My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

Long-time members of Radical Nation probably remember the day that my wife and I welcomed Reece — my beautiful, funny, smart adopted daughter — into our lives.

Swaddled, pooping, and wrestling with a pacifier three times the size of her head, she won my heart in an instant:

That same girl has grown up, y’all — and on Tuesday, she heads to Kindergarten whether I like it or not:


I have to admit, I’m a nervous wreck.

I’m full of questions about what she will learn and who she will become and whether or not traditional classrooms in traditional schools are going to prepare her for tomorrow’s world.  I’m full of worries that her teachers may not understand that her vibrancy and energy and spirit are EXACTLY who I want her to be given that girls who are vibrant, energetic and full of spirit grow up to be strong, confident women.  And I’m full of fear that I might be a failure as a parent, forgetting that my contributions to Reece’s learning are as essential to her success as anything that schools will do on her behalf.

But I’m full of hopes, too.  I hope that she’ll never see the difference between learning and schooling.

So much of what makes Reece special is that she LOVES learning new things and she’s constantly making discoveries — about both herself and the world around her — that she’s ready to share with anyone who will listen.  Whether she’s telling Grandma about the ways that animals use camouflage to keep themselves safe or teaching Gramps the best way to snap your fingers, she’s proud of what she knows and she’s ready to learn more no matter where we are or what we are doing.

Like most kindergartners, learning is still a celebration instead of a chore for Reece — and I hope that her teachers and schools will work to keep it that way.

And I hope that she’ll keep asking amazing questions.  Just yesterday, she asked:

  • Can planets fall out of the sky?
  • Is the sun like the earth’s mother?
  • Does your spirit leave your body after you die?
  • What’s higher – Heaven or space?
  •  Why do some fish glow?
  • How do satellites work?
  • How do television shows get to our house?

Questions are the starting point of any worthwhile discovery.  More importantly, questions are the starting point of a meaningful life.  The simple truth is that wondering about the world is a thousand times more fun than waiting to take directions.  In a world where students and schools are judged by nothing more than answers, I hope Reece will find teachers who still believe in the beauty of good questions.

Finally, I hope she’ll be more than “college and career ready” by the time her journey through “the system” is done.

In fact, the first time a teacher and/or school tells me that they are committed to ensuring that their kids are “college and career ready,” I’m likely to go straight Vesuvian on ‘em.  Sure, I want Reece to develop a set of skills that will help her to find a financially rewarding career — someone has to pay my nursing home fees after all — but there is SO much more to life than being prepared for college and a career.

To be honest, I want Reece to be COMMUNITY ready on the day that she graduates.  I want her to recognize that she isn’t living in an isolated little bubble of ME, but instead, we live together in a world full of WE.  I want her to make the world a better place for everyone who lives in it and to develop the skills and abilities necessary to tackle the challenges that threaten our environment and the peace and safety the people that we share our planet with.

I want her to recognize that she has power — that she CAN drive positive change with her choices and her actions — and I hope she crosses paths with teachers who constantly remind her that she is responsible for so much more than getting to college and preparing for a career.

Most importantly, I hope that Reece’s teachers and Reece’s principals and Reece’s schools and Reece’s systems remember that she’s not just another kid sitting in just another classroom waiting for the school year to end.

She’s MY kid, and she’s fixin’ to take the world by storm.



 Related Radical Reads:

Welcoming the Newest Radical

This is Who I Am

Maureen Langan and CBS Should Be Ashamed


Three Tips for Classroom Blogging Projects

Just getting back to school with your students?  Interested in trying to pull off a classroom blogging project this year?

Then these three tips — based on almost ten years of trying to make blogging a part of the work that my students do in the classroom — might be useful to you:

Tip One:  Create ONE Cause-Driven Classroom Blog

A lesson that I learned early in my work with blogs is that they are far more vibrant — and attract far more attention — when they are updated regularly.  The challenge for student bloggers is generating enough content to bring readers back for more.

That’s why I recommend that teachers always START classroom blogging projects with ONE classroom blog that EVERY student can make contributions to.  Doing so takes the pressure of generating content off of individual students simply because there are dozens of potential writers who are adding content at any given time.

I also tend to create blogs that are focused on a specific theme or topic rather than general blogs that contain content across several domains and/or interest areas.  By focusing our classroom blog on a specific theme that is connected to a cause that my kids are passionate about, I can tap into the desire of students to “do work that matters.”

