KC Kids Unite Classroom Sneak Peak

We are entering our final week of accepting applications and we love to see them all coming in!  This week we’ll be offering our readers of daily dose of classroom “sneak peeks”.  The three-week classroom curriculum is led by an essential question centered around student identity.  Today, we see how students explore the first question, Where I’m From?  The video below does an excellent job launching this question in the minds of our students.


Because the issues being discussed through this work are universal and complex, developmentally appropriate videos and texts are used as entry point into our weekly discussions.  The Skin I’m In by Pat Thomas guides students to think about their nationality in connection to their ethnicity, and presents students with information to think about their race at a scientific and genealogical level.  Through this activity students come to recognize that each of us are connected to countries all over the world. Using this book as a mentor text students embark on research of their family history through websites and family interviews.

Check out the pictures below for in action shots!

Researching family history on familysearch.org

Results of students’ family research are posted on a world map, so each classroom can see the many places we have ALL come from!

Applications are being accepted now through October 5th.  You can apply at the following link: KC Kids Unite Application.  Apply now and share with your friends!


KC Kids Unite Has a New (Digital) Space


When one door closes another opens.

After much consideration, I have decided to let my blog, Paper and Passion, rest.  In all honestly, it’s been resting for a while, yet remained a constant in my head to return to it and I simply can’t find the time or energy.  It’s time to leave the weight of that constantly lingering expectation go.  But, this is not the end…

As I have posted on social media the last couple weeks, my passion project, KC Kids Unite, is getting more feet underneath it each year, and with our exciting new partnership with the Nelson-Atkins Museum we have much to share!  So, while Paper and Passion rests, the new KC Kids Unite blog awaits bright-eyed with energy and promise on the horizon!

So, what is KC Kids Unite?  Let me share!

  • KC Kids Unite is a community collaboration and celebration for school-aged children grades 2-6.
  • KC Kids Unite promotes community connectedness and youth activism to create bridges, not walls, through shared personal stories, art and literacy.
  • KC Kids Unite accepts 12 teachers annually across the Kansas City metro area to participate in this work with their students.
  • Participating classrooms partner with other urban and suburban classrooms across the city to engage in civic and community centered conversations through age appropriate literature, and develop art and original writing to share their story with others.
  • Participating teachers receive 12 hours of professional development focused toward KC’s unique racial history, culturally responsive teaching, 21st century collaboration, art literacy, student centered learning and engagement strategies, and project development with their partnering teacher.  For this work teachers receive a $75 stipend for their time.
  • Participating students and teachers join together in May for a city-wide art and writing celebration to be held at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  This once in a lifetime field trip creates an opportunity for all participants to meet and student work to be shared across the city.  Student art will be showcased at the museum and student writing shared through our podcast (more on that in a later post) and the open-mic portion of our May writing celebration.

How do I get involved?

Applications are being accepted now through October 5th.  You can apply at the following link: KC Kids Unite Application.  Apply now and share with your friends!  We CANNOT WAIT to get this year started!  Check out the work below created from past students.  More to come!

bulletin board zoom inI am from bulletin boardpoem 2poem 4

The Day You Begin: Thoughts on Self + a New School Year

As most of the literacy world knows, Jacqueline Woodson just did what she always does, created a literary masterpiece for the ages.  The Day You Begin helps its readers embrace the moments we feel an other.  The moments we walk in a room or join a group, and find that despite the many gathered there we feel quite alone.

TDYB 1-2

TDYB 19-20

In those moments, we can let the crowd make us shrink and fall into silence, or we can immerse ourselves in it, raising our voices and ourselves to connect.  We can begin.

TDYB 21-22

TDYB 23-24TDYB 27-28

What transpires in the pages in between is

This is book is such a powerful one at the start of a new school year, because what transpires in the pages in between are the stories of so many of our students, and through their telling children and adults alike learn, become aware, and move forward with a greater understanding of humanity.

