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Harvey Daniels Sara Ahmed Upstanders

“This book is about growing a caring middle school classroom community that deeply supports its own members and also monitors, investigates, and cares for the world beyond its walls. This means helping young people learn to think hard, build knowledge, become skilled researchers, and communicate carefully—in the service of humanity, not just themselves.—Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Sara Ahmed

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Why we wrote Upstanders

Upstanders invites you into the classroom of Sara Ahmed to see her teaching in action. With Smokey Daniels as your guide you’ll see exactly how Sara uses inquiry to turn required middle school curricular topics into questions so fascinating that young adolescents can’t resist investigating them. Units so engaging that they provide all the reading, writing, and complexity the standards could ever expect, while helping students grow from bystanders to Upstanders—people who are caring, compassionate citizens ready to take action.

Sneak Previews

Chapter 1: A Core Curriculum of Heart and Mind

This book is about growing a caring classroom community that deeply supports its own members and also monitors, investigates, and cares for the world beyond its walls. This means helping young people learn to think hard, build knowledge, become skilled researchers, and communicate carefully—in the service of humanity, not just themselves. The new Common Core State Standards (2010) set quite different goals. That four-hundred-page document's announced aims are "Career and College Readiness," with much talk of preparing individual students for "global economic competition." Words like rigor, complexity, and argument proliferate in this burgeoning genre of standards literature. There is no mention of citizenship, either local, national, or planetary. Indeed, in Core-World, many subjects of urgent importance are omitted when the purposes of schooling are enumerated.

Among the disappeared topics:

  • identity
  • empathy
  • altruism
  • justice
  • equality
  • democracy
  • curiosity
  • compassion
  • choice
  • responsibility
  • courage
  • peacemaking
  • critique
  • struggle
  • change
  • collaboration

In the “reformed” American schools of today, these values and principles are treated as naive or simply irrelevant. But that's recent. If you look back at the mission statements of virtually any American school district from fifty or even twenty–five years ago, they unabashedly embraced many of these same ideals. In fact, many contemporary schools retain this kind of visionary language, even though their daily operations may be focused on test prep, and not the development of human character and potential.

You probably didn't become a teacher mainly to raise some child's standardized test score .05 percent—or to ensure that America continues to grab a disproportionately large share of the world's goodies. Instead, you wanted to be part of raising smart, ethical people who would work for their own families—and for a better neighborhood, country, and world.

But we can have both. Nurturing compassionate, collaborative citizens of the world can indeed advance our students into colleges and careers as well as toward the neglected third C—citizenship. Our kids can learn, pass tests, find a place in the global economy—and make the world a better place for all. Our school system's passive, top–down pedagogy has already raised generations of bystanders, grown–ups who lack the tools to think critically, the discernment to judge, and the courage to act. Today, we need to nurture a new generation of “upstanders”—active and informed human beings who will make thoughtful and brave choices in their own lives, in their communities, and on the ever–shrinking world stage. The voices of young people must be part of our nation's conversation, not after they leave school, but right now. And the better they learn to read, write, think, investigate, and collaborate, the more effective they will be in creatively solving this planet's problems and extending its future.

In 1930, George S. Counts wrote one of the most famous books in the history of American education, which posed the question, “Dare the schools build a new social order?” Looking at the world around us today, we damn well better.

Chapter 2: The Kids

Reframing Stereotypes

Of course, many of the attributes people use to stereotype young teenagers have a kernel of truth. But most of these problematic characteristics aren't just negative; they have a powerful positive side as well.

