Someone, somewhere…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Compliance: Shifting the Narrative From Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should you follow rules? Why or why not?

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

Should you follow every rule? Why or why not?

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

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

And then:

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

And then:

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

And then:

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

And then:

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

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

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

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

And then:

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

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

How should we handle rules in this classroom?

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how does that all happen?

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

The first learning targets that I introduce are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Need of a Rest

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

This summer, I am search of more quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy summer everyone.



I Do Not Fit Easily Into This World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want us to be more aware.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Supporting Claims With Evidence: Teaching Beyond the How

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the way that I frame our opinion writing work. We begin our study of opinion writing by examining the many purposes for writing about our opinions and we look at how we can use writing in order to demand the change that we want to see in the world. (If you would like to read more about that work, you can find it in THIS BLOG POST.)

Just like we spent time thinking about the different purposes for different types of opinion writing overall, I also wanted to engage my students in thinking about the different purposes for different types of evidence that they can use to support the reasons that they are making their claims through their writing.

Opinion writing centers around evidence. But too often, we tell our students to make sure that they support the claims that they are making with evidence without taking the time to look at the many different types of evidence that writers use in the world outside of school. Yes. Evidence can be quotes and statistics, but it can be more than that. It can be a child’s personal experience. It can be images that the writer creates using words. It can be so many things. In our quest to make sure that everything we do is “text” based, we have forgotten to teach our students that often the most passionate writing they will do, will come not from an article that they have read, but from experiences that they have lived through. Just look at the persuasive writing that is coming out of the young activists from Parkland, Florida. They are moving the country not just by quoting statistics, but they are sharing their personal experiences and using them to help convince this country that we need to change.

Another piece that I think we often miss as educators is that we forget that our job is NOT to tell each child what type of evidence that they need to use and when they need to use it, but rather we need to teach them a variety of types of evidence AND teach them when it might be best to use those different types of evidence so that they can make those choices for themselves. In this way, we can arm our students with a wide range of tools that they will have at their disposal when they are off and writing in this world and we can help them to decide when it is the best time to use each of those tools. We can provide them not with a formula that will limit them, but with possibilities that will empower them to craft the right type of writing at the moment when they most need it.

As I mentioned in my first blog post about our opinion writing this year, my students are writing a variety of types of opinion writing based on the changes that they are demanding and the audience that has the power to make those changes. Some students are writing persuasive blog posts to reach a large and public audience. Others are writing letters to school administrators. Others are writing letters to members of Congress.

No matter what type of writing they are doing, however, they will need to back-up what they are saying with evidence. So the majority of our time in this unit is spent examining what kinds of evidence they might be able to use in order to support a variety of claims. We do this by looking at our mentor texts. We do this by reading compelling texts and asking ourselves in what ways writers support what they are saying. Not only how do they do this, but also why do they select different types of evidence in different moments. Once we can understand that. We are better able to make those writing decisions ourselves.

And we begin with the evidence that is easiest to gather. The evidence that does not require my students to do any research beyond thinking about their own lived experiences and what they know from their own lives and the lives of those around them. When we are just beginning to learn the craft of opinion writing, I want them to know that their own life experiences are sometimes the most powerful ones to use to support their claims. When I sit down to write a blog post that I hope will change the minds of some of my readers, rarely do I begin by looking up quotes and statistics. Most often, I begin by thinking about my own experiences and how I can use those to help others see the need for change.

So that is where I ask my students to begin as well. Over the first few weeks of our unit, we look at a variety of mentor texts. I begin by using mentor texts that draw heavily from the experiences of the writers. CLICK HERE to see a document that shows many of the mentor texts that I use throughout our entire unit. (The quality is a bit poor since I attempted to convert the files into a GoogleDoc, but you can look up most of these online and find much better copies of them to use.)

With our first mentor texts, we simply practice figuring out what the overall claim of the piece of writing is. What does the writer want? What changes does the writer hope to see? We do this work as my students are starting to craft their own claim statements. I have shared it before, but THIS is the planning document that they use as they are doing this work.

After they have their first claim statements. We look back at our mentor texts and begin to list out the reasons that writers give to support the claims they are making. At this point, my students also begin to list out reasons that will support the claims they are making. I do not hand them a graphic organizer, but rather teach them to build an organizing tool that fits the needs of the writing that they hope to do. I wrote about this work last year in THIS BLOG POST.

