell you this. In all of this. Gratitude exists.

I am so grateful for the humans who surround me. Because I may no longer have the love from the one person I thought would be there forever, but in its place, so many other kinds of love have revealed themselves to me in the most beautiful of ways. These people, people who have always been there right by my side, have stepped up in the most incredible ways. My family and my work friends and my neighborhood friends and my high school friends and my college friends and the friends I have found here who are scattered across the country. People have shown themselves to be these fierce senders of love and I cannot tell you the difference that it has made. Because as of late, it has been easy to think of myself as rather unlovable and people have found ways to show me, in the most remarkable of ways, that all of us are worthy of love. And often, the places that that love comes from are unexpected, but so, so, so good.  

And there is also such gratitude for the work that we do. This job has saved me in countless ways over these past few weeks. Even now, during this crazy time of the school year, when patience is short and energy from the children is at an all time, this work continues to save me. Because when I start to doubt my own worth and the value that I bring to this world, I need to look no further than the work that my students and I are doing and it is such good and hopeful and important work that I know that I serve a real purpose. I know that there is goodness in what I do and in who I am. Because my kids remind me of that every day. The work we do reminds me of that every day. And that brings a deep sense of gratitude.

So I hope that one day soon, I will be back here writing about the work. About the work that we have done and the work that we so desperately need to keep doing. I hope that one day soon, I can care about others and about the world and about justice and about equity in the way that I used to. But for now, I need to care about myself and care about my kid and allow myself to simply be wrapped up in all the love that we are surrounded by.

So hang in there, friends, as we walk through these final days of the school year.  We are so close and the summer will be necessary to rest and recharge and for all of us to find ways to rebuild. Some of us, will just need a little bit more rebuilding than others.  

Helping Students Recognize The Role of Emotional Response in Research

For a long time, I thought about research as the gathering of facts. I taught my students about research as a process of gathering facts. For a long time, I thought that emotions and a student’s emotional response to research and to reading played a very little role in the research process. And then, the election of 2016 came around and my understanding of what it meant to research, what it means to delve into a topic deeply and attempt to come out on the other side with greater understanding, all changed.

Last year, I wrote a three-part series about how I was working to rethink research in my classroom and how I was working to bring my students along with me through that process.  If you are interested, you can click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of that series.  This year we are, again, engaged in this work of rethinking research as my students and I take on our inquiry circle project (which is what those three blog posts are all about). As mentioned in my Rethinking Research series, this work is based off of the incredible book, Comprehension and Collaboration, written by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  I have taken their concept and used it to guide my students through the inquiry process as they study self-selected, complex social issues by learning about those issues through multiple media sources.

This past summer, I helped to write the reading and writing curriculum for all of the fifth grades across my district.  And I made sure that our inquiry circle work was a part of our curriculum. So now, every fifth grade classroom in our district is engaged in this work.  This is wonderful.  This also invites questions and push back. One of the questions that I wrestled with this year is when teachers and parents asked, “Why do our young children have to tackle such difficult, and sometimes frightening topics?” It is a good question. It is one I am glad that people are asking because it invites dialogue and it invites reflection. Though our students are able to select their own topics, they often choose topics that are tough. However, one of the best parts of inquiry is watching how excellent students are at self-differentiating. The children who cannot handle the tougher topics, often know that about themselves and often choose to take on a topic like technology or pesticides. However, if we are going to have many of our students tackling the tougher topics, we had better be prepared to explain why.  And so, I sat with the question myself for a long time.

