Courageous Conversations

Today, it was hard for me not to have hope for this world.

For the past two weeks, my students and I have been engaged in an inquiry into the lives of others with a particular focus on race, assumptions, stereotypes and bias.  If you are interested, you can read about the start of our work HERE and the continuation of our work HERE.

After spending several days digging into some incredible resources, I knew that I wanted my students to have time to discuss their new understandings and the questions that they still had.  I wanted my students to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to learn from each other and to reach new thinking together. Not only did I want this for my students, but I knew that this was what they needed. To learn and to grow in regards to issues as difficult as race, we humans need to engage in conversation. We need to talk. We need to listen.

But these things do not come easily. For adults, talking about race is a challenge. And now, I wanted to release my students into small-group, student-led conversations. And I was scared. I had watched my students wrestle with incredibly challenging questions over our past two weeks of work.  I had seen them learn to ask better questions and follow those questions towards better understanding.

And yet, I had also heard how much they still did not understand. I also heard how much they still needed guidance and explanation. I also heard how much they still spoke from a place of privilege and misunderstanding. And I was scared of what would happen when I was not right next to them, when I could not jump right in, when I could not fix the things I wanted to fix right away.

Luckily, I was not in this alone. Not only did I have my students there with me. But I also had the wisdom of others. This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending the single most powerful conference session that I have ever attended.  At ILA, the brilliant Cornelius Minor led a session focusing on how to have difficult conversations about race with your students in the classroom. To be in that room was to witness brilliance. I do not think that one person left that room without having been changed in some way. I wish I could put into words the work that was done that day, but I truly have no words.

Not only did Cornelius model for us how to have difficult conversations with our students, but he managed to create a safe space within minutes where people shared and listened and learned in a way that I have not before experienced. I learned so much that day. As a teacher. As a human.

And so today, several months after this session, I carried Cornelius’s words and the words of everyone who so bravely shared their truths that day, into my classroom.

One of the things that I learned that day was the power of giving people time to think, to collect their thoughts, to reflect before beginning a conversation. I also learned that we must be deliberate in how we help kids to listen and not just to talk. So I began by asking my students to prepare for their discussions today.

We started by looking at the notes that my students had been collected over the past two weeks.  Each student had been using THIS DOCUMENT to collect their thinking about the seven big questions that they had asked after watching our first video.  After looking over their answers and their questions, I modeled how I sorted my own answers and questions into questions that I was not able to answer and wanted to discuss, questions I found answers to but wanted to hear the perspectives of others and thoughts that I wanted to make sure to share with my group in today’s discussion.  I then asked my students to do the same. I gave them THIS DOCUMENT to help them to begin to sort through their many thoughts and questions.  I gave them a few silent minutes to think and sort and prepare.

Something else that I learned from Cornelius’s session was the power of starting small. In the size of the group and also in the length of the initial discussion. So I begin by putting the kids into pairs. I told the pairs that I wanted them to start with a question. I told them that their first discussion would only last for three minutes. I told them that as they were discussing, I would walk around and write down the powerful questions that I heard them discussing. I told them that I would make sure they were okay with me sharing their question before I put it up on the board. And then I sent them off to discuss.

And it was amazing. There was not a single pair of students who was not focused on the task at hand. Pairs were listening to each other. They were building off of each other’s thinking. Not a moment was wasted. These kids had so much to say.

After three minutes, I asked the kids to stop and think about what they heard from their partner. I asked them to think not about what they wanted to say next, but instead to think about what they heard from their partner. And then the partners joined another pair and became a group of four. This time, they had six minutes to discuss.

Again, I walked around. I listened it. I asked permission to share questions with the class by writing them up on the board.

After six minutes, I asked the kids to combine one more time so that we had groups of eight. Before they started, I asked them to again think about what they had heard others say. And then I let them go again, this time for twelve minutes.

Here is what it looked like in my classroom this afternoon:

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And the conversations. They were amazing. The questions. They were so good. These kids were so willing to push their thinking, they were so willing to speak even if they weren’t exactly sure of the right way to say what they wanted to say. They were not afraid to ask questions. They were not afraid to make themselves vulnerable by admitting what they did not know and understand. They were not afraid to challenge each other. There were disagreements, but they did not turn into arguments. There were moments where they talked over each other or at each other and there were also moments where they were listening not just with their ears, but with their hearts.

We have so much to learn from kids.

The conversations were far from perfect. There were comments made that still made me cringe. There were moments I had to walk away. There were moments I had to interrupt and intervene.  But I kept reminding myself. They are ten. This is the first time many of them have engaged in conversations of race. It isn’t always going to be pretty. In fact, most times it is going to be pretty messy. Pretty ugly.

But if I let that stop me. If I let that stop us. We would have missed so much.

Just look at the questions that my students discussed today:

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Today my students learned that it is okay to talk about race. That it is necessary. That it is the only hope we have of making anything better. Today my students learned that sometimes, often times, you will say something hurtful even when you don’t mean to and that all you can do then is apologize and then do better next time. Today my students learned that staying silent is dangerous and that through tough conversations we can learn and grow and change the way we think about this world. Today my students learned how much they are truly capable of.

And I learned those lessons too.

I learned so much from my students today.

But most of all, I learned this. As teachers, our fear can stop us from doing a lot of important things. Things that have the potential to make the world a better place. I think about what would happen if everyone in this country spent time when they were kids discussing race and assumptions and implicit bias. If everyone took a chance to share their understandings and their misunderstandings. To listen and learn and grow and admit what they do not know and do not understand. What would happen to this country if we all had these conversations more often? I have to imagine we would live in a kinder, more just, more fair kind of world. And yet, so often we do not have these conversations with our students because we are sacred. Because we aren’t sure if we really know how.

But then.

Look at what can happen when we do have these conversations. Look at how we can grow and learn and change and watch our students become better human beings right before our eyes.

It is so worth the risk. So worth the fear.

And when we do it together. When we lean on each other. When we share what we have done. What has worked. What has not worked. The work itself becomes so much easier.

Because Cornelius may not have been there in my classroom with me today, but his words were. His ideas were. His strength was. And we can continue to do that for each other. But we have to start and we have to share and we have to trust that our students are going to lead us somewhere so hopeful.

