The Power of our Native Tongue: Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr

Imagine, if you can, this scenario:

A childhood synonymous with freedom and comfort–a breakfast of yogurt, bread and vegetables, playfully running barefoot over rocks, an evening of papa’s stories about family.  A life of schooling, city markets, laughing and chatting in public.

Pretty easy, right?

Now this one:

A childhood synonymous with confusion and limitations.  Limitations of food that required shared bowls of soup and confusion at the exodus of your community, just a few at first, but then many.  Where are they going?  Why? The falling bombs answer your question, so your family joins.  Now your playful barefoot running is treacherous barefoot walking for miles and miles and miles, tears marking the ground for each one completed.  Land then water then boats then drowning, but you come full circle, reaching land once again.  Land that symbolized hope.  Your family categorized as “the lucky ones” and you know that’s true because you’re here, but it’s still so confusing.

Stepping Stones CoverStepping Stones pages

This is the experience Margriet Ruurs documents in her bilingual text, written in English and Arabic.  In yesterday’s post, I spoke to using images to tell a story when the (English) words weren’t yet an access point for our ELL students.  This book beautifully adds the next layer–allowing students to tell stories in their native tongue while also working together to write the English equivalent.  The strongest research in ELL education tells us that a bilingual immersion experience is the most effective when learning a new language.  By and large, public schools do not do this.  Our ELL students arrive in our classrooms and everything becomes centered around learning English, speaking our way.  Ultimately communicating to students, leave what you know behind here and let us tell you what you need to know.  Save your native tongue for homeThe two worlds your living in right now will be kept separate.  They oblige, because really, what choice do they have?  Our words, sharp and clunky in their mouth begin to form.  Before they are spoken they sit in the throat like elixir, thick and bitter tasting.  They come out all wrong.  People listen with intense faces trying to make them out.  What did you say?  Repeat it.  Try again.  Can you imagine the level of frustration when your days repeatedly consist of these moments?

As a new language is acquired there is a trajectory that is followed.  The first level learned is the social language–playground and lunchroom talk, and then academic language.  Once these oral skills are strengthened students apply them first to reading and finally writing.  So, even as we work tirelessly teaching them this new language, we will not see reflected in their writing for quite some time.

Unless… Unless, we allow them to write in the language they know.  The irony is it’s a craft move we teach all other kids to use in their writing.  We see authors do it all the time–pull in words from their culture to enhance the tone and setting of a book.  We would be wise to capitalize on this with our most vulnerable language learners as well.

With the many translation tools available today educators can make this work.  Or, better yet, invite in their families.  Many times there is someone in the home that serves as the translator.  Invite them into your classrooms.  How thrilled they would be to see what their child is writing and be the invaluable link between home and school.  Think of how they could help add on to the story.  Think about how this small gesture gives them a voice in their new land–one connected to their child’s education.  Can you imagine the impact of this powerful and lasting moment?

I recently listened to a Truth for Teachers podcast that was a two-part series on focus points for teachers of high poverty classrooms to get results.  As I listened to part two, which centered around parent involvement, I couldn’t help but think that the truth they were speaking would be to the benefit of every single kid in the public education system. Their message was this:

“Parents are our greatest advocate with our children.  They know their kids better that we do.  No one is going to love my students more than their parents do.  And so when I bring them in, and I bring them to the table, I say, ‘I want to hear your voice.  I want to add your voice to whatever I am doing with my students.

As teachers we have got to stop judging families regardless of how they look.  We have to start acting as if they are the critical link to success for our children because they are!  And then we have to tell them that.” 

It’s true that we are likely the person in the classroom that knows the best, researched instructional practices.  The parents, however, are the ones that know the individual to a depth we never will.

Can you imagine the level of success we could obtain if we all started working together?




Honoring Immigrant and Refugee Stories through Mirror By Jeannie Baker


In January 2010 one of the deadliest earthquakes in recent history hit Haiti, killing nearly 316,000 people.  In its aftermath school districts across the United States felt a shift in their population as refugees sought safety in states surrounded by land.  My classroom was not exception.  For the second part of that year I had eight ELL students ranging from nearly proficient and ready to test out of services to those who did not know a single word.  The ELL teacher and myself had a great relationship and worked tirelessly to help these students access their education through images, objects, and when possible, a translator.  But at the end of the day (and year), I locked my classroom doors harboring a lot of guilt at not doing more.  It just felt like they were under-served on so many levels.