For an example of this kind of blogging project, check out the Sugar Kills blog – a site that is designed to raise awareness about the amount of added sugar in the foods that today’s tweens and teens eat.  You can also see how my students feel about their #sugarkills blog by reading this interview that they completed for MiddleWeb magazine and learn more about my rationale for using cause driven learning as a focus for blogging projects by reading this article that he wrote for Smartbrief.


Tip Two: Get Your Students READING Blogs

Another mistake that I made during my early work with classroom blogs was thinking that “blogging” started and ended with WRITING blogs.  In reality, there is a TON of hidden power in encouraging students to become avid READERS of blogs as well.  Doing so gives students samples of the kinds of writing that blogs make possible.  They can spot topics for new posts and post styles that they might never have considered.

Along with READING blogs, encourage your students to become active in the comment sections of the blogs that they are reading.  Responding to the bits written by others is an important bit in developing student bloggers because it provides short, safe opportunities to craft first-draft thinking about important issues.  Each comment helps students to practice articulating thoughts in writing.  What’s more, each comment can serve as a starting point for a longer post on a classroom or personal blog.

To encourage students to become avid readers of other blogs, I used Netvibes – a free RSS feed reader — to create this collection of blogs that students might enjoy. By doing so, I made it easy for students to find blogs worth reading.  I also gave students time during sustained silent reading to explore his classroom blog collection.

To encourage students to become active commenters on other blogs, I required that any student that chose to read blogs during sustained silent reading leave at least one comment on another blog.  To help them master the skills necessary to leave good comments, I used this handout.


Tip Three: Recruit Commenters to Push Against Student Thinking

For any blogger, the ultimate reward is crafting a piece that resonates with readers and leads to a TON of comments.

Every comment left for a blogger is proof positive that they DO have an audience and that they ARE being heard.  Just as importantly to classroom teachers, however, every comment is an opportunity for student bloggers to have their thinking challenged — and the tension that results whenever thinking is challenged ALWAYS leads to new learning as students are forced to refine and polish their positions on topics that they care about.

Need an example of this intellectual revision and public challenge in action?  Then check out this comment, left on a post that my students wrote about the amount of sugar that teens and tweens can eat on a daily basis.  Then, check out the action that the comment provoked in my student writers.

The challenge, however, is that classroom blogs won’t AUTOMATICALLY generate enough attention to receive comments.  The simple truth is that in a digital world where there are thousands of new blogs created every hour, “being heard” isn’t nearly as easy as “getting published.”

To address this challenge, I always recruit volunteer commenters when my students are working on a blogging project.

Most of the time these volunteers are parents or PTA members who want to help at school but can’t find the time to get away from work during the day.  I ask them to monitor the blog for a month at a time and to leave two or three comments a week that are designed to challenge students. Doing so generates momentum, ensuring that students feel the reward that comes along with having an audience.

If you are interested in establishing relationships with other classrooms that are blogging, spend some time poking around the growing collection of blogs at the Comments4Kids website.  And if you are trying to generate comments for individual blog entries, consider sharing a link to the post in Twitter using the #comments4kids hashtag.  Finally, if you are willing to commit to a longer term relationship with other classrooms that are blogging, consider signing up for a run at Quadblogging — a group that partners four classes together for cycles of reading and commenting on one another’s blogs.


Blogger’s Note:  This is an updated version of a post originally written in September of 2013.  All links have been refreshed and new links have been added to relevant examples.


Related Radical Reads:

Blogging Tip: Using Canva to Create Images

Blogging Resources for Classroom Teachers

Teaching Kids to Curate Content Collections




New Slide: Teacher-Dependent Learners

As a part of a workshop this week, I had the chance to read a 2012 article about text-dependent questioning written by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.

While the entire bit was fantastic — it details several specific questioning strategies that teachers can use to get students to truly wrestle with text at a deeper level — one quote really stood out to me:

(Click here to enlarge, view original image credit and download on Flickr.)

Powerful stuff, right?

So what will YOU do this year to make sure that you aren’t raising another generation of teacher-dependent learners?

Consider yourself challenged.


Related Radical Reads:

Technology Gives Kids Power

Digital Immigrants Unite

My Beef with the Gamification of Education


Lesson: Would YOU Stand Up to Injustice?

As we all watch the events tearing apart Ferguson, Missouri, one thing becomes clear:  Our nation needs to find a more productive way to deal with issues of race and injustice. Protests that result in police in battle gear gassing residents and fringe elements tearing apart communities night after night are proof positive that we’ve forgotten — or abandoned — dialogue as a tool for making progress together.