And then it is time to start planning the evidence that they will use to support the reasons they will give in their writing. Instead of telling my students what evidence to use, we return, once again, to our mentor texts. We start to analyze how our writers are supporting what they are saying in their writing. The first things that my students start to notice go up onto our anchor charts. We look at how writers use personal experience, if/then statements, specific examples and details that create images in the minds of the reader. As we learn about these types of evidence, we highlight examples where we see them in our mentor texts.

And then. More importantly. We talk about why our writers chose these types of evidence in these specific moments. We look at how each type of evidence helps the writer in a different way. As we are doing this, we go back to our own plans and we look for ways that we might be able to use each type of evidence. Sometimes, my students are able to find ways to use these types of evidence in their own writing. Often, they find multiple places to each type of evidence. Other times, they don’t have a use for each type of evidence. And all of that is fine.

The idea is not to tell the kids how many pieces of evidence they need for each reason. They idea is to teach our students to think about the claims they are making and what types of evidence will be most useful.

Once we master using the kind of evidence that does not require any research, then we begin to look at the evidence that does require research. As we work to learn these new strategies, students look for places to start to add in these new strategies in their own writing. And the whole time. While we are doing this learning, we are also writing. That means that the first pieces that my students complete often are based on no formal research. Because we have not yet learned to use strategies that require research. And that is okay. I trust that as we learn more strategies, my students will start to use more strategies. And my conferring make sure that this is exactly what they are doing.

Every year, what I observe is that when we begin, the topics that my students chose to write about are personal. They mostly only affect them. They write about the stuff that they want or the changes they want at school that will make their own lives better. And every year I worry that we will not think more globally. And every year, my students prove me wrong. As we learn about how writers use more than their own lived experiences, my students begin to think beyond their own lived experiences. As we read about issues that affect the world beyond the writer, my students begin to think about the changes that they hope to see in the world beyond just themselves. So as my students learn new tools and strategies, they start to adapt what they are writing about in order to find opportunities to use those strategies.

As we learn, we add to our anchor charts which provide a visual reminder of all the things that we are learning to do as opinion writers. Here is how our charts looked as we neared the end of our unit:


And every time I sit to confer with a writer, I notice all of the ways that they are supporting the claims that they are making. And what I notice every year is the wide variety of ways that my students use the strategies that we have learned together. Their writing never looks just one way because their writing is truly designed to fit their needs as writers.

And that is what always leads me to remember to ask my students to start to use their own pieces of writing as mentor texts to teach the rest of their classmates about what they have learned how to do. I will describe that work in my next blog post.

Rethinking Research — Part #1

I recently gave a presentation that I titled, “Revolutionary Reading: Reading To Change the World,” and in it, I talked about four of the bigger reading skills that I weave into my own reading instruction that aim to help kids not only to be better readers, but better human beings as well. One of the skills that I talked about was learning to base your beliefs on research. I wanted to share some of my thinking on how I have worked to rethink research in my classroom through the use of inquiry circles (as described by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels in their amazing book Comprehension and Collaboration) since it is the work that my students and I are currently engaged in.

I have written extensively about the work that we have done with our inquiry circles in past year and you can find those posts starting HERE and HERE. But this year, I have made some changes that were based on my desire to help my students to tie their own beliefs to the research that they have done and not simply to the things that they have been told by the adults around them. This year, I wanted to really hone in on the process that I wanted my students to walk away with that would allow them to learn about any current, complex social issues from multiple perspectives in order to reach their own beliefs.

As in past years, I began by introducing the idea of inquiry circles to my students and telling them that they would be selecting current, complex social issues to study from multiple perspectives with a group of students. The groups would be formed based around shared interests and our learning would focus on the comprehension strategy of synthesizing, while also walking through important skills that would allow them to responsibly use digital resources in order to research these issues. Our work would culminate in some form of written action that would work to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom. This is the anchor chart that I used in order to introduce this work to my students:


In order to spark ideas for our inquiry circle groups, I shared with my students the following slideshow: Slideshow To Spark Ideas for Inquiry. As students worked through this slideshow on their own or with a partner, they brainstormed ideas that they had on THIS FORM. After brainstorming, we came together as a class and started to share some of the ideas that we had. These were the charts of ideas that we built:

And from there, we worked to narrow these topics down even more using THIS FORM. Once we came up with a smaller list by looking at the topics that more than one person was interested in studying, then the students wrote down their top three choices on a notecard. I took those notecards home and sorted them based on first choices. Then, I sat together with my students and we looked at the notecards all together and moved kids around until we had groups that everyone felt good about. By allowing the students’ choices to drive our topic selection and group formation, I was making it clear from the beginning that I was not attempting to teach my students WHAT to think, but rather I was teaching them HOW to think about these complex topics. The topic choices came from my students and their desire to know and NOT based on what I wanted my students to know or to think. This is an important idea that I wrote more about last year.

These charts show the topics and groups that we formed:

Once we had our topics and selected and our groups formed, that is when I really wanted to rethink the way that I had asked my students to research in the past. In the past, my research process with my students looked something like this: Research Process 1

I used to begin my asking students to craft a claim. A statement that expressed what they believed. And then, I sent my students out to find research that SUPPORTS that claim. And then, they used the evidence that they found in order to write about their claim and support it with evidence.

What I finally realized about this process is that I was asking my students to do the VERY thing that I believe has proved to be extremely problematic with the way adults learn about complex topics. Often, we seek out ONLY the research that supports the beliefs that we hold. It is this way of researching that often has us only getting our information from the sources who tend to agree with us. It is this way of researching that has led to the echo chambers that we currently exist is. And I was a part of perpetuating those problems. I was teaching my students to go out and IGNORE all of the research that did not agree with the beliefs that they held. In this way, I was teaching my students to ignore any opinions that did not match their own and I was robbing them of the chance of doing any research that might push their thinking and help them to more fully understand the complex issues that they were supposed to be studying.

So I needed to fix this problem. To do that, I needed to change the order in which I was asking my students to gather information and craft a claim. So now, my research process looks more like this: Research Process 2

Now, I ask my students to start their work by first identifying the opinions and biases that they ALREADY hold about a topic. I ask them to do this by using an updated version of the KWL. Instead of listing just what we know or what we think we know, I now ask my students to list the things that they have already heard about their topics that they think are probably true and then list the things that they have heard but that they are skeptical of. And then, I ask them to try to identify what biases they already hold. I model for them how I can take a topic like DACA and list out the opinions that I already hold that might influence the way that I seek out information. And then, finally, I look at those three columns and begin to craft questions that will help me to research this topic responsibly in order to better understand other perspectives, even when I do not think that I will agree with them. In this way, I am more likely to ask questions that can help me to learn about this topic from MULTIPLE perspectives. Then. And only then, can I begin to craft a claim that I will be able to support with the research that I have done.

This is the anchor chart that I used to introduce those ideas: IMG_5551

This is the revised KWL form that I asked my students to fill out before they began ANY research: Identifying prior knowledge, potential misconceptions, opinions and biases form. Here is a quick look at what that form looks like, but click the link to see the actual document. Revised KWL

After taking some time to fill out this form independently, then my students were finally read to meet with the rest of their inquiry circle group. The first time that they met with their groups, their task was simply to share what they had identified on their revised KWL forms and then to fill out THIS INTIAL MEETING document in order to let me know what they were interested in learning more about.

All of this work was what was done BEFORE they ever began their research. I wanted to give them the time to think about and talk about what they already thought they knew and believed. I wanted them to disagree with each other and question each other and notice what perspectives might exist, before they ever started seeking out information connected to their topics.

It is a step that I wish more adults took the time to do. It is a step that I think could save us from some of the problems that we find ourselves facing that have made it nearly impossible for us to have conversations about complex issues with people who think differently than we do.

Teachers often ask me what program I take my mini-lessons from. Teachers often ask me how I build my units. And I think what they are looking for is a list of lessons that I believe we need to teach our students. But the truth is that one of THE most important places that I look in order to guide my instruction is the world around us and the problems that exist within it. I look at the things that frustrate me about the world and I think about what I wish we were better able to do and THOSE are things that I try to teach to my students. And all the other stuff. All the other standards and skills and strategies, those are the things that I work in around these big ideas. What is it that I wish adults were better capable of doing? What are the things that are standing in the way of us doing better? These are the big ideas that I craft my units around.