 

 

 

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Working to Change the Narrative: An Inquiry Into Story

When I first made the decision to tell my students that I am gay, part of what motivated me was a desire to change the narrative that my students had of people who were gay. For some of my students, the only things they had heard about gay people were the stereotypes they had been fed by television and movies.  For other students, the only things they knew were the awful things they were told by others who were fearful or intolerant or ignorant.

So when I made the decision to come out to my students, my hope was that when my students thought of someone who was gay, they would not think about some caricature or television character or some stereotype or about something awful that someone once described to them. Instead, they would think about their fifth grade teacher. They would think about the teacher who loved them and was (mostly) patient with them and who maybe even helped them to learn something about themselves and this world we live in. I wanted to change the narrative.  I wanted to add to the story that they knew about people who are gay.

As teachers, we make choices all the time about which stories we bring into our classrooms and which stories we leave out of our classrooms.  We choose which stories to read all together and which stories to quietly leave in a corner of our classroom libraries. We make choices about which stories are given voice and space in our classrooms and which ones are silenced. That is a lot of power and I think we need to start to do more with it.

With all that is going on in this world, with all of the hate, with all of the violence, I have been thinking so much recently about stories. The stories we know. The stories we don’t know. The ones that are told. The ones that are hidden. The sensational ones that are fed to us by all sorts of media because they are the ones that will make someone money. And the quieter stories that are often kept hidden for fear that they will not bring viewers or clicks or dollars.

I have been thinking about the stories that play in our heads when we walk down the streets. When we encounter a person. When we encounter a person and immediately try to place them in a preexisting box that we know and are comfortable with because we know a certain story about the kind of person who fits in that box and that makes us feel like we know the actual person.  And somehow we are comforted by that kind of knowing.

But that kind of knowing is killing us.

Deciding that we know a person because of the stories we have been told. The stories that are far too often, far too incomplete.  We make judgements based on what we think we know. We make decisions based on who we think a person is. We take actions based on the stories that we believe we understand.

And for too many people, the stories that we think we know are inadequate and they are dangerous.

So when I return to my classroom in the fall, we will begin our year with an inquiry into story. I do not have it all planned yet and I know that I won’t be able to have it all planned until I am sitting there with my students.  But I know that it is where I need to begin.

I want to help my students to change the incomplete narratives that so many of them have for so many people in this world. My students are not an extremely diverse group when it comes to races and religions and ethnicities. So much of the knowledge that they have about people in this world comes not from their own experiences, but from the stories that they have been told by others. And I believe that we can work to change the limited narratives that they hold about others. The ones that can be damaging. We can work to dig deeper into the stories of others and to learn to ask questions of the stories that we think we know in order to gain a more full, a more complex, a more complete understanding of someone’s story.

I want to have my students look at stories that are told in which they can see themselves reflected. To think about how the stories of others can be our mirrors and how seeing ourselves within these stories can help us feel less alone in this world.

And then I want them to look at the stories of others in which they cannot see themselves, but through which they can see into the lives of others. I want to help them to use these  stories as windows to look into the lives of others and learn about the lives of others. But I do not want to stop there. I want to help them to learn to ask questions that will lead them to further inquiry in order to uncover the more complete stories that are waiting to be told.

I hope the examine stories that are told in many different ways. Stories that are captured in photographs, in photo essays, in projects like Humans of New York, or StoryCorps, stories that are told through Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and stories told through memoirs and short stories and picture books and blog posts. I want them to read these stories and learn to ask questions that will help them to understand more than simply what they are given or what they find when they do a single Google search. I want them to learn to want to know more than what is nestled in the first story that they read.

We will watch The Danger of a Single Story and work to understand the powerful words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so that we go do better than just stopping at a single story. We will choose stories that we want to learn more about and we will push ourselves to change our existing narratives.

And at the same time, I want to help my students to take control of the narrative that is being told about them. I want them to think about the following questions:

What do others believe about you?

What do you believe about yourself?

And then I want them to take time to think about the stories that they can tell from their own lives in order to disprove or to prove that those things are or are not true. I want us to learn from the mentor texts that we will study as we read the stories of others and I want them to learn that they, too, have stories to share with the world. And I want them to find ways to tell these stories that make sense to them. Perhaps it will be through written word, perhaps through digital story telling, perhaps through a speech or through a picture books. But they must find a way to take control of the narrative being told about who they are.

There is a lot that I am not sure of right now. But I know that this is where I need to go with my students.  I know that there is work to be done. I know that we have the power to change some of the destructive narratives that have been kept alive for far too long in this country. I am not sure how to do it, but as I just read today in this article with the brilliant Chris Lehmann who runs the Science Leadership Academy, “Inquiry means living in the soup. Inquiry means living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.”

So I am uncomfortable with all that I do not know and I am also incredibly excited at the work that lies ahead.  Should you have any ideas that can help my students and I along our way, please feel free to leave them below.

 

 

 

Sharing Stories Is Something We Can Do

Philando Castile.

Alton Sterling.

Two more names added to a list that is far too long. It’s length isn’t what troubles me the most. What troubles me the most is the fact that such a list exists. That is what breaks my heart and makes me want to scream and has had me crying in bursts for the past two days. There is a list of the number of people killed in this country by police officers.  A big list. A list that has the names of more black people than white people. Far more.

And each time a new name is added to this list, a new hashtag is started. Each time we again shake our heads and say we feel helpless and say that we don’t know what we are supposed to do to fix any of this.  Each time we have to listen to people tell us that racism ISN’T the issue here, that racism is not the reason this is happening, that racism is not what caused the death of these beautiful humans. We have to watch people we respect and admire say that if only these people would have done what they are supposed to do, then they would not be dead.

And then we ask, “What on earth are people supposed to do?” It’s been said so many times. It does not matter what people do. People are being shot and killed because of the fear that white people have of black people. White people who have guns and who have been shown time and time again that they have permission to kill black people and not get in trouble for it.  How is that not about racism?

