Best Intentions

Over time, the practice of education has become more and more of a collaborative endeavor. We think of students as “our kids” rather than “my kids and your kids” when we are planning for instruction and analyzing student assessment data. To me, one of the key requirements for effective collaboration between anyone and in any situation is to assume good intentions. We work better together when we believe that our coworkers are doing the best that they can to make a difference in the lives of their students. It also seems to me that if we assume best intentions, we are more able to understand and empathize with others.

In Patricia Reilly Giff’s book, Until I Find Julian, issues of undocumented immigration are addressed without judgments of right or wrong. The protagonist, Mateo, crosses the border from Mexico to the United States to look for his older brother Julian who had come to find work to support his family. Julian crossed the border with a friend who returned to Mexico with news that la migra had come to the construction site where they were working and everyone had scattered. He did not know where Julian had gone. Mateo sets out alone to find Julian but soon realizes that he will need the help of a young girl, Angel, who has frequently crossed the border, if he is going to succeed in his quest.

This story is about an issue that is currently quite divisive in our national conversation. However, it is also about family and about being better together than we are apart. Mateo, Julian, and Angel are not perfect, but they have good intentions. Giff paints a picture of people, just like us, who are experiencing something most of us can’t imagine or even understand. This book does not set out to answer the question of whether or not undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become citizens. It also does not tell the story of detention centers or deportation. It tells the story of family and friends who are trying to achieve something better for each other.

Until I Find Julian would be a great book to use when teaching about characters or point of view. Each of the main characters are dynamic and the story is written from Mateo’s point of view. Mateo’s inner dialogue as well as his conversations with various characters would also work well as theatrical interpretations, leading students to work collaboratively and develop a deeper understanding of the story and of each other.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6- I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.

Common Core State Standards:

RL.3- Describe characters in a story and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

RL.6- Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.

SL.1- Engage effective in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

Repairing the World

I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance of The Ugly Duckling by Lightwire Theater on a school field trip. This very original production using music, puppets, and lighting, did an exceptional job of communicating a message of acceptance of differences to our students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The performance ended with the characters dancing to the song “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and this made me think about the Jewish philosophy of Tikkun Olam.

There are many religious and non-religious communities that embrace social justice, but the events in Pittsburgh last Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue have been causing me to think about my own Jewish faith as I read and reflect this week. Tikkun Olam refers to individual acts of kindness that are performed to help others as well as acts of social policy that provide safeguards to those who are disadvantaged. Two books that I believe spread this message beautifully are Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson and Pablo and Birdy written by Alison McGhee and illustrated by Ana Juan.

In Pablo and Birdy, a community adopts a child who washes up on the beach in a kiddie pool, guarded by a very unique bird. Issues of immigration and the struggles of refugees are alluded to in this story, but they are not at its center. Instead, Pablo and Birdy reflects a message of love, individuality, and acceptance that is a representation of what our world could become. It also reminds us that sometimes knowing our own story helps us to embrace those of other people (or, in this case, birds). This would be a wonderful book to share as a read aloud and the all bird “Committee” with their limited vocabularies, but oversize personalities will engage many young listeners.

Harbor Me tells the story of six students who make up a class of diverse learners. None of them have been very successful in general education classrooms so they come together to learn in a smaller environment with more individualized attention. However, their time in this classroom is not the focus of the book. Instead, most of the story takes place in the ARTT Room–A Room To Talk–where the six students meet together during the last hour of their school day on Fridays without adult supervision. This is where they share their stories. And each student has an important story to tell.

At my school, students share with their classmates each morning and when they have something in common, they make a sign with their hands. Their thumbs and pinkies point out while the other three fingers are folded in and they rock their wrists toward the person with whom they have made a connection. Near the beginning of Harbor Me, the narrator Haley thinks about making this same sign when she has a connection with Esteban whose father has just been detained by ICE. Except Haley doesn’t want to make the sign because her father is in prison and this is a story that she is not willing to share. At least not yet.

This is a story of what is lost and what is gained among students of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and experiences, when they come together to tell their stories. The title of the book comes from something that they all share– a message from their teacher:

Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the                       world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a                         harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the               other: I will harbor you.’ (Woodson 34)

We often feel differently about issues when they affect those closest to us. Issues of racism, immigration, and justice are not easily resolved and we cannot expect our students to share the same views. Still, the conversations are worth having. It is worth asking ourselves and our students: What world do we want to live in? Will we offer safe harbor to those who need it?

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 2: I know about my family history and culture and about current and past contributions of people in my main identity groups.

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.

Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.

Diversity 10: I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.

Justice 13: I know that words, behaviors, rules, and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.

