Poetry to Promote Social Justice

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
                       Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” from And Still I Rise: A book of Poems. (1996) Random House, Inc.

Language has long been used throughout the ages as a vehicle to hold strong to hope and strive for justice through the spoken and written word. With incredible power to create new meaning for people, poetry can positively address social justice issues in our schools. Indeed, poetry reflects the values and beliefs that permeate our culture.

Poetry is a great equalizer, offering myriad opportunities for students in grades K-12  to speak about their world through speaking, reading, and writing. Poetry represents many perspectives, disrupting the mundane and the “this-is-the-way-it-has-always-been way of thinking, focusing on developing a language of hope and of change.

In the spirit of using poetry as a vehicle to ask questions and get people thinking, I used a poem by D, H. Lawrence titled The White Horse as my inspiration and mentor text to write this poem.

The Sounds of Social Justice

What sound does social justice make?

A fierce wind rolling over the tall grasses of the plains
The shhush-whish of ocean waves pulling us into a rhythm that
cannot be denied
Each desert evening that brings a constant change
The sounds of dust-patterned glass cracked by years of indifference

Thunders of an avalanche cascading down an unnamed mountain
The creak of boots in a blue night frosted with snow and moonlight
Scattering flaps of birds’ wings whose shadows paint the
canyon walls
The almost imperceptible burn of the ever-changing sunlight

The steady march of footsteps on roads that lead to Washington, D.C.
Words gently but firmly speaking a simple truth of a true heart
Teardrops splash pavements, prayers whispered softly, hands
clasped in unison

Social justice – humanity connecting, raising awareness, changing the world



Creating a Story in a Bag

Slice of Life2I am participating in #SOL Tuesdays.

Story in a Bag is an engaging way to help students write a narrative by embedding a series of objects into their story in a way that makes good sense. This activity helps students build writing fluency, and at the same time, it helps them learn to problem solve on the spot!  As items are removed from the bag, the writers must somehow weave them seamlessly into the story. At times, this can be very challenging!

To model Story in a Bag, the teacher fills a paper bag with 5-8 random objects. To make this activity interesting, the objects should be diverse and unrelated to each other. Go for a combination of the unusual and the mundane.  These items are used to help bring the story to life. I usually start with items that are themed around a subgenre of fiction such as mystery, adventure, fantasy, or science fiction. It is great to pair your Story in a Bag with a subgenre you have just explored in reading or writing workshop. An adventure story bag could include a journal, a map, a picture of a secret passageway, a card that reads “DANGER!”, a shovel, and a tiny box or chest. I always write a lead sentence on the board to get everybody writing. You could use “It was a dark and stormy night!” or “It was very early for our doorbell to ring, and when I opened the door – no one was there.”  Students can choose to revise their lead sentence after the story is completed or they can keep the original.

When I model, I usually create the story through oral rehearsal since writing it may take too much time. As I pull items from the bag, I lay the item on a large table where all the students can see them. This helps writers catch up if they are a little behind since they will always have a visual representation of the order of the items in plain view.  Later, I may write the story as I remember telling it. It is important to note that you could choose to record yourself on an audio device such as  RecForge Pro, an app of choice for many that includes cloud integration, multiple formats, editing, adjustable quality levels, playback speed adjustments, and more. For teachers, audio recording logistics are simple and easy to adapt with an iPad or any device with a recording app. You and/or your students can upload the recording to a Google Drive folder, email the file to students or to the teacher, or save it on the course management system.

Sometimes, you can scaffold a story in the bag by placing words or phrases on sentence strips and pulling them from your bag in a meaningful order. For example, consider the following list:

Sammy’s kitten kitten 2

The park

A big dog  Big dog story in bag

A tall tree tall tree story in a bag

Too frightened to meow

The fire department

A long ladder

A bowl of milk

You could also include some props or create them such as this sign:

Hayward: Greenwood Park reopened after $2.38 million facelift – East Bay  Times

It is fun to see what everyone comes up with and how they find a way to incorporate all the objects and end their individual story. After you model one or two Story in a Bag sessions, encourage your students to create their own Story in a Bag individually or with a partner to lead the writing session. With my fourth graders, we saved this activity for the last Friday of each month. The class created and posted a sign-up sheet, and we often had a partnership or a group of three collaborating to create their bag of items. Enjoy!

