We Are Only One Tile in the Entire Mosaic of a Child’s Education

I spent most of last week feeling like I was not enough. Here we were in March and I found myself increasingly worried about the relationships that I had built with this year’s students. I worried that I did not know them well enough. I worried that we did not have enough fun together. I worried that they did not like me enough. I worried that they did not feel successful enough when they were in my room. I worried that they did not know that I was on their side. And I worried that I was loosing whatever touch that I once had to make every child in my classroom feel seen and accepted and loved for exactly who they are.



By Thursday afternoon, I had myself convinced that I should no longer be a classroom teacher. It was time to move on.

And, please know, I did not assume that any of this was because of the kids themselves. I had long ago figured out that whoever walks through my door each year, each day, is absolutely worthy of feeling like they are loved and accepted in our classroom. Is absolutely worthy of feeling like they have me on their side. Is absolutely worthy of feeling like a success.

No. This was not a problem with the kids. This was certainly a problem with me.

So then, I had to figure out what was going on. And I started to think about what was different in my room this year.

I am now a mom of a toddler. A four-year-old to be exact. A non-stop, never quiet, only-child, energetic, strong-willed four-year-old. I love her in a way I never knew I could love another person. And she also wears. me. out. So maybe that was it?

Maybe. But I didn’t think that was the whole story. That would be too easy to be the whole story. There was certainly nothing about that situation that was going to change any time soon. So it had to be something else as well.

And then another thought hit me. This year. Our work together. The work my students and I do each day. It has gotten heavier. This year. The heaviness of our work is greater because the heaviness of the world is greater.

In the past three years, the work that my students and I have engage in has changed. Changed and continued to change. Learning to be better readers and writers used to be our endpoint. Now, we work to become better readers and better writers so that we can work to make the world a better place. We take on the challenges of the world and we lock arms together and try to fight against them.

This work. It is heavy.

And this year, I feel that intensely. This year we have taken on conversations on race and privilege and power. This year we have taken on stereotypes and the danger of a single story. This year we have taken on current social issues like the immigration ban, police brutality and the refugee crisis. This year we have tried to make our way through the stories of the ever growing list of people who need the rest of us to stand up and fight alongside of them. This year we have looked at the world and not shied away from the things that are uncomfortable or unsettling or upsetting. We have stared those things right in the face and we have walked forward together.

And I am so proud of the work that we have done. I would have felt deep regret if we were not doing this work. I am so proud of the learning that we have done. Of the growing we have done. Of the learning how to fight that we have done. I am so proud of my students and the way they have faced these challenges head on.

And I also believe, with my whole heart, that making our work meaningful, in the world outside of our classroom, it changes what we do and brings our learning to a whole new level. Doing authentic work, work that matches what is being done in the world outside of our classroom, it creates such deep learning experiences and truly creates the life-long learners that we profess to always want our students to be. This work matters. And not just to me. It matters to my students. It increases engagements and lengthens the lasting effects of our learning.

And through all of this heavy lifting, we have also taken time to laugh. We have stopped to be silly. We have stopped to make towers out of straws and index cards. We have stopped to read picture books for no other reason than because they made us laugh.  We have done all of these things so that we can remember what we are fighting for.

But still. The work we have done. It is heavy.

And when I look back on the year that we have had so far, there may certainly have been less “fun” than there has been in the past. But I have to remember to look at what has filled its place.

This year we have learned how to learn about the struggles of others that might be too easy for us to ignore. This year we have learned how to learn about issues from multiple perspectives even when some of those perspectives are hard for us to stomach. This year we have learned how to raise our voices and demand change. This year we have learned not just to repeat what we have been told but to ask questions about what we are not certain of and then go out and seek information that will allow us to build our beliefs on a foundation of reliable information.

This has been our work this year. This has been our focus. And yes, that makes this year feel different, but different cannot always be a bad thing.  Different can simply be what is needed in a particular moment.

And while we have done this work, yes, other things have been lacking. I have done fewer whole-class book talks this year. I have spent less time cultivating the joy of reading that I know is so vital for our students. I have spent less time growing our reading and writing community in the same ways that I have in the past.