Today my Facebook page is filled with people saying that they don’t know what to do. That they are angry and sad and heartbroken, but they don’t know what to do.  And, of course, none of us can do one thing, in one day, and make racism go away. It obviously doesn’t work like that.

But we who educate children, we have NO RIGHT to say that we don’t know what to do. Because we do. We might be scared to do it. We might be uncertain of how to do it. We might feel uncomfortable doing it. But we know what we can do.

We can do better. We can teach our children to do better. We can have conversations about race. We can share stories of others who have experienced racism. We can stop pretending that these are not our issues to discuss. Because we can sit around and wait for the politicians to fix things, but I sense that will lead us only to frustration. We can sit around and wait for the media to do a better job. We can sit around and wait for the publishing world to do a better job. We can sit around and wait for humans in general to do a better job.

Or. We, the educators of children, we can simply start to do a better job. Because as the country began to expose the obvious racism that exists here today, too many of our classrooms stayed silent on any issue of race. As protestors and activists bravely fought  in the streets of our country, too many of us stayed silent on any issue of race. Because as writers of color began to expose the many, complicated issues of race that infect our country and the people living in it, too many of the stories we shared with children left all of that out.

So today, I will stop saying that I do not know what to do and instead I will start to say what I do know how to do and that is to share the stories of others.  One simple thing that I can do is to read and listen to and seek out the stories of others who have experienced racism in this country and then share those with my students. Because if we do that, then our students will not grow up believing that race doesn’t matter or that there is not racism left here in America. Our students will not be the ones saying that none of this has to do with race. Because they will know. They will know because they will have learned from the stories of others.

So many people of color are generously making themselves vulnerable in order to share their stories so that they can be heard. So many people of color are shouting their heartbreaking stories into the world so that we will hear them and learn from them. So many people of color are willing to tell their darkest moments so that those of us who claim we didn’t know how bad it was can finally start to see the truth.

Those stories are a gift.

And sharing stories is something we all can do.

Here are some stories that I will begin with:

The story of #ITooAmHarvard

Traffic Stop from Story Corps

Your Stories of Racism from The Atlantic

Alton Sterling and Facts a blog post from Matthew R. Morris

Being 12: Kids Talk About Race

Color Blind or Color Brave? TED Talk from Melody Hobson

How to Raise a Black Son in America: TED Talk from Clint Smith

If you know of other stories, written or spoken, please share them with me in the comments below. The more stories we can share with our students, the more hope we can have that they are going to be the ones to do something to make the world a better place.

 

 

 

Having Students Analyze Our Classroom Library To See How Diverse it is

In my last post, I described the work that my students and I have been doing as we attempt to better understand where our biases and stereotypes come from in regards to different races, genders and family structures.

We began with gender.  And after our work with gender, we were ready to try tackling ideas of race.

One of the things that my students and I had talked about with gender and our stereotypes of different genders was how surrounded we are, all the time, by images that shape our ideas and misconceptions. I wanted my students to know that this was true of race as well.

I truly believe that books, of all kind, play a large role in shaping how our students see the world.  So often, children have little choice in what kinds of books surround them.  Even in classrooms and schools where children are free to choose to read whatever books they want, they are still often limited by the choice of books that we adults have placed around them.  And too often, we adults do not think carefully enough about what books, with what images of race and gender and family structure, we are surrounding our children with.

So that is where I wanted to look. At the books I was choosing to put into my classroom library. I wanted my students to join me in looking more closely at the books that I had in my classroom and how they represented and misrepresented the world they are living in.

So we began with an infographic. In fact, the majority of my students had no idea what an infographic was. So first. We had to learn.  This was a good reminder to me to use these rich conveyers of information more often through the year. Anyway, we began by looking at THIS infographic which shares the disturbing statistics on diversity in children’s literature.  This, alone, led to incredible discussion about so many things.

We began with a discussion of the term, “people of color.” So many of my almost all-white students had never heard this term before and it took a while for them to grasp its meaning.  We then had a discussion on the difference between white writers writing about people of color and writers of color writing about people of color. Then we entered into a discussion of how it might be harder for writers of color to get their books published in the competitive world of children’s publishing.  And finally we ended up at a discussion of our own reading preferences and how sometimes we are tempted to read books that discuss lives similar to our own and how much more rewarding it can be to push ourselves to read books that teach us about the lives of others whose lives are different than our own.

All from one infographic.

The children were so eager for the discussion. We actually ended up looking at an entire series of fascinating infographics that show how different kinds of diversity are represented or misrepresented in different areas of society. That series of infographics CAN BE FOUND HERE.

And then we turned to our own books. I wanted to start in my own classroom. I have shared openly with my students that all of this work, on race and on gender, it is work for me too. I know that I make mistakes often and I wanted them to see that I, too, need to constantly do better to work past my own biases and stereotypes.

So I gave my students the chance to audit our own classroom library to find out how different genders and races are represented and how we could do better to make sure that different genders and races were more accurately represented by the books in our classroom.

I asked the students to each randomly grab 25 books. And for each book they were to look to see if there were people on the cover.  If there were, they were to note if all of the people on the cover were white and if all the people on the cover were boys. They kept track on this simple data collection sheet.

Now, I recognize that this is FAR from a thorough and scientific analysis of the books in our classroom library. I recognize that just because there is not a person of color on the cover of a book, that does not mean the book does not contain a person of color in it.  I recognize the flaws. I am shared them with my students. And still, it was something.

Because even more important than our results was the task of looking at the images on the covers of the books that surround us. More important than the numbers that we wrote down, were the discussions we had about why book publishers make the decisions that they make about who goes on the covers of our books. More important than the percentages that we ended up with were the realizations that we all made as we learned to look at the world differently. To see who was represented and, more importantly, to see who was NOT represented. This was the important work that we were doing.

Once the students finished collecting their data, they entered their results into a Google spreadsheet.  HERE ARE OUR RESULTS.  

After spending time looking closely at the books in our classroom library and after spending time looking at the numbers we collected, we had a discussion of what they noticed.  Here are some charts that we used to capture our observations:

 

I was kind of blown away, once again, by what my students discovered. I thought I had a diverse library. I really did. In fact, I have worked over the past two years to make sure that I was buying the kinds of books that would help all of my readers to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books in my classroom.  But what I forgot is that the vast majority of my readers are white. They see themselves, in terms of race, in almost every book they pick up.