Read This Summer: Some First Steps Toward Civic Responsibility to Help Us Find Our Voice – But Don’t Stop Here!

Educators around our country and all over the world want to do their part to make the world a better place for their students, families, and communities. Some have already participated in protests to make their voices heard. You may feel unsure and not be ready to speak out or even have conversations about racial equity and social justice, but a reading list this summer may help you find your voice.

This list will help you quickly access book choices for you to grow personally and professionally, including some YA literature and a few picture books. Perhaps form a book club or partner with a colleague so you can have a discussion and reflect on what you are thinking and feeling. Of course, this list is not complete. There are lots of places to go to find great book lists.






After you’ve done some reading, don’t forget to send a note to your state and federal representatives and ask them what they plan to do to create a safer, more just America for ALL our students. Use children’s literature as a concrete and powerful way to talk to children about race. Books can be a great tool for sparking discussion with your students and/or your own children and grandchildren. Let’s raise anti-racists. Our students and children will have questions for us. They’ll look to us to imagine the possibilities for a better world. They’ll need our support. Can we afford to let them down?

Books, Articles, and Websites for Summer Reading with Anti-Bias and Racial Justice Themes

Recommended Resources

A list of book recommendations to get started

But please remember, don’t stop here. Share the books that have helped you grow, change, and find your voice. When considering where to buy books, you may be interested in examining this list put together by Lithub of black-owned independent bookstores that offer ordering/shipping options. Let’s support these businesses as a next step. In Pennsylvania, black-owned book stores at https://aalbc.com/bookstores/index.php?statename=Pennsylvania  and support black authors who are writing with a perspective of the lived through experience by buying their books.

Reading and talking about what you’ve read is only a first step. We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to act to dismantle power systems that stand in the way of justice for ALL, humanity, and happiness for all American citizens and all who come to this country looking for a better life for their family.  Whether these systems exist at work, at our state and federal government levels, in our education systems, we must work to dismantle systems that support inequalities and racial injustice. We’ve got to do better!

anger and unrest grow deeper in america

Slice of Life2I am participating in #SOL20 Tuesdays.  This morning, I decided to write a poem. So much has been on my mind lately, particularly the unnecessary death of George Floyd . I am beginning to understand that things have not changed all that much since the 1960s. We need to change the way we do things in America.  George Floyd’s death sparked such widespread outrage. For 400 years or so African Americans have tried to assert their humanity. Why do we need such a terrible tragedy to spark change in our country?  This is not an African American issue. It’s a human issue.


demonstrations nationwide:

minneapolis, philadelphia, los angeles, atlanta, boston.

vehicles torched, windows smashed, people injured

violence erupting in our cities as

social and economic disparities

grow larger and the seeds of

anger and unrest grow deeper in america.


protestors ignore curfews

social distancing rules don’t apply here

crowds gather to raise their voices

Floyd’s death shocking, stunning, moving

us to call for big changes, a call to action.

George Floyd cannot just become another name…

anger and unrest grow deeper in america.


social unrest has become a major topic in america,

contemporary circumstances fuel modern-day frustrations

riots are rarely driven by a single cause:

widening racial inequality,  modern political instability…

will civic organizations hold authorities

accountable for racialized police aggression?

anger and unrest grow deeper in america.

The Gift of Flowers

Slice of Life2#SOLTuesdays

I have always loved a gift of flowers – good for any occasion and especially on an ordinary day when you receive a gift of flowers just because someone is thinking of you. This spring I gifted myself and splurged on six flats of pansies and three flats of geraniums, one coreopsis, bee balm, and Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia). The gardens are filled with color! 20200519_081542

Birthday gifts include a colorful array of flowers, and Monday an arrangement from my husband that reminded me of strolls down the garden walk at Longwood Gardens in early 20200519_081453May. Blues, purples, and whites – stunning!

I hope to find and plant Liriope because it is a great perennial for sun or shade. It is grown primarily for its foliage with violet flowers in August. Of course, canna lilies for my hummingbirds!  They are low maintenance and easy to grow, and their flowers and foliage offer long-lasting color in the garden and keep the hummingbirds coming to our garden. Flower color may be red, orange or yellow, and I plant mostly red but all colors are represented.

