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.




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:


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.


Inquiry Circles Weeks #4 and #5: Synthesizing to Gain Better Understanding

In my first two posts about inquiry circles, I talked about how my students selected their topics and formed groups and then how we learned to ask better questions in order to drive further investigation.

At the start of week #4, I was ready to release my students to begin searching for articles on their own.  I had them look at the questions that they wanted to find answers to and use those questions to begin researching. Because I have an incredible librarian who has been working on research skills with my students since they were in 1st grade and because we have already done a fairly large research project this year in 5th grade, I did not need to spend much time teaching the students how to research a topic using digital sources. I am grateful for that because I could spend my time, instead, teaching my students how to use what they have found to better understand the complex topics that they were investigating.

One of the reading strategies that our 5th grade students are asked to focus on is the strategy of synthesizing.  Our inquiry circle work was a perfect place to teach these skills and ask the students to use them for a truly authentic purpose.  The idea of synthesis that I wanted to focus on is how we gather new information and add it to our current understanding. How to evaluate our current understanding for gaps and holes and a lack of perspectives and then how to do we see out the information that we need in order to fill in these holes and add multiple perspectives? How do we deal with information that does not match our current understanding? All of these skills were easy to integrate into our inquiry circle work.

I wanted to start with a general overview of what synthesis is and how readers synthesis both within one article and across multiple articles on the same topic.  Here are the charts that my students and I created during our discussion of this idea:



After a discussion of what synthesis looks like, I began by modeling how I synthesized as I read through one single article. I stopped and thought about information that was new to me and thought out loud about how that information enhanced or changed my understanding.  I also stopped at places in a text where I found information that challenged my thinking and even changed what I thought I knew. I shared with students how this helped to grow my understanding of my topic and find additional layers to investigate.

After looking at how readers synthesize WITHIN one text, I then started to share with my students how I was starting to put together information that I got from multiple texts in order to deepen my understanding. This type of synthesis is the very heart of the research process. In order to keep track of the discussions we were having, we created these next two chart:



These charts highlight the lessons that we worked on over the course of several days. Along the way, I stopped to model how this looked in my own research into the refugee crisis.

Along the way, my students were continuing their own research and after a week and half of focusing on synthesis, I started to feel as if the research and excitement was sort of fizzling out.  My students seemed to lack a clear focus and they were starting to give up.

After spending a lot of time reflecting on what was happening, I realized that what I was asking my students to do with their research was different than what I had ever asked of them before. Most often, in the past, I have asked my students to begin with some sort of thesis statement. We begin with what they believe or what they want to prove and then they go out and seek information that supports this thesis. I think that this is often how we, as adults, research as well.

While this helps to narrow our focus as research and give up an endpoint to work towards, it also creates huge problems and bias. When we begin with a thesis statement, with a claim, with a statement that shares our belief, and then we seek out information that supports that belief, we are essentially ignoring anything that is out there that might contradict what we believe and cause us to adjust our claim.

When we began researching, my students knew their topic, but did not make any claims. Truly, most of them did not yet know enough to make a claim. So they began researching without knowing what they were trying to prove. This was powerful.

But also new. I needed to teach them how to look at the sources they had gathered and begin to search for trends and patterns that would lead them toward a claim, lead them toward knowing what they would come to believe. This was not something they knew how to do. This was a new way to synthesize.

This was the chart that I used to begin our discussion of how they would move forward in their research by synthesizing what they had found and beginning to form their claims. These claims are what would lead them toward taking action. IMG_9715

Helping my students to organize their ideas into a clear claim, helped reenergize their research. It helped them find new purpose and meaning in their work. The guided reading groups that I was conducting were some of the most purposeful guided reading groups that I had ever had because I was helping each group to apply a new reading strategy in a way that helped them pull together all they had learned and help them to begin to search for a way to action.

As I worked with each inquiry circle to pull together a clear claim based on the research they had done, we also looked at if they had enough research to back up each part of their claim.  So if their claim was, “There are too many incidents of police brutality directed toward people of color and in order to change this police officers need better training.” Then I helped them to break that claim up into several different parts. 1) There are too many incidents of police brutality directed toward people of color. How can you prove this to be true? 2) In order to change this police officers need better training. What are the current training practices? How can you prove these are not working? What are better forms of police training? How can you prove that these will work better?

After breaking up their claims and organizing the research they already had on THIS DOCUMENT, then we were able to discover where their holes were. These were places where they needed to collect additional research. Again, this helped give each group new purpose and new direction in their work.  It was amazing to see how the research really picked back up after this work.

What I was asking these fifth graders to do was incredibly challenging. And so when problems arose, I had to make sure that I was not faulting the students and that I was instead finding ways to support my students without taking the power away from them to guide their own research. This was a tricky balance. Most often, what my students needed was more modeling and more conversation with me to help them pull together all of the information that they had found. When groups began to get an idea of the claims that they were making, then they were ready to start thinking about taking action. I will write about the inspiring action that came from these projects in my next blog post.



Fighting the Formula: Empowering Students To Make Their Own Writing Decisions

We have recently begun our study of persuasive writing. We are taking time to learn what we need to know about how writers can use persuasive writing to demand change in the world, before we use these skills to take action at the end of our inquiry circle studies.

To begin our work together, we worked on selecting audiences, the forms of writing that would best reach these audiences and the claims that we would make to these audiences that would explain the changes that we hope to make in the world.  Like last year, we began our work by looking at many different types of persuasive writing that exist outside of the school walls.   Too often, our students’ definition and image of what persuasive writing is begins and ends with a persuasive essay. In fact, outside of a school setting, the world is filled with much more interesting, purposeful, and passionate types of persuasive writing.  So to help us begin to expand our definitions, we look at advertisements, protest flyers, speeches, op-eds, letters to the editors and blog posts.  As my students begin to see the power of persuasive writing, they are better able to select the kinds of topics that are really worth writing about.

Yes, I still have students who write to their parents to ask for a puppy, but I also have students who plan to submit letters to the editor of our local newspaper in order to ask our local schools to stop separating P.E. classes by gender.  I also have students who want to write letters to congressman asking for reform in gun laws.  I also have students who plan to write to the heads of television networks asking for more diversity in their television line-ups.

I attribute this range in topics to our mentor texts.  As teachers, we have so much control over how our students view a particular type of writing. If we only share with them persuasive writing that is written for school, then they will only think that persuasive writing is done for school and for teachers.  If we only share with them persuasive writing about getting a new pet or about getting your own room, then they will only think that persuasive writing is used to ask for things for yourself.  If we only share with them essays, then their definition will only include essays.  If we only put before them the mentor texts that match the very narrow definition of persuasive writing that is expected on a standardized test, then they will only write as if they are writing for a standardized test.

And I cannot imagine that is really what we want for our students.

