Paredes Que Hablan: Language Arts on the Borders

Happy summer, everybody! Our brilliant WritingIsThinking colleague-friend Christina Kostaras once wrote a post about teacher summers and how they are a necessary part of the work we do. We use them to get smarter at our jobs, to make ourselves better for our students in the coming year. Christina says we do this because our students deserve “absolute greatness. Always.” I couldn’t agree more.

FFT-Fellow-PlacardThis summer, my colleague Kat and I received a Fund for Teachers grant for our project Paredes que Hablan. Here are some excerpts from our proposal that explain what we plan to do:

As urban teachers for Boston Public Schools, we work with a diverse student body. Over 80% of our students are classified as high needs, over 60% of our students are English Language Learners, and over 40% of our students have special needs. Our students cross borders every day…Every time these young people change spaces, they must reconcile their identities and pasts with their presents and futures. We know that in order for our students to truly succeed academically, they must see mirrors of themselves in our curricula–art, poetry, and text–and validation of their identities in our classrooms.

…This project seeks to build a robust first unit across two schools in Boston that will provide students opportunities to explore the multitude of ways that activists develop their messages and make themselves seen and heard. Students will begin to understand how the personal is political while exploring multimedia resources, all the while developing visual thinking, close reading, questioning, flexible thinking, executive functioning, understanding of audience, and empathy skills that will serve them as they explore texts for the rest of the school year and the rest of their lives.

Our project proposes, at its culmination, to surface these crossings and to give students critical thinking tools, opportunities, and resources to grapple with the complexity of personal identity in multiple spaces. Through art, poetry, and text, students will have multiple ways to enter this conversation about identity, simultaneously seeing themselves–their ideas, their pasts, their futures–in literature, the school community, and each other.  At the end of this unit, students will create multiple responses to the question “How do we show other people the depth of our past and the strength of our future?” that leverage the knowledge collected during this project. They will write, draw, compose, and record their responses.  They will also design a mural that encapsulates the border crossing they do each day.

To gather resources and knowledge for this project, we propose to spend 22 days exploring “literary arts on the border” with a focus on mural creation, zooming in on the many Latino cultures from which our students are rooted. Our project will take us to California, Arizona, and New Mexico to examine murals and artwork that are products of, and in many case images of, immigrant experiences. Along the way, we aspire to interview artists and collect resources about the artists’ diverse creative processes. During the first two weeks of our project, we will visit San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Santa Fe, visiting murals and the artists/artist collectives from which they originated. We will also visit museums that capture different experiences of immigration, as well as centers of immigration in different cities.

The second part of our project will take place on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where a mural project was completed in 2014. We will spend a week in Haiti and the DR discovering everyday culture that will allow us to better understand both the artwork created on the bridge between the two countries and the identities of many of the students in our classrooms.

…Walls and borders often give people places to hide. We hope to use this project to reframe the divides that exist in our classrooms, school systems, and cities, so that students can see how sharing identity and stories creates rather than destroys.

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Above is a map of each of our stops, and below is an overview of our itinerary with some of the highlights from each stop. We’ll post in detail about each stop along the way.

Location/Dates Important Stops
San Francisco, CA

July 4th-7th

Precita Eyes Murals

Galeria de La Raza

67 Suenos

The Mexican Museum

Los Angeles, CA

July 7th-9

The Art of Indigenous Resistance Exhibit

Los Angeles Mural Mile

Los Angeles Immigration Center

San Diego, CA

July 9th-11th

Hands of Peace

Chicano Park (and this link, too!)

Galeria de la Raza

Tucson, AZ

July 11th-13th

Meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta

Tucson Mural Arts Program

Santa Fe, NM

July 14th-16th

Indigenous Arts Festival

Art and Remembrance

Mexico City, MX

July 16th-23rd

Museum with Indigenous Ruins

Teotihuacan Ancient Ruins Day Trip

Toluca Day Trip (50 mins) Stained Glass Murals

Frida Kahlo Museum

Diego Rivera Museum

Puerto Plata, DR

July 23rd-30th

Border of Lights


Here’s to a summer of sunshine, new places, and teacher-driven learning,

Alice + Kat

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston (Part 2)

Post 2: The Launch

Dear Alice,

What a week! We launched our pen pal letter writing on Friday. One of the biggest changes between independent reading last year and this year is that students are beginning and ending their week with independent reading time in class. On Mondays, students read, and, on Fridays, students are writing letters to your students or taking a field trip to our local Boston Public Library to get new books. This pen pal letter writing relationship is going to help keep this routine exciting and fun for the students.  

