The Refugee Experience

Even as I write the title I know it’s inadequate.  I’m preparing to write about the refugee experience from my woefully narrow vantage point.  It is something no human can fully comprehend unless you’ve lived it.  That point itself underlies the purpose of this post.  It’s not about comprehending fully, it’s about learning and growing empathy toward a people and their experience. It’s about connecting more deeply with those who have lived a thousand years beyond my own, because they’re here.  They made it.  And now, more than ever, they need us.  They need us to let them share their voice because, damn, do they have a story to tell.

James Mollison is a photo journalist I recently learned about through his book, Where Children Sleep.  In this particular text James takes pictures of 56 children (and their sleeping quarters) from all over the world, including a brief overview of their life.  It is riveting and eye-opening and stereotype-breaking.  He did similar work with refugees for a photo series in Time Magazine titled, “What Refugees Carry With Them”.


Refugee 1Refugee 2Refugee 3Refugee 4

Choices.  One can only imagine what was left behind, if anything.  See?  Incomprehensible.


Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a book in verse that follows her life for a single year–the year the Vietnam War forced her family from their home in Saigon.  They would first land in Guam and ultimately Alabama. Fatherless and frightened, Ha spends her time in Alabama trying to assimilate to a culture that wants nothing of her.  On her darkest days, she sits in her classroom listening to horrors of the Vietnam War being told in her history lessons, longing to go back. The horrors of the Vietnam War pale in comparison to the horrors she is facing here.  And what do they know about Vietnam anyway? They don’t know the beauty, the papaya trees.  They don’t talk about Tet or her dad.  Is he alive?  Is he still there?

Ha, too, must make choices as she prepares to leave her native country.


Into each pack:

one pair of pants,

one pair of shorts,

three pairs of underwear,

two shirts,


toothbrush and paste,


ten palms of rice grains,

three clumps of cooked rice,

one choice.


I choose my doll,

once lent to a neighbor

who left it outside,

where mice bit

her left cheek

and right thumb.


I love her more

for her scars.

More choices.  Choices many of us will likely never have to make.  What would we carry?  Or better yet, what could we carry that privilege has afforded us?  Cash, credit cards, cell phones with chargers, fine jewelry to be pawned if needed, clothes, shoes, high school diplomas and college degrees, our whiteness.

I could travel looking like Mohammed in the last picture, looking as if I had nothing, when in truth I’d have more than I’ll ever need.  All the items listed above can be worn or fit in pockets.  My whiteness gives me access and my culture has prioritized smallness.  The things I could carry fit in the palm of my hand.  More importantly, I have favorable odds of surviving.  White privilege.

As I sit with the word “choices” I consider mine.  What would I carry in addition to what the world has already given me that I have not earned?  I land on only option, so it’s not a choice at all.  Rather it’s a responsibility.


I’ll carry my voice,

once kept silent toward my neighbor

out of ignorance

and fear.


It cracked once,


“That’s not right!”

Then closed quickly,

surprised and embarrassed.


Later, the whispers,

“Thank you for speaking up.

Keep going.”

I do. I will.  I will not stop.

In the words of Jimmy Baca from NCTE, “The only way to fight ignorance is with knowledge.  There’s a destructive ignorance and a benign one.  We have to address the benign one–it’s unintended and connects people to reading and writing.”

I would add, “It helps us find our voice, and in turn, our way in this complex world.”


Fists up.  Voices up.  Let’s go.




NCTE 2017 + Blog Mini Series Launch

Many of you know I just returned from NCTE last week.  As a first time attendee I had high hopes, and it did not disappoint.  It was all the things I needed it to be–revitalizing, soul-lifting, necessary, true.

Let me recap a few highlights.

In the Nerdy Book Club session, I was fortunate to enough to sit at a table that Jason Reynolds spoke to.  In his all-too-short 12 minutes with us, his words became a sermon, worthy of a pulpit and place of worship.