What they need is something else. They need to be able to see into the lives of others. To use books as windows so that they can gain an understanding of what it means to be a race other than white. They need books to help them grow and become more empathetic citizens of this world. And while I have tried to provide books for them that would do just that, I realized from their work that I have a LONG way to go.

I need to do better. I need to do more.

And showing my students that I can look at where I am and find ways to do better in terms of making this world more equitable and just, that is no small thing.

So together we brainstormed ways that I can work to improve our classroom library. We talked about starting with sports fiction. The students noticed that while the nonfiction sports books were filled with African-American people, the books in my sports fiction bin barely had any characters of color.  The exception was The Crossover, which just goes to show how important it was for that book to win the Newberry last year.

Here we have taken an area of our society that is rather diverse and the books that I have purchased that have fictionalize that area of society have completely sucked all of the diversity right out of it.  So I must do better.

In the same area, we saw how few girls were represented in our sports fiction books. I have so many girls in my classes who don’t just play sports, but whose lives revolve around their favorite sports and still, we could only find one book, The Running Dream, in our sports fiction books that had a female main character. I must do better.

And then, we moved on to my fantasy and science fiction books. This was an area that was also very much lacking in racial diversity. And so I will now be on the lookout for books with characters of color in these two genres. I must do better.

And one of the most powerful observations that a student made was that while he did see books with African-American characters on the cover, he did not see many other races represented. He did not see any Native American characters, Asian American characters or Middle Eastern characters on the covers of the books that he looked at. Again, I must do better.

These suggestions came from my students and I am so proud of the work that they have done. As I shared with my students, I continue to be proud of our classroom library. I am proud of the choices that I have made in the books that I have put into our classroom library AND at the same time, I know now that I can and must do better. I shared with my students how grateful I am for the work that they have done to help me to see this.

After our counting books, we then used the following pages to look more closely inside of our picture books in order to see how races, genders and families were being represented. The kids chose one of these types of diversity to focus on and then pulled a few books to record their observations and evidence.  Here are the sheets that they used for:

Race

Gender Roles for Children

Gender Roles for Adults

Family Structure 

Again, the students had time to discuss their observations and I was blown away by what they were picking up on.

Finally, we headed to our school’s library, to again count books. We collected the same type of data, but this time for our school library. HERE WERE OUR RESULTS. 

We realized that many of the trends that we saw in our classroom library, also existed in our school library. One of the greatest parts of this work was listening to the students talk to our school librarian (who is amazing) about the changes that we were hoping to make to our classroom library. This led to other powerful conversations between the librarian and me and I was so grateful for her input and her support.

Our last step was to take part in the incredible campaign, #StepUpScholastic.  My students were able to apply all that they had thought about and learned about to a national campaign that is asking Scholastic to make changes in the way they represent diversity in the monthly book orders that they send home to families.  It was a powerful and authentic final step in the work that we have been doing.

This work has been incredible. It has, at times, left me feeling doubtful. Doubtful of myself, of this world we live in, of the way we misrepresent so many of the people who surround us.  But ultimately, after watching and listening to my students, I was left hopeful. Hopeful because once my students began to see what was around them in new ways, they couldn’t un-see things anymore. They couldn’t not see.  They were running up to me when they came across stereotypes that were perpetuated in their books. They had their parents send me pictures from bookstores when they noticed books that either reinforced or fought against stereotypes in some way. They noticed things on the news, on t.v. shows, on social media. And I believe that noticing is one big step towards making change.

There were times during this work when I felt like I had to rush through. There were times when I questioned if I really had time to be spending on this work. But the truth is, there is no way that I don’t have the time. This world we live in needs changing and the students that I am teaching must be a part of that change. And so though it feels like there is never enough time to do things that we most believe in, this work has showed me that we must find a way.

I am grateful, yet again, for what my students have taught me. And grateful, even more, for the hope that they give me for this world of ours.

 

Helping Students to Confront Their Own Biases Using the Covers of Picture Books

Many of my students have grown up hearing repeated messages from the adults they are surrounded by that sound something like this: “Skin color doesn’t matter.” “Everyone deserves to be treated equally.” “We are all the same inside.”

Now, of course, these are wonderful things to say.

However, what worries me is that these cliches often stand in place of the real, difficult conversations about race and gender and religion that need to take place in order to really begin to break down the biases and stereotypes and prejudices that are standing in the way of allowing us to reach a better place of understanding and equality.  Another side effect of growing up only hearing these somewhat empty phrases is that many of my students, and many of the adults in this world, truly do not believe that they, themselves, carry any biases or prejudices.  For the most part, I believe that is simply not true.

One of the hardest things that I have had to do in the past few years is to really reflect on my own biases.  I had to look at the very ugly truth that I did carry beliefs about people based on their skin color or ethnicity or gender.  I still do.  Now, I am also actively working to acknowledge my own biases and then trying to dismantle them. But that does not come quickly. And none of that happens without honest, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations.

Knowing how hard it has been for me to do this work, I wasn’t sure how I could possibly approach this kind of work with my own students.  As I have written before, it has become increasingly important for me to help my mostly-white students to start to think about issues of race.  It has become increasingly important for me to help my students to start to think about issues beyond race as well. Issues of religion, family structure, gender, etc.

This year, I really wanted to find a way to help my students confront their OWN biases and prejudices.  But, as I said, this is made so difficult by the pre-packaged responses that I knew I was going to get when I began the conversation. So I looked to where I always look, my books.

One of the things that I have thought about a lot over the past few years are the books that fill my classroom library and the books I choose to read to my students.  As I work to fill my library with books that better reflect the diversity of the world we live in, I realize what a terrible job I had done with this in the past. The VAST majority of the books that I had that showed African-American characters on the cover were in my historical fiction bins.  And I am pretty sure that this resulted in my students believing that any picture book that featured an African-American person on the cover, was going to be about the Civil Rights Movement.  And in this way, that I never, ever intended, I am pretty sure that I was starting to send the message to my students that every book with an African-American person on the cover was a book that was going to be about struggle or sadness or hardship.

