Preparation, Race, and Field Trips

We must be the luckiest humans in the world! (Well, that and Nina spent a good 7+ hours on the phone listening to Wade in the Water). Can you guess where we are going with our students?

We are going to the NMAAHC!

After this elated moment of realization, it hits us.. Wow. We are going to the NMAAHC. That is phenomenal AND… How in the world do we prepare fifth graders for such a monumental moment, challenging and remarkable history, and then of course, logistically how many hours can we stretch with 26 ten and eleven year olds in a museum?! The questions, concerns, and backwards planning gears all began cranking at terrifying speeds. 

So here we are. Sharing with you some of the first pieces of preparation before we head to the museum on Tuesday (!!).

1. We think together as a class about: why do we learn about history? Why does it matter? We did this before we studied Indigenous People's Day/ Columbus Day and we also did some class thinking around why we celebrate holidays. If you don't have these kinds of thought circles before content-- we highly encourage you to do so. They set the tone for what you are about to embark on and we refer back to these throughout the entire year-- case and point, right now to prepare for this museum!

2. We've already modeled in our classroom that we call time outs and pause for real conversations and learning around race. Just yesterday a student said something that another student found offensive and replied "That's racist!". We paused our lesson as teachers and as a class.. And we talked about it together. Our students already know that conversations about isms (like racism) and identities are not distractions from our learning. They are our learning

3. We work on a definition of racism ahead of time. It is going to come up. They (and many adults) don't actually know what it means. We use the equation:

Racism = prejudice (against a race) + institutional power

It doesn't quite make 'sense' to many of them and very well may not until the end of the year or in ten years. However, we believe in teaching into the complexities of these conversations and cheering students on as we converse and question about all the confusing nuances together. We also believe in being honest with our students and so already in October (yesterday) we got sincere questions like, "These black boys said what is this white girl doing here?' was that racist?" Questions like these are honest and we love to encourage our students to be available for the heavy thinking that comes along with answers that are sometimes (often) quite counter to what they have been taught. The answer to that question was, "Ouch, that doesn't sound like it felt good. No, it was not racist.." And then we talk about WHY!

4. We celebrate and learn from Black excellence all. Of. the. Time! From our This I Believe pieces in which we used Howard White's "The Power of Hello" recording to the many amazing authors we have been using already in our Poetry unit… our students have already seen (and are learning from) phenomenal black thinkers. We hope this has set them to be even more excited about the NMAAHC.

5. We have an overview of SOME* major moments of American history from some black perspectives. We have them go over these (they will by no means take most of them in) so that by the time we get to the museum they at least have a general sense of how history has gone. We also are explicit about the weight of some of the subject matter/imagery and we go back to our earlier conversation about why we value learning about history

*There is a LARGE emphasis on the some because I (Gabby) had a tremendously hard time figuring out exactly what pieces to add into our timeline. I ended up adding poets we have been studying and other authors we know well (Like Jacqueline Woodson) so that this timeline is personalized to our classroom learning. We also, of course, have moments like Emancipation all the way to Michael Brown… This final lesson hasn't happened yet so you might want to stay tuned to see if it goes terribly! It is an clear overload of information and they will not t retain all of it, but we are aiming for it to provide some grounding for students and moments they personally gravitate towards.

6. We do pre-museum homework. In our classroom, one key way we are doing this is by reflecting ahead of time using the 5 W's. Some of these include reflecting on why we are going, why it is important to go, what we are excited about learning etc.. This also includes who will be there and who we might be in this space, along with how we should act. How we should act can include the basic metro safety tips, but can also include identity politics (we love promoting self-awareness!).  This also gives us as their teachers a moment to see where different kids are coming from before we take them. We can assess nerves, discomfort, excitement, and so on.

7. We model excitement (because we are!) and we tag some awesome colleagues to join us on this journey. We are grateful they have agreed to weave their way through this museum and experience it with ten and eleven year olds.

8. There's always more but we are leaving you with these. How would you all prepare? What have we missed? How do you prepare for field trips with your students?

