This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: A timely conversation with Jess Lifshitz about developing critical consciousness in children by way of creating inquiry experiences.

How can you design learning experiences that help kids understand themselves and their place in the world? A 5th-grade teacher named Jess Lifshitz shares how she creates inquiry experiences that help kids develop critical consciousness: understandings about personal identity, bias, moving beyond a single story, and seeing what isn’t there (critically studying history).

Jess teaches 5th grade ELA in Northbrook, IL, which is a suburb of Chicago. She has been teaching for 16 years. In addition to her work in the classroom, Jess was a part of the first cohort of Heinemann Fellows, she has written for several literacy-related publications and writes on her own blog regularly.

I’ve asked Jess to come on the podcast because I love learning from her on Twitter, and I wanted to amplify her work, so more teachers can use inquiry, reading, and writing to help students better understand how to create positive change in the world beyond the classroom.

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Setting up opportunities for kids to uncover the answers

Jess, one of the things that impresses me most about your teaching is the way that you resist the option to just tell kids things, and instead, you set up opportunities for kids to uncover the answers for themselves. And, you do it in a way that feels very natural and not forced. Can you tell us a little bit about your approach to teaching and the way that you use inquiry in your classroom?

Sure. I think a couple of years into my teaching, I realized that if kids could come to an understanding about something, they have greater ownership over that learning than if I were to stand up there and tell them those same things.

I think that’s true of if I’m trying to teach introduction strategies for opinion writing, right? If they can look at a piece of writing and come to their own understanding of how writers introduce their opinions, they are going to be more likely to use those strategies when they’re doing their own writing.

So if it’s true of that, I think it’s also true of the bigger topics that we tackle in my classroom. If they can come to their own understandings about what bias is and how it forms, that is going to impact their lives so much more than if I stand up there and tell them what bias is and that we have a bias or hold bias.

In everything that I do when I’m teaching, I try and design learning experiences that help the kids come to an understanding versus, “Listen to me,” and tell them thing after thing after thing. Because I’ve noticed that that gives them more ownership, which makes it more likely that they’ll use those lessons when I’m not around.

The time commitment for planning inquiry-based lessons

I feel like a lot of times as educators, we tell people things because it’s easier than trying to come up with something inquiry-based. Do you find that it takes a lot of time to structure these lessons and come up with ways for kids to uncover the answers?

I don’t know that it takes more time, but the time spent preparing can sometimes be on the front end more than once you’re in the work. Because what I find is, you spend a lot of time designing the learning experiences, but then once you’re in there with the kids, they really take over a lot of the work, and then my job becomes simply to follow them and guide them. I don’t know that in the end, I’m spending any more minutes, but I think I’m spending more minutes on the front end.

The other piece that it really requires is that I do the work myself that I’m asking my students to do. A lot of times, if we’re doing some of the more heavy lifting around things like confronting our own bias, I have got to make sure that I’ve done that work myself, that I’ve confronted my own bias, that I’ve really read the voices of other people outside of myself, and I have to make sure that I’ve done that work so I can anticipate where the kids are going to go, and then I’m better prepared to meet them there.

So I think it’s not any more work, it’s just different work. I do a lot less copying, photocopying, I do a lot less creating of worksheets, I do a lot less creating artificial materials, and I do a lot more of the learning, and thinking, and reflecting instead.

How to craft inquiry lessons around complex real-world topics

Let’s give teachers a peek into what you’re doing in your classroom. I follow you on Twitter, so that’s how I’m able to see sort of glimpses into your classroom. Then, you share photos of your anchor charts, and you also blog about it and have really detailed explorations of your lessons and outlines of what you’ve done with kids. I’ve seen your lessons about things like helping kids explore student identity and moving beyond a single story and seeing what isn’t there (critically studying history), and more.

These are really complex topics and you’re doing them with fairly young kids (5th grade.) It’s really exciting to see, and I think these kinds of activities set the foundation for deeper thinking. They give kids a lens through which to view everything else that they learn throughout the year. Can you talk more about how this works in your classroom?