“My books are love letters to kids.  In each of them you will see characters who actualize an element of humility through moments of heightened emotions.  We all want an opportunity to cry.  Growing up I did not get that because of stereotypes placed on boys.  When we strip kids of humanity we also strip them of humility.  Labels and stereotypes do this.  As adults we have to be humble too.  Kids want to teach us.  It’s time to let them.”

I don’t know who talked after that.  It seemed there was nothing left to say.  He’d said it all.  In 12 minutes.

Okay, I do know who talked.  It was Colby Sharp, and he’s also awesome.  And you should buy his book, The Creativity Project, coming out in March 2018.


The next morning, Jacqueline Woodson set my mental state for the remainder of the conference with these words,

“Resistance has never been more important.  Teaching resistance.  Writing resistance.  Acting resistance.  You can choose right or choose kind.  Kindness lets the relationship last another day.  Enacting resistance does not mean letting go of kindness.  In fact it’s the opposite.  It’s demanding it, for all.”

Jeff Anderson shed light and laughter to the often daunting topic of grammar and punctuation.  He expressed that when we teach grammar and punctuation through worksheets we perpetuate that there is one correct answer, which is incorrect.  Punctuation is about creating patterns that bring power to the writing.  He emphasized,

“It’s not an extra thing–its the meaning making of reading and writing.  Therefore it must be analyzed in context for students to understand exactly how that works.”

So remember,

Punctuation in a corner

Anderson speaks to this topic more extensively in his new text, Patterns of Power, written specifically for elementary writers


Sunday morning I only had time to attend one session before leaving, and I undoubtedly picked the right one.

This panel of women brought the damn house down.

NCTE Donalyn Miller Panel

Their session was on the power of storytelling and each shared deeply personal moments to a room of strangers.  Their strength was palpable and unified the room in 75 minute in a way that only storytelling can.

Pernille Ripp began, sharing a moment of getting pulled over by the police and being terrified because she did not have her green card on her.  She just knew she was going to get deported.

Now, look back at the picture.  Which one is Pernille?  The one on the far right?  No, that’s Sara K. Ahmed.  Oh, okay.  It must be the one next to her? Nope. Not her either–that’s Katharine Hale.  Both of these women are American, born in the United States, yet face situations each day in which they are treated as an ‘other’.

So, which one is she?  Let me tell you.  She’s the third one from the left, standing in the back.  Her story speaks to the ultimate reason she was not deported that night–white privilege.  You can read it at the link below, and I strongly urge you to do so.

On My Own White Immigrant Privilige


Through the power of her story and work I’ve been doing in the arena of immigration and refugees, I’ll be doing a blog series this week that explores texts and ideas connected to these topics.

Here’s the schedule:

  • Tuesday: Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai
  • Wednesday: Mirror by Jeannie Baker
  • Thursday: Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs
  • Friday: “White Haze” and the Difference Between Equalization and Marginalization

All Children on Shelves














Text, Tool, and Thought: Come with Me by Holly McGhee

Image result for come with me


In the necessary and heartwarming story, Come with Me, the reader follows a girl who is fearful of the world surrounding her.  The news inundates her with dark facts, but rather than feeling helpless she asks her father what can be done to make the world a better place?  His simple response, “Come with me.”  Together they go out into the scary world, finding ways to connect with strangers in their city.  But the news does not change.  The world is still dark and evil, so she poses the same question to her mother.

“What can we do?”

“Come with me.”

Together, she helps her daughter face the scary world once again.

Upon returning home the girl decides she wants to do something herself.  Stepping foot outside her door, alone, to walk her dog, the little girl is soon connecting to others on her own.  In turn she learns a powerful lesson–actions don’t have to be big to make a big impact.


Craft Moves:

  • Repetition
  • Character Development
  • Character Traits
  • Theme

The repetition in this text can be analyzed from two different levels the text– the phrase “come with me” stated throughout, and the characters’ repetitive actions.  First she goes to the subway with her father who has said, “Come with me,” then she goes to the grocery store with her mother who said the same.  Ultimately, she goes out on her own and as she meets others along the way, she tells them simply, “Come with me.”  Her parents had shown her the world did not have to be scary, and now she was leading others to see the same through her bravery.