This year, these past few years, my guiding principles have centered around social justice. That has been the foundation of so much of the work that we do in our classroom. It has guided most every choice that I have made and it has determined the path that we have travelled on. This tendency to bend towards social justice and increasingly heavy work, it has forced us to bend away from other things that I know are vitally important for our kids.

But here is what the distance and space of a weekend away from work has allowed me to realize:

Each teacher a student has. We are only one tile in the entire mosaic of a child’s education.

So while my focus has been on social justice, I can trust that next year, each of my students will meet new teachers who have new focuses. While I have devoted time to some things at the expense of time on other things, next year, each of my students will meet new teachers who will spend new time in new ways.

Each one of us, we are guided by the things that we believe in and it is okay, in fact, it is a wonderful thing that we each believe in something slightly different. Because our students, they need so many things, far more things that any one of us could ever be or ever provide. We cannot, we should not, try to be every thing to every one. Because a child will not have just one teacher and that is a wonderful thing.

So now, it is Sunday evening. I no longer feel like I should be walking away from the classroom. In fact, I am more excited than ever to walk right back into my classroom and, hopefully, stay there for a very long time. And I can see my place more clearly, one tile in a much larger mosaic. And that makes me feel so much better.

And as I think about the week ahead, I stop and think about the week that just ended as well. And as I think about my students, I remember one student in particular who, as if she knew exactly what I needed to hear on Friday, looked up at me and said, “Is there some kind of award for teaching or something? Because I really think that you should get one.” And that helps me to remember that we ARE doing okay. We ARE building something special. And even if it does not feel like it in the chaos of every moment and every day, this heavy work, it does build strong relationships and it creates a place where we all feel like we are working on the exact same side.





Students Using Their Own Pieces of Writing As Mentor Texts to Teach Others About How to Support Claims

In our last writing unit, which happened to be a study of fiction writing, I had each of my students select a mentor text from our fiction picture book bins. They read and analyzed their self-selected mentor text in order to discover what strategies the writer of that book used in order to make the fiction writing more powerful. They then planned and taught lessons to small groups of students from our class in an EdCamp style writing-workshop. I wrote about that process in THIS BLOG POST.

The kids LOVED this work and as we were nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit, one of my students asked me if we could do the same thing with persuasive writing. Now, as those of you who have taught persuasive writing to kids know, there is a serious problem with the amount of authentic persuasive writing that is accessible to kids. Finding those pieces of writing and making sure kids understand them enough to be able to analyze what the writer is doing is a huge challenge. Unlike with fiction writing, I cannot just send kids off to discover their own persuasive writing mentor texts. I have no bins overflowing with persuasive writing that I could have the kids look through.

But I still wanted to give the kids a chance to analyze a text and use that mentor text to teach their classmates strategies that writers use to make their writing better.

And then it hit me. They could use their OWN writing as a mentor text. For several weeks, we had been looking together at persuasive mentor texts that I had provided the students.  As we worked through these texts together, we looked at ways that writers supported their claims in multiple ways. We looked at the many different ways that writers provide evidence to prove that what they are saying is true. Here are the charts that we created that tracked the strategies that we discovered:

I knew that my students had started to use many of these strategies, but I also knew that they each used them in a slightly different way. I knew that some kids had used strategies that we had NOT studied all together as a class. I knew that some kids were combining these strategies to support single claims in a more powerful way. And I also knew that each child used these strategies in a more nuanced way. This is what they could teach each other. The many ways they have used these strategies and others in order to support their claims in writing.

I wanted my students to look at their own writing as a teaching tool for others AND, even more importantly, I wanted them to start to look at each other’s writing as an opportunity to learn how to become better writers.

So I thought about what they would need to do in order to use their own writing to teach each other.  In our last writing unit, I had the kids create longer lessons where they figured out a way to have students practice applying the writing strategy that they were teaching. These lessons took quite some time, so I had the rest of the class sign-up to learn in a small group for a student who was teaching a strategy that they thought they might be able to use in their own fiction writing. All of that is explained HERE.

These lessons felt different. I thought that these strategies might be a bit harder for the kids to teach and I thought that they would also take a bit less time. I was not going to necessarily have the kids practice these strategies because it is hard to pretend to support a claim when it is not something you really are writing about. For all of these reasons, I decided to have these lessons be taught whole class. Each day a few students would volunteer to teach the whole class and we would keep track of all the writing lessons we were learning. These would become additional strategies that my students could use as they were revising their persuasive writing pieces.