Sure. To be honest, a lot of the ideas for what I do in my classroom come from looking at the adults around me and thinking about what I wish we, as adults had been taught to do. Then, I think, “How can I step back and bring those lessons to kids?”

For example, when we’re talking about seeing and what isn’t there when reading about history, adults will say a lot of times, “Well, you don’t know what you don’t know,” and that’s true. I can accept that, but I think that when we say things like that, we almost remove the responsibility we have as adults to seek out what we don’t know, and notice when information maybe is being presented in a one-sided fashion or an overly-simplified fashion.

If I wish adults were better at that, I sort of step back and think, “Okay, so how can I teach kids to do that?” So with that kind of work, it really is teaching kids a process that they can go through any time they’re reading about history and teaching them some of the things to look out for. Are you being given the story of a person and only being shown that person in one aspect or in a sort of flat dimension? Then, if you notice that that’s happening, what can you do to seek out better resources?

Once I can identify what skills I want the kids to have, I always try and look for a concrete way to show kids what I’m talking about. Because I can say, “Look, you all have been given an overly simplified version of history.” I can tell them that, but that won’t ever be as powerful as showing them a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and when they read that, they don’t think that anything’s missing because they’ve been shown the same set of information over and over again.

If I can give them that sort of simplified version of who this incredibly complex man was, and then ask them to tell me what they know about him, and use one color of marker to write down the words that come up over and over again. Then they can see this picture that they have about who this was.

Then I can bring in additional texts that show a greater depth and greater complexity. I can just simply switch the color of marker that I’m using, and add the new words that they’re saying after reading additional texts.

And all of a sudden, they have this concrete example of all the things that were being left out, and so the next time they’re reading about a figure from history or a current-day figure, they can notice if they’re only being given a narrow set of information, and then they have a process that they can use to learn more.

They know how to seek out additional sources. They know how to make sure that they’re hearing from multiple perspectives. And they’re looking at texts beyond just those written for young children. They know where to seek out additional information.

So I always am trying to look for a concrete example to start with to sort of show them or highlight for them a problem that exists, and then provide them with a process that they can walk through on their own.

Then, a lot of what we do in the classroom is walking through that process together and tracking our growing understanding because I feel like that’s really powerful for kids when they can see, “This is what I thought at the beginning, and then after I walked through this process, this is now what I understand.” There’s power in that, and if they don’t experience it, it’s hard to know just how much power that process holds.

One of my favorite lessons that you’ve shared is about helping kids identify and confront the biases they hold, and it started with a draw a scientist activity. Can you talk about how you did that?

I think I said we were kind of starting a lesson, a unit on looking at how we use clues to infer, and I asked them to draw a scientist. I asked them to draw a group of athletes. I asked them to draw a nurse, and I asked them to draw a family. They drew these pictures, and then I gave them a pretty simple Google Form after they were done, and I just had them input the gender of the scientist they drew, the gender of the nurse that they drew, the genders shown in the athletes and the makeup of the family. Because it was a Google Form, we could quickly look at the results in this nice, little pie chart, and I then displayed the data for them and just asked them what they noticed.

It varies what our results are, but most often, there is a majority of the scientists that are drawn as males. Where I really saw the bias show up is with the nurse. There were, the vast majority of the pictures were female. With the athletes, I actually usually get mixed, and then with the family, it was almost all four-member families, one mom, one dad, and then usually one brother, one sister. Sometimes kids would throw in a dog as well.

It was interesting because with the families, I thought kids would each draw their own family, and they really didn’t. They really sort of stuck to this very stereotypical, maybe storybook sort of a stereotyped family.

That’s interesting because I would have thought the same as you, they would draw their own, but when you’re asking them to draw a family, they immediately know what they think the norm is, and so already, they’re getting messages about like, “This isn’t actually my family.”

I’m sure very few kids in your class are in that particular dynamic, mother, father, brother, sister, and already they’re aware of the fact that like, “Wait a second.” They’re feeling othered.

