Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 2)

In my last blog post, I wrote about my own personal awakening in terms of the need to bring discussions of race into my classroom. I shared some of the earliest discussions that I had with my 5th graders regarding whose voices were being heard and whose voices were missing from current event articles having to do with protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. I also shared how this led us to begin to think about the messages on race that are surrounding us in the media.  Finally, I shared one student’s question about whether these messages on race also existed in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question led us to our next phase of study on the messages that surround us.

Race is a REALLY hard thing for 5th graders to think about. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that race is a REALLY hard thing for any of us to think about, especially those of us who have the privilege of NOT thinking about it every day.  As with any new concept in teaching, I knew that I had to start with where my students were before I pushed them to think in new and more complicated ways.  So before we tackled the messages on race that exist in picture books and novels, I wanted to begin with messages on gender.  This concept is more concrete and I knew my students would be able to get a good start here before I pushed them to think about race.

So that is where I started. We would work to look for messages on gender that are present in texts that we read.

In reading, we were currently in the middle of a unit on inferring.  Our reading units are focused around comprehension strategies.  Too often, we teach comprehension strategies simply for the sake of teaching comprehension strategies. We teach children to infer as they read so that they can infer as they read. We know good readers infer and so we want our students to know how to do that.  But what we often miss, is the reason WHY. Why are we inferring? What larger purpose does it serve? So I decided that as a class, in our reading unit on inferring, we would first work to infer the INTENDED messages in the texts that we read (what is the author TRYING to tell us?) and then I would push the kids to infer the UNINTENDED messages in the texts that we read (what messages are present even though the author might not have any intention of sending these messages to us?).

By embedding this work within one of our reading units, I was taking care of a problem that I too often fall back on when looking to find a space in our busy day to teach concepts I KNOW are important for my students. I am too quick to say, I don’t have time to do that. But by working within the structure of our reading units, I was able to find time to work on inferring AND to work on helping my students to realize how many messages they are being bombarded with that are shaping the way they think about people of different genders, races, classes, etc. I was able to do the important work to make my students better human beings and more responsible citizens WHILE also making sure I was meeting all of the learning targets that were laid out in my curriculum.

The first place that we began was at Pottery Barn.  I put my students into small groups and had each small group go to the Pottery Barn Kids website. From there, I had the groups click on the separate boxes for “Boy Rooms” and “Girl Rooms.” I asked the kids to look at the website for a while and just talk about what they were noticing.  After giving them a few minutes to discuss, I pulled the class back together and asked them to share some of their thoughts. I that point I stopped and thought out loud for them that I was noticing two types of thinking being shared.  I noticed that students were talking about things that they actual SAW on the website (this was what was actual IN the text) and then they were talking about what they INFERRED those things meant (this was their own thinking that they were adding to what was IN the text). I told them that this was inferring just like when they added their own thinking to what an author wrote in order to better understand what they author was really trying to say. So we began a chart and I asked them, in their groups, to write down both kinds of thinking that they were sharing. I asked them to write down what they actually saw on the website (or in the text) and then I asked them to write down what messages they thought this was sending on gender. So for example, one group said that they noticed that in the boy rooms there were several science themed rooms but there were not any (other than some butterflies) in the girl rooms.  That was their actual observation. They thought that this sent the message that boys were more likely to enjoy science than girls and maybe even that boys were smarter than girls.  That was their inference on the unintended messages on gender.  The groups quickly got back together and came up with many observations that led to many inferences on unintended messages on gender.

It was amazing to hear the conversations that were already unfolding. One of the biggest realizations that my students made, that would become INCREDIBLY helpful when we moved over to looking at written texts, was that messages are sent without being explicitly stated.  So, for example, Pottery Barn does not need to come out and say that they believe that girls do not play sports and boys do in order to send the message that girls don’t play sports and boys do. That message is sent by having multiple boys’ rooms filled with sports object and no girls’ rooms filled with sports objects.  This concept was new for many of my students and it was one that we would continue to build on.  I never stopped to think about how many of my students thought that the only messages that could be sent were the ones that were explicitly stated.

