Bringing Warmth into These Last Cold Weeks

Notes from the Classroom

Here in Michigan winters are long–seeming to last well into spring. And in the classroom winter can feel eternal. The grey outside is often reflected in the moods of the students, and to be honest, ours too.

How to combat the cold-month blahs? Here are a few ideas to help you through:

Pull Out Poetry

One book that I use all year long, but which is especially effective this time of year, is Red Sings from Treetops, by Joyce Sidman. This book is wonderful for teaching the power of language, and for inspiring kids to think outside the box.

I use Red Sings as a mentor text and have kids write poems inspired by it. We brainstorm, choose a color to focus on, do some quality writing, and then spend some time working on our illustrations. If you have time and patience, true collage is a fun way to go. We usually use colored pencils, and I am always pleased with the result. We hang these in the hall and it is so nice to be greeted by springtime images every morning.

Share Your Favorite Books

There are always books that I don’t have time to read to my students but want to share. So, it’s important to set aside a few minutes each day to book talk your favorites.

If you have them available, hold them until the end of the week and have students enter a lottery to check them out. Pull names and make a big deal out of it. Let students put their names on waiting lists too–they will badger their classmates, which just might inspire them to keep reading!

This is also a great time to talk about realistic time frames for finishing a text. I have a colleague who does this with new books from book orders. It generates a ton of excitement and puts some life into conversations about books.

Check Out “Breakout”!

If you are not familiar with Breakout EDU, the educational-gaming platform, you must check it out! Most people won’t have the resources to create actual breakout boxes, but you can use the concept and create a “breakout” with clues in envelopes, forcing students to solve clues in order to get to the end.

There are many breakouts already created that people have shared online. Students work in small groups, so we make six sets of clues for a classroom. You can create a breakout around any content: I have designed them around books, social studies content, and math. We are also creating them for March is Reading Month and Leader in Me. Students apply what they know to solve clues, and they love the challenge! This is a great way to extend the content and get kids excited again.

Whatever you do to get through the last cold weeks, remember to focus on what you love and what brings you joy. Your students will feel your enthusiasm and they will catch it too!

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

How to Avoid the Educational Rut

Notes from the Classroom

Getting over the drudgery of winter can be tough; even if you’re lucky enough to have a classroom with windows, the view outside is grody (you heard me) and the sunlight feels almost colder than the fluorescence of the room lights. For me, the best cure (besides squinting) to get through the cold white season has always been to bury myself in one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching:  


My PLC likes to busy itself updating, modifying, and re-imagining everything in our curriculum.  Yes, we do this yearly. For fun. And because it’s best practice.

The Risk of the Rut

Routine can be good–for kids and for teachers–but it can also become a rut really quickly. Ruts in education sometimes get so deep that it isn’t just our wheels getting stuck in them. They can get so deep that we can’t even see over the edges to look for other possibilities.

When you devote some of your time each week to innovative thinking, you find that being creative and exploring new possible content and activities for your class are pretty good substitutes for sunshine. I mean…except for all the things sunshine actually does.  

How to Avoid the Rut

Here’s how my PLC tends to spend the cold months:

  • Read like crazy. If you don’t already do independent reading in class, add it!  Discovering new books to share with your students is a fantastic way to refresh your own interests and connect with your readers.
  • Look for connections in the world–and stay connected to it. Nothing freshens up a stale unit like some current reading. What are your favorite websites for pleasure reading? For keeping up on the news? Pop culture?
  • Use Twitter. If you haven’t already connected with the infinite treasure trove of fellow educators and resources on this social platform, now’s the time to get your feet wet.  While the site can take a few days to get used to, you can explore completely passively, unlike on sites like Facebook where you have to “friend” other people just to see their thoughts.  
  • Write. It doesn’t matter what, just get back into the practice you spend so much time teaching your students! If you’re feeling ambitious, reach out to a favorite blog or organization and see if you could write a guest-post for them. Maybe keep a journal–or better yet, write the assignments you’re giving your kids right alongside them (sounds almost like a book title I’m rather fond of).  
  • Try something crazy. Give one day in your unit to the sort of lesson that only those maniacs on Pinterest would ever actually try doing in their classroom! Make up a game, get the kids moving, let them decide how to approach the next day’s discussion–break out of the routine and see if the energy doesn’t change.

