Three Questions

Just a few thoughts on a social studies lesson today…

This afternoon in class, I showed a short video that discussed a few events that lead up to the American Revolution. In California, the American Revolution is quite a big deal in fifth grade social studies instruction.

Prior to watching, I asked my fifth graders to keep three questions in mind while the video was playing:

  1. Whose story is being told?
  2. Whose story is left out?
  3. Why?

I then wrote these three questions on the board. This was not our first time using these questions as a guide in the classroom. In fact, my fifth grade colleagues and I have been using these questions quite a bit. We’ve been using them for a few months now during social studies and with many read alouds. The conversation and lesson I’m about to describe is similar to many others from earlier in the school year. However, this is something I need to make the effort to do more often and to go even deeper with in discussions.

After writing the three questions on the board, we started watching the video. Throughout the short video, I paused here and there asking students to jot their thinking, chat with their partner, and then invited them to share out. Here are a few responses shared regarding the first two questions…

  1. Whose story is being told?
  2. Whose story is left out?
  • The colonists story is being told.
  • The European colonists.
  • A little of King George.
  • The white colonists.
  • Well, what about the native people? Where are they? I know they were on the land. Why isn’t this video showing them?
  • How about the slaves? It was the 1760s. What were they thinking or feeling? I want to know their perspective.
  • This video is trying to make us feel sorry for the colonists, but I just can’t knowing what they did.
  • Why isn’t the video telling everyone’s story? There are a lot of stories to tell, and this is only one.

I did not share this video to simply give my students information about the American Revolution or colonial life. Frankly, that’s not my goal despite what one might think a fifth grade teacher’s goal should be. Rather, my goal was to get them thinking, to get them questioning, to get them to ask the tough questions about how history is fed to us as a society. If my fifth graders leave my classroom not remembering every detail of the American Revolution, but asking these questions when they approach a text, a video, or really any source, I know I will have better prepared them to tackle and think about future readings, viewings, and discussions.

So, when it came time to discuss the third question of why, many of my students responded with followup questions.

  • Well, why did the writer of the video leave out the slaves? Do they not want us to know their story in these events?
  • Why are the Native Americans never discussed anymore in some sources? I know they were there! That seems wrong.
  • I don’t know why other stories aren’t being told. Can we watch other videos from other perspectives?

To answer that final shared response… yes. Yes, we will. We will continue to consult many different sources told from many different perspectives to try to understand more than the dominant voice’s story- the story that has been traditionally feed to us in our education system.

My goal is for my students to see America’s story as their story. But, if we, as a system, only share stories and sources from the dominant (white, Euro-centric) culture, we are communicating that America’s story is a white story. This is not ok. This is what has been communicated for decades in our system. This must change. We, teachers, have the power to start working toward that change. I could have made the choice to keep these ideas and conversations between my students, my colleagues, and myself, but I know that’s not enough anymore.

I’m taking a hard look in the mirror every morning and asking myself what I believe and how I will demonstrate that in my classroom. I believe my students should think for themselves, ask hard questions, and consider all perspectives when making a decision or trying to come to an understanding. It’s not easy work. I honestly feel as if I am just scratching the surface of this work. I am not an expert by any means. I’m just asking my students to continually ask three questions as we approach our learning.

I’m continually learning on this journey. My thinking is evolving and growing with every conversation, every time I sit down to write, and every time I consider perspectives other than my own. I’d love to know how you’re engaging in this work or if you have other ideas to add to the conversation.

New Year Message: Three Connected Promises to My Students and Myself

As I prepare to head back to my fifth graders on Monday refreshed and recharged after a wonderful winter break full of family, friends, and adventures, I’m going to work on keeping a few promises to myself and my students that I quietly (and some not so quietly) made at the beginning of the school year…