We all love flowers because they are beautiful and offer sweet scents, but for me, flowers are a mood changer. When I receive flowers, I feel happiness wrap around me like a warm blanket.  Flowers can improve your overall worse mood and lift your spirits. Waking up to a gorgeous arrangement of flowers around you on your nightstand will start your day off right. I like to place a bouquet on my kitchen table and wherever I have a writing space.

Should you send a gift of flowers bouquet to your loved ones? I say yes! May is a perfect month to send flowers to friends, family, or that special someone in your life.


A Different But Special Birthday

Slice of Life2I am participating in Tuesday #SOL20.

20200512_073940I have exceptionally wonderful friends.  I am blessed. A complete surprise on Thursday and Sunday and again on Monday. My birthday today is a happy one, even though I cannot be with all the people I love.

20200506_173544First, a huge package arrived from a bakery in northern New Jersey with six packaged slices of rainbow cake layered with chocolate frosting. Stacey, you are amazing!  You always remember my birthday. Truly, I love every moment I spend with you writing or having brunch or lunch in Lancaster with Isabelle and Ari, or participating in a Passover Seder with your parents.20200506_173553  Ralph and I had dessert on Thursday night and Friday night and all weekend long! The cake was wonderful, but it was also so pretty to look at – a rainbow of sweetness!

On Sunday afternoon, my husband called me to the front door. I thought one of my students was returning a book of mine from our graduate class. There on the front lawn stood Catherine, with a flower bouquet, a happy birthday balloon, and a homemade cake (vanilla with buttercream frosting) topped with fresh blueberries and blackberries! I could not believe my eyes! We did not hug and tried to maintain a safe distance while we sat on rockers and chatted

for an hour. It was so great to see her. Catherine worried about my stay-at-home birthday and wanted to do something special for me. She did. How lucky am I to have such a good friend! That night we had pork chops, a baked potato, and applesauce (my husband used the smoker and the chops were delicious!). That was the birthday dinner – my favorite!

Lots of calls from Beth (who heads the veterinary center for Kansas State University). We had planned meeting in Chicago this August to attend the Arlington Million but agreed that Ralph and I would visit Kansas next spring or summer. Nancy texted the “Happy Birthday to You” song, a message from Pat, Aileen, and Kolleen, too, and I so loved opening many cheery cards. Rosie sent a beautiful black and gray scarf/shawl with white fringe that I already wore on our dog walk. Rose knows my favorite colors – it was perfect!

Monday morning I met on Zoom with the PAReads editors – all close and very special 20200511_090402friends.  They were ready with a birthday card they held up for me to see and all came to the meeting with a piece of cake. What a great surprise!  My husband Ralph bought me a beautiful watch with a smaller face (I like smaller watches) and a beautiful silver band (I prefer silver).


He ordered a new picnic table for our backyard and spent yesterday afternoon 20200512_084148sanding and staining it. Today we can actually use it for an early dinner. We will grill hotdogs and open a can of baked beans! Of course, cake for dessert!  Two stools from Wayfair for our kitchen counter arrived early which Ralph assembled, and yesterday afternoon, a treadmill! Hoorah! My goal is to walk every morning, and I’m home starting today.

Yesterday evening, I spent almost three hours filling out a proposal for RRCNA. I hope a vaccine is ready this December – I am hopeful to be able to attend a conference in February.  Today after writing with Brenda, I am painting our little bench (bright red) and Ralph and I will recoat the cellar doors (also bright red). We will plant the coleus and a few more plants in the front beds and around the mailbox. Kolleen is stopping by to say happy birthday – we will stay on our porch and maintain a safe, social distance! And from Rita – what a great message!  Thank you, Rita!  I have played it once and will replay all day!