I took this ache inside me into the Greater Kansas City Writing Project Summer Institute, researching it further as my burning question to my teacher inquiry project.  During this transformative time my eyes were opened to the unending ways we can tell our stories.  Yes.  That’s where I had failed them.  I was too focused on objectives and assessments, not their humanity or their voyage or their words in their native tongue.

So, when you know better you do better, and the next year I did.  It was far from perfect, but our classroom embraced wordless picture books and created many ourselves to broaden our horizons on what authoring a text and sharing information really means.

If Mirror had been published in 2010 it would have led this classroom work.  Jeannie Baker effortlessly compares the life a family in Australia to that of one who lives in Morocco, North Africa.  The spines of the book are on the left and right side of the cover.  The middle remains open, so the reader can flip each page, looking side-by-side to make connections and observations about family and daily life in these two vastly different cultures.


Naturally, as you read this text you connect these two cultures to your own.  Synthesis in an incredibly rich and profound way.

As I continue to navigate ways in which we can reach our ELL students more humanly to give a voice to their experiences, rather than sitting in the corners of classrooms silent and confused, I know literature is the answer.  Because literature is more than being able to read and comprehend the words on a page.  Literature is stories, information, knowledge.  We all have that to share.  We just have to find a way.

The Refugee Experience

Even as I write the title I know it’s inadequate.  I’m preparing to write about the refugee experience from my woefully narrow vantage point.  It is something no human can fully comprehend unless you’ve lived it.  That point itself underlies the purpose of this post.  It’s not about comprehending fully, it’s about learning and growing empathy toward a people and their experience. It’s about connecting more deeply with those who have lived a thousand years beyond my own, because they’re here.  They made it.  And now, more than ever, they need us.  They need us to let them share their voice because, damn, do they have a story to tell.

James Mollison is a photo journalist I recently learned about through his book, Where Children Sleep.  In this particular text James takes pictures of 56 children (and their sleeping quarters) from all over the world, including a brief overview of their life.  It is riveting and eye-opening and stereotype-breaking.  He did similar work with refugees for a photo series in Time Magazine titled, “What Refugees Carry With Them”.


Refugee 1Refugee 2Refugee 3Refugee 4

Choices.  One can only imagine what was left behind, if anything.  See?  Incomprehensible.


Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a book in verse that follows her life for a single year–the year the Vietnam War forced her family from their home in Saigon.  They would first land in Guam and ultimately Alabama. Fatherless and frightened, Ha spends her time in Alabama trying to assimilate to a culture that wants nothing of her.  On her darkest days, she sits in her classroom listening to horrors of the Vietnam War being told in her history lessons, longing to go back. The horrors of the Vietnam War pale in comparison to the horrors she is facing here.  And what do they know about Vietnam anyway? They don’t know the beauty, the papaya trees.  They don’t talk about Tet or her dad.  Is he alive?  Is he still there?

Ha, too, must make choices as she prepares to leave her native country.


Into each pack:

one pair of pants,

one pair of shorts,

three pairs of underwear,

two shirts,


toothbrush and paste,


ten palms of rice grains,

three clumps of cooked rice,

one choice.


I choose my doll,

once lent to a neighbor

who left it outside,

where mice bit

her left cheek

and right thumb.


I love her more

for her scars.

More choices.  Choices many of us will likely never have to make.  What would we carry?  Or better yet, what could we carry that privilege has afforded us?  Cash, credit cards, cell phones with chargers, fine jewelry to be pawned if needed, clothes, shoes, high school diplomas and college degrees, our whiteness.

I could travel looking like Mohammed in the last picture, looking as if I had nothing, when in truth I’d have more than I’ll ever need.  All the items listed above can be worn or fit in pockets.  My whiteness gives me access and my culture has prioritized smallness.  The things I could carry fit in the palm of my hand.  More importantly, I have favorable odds of surviving.  White privilege.