So I make sure, right from the start, to bring in mentor texts that expand my students’ definition of persuasive writing, not limit it.  And from there, I trust my students to make the writing choices that will help to make their writing feel meaningful and purposeful. I tell my students that I will NEVER tell them what to write about in writing workshop, no matter how much they might beg me to do so. Because the second that I take the choice away from them, I have set the tone, from the very beginning of a piece of writing, that this piece of writing is for me and not for them.

So once my students know what they want to ask for, they think of who has the power to make the change or changes in the world they are looking for. Then they think about how best to reach that person or group of people. Perhaps it is an op-ed, perhaps it is a blog post, perhaps it is a recorded speech that we upload to YouTube and then Tweet out the link to. Perhaps it is a letter to the editor that we submit to the local newspaper or perhaps it is a letter that we send to a company or a television network or a congress person.  This choice cannot be made by me because this choice must reflect the purpose of their writing. The students must, again, be in control of this choice or else they will not be making an authentic choice based on the purpose of their writing. Instead they will be making a choice based on what specific type of writing has been assigned for us to practice in fifth grade.

This does not mean that I just throw out our assigned curriculum. I will still teach my students what they need to know about op-eds (which happen to be the type of persuasive writing assigned to 5th grade in my district). However, I will teach about op-eds so that my students know about one possible choice that they can make when writing to ask for change in this world.  Everything else that is really important: making claims, supporting claims with evidence, finding multiple ways to support multiple claims, these things can be taught and applied to any type of persuasive writing. It must be up to my students to choose which type will work best for them.

And once they have all of this figured out, then we talk about how every writer has to have reasons for asking for what they are asking for. We go back to our mentor texts and pull out some claims that were made and some reasons that were given by our writers to show why those claims should be believed. I share with my students my own claim and the reasons that I have thought of so far as to why my claim is valid. I share with them how I think about what change I am asking for and how I am going to prove that this change is worth making. And I share with them how I create a quick list of reasons and how then revise my list until I am left with only the strongest ones and the ones that will not repeat the same ideas over and over again. And then I ask them to do the same kind of list making and revising in their writers’ notebooks.

While my students are busy working on their lists, I tell them that I am going to hand out their graphic organizer. And this year, in both of my classes, there was an audible groan.  It was actually quite loud. There was a collective hatred for the graphic organizer. I could feel it start to fill up the room. Until, one student saw what I was handing them and then word began to spread. “Hey! This is just a blank piece of paper.” And it was. I handed every child a blank, white piece of paper. There were no pre-drawn boxes, no circles, no lines to fill in. There was nothing on the piece of paper that I was handing out and yet I continued to tell them, “This is your graphic organizer.” And I felt them all relax.

Because I do not believe that my students really loathe the idea of planning out their writing. I do not believe that my students even really mind taking time to think about what they are going to include before they begin the actual writing. I think that many of them feel some relief once they know that they have their plan already made. I think that what they have come to hate are the boxes that we make them shove their writing into. Because, once again, this takes so much power away from our writers. When we tell them that their writing has to look one certain way. When we tell them that if their ideas don’t fit into the pictures that we have drawn, then they are not going to get to write about them. When we tell them our way of writing is the only way of writing. Then of course they are going to resent that.

And it just simply isn’t how writers outside of schools write. As we rely more heavily on mentor texts from the world outside of school, then we see that there are many ways to write. There is no one formula that writers in this world follow. Are there essential elements? Yes. Are there common structures? Yes. Is there always some system of organization? Yes. But writers make those choices based on what they have to say and we have to let our students make those same choices.  We have to fight the formula, by instead focusing on how writers in the world choose to structure their writing and then allowing our students to make the choices that best fit their own writing.

This is how we empower our students as writers. We allow them to make the choices that make the most sense for them and for their writing.

I shared with my students the way that works best for me to organize my writing. I told them that I start with my claim in a circle in the center of my paper. And then I make a simple web with lines and circles going out from the center. And I draw enough circles to contain the reasons that I have listed in my notebook to support my claim. And then I ask my students to create an initial plan for their own writing. I tell them that as we learn new ways to support our reasons, we will come back and add to our plans in a way that makes sense for us.

And then they get right to work creating their own plans. Making their own choices.

So they have their main claim, they have their audience, they have their type of writing and they have some reasons why they believe in their claim. And they even have the beginnings of a plan. And then it becomes SO tempting to hold them back from actually writing. I want them to know everything they need to know about good persuasive writing before they begin. I want them to know what they need to know about how best to begin their writing, how to support their claims in interesting ways, how to use statistics and stories and quotes and examples to prove that what they are saying is true.  I want to stop them before they write in a way that I don’t want them to write.

But if I do that. If I give in to that. Then I have lost some of the greatest enthusiasm that we will have throughout the course of our entire writing unit. Because once these worlds of possibilities begin to open up for them, they just want to jump in and start writing. So while I want to hold them back, I instead let them go.

We look at a few ways that writers begin their persuasive writing. We notice that even though they have been taught that they must state their claim in the first paragraph, the writing that we look at shows us that the claim CAN be the first sentence, it CAN be in the first paragraph, or it CAN come a bit further in to the piece of writing. I help them to identify strategies that our mentor text writers use instead of the words that they use to begin. When my students know strategies to begin instead of specific words to use to begin, then they are better able to chose a strategy that works for their topic and then truly make it their own. We create an anchor chart of the wide variety of ways that writers begin their writing.

Then I ask my students who feels ready to begin writing their own pieces of persuasive writing. Most students at this point raise their hands. And I trust them. I let them go. Those who are not yet ready, I pull together with me in a small group to find out what extra support they need. And soon, they, too, are ready to begin writing.

And I know. I know that some of this initial writing will be bad. Really bad. I know that some students will go off and write for ten minutes and say that they are done. I know that some students will quickly fall back into the formulaic writing that they have learned in the past.

And that has to be okay.

I can look at that and I can tell myself, “Look at how much better their writing is going to get!” And when students run up to me and tell me they are done, I work hard not to crush the excitement I see on their faces. I work hard not to jump in and point out all of the places that I see right away where they can expand their ideas.

Instead, I look at what they have written and I share in their excitement. I say to them, “That is so great! What are you going to work on next?” And, again, I have to trust them. Because there WILL be time to go back and revise these initial pieces of writing and make them so much better. There WILL be more time to learn new strategies. There WILL be time when I can confer with them and find places where we can support what they have said in a different and more powerful way. But we haven’t learned those things yet.

And that is okay.

There will be time for all of that. I trust that they will use what we learn together when they need to. They, the writers, must make the choices of when to use the strategies that we have learned. I will, of course, be there throughout the entire process to help guide them in ways to use what we are learning, but they will have to be the ones who make the decisions if any of these lessons are really going to stick, really going to matter.

And by the end of our study of persuasive writing, I know that each of them will have grown as writers. I know that by the end of our study, each writer will look back on his or her first piece of writing from this unit and they will compare it to their last piece of writing from this unit and they will see for themselves just how far they have come.

