KC Social Justice Project: Week 3 and Wrap-Up



Whew!  What a busy past couple weeks it has been!  I had every intention of making these two separate posts, but as life played out that just hasn’t happened.  So, here’ what we’ve been up to!

Week 3:

Our topic this week was learning the history of Kansas City’s Troost Wall and its role is serving as a racial divide in the metro.  Students read The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, relating the symbolism of the fence in that text to the Troost Wall in our city.  Students thought critically about what it would mean to “tear down” that wall.  What does action look like when trying to uproot an entity that is so deeply rooted in KC’s and our nation’s history?

Student Response #1:

So the first thing is about Troost avenue, I have many mixed thoughts on this Avenue, a few of them consist of what is to become of this area, and I have an idea we have to tear down this wall (metaphorically). If we don’t then our generation will be known as the generation that failed, we might have created a flying car but we will only be known as the people that many generations before us believed in us but we failed again, and another thing this phrase “It’s always been this way,” that’s a load of.. Well you know what, What I mean by this is just because it’s been this way does not mean it has to, when france was conquered by germany in ww2 do you think they just went with this, NO they resisted over and over again until they broke free. Our generation is advancing. Everyday we create inventions we never believe were possible and yet we can’t understand Human rights, We feed, care and love animals a whole species different from us and we can’t do the same to US. I am pretty sure you guys know the saying “Divided we fall, United we stand,” We are falling apart protests, Lies, and profiling, how much longer will it take until there is no such thing as order or peace.

Student Response #2:

“This is what i think just myself i think. Why would people think it is ok to separate someone who is just different than just by a hair, color of skin, teeth, clothes everything that is on the outside instead of what they are like, because we are all the same in a way sure we might look different and act different but that doesn’t mean that i am better and more important than anyone in this classroom. There is books out there telling people that we should stop this because of this, i mean it spreads the word but not as effective as people of different kinds going together to make a stand and tell people that this is a real thing and there is no way around it. And people can  easily not get the book because they have the choice to get it or not but when people are using words and is talking to you not typing in a doc on a computer. We all should think before we do something like what everyone has done in the past all they did was tell people different from us that they are no good and we should be the main show and they should just be the crew in the back making sure everything runs smoothly in the play. Lets just think for a second that white people are the performers in this play and the colored people or anyone different from us is the crew we shouldn;t be the main show because if we didn’t have the diverse that we have this country wouldn’t be the same everyone is important. “

Student Response #3:

“I think that troost avenue should still be there but it should not be separated one white  one black because it’s like that story the only reason  one is on one side and one on the other is because of the government and the people because only like two people are helping this from the white side and i’m sure that the black try more but white people have more of a chance of there voice being heard and i don’t like that and maybe someday that will change only if more than  like 10 people from the white side would stand up for these black people maybe we can change this city and not just this city a lot of cities but you start with one step at a time”

These passages gave me pause, because I can see where these students are starting to understand the power structures that underlie these issues.  And while that idea generally makes us run the opposite direction, these kids are ready to face it head-on.  Part of this lies within naivety, but even more so in passion.  A true intrinsic desire to face “the man” and exact change in their community.  As the adults leading them, we cannot let this fire die.

So, on May 9th we brought them all together at the Johnson County Library under the amazing direction of Angel Tucker and her team.  Students gathered in large and small group settings to continue exploring these issues with their peers from across the city.  We used the texts The Best Part of Me, Mixed Me! and Chocolate Me! and Courage of the Blue Boy to engage students in discussion and writing.


Due to the number of students and time constraints of the day, much of the writing is still being developed by the students.  I’ll be sure to share the final products of the day when they are ready.  As all initial projects go, there are places to grow into and revisit.  But when I think about the overall goals of this work I find my ultimate hope in the fact that our city became more connected on Tuesday.  We stepped across our own boundaries geographically, meeting people we’d likely have never crossed paths with had it not been for this day.  We extended ourselves personally by thinking more globally about the importance of community connections and really knowing your neighbor.  We shared our voices without fear.  We became activists. We united.

There’s not many (or any) email folders I have ever been excited to create, so this is certainly a first (and possibly a last).  We have a wait list for next year!

email folder snip

Word is spreading and we are growing.  Let me know if you want to be a part of this project.  We’re just getting started!