Lynne, I know you like Opera and I thought this would be a good song for your Birthday
Nessun Dorma … alla Corona



And the weather is cooperating – I am getting a sunny day!  I get to spend more time with my Corgis! (They are taking a morning nap – they really do love each other – but will wake up soon.) They help me with my writing. So, despite the sheltering at home and all that I cannot do, I am very thankful for all that I can do and very thankful for my fabulously fabulous friends and husband!20200511_112154




Peer Conferences in Writing Workshop

In a writing workshop community, there is not just one teacher in the room. All writers think, write, react, and share. Student writers can be helpful advisers to their fellow writers early in the year, but they do need modeling, as well as practice. Students must receive quick feedback. They must reflect on where they have been, where they presently are, and where they are headed in their writing goals. How do we help our student writers become helpful conferrers? First, we offer them a process for success by modeling what a successful conference looks and sounds like. For young writers, we begin with read, retell, respond. The notice (praise), question, polish format is useful for second through middle school grades.

Teachers can provide some guidance for peer conferences by modeling with these techniques. Use a Fishbowl Model – call in a student-teacher or another grade level teacher to help you and model a peer conference with students sitting around you in a large circle. Give the students some language frames such as “Tell me more…” You may want to create an anchor chart with starter phrases for conferences. Make sure that students understand their conferences are based on generating ideas, craft, or process rather than corrections. Peer conferences should be in the hands of the writer: the writer decides when to confer with a peer and why to confer with a peer.

In Brenda Krupp’s third-grade classroom, the students created this anchor chart with their teacher to “cheer” and “challenge” each other during peer and small-group conferences and posted it on a bulletin board for all to see:

Cheer and Challenge

What can we notice?

  • We notice a sharp focus—the writer did not stray from his intended path.
  • We notice elaboration, the details—the writer offers examples, descriptions, explanations.
  • We notice organizational scaffolds—use of transition words, strong leads, effective endings.
  • We notice word choice—exact nouns, strong verbs, use of imagery.
  • We notice sentence fluency—varying lengths and patterns.
  • We praise effective punctuation.

What can we question?

  • Ask for more information to remove ambiguity or generalizations.
  • Ask the direction of the piece—where is the reader headed?—if the focus isn’t sharp.
  • Ask the writer to tell you what the most important part of the piece is (helps to clear up focus issues).
  • Ask for examples or explanations to make the details clearer.
  • Ask for a definition of an unfamiliar term.
  • Ask for emotions when there is no evidence by telling or showing.
  • Ask how the writer is planning to end the piece if it doesn’t already have one.

What can we polish?

  • Concentrate on word choice (strong nouns and verbs).
  • Sentence fluency—a variety of long and short sentences that begin different ways, suggesting sentence combining when appropriate.
  • What can we add or change to give this piece voice or to make this piece sound like the writer?
  • Add description— to appeal to the senses—a piece is usually better when two senses are used than only one (such as sight).
  • Use of transitional devices and organizational scaffolds (When I was young in the mountains . . .).
  • Literary devices—similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, alliteration.

Continue reading

Calling on Our Wisdom

When the end of the school day comes, we often see teachers dragging themselves to the parking lot with bookbags and laptops and papers galore. They are tired – they’ve worked hard from the moment they stepped into their classrooms until beyond the final bell. They love their profession – the students, their peers, the challenges. But what about the students?  They burst through the doors, running and jumping and calling to friends. They still abound with energy. “It’s a question of age,” you say. “They are youthful – this is to be expected.”  But is this the reason for their energy?

Are students putting as much effort into the learning day as their teachers?  If we take a closer look into classrooms, we often see the teacher explaining, modeling, offering solutions, taking the lead, and providing resources. Students are capable of all these things and more. Instead of teachers pulling kids up the mountain, sometimes carrying them on their back, students can work together (sometimes, with a little guidance of gentle nudges from the teacher) and have conversations on many levels. These conversations can be about interesting areas of inquiry, books that serve as mentor texts, and making the classroom environment more efficient and user friendly – anything that will help move the entire learning community forward. Conversations focus on solving problems, and students, together with the teacher as facilitator, can arrive at a new level of learning.

Our goal of education is to produce students with the ability to evaluate, discuss, and apply what they know. If we expand from our traditional model, we can create classrooms where everyone is a teacher and a learner.  Wisdom is at the heart of this framework, and knowledge is at the head. Our job is calling on our wisdom to apply what we know to be true and what we value as educators and learners.

Teaching is as much about watching as it is about instructing and assessing. Remember Ken and Yetta Goodman’s focus on “kidwatching” and all that it implied? In fact, a large part of our job is to watch, to listen closely, to notice and note!  What kidwatching meant was asking ourselves a set of questions such as the following:

  • What do I notice?
  • What could the student(s) work on?
  • Where do I go next?
  • How can I get there?