And they will know that the choices that we made, the ones that got them to where they end up, those choices were all theirs. They will own those choices. They will believe that they can make those choices again, even if I am not right there next to them. And THAT is empowering writers.


Inquiry Circles Week #1: Topic Selection

Recently, I wrote about beginning inquiry circles for the first time in my classroom. The work that I am doing comes directly from the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. This book lays out not only the reasons why inquiry circles are so important for our students, but also provides a roadmap to follow when implementing them in classrooms of all levels.

So this week we began our inquiry circles. We started by looking at how this work fits into our reading unit on questioning. We talked about the purpose of questioning. We looked at the purpose of questioning both as readers and as human beings in the world outside of the classroom. Through our discussion, we created this anchor chart: FullSizeRender (13)

I told them that this week, our work would be to brainstorm and select concerns and questions that we wanted to focus on in our inquiry circles. I told them that the final phase of these inquiry circles would be to take some action toward creating positive change and because of that, the only requirement that I had in terms of what topics they could chose was that it had to be some problem that existed in the world.

I then told the students that they might want to begin by thinking about concerns and questions that affect their own lives and then ones that affect the world. This comes right from Harvey Daniels in Comprehension and Collaboration. I then modeled for the students some of my own ideas. I created a two-column chart and wrote SELF on one side and WORLD on the other.

I began by talking about how one issue that affects my own life, affects me as a mom. Recently, as my own daughter has been getting more and more presents that seem to come in pink boxes, I have been wrestling with the idea of toys and gender.  The question that I am left with is, “How is the marketing of toys affected by gender and how does this affect young kids?” I added this concern and question to my chart in the SELF column.

I then thought out loud about the current refugee crisis.  I shared with the students that I didn’t know too much about the details of this crisis, but that it is a story that actually makes my heart hurt and so I know it is something that I need and want to learn more about. The question I wrote down was, “Where are these refugees coming from and what is the best way to help them?” I wrote down this concern and question in the WORLD column.

After modeling these ideas for my students, I gave them some time to think quietly and add to their own charts that they created. I knew that some of them would have no trouble thinking of questions and concerns, but I also knew that for some students, this would be the first time that they had been asked to think of issues on such a global scale. So I wanted to make sure that I was providing enough support for every student to find a topic that he or she was interested in.

So after a few minutes of quiet thinking, I shared with the kids, an end-of-the-year video that Google had made about the questions that were asked in 2015. As we watched the video, two times, the kids continued to add to their lists.  After the video, I sent the kids to their own computers and led them to a Google Slideshow that I created. The slideshow contained the video we watched together and many other photographs and photo essays that I thought would help them to spark more ideas.  I gave them more time to work. FullSizeRender (9)

After the students had time to look at all of these resources, I asked them to get into groups and share the topics and questions that they wrote down.  I asked them to pay attention to what topics came up from more than one person or what topics more than one person expressed interest in. It was amazing to hear the things that the students wanted to talk about.  They were focused on their discussions and there was not one group that needed to be redirected.

We then came together as a class and I asked each group to share with me the topics that were brought up more than one time in their discussions.  Here are our initial lists of possible topics, one for my morning class and one for my afternoon class:

And yes. These topics are huge. And yes, I was extremely nervous about asking 5th graders to look into some of these topics. But here is the thing, these topics came from my students. These topics are the ones that my students wanted to learn about. And of course I worried about parents and if they would understand our work or not. And of course I worried about what resources we would find and if my students would be able to handle them. And of course I worried about some of these topics bringing up issues that I wasn’t sure how we would talk about.

But I decided to trust my students.

I decided to have faith in my students.

If these were the problems in our world that my students WANTED to learn about, how could I possibly stand in their way.

So I asked them to think about these topics. I asked them to talk at home with their parents and bring back any additional topics the next day. And I told them that I was not sure how we were going to go about learning about these very big and very real problems, but that I was incredibly proud of them for wanting to learn about them. I told them that I was going to do everything that I knew how to do to help them learn what they needed to learn in order to be able to learn about what they wanted to know.

So the next day, a few kids wanted to add a few more possible topics. We added these to our lists. Then I asked the kids to write down on a notecard, the three issues that they were most interested in learning about. Once they had their three issues, I told them that we would be mingling together as a class to further discuss our topic choices. I wanted them to talk to every single other person in the class, in one-on-one conversations, to find out what topics each person had chosen. I asked them to notice the topics that they heard come up over and over again. Again, this is an idea right from Comprehension and Collaboration. And it worked beautifully.

FullSizeRender (8)

After the class had a chance to mingle, we created one final list of topic choices. Each class had between 6 – 8 topics on these final lists. We talked about all the things that they needed to think about in order to select a good topic for themselves. We talked about how it must be a topic you are interested in, a topic you feel is within your “reach of understanding” (those were words directly from one of my students), a topic you think you will be able to find information on that you will understand, and a topic that will not be too upsetting for you to learn about. These were all considerations that came from the students themselves.  I then asked the kids to write down on another notecard their top three choices in order of which topic they wanted to focus on the most.

The next day, I took these notecards and WITH THE KIDS, I made our final groups. And our final topic choices are:

For my morning class: animal abuse, police brutality, video game violence, LGBT rights, and terrorism.

For my afternoon class: child’s rights, animal abuse, LGBT rights, video game violence, terrorism and hormones in food.

As I said to my students, I know these topics are big. I know that some people will say that I should not be allowing my students to learn about these topics. And, to be honest, I have wrestled with this myself.

But here is what I know. I know that kids take in what they can take in. I know that by allowing my students to select their own topics, I was allowing them to self-differentiate and find topics that they truly cared about. I know that kids are capable of way more than I sometimes let myself believe. I know that it is often my own fears and my own uncertainties that stop me from allowing my students to investigate the issues that really matter most.

And what I also know is that nothing is ever going to get better in this world if I don’t help my students learn how to follow their interests in the issues that pull at their hearts. If I don’t show my students how to challenge the way things are through the questions they ask. How to put together multiple perspectives and multiple sides to an issue in order to gain a more complete understanding of why things are the way they are. How to learn about a problem completely so that you can then work to change it. If I don’t help my students to learn how to do these things, then there is little hope that they will ever start to make the kinds of changes that this world so desperately needs.

I was so proud of my students this week. I sat in awe as I watched them so bravely tackle the issues that they wanted to work to understand. I thought often about how much more willing my students are than many of the adults they are surrounded by to confront the things they do not understand.

I don’t know what will happen from here, but I know that I am about to learn more than I ever could have imagined. And my greatest teachers on this journey, will certainly be my students.

Mock Caldecott: I thought it would just be fun, but boy was I wrong!

This year, I was inspired by other incredible educators to do a mock Caldecott unit with my students. I thought it would be just a fun thing to do with my students in those somewhat difficult weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break. It is often a time when both students and teachers can feel as if they are just waiting out the time until winter break begins. So I thought a mock Caldecott unit would be the perfect fun activity.