My Homework on the 1st Day of School

Every year on the first day of school (or Teacher's New Year as we like to call it), we ask our students to write a letter to themselves detailing their expectations, hopes, and goals for the year ahead. Tomorrow, we will collect their (sealed) letters and put them away until the last day of school. It is always fun to watch students laugh as they open their letters at the end of the school year and are shocked by their growth (as writers, learners, and more) and how their perceptions and expectations have changed!

Below is my letter to myself:

Dear (future) Nina,

No matter how many first days of school you teach, they always feel the same: exciting, exhausting, and nerve-wracking! There are so many things I am joyfully anticipating this year: a third year in a row teaching the same grade at the same school with the same co-teacher (unprecedented stability for me), mentoring an apprentice teacher, and adding more "action" components to our social justice curriculum, to name a few.

It also seems like every year my students get younger. Today, looking at their faces, I was surprised how  emotional I felt about wanting to protect them from the world. My students are in fifth grade and initially seemed so grown up to me compared to my former first graders. I also am a huge proponent of talking about the news at school (in a developmentally appropriate way, of course). But today, looking at their faces and thinking about so many things that happened over the summer, I just wanted to shield them. I just wanted to keep them safe from harm and hurt. This is always our first priority as teachers, but my feelings today were more visceral than practical.

We had our students write top ten lists about themselves: the top ten things you should know about _______. One of my students wrote that he loves school. Another wrote that she is not a morning person (modeled after a similar point on my top ten list). They were beyond thrilled to read what their teachers wrote about and had follow up questions and remembered details related to the facts shared. One of my students told me over lunch that he had heard we have a "puberty" unit. He looked suspicious, but simultaneously very curious.  That juxtaposition of emotions is precisely why our health and wellness unit is so essential.

Tomorrow, I will put a copy of this letter in an envelope, seal it, and put it away until the last day of the school year.  My students and co-teachers will do the same.  Hopefully, when we open our letters to our future selves, we will be amused by the limits of our expectations and find that we have broadly surpassed them.

What were your impressions on the first day of school?  Do you have reflections to help students record where they were at the beginning of the year? I would love to hear thoughts and variations on the first day of school letter!

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SDE Differentiated Instruction Conference!

Hello and happy July!

We are writing to you from the SDE 2016 Differentiated Instruction Conference in Las Vegas, where we are learning as much as we can about differentiated instruction! 

When we are not wondering about how the temperature can be 115 degrees or why there is a fake sky inside, we have found numerous takeaways we can't wait to bring back to the classroom. Below are a few different reminders and insights we would like to share with you! They cover a range of tips from the vast world of differentiation.

1. We (still) love Pop-up Debates !

We do these in our classroom and we loved hearing about how others do debates in their rooms/schools. We are re-committed to using these as a way to talk through news articles, get content moving, and especially excited to keep using debates before our Persuasive Essay unit. We were reminded to use templates to give students practice for how to paraphrase an argument, and then agree & add on, disagree, or complicate.


"_____ you're basically saying _________.. "

AND THEN add on one of the options below:

Disagree with reasons

  • "The primary problem with that is _________"

  • "The reason that your statement can’t stand is__________"

  • "I don’t agree because _________"


  • Well crafted question that makes the other person go back and unravel what they/you just said

  • "But I can also see _____ being true.."

  • "Do you think you might be missing ________?"

  • "Isn’t it more complicated than that, though? I mean, what about________?"

Agree & Add on

  • "I agree with what you are saying and I want to add on________"

  • "You're on point and here's another reason why_______"

(example template inspired by They Say, I Say)

We were also just reminded how teaching students how to disagree and argue is such an important life skill!

"The goal is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views , one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own." -Richard Fulkerson, Teaching the Argument in Writing (1996)

2. ABC Brainstorm! 

We love this idea of an Alphabet Brainstorm to get everyone involved and connecting to prior knowledge. For example, if the topic is MUSIC, students would brainstorm alone/in pairs/in groups and try to fill in the entire alphabet. We are going to do this to assess background knowledge of a topic! This is a fun tool we are going to keep playing with in terms of grouping students, as well so we can make groups based off of their answers and interests (and not just on 'level').

