Courageous Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

We have so much to learn from kids.

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

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

Just look at the questions that my students discussed today:


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

And I learned those lessons too.

I learned so much from my students today.

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

But then.

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

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

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

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




Before We Start to Change the World

I have been consumed with doubt about my first day of school (which is tomorrow). This doubt feels heavier to me than the doubt of years past. This doubt feels consuming. It has dampened my usual excitement for the start of the school year.

Most years, I worry that I will not be good enough. Most years, I worry that my first days of school will not set the exact right tone. Most years, I worry that my kids won’t be excited about the work we have ahead of us. Most years, I worry that every child will not feel seen, will not feel heard, will not feel loved for who they are within the first few days of the school year.

But this year. It is even more than that.

This summer has been heavy. To be honest, part of me never quite healed after hearing about the mass shooting in Orlando and then about the continued killing of young, black men and women by police officers. These stories changed me. Made the world seem more cruel. Made our situation seem more desperate somehow.

And that has made the weight of our work seem so heavy. And so huge. And so important.

And I think that underneath that weight, I have crumbled a little bit. Because our job seems more important to me than ever and I also feel more inadequate than ever do the work that is required. There is so much in this world that needs fixing and I feel a desperation to help my students learn how to fix it.

But what I have been trying to remind myself is that we can not set out to change the world on day one. Because changing the world is scary. It is hard. It requires risk and vulnerability and the belief that we are in this together. And we do not feel that and we are not ready for that right from the start.

Before we start to change the world, first we must grow love and community within the walls of our classroom.

Before we start to change the world, we must trust those around us to stand by us and with us as we carry the heavy things that we are likely to uncover as we look critically at the world around us.

Before we start to change the world, we must feel as if we are worthy enough, capable enough, smart enough to do the difficult work ahead of us.

Before we start to change the world, we must know that there is goodness and kindness and laughter left that make this world worth saving.

Before we start to listen to and learn from the stories of those around the world, we first need to learn to listen to and learn from each other and our own stories.

Before we take on the pain in the world, we must first experience joy together.

Before we tackle the injustice and inequity that surround us, we must first believe that in this classroom we will work every day to ensure equity and justice for everyone learning here.

Before we learn to ask whose voices are not being heard in our world, we must first believe that in this classroom everyone has a voice and everyone’s voice will be respected.

Before we fight against hate and intolerance, we must first know that love and acceptance exist here.

And these things take time.

So tonight. I will breathe. I will remember that we must learn to love and trust each other first and then we can get busy changing the world. One school year is not a long time, but it gives us many days within which to do the work that we need to do. So these days, these first days of the school year, we need to take care of ourselves first. We need to build the foundation that will sustain us through the challenging work that lies ahead. We need to ensure that each child feels loved. And then, and only then, can we begin to change the world.


Working to Change the Narrative: An Inquiry Into Story

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

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

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

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

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

But that kind of knowing is killing us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do others believe about you?

What do you believe about yourself?

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

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

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




Sharing Stories Is Something We Can Do

Philando Castile.

Alton Sterling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those stories are a gift.

And sharing stories is something we all can do.

Here are some stories that I will begin with:

The story of #ITooAmHarvard

Traffic Stop from Story Corps

Your Stories of Racism from The Atlantic

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

Being 12: Kids Talk About Race

Color Blind or Color Brave? TED Talk from Melody Hobson

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All from one infographic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


In Spite of Hate, or Perhaps Because of it, We Read On

In spite of hate, or perhaps because of it, we read on.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of sharing a post and a piece of my heart on the Nerdy Book Club blog.  The post was about the upcoming HRC day of action on Thursday, April 28th. On this day, HRC is asking people across the country to hold community readings of Jazz Jenning’s beautiful picture book I am Jazz in order to show support for transgender youth.

I was incredibly proud to be a part of this beautiful blog and I was proud to share a message on the importance, especially right now, of reading books with transgender characters. As I went to share the post again a few nights ago, I was met with several extremely hateful responses. Not responses from people who were respectfully disagreeing with the actions I was proposing. Not responses from people who were pointing out alternative view points. But responses filled with hate. Pure and venomous hatred.

And I sat with that hate, I imagined a child hearing those words. I sat with that hate and realized that I know so little of what a person who is transgender must experience during a lifetime. I sat with that hate and at first I wanted to hide from it. Ignore it. Block it.