So, I created THIS DOCUMENT to help guide my students through the process that they would need to do in order to prepare to teach their lesson. I also completed MY OWN EXAMPLE taken from a piece of writing that I did with my students in attempting to get a class set of Chromebooks from our PTO.

After sharing my own example with the students, I also shared this anchor chart in order to help them to start thinking about the many ways we can learn from each other’s writing and what kinds of things our own writing can teach to others.



And then I had them set off to create their own lesson plans using their own persuasive writing as a mentor text. They worked on these lesson plans for two days and then on third day they were ready to begin teaching.

Before we had our first lesson, I wanted to make sure that I spent time talking with my students about the way that they would be listening to their classmates. Often, when we have students share their writing with the class, it is as a celebration or as a means of giving the writer suggestions. This was a very different purpose. What I have learned is that I often forget to teach my students HOW they are supposed to listen. What purpose is there for them to listen today?

For this work, the purpose in listening and in giving feedback was NOT to help the writer who was sharing. Our goal was not to celebrate what a writer did well (That is, of course, a piece of this, but not the main goal). Our goal was also not to offer suggestions for the writer. Today, and in the following few days, our goal in listening and in offering feedback was to help US, the audience, as writers to think about what we saw a writer doing and share how we might use that same writing strategy in our own writing.

I used this anchor chart to help explain that and provide some language that might be helpful in offering this type of feedback:


Before our first student lesson, we went through this chart and then began our teaching. I was nervous. It was VERY possible that this would be a flop. I had conferred with many writers while they were creating their lesson plans and I knew that some writing lessons would be clearer than others. I knew that some students really struggled to analyzing what they were doing as a writer and others really struggled to help explain their strategy so that others could understand. But I still believed it was worth the risk.

And as we began. I knew that this was a risk worth taking.

Not only were the kids just BEAMING as they taught their lessons, but listening to the rest of the class offer feedback about what they saw other writers doing and how they thought they might be able to use these strategies in their own writing, that was just amazing. What I realized is that even when a student struggled to explain his or her or their writing strategy to the class, the class was able to pick things out that they saw the writer doing and often times, this added a whole new writing strategy into the lesson. Often the writers themselves did not see a strategy that they used, but the other kids listening certainly did and they were eager to point those out.

Here are some pictures of my brilliant students teaching their lessons and also some of the anchor charts that we created to document the lessons that were taught:

In the end, not every lesson was perfect. But I will tell you that every single student learned something through this process. Whether it was an audience member or as the person sharing his or her or their writing. So much was learned. And, more importantly, so much ownership was gained over this very difficult writing process. The kids saw their own writing differently and they also saw the writing of others differently. They felt empowered as teachers and as learners.

And there was one more side effect. One that I did not realize would occur. This process, it did wonders for our writing community. Because in order to do this work, the kids needed to make themselves vulnerable in so many ways. In the writing they shared and in the feedback they gave, there was so much vulnerability. And what I know about a community is that once you are willing to be vulnerable in front of each other, the bonds between everyone in the community become incredibly strengthened.

I could not be more proud of my students and the work that they have done here. And I am fairly certain that they were also pretty darn proud of themselves.

Discovering Our Beliefs Through Research (Inquiry Circles Weeks #6 and #7)

My students have been involved in their inquiry circle research for many weeks now. You can read about our first week of work in choosing our topics HERE, and you can read about our first phase of research where we focused on synthesizing new information from a variety of online sources HERE, and then you can read about our second phase of research where I handed control and ownership of the research over to my students HERE.

At this point in our work, my students have done a lot of work gathering research. They started with sources that I provided them until they knew enough to ask their own questions and follow their own direction in gathering more sources. After researching for a while on their own, it felt like they now knew enough to start to figure out what they actually believe about their topics.

Last year, I came to a big realization. Too often, as a teacher, I asked my students to write their claim or their thesis or their opinion BEFORE they had done any research. I asked them to craft a claim statement and then they used that claim to guide their research. They stated what they believed and then went out to search for research that supported those claims.