Why does it matter that we tackle the tough topics in fifth grade? Why can’t we do this same work with easier topics that still invite multiple perspectives. Topics like homework or cell-phones.  Why don’t these topics feel like enough? As I sat with these questions, I slowly started to realize that what was missing from these topics was the emotion, the heat that often arises from the conversations around tougher topics.  I know that parents and teachers want to protect our kids from feeling the heaviness of the world around them. I find that this is especially true of parents and teachers who work primarily with kids who live in privilege.  Our world. It is heavy. And those of us who are wrapped in privilege, often use that privilege as a way to isolate us from the rough and raw emotions that so many people in this world feel on a daily basis without a choice in the matter.  But this emotion. If we stop our children from experiencing it, then we are stealing from them a chance to learn how to recognize their own emotions and understand what those emotions might mean and the impact those emotions might have on their understanding of the world. If we do not dig into topics that will make our students feel something, then we cannot teach them ways to deal with those emotions and how they affect their understanding of what they are hearing and reading and learning.  And so they, like many of us, will grow up completely unaware of how their own emotions affect their reading and their understanding of the world and they will be the ones who are easily manipulated by the media and by others who use their own emotions to stop them from reaching full understanding.

So it is with that idea that we walk into this work. We walk into this work in order to arm our students with the skills that they will need to do better than we have done as adults.  Often times, teachers ask me where I get ideas for the lessons that I teach to my students. Many times, the answer is that I am inspired by those around me who have done this work long before me. But, also, I gain the ideas of what I want to teach my students by looking around the world and thinking about what I wish we, as adults, did better.  I think about what I wish the grown-ups around me were better able to do and then I think about how I might break those skills down and teach them to children so that they can do better.

And right now, when I look around the world, I wish that adults understood our own emotions better. When we read a headline and we automatically feel anger, we don’t always realize how quickly our brains shut down and we become incapable of reading on in order to understand.  When we hear a criticism about a group of people with which we identify, we often become defensive and render ourselves incapable of sitting with the discomfort that comes from knowing that we have done harm and that we can do better.  When we see an image, we feel sadness but we we allow that sadness to overwhelm us and stop us from looking beyond that single image and to the systems and laws and policies that allowed that image to come into existence in the first place. These emotions, could be used to help us to do better, but not if we are not aware of what they might mean and how we can “check” ourselves in order to ensure that our own emotions don’t get in the way of our understanding. This is what I wish we, as adults, could do better and so this is what I wanted to try to teach to my students.

And so…enter our inquiry circle work.  I will not spend time here detailing a how-to-run-inquiry-circles because that work can all be found in the three blog posts from last year that I linked at the start of this post. But, what I do want to share are the conversations that I added this year on how we can recognize our emotions as we research and “check” those emotions to ensure that they do not get in the way of our own understanding.

So in the second phase of our inquiry circle work, students have narrowed down their larger topics and are now finding their own resources that help them to build their understandings of those narrowed down topics. So, if a group was studying LGBTQ rights, in the second phase a student might have chosen to focus on transgender youth in schools. At this point in the work, they still have not formulated a specific claim, rather they are focused on gathering multiple sources that shed light on multiple perspectives connected to their topics that help them to understand their narrowed focus overall. So this happened to be the perfect time to introduce the idea of how our emotions impact us as readers, especially when we are reading to learn about complex issues.

The first chart that I shared with the students was this one:


Our first conversation centered around the idea that when we started learning about our topics, we were really just learning facts and these facts led us to what we know about our topics. But then, as we worked to notice the facts we were seeing and allow those facts to lead us to questions that helped us to notice whose voices we were hearing and whose voices were being left out, we let those questions guide us towards more sources that allowed us to see more perspectives. This pushed us past simply knowing facts and guided us towards understanding our topics. Now, we were at a point that we are able to deepen our understanding so that we can form beliefs and opinions that are based on more than just what our parents have said, that are based on more than the simple snippets found in sound bytes and headlines, but the kinds of opinions and beliefs that are based on real information from multiple perspectives.  Eventually, it will be these opinions and beliefs that will move us to action.

