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

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More “The Skin I’m In” Poetry

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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.

Stories: The Untold Data


Today, as educators, we embark on testing season.  For the next 3-4 weeks, daily schedules will implode and the educational routines students have found comfort in during the last 7 months will cease to exist to make room for The Almighty Test.  Likewise, your social media feeds will be inundated with articles and viewpoints regarding the ridiculousness of this practice.  I likely agree with all of those.  It’s barbaric.  It’s asinine.  It’s centered on governmental power to control where state and federal education dollars get funneled.  It’s dehumanizing.  So, this post is not going to be about that.

It’s going to be about changing it.

This is our world, educational and otherwise, right now:

world of numbers

Separate.  Apart.  Number-driven.  Everything is a number– A price, a time, a year.  We want the hottest gadget, now and on sale.   Everyone is a number–literally, by way of social security, but also a birth date, a weight.  You’re too old.  You’re too young.  You’re overweight.  You’re too skinny.  That thigh gap you’ve worked for?  You’ve gone too far.

You’ll never be the right number.  Whatever “right” is.

And our students feel this, too.  They become scores associated with labels that, if allowed, become ingrained in who they believe they are as learners.  This is where action must come in.  It does not matter if your score is high or low or right in the middle.  We cannot allow numbers to dominate a student identity.  Because  numbers and labels can never define us, but our stories do.

Since, I do not have the answers to breaking down entire political systems driven by money and power, I have to go a different route.  I have to think about how to bring stories into the numbers to humanize the data.  I have read Steibeck’s quote, and think,

If this is my ideal world–one connected through stories (real data), how do I bring that into my smaller, educational world?  Who is the hearer?  How can I make my students’ stories matter so it lasts beyond today and this meeting?  How can I make my student’s story about everyone?

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Know the stories!                                                                                                                   This one seems obvious, right?  But it is the most important, thus worth the moment to pause and reflect.  Who am I about to be in a room with to talk about this student or group of students?  What’s their story?  How can I connect them with my students and the experience I want to provide to propel them forward?  In my last post I spoke to the power of listening.  Have you done that?  If not, that’s the first step.  We have to connect the people in the room!
  2. Bring your students to the meeting!                                                                                    Hear me out on this one before you roll your eyes or skip over it entirely! I always spent the first part of the year taking pictures of my students as they worked in the classroom.  This helped me get to know them as learners.  As we set up Writer’s Workshop notebooks, students would share (or not share) stories about their families.  They would decorate their notebooks with what mattered to them.  It was always telling if families were or were not present on those.  Then, in  meetings about those students I’d bring a few of those pictures.  If only to set them in the middle of the table to make sure they, too, were present in the meeting about them.  It also told the adults in the room that our charge is to not forget the student–who they are as learners and people, and what their life is outside of school.  What matters to them?  We must know the kid to develop a workable plan.  When they are looking back at you, it’s a much easier thing to do.
  3. Let stories lead, not excuse!                                                                                 Sometimes sharing stories leads to conversations laden with excuses about why students can’t or don’t do x or y. “They’re lazy” or “Their home life is horrible.” If this happens, we’ve missed the mark.  Stories should empower.  They should allow us to see people for all they are, not are not.  Knowing stories should develop empathy, not excuses.  Circumstances, just like labels, cannot define our students. The purpose of knowing circumstances is to provide insight into understanding each other.  And from there, to honor their current place in life with all that has brought them here, and then get to work to build, to grow, to succeed.
  4. Bring student work!  Don’t let the data being looked at in the meeting be the only piece that is considered.  No single piece of data can serve as the point from which to make all decisions.  When we consider multiple pieces of student work we acknowledge all the the work student does, and are more likely to see how they have developed in this content area, therefore not minimizing them to a single score.

Right now, public education means testing.  If we are a part of that system we have to find ways to rise above it, for the sanity of ourselves and the self worth of our kids.  I will keep seeking ways to do that until this is my data shelf.  Will you?  ideal data room 2

The Demise of a Dismissive Mentality, Part 2: Resisting vs. Dismissing


The other day a trusted friend said to me, “I really struggled with your last post. It spoke heavily to white privilege for me.”

I was taken aback.  I tend to be hyper aware of how my words and actions impact others.  My automatic response was, “Really?!  How so?”   Her words were this:

It’s easy to tell others not to be dismissive when you haven’t had real and scary shit happen to you.  People actually burning crosses in your yard.  People actually spewing hate at you in public and school.  People actually wishing and carrying out ill will against you and your family just because of your skin color.  When that shit happens to you, you dismiss.  You dismiss out of anger.  You dismiss out of safety.  You dismiss to honor and protect your individuality.

As she said these words my stomach hurt.  Yes, of course.  My white-washed privileged world had dominated the message I’d hoped to send.  I understood her reasoning only as much someone who has not lived through those experiences can, and I felt such immense pain for it.  I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her pain.

So, I want to that this time to clarify a couple points.  

One, I am in no way supporting the work of Trump or DeVos, and even hesitated in using them as examples.  But the point I wanted to make through their examples was that they are, in fact, leaders for our country and will be making decisions for us now and in the future.  We cannot dismiss them.  They have been given power, and if we are going to be in tune with our country and community we must be informed on how they plan to exact that power.

The second, we must listen to one another for two reasons at the very least-healing and being informed. In reflection I can certainly see how my post was perceived as this: If we just listen to Trump and DeVos we’ll be enlightened and refreshed by what they have to say.  Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.  I don’t know. Regardless, that was not what I wanted to convey.

This is the message I’d hoped for:

If we ever hope to get back to honoring humanity we have to listen to one another.  Slow down and really listen, face-to-face.  Maybe we’ll be refreshed by what we hear and happy for giving the moment to listen to another.  Maybe we’ll be pissed.  And if we’re pissed, we resist.  But we don’t dismiss without ever trying to understand.  We don’t become single-minded individuals that can only see others and ideas a certain way. This is what minimizes people to a single story, or no story at all.  And it’s happening all around us.

I have been writing this blog in my head for several days, hoping to be more articulate this time to get my message right.  Then this appeared in my inbox saying all the things I needed it to.


I recognize, too, that I am not an expert, nor will I ever be.  No matter how much reading, and listening, and learning I do, I know I will simply never understand what it is like to be marginalized in the way that so many groups in our country feel every day.  I recognize my limited scope, and I work diligently to educate myself on what it’s like to be cast as an “other” so my scope can be enlarged.  More importantly, an enlarged scope allows me to advocate intentionally for the “others.” Not in a let-me-be-your-hero kind of way, but rather a let’s-build-a-community-and-do-this-right kind of way.   This will always be an ever-evolving process.

And so I want to close reflecting on the beauty of this moment.  Often times a blog is one-way dialogue.  You read it, agree or disagree, and move on.  But this wasn’t. My friend felt angst against it and shared her resistance to it with me.  She did not dismiss me.  She took that moment to educate me, to help me see another side. I saw a new layer to her story and she added to mine.

Yes.  That was my message.  And it came back to me in the most perfect of ways.  Thank you, Ashley.

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