Although the text is simple, each character is so layered in who they are and the illustrations do a beautiful job bringing these traits out.  We also see a significant shift in each of one as the book progresses.  Initially, the text starts with the girl being scared and her parents showing her how to be brave out in the world.  As the girl begins to internalize that bravery she wants to go out into the world, and now her parents are the ones who are scared.  The turning points in the text allow for a deep level of analysis from both a reading and writing standpoint.  The reader can analyze how the character is changing through actions and words, but the text is also simple enough to make emulating this work accessible and transferable with our young writers.

Finally, there are so many themes/universal messages that can be gleaned from this text.  Below is one of my favorite tools for tracking theme because it gives students a lens to think through as they read, and also requires them to pay special attention to scenes which are often difficult for them to write in their own work.  By doing this work in reading, we build natural places to go back in our text(s) to analyze it for craft and message as writers.

theme scenes - Copy


I had this text selected as my next to share long before the hurricanes and Vegas shooting transpired.  As our nation and world continue to face destructive and unthinkable adversity, we feel lost.  What can one do?  These moments are so big that any action feels insignificant.  This text is a beautiful reminder to us that it’s not.  It shows us that no matter the action, our human calling is to step outside, connect, and do. Living behind closed doors and screens and fear does not exact change.  Uniting in a voice of solidarity does.  Come with me.  Now is the time for change.  Now is the time for bravery.

Now is the time.


Using Quick Writes as Authentic Writing Spaces for Volume Development




Student writing volume is an under-invested component in establishing students as writers.  I have several theories for this, but all lead to the same conclusion–it’s hard.  It’s hard for kids to write more and well because collectively I don’t think we are as intentional about building student writing stamina as we are about building their reading stamina. It’s also hard for teachers because the more they write the more we have to read.  That takes time and it feels overwhelming.

While these are all very real and valid reasons, I’m still left with an itch I can’t ignore called hypocrisy.  If I believe readers need to read more to become better readers, the same has to be true for writing.  So why do my expectations differ?  Why do I encourage my kids to read more to get better at reading, but not write more to get better at writing?

Oh, yeah.  It’s hard.  But then I remember the wise words of Mary Ehrenworth and know I have to do the hard things more.  The hard things don’t get easier, and I don’t become more proficient at them, if I avoid them.

I had to scratch this itch.  To do so I began reflecting on where to start this work knowing everyone would feel its weight.  The purpose of getting kids to write more was not about giving a grade.  The purpose was about building stamina in a way that resulted in increased volume.  So, where does writing exist that I don’t grade?  I didn’t want to create something new (enter overwhelming feelings) and  I don’t want kids to feel the additional weight of it being assigned a score (doing this makes me a hypocrite again. It doesn’t match my purpose. I don’t need any new itches.)


We typically start each unit of writing with a series of quick writes over the span of several days.  This serves as the immersion phase into our new unit,  allowing students to explore and experiment with the style and genre of writing they are about to embark upon.  Additionally, it gives our students the opportunity for “joyful, ungraded practice” as advised by the incredibly brilliant Penny Kittle.  If I can center students in an environment where they feel liberated as writers, and engaged in the act of it, that’s where I can find our real potential for volume and stamina.  My quick write environment typically provides just that.

To track this goal, I have set up a graph to show progress.  It looks similar to our reading stamina graph, only we track words, sentences, paragraphs or pages, not minutes.

Our set-up for quick writes is this:

  1. Look at and examine the picture, infographic, writing, etc.
  2. Think
  3. Write
  4. Talk
  5. Write

Students get five minutes to write for steps 3 and 5.  After our very first quick write we average how much we were able to write as a class for a collective ten minutes.  This is our baseline data.  As the unit and year progresses, we work to increase this amount by words and sentences (primary level) and paragraphs and pages (intermediate level).

