Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

Daybreak in Alabama: Classroom Conversations on Civil Rights

When I get to be a composer | I'm gonna write me some music about | Daybreak in Alabama | And I'm gonna put the purtiest songs in it | Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist | And falling out of heaven like soft dew. --Langston Hughes

Twenty-six years ago, I walked into a classroom in the education building on campus at the University of Arizona.  As a public school music teacher hoping to enter back into the classroom, I had recently gained acceptance into the School of Education in a program call Language, Reading & Culture.  I'll never forget that first class, because the professor challenged my thinking and my beliefs at every turn. I spent that semester looking at children's literature and textbooks with a critical eye. As a result, I changed the way I looked at the texts I use with my students, and I began to think about what it means to be culturally responsive.

Twenty-six years later, here I am, still thinking. It's important to me to use literature that is diverse. I purposely choose texts that represent a variety of cultural experiences and voices.  I work in a very diverse setting, one in which over 70 different languages are spoken. It is imperative that my students can empathize with characters and feel empowered by the struggles of those characters.

One of my favorite ways of exploring complex texts with my fifth graders is to delve into poetry. Poetry is complex. When you think about it, the imagery, the use of figurative language, the hidden meanings, poetry is the mother-of-all complex text types. And one of my favorite poets to explore with my students is Langston Hughes.  I've shared many of Hughes' poems with my students, but this year I chose to focus on "Daybreak in Alabama." It's one of my personal favorites, and it's packed with vivid descriptions. What follows here is a story about 24 fifth graders and their journey of understanding "Daybreak in Alabama."
I'm gonna put some tall tall trees in it | And the scent of pine needles | And the smell of red clay after rain | and long red necks | And poppy colored faces | And big brown arms | And the field daisy eyes...      ---Langston Hughes

The Beginning 

As reading teachers, we know that the brain learns best when connections between concepts and ideas are discovered.  That knowledge is why we stoke the fires of anticipatory set and schema. To share "Daybreak in Alabama, " it was important to me that my students have background knowledge of who Langston Hughes was so I began by sharing this:

This picture book provides a  beginning biography for elementary-aged children.  We read about Langston's early family struggles in childhood, his yearning for a home and a sense of belonging. It helped my students to connect with this poet as a child and character.  Reading this gave them a point of reference for our poetry readings to come. This book talks about poverty.  It also shows how Hughes' father had to move to Mexico to practice law due to racial prejudices and restrictions in the United States.   It portrays Langston Hughes' remarkable family history, telling the reader about his ancestors' abolitionist activities and successes.  I like this book because it does not gloss over the struggles he faced, but it also does not make those struggles or his childhood poverty the focus.  The author provides a balanced view of Langston Hughes' life.

Of black and white black white black people| And I'm gonna put white hands | And black hands and brown and yellow hands | And red clay earth hands in it |Touching everybody with kind fingers | And touching each other natural as dew... ---Langston Hughes

Unpacking the Poem

We began reading the poem using a close reading technique. We did this over two days!  It went like this:
  1. I read the copy while students listen or follow along in their copy of the poem. We discuss what jumps out at them. We talk about why those things stand out.  We record them on chart paper or on our SMART board. 
  2. We read the poem together a second time, and they follow on their copies and highlight any new observations or thinking. We record our thoughts again.
  3. Small group reading. My students sit in small table groups.  Each table group reads a section of the poem aloud. I ask them to share their thinking about how Hughes breaks up his lines.  Ahead of time, I had prepared the text of the poem written in paragraph form, with the line breaks removed.  We read it this way, too and talk about how the line breaks make us read Hughes' words differently.  We explore changing the line breaks. We record our thinking again.
  4. Finally, individual students volunteer to read lines of the poem.  And I ask, "What is Langston's message to the world? Why did he write this poem?"
The percolation time between our close readings helped my students delve more deeply into "Daybreak in Alabama."   Initially, they talked about the imagery...the fields, the way he describes the setting. They drew pictures of the imagery.  This was their surface-level understanding.  Think about an elevator. This was the ground floor of understanding.