Stereotype Brilliant Truth
Are jumpy and squirmy and can't sit still Are full of energy
Act childish Love to play and imagine Are needy. Want meaningful relationships with adults
Are always challenging authority Are balancing the desire to be independent and the need for guidance
Are rigid and judgmental Have an acute sense of justice for themselves and for others
Are emotionally volatile Have a fully developed amygdala (the part of the brain that makes emotional decisions) but a developing frontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes logical decisions)
Are hormone-ravaged Are going through predictable, common, and positive developmental stages and changes
Are narcissistic Are actively building their identity and are open to self–reflection and change
Are uncomfortable with intimacy Are seeking intimacy, but unsure when to act on it

Chapter 3: The Teacher

Starting with ourselves: A Teaching Identity

Our selves are our main teaching tool. Hopefully, we also have some content knowledge and a few instructional skills, but before everything, trumping everything, is our self, our person. This is especially true when we work with kids whose overriding developmental task is forming an adult identity. Our students are learning from how we are, how we act, and what we say, all day, every day.

Successful middle school teachers know themselves well and mange themselves mindfully around the kids. The students want to know us as people, not as teaching machines. Our appropriate and measured self-disclosure is the leading edge of our relationship with young people. How much to share, what to share, how close to get: these are questions we grapple with actively.

Yourself as a human being

SARA: Nearly ten years ago, I was asked to create an identity web for myself at a Facing History and Ourselves workshop in Chicago by a man who is now one of my life mentors, Chuck Meyers. It was not easy.

became pretty emotional during the exercise, because I realized that no one had ever asked me to think about how I identify myself. It has always been either lovingly impressed on me by my parents (religion and culture) or subconsciously given to me by society (we don't see you as anything but “white”; you're just like us). I also realized as we began to share our thoughts during this discussion that I was not alone.

upstanders diagram 1

I realized in that moment that I will never be able to teach kids to wonder or care about history or literature, or any subject for that matter, if they can't identify and honor who they are as both learners and human beings. It will be impossible to understand why choices are made in history or in fiction, why they look at math and science problems the way they do, without having a sense of the layers of personal identity and history behind those choices.

It was the single most important thing that I discovered about my philosophical approach to teaching, and myself

SMOKEY: But in the summer institutes I did with colleagues for 19 years, we used mini identity webs as name tags; sticking this to your chest is the greatest conversation starter of all time! Today, mine would look like this (tomorrow, probably a little different).

upstanders diagram 2

Chapter 4: The Space

If you want to teach middle school, you must co-own your space. Working along with the kids, you create a new and unique classroom every year. Week after week, you gradually build a highly personalized environment together that optimizes community, support, and learning. The goal is something more like a family room than a classroom—with all the metaphors and connotations that word entails.

While there are many healthful room arrangements for young adolescents, you need a gathering area where the whole group can sit up close and personal for minilessons and discussions, and a separate work area with tables or desks where kids can work in small groups or on their own. You need to set up your classroom library, organizing and displaying books, magazines, and other resources. You must figure out how to best give kids access to the technology in the room. Maybe you also set up a couple of small nooks in the corners for quiet reading and reflection. As the year unfolds, the walls gradually fill with the student work and co–created anchor charts. It is almost impossible to undertake this kind of creation if, like most high school and many middle school teachers, you have to share a room with one or more colleagues.

SMOKEY: In my second year of teaching I had to share a classroom with a somewhat difficult colleague. One day, I hung up a poster in our room during fourth period. Janet tracked me down during fifth and told me to take it down by sixth. This commenced a month–long series of negotiations that I eventually abandoned. It turned out that she liked the walls bare, the room neutral and devoid of personality. The takeaway for me was a long time coming. But years later, when a group of us started a new high school in 1996, one of our founding principles was that all teachers would have their own room, no sharing, so everyone could co–create their unique environments with the kids.

SARA: Setting up a space where the students have ownership and space to think and collaborate takes constant tinkering. It starts with my own work in the summer, before the kids show up, constantly rearranging the furniture, desks, and materials to establish an initial setup that's welcoming, methodical, and accessible. Then, after the first few days of school, the kids become architects of the space as well. We realize that some things don't work; desks are facing awkward directions, supplies are not in the most efficient path. It really is not until students' bodies, backpacks, and countless supplies are in the room that we truly discover how we can function in our environment together. It's a blast living through this process; there is nothing better than a co–created space.