Just as we monitor volume for reading, I am working to do this same thing for students as writers.  When it is higher?  When is it lower?  Perhaps our volume goals will even differ by genre.  As I navigate this for the first time, I’m not exactly sure where it will go or what I will find.  I have assumptions, and I’m looking forward to seeing how, or if, students will fulfill those.  Regardless, I know the information this provides will make my instruction more intentional.

And scratch that dang itch.

Text, Tool, and Thought: Survivors Club by Michael Bornstein

Survivors Club


In the book, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, Michael Bornstein joins his daughter to tell the tragic and miraculous story of his family and their will to survive the evils of World War II.  Michael Bornstein’s family lived in Zarki, Poland in 1939.  In October of the same year, the the Jewish community was invaded by Nazi soldiers as World War II began rearing its horrendous, hateful head.  Despite a heavy Gestapo and Nazi presence, Zarki would remain an open ghetto.  (It is still remembered as being one of the more favorable ghettos to have resided, despite the unspeakable crimes witnessed by its inhabitants).  Shortly after the invasion, Michael’s mamishu (mother) learned she was pregnant with him and he was born into the ghetto on May 2, 1940.  What transpired over the next four years of Michael’s young life can only be told by the author himself.  His family got separated time and again, but when life in the ghetto is all you know this is your norm. Ultimately forced into Auschwitz, Michael soon realized his family’s luck had run out.  They could not survive this.  Or could they?


This book serves as a powerful example of narrative nonfiction.  Michael tells his story in such a profound, yet protected, way for his young audience, without losing any authenticity of the era or his life.  As many of our students launch the year with some form of narrative writing–whether formal or informal–this book shows exactly why our personal stories must be shared.

Potential Craft Moves to Highlight:

  • power of personal accounts
  • embedding another language to connect to larger message (Yiddish terms are used consistently to highlight the family’s commitment to their faith; German terms are used when Nazis are talking to show how misplaced and misunderstood they were in the community)
  • theme–migration, war, poverty, family, faith, marginalization, death, crime, power… (the list goes on)

In connection to bullet one, having students interview family members about powerful stories in their lives could serve as a brainstorming tool to pull in those deeper, more meaningful moments in our lives.  It might look something like this:

  • What different parts of the world is our family from?
  • How do those places connect with my life today?  Food?  Clothing?  Religion?  Family traditions? Home? Music?  Art?
  • Why are these cultural components so important to our family?
  • How do we keep our family history alive?  How can I keep it alive through my narrative nonfiction writing?

The interview does not have to be long–remember, we’re just brainstorming at this point.


So often when our kids begin narrative writing they want to talk about winning a video game (likely Minecraft), their trip to the local amusement park, or that one time they got a great Christmas present.  And we sigh.  There has to be more.  How am I going to get this child to see there’s more?

Additionally, we live in a society where our demographics are changing at a steady pace. If we want to know our neighbors, we have to listen to their stories.  More importantly, if we want to know ourselves, we have to know our own.  This is where understanding and empathy are birthed, and connections to others become meaningful and lasting.  Culturally relevant teaching has never been more important, and how many of our students really know and understand their own history?

As I read this book, I could not help but think how much of this author’s young life has impacted every facet of his being as he’s grown into an adult.  Certainly, our students are not likely to have stories as harrowing.  But some will, and they can’t be ignored.  Those who don’t still have important stories to tell.  Connect with families to learn student stories through the interview builds vital relationships for the year and gets them involved in their child’s learning right away.  More importantly, for our students it creates an outlet for writing to be connected to self-discovery.  I can’t think of a more essential audience than that.