And that is really all I thought it would be. Fun. And then, once again, my students showed me how wrong I really was. Our mock Caldecott unit turned out to be so much more than fun. As we get ready to head back to school and vote for our mock Caldecott winner, it is amazing to me to look back on the work we have done and see how much learning took place during this unit.

I never would have done this unit if I did not have other incredible educators to learn from. There are so many amazing people who have done mock Caldecott units and have been incredibly generous with their material online. Everything that I have done and everything that I am happy to share, has been based off of the ideas of others. And for that I am incredibly grateful.

I began my unit the week we came back from our Thanksgiving break. As the students walked into our classroom, they were greeted by the ten picture books that I had chosen to be our potential mock Caldecott award winners. These were the ten books that my students would be working with very closely for the next few weeks.

What I learned about the Caldecott award, because I knew almost NOTHING about it before I began this project with my students, is that there is no predetermined list of books that can win the Caldecott award. So educators around the country simply guess which books might have a good chance of winning and use those books to run their own mock Caldecott units in their classrooms. After looking at the lists of many other educators, thinking about what books we have already used in my classroom, and simply falling in love with certain picture books that were published in 2015, I ended up with the following list of ten picture books to use in my mock Caldecott unit:

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña (Author), Christian Robinson (Illustrator)

My Pen by Christopher Myers (Author, Illustrator)

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman  (Author), Zachariah OHora (Illustrator)

Lenny & Lucy by Philip C. Stead (Author), Erin E. Stead (Illustrator)

Float by Daniel Miyares  (Author, Illustrator)

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson  (Author, Illustrator)

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle (Author), Rafael López (Illustrator)

Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick  (Author), Sophie Blackall (Illustrator)

Yard Sale by Eve Bunting (Author), Lauren Castillo  (Illustrator)

The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski  (Author, Illustrator)

What I know now is that the list itself doesn’t so much matter for this work. Yes, it would be incredible if the actual winner was a book that we had looked at and analyzed, but the real power of this project is that it can work with any picture book. And what I also found out throughout this unit is that some of the books that I so carefully chose, ended up not being big hits with a lot of my students. Nonetheless, this was the list we used.

On our first day of work, we simply learned about what the Caldecott award is, who has won in the past, what the requirements are for winning, and what the criteria is that the books are judged by.  On the first day, I also shared an ENORMOUS stack of books that I had checked out from my school library that included as many past award winners and honor winners that I could find. My amazing librarians were so excited to help me with this work and enjoyed pulling out books that had won the award a long time ago that no one has looked at in years.

The rest of the kids time that first day was spent looking through these past award and honor winners and simply making observations on the illustrations. They were able to do this work alone or in groups and were asked to jot down simple notes on THIS form.  From day one, I was amazed by the level of conversation that some of my students were having about the illustrations.

What struck me the most from the very first day of our mock Caldecott work is that students who had never before participated in our discussions about books were eagerly adding to these conversations. It quickly became clear to me that one of the best things about this work is that it was an “in” into the powerful reading community that we had built in our classroom for the students who had yet to find another way to enter. Students who had been reluctant to join this community or had not been able to figure out how to make themselves a part of it, were able to easily enter our reading community through the work that we were now doing.  That continues to be THE most powerful aspect of this work.

After this introduction to the Caldecott, the next step for me was to introduce our ten potential winners to the kids. I shared with them each of the books that we would be using. We talked about the books that we had already read together as a class and then we spent the next few days simply enjoying the other books together. We read through the books simply to enjoy them and did not do any work analyzing the illustrations.

After becoming familiar with all of the books, I had to find a way to help my students to see the level of discussion that I hoped we would reach about the illustrations in our books. The problem is that I was not sure that I, myself, was capable of the kind of discussion that I wanted my students to have. I know very little about art. I don’t think that much about the illustrations in picture books in a critical way. I needed some help.

So I reached out to the absolutely brilliant art teacher at my school and I am so thankful that I did. After sharing with her the work that we were doing, we came up with a plan. When I want to make my own thinking visible to my students, I do a read aloud. I stop and model for my students the thinking that I am doing and then help them to do similar kinds of thinking on their own. Except here, I did not want my students to think like me. I wanted them to think like my art teacher. So SHE was going to do the read aloud. She very generously offered to do a few think alouds where she would talk about what she noticed in the illustrations. She every more generously, offered to let me video tape these think alouds so that I could share them with both of my classes (and with anyone else who might need them.)

So on the next day of our work, I shared THIS VIDEO  with my students. They all sat in silence and awe as they listened to the way that Mrs. Hamm (our art teacher) talked about the way she looked at the illustrations.  We then watched THIS SECOND VIDEO so that we could see how she looked at books in comparison to each other.

On the next day I introduced the child-friendly criteria that we would be using to evaluate the illustrations in our ten picture books.  I shared with them OUR EVALUATION FORM that each student would eventually fill out for each of our ten books. And then, to help them better understand some of the artistic terms that we would be using, we watched THIS LAST VIDEO from our art teacher.

Once the students had this knowledge, we were ready to begin analyzing some illustrations. Before I had them work on their own, in small groups, I wanted to model together how we might fill out an evaluation form for a book. So shared the book The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein. While it was a book that I loved, it did not end up on our final list of ten. So it was a perfect book to use in order to model the kinds of thinking we might do about the illustrations in a book and how to turn those thoughts into notes and scores on our EVALUATION FORM.

One of the first important discussions to come up revolved around the importance of our evaluation criteria (which came directly from the actual Caldecott criteria, which can be found HERE). At first, many students were making comments about whether they liked the book or not and whether they liked the illustrations or not. So one of the first things we had to learn was to push past whether or not we LIKED a book and its illustrations. Instead, we had to look at how well each book met the listed criteria.  In order to this, we had to get good at making a claim and the supporting it with specific examples. If we said that we thought that a book’s illustrations did an excellent job of making the story better, then we had to be ready to point to specific places in the book where this happened and provide an explanation of our thinking.

We also had the important discussion of how we could debate without arguing. That in a debate, we had to each be able to say our opinion, then listen to the opinions of others and then respond and then move on. In this way, we could stop ourselves from having the kinds of circular discussions that do not lead anywhere knew.

With these discussions came the realization of just how many important skills we would need to use and practice in order to do the work we needed to do.  This was the day that we began listing together all of the goals that we had as we went through our mock Caldecott unit. The first one that we listed was to work towards debate versus argument. And the second goal we had was to support our claims with evidence.

After our whole-group practice, the next day we were ready to split into our small groups and begin evaluating our ten books.  I split my classes into five groups, each with three or four students in the group.  The groups would work together to evaluate all ten of the books. Each day, I handed each group two of our ten books. I paired the books based on length and tried to match shorter books with longer books.