Spring is coming soon enough, and once the air smells like blossoms and freedom, we start to think more about summer than about our unit plans. That’s okay–so do the kids. But it’s all the more reason to dedicate some time to re-energizing yourself with a bit of classroom innovation to distract everybody from that muddy, melty view out the classroom windows.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

The Importance of Joy: Part 2

Notes from the Classroom

This is part 2 in a series.
Here’s part 1The Importance of Joy.

There is a video I like to play when I facilitate professional development. It’s about a blind man trying unsuccessfully to beg for money on a city street. Passersby rarely give him a coin and mostly ignore him. One woman walks past him, then thinks better of it and turns around. She proceeds to change what is written on his sign from “I’m blind, please help me,” to “It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t see it.”

Almost immediately, the people passing by are much more likely to give him a few coins. The woman comes back later, and the blind man asks her what she wrote. She responds with, “I wrote the same but in different words.”

Now, full disclosure, this video is an ad for a company, but the message is the same: the words we use are powerful and have the ability to change our worlds.

Part of What Stunts Change

Recently, we had the pleasure of bringing Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, to West Bloomfield as the keynote speaker for our district-wide professional development. Sheridan wrote a book called Joy, Inc., which details Menlo Innovations’ journey to build joy into every facet of their company culture. After reading Joy, Inc., we knew that Sheridan’s message would be a powerful one for our staff.

As Sheridan spoke, there were so many meaningful takeaways. But the one that resonated most with me and many others was his mantra to “Fight fear, embrace change: run the experiment!”

So often, fear paralyzes us, especially in education. As teachers, we’re so cautious to embrace change because we’ve had so many bad experiences with change: it’s not funded, we’re not trained, administrators don’t value it, we know it’s going to change again in a year–this list goes on endlessly. Sheridan encourages us to try new things anyway, maybe even in spite of our fear.

In West Bloomfield, we are in the middle of figuring out what 21st-century learning looks and feels like, and have had many conversations about flexible furnishing and spaces. David Stubbs, creator of Cultural Shift, an independent consulting company that stimulates design thinking, has been working with us on these endeavors.

In a meeting with him recently, we were lamenting the fact that many teachers say something to the effect of “that’s great, but…” and give myriad reasons why the idea wouldn’t work. Stubbs urged us to turn the conversation on its head, to ask another question instead:

But What Happens if We Do It?

In a time when we consider every possibility for why something won’t work, what happens if we run the experiment and do the thing we think will never work?

When we continually focus on why something won’t work, we never allow our minds to imagine that thing actually working, and thus limit our capacity for making change.

When I think about saying the same thing but with different words, like the woman in the video, I can’t help but think about how we can change our outlook with the change of one word. What if, instead of saying “but,” we said “and”? What if the teachers mentioned earlier said, “That’s great, and….” And rather than giving reasons why it wouldn’t work, they gave reasons why it would?

What would happen if we just did it?

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PM Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

Getting Students to Respond to Failure Like Olympians

Notes from the Classroom

While I watched the Women’s Moguls event during the Olympics, an Australian skier had a particularly bumpy performance (insert groan here), blasting through the orange flags. Yet as she stopped at the finish line, she gestured “oh well” with an unflappable grace, adjusted her goggles, and gave the camera a thumbs up.

So, how do we get our student to respond to failure like Olympians?

Model Live, Unprepared Writing

Imagine my fear when I wrote live in front of my middle school students for the first time. It felt like a daring move in my first year of teaching–to share raw writing with a crowd of thirteen-year-olds. Yet, to my surprise, these students were completely tuned into what I needed as a writer.

When I modeled, students were quick to throw out a word, phrase, or question that prompted me when I was stuck. I scribbled all over the overhead. There was a tremble as I wrote those first few times, and it was a tremble that showed my students that writing has fits of balance and chaos.