3. Change your verbs!  

Changing verbs alters the complexity of the prompt, and can push students to think outside the box. We especially like "Defend.." (going back to debate practice) as a challenging one we will try out. We also like "Rank.." as a quick check in prompt to see what they are understanding in an easily accessible, quick bullet point way. We are going to try some of these out more often this upcoming school year!

We love these reminders of ways to change the game and individualize the task for each student!

5. There are so many different ways of being smart!


We really appreciated the reminder about assessing for multiple intelligences (thanks, Howard Gardner via Danielle Hickerson!) and the importance of knowing yourself as a learner. This school year, we will work extra hard to make sure we are teaching to all different learning styles and giving EVERYONE a chance to excel.

What insights have you come across this summer in terms of differentiated instruction? What are some of your favorite tools? Tips? Activities?

We'd love to hear from you!




Update from the Classroom: Covenant Usurp Simulation!


Following the Responsive Classroom model, the norms and expectations in our classroom are called our 'covenant'. 

In our classroom, we spend the first month and a half (!) trying to sort out what we value individually and as a class, so that we can create a covenant that feels true to us. We have three dynamic simulations in which students 'experience' Anarchy, Totalitarianism, and Republicanism.  After each class period, we reflect on each government model to decide what we like best about it. We take these positive aspects and try to figure out how we want our classroom to run and which pieces we would like to incorporate into our community. The covenant is a labor of love and becomes all their own. This year, our class created a written covenant, a song (they are an incredibly musical bunch), and a logo which was "reproduced" (AKA copied and laminated) for everyone to put on their lockers, computers, notebooks etc.. 

The idea is that our students sincerely care about their covenant. 

One simulation we do as a part of our Indigenous American/ American Indian/ Native American Studies unit is to have our covenant... usurped! 

How it works: 

This simulation requires 6th graders (older students) to come into the classroom and they tell the 5th graders that their rules are useless, they will not be prepared for 6th grade, and ultimately, they give the 5th grade class new and 'better' rules. We then dramatically take down all aspects of our covenant and the 5th graders become upset and frustrated. We spend the rest of the day/lesson abiding by the new rules put on us by the 6th graders. 

*FYI. Prior to this simulation we have given students plenty of background about European contact, along with discussed methods for oppressing Native people in the US (extermination, assimilation in boarding schools, forced into debt, reservations...). 

The response and reflection: 

This simulation is a visceral experience for students as their rules, community, and classroom culture is taken away from them by a group of people who have no context to who they are or what they have been working on all year. As we debrief this simulation we STRESS repeatedly that we would NEVER want to simulate any actual aspect of disenfranchisement of Indigenous people, and that this experience is a mere sliver of shallow understanding that might create more space for empathy as we continue our unit (and our lives). We come back to this point repeatedly. 

This covenant usurp simulation helped students be more invested in our discussions and learning about  people who have been in the Maryland and Virginia areas for thousands of years. We especially love the passion they bring to their work after this simulation, and their increased determination to comprehend  American history better, from essential points of view, and in more depth. 

Unexpected thanks and support from a parent

This week, we shared a note in our all school newsletter about our presentation at the White Privilege Conference.  We were surprised and touched when a parent of a former student came to tell us she read our newsletter addition and she was so happy to hear about us sharing our work with a larger audience!  

Apparently, our work with her child last year changed the way she thought about inequity, structural poverty, racism and more. This has impacted her role as a teacher at an inter-faith Sunday school as they now do activities that she said she never would have thought of before we taught her child. She said that from experiential activities even the young students were able to understand more abstract concepts because they were engaged and felt something. She was thrilled to see that we are  reaching other adults and educators.

It's always lovely to hear positive memories from a former student or parent, but knowing we inspired other social justice teaching was even better!  Thank you for making our day. Keep us posted on the awesome work you all are doing out there!