Now. Please do not misunderstand. I am NOT saying that I wanted to stop reading books about the Civil Rights Movement. I do NOT believe that I should be reading fewer books about the struggles that come along with being black in America. I do NOT believe that I should be bringing into my classroom library fewer books that deal with the real life hardships associated with racism.  I actually believe that my students need more of these books.  However, that is just one piece of what it means to be African-American. That is just one story. And as one of the most powerful TED talks that I have ever seen, taught me: there is such danger in a single story.

I was starting to think that I had really done a disservice to my students by not seeking out enough books that had African-American characters, or other characters of color, that were simply stories about being a human being. That were funny stories.  Or joyful stories. I think that by limiting the types of books that I had in the classroom, I was sending the wrong messages to my students.

And that made me think.

By asking students to make predictions on what picture books were going to be about, might I be able to expose some of the biases and prejudices and stereotypes that they carry around?

So I began to create a small experiment.  I paired up books and covered all the words on the covers of the books so that only the images remained.  I was extremely purposeful in choosing the books that I wanted to use and I used books that I believed would go AGAINST the stereotypes that my children had on gender and race. I wanted to point out that these biases existed.

Here is what the pairs of books looked like:

 

I then wrote up short summaries of each of the books and created THIS GOOGLE FORM in order to ask the students to match the two summaries to the two books in that pairing.

When I introduced the activity, I was not entirely honest about what we would be doing.  I shared with the students that in our last reading unit, we focused on using clues within a text in order to synthesize what the author’s message about the world was. What the author hoped to convey about the world through her writing.  I told the kids that now, we would be looking at the clues on the outside of a text in order to help us infer what a text was going to be about.

And then we began.

I held up each pair of books, one at a time, and then read out the summaries. Each student had a computer open to the GOOGLE FORM and they matched the summaries I had written to the books that I was holding up.  We moved through all ten books this way and when we were finished, we looked at the results.  Because we were using a Google form, I was able to share with them the results right away by looking at the summary results (which show up in nice little pie charts).

If you click HERE you can see the results from MY FIRST CLASS. And if you click HERE you can see the results from MY SECOND CLASS.

I was happy to see that I was wrong about the first set of books. I worried that the children would assume that the book with African-American characters would be about the children who were unable to afford books. I assumed this because I have heard this stereotype spoken in my classroom in the past. But in my first class, it was a perfectly even split of guesses (though someone guessed the same book twice)  and in my second class, they results were opposite of what I expected.  And I was thrilled.

But then we went further.

The second set of books looked at gender stereotypes. I had one book showing a man and one book showing a woman. I said one book was about an artist and one book was about a scientist. And in both of my classes, most of the kids guessed that the book with the man was about the scientist (which it was not).

And then came the next few sets of results. I could feel my heart sinking as we looked at set after set of results. At this point, I still did not really share with them what I was trying to do. But I did tell them, with each new set, what the correct answers had been. And I watched their confusion grow. And my heart continued to sink.

Let me be clear, my heart was NOT sad because I thought that the beautiful children sitting in front of me were bad people with bad hearts . In fact, it is just the opposite. My students are incredible human beings with big hearts and an extreme amount of compassion. And, still, they were carrying around (as we all do) these biases that were a direct result of the messages that our society has surrounded them with.  And biases that were a direct result of the books that we, as teachers, have surrounded them with.

When we got through all of the results. I shared with the students that what we were really going to be talking about was bias and stereotypes. And I watched their faces. As I began to explain more of what I had been thinking and what I noticed, I watched the looks on their faces as they came face to face with their own biases. I listened as they worked to make sense of how so many of them could have gotten almost every single guess wrong. I listened as they tried to reconcile the fact that they, themselves, carried biases and stereotypes and prejudices that they never knew they had.

It was a powerful moment for all of us. And a moment that showed us all just how much further we have to go.

One of the hardest pieces of data for me to look at was the results for books 7 and 8.  image4 (2)

In both of my classes, the majority of the students thought that book 7 was the book about dealing with sadness and struggle and loss. And most students thought that book 8 was about the joy that exists between family members. After revealing what we were really looking at, I pulled up these two books to look at with my students.  I shared that even though book 7 had a woman smiling on the cover with her baby attached to her back, still most of us assumed the book was about struggle and sadness and loss.  I pointed out her big smile. I pointed out her child and several students said, “Oh! I didn’t even see that!”

And I think that is the point.  They didn’t see the evidence that could have helped them because I think that what they saw instead was the skin color of the woman on the front and the background that reminded them of a place they thought they understood.  And this is what guided their guess.

I shared with my students that I also carry biases. I wish that I didn’t. But I have also been exposed to many different messages throughout my life. And the fact that I carry biases does not make me a bad person. However, what I do believe is harmful, is refusing to look at and acknowledge our own biases. I believe that what makes a person brave is being willing to look at our own biases and then actively work to understand them, understand where they come from and then dismantle them bit by bit. And this was my hope for the work that we would do together.

And because I teach two groups of wonderful children, I then listened to powerful conversations that came from what they were noticing. I listened to them try to make sense of all of this and then, even more impressively, I listened to them share that they wanted to understand these biases better so that they could work to dismantle them.

So after looking HERE and HERE at our data, I asked the students to craft an inquiry question that might guide our next phase of learning. And in each class, we came up with a similar version of the following question:

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And so that is what we will set out to discover next.

 

 

Using the Stories of Others to Begin Conversations on Race with My Students

The past few days, in my classroom, I have begun our reading lessons with a mix of nerves, anticipation, anxiety, and hope. You see, for the past week, we, my fifth grade students and I, have been talking about race. And I will be honest. It is somewhat terrifying. Terrifying because I, a white American woman, often worry that I am going to say the wrong thing in conversations about race. Terrifying because for my students, a vast majority of them who are also white Americans, have rarely, if ever, been engaged in conversations about race that go beyond, “A person’s skin color doesn’t matter.” Terrifying because race is NOT something I am an expert on, far from it. Terrifying because I am always worried that the words I choose to use will be the wrong ones. That I will offend. That I will do more harm than good. Terrifying because I know these conversations will often be uncomfortable.