To launch the letter writing process, we did three things as a class. First, students read a letter that I wrote to you in partners and discussed and captured what I was doing as the writer in each paragraph in the margin of the letter. Essentially, my letter was the mentor text for their launch letters. Then, we examined a handout that had the components of a strong pen pal letter and discussed sentence starters. Finally, students wrote their own letters to your students using the letter I wrote as a mentor text and the directions and sentence starters as resources.

Dear Anejia

The most interesting part of this lesson was when student interest and engagement really turned on. Some students were hooked from the beginning of the lesson but some either due to trepidation over being vulnerable or a lack of interest in writing altogether spent a few minutes groaning and complaining when they saw how the long the model letter was. It wasn’t until I handed out little cards with their pen pals’ names and addresses at the beginning of the letter writing time that just about every student in the classroom became excited. I realized there was something about the name of their pen pal that made it real and increased the intrigue of this process. Many students spent a few minutes trying to figure out what ethnicity or culture their pen pal is from and if their pen pal was a boy or a girl. The difference in our student populations, GPA being over 63% latino, you have a significantly larger African American and African population. Here are a few photographs of some of my students who were so thoughtfully engaged in their letter writing that they wrote for over 30 minutes with sustained focus.

Another thing that didn’t necessarily surprise me but that I didn’t think about when we initially discussed the project is, what about students who prefer to type their letters as opposed to handwriting? I have two students who struggle a great deal with processing while writing by hand, and another student for whom using a laptop automatically increases engagement in the task, so your students will be receiving a few typed letters.

Lastly, I noticed some students did not write at all about their book, and instead wrote about themselves and asked questions to their pen pals. For a few of these students I think this is an indication that they are lacking an independent reading book that they are engaged in. For a few others, I think I’m going to need to teach into the letter writing process to a deeper level. I hope we can think about this wondering the next time we are together.

I cannot wait to hear about your students’ experiences receiving their letters and continue developing these relationships of readers and writers!




Dear Kat,

My classes loved opening their letters!! Students were up out of their seats showing parts of their letters to one another, commenting with excitement about what “my pen pal” is good at, where “my pen pal” lives, and what “my pen pal” is reading. As soon as they opened their letters, the activity became less “school work” and more about the passion of talking to someone else about life experiences and books. They were ready to write back immediately on their own lives, books, and, of course, to ask lots of questions.

My mini-lesson for their first letter was about direct  response. Our activator (after our 20 minutes of independent reading, of course) was students making two-minute lists of all the questions that they have when they meet someone new. They shared out several of their questions with the class, and we collected the common questions on the board. Then, we talked about how writing back and forth with someone you’ve never met is an opportunity to get to know a new person as well. In these letters, not only were they going to share about themselves and their current IR books (using the same template you gave your students with the three paragraphs and the sentence stems), but they were also going to build their relationship with their pen pal by asking a few questions based on the information they received in the letters. I projected the letter you wrote me on the board and did a read aloud/think aloud, underlining all the questions  that you asked me and writing my own questions and comments in the margins for you so that I would remember to include them in my letter.

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After the Read Aloud/Think Aloud, I asked students to help me figure out which of my comments and questions I should include in my letter back to you. For example, I wrote “cool!” and “me too!”in the margins quite a bit. Through our class discussion, students vocalized that, while your cooking skills are really cool, it was more important for me to share the “me too” moments because it would help you get to know me better and it would build our relationship around common interests. We also chose two good questions to ask you based on your letter, one about your life and one about your book. When we concluded our discussion, we had created a “Criteria for a Great Response Paragraph.”

By this point, students were getting antsy. They really wanted their letters. I had them take out two blank pieces of paper (raising the stakes on length just to see what they would produce if they knew they could use multiple pages) and their writing utensils and put everything else away. We did a drum roll on the desks, and then a mail call. As I read of their names, students bounded out of the seats to the get their hands on the letters. The build up made it that much more engaging for them when they got their envelopes. They tore them open and, after the initial exclamations and discoveries, got right to work annotating their letters and responding to their new pals.

I can’t wait to hear how your students receive this round of letters!



Why Writing Is Thinking Works for Teachers and Students

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.19.23 PMI am an English/language arts teacher. A teacher of writing. But no teacher taught me how to write. My dad did. When I was little, he would sit at the computer, and I would sit next to him. I would read what I had written by hand, and he would type it into the computer. And we would go over it together and make it better.

When I got older, I would do the typing, but he still edited every paper I wrote in high school, most of the papers I wrote in college, and each of the blog posts I’ve posted to And that’s not embarrassing for me because I know that great writers have editors and thought partners and people who believe in the power of their ideas.

In my classroom this year, I have a student named SJ. If you spoke with him for two minutes, you would know he loves basketball and his baby sisters. That he wants to play in the NBA. That he lives in Mattapan. What you wouldn’t learn about him is that he speaks five languages. That he has only been tardy one time this year. And that he’s an A/B student. That he pokes his head into my room every morning just to make sure I know he has arrived.