Promise 1: I am going to make a greater effort to ensure my teaching is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-oppressive, and inclusive of all who enter my doors and who live outside those doors. This promise is a continual work in progress. It’s one I quietly made a while back, and I now realize keeping it quiet is not the way to proceed. As a white, cisgender teacher, writer, and speaker in the education field, I see it as a moral imperative. I owe it to my students, my colleagues, my peers across the country, and children everywhere. To engage in this continual work, I’m listening, watching, reading, and trying to recognize my privilege at every step. It can be uncomfortable at times, and it can be downright shocking at others, yet is is something I must continue to engage in. I know I am making mistakes, and I know I will make mistakes in the future. The key is to recognize those mistakes, honestly admit to them, remedy them, and do better next time. One thing I know I need to do as well is to step back and give voice to others- I need to recognize whose voice is missing in my classroom, whose is over represented, and take steps to make representation more inclusive. This could be an entire blog post on its own so I’ll stop here for now. If you’re interested in also making this promise to yourself and your students, here is a list of resources that helped me start this work.

This is not a complete list, rather it is simply where I started on my path with this work. These sites, the resources they provide, and ideas they challenged me to ponder have helped me grow immensely as an educator and a human. I’d love to see your resources as well- as I said, I am listening and learning.

Promise 2: Everyday, no matter what, we will engage in independent choice reading and read aloud in the classroom. So far, this promise that I vocally made back in August has been kept. Each and every day my 5th graders come into the classroom at 8:00, put away their materials, take care of tasks such as signing up for lunch, and then engage in independent choice reading for 15-30 minutes. On days when I announce we’ll continue independent reading through 8:45, cheers erupt! More on the why and how of our daily independent reading can be found here and here. In addition to daily independent reading, we’re also engaging in daily read aloud. Everyday we read a picture book together as a community. On most days, we also have a novel read aloud. More on the why and how of daily read aloud can be found here and here. A critical component of this promise has been continually searching for classroom library books and read alouds that represent all of my students, their families, our community members, and those who we discover are missing from our shelves. Frequently consulting The Nerdy Book Club, School Library Journal, and We Need Diverse Books helps with this ongoing process.

Promise 3: I will simplify and say no.  At an NCTE session a couple years back, I heard Penny Kittle respond to the question, How do you fit it all in? by saying, “I don’t.” These two simple, yet powerful words struck a nerve in me. I feel that they released me. They forced me to question what I was doing and ask why I was trying to take on everything at all times. However, I only started applying this idea a few months ago at the beginning of the school year. The first thing I did was remove my school email from my phone. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with not being a complete workaholic. It is possible to both be a completely dedicated educator and to set personal and professional boundaries. When I was working every moment, I was not taking care of myself, and I certainly was not bringing my best self to my students. I also took a look at everything I did in my classroom and really asked which practices made a difference in my students’ learning lives and which were just filler. I made my best effort to eliminate the filler. I will continue to do so. Less truly is more when it comes to good teaching. Identifying what matters and saying no to everything else makes a huge difference. A few other things I’ve done to simplify and say no…

  • I removed myself from a couple committees at work that had no impact on my students or my own professional growth. I gave my all to everyone for a while, and now realize it’s ok to allow others to fill those jobs.
  • I removed Facebook from my phone. This is something I did only a few days ago while on vacation. Facebook can be a huge rabbit hole and waster of time if one allows it to be- self admittedly, I allowed it to be! There are a few things I appreciate about Facebook, and I can still visit those once a day while sitting at my computer. Endlessly scrolling through the Facebook feed does not have to be a continual part of my day. Deleting the app from my phone has been the best move I’ve made in 2019 so far. It’s been rather freeing!
  • In 2019, I will only say yes to things I want to do and believe in. This may be my biggest challenge. One of my fears in life is letting others down. However, I can’t make time for things that matter to me if I continually make time for things that don’t. I’m sure I will think more on this and revisit this idea through writing in the future.

From the outside looking in at this blog post, it may appear that these three promises are not connected. Yet, I see them all living within each other. By simplifying my life and saying no more often, I am making more room for the things that matter to me and my students: sound literacy practices and anti-oppressive actions in the classroom and in my life outside of school. Come to think of it, a sound literacy practice is anti-oppressive. It’s not something that just happens. It’s something that is a work in progress. I’d love your help on this journey. I’m listening and learning. 

Cheers to a happy, healthy, inclusive,
and intentional 2019!
-Christina