Two additional picture books that could serve as mentor text:

  1. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus (this text can connect thematically with migration, poverty, war, hardship, etc. and bring about meaningful cultural conversations connected to these themes.  The story is told in Arabic and English, showing the power of bringing in another language as well).
  2. Mirror by Jeannie Baker (this text shows life in the Middle East on one side of the text, and in the U.S. on the other side.  This helps kids see all the small day-to-day activities that create the culture we live in.  As they start to think about stories they have connected to their culture, this can help them see all that culture entails).

Andy Takes Action: A Text, Tool, and Thought


Andy Takes Action


This entry is introducing a new type of post that will be featured the first week of each month on the blog.  There are so many amazing books out there, and we continually find ourselves wanting to know new titles and how to use them, so that is exactly what this monthly post will do–introduce a new text, provide ideas/tools for how to use it, and capture a few thoughts on the importance of the message to our students.  And our first one is a real gem!  I know it’s the last week of August, but it’s too good to hold back.  So, what does that mean for you?  You get a “Text, Tool, Thought” post next week, too!


Andy Takes Action is a book I happened upon in a small art museum gift shop in Philadelphia.  The author, Valerie Lang, attends Moore College of Art and Design with an emphasis in illustration, and also works in the gift shop!  When I saw this book, I knew it was perfect for launching the school year.  I snagged it, she signed it, and I have dearly embraced this book ever since!

In the book, Andy aspires to be an action hero despite being mocked by his peers for having such an audacious dream.  As events play out at school where action is needed, Andy learns, with the help of his teacher, that Andy has what it takes to make his dream come true. More importantly, his peers do too.


Craft Moves:  

  • repetition
  • quotations/dialogue
  • word style and formatting–color, size
  • balancing action, dialogue, and thoughts in a text
  • symbolism–cape, helmet

Theme/Central Message: 

  • community
  • activism
  • individuality

word formatting demo notebook tool

A tool I created in my demonstration notebook outlines how word formatting impacts a text.  So many times we ask students to thread a theme or message throughout the text, or try out repetition and they struggle to do so.  Once students have written a draft, have them review it.  What words are repeated?  Why?  Do they have meaning?  Are they connected to your theme?  Could we make them look differently?

Additionally, your aesthetic learners who might resist writing, would love to start out in an artistic way.  What words are coming to you write now that are driving your piece?  Write them out in an artistic way.  What impact are you wanting them to have on your reader?  Start with a single word–I like to call it a piece’s “essence word,” and let the writing grow from there.

I also used this book with a primary teacher to help set a tone of unity while building community at the start of the year.  We had the students think about their natural strengths, and how those could be used to empower and help others throughout year.  They made capes stating how they were going to be action heroes, and then we used those words to help us draft our class mission statement.  We have coined the term ‘hero’ into our class name, and continually think about what positive action looks like in different situations throughout our day.  It has definitely established a proactive, rather than reactive, stance to our thinking, words, and actions.  It’s been wonderful to watch students help each other out, and then exclaim, “I was just an action hero!”  Yes, yes, you were.  Keep being just that.


Taking action in our world today has never been more important.  We see the news, we know the issues, and we know action needs to be taken to right them.  But too often it feels too big or our lives are too busy, and so we show compassion and empathy, and move on.

 That’s awful, but what can I do?  When would I even find the time to do it?  It seems so big.  What does the first step even look like?

Yes, these are all valid thoughts and reasons.  However, what we must remember is that systems, whether broken or functioning, were created by individuals with a vision.  The only way the broken systems are going to be taken down or remedied is in the same way.  It starts with us.  And at the even more cellular level, it starts with us being a model of action for the generation looking up to us-our students, and our very own kids.  We are in an age where being a compassionate, empathetic onlooker is not enough.  And Andy is just the character to show us that our actions being big or small is not what matters, it’s that action was taken and you were brave enough to do it.

When Kids Don’t Care about our Rules



just the students I'd hoped for

In Pernille Ripp’s latest blog post, Welcome Them All, she displays this sign created for her classroom.  It gave me pause.  We are days into school and only on the surface of learning the many layers underneath each student.  Their stories are just beginning to unfold.  Their identities remain largely unknown to us at this time, yet many of us have already begun to project identities onto them.  We are days in, and the labeling of students has begun.  And that’s where I pause because I wonder, have we even given them a chance?