Action 19: I will speak up or do something when I see unfairness, and I will not let others convince me to go along with injustice.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Describe characters in a story and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

RL.6- Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of characters.

RL.7- Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story. (Pablo and Birdy)

SL.1- Engage in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

SL.3- Identify the reasons and evidence a speaker provides to support particular points.

The View from Every Angle

One of the first things that we do as educators when we have a new class or welcome a new student is to build relationships. Getting to know our students, their passions and interests, is a necessity in order to bring learning to life for them. However, in the rush to cover content and to make learning relevant to students, sometimes we have a tendency to limit our views. These are the artists, athletes, scientists, or writers. Here are the leaders, followers, listeners, or thinkers. This can limit the possibilities that students reach for or, maybe worse, lead to stereotypes about students who look or behave a certain way.

One of the many moments that stands out in Between the Lines by Sandra Neil Wallace and illustrated by Bryan Collier, is when the subject of this biography, Ernie Barnes, is told by an art museum tour guide, “Your people don’t express themselves in that way.” In  Durham, North Carolina, in the 1950s, African Americans had only recently been allowed to visit art museums and the work of African American artists was certainly missing from the collections. Barnes had grown up expressing himself through his artwork as communicating through language was difficult for him. However, his talent on the football field was what really made people notice him.

After college, Ernie was drafted to play football professionally. He would watch his teammates and opponents on the football field and paint these scenes when he got home. Soon, he started taking his sketchbooks to the games and would draw on the bench when he wasn’t on the field. Eventually, Ernie had to choose between being a part of the action on the field or representing it on his canvas. The canvas won out and Ernie became a professional sports artist. Children in North Carolina can now see Ernie’s paintings in art museums.

Mr. Barnes points out, “When I became an athlete I didn’t stop being an artist,” and this is important for us to remember as teachers as well. We must see our students from every angle and allow them to access content through all of their interests. Between the Lines would be a fabulous book to share with students who are feeling like they need to focus on a particular talent or interest. Another direction to take with this text would be to examine the illustrations by the extraordinary Bryan Collier and have students find similarities and differences between the style he uses to illustrate this book and the style of Mr. Barnes. This would also be a great book to pair with Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship to talk about the intersection between art and sports.

Common Core Standards:

RI.7- Use information gained from illustrations and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.

Magic of Our Own Making

Many children’s books have been written to share Malala Yousafzai’s story of advocacy and courage. Malala’s Magic Pencil is the first picture book that she has written to tell her story and to inspire young people to be advocates for positive change. The book begins with the question, “Do you believe in magic?” While the magic pencil in the children’s television show that Malala watched had mysterious powers, her pencil did not. Instead, it was Malala’s words and her voice that truly had the power to influence events in Pakistan and around the world.

This book begins with Malala as a young girl who dreamed of having a magic pencil like the one she saw on TV that could create anything that could be drawn. She wanted to draw a more just society for the people in her community. When the Taliban rose to power and girls were no longer allowed to attend school, Malala used a simple wooden pencil to speak out. To those in power, Malala’s pencil was just as much of a threat as magic might be. Malala’s Magic Pencil follows her story through the terrible events of October 2012 to her life today.

This would be a wonderful book to share with students when discussing issues of equality. Malala is a powerful example of a young person who spoke out against injustice in her community. While she was targeted for her bravery, she overcame extreme adversity to make a stand for women and girls everywhere.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Justice 13: I know some true stories about how people have been treated badly because of their group identities, and I don’t like it.

Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others and the reasons for that are not always fair.

Justice 15: I know about people who helped stop unfairness and worked to make life better for many people.

Common Core Standards:

SL.1 – Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade level topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups.

SL.2- Recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud.

Love Does not Equal Consent

Many publications for educators have been reporting on how teachers address consent with their students. This isn’t a conversation reserved for middle school and high school teachers, either. Elementary school teachers in the primary grades are also having conversations with their students about consent for things like going over to someone’s house, borrowing a toy, or giving a hug. As much as it may make us uncomfortable, even conversations about unwanted sexual advances are taking place with young children who are aware of issues discussed in the news. Regardless of whether or not you believe the accusations, two of the nine justices with lifetime appointments to the highest court in the land have been accused of sexual misconduct. Conversations about consent are a necessity.

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake is not a book about consent for younger readers. It is definitely more appropriate for high school students and the message that it imparts is quite powerful for young women and men. In this book, the protagonist Mara is shocked when she hears that her twin brother Owen has been accused of rape by his girlfriend Hannah. She is shocked, but also open minded. It seems natural that family members would struggle to believe that someone they love and have known so long would be capable of doing something so damaging to another human being. However, every man or woman who sexually assaults another person is a member of someone’s family. That does not make them innocent of violence. Mara shows us how difficult, and potentially empowering, it can be to accept that someone you trusted has done something that permanently harms another person.