On day two of the close read, my kids took notice of the lines about hands. They decided that Langston wants everyone to get along with each other, and that's why he writes about black and white hands. And then, they asked these questions: "Why does the poem take place in Alabama? Why not California? Why Alabama?"  and  "Why daybreak?  Why not lunch time?"  Those questions led us to the next floor of understanding on day 3. 

On the third day, I explained to my kids that sometimes when readers ask questions like theirs, and they conduct research to try to figure out the answers.  I tell them that I was intrigued by their questions, so I did a Google search for Alabama in the 1960s when the poem was published, and I found something.  They were on the edge of their seats.  I had found a short youtube documentary video about the March on Selma, and I showed it to them.  They watched in stunned silence.  I stopped the video right before Bloody Sunday. Our classroom erupted with reactions of horror, sadness, anger, and disbelief.  After debriefing the video, we revisited the poem.  We recorded our thinking in our sketch journals.

On day four of our exploration, I asked students to complete a "CSI" thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible (Ritchart, Morrison & Church).  They had completed this routine before and knew what to do.  They talked about the mood of the poem at their tables and assigned a color to the poem. Many chose yellow, saying the poem was hopeful and yellow is the color of the sun.  Some chose blue, citing it as the color of peace. Some chose green because they associated it with new growth.  Next, they reviewed their thinking entries from the previous days and created original symbols for the poem.  Their symbols had to represent the message of the poem. Finally, they drew images to illustrate the poem.  

We blew up their symbolic representations using crayon resist with water color, and students reflected on the meaning of "Daybreak in Alabama." 


The power of choosing literature that is culturally diverse is in the student conversations and understandings that develop.  "Daybreak in Alabama" began our exploration of civil rights, and it paved the way for what was to come in our classroom.  At the end of this poetic exploration, David asked the question, "How could they just stand there and do nothing?"  And my mind went to Elie Weisel's words, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."  The questions that came out of "Daybreak in Alabama"  have led us to try to answer David's question with our future classroom readings. 

Last week, three of my boys came to talk to me after recess about a bullying situation they have been witnessing. Another student who has some challenges was being mocked and ridiculed at recess.  As all three faces (black and white) looked up at me, one of them said, "It's not right what's happening. It needs to stop, so we decided to tell."  And I answered, "I'm so glad you decided to take action."
In that dawn of music when I | Get to be a composer | And write about daybreak | in Alabama. ---Langston Hughes

Postscript: If you follow the link imbedded in the 3E's Blogging Collaborative logo below, you'll find a free resource to help you explore "Daybreak in Alabama" with your students. Please enjoy.

Welcome to the initial post of the 3 E's Blogging Collaborative. On the last weekend of each month, my fellow educators and I will be telling our classroom stories about our explorations of empathy, empowerment, and equity with our students.  It is our mission to explore these topics together, but also to provide FREE ideas and materials for others wishing to do the same.  We hope to build a bank of materials and ideas to support these classroom endeavors.  We also hope you'll be stopping by again to engage in the conversation.

Check out the other members of the collaborative below to continue this month's conversation and benefit from even more resources.


Phenomenal Women...Phenomenal Teachers

Every girl and every woman, has the potential to make this world a better place, and that potential lies in the act of thinking higher thoughts and feeling deeper things.  When women and girls everywhere begin to see themselves as more than inanimate objects; but as beautiful beings capable of deep feelings and high thoughts, this has the capacity to create change all around.  The kind of change that is for the better.    
                                                                                                       C. Joybell C.

It's funny. I don't recall an exact moment. I don't remember when I first understood what it means to "find your voice."  But somewhere along the way, I began.  The Women's March on Washington this weekend has left me thinking about what it means to be a teacher and a woman with a voice.  What I do know is that I've been lucky enough in my life to be surrounded by remarkable women.  These are women that taught me important lessons- lessons that I still draw on today. Think back over your own life, and I bet you'll find that some of the most formative and empowered relationships you've had in your life have been with remarkable women.  Today, I invite you to reflect on some of them, because whether licensed professionally or not, they are all teachers. Below, you'll find some of my teachers.