One of the ways that we can start to ensure that our beliefs and opinions are tied to actual facts and valid information is to constantly check our own emotional responses to what we are reading. This was our conversation on the first day of these phase of work.  At this point, my students were all knee-deep into their own research about their topics. So with those ideas in mind, I sent my students off to their own research and asked them to pay attention to some of the emotions that they were experiencing as they worked. We started a class list to brainstorm some of the emotions we noticed. As I conferred with students that day, I asked questions to try and find out what kinds of emotions they had been experiencing in this work so far. THIS IS THE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that my students are using in this phase of research, so we were able to look back at their notes together and talk about the emotions they had written about.  I added to our class list of emotions as students mentioned them to me.

At the end of that day, I took list of emotions from both of my classes and grouped them together until I was left with five big emotions that I thought we could explore together. Each day, we would tackle one of those emotions, talk about why we might be feeling each emotion as we did this work and ways that we could “check” those emotions to ensure that they did not get in the way of our understanding of our topic. Here are the two charts that I made that guided our conversations for the next five days:


You can clearly see the major points that we tackled on the charts above. I made these charts as I guide for myself, but what is missing from them are the incredible contributions of my students. Our conversations were so rich that I did not have time to capture their thinking in words on a chart. But here are some of the things we discussed:

Anger: This was probably our longest conversation as my students and I started to talk about the physical signs that we notice when we read something that we do not agree with. We talked about how we feel it in the pace of our heart, in the ways we are holding our hands, in the pace of our breath, in the “hot” feeling we get when someone is talking and we disagree with the first thing they say and then are unable to hear anything beyond that. We talked about how often times we get angry simply because of who is doing the speaking. Many students talked about how they see their parents react when a politician is shown on the tv, before the politician has even started to speak. I shared my own habits with anger and how it quickly disables my ability to hear. We also talked about how there is another kind of anger, the kind of anger that is a response to real injustice. We talked about how we can tell the difference between the two types of anger. How anger that stems only from disagreement can be a sign that we need to calm down, but anger that comes from the recognition of injustice, instead requires us to use that action to learn more or to do more.  We talked about being aware of which type of anger we were feeling with our research.

Sadness: This was a big one for the topics my students were tackling. These are all self-selected topics, so students tend to chose the kinds of topics that they feel ready to take on. But one of the things that came up in our conversation about sadness is that sometimes feeling heavy sadness when researching can be a sign that they need to step away and take a break. One student, who was in an inquiry circle group studying North Korea, told me about being brought to tears while listening to a woman who escaped from North Korea tell her story about what it was like to live there. The student shared how sad he felt and how overwhelmed he became by the story and how he had to pause the story, take a walk and then come back and finish. While I whole-heartedly believe that our students are ready for this work, I, too often, forget to teach the importance of self-care to students when doing this work. These are skills I wish I had learned and I was grateful that they came up in this conversation. We also talked about how sometimes, sadness can be a reaction to one single story or image, but if we sit in our sadness, it can actually limit us and stop us from pushing farther in order to understand the context of that one story and how it was allowed to happen. We talked about the single images of refugee children, the young boy whose body washed up on shore and the other young boy, pulled from the rubble and covered in white ash. These images made us sad. But if we stopped there, we would never understand how these images came to be. If we let ourselves become consumed by the sadness, we wouldn’t be able to work to understand the systems that allowed these sadnesses to occur and then we would be powerless to try to change them.

Defensive: This was a really tough one for my students. I teach many students who fall into multiple categories of privilege. Many come from white, wealthy, American-born families. And so, in this work, the work of understanding current social issues, they are often confronted with statements about groups that they find themselves a part of and the difficulties those groups have created for other, marginalized groups.  So there is a lot of defensiveness and also shame that comes up. My job is to walk the kids through that. One of the ways I can do that is to help them understand that these are not personal attacks, these are attacks on unjust systems. Systems that, yes, we are a part of. Systems that, yes, sometimes we have benefitted from. But the attacks on the systems are not attacks on us. I want them to see that difference. Because one leads people to shut down and defend and the other can lead people to learn more and work to change those systems. I was amazed at the way my students were willing to wrestle with this idea. In one of my classes, the three white boys who were studying racism in America stepped up as real leaders as they talked about the guilt they felt in learning about the systemic racism that exists in our country, but that instead of feeling personally attacked, it made them instead think about what changes they could help to make. It was a really powerful conversation to be a part of.