And they must be. Because if we continue to sit in what is comfortable, nothing will ever really change in this country. They must be because people are facing far more discomfort that I am every single day because of the problems surrounding race that exist in this country and the problems that exist that we have refused to talk about and discuss for far too long.  And we are all afraid of saying the wrong thing, but I have come to believe with my whole heart that if I continue to say nothing, then I am playing a huge role in perpetuating the very problems that I am refusing to talk about.

I have written before of the responsibility I feel as a teacher to have conversations about race. Last year, we began to dig into these conversations, but this year. This year these conversations are the focus of my reading instruction early on in the year. I begin my reading workshop by studying how we can use books as both mirrors and windows.  The first few weeks of our reading work together was spent talking about how we can see ourselves reflected in the books we read and how this can help us to better understand our texts and to feel less alone in the world. Then, we moved our conversations into how books can also be windows into the lives of other people. People whose lives are different than our own.

And here, is where I have found an opportunity to delve into issues of race.

Because the way that I have learned about the true and terrifying realities about race that exist today in our country is by listening to the stories of those who live those realities every single day.  The best way for me to learn the things that I do not and cannot know, about what it is like to be a race other than white, is to learn from the stories of others. And I can do that same thing for my students. By using the stories that others so bravely are willing to share, I can help my students to learn about the lives of other people while we learn to be better and more careful readers.

By using the stories of other people, by letting others teach us what they know, I do not have to pretend to be an expert. I do not have to have all the answers. I do not have to worry as much about saying the wrong thing. Because my job is to help my students to see that these stories exist in the world and my job is to help my students learn by listening to the stories of others. So that is where we began.

We spent our first day talking about the books that my students have read that have helped them to better understand the lives of others. I began by book talking the book George and explaining how this book helped me to better understand the lives of children who are transgender. Then I spoke about the book Ruby on the Outside and shared how it helped me to better understand the lives of children who have a parent who is in jail. Then, I asked the kids to share examples from their own reading lives and our conversation lead to this incredible anchor chart:

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Once the kids saw that books can be windows into the lives of others, then we started to talk about how we can use the true stories that other people are willing to share with us in order to better understand the lives of other people. This led us to a really nice tie in to the memoir unit that we have been working on in writing workshop. We have spent a lot of time talking about the power of telling our own stories and now we can look at the flip side of that and see the power of reading the stories of other people.

As we began these conversations, it was important to me that before we listen to or read anyone else’s stories that we have some conversations about the responsibility of the reader or listener while sharing in someone else’s story.  We talked about HOW we can listen to or read people’s stories so that we truly can learn from them and build empathy and gain understanding. These conversations were powerful and here are some of the ideas that we came up with:

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We spent quite a lot of time talking about the importance of accepting other people’s experiences as their own truth and the vital importance of not dismissing someone else’s story or someone else’s experience. This was a new concept for so many of my students and I was so grateful to be able to watch as their eyes were opened and to be a part of this joint discovery in how to listen to the stories of others.

And then it was time to get to work. I shared with the students that I have spent a lot of time over the course of the last school year and this summer trying to better understand issues of race. I shared that after Ferguson, I realized that there was too much that I did not know and did not understand about race. I told them that sometimes the learning that I did was hard and scary and that I often messed up but that I knew that I couldn’t NOT learn more about race because the issues were too important and I had a responsibility to work to understand them.  I then shared with them that the best way that I have found to better understand what it is like to be a race other than white was to listen, really listen, to the stories of others. I told them that I wanted to do this type of learning with them.

Then I reassured them that they might feel uncomfortable, that they would probably mess up somewhere along the way, that they might not understand some of the things that we were learning. And all of that was okay. We were going to do this together.

So we got started. I told them that because this concept was so complex and difficult, we were going to start without any text in front of us. Before we read the stories of others, we were going to learn to just listen to the stories of others that have been recorded and shared on video. On Thursday, we began by listening to the stories of some extremely brave 12 year olds who spoke about race. We watched THIS video that was a part of a series called, “Being 12.”

The first time, we jut watched the video. I asked them to listen to the words of the kids and be aware of any new understandings that these words led to.  The video is a short four and a half minutes, but there is SO much shared in that brief amount of time.

After watching the video once, I asked the students to share some overall understandings that the video led them to. A lot of the kids were too overwhelmed to share much. There seemed to be too much to think about for kids who had NEVER been asked to think about these things before. Some students spoke of understandings that were not at all tied to the video but still relying on news stories or pop culture. It would have been easy to give up at this point, to say that I had tried, that it was just too hard for 5th graders and move on. But I knew that there was more in my students’ minds than what I was hearing. I knew that we just needed more time. And I realized that we needed to break things down a little bit more.

But there were a few really important insights shared after the first viewing of the video. After listening to reactions and sharing some of my own, two things were made clear to me about my students understanding, or lack of understanding, about race:

  1. My students didn’t realize that white was a race. The vast majority of my students are white and they had no idea that the word race had anything to do with them.
  2. My students were shocked to hear me say that I have been treated certain ways because of my race. They did not realize that people make assumptions of me because I am white and that people interact with me in a certain way based on those assumptions. The concept of white privilege is far beyond their understanding right now because they do not even understand that people who are white get treated a certain way because of it.

These were such important realizations for me because they helped me to see how very far we have to go and how incredibly important it was that we were starting to have these conversations.   This is where my students are right now and like every single other thing we do with kids, I am going to meet them where they are and gently push them forward.

So on Friday. I told the students that we were going to watch the video again. But this time I asked them to take out a piece of paper. I had them make a two-column chart. On the top of the first column I had them write, “What I heard” and on the top of the second column I had them write, “What it helped me to understand.” And then we watched the video again, but this time we stopped after every fifteen seconds or so.  I began by modeling how my own understandings grew throughout the video.

At the start of the video, the children being filmed introduced themselves and shared their race. I stopped at this point and wrote down that what I heard were introductions. Then I wrote that what it helped me to understand was that race was more than just black and white. It also helped me to understand that you cannot assume you know the race of a person simply by looking at that person. Then I played a bit more of the video.