My Mom

My mom left us this year. She was a force to be reckoned with- a cheerleader, a teacher, an advocate. Her love wasn't kittens and soft, pink fluffy sweaters.  It was practical and down-to-earth and sometimes tough.  Even today, when I'm discouraged I can hear her voice, "You've got this. You've always made me proud. Remember who you are."    That last part, especially, has been circling in my mind lately.  REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.  My mom taught me how to pick myself up, dust myself off, and move forward.

My Crazy Friend Anne

If you pick Anne up at the airport, she might greet you wearing a blue chiffon dress.  Never one to get lost in a crowd, Anne storytells and sings her way around the world, often traveling for months at a time.  She laughs often. She eats well and savors every bite. She's known her share of adversity in life. But watching Anne, I've learned how to live.  She has taken Turkish baths with strangers in North Africa, wandered the cathedrals of Paris, and hiked the Grand Canyon.  She is a 60-something wild woman.  From Anne, I've learned how to savor.


Retta is a "new-old friend."  That means we've known each other for 18 years, but our friendship has developed and deepened over the last couple of years.  Retta LOVES Janis Joplin. Retta LOVES purple.  Retta is a Bubbie who creates art with her grandchildren.  I call Retta to talk "shop" and two hours later, we get to the point of my phone call.  We are both divergent thinkers.  Retta gets me. I get Retta.  From Retta, I've learned that life is a creative endeavor. Despite loss, retirement, births and deaths, it's important to never stop creating.


Suzanne has red hair. She has red hair and blue eyes. The blue eyes are important because she would not want to have red hair and brown eyes. Suzanne is that kind of friend. We can finish each other's sentences. She is a cross between Lucille Ball (oh, the stories I could tell you) and Tina Fey.  And when she's invited to a party, the party is pretty dull until Suzanne walks into the room.  One important thing about Suzanne is her tenacity.  She just doesn't give up, in the face of physical pain or heartbreak,of which she has known more than her share. She propels herself and sometimes hurdles through to the other side. I am in awe.  And I have learned about tenacity from her. And when I can't find my own tenacity, she lends me hers.

Aunt Bonnie

This woman.  At a recent family reunion, four men relatives dropped everything they were doing to help her out of the car with her belongings.  Several female relatives had arrived before her, but none received the same treatment. We used to say that she could make cleaning toilets sound like a party. So much so, that everyone would attend just to help. She is beautiful, inside and out. Blonde. Huge violet eyes. Eyes that can see the good in anyone.  I mean anyone.  She truly sees people and will often tell them the goodness she sees in them.  She has this remarkable ability to inspire love. Aunt Bonnie taught me to find the goodness in others, even when I might have to look harder.


Joanne was larger than life itself. Big personality. Huge smile and a laugh to match. The kind of smile that lights up a room and the hearts of everyone around her.  She was my friend's mother.  When I interviewed for my first teaching position, I was asked which job I preferred. I picked the position that would allow me to work side-by-side with Joanne at a little school out in the country.  I remember lounge lunches sitting next to her while she talked about her Life-Long Learners Club and the adventures coming that weekend.  She was a care-giver for her husband who had suffered from Parkinson's.  But NOTHING stopped Joanne. She hunted, tended their farm, taught third grade, kept the Avon lady in business and exuded a warmth to all around her. Her students worshipped her. Joanne taught me that life is about learning.  It's imperative...never stop.

My Sister, Ali

Alison.  I named her. I've never let her forget that I could've named her "Hortense." With her fierce green eyes and five-foot-tall stature, she may look little, but she is mighty.  My sister was my first secret keeper, and I was hers.  She still is my secret keeper.  Through laughter, fights, years of rivalry and love, my sister continues to teach me about integrity.  She speaks her mind. Even when it's scary to do so.


I lost my friend Liz about eight years ago.  She was petite and wore her spiky silver hair with pride. Always a ham, she could crack people up with her antics. However, Liz was the most generous and kind-hearted person I have ever known.  I watched her quietly give to others, over and over and over again...sometimes when she could hardly afford it herself.  She was the embodiment of energy with a touch of ADHD. Liz taught me about generosity. She taught me to ask, "What am I supposed to learn from this?" That simple question has turned my life around, as it did hers many times.  I miss her.