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You also wouldn’t know that SJ has a learning disability that affects his communication in all of the languages he speaks. At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t for the life of me get him into the task of independent reading.

On a particularly rough day, I asked him to stay after school, and I called him out. I said to him “SJ, your behavior makes me think this work is too hard for you.” And he said to me “Miss, I can’t really read. My seventh grade teacher had me read articles online because I don’t read books.”

Although I had suspected that reading was difficult for SJ, in the first week and a half of school I hadn’t yet discovered quite how hard a task it was. In that moment, I said to him, “If you work hard, you will not fail this class. If you work hard, I will work hard to teach you how to read.”

So we started to work. Hard.

Throughout the year, SJ’s reading and writing have developed. He uses sentence stems and CLOZE paragraphs and graphic organizers. He records himself and takes notes on his own thinking. Then he organizes it and writes his essays. But I’m afraid that what happened at the beginning of the year in my classroom will happen every year for SJ. That he will always be dependent on a good relationship with his teachers in order to eventually own his writing. That he will float through school with an ELD level and a Special Education code, never challenged as much as he could be, and as much as he deserves to be. That he will graduate from BPS a good person, but not a good writer.

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Now I know that not all my students have computers at home, or parents who are available to sit next to them and work on school work for hours. I know that, even though I want to with all my heart, I cannot be that person for each of my 94 students. So we as teachers have to teach writing smarter. We have to work together as teams of teachers to give our students that support and empower them as writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and academics in every classroom. We have to do that work for SJ and for the hundreds of other students like him.

Generating the Right Question

Teachers spend hundreds of hours developing questions for students to answer. We come up with essential questions, comprehension questions, reflection questions, quiz questions, guiding questions, essay questions, and more. But what if, instead of teachers developing the questions, students did that work?

All eighth graders at my school write a research paper on a Civil Rights Hero. To prepare, students have examined primary texts using Facing History and Ourselves’ essential questions: “How do the choices people make, individually and collectively, shape a society?” and “How can individuals and groups in a democracy organize to correct injustice?” Usually, we use those questions as a jumping off point to begin our research and writing.

One of my classes, however, I knew would need a more step-by-step approach to the research process. As I conducted research to support their work, I found The Right Question Institute (suggested by my ever-thoughtful librarian), which suggests that “the ability to produce questions, improve questions and prioritize questions may be one of the most important-yet too often overlooked-skills that a student can acquire in their formal education.”

To jumpstart student thinking about what makes a good question, I taught “little questions” and “BIG questions.” I defined a little question as one that has only one right answer, and the answer is usually a “right there” kind of answer. BIG questions are those with longer answers that are debatable, in which the answer might be different for different people.

Big Questions v Little Questions Was MLK married? MLK Qualities

Then, we worked through a series of questions projected onto the whiteboard. Students stood up and yelled “BIG” if the question was a big question or stayed seated and whispered “little” if it was little. We went through six questions this way, and, after each question, students provided the reasoning for why they classified a particular question as BIG or little. Finally, students were given the opportunity to develop their own questions about our class and share them with the class. The class got to call out whether the questions were BIG or little.

Some gems include:

– Who has the longest tongue in our classroom? (little)

– Should our class win the most improved award for the work we are doing right now? (BIG)

– Why do we even come to school? (BIG)

– What’s for lunch? (little)

After the BIG/little mini-lesson, we practiced generating questions. Students, who already sit in groups of two or three, were given the statement: “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership created a safer America for people of color.” Then, they were to come up with as many questions as possible in four minutes. When the timer went off, student teams were still generating. I thought about giving them more time, but I wanted them to have that extra time on the real statement, so they “put their pencils down” and picked up a marker. With the marker, they sorted their questions into BIG and little. Then, they chose the best BIG question to share with their peers. We wrote the big questions up and, at the end, evaluated to make sure that they were all truly BIG. Their papers looked like this:

KJ Question Generation

Then, we began the question generation that would lead to the research we would do for our papers. I presented them with this statement: One person’s choices can change the way the whole world works.

And they generated.

I gave them the same four minutes on the timer, with the promise that they could have four extra if they needed them. They used all eight and came up with deep, thoughtful questions. The authenticity of this process brought them much more organically to the research phase and then, eventually, the writing phase.

Students generated these questions as groups and chose diverse activists to research in order to answer their own questions. For example, one group asked, “How can artists change the world?” Those girls did projects on Marian Anderson and Alvin Ailey, trying to put their collective finger on how change was made. Another group asked, “Which is more powerful, the spoken word or the written work?” and embarked on research comparing James Baldwin and Jesse Jackson. A third group asked, “Does it matter what age, race, or gender you are when you are making change?” They did research on Melba Patillo Beals, John Lewis, and Roberto Clemente.