Yes! Once the data’s up there, I really try and let the kids sort of come to their own conclusions about the data, and they very quickly start to sort of hit on issues of bias. I remember last year, one of the most interesting comments was from one of my students and what he said about the nurse picture.

He’s like, “You know, what’s so interesting is the doctor that I go to, normally the nurse that I always see is a boy, but when I drew a picture of a nurse, I didn’t even really think about it, and I just drew a girl.” Those are the moments where it’s like you can see those light bulbs sort of going off, that it’s like they’re recognizing, “Something’s going on here that I’m not even aware of,” and so the next step is that we talk about, “What do you notice?”, is to give them space to just ask questions, and without fail, they end up asking sort of, “Why do we do this? Where do these images come from? Why do we have these biases?”

I introduced the word bias at that point and that leads us into looking at the text that we read, and how do the texts that we read either reinforce or push us beyond the stereotypes that we hold because it’s really important to me that kids can see that texts can do both, that yes, some of the things that we read and have read and have been read to reinforce these images, but texts also have the power to provide alternate images and push us beyond some of those stereotypes and move us forward through our biases. It also sort of gives me a chance to show the kids that having bias doesn’t make you a bad person, but refusing to confront that bias and try to do better, that becomes problematic, and so then, that leads us into a conversation of the texts that we choose to read, and how can we read critically, and how can we make choices in what we’re reading that can move us beyond the biases that show up in the data.

Tying critical consciousness lessons back to the curriculum

How do lessons like this fit into your curriculum and the standards that you need the kids to meet?

Often, when I talk with teachers, I get a question about, “Well, do you teach in a public school? Do you worry about standards?”, and of course, I do teach in a public school, and of course I worry about standards.

What I have found, at least with the Common Core Standards the way they’re written, if we look at the standards themselves as the end point, I think it becomes really frustrating and limiting. But if we can look at the standards as more of a vehicle through which we can get to the bigger ideas we want to teach, then they become quite a bit more useful.

What I mean by that, is when we’re taking a lesson like the bias lessons, and I move us into this idea of, “How can the texts that we read affect our biases?”, I can fairly easily tie that to gathering text evidence and using evidence to support the claims we’re making about our texts.

If we then look at a fairy tale and I say, “In this fairy tale, the male characters are shown only expressing emotions connected to anger and not sadness, and that reinforces this idea that it’s okay for boys to feel angry but not sad,” then I have to back that up with text evidence. So what are the specific words that show me that? What are the specific characters and how are they acting? What examples from the text can I give?

Those are all skills that are in the standards. So I think first, we have to know the standards, and second, we have to think, “How do we weave those standards into the bigger concepts and life skills, and just ‘good human citizen’ skills that we want our kids to learn?”

It’s almost using the standards to get to those bigger ideas, and also, not only am I then covering the standards, but I’m also teaching them in a much more meaningful way, which I think gives my kids a better chance of really holding onto those skills.

How to develop lessons that teach kids how to think instead of what to think

There are really an endless source of thoughtful lesson reflections and anchor charts and all sorts of things on your website, which is crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com , and also on your Twitter account @Jess5th. I really encourage everyone listening to this to follow you and utilize all of those resources you’re sharing, but I also would love for you to share your lesson planning process a little bit.

In other words, I don’t just want teachers to use your lessons, I want them to understand your mindset, so they’re thinking how you think and they can develop the lessons themselves so their students get exactly what they need.

Like I said earlier, I think so much of it begins with doing the work yourself. I think as I started to realize more how I needed to change my own thinking, I was better able to think about what I wanted to make sure I prepared my students to do.

I think a lot of times teachers worry, “Well, won’t people say that you’re teaching your kids what to think?” I want to be really careful that what I’m teaching my kids is a process through which they can walk to reach their own understanding and their own opinions and their own beliefs, based on reliable evidence and good sources.

And so, what I do starts with this critical reading process. I think about, “How can I teach kids to use this process across various contexts?” Then, it always starts with, “What can I give them so that they can begin with the observation, just noticing what they see?”