But then I thought about someone who saw those hateful messages and then looked to see the responses and saw none. Now I know that when people choose not to engage with hate on the internet, it is a powerful choice in some ways. Choosing to be the bigger person, to not engage in nonsense, to know that you are not going to change the minds and hearts of people set on hatred. I understand all of those reasons and fully support them.

But for me, when I saw those messages of hate, I eventually realized that I had to respond. Because I wanted any child, or any other human, who saw the hate expressed, to also see the love and acceptance that exists in this world that I believe will one day win out. I did not want anyone to see that this hate was met with silence because there is far too much silence these days.

In so many ways, it is not the small, vocal hateful minority that exists in this world that scares me the most. What scares me more is the much larger, kind-hearted majority that often choose to sit silently by. This group of people is more frightening to me because they are the ones who allow the hate to continue.

When enough of the people who are a part of the kind-hearted majority make the choice to stand up and speak up, then those who preach hate will finally be silenced. However, when the kind-hearted majority chooses to remain silent, that is when those who speak hate are allowed to do the things that are most frightening to me.

And so I chose to not stay silent.

And what I will remember most about my brief encounter with hate on the internet is how many people around me also chose to not stay silent. People quickly saw the messages that I was receiving and they were there. They were there in a big way. They spoke up. They stood up. They defended me. But more importantly, they defended the children that this hate was really directed to.

And while I wish that I did not have to see, up close, the online ugliness that exists, I am also grateful for the reminders of the hate. Because they served as a reminder of why we must do what we are doing.

It is easy to hide ourselves from hate. It is ugly and it is unsettling and it is upsetting. But it is there. Hiding from it, pretending it doesn’t exist, only celebrating the progress while ignoring that which still needs to be done, that does us no good. Because that is how we slip back into a world where hateful legislation passes through congress and people continue to be attacked for being who they are.

So we have a choice. We remain silent or we speak up. We remain a part of the problem or we work, every single day, to try and make the world a better place by using our voices to combat hate. We speak up when we see or hear hatred. Not because we believe we are going to change the minds of those who are filled with hate who are doing the speaking, but because we want those who are being hurt by the hate to know that we are with them. That we will fight alongside them. That we do not agree nor do we accept hatred. That we will send messages of love and acceptance every time we see one filled with hate and ignorance.

For any child who has to hear a hateful comment in their lifetime, I hope that they will hear ten times as many comments filled with love and acceptance. But that will ONLY happen if we choose to not stay silent.

So next Thursday, April 28th, I will read I am Jazz to both of my fifth grade classes. I will read it, just like I had always planned to do, but I will read it with even more urgency than I had before. I will read it as a way to model for my students what it looks like to choose not to stay silent in the face of hatred. I will read it as a way to show my students the power of hearing stories from the lives of other people. I will read it as a way to help make sure that my students will not grow up one day to be the speakers of hate, but instead be the ones who will speak messages of love and acceptance.  I will read it to show my students that even when people use hate and intimidation to try to stop us from doing what is right, we still have the choice to let our hearts guide us instead of our fear. I will read it to demonstrate to my students that one of the ways we have to fight back against the hatred in this world is through our books.

So in spite of the hate. Or perhaps because of it. We will read on.

And I do hope that others will join me.

To find out more about HRC’s day of action, just visit their website HERE.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that made me think.

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

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

Here is what the pairs of books looked like:


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

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

And then we began.

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

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

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

But then we went further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FullSizeRender (17)

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



Dear Parents, Please Ask. My Letter About PARCC to the Parents of My Students

When we return from spring break, my 5th graders will be starting their PARCC tests.  For four days, we will time that we could be learning, instead taking seven tests that range in time from 60 – 90 minutes each.  The following is the letter that I plan to send home to my students’ parents on Monday. I share it here because I know so many teachers experience similar thoughts around this time of year.

Dear Parents,

This week, your child will take the PARCC tests. For many children and parents, I know that these tests can cause a bit of anxiety. I want to assure you that your children are ready for these tests. I say this NOT because we have spent weeks practicing taking tests. NOT because we have spent hours of our days learning skills that will help them to do well only on a standardized test. NOT because we have spent time learning tricks that will help them to figure out the right answer on a multiple choice question.

They are ready because we have learned how to be learners this year. They are ready because we have followed our interests and our passions and we have learned how to use them in order to make the world a better place. They are ready because we have learned how to think critically, to ask questions, to search for answers to our questions, to support our claims with evidence in order to make them more valid and worthy of being heard, to think about issues from multiple perspectives and to think about what voices are missing in order to then work to seek those voices out and amplify them. They are ready because we have learned that challenging tasks are not something we cannot handle. They are ready because they each believe that they have the ability to shine, each in his or her own way.