After noticing MANY messages on gender within the Pottery Barn Kids website, we then moved on to another place that is rich with gender messages: Fairy Tales.  As I wrote earlier this school year, I had the absolute privilege of attending a workshop with Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman on their book Falling in Love with Close Reading. I had yet to find the right place in my reading workshop to use what I had learned with Chris and Kate. One of the big takeaways for me from their workshop was the importance of using close reading for a purpose. And I had not seen a real purpose until we got to our study of unintended messages.  I knew that I needed my students to read texts closely in order for them to see how the words that are chosen and the actions that are described with a text can send strong messages on gender.  My students had to do more than just one reading of a fairy tale in order to see these messages and so I decided to use the close reading ritual so brilliantly described in Kate and Chris’s book.


The first thing that I did was to read Sleeping Beauty out loud to my students.  I asked them only to notice the way male and female characters were described.  When we finished reading, I had them write their observations.  The students shared these observations and I quickly saw that they were extremely general and missing some of the big concepts that I wanted them to see.  So. We reread.  This time, I asked the students to split their paper in half.  On one side I asked them to write the words FEMALE CHARACTERS and on the other side I asked them to write the words MALE CHARACTERS.  As I read the story to them a second time, I asked them to write down words and phrases that were IN THE TEXT that described male characters or female characters. Borrowing language from Kate Roberts, I told them to write down whatever felt important to them.  Here is one sample of what a student’s paper looked like at the end of the second reading of Sleeping Beauty:


The next step in the close reading ritual is to look for patterns in the words that you wrote down on your paper. So I began by modeling for students how I circled all of the words that described how a character looked in a specific color. I had the kids do the same and then I asked them to look for more groupings of patterns that they noticed.  Here is what our class chart looked like in the middle of this work:


Some of the categories or groupings that the kids came up with were: words that described how characters looked, words that described actions characters took, words that described internal characteristics of characters, words that described emotions and words that talked about characters’ futures.  Each student had slightly different categories and slightly different words written down, so they had time to get together to share their work with others.

The final step in the close reading ritual was to make observations based on the list of words and the categories that you had in front of you and to then push yourself to make interpretations of these observations. So for us, that involved looking at what we noticed about our categories and then making interpretations about what kind of gender messages were being sent in the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. This was by far the hardest part of the process for my students.  So I created this template to help them to organize and express their thinking.  We summarized some of our thinking on the following class chart: IMG_6197

After going through this whole process as a class, I wanted my students to have some practice doing this work on their own. So I split the class into groups and allowed each group to pick one of four other fairy tales to work with. They could choose: Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, or Beauty and the Beast. I made sure to have fairy tales of different lengths and difficulty and the groups were made up of a wide range of reading strengths and weaknesses.  This allowed each group to select a text that would work best for that group.

The students were able to work at their own paces because they now knew the entire process to go through. I had two charts displayed to remind them of the steps that we went through.  I only have a picture of the first chart: IMG_6073

The final step involves creating the observations and interpretations using the template that I explained above.

When the groups were finished, each group created a poster to share their observations and interpretations with the rest of the class. Here are some of their posters:

IMG_6209 IMG_6211 IMG_6212 IMG_6219 IMG_6220

The last step of our work was for each group to display their posters around the room. I then gave the kids time to view each of the posters from each of the groups and think about the commonalities that they were seeing in terms of the gender messages being sent.  I then gave them time, in their groups, to write their observations on a class Padlet. Here are the Padlets from my MORNING CLASS and my AFTERNOON CLASS.

The discussions that came from this work were simply incredible. I really saw my students’ understanding of unintended messages grow and deepen. They were really beginning to see how messages that come from what we read or from the media have a profound affect on how we view the world. It was an important step in getting my students to really think about how their ideas about groups of people were formed. They were starting to see that how we view the world doesn’t just come from nowhere and it doesn’t just come from what we hear our parents say. Our ideas on the world come from every single thing that we see or experience and often our ideas are shaped without us even realizing it.

Once we had completed our work with fairy tales, we were ready to move on to picture books and from there, we would expand our thinking to include more than just gender. We would begin to also think about race and family structure as well.  I will write about that work in my next blog post.


Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 1)

I remember so vividly the moment that my eyes were ripped open.

The moment occurred while I was watching the coverage that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I remember being horrified by the story. But sadly the story alone is not what finally dragged me out of the ignorance I had been living in.  The moment that truly sent shock waves through my entire being occurred as I was listening to a black woman talking about how she taught her son what he had to do in order to decrease the likelihood that he would be shot by a police officer for nothing other than being a black man.

