Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 3)

This is the third and final blog post in a series about the work my students and I did in order to try to take apart the messages that we are surrounded by in the media and in the picture books and novels that we read.  If you are interested, here is PART ONE and here is PART TWO.

After we had finished our work with gender messages in fairy tales, it was time to move on to other types of texts. As a class, we compared the messages on gender that were written into the fairy tales we had read and the messages on gender that we saw in the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue.  We discussed that though the fairy tales were written quite a long time ago and the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue was a very current text, the same messages on gender were found in each.  What that told us was that though we like to pretend that there are no longer the gender stereotypes that there once were, we can see that these messages are still present and prevalent in our society.  And if this is true of gender messages, it is probably true of other types of messages as well.

This is when I asked my students to make a pretty big leap with me.  I said that many of us had talked before about messages on gender, but that now I wanted us to look beyond just messages on gender.  I explained that I hoped that we could now begin to examine messages on race and messages on family structure that exist in more current texts, in order to help us understand how many of our own biases are formed.

So I told the class that they would have a choice.  They were going to be able to focus on one type of message.  They could continue to look at gender in children, they could push a little bit to look at gender roles in adults, OR they could choose to look at messages on race or messages on family structure. I wanted to offer this choice because I knew that there were some students who were ready to take on the harder concepts of race and family structure and I also knew that there were some students who would be more successful in simply continuing to study messages on gender. I knew that in the end, we would all be sharing our learning with each other and I knew that the entire class would be involved in discussions on all four areas. So, at this point, I wanted to offer the choice to my students.

I was fascinated to see that most students wanted to tackle concepts of race and family structure. I am not sure exactly why this appealed to so many students, but here is my best guess.  In elementary school, we work really hard to protect children from things that we think are going to be too difficult or too messy for them.  We keep LGBT issues out of their grasp because we worry that they won’t understand them or we worry that for some reason it will lead us to have to explain sex of all types to our students.  We keep issues of race off limits for so many elementary school students because we aren’t sure we will have the answers they are looking for or we worry that we will upset someone or we worry that children will feel uncomfortable.

But the thing is, these are the EXACT issues that our students want to discuss. They want to discuss them because they want to understand them. They want to grapple with the things that they see as important around them, but that they don’t quite understand yet. Because that gives real purpose to their work. That gives real purpose to their learning. And that is what our students so desperately want.

So needless to say, the majority of my students chose to look at the unintended messages on race and family structure that are present in the picture books we read.

I left the work pretty open to the kids.  Some students chose to work alone and some in groups. Some students immediately began pulling bins of my picture books onto the floor and flipping through them, looking at their covers, researching their authors and skimming their pages. Other students chose one or two books and went off to study them closely. Other students asked to go to our school library to look through books there.  Other students chose to go into one of the three other fifth grade classrooms to look at the books available in those classroom libraries.

I did provide some thinking sheets to help give the kids some ideas on what they might want to look for.

Here are the different sheets that I made available (the kids only used them if they felt like they needed some ideas):

Messages on Race

Messages on Family Structure 

Messages on Gender Roles for Kids

Messages on Gender Roles for Adults 

As I began to circulate the room, I was simply blown away by the conversations that I overheard. I would stop in to help clear up some misconceptions for kids or I would gently guide a child toward a better understanding of what he or she was seeing, but overall the kids were really getting it.  The kids were so engaged in their work and right before my eyes I saw kids starting to understand the very things that we all had been so afraid would upset them and make them uncomfortable. Except, it was doing exactly the opposite. These discoveries they were making were not making them uncomfortable, they were making them question what they thought they knew and they were growing in these huge and important ways.

So often teachers say that they don’t have conversations on race or on gay and lesbian issues because they worry that they will say the wrong thing or they worry that they won’t know what to say, but what my kids showed me through this work is that sometimes you, as the teacher, don’t have to say anything at all. Sometimes it is enough to ask the kids to look at what is right in front of them and question it and deconstruct it and think about it. Sometimes it is enough to help kids see the things that we ourselves do not understand and the things that we know need to be better.

After giving my students two days to work on their chosen area of focus, I put the kids into groups so that they could learn from each other. Students who focused on race had a chance to hear from students who focused on gender or family structure, etc. Again, incredibly powerful conversations took place.

When we pulled back together as a whole class, I asked my students to share what they talked about in their groups.  Every single group had come to the conclusion that there was a real problem with the way our picture books were written. Every single student noticed the extreme lack of diversity that existed in the characters in our picture books. They noticed the lack of African American characters, they noticed the lack of Hispanic characters, they noticed the lack of mixes of races in books, they noticed the lack of families with two moms or two dads. They noticed so many things that had been right in front of them for years, but that they never really saw before. Some students noticed this simply by looking at the people drawn on covers, others noticed this by looking at the families that existed in each of our books, other students went further and looked into the races and ethnicities of the authors of many of our picture books.

I so clearly remember one group sharing the results of an investigation they did. They looked at fifty of the picture books in our classroom (a random selection of two of our picture book bins) and they shared that only 12 of these books had non-white characters on the covers. And then, one child said, “And if this is how it is in your room, Mrs. Lifshitz, I can’t imagine how much worse it is in some other classrooms!” My students knew that I made an effort to bring in diverse books and still this was the truth of what books existed in my classroom.