Just because they are ready, however, does not mean that these tests are ever going to be able to accurately reflect all that your children have learned how to do this year. These tests cannot possibly tell us the things that we all know are most important. These tests are one small measure of something that someone, who has never met your child, has decided are important.  So when your children come home today, and for the rest of the week, feel free to ask them how the tests went.  But, please, also ask them these other questions.

Ask them how they helped someone who needed help this year.

Ask them how they went out of their way to show kindness to another human being.

Ask them what they have learned about themselves as a learner this year.

Ask them how they found books that they love and shared those books with others.

Ask them how they have learned how to use writing to change the world.  

Ask them how they have learned new things and shared that knowledge beyond the walls of our classroom.

Ask them how they have connected with other people.

Ask them how they have learned to fight for the rights of others.

Ask them how they have learned how to use the stories of others to better understand the lives that others live and the struggles they have to deal with.

Ask them how they have used what they have learned to make this world a better place.

Ask them what they have learned about the dangers of judging another person before having the child to hear that person’s story.

Ask them how they have heard feedback from other people and used it to make their work better and make themselves better.

Ask them how they have stepped up to challenging tasks even when they were not certain how they would ever possibly complete that task.

Ask them how they have made another person feel better about him/herself.
Ask them how they have learned to listen to the opinions of others and allow the thoughts of others to challenge and grow their own understanding.

Ask them how they have challenged themselves.

Ask them how they have learned how to disagree respectfully.

Ask them how they have learned to be a part of a community.

Ask them how they have learned to recover from moments of failure.

Ask them how they have become a better person this year.

Ask them these questions, because these are the real indicators of their success in this world. The answers to these questions will reveal so much more to you, and to me, than any test ever could.  And because I feel confident that each of your children will be able to answer these questions in beautiful ways, I know that they will do just fine with any challenge that they encounter. Including the tests they will be forced to take this week.

As always, please let me know if there is anything that I can do here at school to help make this week easier for your child.


Jessica Lifshitz


I Stand With You in Outrage

Tonight I dream of living in a world where our political leaders do not ask people to remain calm, but instead declare loudly that, “I stand with you in outrage.”

Tonight a video was released of yet another black child being killed by a white police officer.  If you have not heard the story of Laquan McDonald, consider it your responsibility to read more.

Tonight I believe that we can no longer ask for calm. The killing of children is not something about which we should remain calm. The killing of children deserves our outrage. It demands it.

As teachers, the killing of children, yes even ones who have made mistakes, should tear at the very hearts that drove us into our profession in the first place. These children, they were someone’s students. Someone’s sons. Someone’s daughters. Someone’s friends. Those who knew and loved the children who are being killed deserve to feel outrage. They deserve to express that outrage. They deserve to have US stand with them in that outrage.

Because this much I know. Laquan McDonald was killed only miles from my home and miles from where I teach every day.  But had this child been one of the students at my school and had he been gunned down in this way, no one would be asking for calm.  Had Laquan McDonald’s skin looked a little bit more like the skin of most of my white students, no one would stop to ask if he deserved it. No one would expect anything less than outrage.

And that, in and of itself, is worthy of the purest form of outrage that we can possibly express.

So staying silent is no longer an option. Staying silent makes you part of the problem.

Tonight I read that the best thing we can do in order to be an ally is to amplify the voices of those who are expressing their outrage. And so tonight, that is my hope. That each of us can find a way to amplify the voices of others so that there no longer continues to be the silence that too many of us have become comfortable with.

Because if we claim to love and care about children, then we must love and care about all children, not just the ones that find their ways into our classrooms. And for tonight, for me, that means finding ways to make it difficult for others to stay silent and disengaged and without outrage over another killing of another black child by another white police officer.


When We Look Too Closely

A few weeks ago, I sat riveted through this TED TALK. And I have been thinking about it ever since. Now, please know that this talk has nothing to do with education. Mostly it is about sand.  A photographer speaks about the process he uses to take incredibly close-up pictures of sand.  When he zooms in on sand to a level that is beyond microscopic, what he finds is simply incredible. It is gorgeous. It is nothing that you could ever imagine. And the images are mesmerizing.

As he describes the process that he uses in order to put together these awe inspiring images, he explains:

“Now, the way my microscopes work is, normally in a microscope you can see very little at one time, so what you have to do is you have to refocus the microscope, keep taking pictures, and then I have a computer program that puts all those pictures together into one picture so you can see actually what it looks like.”