#KCkidsunite #GKCWP


KC Social Justice Project, Week 2: Analyzing Race Through Family History

shades of peopelThe Skin I'm In


This week students began their work with a discussion around the following questions:

  • What is color?
  • What is skin?
  • What is skin color?
  • Why is skin color important?
  • Why isn’t skin color important?

Then students read, The Skin I’m In: A First Look at Racism, by Pat Thomas.  This book does an excellent job of explaining racism in an age appropriate way by embedding discussion questions throughout.  Its content also builds beautifully on last week’s work, communicating that just like we aren’t all one color, neither are we from just one place.  From this text students then spent the week researching their family history.  Below is the result.

Chalk Talk with Discussion Questions:


Using the text, Shades of People, as a way to understand race and place

frick 1frick 2frick 3frick 4IMG_0968


More “The Skin I’m In” Poetry

Vincent 1vincent 2vincent 3


This week students are learning more specifically about racial issues plaguing Kansas City, including the history behind the Troost Wall.  Next week, they will all get to meet each other in person for the first time.  The participating teachers have brought life to this work and it’s amazing to see what is playing out in their classrooms.

Week 3 post coming soon!

Social Justice Student Work– Week 1 Bonus Footage

In last week’s post I highlighted only a scant portion of the work and conversations playing out in classrooms across Kansas City.  As teachers have had to play with time in creative ways to fit this work in around testing, some were able to get started sooner than others.  This week student work kept rolling in as teachers launched, and to truly encompass all that this work means to our teachers, students, and city, I have to share.

  • Our participating classrooms connected with each other across the city.  

At our “Launch Meeting” we decided we wanted students to have an idea of who they are working beside before actually meeting.  So, we set up buddy classrooms and teachers decided what forum they wanted to use to connect their classes.  Below are one class’s letters shared from the students and teachers.

diegoHogan Prep #1Prep 2



  • Student used the self portraits they created reflecting their skin tone and the book, The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald to reflect and write about the best part of each of them.



  • Students wrote poetry reflecting on the importance of their skin, highlighting all it does and can do beyond its color.


Get ready for Week 2!  Post coming soon!

Social Justice Launch Week

This week started in a very general sense in that students explored why people have different skin colors.  The books that led this discussion and inquiry were, The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler and Shades of People by Shelly Rotner.

The Skin You Live In explores all the wonder and function our skin embodies.  While it addresses the various shades, it also talks about its abilities from the perspective of “a- day-in-the-life” of your skin.  Through list-like verse, this books crafts a catchy rhythm the grabs the reader’s attention from beginning to end.

With this text students were encouraged to think about all their skin does for them in a day, using the book as a model craft a similar poem to tell their personal skin story.

Shades of People led a more artistic inquiry into skin color.  Students explored with paint mixing to find the colors and amount of each necessary to create their exact skin tone.  This activity always serves as a powerful visual model in several ways.

  1. It shows students that no one just picked up the white bottle of paint, or the brown bottle, or the black, or yellow, or red…
  2. It also enlightens students to the fact that their skin is made of tones of red, yellow, and blue.  Meaning for everyone to find their unique skin tone each had to start with the exact same colors.

Teachers took initiative to get their art teacher’s support in this project.  They dedicated art time to the actual paint mixing, and then spent class time painting self portraits that represented their skin tone and unique facial qualities.

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Next week our conversations get more targeted as students explore the universal construct of racism and what it means in and to our society.  Students will research their own family histories to better understand the variety of cultures and places that make up our unique stories and selves.  Stay tuned!  We’re just getting started!

The Birthday of Your Soul

soul on fire

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work alongside a talented colleague, Jodi Coen, who was hosting a reading workshop experience for local teachers with Ellin Keene.  During this two-day workshop Jodi’s students were diving into their biography unit and exploring the idea of significance.  What does it mean?  Why did these individuals have stories written about them?  What is a significant contribution?  As these questions were explored and discussed in student conferences, we came upon one child who blew us all away.  She was reading about Hellen Keller, and pulled this line from her text:

“She would forever remember this day as being the birthday of her soul.”

The author was referring to the moment Keller met Anne Sullivan and finally had hope in being able to understand and learn about the world around her.  The student said that seemed “significant.”  Yes, child.  You’ve got it.