This book has taken on its own meaning for myself as well.  How will I begin in a new way this year?  In a sense, I already have.  This year I have had the great fortune of getting back into schools at the building level as a Title 1 Instructional Coach.  Being right next door to teachers and students has given me an energy I didn’t realize I’d been missing so desperately for the past 6 years.  The heartbeat of the school setting has pumped new and life-giving blood into my veins in a way that makes me feel I am starting my educational career anew. I am beginning.  And it has been all the things Woodson told me it would be–exhilarating, terrifying, uncertain.  Yet each day brings a new opportunity to share my story and truth with new people, and the connections are building far faster and deeper than I could have imagined.  It is in these moments I know the universe has placed me exactly where I supposed to be.

It is in this belief that I go forward with Woodson’s words on my heart.  The universe has its way of placing us where we can find purpose.  Sitting in silence negates the profoundness we can create in our everyday lives, for ourselves and others.  We need each other’s stories to begin.

As I take these words forward, I will consider each day where my opportunities exist to begin.  To start a new, bolder, more knowledgeable and empathetic version of self.  Our country needs it, our communities need it, our kids deserve it, and if we search deeply, our own hearts are thirsting for it.

Leaders in Education Must Be Leaders in Learning

Let’s begin.

Summer Institute Writing Marathon, Day 3

It’s only appropriate that a week ago today I was sitting in our city’s Vietnam War Veteran’s Memorial participating in a writing marathon across the city.  Seven days later as I attempt to encapsulate just a small piece of that for those reading, we ourselves are celebrating our nation’s independence.  The writing marathon creates a unique opportunity of rare moments of writing connected to place, often places that are not part of our daily routine.

National Writing Project’s Richard Louth defined it best,

It’s about the writing act, not the writing product.  Most of our writing in school and in the publishing life is about the product.  We teach our students the so-called writing process–draft, revise, polish, edit–and when it is done, they have supposedly learned to write.  What they have learned is one way to write.  There is an entire world of writers–and enjoyment in writing–that this process does not tap into.  And the writing marathon does.  That is, writing for the sake of writing.  Writing for the moment.  Writing for the immediate audience.  Writing as the foundation of other writing by peers who respond directly to your thoughts in their writing.  Writing as the experience of a moment or place.  Writing for the self.

I have participated in Writing Marathons in Philly and KC on a large scale, and around schools, parks and neighborhoods on a smaller scale.  Which only enhances the appeal.  Writing marathons can happen literally any time, any where.  Just pick up and pen and go.  Immerse yourself in the space and write only for the sake of writing.  You’ll be surprised what shows up on the page.

We visited several places across the city during our marathon, but in honor of today, this piece of writing seems most appropriate to share.


Blackened, broken, bloodied, blue.

Uncle what did they do to you?

Booming, bombing, barricades, abroad.

Did they tell you this war, a fraud?

Running, choking, aiming, pulling.

Who does the world think they’re fooling?

Peace from this?  How? No way.

Yet you wake to serve day after day.

The noise around you now silenced,

But your brain still on attack.

The voice in your throat now silenced.

But your memories live on in a shack.

A ramshackle domain with no polish or praise,

for the honor, the courage,

that defined those days.

You mention a man killed in ’69.

A life taken at your hand 

while you served your time.

The world has moved on.

Yet your prison remains.

The world has moved on.

A cold stone covers his remains.

Remains of blood and bones and a brother lost.

At what cost?

The cost of empathy, emotion, the ability to engage.

As you sit on the outside filled with quiet rage.

Yes, the war is over

and the world has moved on,

but so much remains.

Let us remember the cost,

for the living, the dead,

each person’s remains.


Literary Luncheon

I eat poems for breakfast

If you have never experienced a literary luncheon, at some point in your life you must.  It’s a simple enough concept-write about food in a way that expresses the particular impact it has had on your life, then make the food and share your writing.  When you do this with family, you laugh.  When you do it with friends or colleagues, you laugh and cry.  When you do it with complete strangers. you open and grow and heal in ways you could never imagine and, of course, still laugh and cry.

This past week at the Greater KC Writing Project Summer Institute we feasted on fare and fellowship through some truly incredible works of writing.  Here’s a taste:

Jennifer wrote of detailed notes outlining her stuffed animal collection for insurance purposes in the case of a natural disaster, and those same stuffed animals showing up on Christmas morning along with sugar cookies, German bread stollen, and chocolate cherry cookies.