When you watch the video, you can see exactly what he means.  As he zooms in closely on one small piece of the sand, the rest of the image becomes blurry. While one small piece is completely clear, the rest of the actual piece of sand becomes incredibly hard to see. It is not until he uses a computer program that allows him to put all of these tiny images together that he is able to clearly see the image as a whole.

So why has this stuck with me?

As I listened to this man speak, I could not help but think about what we have started to do in the world of education. How we have started to look at our children.

As we become increasingly dependent on data, we seem to be zooming in so closely on one small piece of who a child really is.  We look at numbers, often in isolation, and we use them to attempt to understand a whole child. And in the same way that this photographers microscopes and cameras work, when we zoom in too closely and look at just one small piece of a child, then the rest of the child becomes blurry. The rest of the child becomes hard to see. And unless we work to put together these isolated pieces of data, we will completely miss the beauty of the entire child.

When I am in my classroom. When I am teaching my children. When I am making the minute-by-minute instructional decisions that truly matter in my students’ education, rarely am I guided by one isolated number.  Rarely does a child’s score on a test inform me of the best instructional moves to make. Rarely does a child’s percentile tell me what that child needs on any given day. Rarely does one number tell me how to help my student. Instead, I find myself constantly putting together tiny pieces of information.

I look at the face of a child during my reading conference and put it together with all that I know that child has been struggling with in the past week and I decide to just listen instead of push today.

I read a response that my student has written about multiple texts that we have been reading and analyzing for bias and I put that together with what I know he struggles with as a writer and I decide to be amazed by his content instead of being appalled by his spelling and grammar.

I see a child smile as he writes and I put that together with how his fourth grade teacher told me he hated writing and I decide to walk over and celebrate with him how far he has come.

I listen to a child tell me that she is still reading the same book that she was reading in September. I put that together with how she runs up to me in the hallway to talk with me about the part of the book she got to last night and I put that together with how I know she is in a reading intervention. And I make the decision to tell her what an incredible reader she has become because she has fallen in love with a book and is sticking with it no matter how long it takes.

If I look at any of these pieces of information in isolation, if I zoom in too closely on just one piece of data, then I allow the rest of the parts of that child to become blurry and I  loose the beauty of the entire child. If I look too closely, if I never take the time to put all of these pieces of information together, then I run the risk of doing an incredible disservice to the whole child sitting in front of me.

And yet.

There are days when I go to meetings and we talk about children as if they can be reduced to one number, one score, one data point. We highlight certain pieces of data and dismiss others. We value data that comes from a machine or from a standardized test that removes the bias of the child’s teacher. We dismiss the data that cannot be boiled down to one number. We look at the data that can be turned into a chart or a graph or a point on a line. We look at all of these isolated pieces of data and then we lose the beauty of the whole child.

These data points. These numbers. They can be so darn seductive. Because they are easy. They are neat. They fit into cells on spreadsheets that can be turned into charts that compare children to each other. They remove all that messy stuff like a child’s home life and a child’s struggles outside of school and a child’s social struggles and the way a child does not perform his best when he knows he is being timed. These numbers have a way of ignoring all of that. And yet these are the numbers we often rely on when making decisions about a child and making decisions about a teacher.

And just like the super up-close images of sand, they are might be prettier to look at, but when we look that closely are we really seeing the sand anymore? When we look this closely at a child, are we really seeing the child anymore?

I am not suggesting that there is no place for numbers or data gathered from standardized tests. However, I am suggesting that as we continue to become overly dependent on data and numbers as teachers, we run the risk of loosing the beauty that can only come when we start to put all of our pieces of information together.

A child is seen so much more clearly when she is looked at as a whole. When the numbers and data are looked at right alongside the observations of a teacher then we get a much more complete understanding of who that child really is. What her strengths are and what her challenges are.

And as teachers, yes, we must get better of keeping track of these observations, of observing the important things, of writing things down so that they can be referred to, of finding ways to really see every single child in our classroom. Because when we do, then we can begin to insist that what we see in the classroom, each and every day, THAT is important data too. That is information that deserves to be examined as closely as the information that is used to create the charts and graphs.

And if we can begin to take our data and our numbers and our classroom observations and the evidence of growth that a child sees in himself, if we can take all of that and put it together, then we have a chance of seeing the whole child clearly. And there is not a single child who exists in this world who does not deserve to be seen clearly and wholly.