Our greatest resources are the relationships and women we surround ourselves with.  CONNECTION---it's a scientific fact that it's vital to our well-being, our humanity. This weekend, think about the women who have taught you about life.  Appreciate them. Tell them. I would love to hear about them from you...share in the comments, please!

If you like the graphics in this post, please help yourself to them. They're free postcards or mini-posters I've created for you. They can be found here.

Next week, be sure to visit again. Something special is coming this way. Check it out below:


Fact or Fantasy? Organization 101 for Teachers

Once upon a time, there was teacher who created color-coded binders for every subject.  Her classroom was a picture of orderliness and organization.  Her desk was immaculate. Her teaching table was perfect for small-group instruction. It was pile free. Her hair was always gorgeously coiffed and her French manicure glistened with unchipped glory.  She never forgot her lunch. Ever.

Have I ever told you that Fantasy Fiction is my favorite genre?  Every year, I do it to myself. I make a resolution that involves organization in one way or another.  I think we all do this.  Organization has never been something that comes easily to me.  I like to say that I have mental organization, but not physical organization.  It's okay if you giggled at that.  I know it's code for "my desk is often a hot mess."  

Recently, I was on instagram, and a friend posted a GORGEOUS photo of her new office at home.  It was decorated in pale pink and rose gold, and I frothed at the mouth a bit, overcome by envy.  I have a home office decorated in robin's egg blue, seashell peach, and black.  But, it looks like 50 teacher's bags threw up all over it.

However, this is what I mean about "mental organization."  Did you just snort when you laughed? Seriously. I'm good at organizing and managing systems. 

A few years ago, I began using Words Their Way word study program.  Initially, I was overwhelmed by the immense preparation and organization it demanded.  I took a step back though, and broke it down into small components.

Component #1

Teacher Folders 

After assessing my students, I grouped them and gave each group a color name. I made a color-coded teacher folder for each group where I would house my notes, and word sort pages for each group member. I begged a parent volunteer to come in every week to copy each group's sort and cut and copy a teacher edition for me which was kept in a small envelope in my teaching folders.

Component #2 

Student Folders

Then I created student folder (with grommets ) for each child. These folders held the weekly word work homework and class work menus, as well as the activity pages (about 20 of each) that I had created to support our word work  and student examples and directions.  I also put in about 30 pages of lined paper in the back. This was enough to last each student until about February.  The nightly word work assignment took 10 minutes at the most.

Component #3 

Instructional Patterns

I taught word sorts on Monday mornings to each each word work group. I usually have 4 groups, so this takes about an hour. We discover sorting patterns together, discuss the words as vocabulary, and have fun using them in funny sentences.  I even bought a sound machine in the gag gift aisle in Target to use during spelling. As students take turns reading the words aloud and using them in sentences, I 'd play a funny sound on the machine for them. This upped the engagement because they couldn't wait to see what their sound would be. 

Throughout the week in reader's workshop, while I was working with guided reading groups, students read independently and completed word study games and activities.

Because I was using a word sorting approach, our Friday assessment required that students sort and spell the words correctly.

Checking Student Progress

Every morning during the week, students returned to school with their word work folders.  I circulated among desks and stickered their work, checking to make sure that they'd completed the assignment, and answering any questions that may have come up.  This helped with student accountability.

I reassessed students mid-year and moved students around in groups if their assessment showed it needed to happen.

So, writer's revise their stories over and over again, right? So let's try this again: Once upon a time, there was a teacher who sometimes forgot her lunch and chewed her nails.  Her desk was often a hot mess, and her hair was often unkempt. But her lessons?  Ohhhh, her lessons ROCKED, and her kids LEARNED because systems were in place. The End.

The next time you mentally beat on yourself as you shift teaching piles around your classroom, think twice.  Ask yourself, "Are my systems in place?"  Chances are they're there.

Because I'm challenged with physical organization, I've spent a great deal of time organizing my life and classroom in other ways.  Check out the products below. You don't have to be using a word sort spelling program or workshop approach for them to work for you. You'll thank yourself if you're anything like me. 

I've teamed up with some phenomenal educators this month. Check out their blog posts below!