I have no idea how the rest of the conference went.  I immediately began wondering, when was the birthday of my soul?  As I thought through this I could not land on a single moment.  And I realized it’s because souls have so many layers.  The mom layer of my soul immediately went to the birth of my kids.  My sappy, love soul landed on meeting my husband.  Those moments seemed obvious though.  I dug deeper, and came upon this:

The summer of 2011 I walked into a charming little home at 3607 Pennsylvania Avenue that is rumored to be haunted, and at one time, a brothel.  Now The Writer’s Place, it serves a much different purpose.  I sat around a table with 20 strangers.  Twenty really smart strangers.  We opened books, uncapped pens, spoke in the voices and beliefs we knew, and wrote the ones just starting to emerge.  In just three weeks’ time, I received the most important and necessary education of my life.  It didn’t come with a flashy degree to hang, framed on a wall.  It came with a fire in my belly to spread this knowledge. To empower others. To create change.  It set my soul on fire.  Indeed, that has to be its birthday.

The Writing Project has had an incredibly profound impact on me.  It revolutionized my teaching and personal world.  If the summer of 2011 was its first birthday, then last night was its 6th. We celebrated with pizza, soda, chips and chocolate.  It was pretty PG, but that only makes sense because my soul is in Kindergarten.  It sits on the cusp of possibility, sparkly-eyed with dreams that anything is possible.  Eager.  Unafraid.  Ready to take chances.

Last night we launched a city-wide social justice project that has been my “professional baby” in the making for the past two years.  Twelve teachers came together and sat around the table.  Twelve really smart teachers.  We opened books, uncapped pens, spoke in the voices and beliefs we knew, and wrote the ones just starting to emerge.  Over the next three weeks, my hope is that their students receive the greatest and most profound education of their life-to-date.  It won’t come with a flashy certificate given at an assembly.  It will come with a fire in their belly to spread this knowledge.  To empower others. To create change.  It will set their soul on fire.  Perhaps it will be its birthday.


Over the next month, I’ll be blogging from inside the classrooms as this learning unfolds.  On May 9th we will culminate the experience at Johnson County Library where students will meet and participate in a workshop focused on social activism and being community change agents.  Souls are on fire!  Let’s see where it takes us.

Risks and Reflections: A Shakespeare Unit Failure

Image result for shakespeare winkingA couple of weeks ago I wrote about taking risks in the classroom in terms of developing new lessons that may or may not work with students.  I have been doing this all year, with relative success, until I tried a new way to teach Shakespeare.  Students usually have varied reactions about reading Shakespeare’s dramas.  They find the plays boring, the language inaccessible and the themes tired.  They roll their eyes and audibly groan when the words “Shakespeare Unit” comes out of my mouth.  This year, I wanted to try something different.  Instead of teaching a single play to the whole class, I decided to give my students choice in their learning.  They would get to pick out a play they found interesting, then students were grouped according to interests and they then had time to read their plays, analyze the text, and determine a theme relevant to today.  Their next steps were to create a modern interpretation of their entire play summarized into 5-7 movie/scene where they would write a script, memorize the script, film a short movie or act out their scene live for the class.  

This all sounds great right? How could anything go wrong? We meticulously planned out this unit, it could not fail. Oh but it did. 

I was the brain behind this idea, and my student teacher, God bless her, created fabulous lessons plans to get our students started.  We found a wonderful intro to Shakespeare on Teachers Pay Teachers which had students moving through stations to learn about Elizabethan England, Shakespeare, language presented in the text and then short summaries of his plays.  Students then chose the play they wanted to study and were grouped based on their choices.  We decided to give students class time to read their plays. My vision was that they would choose parts and read aloud in their small groups. What actually happened is that many of groups shut down after Act I Scene I of their plays. They weren’t understanding their plays and some of them gave up.  We decided to point them in the direction of No Fear Shakespeare so they would be able to read modern text side by side with Shakespeare’s original work.  This helped, but not enough. Some students were still struggling.  As time ticked by, we realized in order to get this unit finished and for student understanding we had to direct them to the summaries of the acts. Students at least now had a understanding of what their plays were about, who the characters were, and what themes were presented.  Unfortunately having honors students read summaries of plays was not how I envisioned my unit. Students were given class time to work together to create their versions of the play of choice.  Some chose to film this and some acted out their scenes in class.  Time was wasted, and the whole assignment became pointless.  This unit, which I had been thinking about for months, completely bombed.  I still like my idea, but the way I executed it was all wrong.  I’ve been thinking about how I would do this differently if I chose to have my students do this again, and I’m not sure I have the right answers at this point.  