What I realized was that this practice was encouraging my students to ignore some research while favoring the research that supported what they thought they believed. They had no opportunity to shift and adapt and change their beliefs based on the research that they found. They believed at the start of their research EXACTLY what they believed at the end. They had just found others who agreed with them and ignored those who did not.

When I look at the mess that our world is in right now, I cannot help but wonder what role our own schooling played in all of this. I know that I was taught this way. State what you believe first and then go out and prove that you are right. So now, when we state what we believe, it is often only based on the information that we have read or seen or heard from others who already agree with us.

I know that I am terribly guilty of this. So I wanted to work to teach my students to do better.

So at the start of our inquiry circle research, I did not ask my students to make a claim. I did not ask them what they believed to be right and what they believed to be wrong. I asked them only what they thought they knew and what they still wanted to find out. As I explained in my second blog post about our inquiry circle research, I worked with my students to take the biases they already held and instead push them into a question that would lead them to more research. In all of this work, I hoped that they thinking would shift. I encouraged them to find sources that believed different things. I pushed them to look at multiple perspectives on a single issue. And I questioned them so that they were forced to think about the other side of things.

And through all of this. Through all of this digging and sorting and questioning and researching, they were starting to form beliefs. Beliefs based on the research they had done. Beliefs that many times were different than ones they held at the start of our work. Beliefs that were more nuanced, more reflective of the research they had done, more based in the work they had done to seek out multiple perspectives. These beliefs were evidence that they had grappled with complex issues and that they had researched from a wide variety of sources. These beliefs were based on information they had read, not merely based on what the adults around them had told them.

So now, they were ready to make their claims.

The first thing that we needed to do, was to understand what a claim statement really is. When I thought about what I wanted my students to craft, I really had to wrestle myself with the difference between an opinion, a fact and a claim. After looking around online, looking at the Common Core standards and thinking about what I wanted my students to be able to do in the world outside of my classroom, I settled on these beliefs about a claim statement:

It needed to a statement that expresses what YOU believe to be true BASED on the research that you have done.

It is not just a fact or a series of facts, but your interpretation of those facts because people can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in many different ways.

It should be a statement that could be argued. If everyone, or most everyone, around you would agree with you, then it isn’t really a claim statement.

It should be more than just an opinion, but an opinion that provides evidence that you have done research and that the information you have gathered has influenced and refined your opinion.

It should be evidence that you understand more about a topic or issue now than you did before you began researching or learning about that topic.

Once I understood this for myself, I needed to help my students understand what I wanted them to do.  I began with this anchor chart:


After having a discussion based on this anchor chart, I warned my students that they would be asked to start brainstorming claim statements in the next few days. If they did not feel as if they had enough research at this point, then they needed to change something about the way they were researching so that they would be ready.

On a day when I was going to be out at a meeting, I left THIS packet for my sub to go through with my students.  I was hoping that these examples would help them to start thinking about their own possible claim statements.  I shared my own possible claim statements after doing some extensive research on the Immigration Ban.  I shared with my students some examples of possible claim statements AND some of examples of statements that were NOT claim statements.  This was all written out in the packet.

When I returned, I asked my students to think back on all the research that they had done up to this point. I asked them to look back at the notes that they had taken. I asked them to think about what they had come to believe about their topics based on the research they had done. And then I asked them to craft, on their own, a few possible claim statements that might synthesize their current understanding and their current beliefs on their topic.

Now, at this point, there were some students who had COMPLETELY blank looks on their faces. Some students had no notes to look back on. Some students suddenly realized that all that time they spent scrolling up and down a website, without actually reading and digesting very much information, maybe wasn’t the best use of their time. Some students read a lot, but still had no idea how to take all of that and form a concise statement about their beliefs.

All of that was okay.

Because this work is really hard. And I don’t expect the kids to get it right away. They are going to mess up. They are going to realize that they should have done things differently. AND because of all of that, they are going to realize how to fix things. Or they are going to figure out how to ask for help from their group members and from me.  It is why I believe it is so important that we do this work in a group.

After brainstorming a bit, I sent the kids off to do more research. Those who realized that they really needed to step it up, mostly went off and stepped it up. For others, my assistant teacher and I were there to help them step it up. Others needed to flail around a bit more. My conferences over those days really focused on helping students put into words what they had come to believe. I asked questions like, “What would you try to convince someone of about your topic?” or “Now that you have done all of this research, what do you believe to be true?”