On our first day of group work, I handed each student all ten of the evaluation forms that we would be using throughout the rest of the unit and asked them to put them into their reading binders.  On that day we talked about the importance of starting out be either completely rereading the two books they were given, or at least flipping through the entire book to review the illustrations before filling out their evaluation forms.

And then I let the kids get to work. As I walked around the room on that first day, I heard some great discussions and really saw the kids analyzing the illustrations in the book and constantly referring back to the criteria. What I also noticed is that they weren’t doing as great of a job building on the ideas of the group members. It was almost as if they were each having their own conversations while sitting together in a group.

So the next day, before they got two new books, we had a mini-lesson in which we built charts to help us think about ways that we could build on the ideas of others. This became our third big goal. Here are the resulting anchor charts:


After creating our charts, the kids got back to work. Again, after having the discussion about how to build on the ideas of others, I noticed a significant improvement in the level of conversation that the kids were having. I even saw a few kids walk over to our anchor charts to help them remember the language that we had suggested using.

The next day, for our mini-lesson we checked back in with our charts and talked about the ways of building onto the ideas of others that the kids found most useful. We also talked about how we could push ourselves to try and use the ways of building onto the ideas of others that didn’t necessarily come as easily for us.

On our third day of evaluating I noticed that one area that the kids were still struggling with was listening to the viewpoints of others that did not agree with their own. So this became our goal for our last two days of evaluating. The next days mini-lesson was all about how hard it is to keep listening when you disagree with someone. But I asked them all to try to do it anyway. We talked about how many adults struggle with this and we all agreed that we could be better than most adults.

We added this last goal to our anchor chart of goals and here is the final product:



After five days of working in small groups, the kids had evaluated each of our ten books.  In those five days, we had practiced supporting claims with specific evidence, practiced how to listen to each other, how to have discussions that led to new thinking, how to listen to people even when you don’t agree with them and how to allow our thinking to grow and change as we learn from the people around us.

And the kids were so incredibly engaged. You could see it and feel it as you walked around the room. And though I don’t think a picture can capture the work that took place, here is a look at how well the kids were working:


After the kids had finished all of their evaluations, it was the second to last day before winter break. The kids were ready for vacation and there was that chaotic energy in the air that can really only be felt in a school building on the days leading up to winter break. And yet.

I asked the students to each take time to rank all ten of our books using THIS FORM. I asked them to look back at the notes they had taken, their evaluation forms and the books themselves. I asked them to take their time and really think carefully about where they were putting each book.

And they did.

It was silent. The kids put so much effort into creating a list of their top ten choices. And then they got into their groups and discussed their lists in an incredibly focused and powerful way. And many of them even made adjustments after talking with their groups.

It. Was. Incredible.

And so yes, we haven’t even voted yet. We will do that when we get back from winter break. We will come up with an award winner and with two honor winners. And then we will come together with classroom across the country in a Google Hangout where we will each reveal our award winners and honor winners.

I cannot say enough about how powerful this mock Caldecott unit has been. I cannot say enough how grateful I am to all of the teachers who helped me pull this off with my students.

The lessons that we learned through this unit are ones that will serve as the foundations for many other types of work that we will do in the second part of our school year. The lessons that we learned through this unit are also ones that will continue to help my students far beyond the time with me and far beyond their time in school. There is so much that has been wrapped up in this unit that it is hard to capture all of it in words.

And as for which books will be our winners, we will just have to wait and see.

Inquiry Circles: My One New Thing for the New Year

This past summer, I was involved in a book study led by my incredible literacy coach. We read the book Collaboration and Comprehension by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  Since reading the book, I have been in love with the idea of using inquiry circles in my 5th grade classroom. However so far this school year, I have not been able to find a way to work them in.

Until now.

I always struggle with how to balance the things that I want to teach and the things that I need to teach. Need to teach because of the curriculum that I am given, need to teach because of the Common Core, and need to teach because of what I know my students will need as they move on past my classroom. I am incredibly lucky to work in a district and in a building that gives me quite a bit of flexibility. My principal is this amazing human being who trusts his teachers and believes that we will do what is best for kids.

And yet it is really easy for me to not try new things because I am afraid that it will not allow me to teach what I have to teach. Sometimes innovation suffers when we start to believe that there is no time to work new things into our curriculum.  But what I have found is that I usually just have to look at things differently. I have to look at what I am already doing, think about what is working and what is not working and then think about what I can do to help my students do better and to become more engaged with their own learning. I have to begin by really looking at what I am being asked to do and then think about how I can work in what I want to do.

In our district, our reading and writing curriculums are centered around comprehension strategies and genres.  In fifth grade, in reading, we are supposed to work with all of the major comprehension strategies but focus specifically on questioning, synthesizing, and determining importance. We are asked to incorporate several genres within those strategies. Specifically, we are supposed to focus on how readers use these strategies to read memoirs, news articles, historical fiction and science fiction. In writing, we are asked to spend time working in narrative, persuasive and informational writing. We are asked to specifically focus on writing memoirs, fiction stories, op-eds and informational picture books.

While we have been working the past few years to write units to go along with each of these areas of focus, I feel pretty lucky to be able to use the strategies that work best for my students and for me in order to cover the stated objectives and to meet the Common Core standards as well.

For that reason, I chose to start my reading instruction this year with a heavy focus on using texts as windows and mirrors. I also spent time simply laying the foundations for our reading community and getting to know my students as readers. I also took time to help students learn how to set reading goals for themselves that did not have anything to do with number of books read or number of genres read during independent reading and keep track of their progress towards these goals in their reading journals. This took quite a bit of time and led us all the way up to our Mock Caldecott unit (which is deserving of its own, separate, blog post).

That means that I have made it all the way up to January and still not started ANY of the three reading strategy units that I am supposed to teach this year. I have done a bit better in writing where we have already completed our narrative writing work in memoirs and fiction stories.  But, still, I have got my work cut out for me.

And then there is my love of this past summer. Inquiry circles.

You know how it is, you fall in love with an idea over the summer and then somehow when you return to school in the fall, the reality of all that you need to do sets in and you find yourself wandering further and further away from those summer loves.

But my love of the inquiry circle? That was no fling. That was an idea that I was not willing to let go of.

So what I now have to do is find a way to have my cake and eat it too. I need to use the things that I want to teach as a vehicle for the things that I have to teach. So over the past few days, I have been working on how I can use inquiry circles to teach two of my three required reading strategy units as well as one of my required writing genre units.

What I have settled on is this: throughout our inquiry circle work, I can easily integrate the standards that I need to teach for questioning, synthesizing and persuasive writing.

Here is my very, very rough plan:

My students will identify social issues that they want to learn more about.

They will form groups based on their shared interests in the issues.

They will learn to ask questions that will guide them towards studying specific aspects of their chosen issues.

They will work, as a group, to locate sources of information to help begin to answer their questions including news articles, videos, interviews and informational texts.