This book also communicates the often misunderstood truth that loving someone and having been intimate with them in the past is not permanent consent. That is extremely important for high school students to know. It also deals with the effects of over indulging in alcohol and the impairment of judgment that can result.

Girl Made of Stars is written from Mara’s point of view and the implications of that choice would be interesting to discuss in an English class. Teachers of Health courses could use this book when talking about consent or about drinking. This book would also be powerful in a course about law and justice as it provides an honest look at how many of these cases end.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and that this is true for other people too.

Identity 4: I express pride and confidence in my identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior.

Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

Justice 12: I can recognize, describe, and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.

Action 17: I take responsibility for standing up to exclusion, prejudice, and injustice.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama.

RL.6- Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant.

W.1- Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

These Rights are Universal

How does one become an empathetic person? Why are some children more empathetic than others? These are questions that we often ask ourselves as educators due to the developmental stages of the individuals we spend most of our time with at work. I don’t know that there is a “right” answer to these questions, but I do believe that awareness of our own experiences and those of others is a crucial first step in the development of empathy. For me, a lot of this learning occurred by reading books.

Along with a knowledge of different experiences, empathy requires a general picture of what every individual should have access to as a human being. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, as a response to the Second World War. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, created by the same international organization, took effect on September 2, 1990. These two documents represent a series of basic rights to which every human being is entitled.

Two books that do a remarkable job of explaining these rights in language that young people will understand are Every Human Has Rights created by National Geographic and A Life Like Mine developed by Dorling Kindersley in association with UNICEF. Every Human Has Rights includes brief statements which summarize each of the 30 universal rights along with photos and writings from young people around the world. A Life Like Mine organizes individual vignettes about children around the rights defined by the Convention.

Both of these books will inspire conversations around what these rights mean to children in our classrooms. What does “every human in the world must be treated as a person” mean in our world today (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)? If “every child should have a home” why don’t they (Convention on the Rights of the Child)? Imagine the writing projects that could stem from the question, “What can we do to ensure this right is a given for every person or child?”

Knowing what justice looks like is one of the first steps in addressing injustice in our world. These texts are wonderful ways to introduce this concept to students.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others based on who they are and where they were born.

Action 16: I pay attention to how people (including myself) are treated, and I try to treat others how I like to be treated.

Action 19: I will speak up or do something when I see unfairness, and I will not let others convince me to go along with injustice.

Action 20: I will work with my friends and family to make our school and community fair for everyone, and we will work hard and cooperate in order to achieve our goals.

Common Core Standards:

RI.5 – Use text features to locate information relevant to a topic efficiently.

RI.7- Use information gained from illustrations and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.

W.1- Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.

W.9- Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

When Land and Culture Are Not Enough

Ramifications of colonialism persist in the world today. Education, health, and socioeconomic status are just a few of the areas in which Indigenous communities are adversely impacted by historical and current patterns of discrimination. In The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline weaves a story of strength and family into a terrifying future.

In this dystopian North America, only the Indigenous people still have the ability to dream. Everyone else has lost this ability and with it the ability to function in their waking lives. As an Elder says in this book, “A man without dreams is just a meaty machine with a broken gauge.” The colonizers of North America were unceasing in taking what did not belong to them and the history of the Indigenous people of North America includes being evicted from their homelands and sent to residential schools where every effort was made to obliterate Indigenous culture. In The Marrow Thieves, taking the dream-storing bone marrow of Indigenous people was a further step to destroy their culture.

Frenchie, the protagonist, is on the run from Recruiters who capture Indigenous people to perform these operations which lead to loss of limbs or lives. He has already lost his biological family, but he forms a new family with the people he meets in the woods. Their commitment to each other is just as strong as that of blood relations. While this story is imagining a future that will hopefully never materialize, there are still important lessons to be gleaned from this text and this would be a powerful book for high school students to read when studying colonialism.

Somehow, in spite of the best efforts of colonizers, many Indigenous communities have maintained cultural traditions, languages, and beliefs so that these may be shared with successive generations. Frenchie’s voice in this book and the stories he tells will enrich the perspectives of all who read them and offer students inspiration to protect the people who live these stories.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8- I respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

Diversity 10- I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

Justice 12- I can recognize, describe, and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story.

RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Endless Journey

Few issues are as emotionally charged as the recent detention of migrant children who have been separated from their families by the United States government. Opinions vary greatly on what to do about undocumented immigration in the United States and around the world. People question who should be allowed in and who should be returned to their home countries. As with any important issue there are many factors influencing every decision and tremendous consequences can result. However, there is one truth that we can all accept: the risk to life, livelihood, and liberty is enormous for every individual or family who makes the decision to leave their home country to find refuge elsewhere.

Eoin Colfer, the author of the Artemis Fowl series, has collaborated with Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano to create Illegal, a story of one family’s journey from Ghana to Europe. The main character in this book is Ebo. He is twelve years old and sets out by himself to follow his older brother and sister to Europe. He sells antiseptic wipes in the capital city of Niger, travels the desert in a truck filled with dozens of migrants like him, sleeps in a storm drain in Tripoli, and floats in the ocean on an inflatable raft he can only hope is headed for Europe.

While dialogue tells most of Ebo’s story, the use of many text boxes throughout the book provides even more descriptive detail about his experiences. When Ebo boards  a boat, the text boxes relate his first thoughts, “Everything smells of oil. Oil and people.” The images in the book tell a story as well. Hope and hopelessness are equally well depicted throughout.

Students in our classrooms know and wonder about undocumented immigration. This book would be a great resource for upper elementary and middle school classrooms that are grappling with these issues. Many books have recently been published about the refugee experience including Refugee by Alan Gratz and Stormy Seas by Mary Beth Leatherdale. Teaching Tolerance also has dozens of lesson plans specifically related to immigration.

I would recommend talking with your teaching partners about the best ways to discuss the immigrant experience in classrooms. We should be aware that students are dealing with these issues individually and collectively regardless of whether we talk about them at school. Providing a safe space for these conversations where teachers can monitor the narrative could be a saving grace for some of our students.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3- I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.

Diversity 8- I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Justice 11- I try and get to know people as individuals because I know it is unfair to think all people in a shared identity group are the same.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Compare and contrast two characters, settings, or events.

RL.6- Describe how a speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.

RL.7- Analyze how visual elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of the text.

SL.1- Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions.

Hidden Away

Illness can be incredibly lonely. Often, mental illness is doubly so because it is hidden away inside the sufferer or stigmatized by those it does not affect. We do not have enough mental health care providers in our country and, at least where I live, that is especially true for children. More and more of the emotional support for these children is provided by people in homes and in schools. Teachers do not always receive training in mental health, but it is becoming increasingly important in their daily work.

I believe that one of the best things that teachers can do to help support their students is to talk about emotions and destigmatize feelings of fear, anxiety, and depression in their classrooms. We have to share with our students that they are not alone in feeling this way. We also have to explain that there are differences in how intensely people experience these emotions and how our brains respond to the chemicals that regulate our emotions. Sometimes, people need help to manage the feelings they are dealing with and that is no different than needing glasses, insulin shots, or non-dairy milk. Children need to feel comfortable talking about their emotions so that they do not hide them away.

In Small Things by Mel Tregonning, anxiety eats away at a little boy, literally. This wordless book shows in images what it can feel like to suffer from intense anxiety or other mental illnesses. It also ends with an encouraging message to find support from others when dealing with overwhelming emotions. While this story is wordless, it could be an incredible story to share as a whole class. It might be easiest for students to interact with this book if a teacher is able to project the pages onto a screen. Give students the time to talk about what they are seeing and allow them to process the images in their own ways. Also remind them that if they are not comfortable sharing with the group, they can always come talk to a safe adult or a close friend.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for students is to make the hard things visible so they know that these are not deficits or failings. It may not make them easier to deal with, but at least it offers the hope of a better tomorrow.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6- Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them and engage respectfully with all people.

Diversity 8- Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.

Action 16- Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.


Women Making History

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo were named Publisher’s Weekly Star Watch Superstars on September 12. They raised money through crowdfunding to publish their collections of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (there are two so far) and have created a children’s media start-up in order to distribute these books as well as develop new projects. Every story in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 begins with “once upon a time” and reading these short vignettes is unlike the experience of reading many other biographical texts. The stories of these women are told in a way that enhances their excitement, audacity, and hope.

We sometimes hear that boys will not read stories about girls or vice versa and I believe that there could be nothing further from the truth. In fact, I think this idea perpetuates the gender stereotypes in our society. This book would be wonderful for any youth, identifying as male or female, because the stories within are inspiring and speak to all interests and experiences.

This book could be used as a stepping stone for further biographical study. It could be read aloud to students when they are studying particular topics such as the arts, the environment, or careers. Students could also use it to draw parallels between people or times in this country and around the world.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8- I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Diversity 10- I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.

Common Core Standards:

W.7- Develop short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.