After this concept was brought up by each group, I knew that it was time to introduce my students to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.  Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog post sharing some ideas that eventually turned into this reading unit.  An incredibly kind reader, Samantha Mosher, left a suggestion to have the kids contribute in some way to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I am so incredibly thankful that she left such a brilliant comment because that suggestion turned into one of the most powerful learning activities of our school year.

I began by sharing the WNDB website with my students.  We read about the campaign, its beginnings and its mission. We then watched a WNDB video that my students were incredibly moved by.  After begging me to let them watch it for a third time, one student suggested that we make our own video and contribute our own tweets to the campaign using the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.  And so we got to work.

We used our class Twitter account to tweet our messages about why we needed more diverse books.  We used the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and used Tweetdeck to see how our tweets were not a part of an international conversation. We wrote blog posts about why we needed more diverse books.  We sent out Twitter messages with links to our blog posts. And finally, we each created a sign to explain why we needed more diverse books, we took pictures of ourselves with the signs and we complied the pictures into our own We Need Diverse Books video.

You can see some of our work here:

One student’s blog post on why we need diverse books

Another student’s blog post on why we need diverse books

Our class video on why we need more diverse books

As we submitted our work to the world, my students were simply abuzz with the possibility of affecting change in the world. This unit brought us so much incredible learning and I am having a hard time summing it all up in this blog post.

This unit left me with a desire to do more of this kind of work in the coming school year. I saw how deeply moved by these issues my students were and I heard the comments that continued to come throughout the rest of the school year about the unintended messages my students were now seeing in the world around them.

There are days when i don’t have a whole lot of hope for this country of ours, but then I think back to the work that took place in my classroom during this study of unintended messages and I take some solace in knowing just how amazing our students are. All they are waiting for is for us to give them the opportunities to grapple with the issues that matter and then help them to find ways to start making the world a better place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6209 IMG_6211 IMG_6212 IMG_6219 IMG_6220

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know that happened.

I honestly did not know.

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

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

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

And I was one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Kids Feel Empowered, It Is Amazing What They Will Do

Several months ago, my class and I put together a Donor’s Choose project in order to buy some alternative seating for our classroom.  As I was showing them the incredible website, one of my students was really affected by seeing some of the projects that were listed for schools in the highest poverty areas in Chicago.  She was upset by the fact that while we were asking for cool and fun chairs, other schools were asking for notebooks, art supplies, snacks for students and black-and-white printers.  And, because she believes that she can do good in this world, she decided to do something about this.

After our project was complete, this brilliant student of mine decided to organize a fundraiser so that we could return the favors done for us by incredibly generous people in our lives and make a donation to complete a project listed for a school in one of the highest poverty areas of Chicago.  So she, and a few of her classmates, got to work. They arranged a meeting with our principal and came up with a plan to host a penny war for the four fifth grade classes and then to raise awarness and collect donations from all of the other grades in the school as well.  These students worked through recess for several weeks planning the fundraiser, writing letters home, writing announcements for the school, delivering envelopes to teachers to collect money in and create a place to collect all of the spare change brought in for the fifth grade penny wars.  They also convinced the fifth grade teachers to agree to allow the winning class to throw a pie in the face of their class’s teacher.

The fundraiser ran from the last week in January through the first week of Feburary. Today we counted all of the money raised.  In total, our school raised over SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS to donate to projects listed on the Donor’s Choose website.  We were able to find four projects that we will be able to complete the funding for, all coming from high poverty schools in Chicago.  Today, the kids worked hard to count all of the money, create announcements to share our earnings with the school and select the four projects that we will be donating our money too.

I was brought nearly to tears several times this morning while watching my students work. The investment that these kids put into this project was amazing. The one student who organized much of this fundraiser has single handedly convinced me that our world is going to be in very good hands as these kids grow up. She is amazing and she wanted absolutely NO recognition for the work that she did. While other students bickered about who got to do what, she kindly kept reminding us all that the real point of all of this was to do something good for other people. I wish you all could know her.

What continued to strike me as I watched my kids work is how easy it would have been for me to tell her that this project wasn’t going to work. And in years past, I think that I probably would have done just that. I think that in past years, I would have seen all the work that would have been necesary to pull this off and I would have assumed that she wouldn’t be able to do it.  In past years, I don’t think that I would have truly allowed my students to follow their ideas through for fear that they would fail. I would have cut them off before they had a chance to soar.  And what a shame that would have been.

One of the things that I am learning this year is that our students will grab whatever power we are willing to give them and they will, most often, use that power to do incredible things.  When our students truly believe that they can change the world, they will try to change it. When our students see that we will trust them and follow them when they share their ideas, they will start to share more and more amazing ideas. When our students know that we are not just preparing them to one day create positive change, but instead know that they are capable right now of creating positive change, then they will look for ways to create that change today.

When kids feel empowered, it is amazing what they will do.

And in case anyone is wondering, my co-teacher and I will be getting pies thrown in our faces tomorrow afternoon, all in the name of a good cause. I promise to share some pictures and perhaps even some video!