Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens Blog Series

A School Can Be The Change: Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens

TWTBlog Q1 2019 Blog Series

Join us for a gathering to celebrate a life of merriment and laughs lived to the fullest.-2

A School Can Be A Place…

Where literacy is more than just a block in the day. More than the standards, pacing calendars, and assessments we check off. Much more than a means of defining and labeling a child, a teacher, a school.

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

We do this with words: spoken words, read words, written words — those of our own, those of whom we know, those of whom we do not. School can be a place where words need not live in solitude, nor fear suppression and judgment. Where words do not build walls, rather tear them down through shared pain and triumph.

With words, school can be a place which nurtures identity.

A place to say who we are.

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Kindergartners celebrated a skin inquiry by using tempera mixtures to paint self-portraits.

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Katie Lee’s kindergarten class visited a grocery store to find food items that matched their skin.
Multilingual second-graders in Rachel Strongin’s class were excited to translate identity descriptors on their self-portraits.
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Third graders in Molly Murray and Diana Erben’s class created micrography self-portraits.
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Self-portraits from Jennifer Frish’s third-grade class featured students’ internal and external identities.
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Alexandra Beess und Chrostin’s class painted self-portraits with their art teacher, Judy Londa, to accompany their “I am” poems. The artwork is displayed at Bloomingdales through its partnership with Mentoring USA.



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Kindergarten families made birthday books to read to the class on each child’s birthday. The books include photos and stories from the time students were born.
Kindergartners study family portraits and photographs while acquiring the language structure, “Some families have…”
Families in Julia Feldman’s second-grade class show where they are from, partnered with poems.

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Katie Lee’s kindergartners used letters from magazines to add names to their name stories, which were written by families.
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A name banner hangs above the meeting area in Jennifer Frish’s third-grade classroom.



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Second graders from Shiela Lee and Lauren Mundy’s class display “I am” statements.
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Kara Langer’s first graders dismantled labels given by others by making “I am..I am not” statements.
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Kindergartners created identity webs when their family members visited the school.
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Third graders in Danielle P. Adelman’s class used different colored pens to revise identity webs halfway through the year.
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Fourth and fifth graders from Alexandra Beess und Chrostin’s class keep identity webs on the cover of their writing binders as a source of inspiration.


With words, school can be a place where storytelling is a ritual.

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Kindergartners made collages with their families as a tool for storytelling and narrative writing.

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Second graders used a tool created by Shiela Lee and Lauren Mundy to determine which books are like windows and mirrors.
Second graders in Rachel Strongin’s class developed identity webs to better understand characters.




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Kindergartners studied the ways characters used words and actions to solve problems.
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Kara Langer created this tool when students’ personal narratives were featured as readalouds in her first-grade classroom.
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Kara Langer’s first graders leaned on mentor texts for teaching readers more about themselves during a personal-narrative writing unit.


With words, school can be a place that empowers all voices.

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Student-made signs adorn classrooms and hallways, as a reminder of ways to make the community better.

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Fifth graders wrote persuasive essays, letters, and poems. to senators, representatives, commission heads, and the president. In addition, they organized a school-wide participation in the National School Walkout of 2018. Students and educators marched to the roof playground, while being serenaded to “This Little Light of Mine” by choir members.
Music teacher, Jeanne Kim, worked with fifth graders to plan songs to sing on the roof. A moment of silence followed, which honored the seventeen lives lost at Parkside High School.
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Fifth-grade students launched a school–wide Syria Refugee Project, in which they collected supplies and cards for families. A student translated a message to recipients on each box.



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A kindergartner felt too shy to speak about her idea for play, so she wrote about it.
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Fifth graders shared identity projects in the school cafeteria.



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K-5 students shared songs, poems, letters, and narratives to celebrate activism at the TCRWP Annual Principal Conference.
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Students recite original poems over the loud-speaker each spring.
A fifth grader from Anastasia Macris’ class read a personal piece to classmates and educators, who gathered in the school’s black box theatre to read poetry, speeches, and pleas against school violence.



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Fourth and fifth graders from Alexandra Beess und Chrostin’s class shared what these important words meant to them.


With words, school can be a place where all are represented.

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As a culmination of a teacher-designed study group, colleagues contributed books from personal and shared libraries to collate a resource for the school.
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Lori Talish sends important messages with featured books in the library.