In being open to moments where I choked out words, I was able to show my students how a writer gets back up after tripping over words and how a supportive writing community can move a writer.

Resist the Urge to “Red Pen” Their Writing

The godfather of the writing process, Donald Murray, says that the standard approach to teaching writing is a form of “repetitive autopsying,” one that “doesn’t give birth to live writing.” For Murray, live writing is authentic and process based. It allows for growth.

The red pen, on the other hand, leads a student to identify as a poor writer rather than a developing writer–even though writing only gets better when students can take risks and not fear a punishing grade or comment.

Moving away from a deficit model of teaching, then, leads students to not fear feedback from their teachers and peers.

Provide Empathetic Feedback

What can help our students to get back up after a fall? The place to start is to help them recognize that all writers will hit a bumpy stretch at some point in the writing process.

For many students, this vulnerability is scary and paralyzing. And it’s even worse when the feedback is given postmortem–after they submit a composition for a grade. Yet, it’s those moments of moments of vulnerability, Brené Brown reminds us, that can lead a student to deep learning.

One solution is to offer multiple times to confer with a student in a low-stakes way. No grades. No red pen. Just a conversation between teacher and student. This formative feedback is essential to their growth.

All students will find an aspect of the process challenging–make that transparent to them. They will try ideas that may not work. They may delete passages that took time to compose. And they may feel a deep sense of frustration and tell themselves that they are not a “good writer.”

But always bear in mind how challenging writing can be.

When we really know the writer, and we know how much effort has gone into their writing, we will know how to respond generously. We will know that recognizing the strength in the risk they took as a writer will eventually lead them to growth.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  When she’s not teaching, Lauren often runs for the woods with her husband and their three sons/Jedi in training and posts many stylized pictures of trees on Instagram.

How I Resist the Urge to Get Defensive about My Whiteness

Notes from the Classroom

I’m white. Really white.

I often joke that my skin has two equally lovely shades. In the winter, I’m Casper-white. And in the summer if I’m not careful, I’m lobster-red.

As much as I may joke about my own whiteness, teachers like me have a natural inclination to get defensive when someone calls out our whiteness in relation to our practice. Resisting the urge to get defensive, though, might be one of the most important moves we make in our professional lives.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a teacher who was new to our district. She complained that our book choices were “too white.” Right away, I felt my defensive barbs prickle, and a million responses rushed to the tip of my tongue. Like, Are you kidding? You should have seen what it used to be!

Thankfully, though, I bit my tongue and, instead of snapping back, I took a deep breath and responded, “Tell me about it . . . . No really, tell me about it.”

Then I listened as she told me where she noticed holes in representation. It was nice to get an outside perspective because, as someone who was new, she could look at our curriculum in ways that I couldn’t. And now I’m sure that she learned more about who I am because I listened un-defensively.

Start with a Descriptive Inventory

Even though it can be hard to resist the urge to get defensive, I’ve found that stepping back to listen can make a world of difference. And I don’t just mean listening when someone is confronting me.

Do you remember that exercise in your undergrad class? The one where you had to observe a class and tally how many times a teacher called on each student. You collected the information first, then backed up to do some thinking and analysis. Do the same here.

Start by gathering observations–lots of them. Save the analysis and conclusions for later and just record what you notice is happening in class. By doing this sort of inventory, you can listen to many aspects of your practice: your students, yourself and your instruction, your curriculum. You might be someone who collects this thinking in lists or spreadsheets or simply by saying them out loud.

Once you’ve got the observations, it will be time to take a step back and reflect on what patterns you notice about whose voices and values are being represented in your class. Is it actually as diverse as you’d hoped it was? I’ve found that taking the time to make some unbiased observations helped me to better realize when my perceptions, and my privilege, might be getting in the way of real reflection–and might be unintentionally causing me to get defensive.

My first step in getting there was to look at some important areas of my practice. To get started on your own journey, you might start your inventory with the following areas.