Chapter 5: The Toolbox

Anchor Charts

As we mentioned in Chapter 4, anchor charts create a record of kids' thinking about subject matter or classroom processes. As we refer back to them, they foster independence, responsibility, and choice. To include everyone, charts are usually co–created during whole–class discussions. They capture words and images that remind kids of concepts, structures, norms, or thinking strategies that we return to and refine. They are a springboard to help create rubrics for assessing student work and for helping students to assess their own work. Rubrics that are based in familiar anchor charts ensure that there are no surprises for the kids regarding what you are looking for while assessing.


In planning for anchor charts, think about what their purpose will be. Are they helpful for collaboration or social skills? Or do they convey unit objectives and essential questions? Charts are a visual reference to help kids in future lessons, so consider how the students will use the charts independently after you have co–created them.

With the Kids

Bring kids to the rug with their journals. Most charts that end up on the wall act as a snapshot of a mini–lesson that students will also copy down in their journals as well, as shown below.

diagram 4diagram 3

This particular lesson comes early in the year, before we begin publishing on KidBlog, Edmodo, and Twitter. I begin the discussion by asking, “Why do writers write publicly? Why do the authors of your books, your magazines, newspapers, and social networking sites write? What is the purpose of writing? The so what?

We grow a list from the kids' responses, which then serves as a chart for choice and direction all year long. When kids are writing, they should be thinking about their audience, genre, and the ”so what“ of their writing, so they know if they are getting their message across and their voice heard. They can always look up at this chart and target a purpose for their writing and an audience. This list becomes an ongoing reference for when kids ask, ”What should I write about?”

Chapter 6: Lessons in Identity and Empathy

I'm a kid who is shy, but if you get to know me, I'm pretty cool.
(Evan B.)

I consider myself kind of a nerd.
(Harry H.)

I am a unique, special girl, and I'm proud that there is no one else like me.
(Simran D.)

I've wondered more than once what it would be like to live as a ”typical American.“
(Yea P.)

I am the girl who has never had insanely curly hair and now straightens it to somewhat resemble ”white girl“ hair.
(Kiara J.)

I don't understand “family first” because some of my friends are 100% more important than my family.

I am a girl obsessed with Justin Bieber, so I guess I am Layne Bieber.
(Layne F.)

I tried to be an overachiever. But I am no overachiever.
(Val F.)

My art is not the best, but it is mine.
(Loren I.)

So far we have been talking about the kids, our own teacher selves, the learning space we create, and the structures we use. Obviously, the curriculum—weeks and months of meaty, engaging content—is where we will put all this thinking and planning to work. But in an upstander-growing classroom, there are a couple more ingredients we need to develop early: identity and empathy. This doesn't mean kids aren't learning any subject matter in the early days of school, but we are definitely frontloading issues of personhood, reflection, and community.

SMOKEY: For sure, the importance of this identity work is huge. But as a teacher, what if I am reading this book in January, a whole semester into the year? What if it's too late to frontload? And what if my class is bombing interpersonally? Do I have to wait for a new set of kids to arrive in August and try again?

SARA: Definitely, just give up. Every man for themselves! No, you know what I'm going to say. Of course the beginning of the school year gives us unique moments to work on our human relationships; for sure, first impressions provide important opportunities. But, the best day to start working on identity and empathy with your kids is the day you wake up thinking: things have got to change–I need to know my kids more, we have to become closer as a community. And then you start with the kinds of lessons and experiences in this chapter, whether it is April 23 or Halloween or graduation day.

SMOKEY: Thanks for making that official

Before we can really dig into our course curriculum, we need to help kids build the necessary skills to be collaborative, metacognitive, and responsible for their roles in our community. Coming up in this chapter are six lessons that have been Sara and/or Smokey's go-to community builders, no matter what age level or subject matter we are teaching.