As I sit with the word “choices” I consider mine.  What would I carry in addition to what the world has already given me that I have not earned?  I land on only option, so it’s not a choice at all.  Rather it’s a responsibility.


I’ll carry my voice,

once kept silent toward my neighbor

out of ignorance

and fear.


It cracked once,


“That’s not right!”

Then closed quickly,

surprised and embarrassed.


Later, the whispers,

“Thank you for speaking up.

Keep going.”

I do. I will.  I will not stop.

In the words of Jimmy Baca from NCTE, “The only way to fight ignorance is with knowledge.  There’s a destructive ignorance and a benign one.  We have to address the benign one–it’s unintended and connects people to reading and writing.”

I would add, “It helps us find our voice, and in turn, our way in this complex world.”


Fists up.  Voices up.  Let’s go.



NCTE 2017 + Blog Mini Series Launch

Many of you know I just returned from NCTE last week.  As a first time attendee I had high hopes, and it did not disappoint.  It was all the things I needed it to be–revitalizing, soul-lifting, necessary, true.

Let me recap a few highlights.

In the Nerdy Book Club session, I was fortunate to enough to sit at a table that Jason Reynolds spoke to.  In his all-too-short 12 minutes with us, his words became a sermon, worthy of a pulpit and place of worship.

“My books are love letters to kids.  In each of them you will see characters who actualize an element of humility through moments of heightened emotions.  We all want an opportunity to cry.  Growing up I did not get that because of stereotypes placed on boys.  When we strip kids of humanity we also strip them of humility.  Labels and stereotypes do this.  As adults we have to be humble too.  Kids want to teach us.  It’s time to let them.”

I don’t know who talked after that.  It seemed there was nothing left to say.  He’d said it all.  In 12 minutes.

Okay, I do know who talked.  It was Colby Sharp, and he’s also awesome.  And you should buy his book, The Creativity Project, coming out in March 2018.


The next morning, Jacqueline Woodson set my mental state for the remainder of the conference with these words,

“Resistance has never been more important.  Teaching resistance.  Writing resistance.  Acting resistance.  You can choose right or choose kind.  Kindness lets the relationship last another day.  Enacting resistance does not mean letting go of kindness.  In fact it’s the opposite.  It’s demanding it, for all.”

Jeff Anderson shed light and laughter to the often daunting topic of grammar and punctuation.  He expressed that when we teach grammar and punctuation through worksheets we perpetuate that there is one correct answer, which is incorrect.  Punctuation is about creating patterns that bring power to the writing.  He emphasized,

“It’s not an extra thing–its the meaning making of reading and writing.  Therefore it must be analyzed in context for students to understand exactly how that works.”

So remember,

Punctuation in a corner

Anderson speaks to this topic more extensively in his new text, Patterns of Power, written specifically for elementary writers


Sunday morning I only had time to attend one session before leaving, and I undoubtedly picked the right one.

This panel of women brought the damn house down.

NCTE Donalyn Miller Panel

Their session was on the power of storytelling and each shared deeply personal moments to a room of strangers.  Their strength was palpable and unified the room in 75 minute in a way that only storytelling can.

Pernille Ripp began, sharing a moment of getting pulled over by the police and being terrified because she did not have her green card on her.  She just knew she was going to get deported.

Now, look back at the picture.  Which one is Pernille?  The one on the far right?  No, that’s Sara K. Ahmed.  Oh, okay.  It must be the one next to her? Nope. Not her either–that’s Katharine Hale.  Both of these women are American, born in the United States, yet face situations each day in which they are treated as an ‘other’.

So, which one is she?  Let me tell you.  She’s the third one from the left, standing in the back.  Her story speaks to the ultimate reason she was not deported that night–white privilege.  You can read it at the link below, and I strongly urge you to do so.

On My Own White Immigrant Privilige


Through the power of her story and work I’ve been doing in the arena of immigration and refugees, I’ll be doing a blog series this week that explores texts and ideas connected to these topics.

Here’s the schedule:

  • Tuesday: Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai
  • Wednesday: Mirror by Jeannie Baker
  • Thursday: Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs
  • Friday: “White Haze” and the Difference Between Equalization and Marginalization

All Children on Shelves