Fear: This conversation was probably the one that most resonated with the current events unfolding around us.  I began the conversation by talking about how the group that was studying gun violence in America began their learning focused on school shootings because that is what felt scariest to them. It was what they felt most connected to. However, as they did their research, they realized that their fear was tied not to the problem that was the largest, but the problem that felt like it would most likely affect them. In this case, their own fear, limited the scope of their understanding of the problem of gun violence. As they did more research, they learned that the biggest problems in this country around guns involve suicide and homicide, not mass shootings. Once they saw past their own fears, they were better able to work to understand the problem overall. This was where we started, but then the conversations in both of my classes turned as the students started to talk about how fear can also be used to manipulate people by exaggerating a specific problem or making something seem like a problem when it might not be. This conversation then turned towards the recent conversation about illegal immigrants and the groups who were studying this topic talked about how the facts that they had found did not support the fear that was being spread about the danger that illegal immigrants posed to the country.  It was amazing to watch fifth graders really analyze how fear was being used as a way to convince people of a solution to a problem that potentially might not even exist.

Hopeful: The last emotion we focused on was hope. I talked about how important it is to find hope in this work. I shared with them that for me, hope often comes from seeing the young people who are becoming involved in the fight for justice or from looking at the people who have spent their entire lifetimes engaged in this fight. But I also wanted the kids to be careful of hope. So we talked about how when we felt hopeful, we needed to make sure that the people who were most directly affected by a problem were also the ones benefitting from a potential solution and, more importantly, that their voices were being heard and centered when it came time to determining a solution. We talked about the desire to send things like teddy bears after a school shooting. This feels hopeful. It makes many of us feel good, but is this really what is most hopeful to those involved and is this an action that will result in larger change? If not, we want to be careful and keep looking for more.

Each day, when we discussed a specific emotion, that is what I focused my conferences on as the students were working. As they continued to take notes, I continued to push them to identify what they were feeling about what they read and how those emotions were influencing their understanding and their developing beliefs. We referred to the charts often as we thought about next steps to help us “check” our emotions and not allow them to limit our understandings.

After two weeks of this work, I asked the students to USE THIS DOCUMENT in order to synthesize their current understanding. I asked them to think about everything they had read in this phase of research and then do some reflecting on their current beliefs. What do they currently believe to be the biggest problem and what is that based on. And what do they currently believe to be some steps that might be taken to work to solve that problem and what is that based on. This synthesis will then guide us into our action phase of this work where they will work with their groups to use writing in order to ask for change from those who are most likely able to create it.

And so this is my why. This is what I come back to when people wonder why I ask my students to tackle these difficult topics. It is not just because these topics are engaging and self-selected and important, it is because these topics allow us to practice the kinds of skills that are lacking so very much in the world around us. And I truly believe that if more people were able to acknowledge the role their own emotions play in their understanding of the issues that divide us, then we would be much more capable of finding our way back together in a way that allows for more justice, more compassion, more change in the right direction. And so we lean in to this work and we continue to grapple with the emotions that we feel and along the way, it is my deepest hope, that we may inch ever closer towards a better understanding of our world and of each other.

Empathy Is Not Political: NCTE Presentation on Creating Inclusive Classrooms

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

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

Here is what I had to say…

Slide 1

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

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

Slide 2

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

Slide 3

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

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

Slide 4

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

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

Slide 5

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

Slide 6

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

So how do you start?

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

SLide 7

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

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

Slide 8

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

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

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

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

Kids Talking About: Worm Loves Worm 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is where we began.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Will We Raise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone, somewhere…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Compliance: Shifting the Narrative From Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should you follow rules? Why or why not?

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

Should you follow every rule? Why or why not?

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

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

And then:

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

And then:

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

And then:

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

And then:

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

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

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

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

And then:

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

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

How should we handle rules in this classroom?

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