Social Justice Student Work– Week 1 Bonus Footage

In last week’s post I highlighted only a scant portion of the work and conversations playing out in classrooms across Kansas City.  As teachers have had to play with time in creative ways to fit this work in around testing, some were able to get started sooner than others.  This week student work kept rolling in as teachers launched, and to truly encompass all that this work means to our teachers, students, and city, I have to share.

  • Our participating classrooms connected with each other across the city.  

At our “Launch Meeting” we decided we wanted students to have an idea of who they are working beside before actually meeting.  So, we set up buddy classrooms and teachers decided what forum they wanted to use to connect their classes.  Below are one class’s letters shared from the students and teachers.

diegoHogan Prep #1Prep 2



  • Student used the self portraits they created reflecting their skin tone and the book, The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald to reflect and write about the best part of each of them.



  • Students wrote poetry reflecting on the importance of their skin, highlighting all it does and can do beyond its color.


Get ready for Week 2!  Post coming soon!

Social Justice Launch Week

This week started in a very general sense in that students explored why people have different skin colors.  The books that led this discussion and inquiry were, The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler and Shades of People by Shelly Rotner.

The Skin You Live In explores all the wonder and function our skin embodies.  While it addresses the various shades, it also talks about its abilities from the perspective of “a- day-in-the-life” of your skin.  Through list-like verse, this books crafts a catchy rhythm the grabs the reader’s attention from beginning to end.

With this text students were encouraged to think about all their skin does for them in a day, using the book as a model craft a similar poem to tell their personal skin story.

Shades of People led a more artistic inquiry into skin color.  Students explored with paint mixing to find the colors and amount of each necessary to create their exact skin tone.  This activity always serves as a powerful visual model in several ways.

  1. It shows students that no one just picked up the white bottle of paint, or the brown bottle, or the black, or yellow, or red…
  2. It also enlightens students to the fact that their skin is made of tones of red, yellow, and blue.  Meaning for everyone to find their unique skin tone each had to start with the exact same colors.

Teachers took initiative to get their art teacher’s support in this project.  They dedicated art time to the actual paint mixing, and then spent class time painting self portraits that represented their skin tone and unique facial qualities.

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Next week our conversations get more targeted as students explore the universal construct of racism and what it means in and to our society.  Students will research their own family histories to better understand the variety of cultures and places that make up our unique stories and selves.  Stay tuned!  We’re just getting started!

The Birthday of Your Soul

soul on fire

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work alongside a talented colleague, Jodi Coen, who was hosting a reading workshop experience for local teachers with Ellin Keene.  During this two-day workshop Jodi’s students were diving into their biography unit and exploring the idea of significance.  What does it mean?  Why did these individuals have stories written about them?  What is a significant contribution?  As these questions were explored and discussed in student conferences, we came upon one child who blew us all away.  She was reading about Hellen Keller, and pulled this line from her text:

“She would forever remember this day as being the birthday of her soul.”

The author was referring to the moment Keller met Anne Sullivan and finally had hope in being able to understand and learn about the world around her.  The student said that seemed “significant.”  Yes, child.  You’ve got it.

I have no idea how the rest of the conference went.  I immediately began wondering, when was the birthday of my soul?  As I thought through this I could not land on a single moment.  And I realized it’s because souls have so many layers.  The mom layer of my soul immediately went to the birth of my kids.  My sappy, love soul landed on meeting my husband.  Those moments seemed obvious though.  I dug deeper, and came upon this:

The summer of 2011 I walked into a charming little home at 3607 Pennsylvania Avenue that is rumored to be haunted, and at one time, a brothel.  Now The Writer’s Place, it serves a much different purpose.  I sat around a table with 20 strangers.  Twenty really smart strangers.  We opened books, uncapped pens, spoke in the voices and beliefs we knew, and wrote the ones just starting to emerge.  In just three weeks’ time, I received the most important and necessary education of my life.  It didn’t come with a flashy degree to hang, framed on a wall.  It came with a fire in my belly to spread this knowledge. To empower others. To create change.  It set my soul on fire.  Indeed, that has to be its birthday.

The Writing Project has had an incredibly profound impact on me.  It revolutionized my teaching and personal world.  If the summer of 2011 was its first birthday, then last night was its 6th. We celebrated with pizza, soda, chips and chocolate.  It was pretty PG, but that only makes sense because my soul is in Kindergarten.  It sits on the cusp of possibility, sparkly-eyed with dreams that anything is possible.  Eager.  Unafraid.  Ready to take chances.