Then, from there, interpreting those observations. We’re going to observe, then we’re going to interpret the observations, and then we’re going to allow those interpretations to lead us to questions, and then teaching kids how to ask the kinds of questions that lead to further inquiry. Once we have questions, then I’m going to teach the kids how to look for additional resources.

Then finally, after they spend time with those additional resources, giving them a chance to synthesize all that information and revise their thinking, so it’s this process of observe, interpret, question, seek additional resources and information, and then synthesize and revise your thinking.

I really try and work this process into so many of the lessons that I’m bringing into my classroom, and I think once we become comfortable with that process, it’s easier for us then to plan the kinds of lessons that we can use in the classroom.

So you’re repeating the same type of inquiry process over and over, and you decide on what to work on with your kids based the types of things you were seeing in the adults around you…so the types of qualities that were either exemplary or problems that you were noticing in the world. And you’re like, “I really want to prepare my kids for the world differently than that. I want them to be able to show up differently than that.” Or, sometimes it was work that you were doing yourself, and then that just sort of sprung out of it naturally because that’s something.

Yeah.

I’m the same way. Once I learn something or there’s some sort of self-coaching tool I have or some new realization about my own thought process that I feel like makes me a better human (makes me more empathetic, helps me be able to communicate better with people or understand people better, or be more at peace within myself so that I can be at peace with others), I want to go share that. That’s the first thing that I want to do is help other people.

Right.

It sounds like that’s what you’re saying you’re doing with your kids.

Absolutely. I think I’m constantly looking at the models around me, of the humans that I want my kids to grow up to be, and I’m constantly asking, “What did they have to learn to be that kind of person?” We see people stand up for strangers in the supermarket when people are sort of going after them, and I think to myself, “What were they taught? What was that person taught that allowed them to become the kind of adult that’s going to stand up for someone else?”

Someone taught them to appreciate cultures outside of their own. Someone taught them to use their voice in order to stop injustice. Someone taught them those skills, and I can’t assume that anybody else is teaching my students that. I need to make sure that those are things I’m working into my classroom so that my students can grow up to be the kinds of people that I want to share this world with. A lot of what I do comes from that belief.

Doing critical consciousness work in yourself and letting lessons flow out of that

That taps into something that I feel like is such a major problem in schools that we’re not really talking about a whole lot, which is the disconnect between how teachers are showing up in the classroom (who they are as people and their own personal well-being) and the ways that we’re asking them to teach.

I’m thinking about schools that are asking teachers to do inquiry-based work, project-based learning, really student-centered things, to be trauma-informed, to use restorative justice circles with kids. Meanwhile, in that school, the teachers are immediately written up for minor infractions, and they’re never allowed to be human themselves. They’re not allowed to have autonomy and make their own decisions. They’re not allowed to have days when they’re feeling “off”: to be accommodated and supported and listened to, but they’re expected to do that for students.

I feel like if we want kids to be empathetic and understanding of people who are different, and mindful of things like their own materialism, their environmental impact, their media consumption — just generally conscious citizens … we as educators have to show up as that ourselves.

We have to be doing that work so that we can embody those traits, not just plan lessons on them, or teach regular lessons and then hope that a two-minute conversation in the hallway was somehow consciousness-raising for kids.

We have to fully live these principles or be moving toward intentionally fully living these principles, so the way that we interact with kids just sort of flows out of that naturally and isn’t something that requires a scripted lesson.

Right.

I feel like that’s something that you really embodied well. It’s clear that this is just coming from who you are as a person and the own work that you’re doing on yourself. I’m wondering if you can share some of the practices and habits you have that support you in embodying what you’re teaching and what you’re bringing to your students.

Sure. I think part of it for me begins, as a gay educator, I don’t think I always have felt fully free to be who I am in the classroom. Knowing that experience — knowing what it feels like to feel like part of who you are isn’t welcome in an educational space — that’s a really tough thing to walk through the world with.

I think it has given me a lot of empathy for our students who are feeling that exact same thing. Because I know that experience, it’s really important to me that I help kids see that if there’s a part of you that you don’t feel comfortable showing in the classroom, it is not because something is wrong with you, it’s because something is terribly wrong with our world and our educational system.

