Messages for Our Heroes

One of the major strengths of Adrienne Kisner’s book, Dear Rachel Maddow, is the depth of her main character Brynn. While the book could have focused solely on Brynn’s sexual orientation, it does not. Kisner could have made the focus Brynn’s learning disability, but she didn’t. The focus also could have been the family struggles with which Brynn is dealing. None of these are the sole focus of this 263 page book. Just like none of these define the people who possess similar identities. Brynn is a character with whom many teenagers can relate.

In Dear Rachel Maddow, a high school English assignment in Brynn’s Applied English class to write to a hero becomes an opportunity to share her life in email drafts that will, theoretically, never be seen. First love, new love, loss, and belonging all matter to Brynn and they are all addressed in this book. Brynn also discovers truths about politics that many of us would rather forget.

In many ways, this is a book that should be read for enjoyment alone. Brynn’s voice is raw and funny in all the right ways and I would not recommend picking it apart. However, there are many opportunities for discussion and writing that this book could inspire. Due to the depth of Brynn’s character, Teaching Tolerance’s Justice and Action Standards (listed below) are especially relevant. While letter writing is not specifically addressed in the Core, the prospect of writing to a hero is often an impetus for research and careful editing. Who knows, they might even get a letter back!

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards especially relevant to this book:

Justice 11: I relate to all people as individuals rather than representatives of groups and can identify stereotypes when I see or hear them.

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.

Shared Experience

In Saffron Ice Cream, an autobiographical picture book by Rashin, our students meet a little girl who enjoys swimming and ice cream. These are experiences that many children can relate to right away. We learn as we read that Rashin immigrated to the United States with her family from Iran where she also enjoyed swimming and ice cream. As Rashin describes her adventures at the beach in Iran and the beach in the United States we are invited to experience the similarities and differences in each country. In Iran, boys and girls swim on different sides of a curtain, but they are still just as curious and mischievous as the children in New York.

This is a fantastic book to use for the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards of the Core. The illustrations in this book provide details, like the pear tree in Iran and the subway in New York, that invite readers to return to the book many times to find new things. Students can also compare and contrast Rashin’s experiences in both countries. This book can also lead to discussions about “the lived experiences of others” from the diversity standards created by Teaching Tolerance. Students can discuss their own swimming experiences in relation to Rashin’s.

Let’s Get Started!

Our name is the way that we present ourselves to the world, especially when so much of our communication occurs over email or online. When their name seems long or unique among peers, it can be a challenge for students. Alma and How she Got Her Name, by Juana Martinez-Neal, comes to the rescue. Alma’s name is long, “Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela” to be exact, and she wonders why it was chosen for her. Her father describes each family member who contributed their name to Alma’s. It doesn’t take Alma long to realize that she shares characteristics with all of these people. Her name is a perfect representation of who she is. The illustrations in this book further strengthen the connections between Alma and her strong relatives.

This would be a wonderful book to share with students at the beginning of the school year to inspire them to learn more about the history of their own names (writing standard, “gather information from sources to answer a question”). It also opens up opportunities to address the Social Justice Identity Standard: “Students will express pride, confidence, and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.”



Hello everyone,

My name is Leah Cole and I am a special education teacher in Iowa. I have always been passionate about social justice, children’s books, and education, but I have recently become very interested in doing a better job of joining these passions to make a bigger impact in my classroom. Students are faced with issues of justice and fairness from the time they are very young. The Social Justice Standards developed by Teaching Tolerance help teachers to support the development of students who recognize and embrace their own identities while respecting and valuing those who are different. In this blog, I will attempt to identify books that teachers can use in their classrooms and develop questions and activities that support the social justice standards.