The next part of the video is a 12 year old girl sharing the story of bringing in food that her family from Venezuela eats and being made fun of for it. As she recounts the story, you can hear the nervous laughter in her voice. I stopped the video there and wrote down that what I heard was nervous laughter and what it helped me to understand was the deep pain that an experience like this can cause a person and the shame that children carry around after being made fun of for being different.

We continued like this throughout the first half of the video.

And then we ran out of time. The kids had so much to write down that we could not finish by the end of the day on Friday. So we will pick back up with our work on Monday.

This work has been heavy. This work has been challenging. This work has only just begun for us. We have so much more to think about and talk about. But I have been so inspired by my students and their willingness to dive into these issues. I had kids willing to work up until the very last minute of reading workshop on a Friday afternoon. I had kids begging me to let them skip their next subject so that we could finish the video. I had kids itching to share their thinking and new understandings about race.

We will finish this video on Monday and then my plan is to continue with two more videos, both of the TED talks. One from Clint Smith and one from Mellody Hobson. We will do similar types of work before moving on to doing this work with stories that we read instead of listen to.

I am no longer quite so terrified and that is mostly because of these kids. These kids, they WANT to talk about race. They want to understand. They want to know and to do better.  They might have absolutely no idea where to start and they might be completely unaware of so many things that they need to become aware of, but they have made one thing incredibly clear. These kids, they do not want to be protected from these important conversations.

Books Can Be Our Rainbow Flags

Yesterday I was driving home from my sister’s house with my daughter in the backseat blabbering away about some nonsensical thing and all of a sudden I noticed a rather large rainbow flag hung on the outside of one of our local synagogues.  I did a double take. Was there really such a large symbol of gay pride and gay love and gay acceptance hanging on the outside of a religious institution? I slowed the car, turned around and did a second drive by. And sure enough, there it was. A rainbow flag.

I stopped for a moment and then at the insistence of the two year old in my backseat, I continued on towards home.  But that image stuck with me throughout the rest of the day, far into the night and it is still strong in my mind today. That image said so much to me.

You see, in places where LGBT people have previously felt unwelcome and unsafe, there is often still the assumption on our part that silence or a lack of recognition means that we should still feel unwelcome and unsafe. Unfortunately, there are perhaps few places in this country that have been more unwelcoming and unsafe for LGBT people than religious institutions. We, as gay people, have been stared at in synagogues, kicked out of churches, told from pulpits of all faiths that we are going to hell, counseled into making “the choice” not to be gay so that we could live a life without sin, and largely made to feel as if we are less than and unworthy and immoral.  And I know that there are exceptions. Of course there are exception. But the overwhelming and very public narrative coming from religious institutions in the past has been mostly unkind towards who we are.

So now, if things are really changing, that is an amazing thing. But we, we aren’t that trusting. We have been hurt and shamed and embarrassed and it takes a while to work our way back from that. Even with the incredible Supreme Court decision of this summer. So a public symbol like a rainbow flag goes a really long way in sending a different message, in proving that the narrative is changing.  A rainbow flag, anywhere, tells me that we are safe here. We are welcome here. We are accepted here. Even if I am not always ready to believe that.

And that makes me think about our schools.

I think that a lot of LGBT people, in the past, have felt similarly about schools as they have about religious institutions. And though I hate to admit it, I think that many LGBT people today continue to feel that way about schools. They feel as if they are unsafe. They feel as if they are unwelcome there. They feel as if they cannot be who they really are within the walls of their school buildings.

And it is certainly not just LGBT people who feel this way. There are so many people who have been marginalized within our school systems. There are so many groups of people who have been made to feel unworthy and undervalued and misunderstood within our schools. There are so many people who look at a school building and think, “This is not a place for me. I am not welcome here. Who I am is not celebrated in this institution.”

And because there have been so many bad previous experiences for so many people, we, as teachers, must go out of our way to change the narrative. We must go out of our way to send new messages of love and acceptance to students, their families, and to the other teacher with whom we work. We have to find ways to say, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”

And I don’t think that rainbow flags are the answer. I don’t think that every classroom in America needs a rainbow flag hung outside the door. Because A) That would just get ridiculous and B) This goes way beyond just LGBT people.

So instead. I think we look to books.

I think books can be the rainbow flags of our classrooms.

Because I think that having books, the right kinds of books, can send new messages to kids and teachers and families who really need to hear them.

I imagine a child who is transgender walking into his new classroom on the first day of school and seeing the book Jacob’s New Dress prominently displayed on the bookshelf right alongside all of the other books. That child automatically receives the message, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”

And I imagine another child who has two moms walking into that same classroom and seeing the book In Our Mothers’ House. And another child who is adopted from China seeing the book Red Butterfly. And another child who is African American and whose life revolves around basketball seeing the book The Crossover. And another child from India seeing the book Chained. They see those books and they instantly know that this is a safe place. This is a place they are welcome. This is a place they will be loved and celebrated.

Our books have the power to send those messages to our students. To their families. To our fellow teachers.

And in this way, our bookshelves can become a place of hundreds of different flags celebrating hundreds of different kinds of people.  Our bookshelves can become a beacon of hope for children who have never before felt safe or welcome or accepted in school. Our bookshelves can become a place where children see themselves and learn about others.  Our bookshelves can become a place where every person who walks into our classroom can see that he or she is welcome here. Safe here. And will be celebrated here.

What Being Gay Has Taught Me About White Privilege

So here are some things that straight people might not know:

Even though gay marriage is now legal across the country, I am still afraid to hold my wife’s hand in many public places.

When I was planning my wedding, instead of simply being able to enjoy the chaos of planning a wedding, I got nervous every time I met with a new vendor for the moment they would assume I was marrying a man and I would have to correct them.

I am terrified of the first time that my daughter sees a “God Hates Fags” sign and I will have to explain to her what that means.

When my family and I are staying in certain places, I always check in to hotels by myself because I look “less gay” than my wife does and we never know if we are really going to be welcome or not.

Every single year that I have to come out to a new group of students, I get dry mouth and worry that this is the time that someone is going to call and complain about it.

Whenever I write something about being gay, I am worried that one of the comments that is going to be left is going to be filled with hate.