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Following their skin inquiry study, kindergartners decided to keep a skin-tone basket in the writing center.
Kindergartners show their understanding of diversity in writing.


A School Can Be The Change, If Those Who Lead, Also Learn

Blaise Pascal-2

Not pictured, alongside each student, is an educator who tried the same kind of work. Alongside each educator is a colleague. They tried the work together.

Together, these colleagues make the community of P.S. 59: a school that truly is a place of great change for adults and children.

The kind of social-comprehension work that is now visible has evolved over years. However, it has grown tremendously following a book study of Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change (the most-recent yearly reading gift from administrators Adele Schroeter and Nekia Wise). More than a gift to teachers, Being the Change is a gift to the world. Many of the ideas — identity webs, “Where I’m From” poems, name stories, mini-inquiries and perspective-shifting conversations (to name a few) — portrayed here are anchored in the lessons from Being the Change.

To students, who courageously make yourselves visible; who unfailingly make yourselves heard, thank you. You’re already change-makers in this world.

To colleagues, who generously share your thinking, your stories, your beautiful work, thank you. You are a constant source of inspiration.

To Adele and Nekia, thank you for wholeheartedly listening (the silent force of social justice) to seedlings of change each day. 

To Sara, we hope you see your footprint in our school. Thank you for showing us the way.

Feb19 Twitter Chat Image


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 3rd at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 4th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BEING THE CHANGE. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.


19 thoughts on “A School Can Be The Change: Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens

  1. Kelsey — I can not begin to express what an exquisite post this is. Visually stunning and brimming with powerful words, thoughts, ideas. Such amazing, meaningful, impactful work being done here. Time for us to all change our lens. Bravo, my friend.


  2. Wow Kelsey.This is full of inspiration and information. Thank you. I think I will read it at least ten times before I feel like I’ve taken away everything I need to from you words, your work, and your wisdom. Photos are really amazing also. What a great series this has been. Congratulations to you and your team.


  3. My inspiration of finding balance and weaving in important life matters within curriculum lights back up when I read your posts! We know it, we believe it, and we need to work smarter – just like you have captured – to keep this learning crucial and at the forefront for our children today. Keep writing!


  4. This is inspiringly inclusive! Brene Brown’s book, Dare To Lead, has created change in my life and the impact it has on students, colleagues, and family. I recommend it to everyone. That being said, this series of articles on the lens of social justice has prompted me to bring student awareness to the front and help them develop their voice as future leaders. I think that a copy of your book, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Social Justice, would be the perfect compendium for developing brave work through tough conversations with hearts and minds of our young learners.


  5. WOW!! How inspirational. It was great to see other sites work from activities in Sara’s book, as well as so many inspirational ideas!! I can’t wait to take some of these ideas to classrooms, and with teachers!! Thank you for sharing.


  6. These pictures, this work, your school’s passion moved me to tears. Not all schools are at this place of understanding and commitment. But it starts with one teacher to lead the way to change. Thank you for shining your light and for the inspiration you spread!


  7. I loved seeing all the student work and the emphasis on identity and empathy. Teaching w/ a social justice lens has become an integral part of my practice and watching the shift in students validated this emphasis.

    I’d love to have the book to share w/ my colleagues.


  8. There are too many favorite lines for me to quote here, but, oh, talk about a culture of literacy, or literacy as a way of life, where culture is born, with the impetus being the belief in the transformative power of writing! Your words and the images of student work are absolutely striking. I hope schools everywhere will seize this post and Sara’s book and rededicate themselves to this vibrant vision of literacy as “more than a block in the day…more than something we do,” but as a foundation of living and breathing together in this world. So, so powerful.


  9. Thank you for this series. I am always searching for ways to represent and value my students, their families and communities in the classroom.


  10. This is a fantastic post. So much to see and read, I will surely come back to this one many times! I’d love to add that book to my reading pile!


  11. There is so much here. Wonderful work helping build community, understanding of self and others. Learning the the importance of caring, one child, one share, one moment at a time. The amount of examples here is impressive, helpful, and encouraging.


  12. Thank you for this! It is so timely as we mee this week with a group of ES literacy leaders to look at what/how we teach literacy. I would love to get a copy of the book, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Justice.


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