  1. Exploring Identity: The Bear That Wasn't
  2. Empathy/Bullying: Not My Fault
  3. Risk-Taking: Home Court Advantage
  4. Working in Groups: Team Behavior
  5. Disagreeing Agreeably: Framing Friendly Challenges
  6. Responsibility: Building (and Protecting) Your Brand

The first two are transformational multiday lessons that help grow successful, interdependent, and caring learners for an entire year. They directly address issues of identity, empathy, upstanding, bystanding, and bullying. You will revisit them often throughout the year. The last four are steps toward a collaborative, collegial classroom. They take less class time and are more easily described, but are no less important.

Chapter 7: Mini-Inquiries

Making Mini'inquiries Work in Your Classroom

1. Model. Model. Model.
Always take time to be you with your kids, and share your curious life. Let them know how questions pop into your mind. Tell them how you drive by the same statue, marker, construction site, or store every day and have always wondered what it was, and you finally took time to stop and investigate. Tell them you go on walks and notice the nature around you—birds, flowers, plants, trees—and want to know more about the specific species in your community. Show them pictures or lists of your wonders in your own notebook, iPad, or Kindle. Have a running list of everyone's wonders on chart paper in the room, which the kids maintain and write on as they feel necessary. Start it off yourself, and get in on the fun as well.

2. Make time.
Mini&ndsh;inquiries can take two minutes, ten minutes, a class period, or a day. They can happen in a teachable moment. Set aside a time that is right for you and your students. It doesn't need to be another thing in your busy agenda, but as you begin to value and model your own curious life, opportunities will pop up in your curriculum. I often plan for a day or two during a unit where I can give the kids time for this. The mini-inquiry can be about our content area, or one of the thousands of questions kids always have bubbling in their minds. It is a moment for them to take initiative in the classroom, but we are also teaching them the research procedures that come with this type of investigation.

Some especially good moments for mini–inquiries include:

  • Special schedule days (assembly, report card conferences, late starts/half days)
  • When we end a unit just before a break and it doesn't make much sense to start something new
  • For enrichment if some kiddos finish their independent work early in class
  • Grandparents' or Visitors' Days

One of the most opportune times for mini–inquiries is when you hear kids complaining: ”What do we do when we're done?“ Rather than making ”enrichment” worksheets to fill this time, allow kids to do mini–inquiries, grabbing a topic from their ongoing personal lists. That way, instead of busy work that you are responsible for copying and storing, kids are in charge of their own learning. ”Spare time” is allocated to their wonders, their research, and their new learning. Then they can share their findings in the empowered voice of a budding specialist.

3. Keep doing it.
As students become more familiar with mini–inquiries, they are growing a repertoire of ways to ask questions and gather information. Among these tools are alphaboxes and other “think sheets,” past anchor charts we have made, and the inquiry section of their notebooks, where throughout the year they keep a running list of questions they are wondering about.

As you get to know each kid better, you can help them choose topics that match their curiosity and learning style, and that will keep them engaged and accountable. It gets easier and easier to slot in time for both whole–group and personalized mini–inquiries.

Chapter 8: Curricular Inquiries

Curricular inquiry is the structure we use to transform whole chunks of required subject matter into energizing, kid–driven investigations. Remember we said earlier that inquiry teaching means turning required curriculum into questions that young adolescents cannot resist answering. That's what these content–based units can do.

SMOKEY: Readers, this would be a good moment to stop and think of a specific unit that's coming up very soon in your own teaching. Your choice could be science, social studies, literature–any topic subject that requires several days to a couple weeks of teaching and learning. As this chapter unfolds, keep your pending unit firmly in mind, so you can see how Sara's ideas might translate to your own planning and teaching.