Knowing that reminds me that there are so many parts of our students that have been shut out of our classrooms, and it may be their sexual orientation. It may be their race. It may be the way that they feel comfortable sitting physically in a classroom.

We are so narrow in our definitions of what a good student looks like, and I know what an impact it has on who you are as a person within a school space when you feel like something about you isn’t welcome. I think we reinforce those things without even realizing it in so many ways in our behavior systems, in our codes of conduct, in our dress codes, in the books that we read, in our curriculum.

So because I’m aware of that, I want to work really hard to always broaden that image of what it means to be successful in a school space, and I always want to do what I can to make kids feel like all of who they are is welcome. I think that guides so much of the way that I interact with kids.

And I am certainly not perfect. There are many moments where someone’s tapping their pencil … I want to feel okay with it, but the noise is driving me crazy … and so there are moments where I have to have honest conversations with the kids, too.

But I think I really am just always aware of, “Am I making a child feel as if who they are isn’t welcome here?”, and if I’m doing that, it is on me to fix it. It is not on the child to change who they are to fit my narrow image. It is on me to expand the image that I’m showing.

Dealing with pushback from parents or the community

Do you have any advice for teachers who want to help their kids explore this kind of inquiry work or delve into some of these topics but they’re concerned that maybe their administration or the community that they teach in won’t support them?

The best way I’ve found to handle that goes back to knowing the standards. When I can wrap this work in the standards, it is much easier for me to explain to administrators, families, parents why we’re doing the work that we’re doing.

If I have a parent who’s upset for example, at the beginning of the year, we do an inquiry that is sparked off a picture book about a family from Syria who fled their home and became refugees and were looking for safety. That led us then to reading more about Syrian refugees, and a parent had some concerns that it was too political.

The conversation I had was that, “Look, our students are pretty darn good at reading and connecting with texts that match their own lived experiences. What they struggle with more is reading experiences that are far beyond what they’ve ever lived, and knowing how to deal with those texts and reach full comprehension. So the work that we’re doing is helping them to get better at those skills.”

That was hard for him to argue with, so I think part of it is wrapping the work that we do in the standards, and the other part is practicing having conversations with other educators about why we’re doing this work.

Because a lot of times, when parents raise concerns — not always, but a lot of times — they’re curious as to why we’re doing what we’re doing. If I’ve had practice, if I’ve had conversations about why we’re doing this work, it is much easier for me to have those conversations with parents and administrators.

I always make this comparison: my first two years of teaching, I taught first grade, and it was when invented spelling was just becoming a thing, and parents were really concerned about it. But as educators, we knew it was best for kids, and so we continued to do it, even though we knew parents would ask questions and have concerns and be upset about it.

The difference was that we had a lot of professional development about why we were doing it, why it was best for kids, and what the research said.

I find that we don’t have that same level of professional development when we’re talking about tackling tougher issues in the classroom. We aren’t as practiced in those conversations, so we’re more likely to be sort of ruled and guided by our fear because we don’t know what we’re going to say.

It’s easier to just not tackle these topics, and to stay away from them. I think if we did more work in having the conversations and knowing our “why,” we as educators would feel more comfortable jumping into the work.

Again, it’s back to this idea of being rooted in these practices, about it just sort of overflowing out of the type of person that you want to be and the type of person that you want your students to be.

Exactly.

What’s something that you wish every teacher understood about teaching in ways that help kids make the world a better place?

I wish more teachers could see kids as co-conspirators and trust them with this work, and follow them into the work because children have this gorgeous sense of justice.

They’re not worried about things like taxes and money and how we’re going to pay for things, so they have the ability to really focus on what’s just, and what’s right, and what’s good for other humans.

I find that so hopeful and so inspiring, and I think we can capitalize on that, but it really requires us to trust that kids can handle this work, and then watch where they go and follow alongside of them because there’s so much power in that.

I think once you see it, it’s hard to disagree with, so I wish more teachers would just trust that the kids are going to lead them someplace great.

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