My risk on my Shakespeare unit failed, but I have taken many other risks with lessons that were successful. Taking risks, in general, is scary.  What if you fall flat on your face? What if your students learn nothing? What if you waste the precious time you have with your students? These questions are all realities when trying something new.  Yes, my unit bombed, but I learned.  I learned that my students are really flexible and forgiving.  That they will try new things even if they hate it, and they will give me constant verbal feedback on what is not working.  Will I try this unit again? Maybe, with some very significant changes.  Teaching is all about risks and reflections, and one failed unit is not enough to stop me from trying to be creative in the classroom.

Sarah Tate

The Demise of a Dismissive Mentality 

I recently had the opportunity to watch the Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Adichie, where she addresses the harmful consequences of labeling people and experiences in only one way. Only seeing people as poor or murderous or unintelligent, and then letting that label be the only lens you view them through.  Not learning more. Not connecting with them on a human level. Letting the outside assign stereotypes that we mindlessly accept and move forward with. Because we are rushed. Because we are lazy. Because… 
And every single word she speaks is the absolute truth. We cannot just assign a single story to a person or group of people, and allow that to be our only perception of them.  Yet, I want to push this idea even further because I see something even more dangerous playing out, and it’s this: the intentional decision of people to dismiss others entirely, assigning them no story. 

Hearing another news story that paints all Mexicans as illegal drug lords, or all African Americans as gun-toting murderers, or all Middle Eastern citizens as extreme terrorists, and accepting that label as if it’s the only one is damaging enough. But this worse. 

Let me explain. Recently, to the shock of many of us, Betsy DeVos became our Secretary of Education. Even more shocking, Trump became our president. And we are left slack-jawed, scratching our heads. We just don’t get it. In America, how could this be? We have so many questions we need to ask to help us understand, but we don’t ask them. We simply move on with a mentality of dismissing any and everything they will ever say or do. Example: the highly popular hastag #notmypresident. 

Yes, he is.  And blindly dismissing him as such is not productive. We still have to listen, question, and resist against that which does not unite our country. 

Another example arose a couple weeks ago when DeVos took an intense amount of heat for this quote:

“I’m Betsy DeVos. You may have heard some of the ‘wonderful’ things the mainstream media has called me lately,” she said. “I, however, pride myself on being called a mother, a grandmother, a life partner, and perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

The social media universe went aflame with her poking fun at the public school free lunch program. Except she didn’t. She said, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and that’s true.  Nothing is free. Whether you agree or disagree with her idea to reduce government spending in this area is a moot point. A simple and true statement made by her was completely taken out of context, misconstrued into something it never intended to communicate and likely caused the marriages to end and friendships of 20+ years to crumble. 


Because I don’t like her so I dismiss her entirely and if you do like her, I dismiss you entirely too.  

This notion that when we don’t agree the other must have nothing to offer is permeating our culture in more places that politics. It’s taking over communities, work forces, and  society in general. My dad once spoke these wise words, 

“People shout from the rooftops ‘diversity,’ but no one wants diversity of thought.” 

So true, and I don’t know how we became so black and white. One person does not have the all the answers to the world’s problems, just as one person didn’t cause all of them.  Effectively running any system, including the country, revolves around a lot of gray and we seem to have removed ourselves from being okay in that space. 

But this post is not about politics. This post is about open-mindedness and listening and learning. To do this we must keep questioning. And not by just shouting them in the air in anger or disgust, and moving on. But by really asking them, and opening our hearts and minds to hear the answer.  We may not like or agree with what we hear, but it’s the only way to understand, and more importantly, stay informed.  The other side of that coin is that when someone asks us questions about our beliefs or ideas, we can’t become defensive. They are likely asking questions to better understand, not out of judgement. Remaining quiet and in our own corners is not going to bring about the unity we seek.  Neither is denouncing others from on high. 

It starts with you. It’s starts with a single question. Ask it and just listen. Then breath in how refreshing it is to learn more deeply about someone or something. We have all complex stories, and each deserves to be heard.  All the layers of it, not just one…or none.