Anna wrote of con recipes passed off as family tradition when in fact they were plucked from Pinterest, and thus shared her family’s love of relish dishes that led to the black olive fingertips of party goers, and her family “mostly” unchanged recipe for BBQ pecans.

Molly wrote of beef bouillon and Beau Monde seasoning as secret ingredients to her grandmother’s incredibly delicious veggie dip, and a trip back to her home that reminds me so much of what my own kids experience when they visit their great-grandparents today.

Brian hilariously wrote to the powers of his super mom and her ability to make birthday treats that would give any kid some serious school street cred.  As the baby of the family his mother left no detail overlooked in her turkey Rice Krispie treats for his November birthday, complete with a candy corn tail and chocolate chip eyes.

Linda reminded us all that recipes don’t have to complex to be significant with her black eye pea dip that the family looks forward to every summer at the lake.  Her daughter helped her recognize its meaning, and we are so grateful she shared it with us.

Gail eloquently wrote of her baking evolution comig full circle.  Starting in her youth with Duncan Hines, to “discovering that the secret to blue ribbon shortbread is grating lemon peel into the butter at least an hour before stirring in the flour and powdered sugar” and then having to walk away from it all due to food allergies, she wowed us with delicious gluten-free cupcakes from Cupcake A la Mode.

Jane wrote of her father’s love in many forms, including the chocolate chip cookie recipe he inherited from his own mother.  These cookies were eulogized when she passed, and continue to be made again and again whether the distance between them be Iowa or Taiwan.

Tammy wrote of grandma’s noodles in a way I’ll never forget. Making these noodles created a rare opportunity to be messy and loved inside her grandparent’s home, a luxury not afforded in her own childhood home.

Kassidy taught us the importance of preserves–the berry kind that deliciously couple with butter and bread, and the act of, as in preserving memories.  Memories of families coming together and sharing jam-making traditions, growing the circles of our world wider, not smaller.

Diana made us laugh and consider the power of community as she spoke to friends who were as close as family, ice cream and potato chip traditions, and over 55 years of that damn ham salad.

Kate spoke of her family’s immigration and how food connects us when words can’t through garden fresh ingredients picked by the family, succulent homemade sauces, and grandma’s legendary Caprese Pasta Salad.

Leigh took us to Spain with tales of blood sausage and squid ink soup, but decided to wow her Missouri crowd with a vegetarian friendly plate, tortilla espanola–a potato and onion omelette that had us all looking for our passports to join her on her next trip.

Margaret wooed us with her whoopie pies and snapshots of a blossoming love that started with kisses over a salad spinner and has grown to Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives food tours all over the country.

Ro took us inside The Daughters of Columbus cookbook and her grandmother’s Italian kitchen to share her delicious lasagna and the hard time she put in to work her way up to cooking status in the kitchen.

Ted wrote of pumpkin pie so delicious it was devoured on the car ride home, never making it to Point B.  And of relationships so powerful, motherly figures so caring that the pumpkin pie is more of a symbol than a staple.

And I wrote this, for Grandma Josie.  All the love.

There’s a sleepy little town in Illinois by the name of St. David.  Passers-by rarely notice it and to research it is in vain. The facts you find are few.  Population: 587. Streets: 15. Banks: 1. Stoplights: 0. But as numbers tend to go, these don’t tell the whole story.  Amongst those 15 streets sits a home on West Burlington Avenue constructed by the calloused hands and faulty heart of a man I never knew-my grandfather.  A heart that would leave him as cold as the winter’s day on which he passed.

On that day my grandmother rounded the kitchen corner to deliver warm coffee to his side while lying on the couch.  He’d just come in from the bitter cold, and in the moment she laid her eyes on him, horror filled her body. The scalding coffee spewed forth; her teardrops and broken glass shattering against the floor all at once.  Shoveling snow had stopped the old man’s heart, and in the time it took him to walk through the door, ask for a fresh cup of joe, and lie down on the couch he was gone. My grandma had been happily filling his cup only feet away when he took his last breaths. This memory, this kitchen, would torture my grandma for the rest of her life.  But leave the home–no way. He had built this house for her, for them. She would care for it as he intended, keeping her promise to the man she would always love.