Inventory Your Students

Describe what you know about your class. Tally, chart, or describe what you know about each student in relation to their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Geographic origin
  • Languages spoken
  • Gender identity
  • Sexuality
  • Family
  • Socio-economic status
  • Interests
  • Values

Among other benefits, this exercise helped me realize when I needed to get to know a student better.

Next, ask the same questions about yourself as you would your students. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, ask your students to do the inventory on you.

Inventory Your Instruction


  • Who do you call on when you’re looking for answers?
  • Who do you “check in on” to make sure they’re getting it?
  • Who do you push with extension or more challenging opportunities?
  • Who volunteers to speak in class? Who doesn’t?  
  • What opportunities do you give for students to talk to each other?
  • How often do students speak to someone inside their social circle? Outside it?
  • What opportunities do students have to give you feedback?

Do the same kind of inventory on the books in your classroom. Get ready to look not only for holes when people aren’t represented, but also for stereotypes that might be perpetuated.

Step Back and Reflect

It’s now time to reflect on all that you’ve noticed. Ask yourself:

  • What patterns do you see?  
  • Who is represented? Who isn’t?
  • Whose viewpoints seem to be given the most voice or value?
  • What stereotypes are present, perpetuated, or disputed?
  • Which students are given opportunities to see themselves, their families, their friends, their values represented in books?
  • Which students get to see and experience others’ perspectives and cultures through books?

This kind of reflection isn’t something that you do in just one sitting. And it can be uncomfortable–really uncomfortable. But once you start, it’s tough to deny that it’s some of the most important work we can do–for ourselves, for our instruction, and most importantly, for our students.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

How I’m Bringing Joy into Writing Assignments

Notes from the Classroom

My daughter is writing a great story about the
poop emoji plunger she won at our family white elephant party at Christmas.

It’s a great tale of intrigue and strategy. And even though she’s only in kindergarten, she’s already learning that her writing is powerful. In this case, she can use it to make people laugh–and that’s one of her highest priorities these days.

This makes me think about Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write, a book that’s intended for K-6 teachers, but which has valuable lessons for the upper grades too. Fletcher’s book looks at the ways in which teachers can make writing a joyful experience for students. In the opening chapter, for instance, he compares writing workshop to a hot-air balloon: “For roughly an hour each day the kids would climb in and–whoosh!–up they’d go.”

But how do you create joy when, as in my AP class, there’s a pretty high-stakes test looming?

Let students choose their own topics.

My students have to be prepared to write three very specific types of essays by May. It would be irresponsible to not prepare them to do that.

But I don’t have to dictate their topics.

Why not analyze a song, a TV show, or even a threaded Twitter rant they come across?  Write an op-ed on something about which they’re passionate? Research topics of their choosing?

My students won’t necessarily have the same amount of freedom my daughter, Molly, has in kindergarten. But there’s room for a lot of joy if I commit to conferencing with each student and helping each one find ways to connect to their writing topics.

Give students an opportunity to write playfully.

Just as it would be irresponsible to not prepare them to write those three types of essays, I’m beginning to think it’s irresponsible to not give them chances to do other types of writing as well.

Fletcher argues in his book that “writing workshop has become more restrictive . . . less free-flowing, less student centered” and he’s right. He suggests creating a greenbelt that preserves space for “raw, unmanicured, uncurated” writing.

I love this idea, and I think I can make space for a greenbelt in my room, too. Why not dedicate a little time each day to some free, “unmanicured” writing? It will be tough at first; my students have not had many opportunities in recent years to write playfully. But I think if I stick with it, they’ll get there. I might start by just sharing Molly’s poop-emoji-plunger tale and see what that inspires with them.

There’s not enough time for everything, so let some things go.

It’s time consuming to conference with individual students, helping them to find topics. Greenbelt writing eats up class time.

So I have to let stuff go.

When I started teaching AP Language years ago, we examined six or seven really dense essays as a class each unit. Was it important for their critical reading? Sure. But is it more important than digging into a topic they love? More important than feeling the joy of knowing you’ve crafted a sentence that is finally, exactly, what you want?