They will learn to ask questions as they read these sources in order to lead to further learning.

They will learn to synthesize new information within one text and across multiple texts on a given topic in order to grow and deepen their understanding of their chosen issue.

They will also learn to synthesize their knowledge with the knowledge of their other group members.

They will take their knowledge and use it to take some kind of action that will help create positive change in regards to whatever issue they have been studying. This action will somehow incorporate some form of persuasive writing.

In the end, they will share what they have learned and the action that they have taken with a wider audience of some kind.

Now here is the thing, the kind of big thing, I have absolutely NO IDEA what I am doing or how I am going to accomplish all of this. I have never done inquiry circles before. I have never tried to merge all of these reading and writing units together before.

But what I do know is that I am excited by the idea. I am excited by the possibilities. And I am excited because I know that this will be good for kids. Good for my students.

And it would be easy to just keep putting off my “something new.” It would be easy to let my fear of not knowing what I am doing or how this is all going to work out stop me from just getting started. So often I feel the need to have a complete vision of exactly how something is going to work and how something is going to look before I am willing to get started. I want to be able to see in my mind how all of the logistics will work out before I am willing to jump in and get started.

But one of the things that I love so much about inquiry circles, is that the kind of knowing that I am often looking for, is just not possible. Because in order to be able to plan out everything that is going to take place, I would have to remove the students from the planning. I would have to take out their needs and their wants and their interests. And what I love so much about inquiry circles is that the interests of the students are at the very center of the work we will be doing.

So while I feel like I am prepared to get started with our work, I am not at all sure where it will lead or how it will all come together. But I am putting my trust in my students. I am putting my trust in the incredible work of Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. I am putting my trust in myself to listen to my students and use what I know to help my students create a powerful learning experience.

As we start this new year, I will also be starting this brand new thing. I am excited to find out what lies ahead and I am excited to discovery it together with my students.


What My Students Taught Me About Fiction Writing

Each year, I save my fiction writing unit for the very end of the year. I dangle it in front of my students like some sort of reward for slugging through all of the other types of writing I make them do. I say things like, “We have to work on persuasive writing because otherwise we won’t have time for fiction writing.” I inadvertently make all other forms of writing seem like punishment or like the painful truths that we must get through in order to get to the good stuff.

But this year has not been every other year. This year my students came to me with an extremely bad taste in their mouths when it came to writing. This year, my students let me know on day one that they were not that interested in seeing themselves as writers.

Though I spent much of this past summer rethinking how to teach narrative writing. Though I found what I thought was an incredibly powerful way to look at learning how to tell your own story and seeing the power of sharing your own stories with the world, my students let me know that they just weren’t that interested.

What I did hear from them, over and over again, was the same one question, “When do we get to write fiction?” And in past years, I would have let them know that they needed to do all the other kinds of writing and then they would get to do the writing that they really wanted to do. In other years I would complain about the lack of enthusiasm for writing while consistently ignoring the very enthusiasm that I said did not exist. In other years I would have forced my priorities to be their priorities.  In other years I would have plowed through my curriculum and my sequence without listening to what my students wanted and thinking about what they needed.  In other years I would have known that I would run out of time and have to squeeze our fiction writing unit into the last few days of the school year. In other years I would have been just fine with all of that.

But this year, I needed to change. This year I refused to continue complaining about how my students didn’t see themselves as writers without actually changing anything about the way that I was instructing them to see themselves as writers.  This year I refused to let myself believe that I was not a part of the problem.

You see, I do believe that kids need to learn lots of different ways of writing. I believe that they need to see the many purposes that exist for writing and the many genres that go about meeting the needs of the writers in our world. I believe that children need practice in many forms of writing and I believe that if they aren’t actively engaged in writing pieces that span several different purposes and several different genres then they might miss out on the skills that they will need in their lives as writers beyond the classroom.

However. I do not believe that I need to continue teaching these purposes of writing and genres of writing in the same order every year. I believe that I need to be willing to adjust what I teach so that it meets the needs of the kids sitting right in front of me. It is part of the problem that I have with prewritten curriculums and also with only focusing on specific standards at set times during the school year. What should really guide the instructional choices that we make are the kids we are teaching at any moment in time and the things that they are telling us that they need.

And this year. My students were loudly and clearly telling me that they needed some fiction. They needed me to breathe some life into our writing workshop and that breath, this year, needed to come in the form of fiction writing. So while I had never actually taught a full fiction unit before (because, remember, it was always squeezed into the final days of the school year) I decided to move up my fiction unit and make it our second writing unit of the year.

So as our memoir unit came to a close, I began to think about what I wanted to accomplish through our fiction writing unit. I looked at our writing standards, I looked at the objectives for the fiction writing unit we are supposed to teach in fifth grade, I thought about what I knew about fiction in the world outside of school and I looked at what I knew about the fifth grade fiction-writing that I normally see and what I wanted to help my students to do. And I set out, with my students, to learn how to help them become better fiction writers.

And here is the biggest thing that I learned, while it may make us cringe to sometimes read the fiction that our students write (you all know that is true!), it doesn’t mean that we can’t help them to be better fiction writers. What my students helped me to learn this year is that their enthusiasm for writing fiction and their desire to write fiction are incredibly important in helping them to develop their writing identities. Their love of writing fiction and the work that they are engaged in as they write fiction are unbelievably important in helping them to see themselves as writers. Their final products may or may not still be cringe-worthy, but the excitement that they develop for writing is something that can not be captured with many other forms of writing.

So from the beginning, I knew that their final fiction stories would still not be perfect works of art, I knew that we could look at many mentor texts together, analyze what good fiction writers do, learn to use those strategies ourselves and then make our fiction writing better in some small way.

And that is what we did.

Mostly for my own benefit, and also for anyone else that might be at all interested, here is a list of our mini-lessons and mentor texts for our six-week fiction writing unit. Please note that some of these mini-lessons were spread over two or more days of writing workshop:

Mini-lesson #1: Knowing your characters on the inside and the outside

Mentor text: Pages 7 – 11 of the novel The League of Beastly Dreadfuls Book 1 by Holly Grant


Mini-lesson #2: Creating characters that are real and flawed, but that your readers will root for

Mentor text: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat


Mini-lesson #3: Creating conflict for your characters (also incorporating the four major types of conflict found in fiction writing)

Mentor text: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat


Mini-lesson #4: Resolution versus solution: The importance of pushing beyond a “happily-ever-after” kind of ending while still finding some peace for your characters by the end of the story

Mentor text: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis


Mini-lesson #5: Creating story mountains: Looking at typical story arcs and elements found in fiction

Mentor texts: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat  and  Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis


Mini-lesson #6: The importance of setting: Creating images for your readers of where your story is taking place

Mentor text: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena


Mini-lesson #7: Choosing to use details that reveal something important about your characters to your readers

Mentor text: The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant. The excerpts that we used can be found HERE.