But this version of grandma’s kitchen was not the one that I knew.  The grandma’s kitchen I knew was a long, skinny one where rumps and elbows bumped with haphazard turns. One that left the back door slamming on hot summer days between potty breaks and popsicle pilfering. One that used a wooden spoon to hold up a window pane or swat a misbehaving child on their backside.  One that had a flyswatter only an arm’s length away. My grandma considered swatting flies an Olympic sport, one in which she always took the gold. Legend has it those silver-winged creatures didn’t even have to land. As soon as they were in her line of sight, the flick of her wrist sent the swatter wasping through the air and they were as good as gone.  One shot was all she needed. Her aim was impeccable.

The times were simpler then. Milk, eggs, flour, water, and salt were the only food staples grandma needed to satisfy the grumbling tummies of her grandchildren.  When flour clouded the air above the counters we’d quickly scamper in from outside knowing that kerpitcas were on the menu. These Croatian egg noodles came to our dinner table through my great grandparents, Antonia and Joseph, who traveled to America in the early 1900’s from Yugoslavia.  Their travels landed them in Painesdale, Michigan, a copper mining town that began as a tent town in 1899. While there they would grow their family by 8 children, one being my Grandma Josie–the only grandparent I ever knew. She was a hard broad, a Croatian curser who had no time for pishitca (bullshit).  After living through the Great Depression and the rations of World War II, my grandmother learned to be crafty and thrifty all at once.  She refused to let anything go to waste and knew how to make something from nothing. A satisfying meal made from basic goods–well, that was all she really knew.  By the time the flour settled we were there to help break the eggs, add the milk, whisk, knead, and cut the noodles to make a plentiful pot. Sprinkle in a little salt, melt some butter on top, and feast.  We gathered round this simple fare time after time, enjoying it all the more because we were a part in making it.

The kitchen I knew was one where the wooden round table we sat to eat was also the one where we played card games, read newspaper comics, and on occasion, would find my grandmother sitting alone, staring off in a distant gaze. I imagine now she was recalling back that fateful day and wishing in so many ways it could have been different, that he didn’t have to miss so much.  I hope in some way our girlish giggles and silly shenanigans eased the pain, paving the way for happier memories. She always said we were “full of pee and vinegar”, and she was right. In return, I hope she knows how many happy memories she created for us. She now rests beside my grandfather once again, and would be beyond proud that her noodles have stood the test of time, still satisfying the appetites of those gathered together today.

A Week of Writing and…Beyond

Writing in the Universe

This past week I had the great privilege of sitting at the table amongst some of Kansas City’s best educators during our local Writing Project’s Summer Institute.  I look forward to this week every summer because I know it will be a time of calm and centeredness and conflict and genuine, raw passion for the work that is education. And yet, even as I typed that last sentence none of those descriptors do it justice, which I suppose is often the case for experiences so bare and true they can’t be adequately articulated to those reading it secondhand.  But this week on my blog, I’m going to try, if only through my writing.  Each day I will share writing from the previous week as cultivated by the experience or people in that moment.  It is not polished because that’s not the point.  It can’t be when it’s a piece of you.

And so my first piece of writing came to be through Brian’s TIW burning question, “How do I get my students to value their writing?”  It’s a question we all have, and Brian used this opportunity to delve into research addressing education’s “value gap”.  Brian defined it as follows:

value gap


Until we consider this, the achievement gap will exist.  To achieve one must be bought in.  We must start with engagement and relevance if we hope to gain ground in the academic chasm that covers the current system.  Through the research of Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, Brian led us through a writing activity reflecting on purposeful moments.


My Writing (first five minutes):

I remember…driving through the jungle of Costa Rica.  Initially, we were on a two-lane, paved highway.  The only one in existence on the west coast, and has only been for three years.  Along our drive from airport to resort, our initial frustration was getting behind large box trucks and semis and being unable to pass due to the narrow roads and steep curves of the road through jungle.  First world problems, right?  After about 45 minutes of what we had deemed as slow traffic, it began to slow even further.  Damn trucks!  We were eager to arrive at our destination–we only wanted to hit the gas, but instead we were creeping, crawling, hearing the squeaking of pressed brakes until…stop.  No one was moving, and based upon the number of cars in front of us it had been this way for some time.  We waited, restlessly.  Five, ten, fifteen minutes.  Not a single vehicle budged.  To the left, a roadside merchant selling carved wooden goods from figurines to dinner tables.  Could they help?