Last night we launched a city-wide social justice project that has been my “professional baby” in the making for the past two years.  Twelve teachers came together and sat around the table.  Twelve really smart teachers.  We opened books, uncapped pens, spoke in the voices and beliefs we knew, and wrote the ones just starting to emerge.  Over the next three weeks, my hope is that their students receive the greatest and most profound education of their life-to-date.  It won’t come with a flashy certificate given at an assembly.  It will come with a fire in their belly to spread this knowledge.  To empower others. To create change.  It will set their soul on fire.  Perhaps it will be its birthday.


Over the next month, I’ll be blogging from inside the classrooms as this learning unfolds.  On May 9th we will culminate the experience at Johnson County Library where students will meet and participate in a workshop focused on social activism and being community change agents.  Souls are on fire!  Let’s see where it takes us.

Stories: The Untold Data


Today, as educators, we embark on testing season.  For the next 3-4 weeks, daily schedules will implode and the educational routines students have found comfort in during the last 7 months will cease to exist to make room for The Almighty Test.  Likewise, your social media feeds will be inundated with articles and viewpoints regarding the ridiculousness of this practice.  I likely agree with all of those.  It’s barbaric.  It’s asinine.  It’s centered on governmental power to control where state and federal education dollars get funneled.  It’s dehumanizing.  So, this post is not going to be about that.

It’s going to be about changing it.

This is our world, educational and otherwise, right now:

world of numbers

Separate.  Apart.  Number-driven.  Everything is a number– A price, a time, a year.  We want the hottest gadget, now and on sale.   Everyone is a number–literally, by way of social security, but also a birth date, a weight.  You’re too old.  You’re too young.  You’re overweight.  You’re too skinny.  That thigh gap you’ve worked for?  You’ve gone too far.

You’ll never be the right number.  Whatever “right” is.

And our students feel this, too.  They become scores associated with labels that, if allowed, become ingrained in who they believe they are as learners.  This is where action must come in.  It does not matter if your score is high or low or right in the middle.  We cannot allow numbers to dominate a student identity.  Because  numbers and labels can never define us, but our stories do.

Since, I do not have the answers to breaking down entire political systems driven by money and power, I have to go a different route.  I have to think about how to bring stories into the numbers to humanize the data.  I have read Steibeck’s quote, and think,

If this is my ideal world–one connected through stories (real data), how do I bring that into my smaller, educational world?  Who is the hearer?  How can I make my students’ stories matter so it lasts beyond today and this meeting?  How can I make my student’s story about everyone?

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Know the stories!                                                                                                                   This one seems obvious, right?  But it is the most important, thus worth the moment to pause and reflect.  Who am I about to be in a room with to talk about this student or group of students?  What’s their story?  How can I connect them with my students and the experience I want to provide to propel them forward?  In my last post I spoke to the power of listening.  Have you done that?  If not, that’s the first step.  We have to connect the people in the room!
  2. Bring your students to the meeting!                                                                                    Hear me out on this one before you roll your eyes or skip over it entirely! I always spent the first part of the year taking pictures of my students as they worked in the classroom.  This helped me get to know them as learners.  As we set up Writer’s Workshop notebooks, students would share (or not share) stories about their families.  They would decorate their notebooks with what mattered to them.  It was always telling if families were or were not present on those.  Then, in  meetings about those students I’d bring a few of those pictures.  If only to set them in the middle of the table to make sure they, too, were present in the meeting about them.  It also told the adults in the room that our charge is to not forget the student–who they are as learners and people, and what their life is outside of school.  What matters to them?  We must know the kid to develop a workable plan.  When they are looking back at you, it’s a much easier thing to do.
  3. Let stories lead, not excuse!                                                                                 Sometimes sharing stories leads to conversations laden with excuses about why students can’t or don’t do x or y. “They’re lazy” or “Their home life is horrible.” If this happens, we’ve missed the mark.  Stories should empower.  They should allow us to see people for all they are, not are not.  Knowing stories should develop empathy, not excuses.  Circumstances, just like labels, cannot define our students. The purpose of knowing circumstances is to provide insight into understanding each other.  And from there, to honor their current place in life with all that has brought them here, and then get to work to build, to grow, to succeed.
  4. Bring student work!  Don’t let the data being looked at in the meeting be the only piece that is considered.  No single piece of data can serve as the point from which to make all decisions.  When we consider multiple pieces of student work we acknowledge all the the work student does, and are more likely to see how they have developed in this content area, therefore not minimizing them to a single score.

Right now, public education means testing.  If we are a part of that system we have to find ways to rise above it, for the sanity of ourselves and the self worth of our kids.  I will keep seeking ways to do that until this is my data shelf.  Will you?  ideal data room 2