Throughout the research process, students were talking to one another. Although they each turned in separate papers for individual grades, much of the conversation that they had to generate questions, ideas, research strategies, and conclusions took place in their small groups. And, when they were stuck, they always went back to their original question. They sat in their groups in the library, and the common, authentic questions propelled their conversations and their research forward.

CAH Library          SS Library

Through question generation, I saw a different, more organic engagement with the research process. Students understood what information they were looking for and why they were looking for it. Even the organization of the papers was more authentic because students were explaining the answer to a question that they generated.

Finally, I found that my ELLs and my students on Ed Plans were better able to develop thoughtful conclusions a) because they had spoken to one another to generate the question and b) because they were able to continue speaking with each other and comparing the results of their research to reach their conclusions. The result of these conversations was a deep connection to the topic, which was reflected in their final papers and their continued connection to the research topics.

But How Long Can YOU Write For?

In the most recent publication of the American Educator, Daniel T. Willingham’s article “For the Love of Reading” explores several methods for engaging students not only in moments of reading, but in a life-long love of it. I was struck particularly by a section of the article called “I’m Bored. Fix it.” in which Willingham offers:

“The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to watch, read, and listen to, and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort….we just have a very low threshold for boredom.”

As an English/language arts teacher, I see my students struggle to sustain focus while reading. Each day, we chart the amount of time we read on a line graph, one color per class. The hope is that if students are aware of good reading habits and have the incentive of seeing the line graph trend upward (perhaps faster than the other classes), they will build stamina and a love of reading will follow. The graph does not motivate students for the entire school year, but at the beginning of the year especially, it incentivizes focus and sustained reading. After the habits are solidified, the graph becomes less important.

I began to ponder how to support my students as they built that same stamina as writers – how could I structure an activity varied enough to hold interest and generate content, but consistent enough that students can recognize progress over time?

My conversations with mentor teachers about that question landed me in the pages of Rain, Steam, and Speed (Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky), which offered many ideas about how to build writing stamina in a middle school classroom. I read them, as teachers do, with my own students in mind, and took off running.

The premise was to give students a consistent atmosphere for writing, a clear expectation for what the writing should look like and how it would be graded, and engaging prompts to hold student attention and inspire thoughtful responses. The set-up also includes incremental increases in the time limit as students get more accustomed to the task.

To generate interest, I started off, as suggested, by having students personalize their journals. They spent a class period collaging, sketching, and markering their identities onto manila folders. The next day, I gave them a long spiel about the procedures for writing—the “how it works” talk—and then we gave it a go.

Scooby Journal      Carl B Journal

The consistent atmosphere for writing mirrors the consistent atmosphere that I build in my classroom for reading. The routine that Rain, Steam, and Speed suggests is that when students arrive, the prompt is written on the board. The same student passes out the journals each day. Before writing, one student reads the prompt aloud. The teacher, after thanking the student for his/her bravery, rephrases the prompt and checks for understanding. Then the music starts, and students write. I followed that routine, though I found it was easiest to project the prompt rather than write it long-hand because students had an easier time deciphering it.

As the year went on, I watched my students compete with and best themselves. Several students who started the year with only a few sentences per entry ended the year writing several pages on a single topic. This effect, which Fleming and Pike-Baky call “Writing Fluency,” normalizes the development of ideas while writing. A student does not have to be sure that an idea is “right” before adding it to an essay, nor does the student need to check in with a teacher about grammar and spelling before putting a sentence on the page.

As a result of this practice, students develop a confidence in their own work, and especially an ease to getting started that I had not seen before. This is not to say, however, that we did not hit road bumps. It took a lot of convincing for some of my students to pick up their pencils, and some of my prompts fell flat. But one of the most frustrating parts of this experiment for me was that the positive results that, though students were becoming more fluent writers in my E/la classroom, they were not applying that fluency in their other content classes.

As any teaching team begins to see students as writers in all contents, it seems that conditions, expectations, and engagement can be handled similarly across content classes to trigger that same confidence and stamina. Normalizing writing as a method of thinking and giving students practice helped them through boredom and exhibit their thought processes through writing. For example, I can see students writing in the same conditions that I used in my classroom on the many possible outcomes of an experiment before trying it out in a science class or explaining the best way to approach a thought problem in math. Once students find value in thinking through writing, they can use it as a tool to deepen their understanding of content and concepts.

Near the end of that school year, I overheard one of my students talking with an eighth grader (one year older) about high school. The conversation got a little competitive, and after the eighth grader elaborated on all the high schools where she had been accepted and the grades she had gotten that year, my student looked at her and asked, “But how long can you write for?”