Mini-lesson #8: Choosing to use details that reveal something important about your settings to your readers

Mentor texts: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena and several other excerpts from picture books that we have read this year. These excerpts can be found HERE.


Mini-lesson #9: Showing both the internal and external journey that your character has gone on: Making sure that there is growth and change in your character

Mentor text: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena


Mini-lesson #10: Graphing the changes in your characters (This is a lesson straight out of the incredible book After the End by Barry Lane. Many of my mini-lessons throughout the year come right from this book!)

Mentor texts: Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt


Mini-lesson #11: Creating mood to enhance our stories

Mentor texts: The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow and Lenny and Lucy by Philip C. Stead


Mini-lesson #12: Tinting setting details to reveal mood and emotion (Another lesson from After the End by Barry Lane)

Mentor texts: The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow and Lenny and Lucy by Philip C. Stead


Mini-lesson #13: Writing better dialogue by inserting character actions, character descriptions, thoughtshots (thoughts or feelings of characters), or setting descriptions (This is another After the End lesson).

Mentor text: Bully by Patricia Polacco


Mini-lesson #14: Writing better dialogue by using correct punctuation

Mentor text: Bully by Patricia Polacco


Mini-lesson #15: Revising our writing

Resource: Our fiction revision checklist can be found HERE. Students were asked to use at least THREE types of revision. Everything on this checklist is something that we learned how to do in this unit or in our previous unit on memoir writing. The number three was decided on together. I modeled this with my own writing.


Mini-lesson #16: Editing our writing

Resource: Our fiction writing checklist can be found HERE. The students must check for everything on this checklist. This list has been growing as we have learned new grammatical skills throughout the year.


Mini-lesson #17: Preparing our writing to submit to publications

Resources: This year, I showed my students three places where they could submit their writing if they wanted to. We looked at the requirements for each place and talked about how to prepare our writing to submit. I then took their submissions to the post office for them.  The websites that I used can be found on my class website HERE under where it says, “Places to Publish Student Writing.”


Mini-lesson #18: Sharing and celebrating our writing with each other


In addition to these mini-lessons, students met in their writing groups each week in order to celebrate successes, share struggles, ask for feedback or ask for advice. Each time before meeting with their writing groups, my students filled out THIS FORM to prepare. Their writing groups were the same throughout the entire unit so that the writing groups became familiar with each other’s stories.

In the end, I walked away with a stack of fiction writing to read over winter break. I also ended up with a classroom full of more enthusiastic writers. As our unit came to a close, some students had written three separate stories. Some students had not even finished one story. All that I asked was that by the end of our unit, each student turned in one piece of revised and edited writing. This writing didn’t have to be finished, they just needed to stop where they were and revise and edit before the unit ended. For some kids, I believe that these pieces of writing will be works in progress for some time.  I didn’t want anyone to rush the end of their story just because our unit was ending.

What mattered most to me was that each of my students learned the strategies they needed in order to write better fiction stories. They started writing after our second mini-lesson, even before they had created a full plan for their writing. This meant that much of their writing needed to be changed as they learned new skills. For some students that meant that their first story was pretty awful, but that their second and third stories got much better. For other students, I saw their writing improve throughout the course of their one long piece of writing.

And all of that was okay. Because what mattered most is that they were learning as they wrote. They were able to apply new skills and strategies every day as writers. I never forced them to use a specific strategy on a specific day, rather I trusted that they would use the strategies that they needed as writers, when they needed them.

And so, as I sit here with my stack of writing, I am fully aware that some of it may still be painful to read. And still. I know that I made the exact right choice for the writers who were right in front of me.


Modeling Vulnerability

Our very first unit in reading workshop is on using books as both mirrors and windows.  This means, that we will look at how we can see ourselves reflected in the books we read in order to feel stronger and feel a part of a greater community in the world.  We can also use books as windows to see into the lives of others in order to build empathy and understanding for those whose lives are vastly different than our own.  

We began last week with our work. I explained the concept of books as mirrors and windows briefly, knowing that my students would not even begin to really grasp the idea until we did much more work. And then I shared with students how sometimes, something amazing happens when we read a book. Sometimes, we start to see ourselves, or some part of ourselves, in the characters we are reading about. We start to see ourselves in our books. We start to see our lives, our struggles, our worries, our fears, our successes, our families, our cultures showing up and being lived in the pages of our books. And this gives us strength. This makes us feel less alone in this world. This gives us guidance in how to deal with our own lives. This makes us feel as if we are seen. We are worthy. We are like others. We are a part of something larger than just ourselves.

And that is powerful.

So I ask my students if this has ever happened to them. A few students talked in generalities about seeing characters who reminded them of people in their own lives or even of themselves. And then this year, I had two exceptionally brave souls. One was a girl who said that she saw herself reflected in a book when she read Smile by Raina Telgemeier. My student explained that Raina worried about not fitting in, about being different just as my student worried about those things. But then my student saw that Raina survived. Raina made it through just fine and she then realized that she could make it through too. Another boy spoke of Percy Jackson. He said that one of the reasons that he loved Rick Riordan’s book The Lightning Thief so much was that Percy was a boy just like him. A boy who got in trouble, who didn’t always do well in school, but then Percy got to be the hero. And my student, he said he liked that.

I was nearly in tears after both of these students spoke. But more than that, I was in awe. I was in awe of the bravery of these kids. To speak this freely in front of their classmates. To tell these things to me, their teacher, who they barely even know at this point. That is bravery.

What they showed me is their capability to make themselves vulnerable. To be willing to share the deepest parts of themselves. To leave behind the worry of how others would react and share these moments and glimpses into their lives with us all.  

And it made me think. I need to do that more in my classroom. I need to model the very vulnerability that my students just modeled for me.

So tomorrow. I am bringing in Patricia Polacco’s amazing book In Our Mothers’ House to share with the students. And I am going to read it in a different way than I have in the past. You see, this book is about a two-mom family and their three adopted children. This book, is a mirror book for me. Within the pages of this book, I see my own family. A two-mom family with one adopted child. And that is the part that I shared with my students last year. That is as vulnerable as I made myself.

But this year. This year I have been inspired by the bravery of my students.

This year, I plan to share all of the ways that I see myself and my family reflected in this book. I want to share with them that when I hear the moms speak of the feelings of bringing home their children, who were not born to them, but were as much a part of their family as any other child could be, I immediately know what that feeling is like. I know what it is like to walk into a home carrying a child who is a part of you and a part of someone else too. Seeing myself reflected in this way helps me to understand the relationship these children have with their moms and it also allows me to feel connected to a larger community of adoptive mothers.  