I don’t think it is. I think whooshing takes time. I think if I want my students to find some joy in their writing, I have to accept that it’ll be a messy process that will happen on a different timeline for each student. Nobody gets anywhere fast in a hot air balloon, but it’s sure beautiful once it’s in the air.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

3 Early Literacy Essentials that Are Essential for Secondary Teachers

Notes from the Classroom

When I’ve asked students who identify as non-readers to recount a happy school-related memory, more often than not, they return to somewhere in elementary school. Most were happy because they knew what they were doing, and when they didn’t, someone explicitly told them what to do.

That changes by high school. At that point, we assume that they “know better.” But the truth is the same: kids don’t know what they don’t know.

So, how can we help these high school students, who may require more explicit skill instruction?

Earlier this year, the General Education Leadership Network published a handbook of “Essential Practices in Early and Elementary Literacy.” Though the document focuses on early literacy, it includes three practices that can establish equity and support for secondary readers and writers as well.

1. “Provisions of abundant reading material in the classroom”

As reading teachers, we must create spaces dripping with literacy. It’s in reading widely that a reader truly grows.

At the elementary level, this might look like readers’ workshops and students’ regularly “book shopping.” At the secondary level, this might look like daily independent reading and encouraging students to read appropriately leveled texts for pleasure.

In both scenarios, the key comes down to choice.

The idea of choice tends to drift off as students leave elementary school, and as class-wide texts become the bread and butter of ELA courses. Yet by incorporating independent, student-selected, teacher-approved texts, many of our resistant readers begin to feel a sense of empowerment.

2. “Intentional and ambitious efforts to build vocabulary and content knowledge”

Many high school students arrive with a rich bank of academic vocabulary to draw from, while some do not. Many may require explicit instruction on domain-specific vocabulary in order to access the content.

Here are some ways to instruct vocabulary:

As students work through vocabulary strategies, the Essential Practices in Early and Elementary Literacy see the value in encouraging “talk among children while learning and reading.” Talk allows for processing time and prompts students to use the vocabulary in a disciplinary context.

3. “Activities that build reading fluency and stamina with increasingly complex text”

In my work as a literacy interventionist, I see students struggle with complex texts on the daily. But I have noticed that when reading is a shared task, students are more willing to dive into this challenging work.

At the elementary level, this may look like paired reading. At the secondary level, the needs  often move beyond fluency and into comprehension. That’s why a strategy like reciprocal teaching works well when students read collaboratively. In this strategy, students are assigned roles to model effective thinking moves.

Another way to build stamina with challenging texts is by using other text types as supplements. Students will define reading by what we assign to them. Suddenly, a challenging and irrelevant text from the canon represents all of reading, and may feel unreachable to a struggling reader. But by exposing students to multiple genres and text types, alongside a more challenging text, we breathe relevance and resonance into what students may perceive to be beyond their grasp.

Teaching multimodal texts is an effective way to build understanding, particularly for students with weak literacy skills. Multimodal options encourage students to read about the same idea, but in a more relevant way. And after all, increasing relevance breathes life into learning, and positions even resistant readers to be lifelong readers.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  When she’s not teaching, Lauren often runs for the woods with her husband and their three sons/Jedi in training and posts many stylized pictures of trees on Instagram.

How We Standardize Our Students’ Voices, and Why It’s a Problem

Notes from the Classroom

“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” – Gloria Anzaldua, from “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”

As a teacher of language, I find that I’m often caught between contrary instincts about how to teach voice. I think voice done well is one of the most powerful elements of writing. This applies to all writing, not just what we tend to label as “creative writing.”

Here, though, I’m talking about argument writing, because that’s what I teach.

In my classroom, my first instinct is to follow the rules that were drilled into me by almost all of my teachers. That instinct tells me that I should push traditional rules of writing. These rules say your voice must be neutral, third person, and use standard grammar. Following these rules, the idea goes, highlights the power of one’s argument.