To that end, I wanted to share a few instructional materials that I’ve used to structure classroom conversations with middle school students about justice and injustice. 

What you’ll find are two readings that give kids the chance to think carefully about what fairness is supposed to look like and two sets of “seed questions” that you can use to start conversations in your classroom.  Neither of the readings addresses the Michael Brown incident specifically and none of the seed questions is designed to provoke extreme emotions.  Instead, the materials are designed to be used to guide a Socratic Seminar where kids can wrestle with their own beliefs about the role that responsible citizens should play when our communities are struggling with fairness.

Hope you can use them:

Elizabeth Eckford Reading and Elizabeth Eckford Seed Questions – No story challenges my students more than the story of Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine — the first African American students to integrate an all-white high school.  This reading shares Elizabeth’s first-hand recollections of her first day at school.  The seed questions encourage kids to think about what they would have done had they been a white student at Central High School in Arkansas on the day that Elizabeth and her friends tried to attend school for the first time.

Mother to Son Reading and Mother to Son Seed Questions – Langston Hughes was one of America’s best African American poets.  He wrote regularly about the challenges faced by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.  One of his best poems was Mother to Son — told from the point of view of an African American mother encouraging her son to keep on climbing through life even if “it ain’t no crystal stair.”  The seed questions for this reading encourage kids to think about just how easy it is to keep climbing in the face of injustice.


Related Radical Reads:


Learning about Collaborative Dialogue

More on Teaching Students about Collaborative Dialogue


As a white man working in Southern schools, I’ve been called a racist more than once by fired up kids who thought that I’d given them unfair grades or unwarranted consequences for misbehavior in the classroom.  Early in my career, those moments left me angry and confused.

“How could they call me that?” I’d think.  “I would have given a white student the same consequence for the same action.”  Oftentimes, I’d even let those moments turn me against the student.  “See if I’ll help them the next time they need me,” I’d mutter indignantly.

But a boy named Derek* tempered me.

Derek carried a chip on his shoulder from the moment he walked into my classroom.  He was loud and difficult at times, seemingly convinced that pushing his way through life was the only way to get things done.  Over the course of the year, Derek began to let his guard down.  A thousand small interactions — with me, with his peers, with the other teachers on our team — convinced him that school didn’t have to be a fistfight.

Having failed a major test that he’d worked pretty darn hard to prepare for, though, Derek lost it one day in the back of my classroom.  Embarrassed both by his grades and his emotions, he turned over a table and vented his anger in an epic stream of profanity that ended with “I’m so sick of all y’all racist teachers.”

Looking past the detritus of an emotionally charged moment filled with four-letter words and flipped tables, I saw nothing but hurt etched across Derek’s face.  The trust that we’d built was instantly wiped away.  He doubted everything about our school and my class and the governing powers in his life and he was feeling bitter and vulnerable and afraid — wounded.  Calling me a racist wasn’t some cheap attempt to hurt me.  It was an expression of the hurt that he felt from constantly struggling against systems that favored the white and the wealthy.

Need proof that the Dereks in YOUR school have a legitimate beef with the world that they live in?

Then name the last time that an unarmed boy without a criminal record was gunned down by the police in the streets of YOUR neighborhood for anything.  Or the last time that you could shoot a picture of a cop standing over a dead body laying just outside YOUR front window.  Or the last time that police decked out in battle gear started raining tear gas down on YOUR neighbors when they grieved and mourned and protested publicly against another ridiculous death. Heck: Name the last time that you were even wronged enough to NEED to protest publicly against anything?

Think I’m being overly emotional?  Unfairly calling out a single isolated incident that cops and right wing radio hosts are likely to call “an unfortunate accident?”

Then check out incarceration rates.  Or poverty rates.  Or unemployment rates.  Or high school graduation rates.  Or CHILD poverty rates.  Or juvenile justice rates.  Or average annual income rates.

(Do I need to keep going?!)

As you go back to school, look for the Dereks walking down your hallways.

Wearing defiance as a shield, they are going to be hard to reach and even harder to teach.  Rather than writing them up, reach out and lend a hand.  Start a conversation.  Prove moment-by-moment that someone cares — and that a system which is still largely run by white faces CAN be compassionate and safe and relatively free of injustice.

The sad truth is that life still ain’t no crystal stair for many of the kids of color in your classrooms – but if we start taking small steps together, the climb seems a lot less dark.



*Not his real name.