We cannot teach everything—and deep inquiry learning takes time. Of course, sometimes we do try to teach everything. In fact, American schools have long been trapped in a "coverage" mind-set, where teachers try to cram tons of content down kids' gullets when there is little chance of their understanding or remembering the material. Smokey calls this phenomenon the "Curriculum of Mentioning," because we fantasize that mentioning ideas to children is the same thing as building knowledge. In our hearts, we know that kids will forget most of this "covered" content about one minute after—or sometimes before—the big test on Friday. With the weekend comes oblivion.

So as inquiry teachers, as middle level educators, we have to think carefully and decide scrupulously what's worth kids' time. We need to be picky about what topics we teach and how long we spend on each one. As Smokey, Steve Zemelman, and Arthur Hyde report in Best Practice (2012), many prominent subject matter organizations, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have repudiated the coverage model. Instead, they want students to go deeper into a smaller number of topics. The Next Generation Science Standards say that kids should experience a limited number of robust scientific investigations during which they experience how scientists actually think, hypothesize, develop experiments, gather data, and draw conclusions (2013). Students should not just read a single bland history textbook—they should work like historians, triangulating a broad array of primary and secondary source documents, sifting through different accounts, deciding what counts as evidence, and asking whose voices appear in the record and whose are left out.

So what do we choose to teach well and deeply? If you happen to be a fan of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's Understanding by Design (2005), you know that they suggest four questions to ask when we are deciding what's worth teaching:

  1. Does the subject reside at the heart of the discipline? Can you really understand the field if you don't understand this?
  2. Is the topic subject to misconceptions? Will learners suffer if they don't have their misconceptions corrected by studying this?
  3. Is the subject authentic and relevant to life as we live it?
  4. Is the subject interesting and engaging to learners?

We really appreciate that in Grant and Jay's model, all other things being equal, you teach the stuff that's interesting to kids.

Chapter 9: Literature Circle Inquiries

Lifelong readers, engaged citizens, and emerging upstandershave one thing in common: they all devour text. And our middle level kids are ready to encounter the world of ideas at full strength. The time for abridged "kid versions" is coming to an end, and cursory textbook overviews will no longer suffice. Our students can now tackle whole, challenging books—both fiction and nonfiction. They can build the kind of deep knowledge that comes only from sustained engagement with big ideas, developed at length. Indeed, we believe that young adolescents should be reading and discussing many of the same materials as the thoughtful, curious members of the adult community around them.

Of course, we do use our textbooks sometimes, but they are designed to be bland and homogenized, to appeal to the widest possible market. They speak in a neutral, authoritative voice that lacks any human emotion, or particularity, or location. So we enrich kids' reading diets with current and classic nonfiction books, historical novels, and biographies. And we don't always read these as a whole class with the teacher running everything and telling kids what the books are about. Instead, much of the time, we help kids organize themselves into three– to five–member literature circles or book clubs, much like those voluntary reading groups adults join. In this way, kids can choose different books that really interest them and fit their reading levels, the teacher can differentiate instruction, and we can all jigsaw together our different information as a unit of study unfolds.

But for kids to work this way, to be effective book club members, they have to learn a set of social and management skills that makes this kind of autonomy possible. In this chapter, we will share some of those baseline lessons, and then tell you about a powerful novel study Sara has done with several classes of students

Book Club Basics

Thirty years ago, nobody had heard of literature circles or book clubs in American schools. Starting in the early 1980s, Smokey, along with pioneers like Becky Abraham Searle, Karen Smith, Jerome Harste, Carolyn Burke, Ralph Peterson, Mary Ann Eeds, Bonnie Campbell Hill, Nancy Johnson, and Katherine Schlick-Noe, led a movement to bring book discussion groups from adult living rooms into school classrooms. The idea drew upon the two most powerful trends of the era: an awakening to the power of independent reading (Fader 1981) and a commitment to sociable, collaborative learning (Johnson and Johnson 1980). A natural combination of these two ideas—as perfect as peanut butter and chocolate—was literature circles. Today, almost every student who enters the American school system will be offered many chances to join in small, peer-led discussions of an interesting book, meeting over a few weeks to share responses, predictions, reactions, questions, and connections, as the author's work unfolds.