  • The highlighted blue words and phrases are those that I could elaborate upon (second part of writing task).  The original task asks the writer to stay in this moment to elaborate, but I chose the sentence, “We were eager to arrive at our destination” and it took me into an entirely different piece.

(Second 5 minutes):

We were eager to arrive at our destination.  Scared, really.  But first times always are, right?  Our bags packed (had been for weeks) full of necessities-clothes, food, movies, a cigar.  We loaded them and then ourselves, looked at each other, held hands, and drove.  Not a single word spoken, but a million thoughts shared through the space between the console.  This moment.  Finally here.  Life.  How had it worked out so magically?  Just hours before I’d been at work, in the office, on the computer, looking through books.  Ordinary.

But now, 5:00 pm on August 19th, after a meager dinner we ride in the car embracing extraordinary.


I plan hope to develop both of these pieces.  Until then, this is how they exist, and that’s just fine.  Our kids have to know that too.  That notebooks are not about the polished and published, but about the small and ordinary or large and extraordinary, the random, the messy, the controversial, the struggles, the attempts at sensemaking when nothing makes sense.  Let it live, let it breath, let the lines and pages give it a place because it is you and you have a voice worth writing, and maybe one day if we’re brave enough, even hearing.  Hopefully hearing.  Because it matters.  Even if it sits quietly for a while it matters.


(Side note: I knew I was in the right place this past week when Gallagher and Kittle had been deitized in the writing group as our Lord and Savior and Mother Mary.  Ask me about being a Kittle fangirl–I’ve got several stories, some more embarrassing than others! But she did leave me this once and it might be framed on my nightstand because I think this was her asking me to work with her.)

Penny Kittle signage



Our President wants to build them, This American Life has done a universal analysis of them, and in 2007 a Carnegie Mellon professor by the name of Dr. Randy Pausch was proverbializing them in his “Last Lecture” speech as he faced his untimely death by way of pancreatic cancer.

Randy Pausch Brick Wall Quote 1000+ Images About Last Lecture On Pinterest | The Long, The Brick

This quote has stayed with me across the years along with many of the lessons he preached in his final speech.  I’m no stranger to the “walls” of life, and truth be told if I’d known 20 years ago how many rejection letters would come my way I would have saved them and made that my first book–The Art of the Rejection Letter.  They really do have a way about them.  The writer, intricately stringing words of flattery together making you feel like it’s an old friend getting back in touch, and for just a moment you think, “This is so nice.  They really do think I’m a strong candidate.”  Until “unfortunately” or “with deep regret” you are informed you weren’t strong enough.

The first of these rejections came at the age of 14, and 15, and again at 16.  These rejections did not come in the form of a letter, but rather the omission of my name on a public list.  One which declared who made the varsity team and who did not.  For three years in a row I tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad, and for three years in a row I landed on the JV squad.  Despite disappointment each time, I did not quit.  Not only did I not quit, I never missed a practice, I began gymnastics to improve my agility, and you might have spotted me practicing my technique in local grocery aisles and department stores as I shopped with mom and tried to perfect my game.  Finally, my senior year it paid off.  Not only did I join the ranks of the varsity members, I was appointed the captain for the football cheerleading squad.  But it was not sheer talent that earned me that title.  To earn the top spot each girl had to write a leadership essay articulating their desire to lead the team.  So, there you have it.  Irony in its finest form.  A cheerleading captain made her way through the power of the written word (and a fair amount of grit).

Rejection also came in the form of dances attended alone through awkward teen years and on into college with guys who seemed interested ten beers in, but not ten hours later.  The letter collecting could have began in 2004 as I drove I-70 both east and west in search of my first teaching job.  Then again when my doctoral application got snuffed.  And then this year–perhaps the biggest rejection to date–that of not being selected as a Heinemann Fellow for their 2018-2020 cohort. A blow that brought a fair amount of tears and a couple extra glasses of wine.