I didn’t know that happened.

I honestly did not know.

I am ashamed that I didn’t know. I am so saddened that it took something this awful for me to begin to understand. But the truth was that I did not know.  I did not realize what black mothers had to tell their children. I did not bother to seek out the stories of black men and black women who were afraid of not just being treated unfairly, but who were forced to be afraid of being killed because of how others saw them.

But once I started to know. Once I began to understand. I knew that I had to learn more. I knew that my own ignorance was part of the race problem in America. I knew that my ability to NOT know about these fairly common truths was a signal of my privilege and my complicity in a racist system.  And so I started to listen and seek out the stories of others. And I also started to see all that was being presented to me that created the biases that I was operating under. And I started to realize just how much I did not know and just how much racism and how many racist messages existed in our world that I had simply not been seeing.

Because after Trayvon Martin, then it was Michael Brown and then it was Eric Garner and then and then and then. There were the stories that made the news and there were oh so many others that did not.  And the media coverage alone was enough to prove how racist of a world we are living in.  And then, it wasn’t just the media who was saying things that made me cringe. Then it was people in my own life. It was my colleagues. It was my friends on Facebook. It was my students.  So many people operating under incredible ignorance. So many people conveniently hiding in their own privilege.

And I was one of them.

And then. Then I started to think about those who were doing the shooting and the killing.  I thought about what they had been taught. I thought about what they had not been taught. I thought about what kinds of messages they had been exposed to that they did not even realize were shaping the attitudes and beliefs that they held about people of color.  I thought about what kind of classrooms they had sat in as they grew up. What kinds of conversations about race did they hear in those classrooms?

And that’s when i knew. I knew that if their classrooms were anything like the classroom that I teach in every day, there were no conversations about race.  Sure there was teaching about the Civil Rights Movement.  But that was the teaching of history. Ancient history in the minds of the young children I teach. But there were no conversations about the role race plays in our world today.  If their classrooms were anything like my own, their teachers were too afraid, too unaware, too unsure to bring up conversations of race.  I know that I have been.

Until my eyes were ripped open. Then I knew I could no longer stay silent. Then I knew that I had to begin to help my students see what I had only just begun to see.  Because what I know is that the only hope we have in making our world a better place is in helping our students to grow up knowing more than we knew so that they can do better than we have done.

I was so unsure of how to start. So I had my students start where I was starting.  I knew that my students would follow where I led and if I led them into a territory that was so important and yet one that I did not fully understand, I knew that they would still work with me so that we could all reach a better place of understanding.

So this past year, I started with some news articles.  We read about race. We read about the protests in Ferguson and in Baltimore. We read about the way people were using social media in order to protest the way things were in our country. We read. And we thought. And in these small actions, we made ourselves a bit braver to tackle the conversations that still scared us. Suddenly, we were having the conversations that I said I did not know how to have. We started so small. But at least we started.

As we read these articles and watched these news clips. I started to ask my students to think about whose voices were being heard in the media and, more importantly, I asked them to think about whose voices were NOT being heard. These questions alone led us to some incredible conversations and some incredible moments of learning for both my students and for me.  This led us to analyze how different groups of people were portrayed in different news articles and in the media in general.  And this led us to think about who was not really being portrayed at all.

And what my students were showing me was that the most important place for us to start was in simply recognizing the messages that were surrounded us about race.  The vast majority of my students are white and they just had no clue as to how much the outside world was influencing the way they viewed themselves and other races. As we did this work I began to see that I had a huge responsibility to begin to help these kids think about race so that they did not grow up believing that race didn’t matter. I wanted to help them start to unpack their own concepts of race, their concepts of what it means to be white, what it means to be black, what it means to exist in a world where there is so much work still yet to be done before we can ever claim that we are all being treated equally.  I didn’t have all the answers, but what mattered is that my students and I were starting to at least ask the questions.  We were starting to pull apart and look at the messages on race, gender, ethnicity and class that we were surrounded by so that we could question them, push back against them and fight them.

And one day, one of my students asked if these same messages were present in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question, led my students and I into a four week study of unintended messages present in the picture books that we read. I will share more about the work we did with picture books in my next blog post.