One of the hardest conversations was to push some students past the obvious. This is harder with certain topics. For example, I have a group studying terrorism. I told them that a claim statement wouldn’t really be, “Terrorism is bad.” Because there are very few people in this world, other than terrorists themselves, who would ever argue with that statement. So with those students, I tried to ask questions like, “What do you now know about terrorism that other people might be surprised to find out?” or “What have you come to understand about terrorism that other people might not believe?” These questions were really powerful in helping students to discover new beliefs that they held BECAUSE of the research that they had done.

After a few days of conferring to help my students come to their INDIVIDUAL claim statements, I was ready to introduce my students to THIS claim organizer in order to help them begin to think about the claim statements that they wanted to make as a group and how they would support those claims with evidence.

I told them that now that they had their possible individual claim statements, they were going to meet with their inquiry circles and select one or two claim statements that they wanted to move forward with as a group. These claim statements would guide their writing and the action that they wanted to take to create positive change in the world outside of school.  They could choose to just use one person’s individual claim statement that seemed to be representative of the whole group’s thinking. Or they could choose to combine several individual claim statements into one, larger statement. Or they could choose to go two totally different directions if the group came to believe totally different things. But no matter what they chose to do as a group, they would need to work as a group in order to support that claim statement with specific and reliable evidence that they found throughout their research.

When I showed my two classes the claim organizer, I introduced it one section at a time. On the first day, I shared only the top box, where they were to craft their group’s claim statement or statements and then break that statement up into the parts that they would have to do support with research.

In order to help them to do this work, I shared with them THIS EXAMPLE OF MY OWN CLAIM ORGANIZER. On the first day, we only looked at what was written in the top box.  I talked through how I chose this claim statement and how I worked to break it apart into parts that I would need to support with research.

I then sent the kids off to work with their inquiry circle groups. Again, I knew this work would be hard, so I made sure to make it around to every group over the next two days. Some groups thought they were on the right track, and I just needed to help them solidify their claims when I met with them. Other groups really struggled and were extremely frustrated by the time I made it to meet with them. Again, all of that was okay. I knew that we would work through this process together. And again, the process was so much more important than where we ended up.

When I met with groups, we spent a lot of time trying out different ideas on our whiteboard tables before committing anything to the group’s document. We tried out many different versions of claim statements until we found one that everyone agreed to and then we worked to break that statement up into the parts that would each need to be supported. Only then, did the groups transfer these statements to their claim organizers. Each group created ONE Google document and shared it with every member of their inquiry circle group, so they were all able to be on the document at the same time in order to tweak the language we used and then work to find evidence to support that statement.

Here are some images of the claims that we crafted:

As I did this work with my students, I was in awe of how far they had come. It was amazing to me to listen to the conversations that my students were having. They had learned so much. And, please remember, our learning was not perfect. There were very real struggles in getting to this point and there was some students who were certainly leading their groups as others followed along. And, again, all of that was okay. Because look at where they were getting, together, as a group.

One of the things that I felt the proudest of, was how much the ideas held within these claim statements belonged solely to my students. These were not my ideas. These were ideas that my students reached based on their own research. They asked their own questions and they found their own answers and those answers led them to these beliefs.

And once we had these beliefs written down, then it was time to start working to support them fully with research.

So I returned to MY EXAMPLE OF A CLAIM ORGANIZER and this time we looked at the bottom sections of the document. This is where I worked to pull specific pieces of information, that I gathered from my own research, in order to prove why I believed my claim statement to be true and valid.

In the first column of the chart, I simply copied and pasted the links to specific articles, websites, videos and infographics that I believed proved specific parts of my claim statement to be true. In the second column, I quoted or summarized the parts of the source that I believed supported the specific part of the claim. Finally, in the third column, I used my own thinking and my own words to explain HOW the information in that source proved what I was trying to prove.

I summarized that process for my students with this anchor chart:


Some groups chose to divide the parts of their claim statements amongst the members of their group. Each person in the group worked to support a different part. Other groups decided to all look back at their notes and paste in the information that they had in regards to ALL parts of the claim statement. Other groups came up with a mixture of those two ideas.