But this blog is not sympathy-seeking.  It is not one of bitterness or dates gone wrong (or not at all) or woe is me.

This blog is about clarity and time.  It is about taking these moments at your “wall” to figure out what you really want.  Taking time to determine what I really want, and more importantly need, has not been a strength for me this past year.  I have struggled to find motivation and excitement in work and life, and I’ve had to really consider why this is so, because it is certainly not me.  I’ve spent the last month or so trying to flesh out the different variables that have made this year feel different and I’ve come to one important conclusion–I say “yes” way too much.

As I’ve mentioned before, my top two strengths per Gallup’s Strengths Finder are WOO (Winning Others Over) and learner.  What does this mean for someone like me?  I want to do everything.  The learner in me wants all the experiences.  And I want make everyone happy.  Between the two, I find myself saying “yes” to nearly every question or proposal that comes my way.

“Melanie, would you like to go to this conference or lead this project?”  [“YES!” says the learner.]

“Melanie, can you complete task x, y, and z by tomorrow?” [YES!” says the WOO.]

“Mommy, can we go to the zoo or an art class or walk a trail? [“YES!” says the learner.]

“Mommy, they need a volunteer and a dish and x, y, and z for our class party.”  [YES!” says the WOO.]

And once I sit down and collect all the yeses I’ve promised, I’m left overwhelmed.  They become a to-do list, a thing get done or through, an exit.  The spirit and excitement of the moment when the “YES!” was spoken is gone.  Now I just want it done so I can get to the other side and hopefully feel less stressed.  Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I get to the other side and realize there’s a new collection of yeses to address, and it starts all over.

This past year I have tried to do way too much.  This so called balance we strive toward?  I have not had it.  I’ve recognized that three years into motherhood, I’m still shedding layers of my former self.  The single, energetic 20-something could say yes to everything, could keep up and do it well.  The married, coffee-induced 30-something has to start letting some things go.

So, this summer I’m doing the hard thing.  I’m learning to say “no”.  A person like me looks at two free months on the calendar and immediately wants to start filling it.  Then I remember the manic pace of last summer, and I know that’s not what I, or my family, need.  There’s no time or clarity in the midst of mania.  And this summer I’m giving myself time and clarity.

What does that mean for me?  For one, I’m only saying “yes” to those things that fill my spirit.  I’ve joined Penny Kittle’s book club, in hopes of learning from her immense wisdom and knowledge and connecting with educators from across the country and world.  I’m going to Nerd Camp in July with some friends to be surrounded by all the reading goodness.  We’re taking a family vacation with my parents in late summer.  We’re going to the lake and weddings and the zoo and park and pool and making memories together.  Nothing extravagant.  Just little moments filled with laughter, learning, and love.

It also means I’m signing off social media for the summer (and maybe forever).  The WOO in me likes to collect the ‘likes’.  They are yeses to me.  Yes we think you’re funny, yes your kids are cute, yes your adventures are fun.  And they feed me, but it’s superficial food.  I need time, so I’m taking back that which I’ve been giving to a screen.  I need clarity, and I’m certainly not going to find it in a virtual world.  My kids need a present mommy, my family and friends deserve a present relationship, and most importantly I need to be present with myself to feed my spirit authentically.

The good news is I love to write, and writing this post has been cathartic.  I plan to return to the blog throughout the summer, writing both personally and professionally, so feel free to follow along here if you wish.

Finally, a month ago I promised a final blog post to show how our KC Kids Unite work wrapped up for the year.  My “yes collection” at the time kept me from making this post.  Follow-through is important to me.  You do what you say you’re going to do, even if it’s a month late.  So, here it is.  Below are pictures from our city-wide writing celebration that spanned three days, 8 classrooms, and nearly 300 students.  They worked together to create “One World” posters inspired by those from Teaching Tolerance, they analyzed art to consider windows and mirrors that represented them in society, they wrote about places in the city they love, and they thought about voice and action moving forward.

These kids are going places.

 They feed my spirit!