Book clubs are one way to meet the varied reading interests and needs of all the kids in your room. Today's young readers have distinct palates for topics, genres, and styles—and also have reading levels all across the spectrum. In English language arts classes, teachers often use lit circles as a kind of small-group independent reading, a collaborative variant of the individual reading workshop. In this version, small groups of kids choose from among a wide variety of novels (at least the ones for which we have assembled multicopy sets) and launch their own differentiated experiences, with each group reading a different book. Some groups may be reading "harder" books, and some "easier" ones, but every group is reading and thinking about a whole book.

Trying out book clubs with your kiddos for the first time can feel like jumping off a cliff. You may feel you can't have a handle on three to six different titles being read at once, not to mention all those groups meeting simultaneously, when you can really only supervise one at a time. It is hard to let go of the control we are accustomed to, and hand it over to the students. But this is one of those great structures that allows kids to surprise us with their responsibility and focus—as long as we give them the careful training outlined in this chapter. So, wherever you may be on the barometer of book club anxiety, trust us, you can still give book clubs a go!

Chapter 10: Open Inquiries

Open inquiries happen when we say to kids: "I've been choosing the topics and teaching you the school curriculum for a while. So now, what do you want to learn? Do you have some curiosities, some hot topics or burning questions you'd like to explore?" The first time we do this, kids will stare back at us blankly as if to say, "What did you just say?"

In the family of inquiry circles, open inquiries are often the last-introduced model of small-group investigation. Sometimes, teachers don't trust kids to stay focused and productive early in the year. Others worry about covering important content before they make room for kids' topics. And in many school districts, teachers don't dare let kids pick their own research topics until the high-stakes testing season ends in the spring. Only then, as teachers so often tell us, does the coast look clear for students "to actually learn something" or (heaven forbid) "just have some fun"

But, we think, why wait? We did the following open inquiry with all five of Sara's classes in October. The idea was to help hook kids on investigating their own topics at the start of the year, so they could then apply their budding inquiry skills to curricular topics for all the months to come. Smokey flew in to coteach the first couple of days and then stayed engaged with the classes through Edmodo, Skype, texts, and emails. We begin Day 1 as Smokey invites the first group of sixth graders to the rug, and then introduces open inquiries

So Worth It

In open inquiries, you get the biggest possible bang for your instructional buck. As teachers, we really step back and let the kids take full responsibility for their own learning. We truly do become facilitators. While this can be a challenge, the payoff is huge. In this open inquiry, the kids did the work. They chose their topics and then scoured books, magazines, and the Internet. They sought out real people to interview and learn from so they could become experts. The kids grappled with the reality of research, learning why and how to validate outside sources for information, and they grew to be critical readers of today's informational universe.

Even with all the structures and supports I built for them, it was sometimes chaotic, messy, unpredictable, and even exhausting. But here's what I saw:

  • Kids bringing pieces of their identity into the classroom
  • Kids talking to each other, writing with each other, and offering a collaborative hand to others
  • Researchers knee deep in books, magazines, models, graphs, and charts, combing for evidence and facts to feed their curiosity
  • Curious and critical readers continuing to question the text, the authors, and the experts and asking, 'So what?'
  • Teams negotiating dates, agendas, and goals, and stopping to make corrections in order to stay on track
  • Kids creating and co-creating expectations, goals, and outcomes so they are clear on what they need to do to be successful
  • Kids becoming teachers—sharing their knowledge with others, modeling how things work, and clearing up misconception
  • Kids helping kids, kids teaching kids, kids being kids.

We didn't do the thinking or the learning for them; they did it all on their own. It was awesome.

The next few days after the celebrations, we practice "thank-you letter" writing to appreciate everyone who helped us with our research.

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