Either way, every group had a clear goal of what this final phase of their research should look like.  And again, I was there to support, mostly with questioning and also talking through what information was still needed in each group.

The work that my students are doing now will guide the final weeks of our inquiry circle work. Next week, we use these claim organizers to help each group figure out how they will take action through writing and through other means in order to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom in connection with the issue that they studied and researched.

This work, watching these fifth graders discover their own beliefs based on what they have learned through questioning, inquiry and research, it has been so good for my heart. Every so often, I like to stop and think about what this world could become if more of us took lessons from these kids and so many other kids like them. I think about how I was raised in a world that did not yet know how to deal with all of the information that we found ourselves surrounded by. I grew up in a time when our schools did not know how to prepare us for the onslaught of knowledge that we would have at our fingertips. So there are so many of us who just do not know what to do with it all. I like to think that these kids that we are all raising, they will be different.

It is my hope, and I have found much evidence to support this hope over the past few weeks in my own classroom, that our students today will grow up to do so much better than us tomorrow. They will base their ideas on facts and not on hearsay. They will come to their beliefs because of real evidence and not because they once overheard a snippet of a conversation somewhere. They will know how to take in multiple perspectives, especially those that are different than their own, and they will adapt and shift and deepen their own ideas because of those perspectives.

This is what I hope. And when I look at these kids and the work that I see them doing, I honestly believe that there are better things ahead for this world.

Phase Two Of Our Inquiry Circle Research: Synthesizing Across Multiple Texts (Inquiry Circles Weeks #4 and #5)

We are still knee-deep in our inquiry circle research. I wrote about the very start of our inquiry circle work, where we worked to choose our topics, HERE and then about the earliest part of our research, where we learned to synthesize new information from a variety of sources, HERE.

In the earliest part of our research, as we were focusing on the skills of synthesis, I provided my students with resources connected to their topics. When we learned how to read and synthesize information from a website, I added a website to their group Padlets. When we learned how to read and synthesize information from a video, I added a video to each of the their group Padlets. And the same for online articles and infographics. By the time this work was done, my students had read and took notes on several sources about their topics.

So before we were ready to move on the next phase of our research, I wanted each student to stop and check-in with themselves about how they were researching, synthesizing and, most importantly, understanding information on their topics.  In order to help them reflect, I had each student fill out THIS form that asked them to stop and synthesizing all of the information that they had read and understood at this point in their research.

Here is the anchor chart that I used to give them some ideas on how to synthesize information that they had gained from multiple sources:


After modeling how I did this myself, using THIS EXAMPLE, I asked the students to begin filling in their own forms.

This was a really powerful opportunity for my students. Several of them realized that they understood WAY more about their topic than they had at the beginning, while other students realized that they understood almost NOTHING at this point. This was a signal to themselves, and to me, that they needed to change something about how they were researching. I had several honest conversations with kids about how they were choosing to use their time and how they were taking notes as they were researching and even about where they were choosing to sit while they researched.

After filling out their forms independently, I asked each inquiry circle to come together and share their current understandings about their topics. I asked them to listen to one another in a way that allowed them to synthesize new information from their fellow group members. After they spent time discussing, they went back to their original documents in order to add new understandings that they gained from listening to the other people in their groups. We talked about how their group members became additional sources of information. That information could then be synthesized into what they already understood about their topics. The students each turned in their completed forms to me so that I could use this as  evidence of how they were doing in terms of synthesizing new information.

At this point, we were ready to move on to phase 2 of their inquiry circle research. At this point, I would no longer be providing them with resources. Now, they needed to figure out how they wanted to focus their research and what direction they wanted to go as a group. In order to help them to do that, I asked them to get back with their inquiry circles and complete a RESEARCH PLAN. This research plan would serve as their guide as they headed off into the world of online research.

Luckily, my school is privileged to have a brilliant librarian. She has done AMAZING work with my students, since they were in kindergarten, in order to help them to learn how to research. This year, she added in several lessons on how to better evaluate online sources and how to deal with articles that appear to be news, but are not really. This work she has done with my students has made it possible for us to take on these tough issues and for me to trust that my students have the skills they need to deal with what they will encounter throughout this research process.