That’s what I was taught. And that approach is still taught everywhere.

But I’m caught between that and another instinct.

This second instinct comes up when female students persist in using the male pronoun, or when I read something that is so bland I can barely stay awake–and my eyes drift to the top of the page and see the name of a student who I know isn’t bland. I look at those names and I notice that they are often female, people of color, kids who speak two or more languages.

And as I circle non-standard usage, I wonder if what I’m really looking for in that neutral, standard voice is actually me: white, male, bland.

It bothers me that we’re stuck, my students and I. They want to get good grades and be successful writers. I want the same for them.

But not at this price.

When I ask them to be tradional, what I’m really asking for is whiteness. Think about those words: traditional, standard, neutral. They’re all pointing in the same direction.

Why do we read, teach, and celebrate the distinctive voices of Zora Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, and Gloria Anzaldua, only to turn around and tell our students that they shouldn’t write this way for the exam? That these brilliant writers and their voices should be relegated to the “creative” category, rather than using them to show our students that serious arguments don’t always come from “neutral,” “traditional,” “standard” writers?

I hear the words above from Anzaldua every time my classes talk about voice, every time I circle something. And I know she’s right.

RICKRick Kreinbring (@kreinbring_rick) said many, many years ago that he would become a teacher because “English Major” didn’t sound like a job, and his father really wanted to see him get a job. Rick liked to read and he wrote a little, so he got his teaching certificate and he’s been working at it for over 20 years. Most of the time he’s at Avondale High School, trying to stay one step ahead of his students.

To Teach Equity, We Should Choose Modern Texts

Notes from the Classroom

A colleague of mine recently received an interesting reaction to Zora Neale Hurston, when a young black man in his class declared one of Hurston’s essays to be “bullsh**.”

The student wasn’t interested in Hurston’s perspective on race, in a piece written in 1928. While my friend handled the incident as well as possible, it gave our whole PLC pause, since it raised an important question:

When selecting texts for an English classroom, how do we rank student interest and equity?

For many of us, the gut response is to look to The Canon. We find reputable voices from across time and distance, and select texts that diversify our collection of readings.

Which gives most English classes something that looks roughly like this:

  • Shakespeare
  • Hemingway
  • Fitzgerald
  • Lee
  • Miller
  • And a grab-bag of other White or European or early-American authors

And then, for balance and equity we might add:

  • Cisneros
  • Harlem Renaissance voices
  • MLK
  • Amy Tan
  • And Toni Morrison, if the school district will allow it

I’m not looking to unfairly profile anyone here. But the list of names tends to be finite.

Yet for non-white or non-male students in your district, these canonical texts, which felt relevant not so long ago, might not resonate today.

This was the case in my colleague’s class.

Hurston’s piece is mainly about taking life by the horns in spite of adversity. But in the process of being pro-self-confidence, she takes more than a few shots at fellow African-Americans who, she believes, are too busy feeling sorry for themselves.

Can you blame my colleague’s student for not wanting to hear this 90-year-old voice, two generations removed from a modern perspective? (Here I should point out that my colleague and I teach the same curriculum–my criticism is not of him but of the texts we–all of us ELA teachers–have allowed to define the course for too long.)

It’s not hard to imagine that this one forthright student speaks for many who quietly suffer through a whole semester of reading that never speaks to a modern point of view, much less a modern perspective for minority students.

It’s something that my PLC considered a few years ago. We had realized that out of our first six or seven texts, we had to present caveats for five of them about the use of terms like “negro” or other racial insensitivities, and that included Fitzgerald’s wonderful Gatsby.

That doesn’t make Gatsby a bad choice, but it certainly creates an oppressive classroom atmosphere for students of color who have to hear this language almost daily, in literature that we tell them is important and definitive.

Even our well-meaning texts, like those from the Harlem Renaissance writers, can alienate the very students we hope they speak to the most.  


Because–ironically–we ask students to embrace the perspectives of (to them) ancient voices while refusing (or neglecting) to listen to or examine the modern voices that have emerged since then.  