And then, when there is a neighbor who glares at the family and tells her children not to play with the children in this family, I want to tell my students that I see my family reflected here too. I have seen the looks of others who do not think that our family is as good as a family with a mom and a dad. I want to share with my students that I know the sting that these mothers feel when the neighbor quickly shuts her door. I know how they are feeling and I know their fierce desire to protect their children from the hatred of others. I understand why they do what they do in response to this woman. I know their feelings and I know their motivations. Seeing myself reflected helps me to understand the characters of the mothers and it also helps me to know that this neighbor is not just cranky and mean because she is cranky and mean, she disapproves of this family because they are different than her own.  And knowing that I am not alone in feeling this reaction. Knowing that others have felt this sting too. That makes me feel so much less alone. It doesn’t make it any easier to stomach, but it does give me strength in knowing that I am not alone.

And when these mothers, and their gorgeous children, come face to face with this woman, and her hatred, they are quickly surrounded by the love of their neighbors. And this part. This part gives me hope. Because this is my greatest fear. And I want my students to know that. I want them to know that when I read this book and I see myself in it, I am seeing one of my worst fears played out. And then I am also able to see something else. I am able to see how to deal with this fear. That there is a way through it. I watch the characters in this book bravely confront bigotry and I am able to learn from them ways to deal with it myself when the time comes. And it gives me hope. Hope that when, and if, the time comes when we come face to face with someone else’s hatred that there will be people who love us who will stand by us and surround us with their love. This book gives me hope that we will be okay. That our daughter will be okay. Because we will have the love of others to keep us safe. Seeing what happens in this book that so very closely reflects my own life, this gives me strength and hope for how my own problems will play out.

I have never shared these things with my students before, though I think them every single time I read this book out loud. Something has always stopped me. I was afraid to be vulnerable. I was afraid to show them that I fear and worry and care what other people think of me. But if I am asking my students to be vulnerable. If I am watching them make themselves vulnerable on the third and fourth day of the school year. Then I had better be willing to model that same kind of vulnerability myself.

Why Do We Share Our Stories With the World?

The first few days tell me so much about my students. One of the things that I quickly picked up on is that the only purpose that my current students see for writing is that it completes an assignment. Simply put, they write because they have to. They write because we tell them to.

This is an exciting place to be because I have the chance to show them that there are so many more reasons to write.  I get to show them the power that writing can hold. It’s like I get to let them in on this really big secret that they haven’t had the chance to discover yet.

The first place we did this was with our student blogs. This year I am using Kidblog (yes, I am paying the now required 30 dollars per class). After a discussion on why we write, I told my students that I was going to add a new purpose for writing that no one mentioned in the course of our discussion. I added to our anchor chart that sometimes we write in order to share our thinking and our ideas with the world. I told them that often in school, students are led to believe that the only person who is going to read what they write is their teacher and perhaps their other classmates.  I shared with them that in actuality, there is a whole world outside of our classroom walls that is waiting to hear what they have to say. But, we need to go out and bring that audience in. And then I shared how we could do that with our blogs and by connecting with others on Twitter in order to find an audience for our blogs.

And the kids were hooked.

After writing our first blog posts together in class (you can find them here:, I watched as blog posts continued to be submitted from home that evening and I watched the excitement grow as students trickled into class the next day to find comments from others waiting for them on their blog posts.

Giving them this purpose. Giving them a chance to share their voices with the world. It created an excitement for writing that I don’t always see from my fifth graders.

So the next day, when it was time to launch our first official writing unit, memoirs, I knew that I had to make sure that my students knew that there was as much purpose in this type of writing as there was in their blog post writing.  I began by sharing one of my new favorite picture books, Rufus the Writer, with my students. And then I began to talk about the POWER of sharing our stories.

And then I stopped and gave my students time to talk in small groups about why we tell stories from our own lives. I told them that as I walk through the halls in the morning and as I listen in on their conversations in class, I often hear them telling each other stories. I know that when they go home, they are eager to share stories from their days with their families. And I know that when they return to school, they are eager to share stories with me from their time at home. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to writing down our stories, so many children believe that they have no stories to tell. So I asked them to think about the stories that they are most excited to share and then I asked them to think about why we want to tell these stories from our own lives.

After giving them some time to talk, I asked groups to share out some of their responses as I gathered them on our anchor chart. Here are the two charts that we developed in my two different classes:

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Their answers were incredible. As always, once given an opportunity to really think about WHY people in this world would do the thing that we are about to learn how to do, the kids came up with incredible meaning and purpose for their work.

Once we identified some of the reasons why we would tell our own stories to others, then it was time to begin thinking about the stories that we all have to tell.  This is typically where I see the most shutdown occur in the first few days of writing. The students who believe that they have no stories worth sharing, who would rather just write fiction (which we will certainly get to) and who do not see value in telling stories from their own lives.

I always struggle with why. Why am I forcing them to write stories from their lives? Why don’t I just let them write what they want to write? Why, other than because it is in our curriculum for 5th grade, do I always begin with memoirs? And then I remember. What I am telling them is what I truly believe. I believe that there is SUCH power in learning how to tell your own story, to control the message that is being shared about who you are, to be the one who is empowered to tell your stories to the world. And I want them to know how to do this. I believe in the purpose of this writing. I believe that each of these children deserves to know how to tell stories from his or her own lives because I believe these stories have the power to teach others. And so we march on.

I shared with my students some brainstorming that I did in my writer’s notebook to help me think of some stories from my own life and to begin to think about the reason that I might tell these stories.  Here is the work that I shared:

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I then asked the kids to create the same chart in their writer’s notebooks. I asked them to look at the list of purposes that we had created and use that to see if they had any stories from their own lives that matched some of the purposes that we listed.  And then, for some students, I watched them sit and struggle for ten minutes.

For so many of our students, they feel as if they have no stories to tell. That feel as if their stories don’t matter. They feel as if their life is not worth writing about. And I used to swoop in to save those students. I used to sit with those struggling students and ask a huge, long list of questions in order to spark ideas for them. But now, now I allow them to sit in silence. Now I am not worried if their pages remain blank for minutes at a time. Now I know that my job is not to simply feed them ideas, but rather it is my job to help them believe that their lives and their stories are worth writing about. And that there is purpose. So much purpose. In writing stories from our own lives.

At the end of our first day, I asked students to sit and talk with each other about some ideas that they had. I noticed kids who had struggled beginning to be inspired by the stories of others. I noticed that kids were talking about WHY these stories were worth telling. I heard kids beginning to talk about a bigger purpose for their writing than simply to fulfill an assignment. For other kids, this work is going to take much much longer. But I am okay with that. I am okay with the slow way in which this important writing work begins. I am okay with knowing that it is going to take some time before my students begin to believe that there is a space in this world for their words and ideas and writing. It is going to take some time before they trust that our stories are worth sharing.

So we will keep working and talking about the many purposes for writing and sharing and telling our stories and I am putting my faith in my students that soon they will understand. Soon they will begin to see the stories that they are surrounded by. Soon the pages of their notebooks will start to fill up. Soon there will be so much writing to do.