Continue reading

Conversations About Spelling

Slice of Life2#SOL20

Conversations about spelling can become a natural part of writing workshop sessions, especially when they are included in the writerly conversations that we often have with our students. Students meet in whole group to share their thinking while the teacher records on an anchor chart.  These conversations can begin with a question or several questions the teacher poses. When students feel comfortable with open conversations, they can begin to ask questions as well. Here are some examples of questions that stimulate thinking and response:

  • What do you do when you’re trying to spell a tricky word?
  • What kinds of words do you find tricky?
  • How important do you feel spelling is?
  • Do you ever have a hard time remembering how to spell a word that you used to know?
  • When you are writing, how often do you substitute another word that you know how to spell for one you are not sure of (big instead of colossal)?
  • Did you ever choose a different topic to write about because the first topic had to many words you did not know how to spell?

Some Spelling Strategies

  • Encourage students to take a few seconds to figure out words they already know how to spell rather than write them any-which-way.
  • Spend a few minutes every Monday to introduce a concept. One day during the week, spend a few minutes engaged in activities to explore and practice that spelling strategy and end with a wrap-up on Friday.
  • Teach students to pause when they get to a tricky word during the writing process and think, “Do I know how to spell this word?” (sight words, words with familiar patterns, words the class has studied)
  • Use a strategy or the word wall or spell checker – make a good effort during the composing process.
  • Teach students to use “sp” above a word or circle it if they will need more help so they do not interrupt their process.
  • Diane Snowball & Faye Bolton (1999): Have-a-Go Strategy. Students write a word three different ways until they find one that looks right. This is a great strategy to use visual memory – make a choice – and move on with the writing of the piece. Use the margins of the writing piece to have-a-go rather than go elsewhere.
  • Other tools: Different colored pens or pencils, spell-checkers, a print-rich environment, spelling experts in our room.

The thing is — the teaching of spelling should be joyful and filled with inquiry and curiosity. Learning to spell is not about memorizing how to spell a list of words for a Friday’s spelling test.  In order to get kids curious about spelling, extend spelling knowledge by talking about the history behind each word and its possible meanings. Spelling becomes more palatable when instruction also occurs during a one-on-one writing conference and embedded when there is a natural fit across the entire day.  Encourage students to become word detectives, engaged in an ongoing attempt to make sense of word patterns and their relationships to one another. The teacher can become the model for this type of investigation.  Instead of requiring students to memorize spelling rules, let students discover spelling patterns and generalizations as they investigate words from their independent reading books and content area vocabulary. Teachers can differentiate word lists to match children’s development.

What about asking your students, “What questions or concerns do you have about spelling? Which of these ideas might you try?”  Students who develop a curiosity for spelling will have a better chance of becoming confident risk-takers who find perfect words to use in perfect places in their writing and do not let spelling concerns stop them from using them. Let’s help our students view spelling as joyful and interesting through rich conversations in our writing classrooms and across the day.

Summer Dreaming

Slice of Life2I am participating in Slice of Life Tuesdays. It’s great to be able to visit with this community all year long! Thank you, twowritingteachers, for providing this space to write and grow!


Long walks and bike rides on the boardwalk,

Standing on the pier and watching the waves.

Eating on the patio or on a screened-in porch,

Relaxing with a vanilla ice cream cone in hand.

Admiring kids who weave their skateboards in and out

While you sit on the wooden bench and breathe it all in.

The sandy beach is warm and wonderful between your toes.


It’s time for road trips, fun trips, day trips, long trips,

Drives in convertibles with the top down.

Bathing suits, short shorts, and loose-fitting clothing,

Dips in the hot tub late into the evening hours.

A refreshing slice of ruby-red watermelon,

Peaches, plums, grapes, and strawberries.

Delicious, juicy, irresistible off the vine daily.


And, oh the sunsets, the glorious sunsets!

Beautifully blended hues in a softened sky.

The sun is on its best and brightest behavior,

But by August, night starts to come too quickly.

Watch for it! Wait for it! Wish for it!

And then, in the blink of an eye,

Summer has come and gone.