Is Langston Hughes an important voice in our history? Of course.

But in this cultural moment, is it more important for our students to hear Langston Hughes’ voice than, say, Angie Thomas or Clint Smith or Jason Reynolds? These are writers who have captured the zeitgeist of our current race issues. And they’ve done so through eyes that dilate more or less in sync with those of our young, impressionable students.  

If you haven’t read these enormously popular and well-known modern voices, perhaps ask yourself, What limitations exist in your own perspective of modern cultural issues? If The Canon offers our kids one set of eyes to see the world through, is it not our responsibility to try other, newer lenses as well?

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Fostering Social Justice in the Classroom

Notes from the Classroom

“The function of education . . . is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically . . . . Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

It used to be that every February, we broke out our collection of books celebrating the contributions of black Americans, our videos of Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King, Jr., and we felt satisfied that we were doing a good job including this critical content in our teaching. Thankfully we have come to realize that this is not enough.

Social justice and equity demand more of us. This definition of social justice, which my district is using, reveals why:

Social justice is evident when an institution or a society tries to expand equal opportunities and outcomes for all members of society; challenges inequities and discrimination; and promotes participation of all people.  

It’s a broad challenge, and one that many people struggle with. So, where can we begin when teaching for equity?

We can start by using texts that reflect our students’ experiences.

A few years ago I had two students of Chinese heritage in my class. They were so excited to see The Year of the Dog in my regular classroom collection; it helped me realize how powerful it is to have books that reflect students and their experiences, and how it is critical for students to see themselves in the classroom texts.

While this can be a challenge, the payoff is huge for our students. That’s because having texts that reflect our own story validates our experiences, and communicates that we are valuable–and important enough to write about.

Our classroom lessons should also focus on a variety of people and experiences.

This is critical for the texts we choose, and during read alouds and mini lessons. We need to bring in the people that are often left out: women and minorities in science, history, and mathematics.

A treasure trove of primary resources, music, images and documents are available online. To find these materials, you can use the links listed at the bottom of this post.

Still, it’s not just about text selection. To foster social justice and equity, we also must foster critical thinking in our classrooms.

The authors of Rethinking Our Classrooms argue that teaching students to think critically is key to developing citizens who question, analyze, and ultimately make change.

One of the finest resources I have used comes from Ron Ritchhart and his “Cultures of Thinking” resources. His thinking routines uncover student thinking and push students to deeper understanding. Some routines that would be particularly effective for digging into ideas and issues of social justice would be:

  • The Story Routine: Main, Side and Hidden
  • Unveiling Stories
  • Step in, Step Out, Step Back
  • Beauty and Truth
  • The 3 Ys
  • Making Meaning 

Remember to keep moving forward.

The resources below are truly just a beginning. Teaching for social justice begins with creating a learning environment where students’ cultures are not just celebrated, but made relevant in the context of the learning. It continues with the purposeful inclusion of resources that give a broader context, and it finds its peak when students can critically analyze content, ask questions, and plan and effect change.

This is a never-ending process and one that we must always be cognizant of so that we do not become complacent.


Social justice in the classroom: teacher and classroom resources

  • This short excerpt from Volume 2 of Rethinking Our Classrooms explains beautifully what it means to teach for equity and social justice.
  • These 25 short films from The New York Times help students explore race and bias.
  • The Anatomy of an Ally toolkit helps social justice educators develope their identities. The toolkit comes from, which includes a wealth of resources (and goes well beyond just tolerance).
  • “All that we share,” a video on YouTube, reveals that people can have much in common, even if outwardly they seem very different.

Multimedia resources

  • Digital History: I have used this site often to bring social studies to life in my 5th grade classroom, and I share it widely with everyone I can, as the resources span K-12.
  • Women in mathematics, from Agnes Scott College, provides many female mathematicians’ bios.
  • This article, from, details five accomplished women in mathematics.
  • This article, also from, details ten accomplished women in science.
  • Discovery Education provides numerous classroom resources about women and minorities in STEM fields.

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.