Revolutionary Reading Units

And as I explained in the presentation that I gave (using the image above), I believe that we can use all the other things that we are required to teach as steps towards these bigger goals. And that is what makes me so grateful to be a teacher.

I will come back with more in later posts about the process that we use as we begin our research into these complex topics as we move from building an understanding of our topics to developing a stance about our topics and finally into action connected to our topics.

What I Do Not Want To Hear Anymore

Kids today are lazy.

Kids today are selfish.

Kids today are apathetic.

Kids today spend too much time in front of their screens.

Kids today are spoiled.

Kids today have no respect for authority.

I am done with all of that. I am sick of hearing it. I will actively block those who share articles on Facebook that point to one of those statements as truth.

Because look at what kids today are doing. Look at how they are standing up and speaking out. Look at how they are leading us. Look at how they are picking up the slack for the things that we have ignored.

Young people were on the front lines as the Black Lives Matter movement began. Young people were on the front lines when public schools in their neighborhoods were being closed. And now young people are, once again, on the front lines after surviving a school shooting and demanding that this country finally gets serious about stricter gun control laws.

In many ways, we, as teachers and parents, have failed these kids. But it is NOT because we have been too permissive, it is NOT because we have allowed them to have a voice and a say in the way that they are treated by adults, it is NOT because we have allowed them to use social media to share their voices with the world, it is NOT because we have not said NO often enough, it is NOT because we have taught them to question what they are told and the rules that they are expected to follow and it is NOT because of the time we have allowed them to use technology to connect with others.

These are so often the reasons that are given for how we are failing this generation of young people. We as teachers and we as parents. We have helped them to find their voices and we have helped them to find ways to share those voices with the world. And while so many are busy criticizing today’s youth and today’s schools and today’s parents for being lazy and too screen-obsessed, we have been actually failing our children in so many other ways.

We have been failing our children by allowing our schools to turn into testing factories that narrow our curriculum and teach our children that they are to be judged only by their ability to choose the answer that was deemed to be correct by a person who has never met them or heard what they really know about the world.

We have been failing our children by allowing so many of them to remain invisible in our schools while we have continued to privilege just one kind of voice and one kind of story so that too many of our children do not recognize their own value or worth in this world.

We have been failing our children by staying silent on topics that make us uncomfortable or make us feel uncertain about what we know so that our children have no models of how to have difficult conversations and are left to figure that out for themselves.

We have been failing our children by denying them stories that would allow them to build empathy for others who exist in this world because the stories make us nervous that they will ask questions that we are uncertain of how to answer.

We have been failing our children by BLOCKING the internet and social media and technology from them instead of TEACHING them how to use these tools responsibly so that they can do good in this world and balance their use of technology better than we, as adults, have done.

We have been failing our children by allowing our schools to become overly reliant on systems that reward compliance and take away a student’s right to ask questions about what they are being asked to do and why.

We have been failing our children by allowing government officials who care more about money and power than they do about the safety and security of our youngest citizens to be elected into office because it might give us a better income tax rate.

We have been failing our children by allowing people into office who do not want to ensure that all children are given access to adequate health care so that their physical AND emotional selves are kept well.

We have been failing our children by allowing them to be exposed to hateful words and untruths about who they are where they have come from without loudly proclaiming in public spaces how wrong these words are and that any single child’s worth and humanity and right to exist in this world and this country will NOT be up for debate in our classrooms.

In all of these ways, and in so many more, we have been failing our students and yet I keep reading articles and I keep reading statements about how the real problem is that we are giving kids too much screen time and we are not saying no often enough. Do I believe that these, too, can become problems? Yes. Of course I do. But do I believe that they are the biggest problems that we, adults, are causing for our children. Not at all.

Because look at the many ways we, as adults, are failing our children and look at what these amazing young people are managing to do in spite of all that. And I have to believe that in some small way, part of the reason that they are able to stand up and speak out and fight back is because somewhere along the way, they have learned how.

They have learned how because someone showed them how to use those screens to do good in this world. They have learned how because someone helped them to believe that there is value in being critical of what you are being asked to do and what you are being told as truth. They have learned how because someone suggested to them that there is value on pushing back against authority and showed them ways to do that so that they will be heard.

So let’s stop talking about giving teachers guns. Let’s stop talking about how we are ruining our children with screens. And let’s start following where our students are leading us and help them to do better for this world.