With their new research plans in hand, I explained the work that my students would be doing in phase 2 of their inquiry circle research. Here is the anchor chart that I used to help explain that process:


At this point, I had to trust in my students. I knew that I had given them resources to build a solid foundation of understanding about their topics. I knew some of them had built a stronger foundation than others. I knew that some of them knew how to evaluate sources better than others. I knew that some of them knew how to synthesize new information better than others. And still, it was time to set them on their way to do their own research and then catch them when they felt lost and teach them the skills they needed WHILE they were doing the work.

In addition to finding their own sources, my students were now also in charge of finding their OWN way to take notes on what they were learning. I told them that the minimal requirement was that they were documents WHAT information came from WHAT specific source. I suggested that they would also help themselves to find a way to keep track of their continually growing understanding. I shared THIS POSSIBLE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT but also gave them the freedom to find their own way to document their learning.

And they were off.

And so was I. As my students researched, I spent my time having one-on-one reading conferences. Mostly asking my students questions to help them think through what they were trying to do. Questions like, “What are you trying to find out today?” or “How is this resource helping you to answer your question?” or “What are you learning about your topic that you did not know before you began your research?” or “What are you hoping to find out next?”

Along the way, I was also watching closely to catch the kids who were struggling to find their way. I often stepped in and asked a question that gave a student an opportunity to let me know that he or she or they needed help. “What are you trying to find out today?” Was often answered with, “I am not really sure.” And so then we looked back on their research plans or had a conversation and figured out what they really needed to know.

After their first day of phase 2 research, we met together to talk about the challenges they were finding with their online research. I asked each child to fill out THIS FORM, independently at first, and then discussing with another student or two.  I then asked them to keep this form out with them over the next few days and when they felt themselves feeling frustrated, I asked them to try to figure out what the challenge was that they were facing.

We then came together to share the challenges they had identified and then we worked together to brainstorm some ways to solve these challenges. I was amazed at the strategies that the kids came up with and noticed a big difference in how they were able to independently solve some of these challenges after this conversation. Here are two of the charts that we started to keep track of our discussion:

This phase of our research was, of course, more difficult than the first phase. In the first phase, I was in control of so much. I controlled what sources they read, I controlled how they took notes and I controlled the range of sources that they were exposed to. It was easier and, in some ways, it was a more guaranteed way to ensure that my students were learning the CONTENT that I wanted them to learn.

The problem with that is that what they were learning was completely dependent on me.  This learning was only successful if I was a large part of the process. If we really mean what we say, that we want to help our students to become life-long learners, then we have to start removing ourselves from the equation. But, still, that does NOT mean that we set back and do nothing. It is our job to teach our students the processes that they will need to go through in order to do the learning they need to do. It is our job to stand by their side and watch them carefully so that we know when to step in and guide them in a better direction. It is our job to be there to see their frustration and decide when they have struggled enough on their own and when to step in and help. It is our job to set them up for successful learning and guide them along the path towards that successful learning. But we simply cannot do this if we do not let them find their own way first.

So, yes, WHAT they are learning in terms of content connected to their chosen topics, is incredibly important. But, more important to me, is that they are learning a process that they feel ownership over that will allow them to do this work far after they leave me and our classroom.

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

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

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

But these guidelines. They were about more than bathrooms.

And that is something that I deeply understand.

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

And that makes so much sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have that power.

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

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

Here are some places to start:

An Open Letter To Adults From a Transgender Child

Parents of Transgender Children Request A Meeting With Trump and Devos

Our Bathroom Bullying Story

Gavin Grimm Takes His Fight To The Supreme Court

Dear Trans Kids: From a Trans Teacher

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


Teaching Tolerance


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And in that moment. I realized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, one of the greatest solutions is inquiry.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Assessment as Celebration

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

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

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

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

This, for me, has changed everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is exactly what I do.

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

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

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

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

Heading into 2017 Noticing Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is simply not the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

So what does our unit actually involve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And here is the chart I created from these later:


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

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


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

And then the kids got to work.

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

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

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

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

A.M. Class:

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

Second Place — Maybe Something Beautiful

Third Place — The StoryTeller

P.M. Class:

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

Second Place — The Secret Subway

Third Place — Maybe Something Beautiful

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

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