Don’t get me wrong, labels, in and of themselves, are not bad.  They are how we make sense of our world.  But too often in education the labels we place on students come from a deficit mindset–their incapabilities, their rule-breaking.

In turn, these students become incapable rule-breakers in our minds.

Not a glamorous identity.


In Kylene Beers new book, Disruptive Thinking, she asks the reader to reflect:

Think of something you don’t do well. (golf).  Think about how it makes you feel when you try it. (hopeful and anxious).  Think about how it makes you feel when you try it repeatedly, and don’t make the progress expected. (frustrated, passive, defeated).

Now imagine doing that thing 7 hours a day for 190 days in front of your peers.  That’s what we ask our struggling readers and writers to do every day.


And guess what?

It’s also what we ask our struggling behavior students to do every day.

We ask them to conform and follow rules and fit in boxes that their bodies and minds were not made for.  Innocently enough our first actions are focused on fixing the behavior, but this often turns to a mentality of needing to fix the child.  In doing this, we frame an identity for this kid that suggests they are broken in some way.  Imagine having to work in that kind of space–where you are seen as broken and in need of fixing?  It doesn’t exactly build a foundation for community or an environment for success, huh?

Furthermore, many times our solution to the behavior comes in the form of isolation–a safe seat, a buddy room, the recovery room.  Again, none of these are bad, and that’s not the intended message. Safety is number one, and each of these have a place in keeping students safe. What I simply want to encourage is thoughtfulness when deferring to isolation as the solution, and here’s why:  we have two types of students in our classroom–rules kids and relationship kids.

Rule kids are just that, they respond to rules.  They have been taught to trust adults because adults want what is best for them, and they are surrounded by adults that live this message.  “Rule kids” thrive on the structure and organization that rules establish.  They’ve learned the system and the system works for them, so they don’t question it.

Relationship kids are the exact opposite–they do not care about the rules.  If they did, they would follow them.  Likely, rules have not played a large part in their existence and in their eyes, they are doing just fine. I’m here, right? Additionally, these students have to trust the adult imparting them, and this trust is not something that comes as naturally as it does for the “rules kids”.  Typically, “relationship kids” are not surrounded by trusting adults, so it has to be earned.  Continuing to remind them of and punish them for rules they don’t care about only creates madness and frustration for both parties.  Your relationship kids respond to humans–they need the connection, they need the trust.  When we send them away, so does our opportunity to create that connection so desperately need to succeed.  We have to keep them close.

It’s also worth stating that the rules kids still need relationships and vice versa. The two are not mutually exclusive.  It’s just understanding that the thought process differs for each kind of kid when walking into a new experience or situation.  One thinks, “What are the rules here? I need to follow them, and then I’ll get to know the people around me.”  While the other kid thinks, “Who are the people here?  Who can I trust, and what do they want from me? Those are the ones I’ll respond to.”


In the case of identities, we talk endlessly about shaping students’ to see themselves as readers and writers.  What we don’t talk about is how we shape them to see themselves as successful, capable humans, even if the grade card suggests otherwiseDoing this gets buried under the demands of teaching content, yet the implications of doing so are far more lasting because when we do this we honor individuality. Students live under the fallacy that the successful people of the world are those that sat quietly and got good grades in school.  We cannot continue to perpetuate this idea.

Each year teachers think about and  fill their toolbox with many tools related to classroom management and curriculum and instruction.  We are missing a key component.  What tools do we have in place to connect individually with our students?  To let them speak their identity to us, rather than us projecting ours onto them.  What tools do we have for listening, for showing empathy, for focusing on their strengths, not weaknesses?  We’ve got students hanging on by a thread, and we can be the connection that builds that single thread into a rope, pulling them back in and giving them hope through a life-changing relationship.  We must use the power we possess to do just that.