I have waited for election results knowing that the winning candidate would determine whether or not my family got to be considered a family in the eyes of the law.

When people are rude to my family, I always wonder if it is because the person is just a jerk or because the person is a jerk who has a problem with gay people.

I worry, all the time, that people are going to one day tell my daughter that her moms are going to hell.

This is my reality.

And one of the things that is hardest for me is when I try to discuss my reality with people who are straight and they automatically begin to reassure me that the world isn’t really that bad.  When I tell people how hard it was to come out as a gay educator, they often ask me if I really thought anyone was going to have a problem with it.  When I tell people about my fears of holding hands with my wife in public, they often tell me how many friends of theirs show support for gay people on Facebook.  When I tell people about my fears of what my daughter is going to have to encounter in her life time, they often tell me what a good time in history it is to be gay and how much better things are today than they used to be.

And I know these people have the best of intentions. But what they don’t see is that by trying to reassure me about how good the world really is, they are denying me the experiences that I have had that have shaped the perceptions that I hold of the world.  By trying to tell me that it really isn’t that bad, they are trying to erase my feelings and my story and make it all just a bit more comfortable for me and perhaps even for themselves.

Except it isn’t comfortable. Hate never is. And it shouldn’t be. The discomfort is what should propel us to move forward and to keep fighting.

When I tell people what it is like to be gay, to be a gay educator, to by a gay mother, what I need most from them is for them to listen.  I am comforted when people respond by saying, “I had no idea.” I feel supported when people tell me, “I can’t even imagine that.” I find such solace when people say to me, “That sucks.” Because that shows me that they are not trying to deny me my truth. It shows me that they are learning from my story and it is going to motivate them to try to do better. It shows me that they are not going to try to argue with me that homophobia still exists. They are going to listen to my story and learn about the things that are still broken in this world so that they can try to help to fix them.

And all of this. All of this in my own life has started to shed a bit of light for me on the idea of white privilege.  Ever since Ferguson, I have been working to understand all of the things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t understand.  My idea of where we are in terms of race in this country was so wrong. Not wrong because I didn’t care. Not wrong because I didn’t want to do better. Not wrong because I am an awful person. Wrong because I have the privilege of not having to think about race in my daily life.

Just like a straight person doesn’t think twice before holding the hand of the person they love, I, as a white person, don’t think twice before walking into a store about how I will be perceived because of the color of my skin.

The not having to think about it. The not realizing how much others HAVE to think about it.  That is privilege.

And the only way that I have been able to start to understand my own privilege is by listening, really listening, to the stories of others who DON’T have that same privilege.  By hearing those stories, I am better able to understand the things that are broken in this world.

And when I hear these stories, I have to be careful that my first instinct isn’t to comfort, isn’t to reassure that things aren’t really that bad, isn’t to make it clear that I am not a racist and so I couldn’t be a part of the problem. Because all of those instincts that I have. They are wrong. They simply erase the experiences of the person telling the story.  Yes, I like to fix things. Yes, I like to make people feel better.  But by doing that I am sometimes just making the problem worse. Because denying that the problem exists is not a way to make things better.

So I am recommitting myself to listening. To seeking out the stories of those who have to think about race every day.  To listening and honoring the experiences that others are willing to share with me.

And then.

I want to bring those stories to my students. I want them to begin to understand the things that no one ever helped me to understand because we were too busy spreading the message that skin color doesn’t matter.

I want to seek out lesson plans that are written by others who know more than I do so that I can bring more than just my own experiences of privilege into the classroom.

I want to teach my students to listen to the stories of others and use those stories to see what is wrong in our world that needs to be fixed.

I want to help my students to see that race DOES matter and I want to help them to see all of the ways that they are sent messages on race that affect their perceptions of the people they encounter in this world.

I want to read more and listen more and search for more.

And along the way, I know that I will mess up. That I will say the wrong thing. That someone will tell me that what I have said has hurt them. And I want to make sure that I do not see that as an attack, but as a way for me to do better in the future.

Because these conversations. They won’t be comfortable. They shouldn’t be comfortable. The discomfort is what will remind us of all the work that still has to be done.  But in the discomfort there is growth. And that growth is the only thing that is ever going to make any of this any better.

Today

Today.

There are so many people fighting for justice.

On the streets of Baltimore and inside the walls of the United States Supreme Court building. Today was a monumental day for the demand of justice. People screaming just to be heard. People displaying their suffering and anguish before justices and before millions of juries of their peers. People begging to be treated equally, fairly, decently. People demanding simply to be allowed to survive.

And it all makes me wonder. Why isn’t this a subject we teach in school? Starting with our very youngest students, why don’t we teach them more. Why don’t we teach them not just to recognize when their own rights are being denied, but how to recognize when the rights of others are being denied as well? Why don’t we teach them how not to turn the other way when they see the suffering of other human beings? Why don’t we teach them how to use their voices and their privilege to demand justice for others and for themselves?

I like to think that the students sitting in front of us today will be better able to hear demands for justice. I like to think that America is going to wake up a little bit and start to work towards real change. I like to think that the world is becoming a better place. And I am also not naive. I see the people who are standing outside of the Supreme Court building praying for my soul and praying for my child not to be harmed by her two mothers. I see the people watching the protests in Baltimore who can see nothing more than out of control teenagers. I see the hate that courses through the veins of this country. I get that it is there and so very prevalent.

It’s just that I also HAVE to leave room for hope. I couldn’t really stand to live in this world if I didn’t. So I find hope in the children sitting right next to me in my classroom. And I find hope in my fellow educators who know that we could be doing so. much. more. And I believe that when we start to work more lessons of justice into our classrooms, then we will start to have the kinds of conversations that will truly change hearts and minds and one day even start to change this country.

For now. I am thinking so much of those demanding justice in Baltimore. And I am thinking so much of those brave souls who stood in front of the justices today and told their stories. And I am thinking of the lawyers who have given up so many hours of their own lives in order to fight for the betterment of other people’s lives and for the betterment of this country. I am thinking so much of those fighting for justice in every corner of this country and of this world. Because.

This day.

Today.

There are so many people fighting for justice.